in Mac apps, organization, review

GTD Task Management Apps IV: Midnight Inbox

This is the fourth post in a series comparing task management applications based on the ‘Getting Things Done‘ process. Today I’ll look at Midnight Beep Softworks’ Midnight Inbox 1.2.8.

Perhaps more than any other task management application I’ve explored to date, Midnight Inbox from Midnight Beep strives to be the single point of entry — the GTD command post — through which you organize your life. Unique to the applications we’ve looked at so far, this app is designed to reach out and grab data as it accumulates on your Mac through a clever use of Apple’s Spotlight and smart folder technology (it doesn’t actually move your data — it just creates an alias).

 

Out of the box, the app is configured to suck in emails from Apple Mail, files from your desktop, events and ‘to dos’ from iCal, texts & files from anywhere on your Mac, and shortcuts from Safari. As the program continually gathers all of this stuff together in one place, you periodically must process each item through a pre-defined Midnight Inbox workflow — a workflow which is tightly based on the ideas and concepts of GTD.

I had trouble getting used to this. Why would I want to automatically gather data from various locations on my Mac? That sounds like a lot of extra work.

Eventually, I started to get it. Here’s one way to look at it: Midnight Inbox is a Mac-based tool that implements the GTD workflow. It follows, then, that the ‘Collection’ part of the program is designed to be the dumping grounds for everything in your brain. If your Mac is the epicenter of your busy life (your surrogate brain, in a sense), then Inbox intends to be the meta-filter, the super sorting and processing center, for your surrogate brain. In order to be that center, it needs to collect stuff from your surrogate brain. That makes sense, right?

I think this metaphor holds up fairly well if your daily workflow centers around Mail, iCal, text files, documents, and bookmarks. If you don’t store your essential daily work within these programs or files in your work-a-day life, or if you prefer to manually add projects and items as you dream them up, you may find auto-collection a bit too time-intensive and restricting.

I say ‘time intensive’ because it can take considerable time and effort to process every item that Midnight Inbox sucks in (to be fair, you can adjust how much or little stuff the program draws in). I use ‘restricting’ here in the sense that Inbox seems designed to function as an implementation of ‘Getting Things Done’ first, and a general task manager second. That is, it’s a program that focuses on implementing the GTD process. I think it does an admirable job at this, but it’s important to keep in mind that this software implements a very specific workflow.

Those of you who really groove on the GTD process and want a system that tightly follows this model may find this program particularly appealing. Other task management applications I’ve looked at employ core GTD ideas in various ways, but they tend to offer higher levels of user-defined flexibility. That is, they focus more on providing a flexible framework, and it’s up to you to manually enter actions and items — and you can generally move stuff around in a more freeform fashion. Midnight Inbox, on the other hand is, at it’s core, more about following a pre-defined task management process.

Which way is better? Surely it will depend on the organizational style of the user. If you just finished reading David Allen’s book, you may really take to this model. I personally prefer the applications that follow more freeform solutions.

The Big Picture

So, how does this command post work?

 

The workflow is cleanly broken down into iconic sections, which are stacked in a left-hand column of the application’s main window. The first item on this list is the ‘Collect’ section, which I’ve already talked a lot about in previous paragraphs. This is where your collected items gather.

Next is the ‘Process’ function. At a point of time of your choosing, you process through your collection of items. When you choose to ‘Process Collections,’ a new dropdown menu pops up that presents you with options for filing each item that you collect.

 

From this menu, you may make a new project, complete an action immediately (if it’s a task you can do in less than two minutes — a GTD concept that is well integrated in this application), or file it away for the future. Curiously, you can’t assign a context at this stage (keep reading if you’re not sure what a context is). I like how Midnight Inbox handles processing: the dropdown menu is well-ordered, clear, and concise.

Next, you move on to the ‘Organize’ phase. As you might suspect, this is the stage at which you organize your stuff. Here, you may assign a context to an action, add new actions, add new projects, assign how often you’d like to review a given project, etc. Midnight Beep describes the ‘Organize’ phase as the ‘heart of the Inbox experience.’ It’s the place where, at a glance, you may view and reorganize all of the projects and associated actions you’ve gathered. The organization phase focuses on refinement of your projects, categories, and contexts.

