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.

GTD Task Management Apps III: OmniFocus

This is the third post in a series comparing task management applications that are based to some degree on the ‘Getting Things Done‘ process. Today I’ll look at OmniGroup’s OmniFocus 1.0.

OmniFocus is the latest offering from OmniGroup, one of the most well-respected software developers for the Mac. As a long-time user of OmniWeb (my casual browser of choice), I’ve found OmniGroup to be quick to respond, helpful and friendly when contacted for support. This is a solid company, in other words, so I entered this evaluation full of optimism. I began using this app while it was still in Beta, and I’m now using the free 14-day trial of version 1.0 (which launched on Jan. 7). I did not opt to buy the program while it was still in Beta (for a limited time, Beta users could buy it for ). The program now cost , which is perhaps the most notable thing to say about OmniFocus. It’s expensive. Is it worth it? Before I get to that, let’s take a look at the program.

 

The Inbox

The OmniFocus Inbox is likely where you’ll start out, and where you’ll spend a lot of time (see Screenshot 1). Do yourself a favor: when you download the trial for this app, begin by viewing the available overview on their website to get a feel for it. I also found the tutorials in the Help files of the program to be simple and easy to follow, which I can’t say for many of the programs I use. Then jump in and start adding some actions. Actions, in GTD terms, are either single things that you need to do or steps you take to complete a given project (the Project is a pretty straight-forward concept, so I’m not going to focus on it here). Adding actions is easy: click, type, enter some text, then hit Return for the next action.

Once you enter some actions, you assign them to projects and contexts (easy to choose from a dropdown list). Once you make all of your choices, you hit the ‘Clean Up’ icon on the top menu bar, and your items magically file themselves away, disappearing from the inbox.

This is similar to the ‘Process/Review’ function in iGTD, but I like the OmniFocus method because it’s easier. In iGTD, processing and reviewing all happens from the same tool (‘Process/Review’). With iGTD, you use keyboard shortcuts to fly through your tasks (iGTD calls them tasks, OmniFocus calls the actions) to re-sort or verify your contexts or projects, change a task’s status, etc.

In OmniFocus, you assign each tasks as many or as few parameters you want, and then ‘Clean Up.’ At it’s most basic, you can just assign a project and/or a context. At it’s most complex, you can assign each action a wide variety of parameters, which I’ll cover when I talk about the Inspector (since that’s where you’ll find these choices). Unlike iGTD, the ‘reviewing’ part of OmniFocus is a distinct feature, separated from the initial ‘processing’ of your actions. I’ll cover this shortly as well.

This workflow — dump actions in, add some specific parameters or goalposts, then dispatch the actions off with ‘Clean Up’ — is easy for me to grasp, and I like to see my Inbox empty when I clean up. It’s a bit of nice user feedback that makes me feel, well, organized (or at least approaching organization).

In the screenshot [Note: screenshots removed], you’ll also see some simple built-in color coding that appears once you assign due dates to your actions. The red text indicates an action that is past due; orange means it is due today. Easy enough. So far, this doesn’t do anything that iGTD doesn’t do.

Where it differs is in design and workflow. It’s obvious that the team who designed OmniFocus were striving for clean lines and simplicity while maintaining industrial-strength power under the hood. In effect, the powerful sorting/viewing guts of the app are carefully arranged and hidden until called upon by the user, whereas iGTD presents so many options and choices up-front, it feels as if you’re looking at the guts.

 

Contexts

While the term may vary, all of the GTD-based Mac task managers have a way to deal with the idea of ‘context.’ OmniFocus calls this idea, aptly, Contexts. Simply stated, contexts allow you to organize your lists based on where you are (see Screenshot 2). I think OmniFocus performs about as well as any of the apps in this review series when it comes to managing by location. They get high scores for making their user interface work as you would expect. Indeed, the interface (the means to add or subtract an item, for instance) will be familiar to you from other Mac apps. That’s a good thing.

In the screenshot, you’ll see a list of actions that are due that I can only do when I am using my Mac. Note that only items in each project that can be accomplished while using the Mac are shown in this view. This is handy. The way that OmniFocus handles contexts, and the sorting and viewing of contexts, works for me. It’s intuitive and orderly.

