Getting Things Done

I’ve never really tried the whole GTD thing formally, although I think I’ve been doing some of it for ages, and I have been looking for a good tool or combination of tools that will let me organise my copious work-related task lists for as long as I can remember.

Nothing quite seems to do it right, so a while ago I started working on my own solution. Unfortunately, since I tend to have about half an hour of free programming time per century these days, I haven’t got very far.

In the interim, I also ended up with a manual solution based around Confluence (the very excellent Wiki software we use). This is better than nothing, and in fact the rest of the team adopted my scheme as a way to manage their lists too, but to be honest I find it very cumbersome.

So recently I gave up on a large number of my requirements (for now at least) and decided to go back to basics and try an existing commercial tool.

I realised that these days at SI I tend to spend about 50% of my time dealing with, or recovering from, interruptions of a non-programming nature. As a direct consequence of this, I spend a lot of time thrashing. I concluded that it’s most important for me to just be able to enter small tasks quickly into some sort of vaguely ordered list. It has to be easy enough that I can force myself to do it (the entering of the task, that is), as a matter of course, as soon as something occurs to me - even if I’ve already started the task in question.

Getting into this habit is essential, since I often start a task then don’t get to finish it immediately because I get interrupted again; or I start something and that immediately prompts me to think of five other things that need doing.

The simple of act of entering tasks like this reassures me that eventually I’ll come back to them. Even if I do get interrupted and completely forget what I was doing, the task will be sitting there, somewhere quite high up the list (since I tend to enter them near the “top” to begin with).

The tool I’ve started using is Things, from Cultured Code - which so far I really like.

It doesn’t do everything I want, and it does a few things I don’t really need, but it has the great advantage of being simple, nice to look at, and easy to use. It is a native Mac application, and also has an iPhone version (not free, but only £6), which is a major bonus.

Of my “ideal” requirements, the main things it doesn’t do are hierarchical sub-tasks, and group-wide task sharing.

For the group-wide sharing, I’ve just given up for now. Yes it would be nice to have team task lists, but I decided it was more useful for me to be able to get my own house in order first, before worrying about everyone else.

For sub-tasks and hierarchies of tasks, Things seems to have a concept of Areas and Projects, but they don’t seem to be multi-level, and they appear to be exclusive - move a task into a project and you seem to move it out of an area. That wasn’t quite what I expected.

So instead I’ve just gone free-form and decided to use tags for everything. I tag a task with a category, a project, a vague area, and try not to worry too much about it. This may become unruly eventually, but for now it’s working fine. I’m not trying to strictly order or decompose tasks - most tasks seem to have from one to three tags, and related stuff gets tagged similarly and seems to cluster naturally. That’s the theory anyway, and so far, so good.

If you’re looking for some “To Do” list software, I’d suggest that you give Things a try.