 

I should note that you can also choose to add new projects, actions, etc. on the fly here as the need arises (which is essential — auto-collection is not likely to capture everything you need to act upon in your daily life. Clearly, though, the intent is that the auto-collection process will capture most of the important stuff).

Next is ‘Review,’ which will be familiar to those of you who know GTD. The basic idea is this: according to the GTD model, you should periodically review your open actions and projects to see if they are still correctly filed, within the correct context and project, etc. This is how you stay on track and keep all your actions in tidy order. This phase is fairly intuitive and similar to other GTD-based apps Ive looked at. Helpfully, the developer builds in pre-defined ‘Reviews’ that you can select from a dropdown list while in the ‘Organize’ phase. To initiate a review, you can either use an assigned shortcut key or choose a review option from the Menu Bar.

Next on the list is the ‘Work’ category. This is the phase where you may view your actions organized by context. ‘Context’ is GTD parlance for ‘location.’ The ‘@mac’ context, for example, lists items that must be done while you’re at your Mac. GTD really emphasizes the context idea, and Midnight Inbox gets this. When you get down to doing stuff, the idea is that you’ll base what you do on your location. At the Mac? Select the @Mac section, and get working. Note that Midnight Inbox (like OmniFocus and iGTD) also synchronizes your To Do list in iCal based on contexts with no option (that I could find) to do so by project.

After this phase, there is a ‘Reference’ section to hold all the cats and dogs: actions that do not have a defined timeline, actions requiring an incubation period before you plan to begin working on them, ideas you wish to file for a later date, etc. I like how this section is organized — it clearly stands apart from the rest of the workflow and is easy to view at a glance. I like how this is handled in Inbox more than the methods employed by OmniFocus or iGTD.

 

And finally, there is an ‘Archive’ category where all your completed projects are stored for posterity. (Actually, there’s also a Trash bucket after the Archive section to hold stuff you delete – handy if you accidently delete an item and later decide to recover it). These items worked as advertised, so I have nothing really to add.

Oh, I forgot to mention the Yak Timer. Yes, the Yak Timer. This is a littler tickler the designer added to help you stay on track. It’s a little reminder window that pops up at regular intervals (similar to an iCal reminder message) to help keep you focused and on track. I found it annoying. Fortunately, the Yak can be disabled from the Preferences menu. If you’re easily distracted, you may find it handy.

The Verdict

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

I tried to use Midnight Inbox without referring to documentation, but I gave up after about thirty minutes of frustration. I usually start learning how to use a program by clicking around. This didn’t get me far with Midnight Inbox. The biggest obstacle was a lack of intuitive control. The two prime examples of this: there are no right-click menus anywhere; and you can’t toggle between items (such as choosing different contexts) by clicking on them — you must go up to the Menu Bar to do so.

In short, I headed for the app’s Help files. While I found basic concepts and suggestions here, it wasn’t really enough for me to get what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to do it. I then shifted over to the developer’s site and discovered a screencast tutorial. This helped a lot. I recommend you start there.

I have to say that I was not expecting the program to actively go out and gather stuff on my Mac. Once I got over that, and once I learned how to add my own projects and actions independently of this ‘auto collecting’ feature, it started to click. Still, some aspects of the program remain mysterious to me even now. I think a few more screencasts from the developer would be a big help.

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

Not really, but as I said before, I think this program will appeal to many people. Namely, I think it will appeal to those who really love the GTD process and want a program that really sticks to the GTD workflow. Still, I have to say that the more I used it, the more I appreciated it. And just when I started to really adjust to Midnight Inbox, my trial period ended.

