in Mac apps, organization, review

GTD Task Management Apps II: iGTD

This is the second post in a series comparing task management applications that are based on the ‘Getting Things Done‘ process. I’ll begin with a look at bartek:bargiel’s iGTD 1.4.5.6.

I started testing this application out many months ago, right about the time that I started to learn more about the GTD process. This little application was then generating (and continues to generate) a lot of buzz: it’s powerful, it’s free (well, it’s actually donationware, so it’s a nice idea to give the developer some cash if you intend to keep using it) and it integrates nicely with many other Mac apps (e.g. it can synch with .Mac, synch with an iPhone, and meshes nicely with QuickSilver, the very capable and elegant data management and application launcher).

The Poland-based developer who created this program (who apparently developed this on his free time; he has a day job according to his profile) integrates the core ideas of the Getting Things Done model very well. The application is updated and improved with amazing frequency — it seems that every time I launch it, there’s a new version available. I don’t know when this guy sleeps.

I find the user-interface of iGTD to be both interesting and daunting. I admit I have a weakness for lots of options, and in this department iGTD excels. That’s the interesting part: it presents you with an amazing amount of control for organizing your stuff. But all of these options come at a price. There are so many choices that it may make your head hurt. Check out the first screenshot (on the left) to see what the application looks like. At the simplest level, iGTD organizes your ‘to do’ items in two main ways: via ‘contexts’ and ‘projects.’ A context is simply a way to denote ‘where I will do this task.’ In screenshot #1, you’ll see that the context for the item ‘post iGTD review’ is the ‘computer.’ In other words, I will post this review only when I’m at my computer. I can then add this item to a ‘project’ of my choice. In screenshot #1, I’m about to add the ‘post iGTD review’ item to the ‘my website’ project. This simple bit of organization allows me to quickly see what I have to do by context and what I need to do by project. I can choose which view I want by selecting the appropriate button on the menu bar of the application. When I view my items by context, iGTD displays what project each item in that context belongs to. When I view by project, I see what context each item in that projects belongs to. Make sense? You may want to download the trial from the developers site and try it out to better understand this. By way of example, I could have two items in my ‘at the computer’ context. When I sit down at the iMac, I say to myself, “Let’s see what I’m supposed to do while I’m here at the computer.” I see that I have two items: one is to post this review. The project for that item is called ‘my website.’ The other item is to ‘back up my data.’ The project for this one is ‘mac management.’ So, iGTD offers a a handy way to organize, particularly when you’re dealing with a lot of items. I like how iGTD manages contexts and projects. It makes sense. But let’s take a step back — the first thing your supposed to do if you follow the ‘GTD workflow’ is to transfer all those dozens or hundreds of things you have ‘to do’ from your head to the computer. For that you use the ‘inbox.’

The inbox is simply a collection point for all your ‘to do’ items. When you’re ready (that is, when you’re done entering items and your brain is empty), you can start processing and categorizing those items to help you get better organized. I found that the easiest way to do this with iGTD is to drag items to the appropriate context (drag ‘get groceries’ to the ‘errand’ context, for instance … and note that you can create whatever context you want), and then double-click in the ‘Project’ field for that item and choose a project to add it to (or create a new one). These ideas (placing your tasks in an inbox, then sorting them by contexts and projects) is a core idea of the GTD process, and all the apps I’m going to look at more or less follow similar organizational lines. Now I want to discuss a few finer points about iGTD in particular.

Remember when I said the interface was both interesting and daunting? I want to hit on the daunting (or potentially confusing) aspects of this program. For starters, iGTD allows you to assign ‘priority’ and ‘effort’ for each of your items. Power users may like this, but I found it to be tedious. I tried setting both ‘effort’ and ‘priority,’ but it quickly became cluttered and confusing as the task list grew. Do I need both? What’s the difference? The ‘effort’ bar (seen in Screenshots 1 and 2) seems like overkill to me, but perhaps those of you with a penchant for extreme organization will enjoy it. If you don’t like or need to numerically prioritize and/or visualize your ‘effort level’ for each item, you can always ignore these functions. The application doesn’t care.

iGTD also allows you to add start and due dates to items which, of course, is critical for managing tasks across time. This works great and is easy to do in iGTD. But there’s more. With iGTD, you can also mark items as ‘pending’ or ‘waiting for’ (this is graphically represented in iGTD by a little Play/Pause button that shows up in a column right before the name of each task. Personally, I think the terms ‘pending’ and ‘waiting for’ are too similar. It confuses me. Start dates and due dates are enough. In fact, due dates are enough for my needs.

I’m also not comfortable with the sorting functions available below the task list (see the drop-down lists that say ‘Current & Future’ and ‘All Tasks’ in Screenshot #1). There are just too many options. From these drop-down lists, you can choose from ‘Current & Future,’ ‘Current,’ ‘Future,”Maybe,’ and ‘All’ … and once you make this choice, you can further filter your tasks by choosing one of these options: ‘All tasks,’ ‘to do,’ ‘to wait for,’ and ‘delegated.’ This exemplifies the problem for me: there are too many views, filters, and organizing fields. Who might need this level of fidelity and amount of power? Probably people using this app for business, where one is faced with managing many projects over time that involve many different people (and for this, iGTD offers the ability to delegate … perhaps this is when one might deploy the ‘waiting for’ tag). I could go on about the confusion factor when delving into dates, reminder tags, notes, links and time tags, but suffice it to say that this is likely going to be the point where some people may say “my head hurts.”