If you intend to use this program, I think you need to be prepared to commit to it in order to realize it’s full potential. Certainly that’s true of all of all of the GTD-based task management apps, but I felt like Midnight Inbox required an extra degree of commitment. I was unable to start adding projects and actions as easily as I did in, say, iGTD or OmniFocus. I first had to take a considerable amount of time to study how it worked. It’s not without quirkiness — at times it felt more like I was learning how the developer’s mind worked. In the end, I gained a real appreciation for the time and effort that must have gone into developing this tool. I also gained an appreciation for the logic behind the workflow. Yet, I concluded it was not for me. I would like to check out version 2.0 when it arrives to see how it has changed and improved.

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

While the program integrates well with Mail & iCal, and successfully reaches out to gather items from any folder on my Mac, the integration still seemed limited. It has the feel of a stand-alone application. Unlike OmniFocus or iGTD, there is no Services Menu function, there are no right-click menus, and there is no Apple Dock menu. You can’t drag and drop items around (except from within the ‘Organize’ window). Nor can you synch your data with other third-party Mac applications. I also could not find an export function to get my data out of Midnight Inbox and into a text file or other export format.

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

If you don’t use Mail, iCal, or the other pre-sets to manage your data, you can set up new rules to collect information from different areas or programs of your choosing. However, I found my choices to be limited. I use Yojimbo, for instance, to capture notes throughout the day, but I was unable to configure Inbox to automatically collect Yojimbo notes. Presumbaly, it’s because Inbox doesn’t know what to do with the SQL database where the Yojimbo notes are stored. That’s a shame — I think more people might take the plunge and try the auto-collect idea if more types of data could be included.

It appears that the only real flexibility I have is to choose a file location of my choice where Inbox should collect stored text documents or files. Yet I can’t really imagine getting any use out of collecting text files or documents. I simply don’t store relevant information in stand-alone text documents or files (relevant to my task management process, that is). This limits the usefulness of the auto-collection process for me (particularly because I don’t use iCal either).

Still, it’s an intriguing idea. I think there is a bright future for this kind of application: the meta-program that aggregates data and then allows you to process (file, tag, refine, categorize, etc.) a lot of information from many different sources on your Mac in one place. I look forward to seeing how the developer refines these ideas in future versions of Midnight Inbox.

Footnote: you can choose to turn off the auto-collection feature altogether from the Preferences menu if you would rather manually enter your own data.

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

When I first launched Inbox, I was struck by the beauty of the user interface. The design is stunning. The look and feel of the program is undeniably like iTunes, but the metaphor breaks down there. Nothing about the program is much like iTunes when it comes to operational use. It’s quite unique and, if my learning curve is any indication, will take the average user some time to really grasp.

For example, the top menu area of the program has an interface that looks like iTunes, but I never found clear documentation to show me what I was supposed to do with that giant ‘Play/Pause’ button. I’m guessing it’s a timer with which you can countdown the minutes you’ve alloted for a particular action. But why would I really want to do this? For such a large prominent button, it seems like it should be more important to the program. Likewise, the giant ‘check’ button to the left of the ‘iTunes’ window seems to only be for checking off an item when it’s completed. However, it’s much easier to just check the box next to the item to indicate it’s completed. And then there’s the big iTunes-like window at the top. It’s clearly an information pane to indicate your current action, project, and context, but I didn’t find it particulary useful. This window, for instance, provides a hint to ‘Select a context from the Work menu to switch active actions,’ but I found it frustrating that I had to literally go to the work menu on the Menu Bar to change contexts. Clicking on the context doesn’t do the job, nor does double-clicking. Again, I think building in more user-entry inroads would help.

Another curious interface choice is that you can’t close the program window. The developer has disabled the ‘Close’ button (I’m talking about the red, yellow, and green buttons on the top left corner of every Mac window). You can minimize, you can toggle the size of the window, but you can’t close the window. The only option is to ‘Hide’ the program from the Menu Bar. I assume this is because you’re not supposed to w
ant or need to close the main window once you open the program, and presumably the developer hopes that you will open the program first when you fire up your Mac. Me? I would like the choice.

Next, I found the use of the double-click in this program to be unintuitive. Double-clicking is how you pull up a menu to change the parameters of each item in Inbox. You can’t right click on anything, which I intuitively wanted to do in order to get more options. I’ve never used a program that required me to use the menu bar choices so often (sure, there are also a plethora of shortcut keys I could use to navigate through Inbox or to add or change options, but I normally don’t get to learning ‘power user’ shortcuts until I really know a program well).

So, Midnight Inbox has a way to go when it comes to that elusive ‘Mac-like’ flow.In conclusion: If you carry forth the intended integration of this app to it’s full potential — that is, if you allow it to collect a good chunk of the daily data you accumulate on your Mac and then use the program to process all of this incoming data — it will surely be one of the most-used programs in your toolbox. But will you commit? It takes a lot of work. At times during my trial of this program, I felt like I was spending more time processing, organizing, and managing than actually getting things done.

Conceptually, Midnight Inbox is not really that distant from other Mac GTD-based task management apps. It’s closest in function and design to iGTD, in my opinion. So why did I find this program harder to use than two GTD-based task management apps I’ve tried out? I had a hard time quantifying this. It’s strange. In one sense, the organizational structure of this program is very logical. It very closely follows the GTD process, perhaps more than any GTD task manager I’ve reviewed. It’s also aesthetically pleasing.

I think the issue for me lies in the way the data is managed. It’s about the degree of flexibility. The only way I really got it working for me was to adopt the workflow planned out by the developer. I think that’s what frustrated me. At times, I would begin to glimpse the potential of this app, only to be frustrated when I clicked on something to discover it didn’t work the way I expected it to work. If the developer can open up the interface a bit so people can navigate around more freely, I think it would increase it’s appeal. OmniFocus, for instance, is much more intuitive and freeform in the way it allows a user to add, sort, and categorize data. Midnight Inbox, conversely, is more about process: you need to be willing to follow a fairly rigid ‘Getting Things Done’ workflow. I am personally more inclined to use a more flexible tool like OmniFocus or Cultured Code’s Things (which I’ll review next).

A single license for Midnight Inbox is available for $35 (which is good through version 3.0). Midnight Beep Softworks is now hard at work on version 2.0 of this application. Be sure to check it out.

Yet again, I want to note that ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ remain registered trademarks of David Allen & Co.

  1. I was very curious about Midnight Inbox when I first heard of it, and I have to say that I drooled over the interface (I still watch every screencast they produce, just because I find the interface beautiful). But it’s GTD approach is too strict for me, and I’m just very happy with the way OmniFocus works. I’m using the quick entry window a lot (but QuickSilver would work great as well) and I’ve started to use the “Clippings” function quite a bit. (Doing this, I’ve rediscovered VoodooPad service, which I’ve found quite useful.)

    Thanks for the review, I’m impatient for the next installment 😉

  2. It is a beautiful interface. I hope to get the installment on Cultured Code’s Things up this weekend. Then it’s on to the wrap-up. How are you using VoodooPad exactly? Since I started using Yojimbo, I haven’t been using VoodooPad as much (I only am using the free version). I’ve found it to be a nice tool for creative writing – it’s a cheap way to easily create a heavily linked story (sort of a poor man’s http://www.eastgate.com/“ title=”Eastgate Storyspace” rel=”nofollow”>Eastgate Storyspace).

  3. Opening this in details would open a big can of worms 😉

    Basically, I use VoodooPad to store text based information, such as some recipes for tools, and keep track of some things (like when a machine breaks down (who did I call, when, what was the case number)). I also keep track of my boardgames there. I could use RTF files stored in EagleFiler for this, but I have found the automatic linking (and the backlinks) very useful, especially when using things like formatted strings for dates.

    I think VP is a bit overkill for how I use it, but it feels comfortable.

  4. Of course, I meant “Answering this in detail”, not “Opening this in details” …

  5. I like the auto linking too. VP is a really great tool. I want to thank you, by the way, for sticking with me as I slowly review these GTD apps. It sure is nice to get a bit of feedback – I really appreciate it! I’m just about done with my Things review, but it’s taken longer than anticipated … mainly because the workflow is so freeform, I found it hard to describe.

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