I forgot to mention that you can also right-click on each item and get even more options (as seen in Screenshot #2). Here, you’ll find the ‘Maybe’ tag, which is peculiar to GTD. It means ‘maybe I’ll get to this someday.’ I like that. I always have some items that I want to do in some vague, undefined time and place in the future, and it’s nice to be able to track these items without cluttering up your concrete time-sensitive items. When you mark an item as ‘Maybe,’ by the way, the ‘play/pause’ button changes to a little question mark in a blue bubble. What about the other choices you get when you right-click on a task? Suffice it to say that there are many more options, and the best way to see it is to try the free demo for a week or so. In my opinion, the developer did a fine job in offering up so many methods and shortcuts and sub-menus, etc. to organize your data, but I reiterate that it may be too much to easily grasp for many users. Here are a few more screenshots for you to peruse [screenshots removed]:

The first of these three is an image of the ‘QuickAdd’ box (screenshot #3). This is an example of excellent system-wide integration. I can be surfing the web, hit the F6 function key (provided iGTD is running), and this handy quick-entry box will pop up. I like this, but as you’ll see in the screenshot, I’m still not sure what to do with those ‘pending’ and ‘waiting’ checkboxes. Screenshot #4 shows yet even more options available from the Dock (with a right-click on the Dock icon). That reminds me, iGTD ALSO offers a menu item up in the Mac menu bar. This is yet another way to quickly add your data, synch your data, and categorize your data. Finally, screenshot #5 shows the iGTD Services menu. Why show this? Because I love Apple’s Services menu, and it’s surely one of the least used features on the Mac.

The useful Service item here is this: if you highlight some text in whatever program you are currently using, you can go to the Services menu (click on the program name in the Apple Menu Bar and choose ‘Services’ – it’s available in every application you use) and choose iGTD. Here, you’ll find ‘Put to iGTD inbox.’ iGTD does not need to be running. What this will do is open up iGTD, create a new task in your inbox, and place the highlighted text in the ‘Task Notes’ field of iGTD. That’s handy — you can’t use the F6 key to enter new data, after all, if iGTD is not running. But you can always use Apple Services. (Take a look at your Services menu. You may be surprised at how many apps offer little time-saving shortcuts here).

The Verdict

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?

I could figure out the basics, but some aspects of the program baffle me.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?

I was enthusiastic for several months, then my usage trailed off. I was only using a fraction of the programs power, and that bugged me. I got tired of looking at all those options and blank fields that I just didn’t require for my basic life organization needs.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

Extremely well. From the Services menu, to the Menu Bar item, to the Dock menu, to the function ‘hot keys,’ to the integration with tons of other apps, iGTD is extremely integrated, and extremely powerful. According to the developer’s website, iGTD integrates with Quicksilver, LaunchBar, Safari, Firefox, Camino, BonEcho, Opera, Apple Mail, MailTags 2.0, Microsoft Entourage, NetNewsWire, endo, Journler, Yojimbo, DEVONthink Pro, Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, TextEdit, TextMate, TextWrangler, Finder, PathFinder, EagleFiler, MacJournal, Mori, WebnoteHappy and VoodooPad Pro.

4. How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.)

Very easily, but it got confusing when I started to organize by dates, pending, future, maybes, etc. However, I want to caveat this: you don’t have to use all of the available options and power features. And remember, we’re talking about a free application here. Maybe you could live with a few too many options for the cost of a donation to the developer.

5. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘Mac-like’ is it?

It feels complex and heavy. I tend to initially like complex and heavy applications (probably just because of the ‘gee whiz’ factor, as in ‘gee whiz, look at all the things I could do with this’). But I find that, after some time, complex and heavy just weighs me down. It comes down to the difference between what I could theoretically do with a program and what I really am doing with it in reality. Perhaps some aspects of iGTD wouldn’t be so confusing if I were better versed in the semantics of GTD. But I’m a novice, and I think the winner in this war of GTD-based task organizers will be the one that doesn’t require a customer to know much about GTD. It should simply make sense, shouldn’t feel bloated and it should be a pleasure to use — the elusive Mac-like quality.

In conclusion: this will remain a strong GTD task management contender for the Mac because it is rich in features, looks great and is free. When you consider that this is made by one person, as opposed to a powerhouse Mac software company (like OmniGroup’s OmniFocus … which I’ll look at next), it really deserves to be a contender. It’s a great piece of software. If you are a GTD wizard, you will likely love this program. If you are not, you may find it’s a bit like using a chain saw to cut butter. The last word: iGTD Version 2 is now being developed (you can try an Alpha release of it by visiting the developer’s site). It’ll be worth another look once this new and improved version hits the streets.

By the way, I better add that ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co. I don’t want to get sued.