One feature that sticks out is the ability to nest contexts within other contexts. For example, I have ’email’ and ‘online’ as nested subcategories under ‘Mac.’ While this sounded good to me in theory, in practice it was more organization than I needed. It was enough for me to simply identify ‘Mac’ as a context. I don’t need or want additional sub-categories. However, I readily admit that this will be very handy for users with more ‘to do’ than me, namely business users (and those who like to be really, really organized).

Also note that some actions in the Context screenshot are purple. OmniFocus tries to be helpful by displaying certain colors for your actions. This can be useful, but it can also be confusing. Take the purple action: purple actions are the next items to do on your list. When you create a project, you can choose if the actions must be done one after the other (sequential) or in any order (parallel). A purple action means this is the next suggested action to do in your project (if order doesn’t matter) or it means that this is the next action you must to before you proceed to the next action (if order does matter). Personally, I think the purple text should only be used where order is important. If order is unimportant to me, I don’t need to have the first item on a parallel list to be highlighted. It’s not necessary.

Final word on the Context screenshot: you’ll note that I highlighted the ‘View’ bar, which I’ll discuss in brief next.

 

What’s in a View

The View Bar (screenshot 3) is a fairly ingenious tool. Thankfully, the designers thought to add a subtle hint in each of the view options to remind you what it’s supposed to do (‘Show Actions with Status:’ for instance is a nice clue that you’re about to sort your actions by ‘status’). The screenshot displays the dropdown menu for the Projects view. By way of example, you can change which projects are displayed by choosing from the following dropdown menu choices: remaining, active, stalled, pending, on hold, dropped, completed. Yikes. Is my project pending or is it on hold? Or maybe it’s stalled? My brain is starting to hurt. Several of the other ‘View’ groups have similarly vexing choices. All I can say is, ‘try them out. Play with it. See what it does.’ I’ll warn you though: it can start to get confusing when you mix and match view options. It’s easy to lose ‘where you are’ in your data. Here’s the good news: you don’t necessarily need to use these power sorting and viewing options. You can use just a couple, or none. I think the developers, in offering this plethora of viewing and sorting choice, are aiming at people who need to balance hundreds of tasks and dozens of projects. I can see how sorting and grouping and flagging and estimating time duration, etc. could be helpful for these people. But not for me.

 

Focus

Now here’s a feature I really like (screenshot 4): the Focus. This is a simple idea, and it’s a useful idea. When you highlight a project and click the ‘Focus’ button on the menu bar, you will only see that project and its associated actions. The ‘Focus’ button will then change to read ‘Show All’ … allowing you to quickly toggle back to the see all of your projects.

It’s so simple, I have nothing else to say about it.

Review

 

Now we’ll take a brief look at the OmniFocus review process (screenshot 5). The idea here is that you must periodically flip through all of your projects and actions to make sure they are still relevant, that they haven’t changed, and that they are filed correctly (in terms of due dates, status, etc.). OmniFocus tries to make this painless by automatically setting up a review process based on the time that you entered the data. This view (the ‘review view’) can be, um, viewed by selecting the choice from the ‘group projects by’ view drop-down list. What’s important here is that the program tells you what you should review by week and within the month, and you are presented with a right-menu option to mark each project as reviewed (once you do this, that project will automatically be rescheduled for review in a few weeks). This is a pretty good way to handle the review process, which is one of the GTD process steps to ensure you are staying on track with your actions and projects. If you’re like me, though, you may find this a little tedious. The ‘Review View’ is yet another example of just how many different ways a user can rearrange actions and projects via the View Bar. It’s truly amazing, truly powerful, and potentially truly confusing.

 

Inspector & Perspectives

These two items should probably not be lumped together because they are do different things. The one thing they have in common is that they both open up in separate floating panes. The Inspector pane is similar to many other Mac apps (Pages has a similar pane). Here, you can add even options for your projects, actions, contexts, and groups such as status, due dates, etc. Note that ‘group’ is one of the options here. I’m still not sure where these groups are, how I create one, and how I’m supposed to use the Inspector to further tag them. I stopped looking, to be honest, after mousing around for a few minutes. I have so many levels of organization in this program, do I really need to group items beyond placing them in projects?

At any rate, the Inspector is one of those Mac-like ways to stick a ton of metadata in one place and get it away from your main application window, presumably because we Mac users like our main window to stay clean and lean. I like that the program is smart enough to interpret what I enter in the ‘date’ and ‘time’ fields of the Inspector: you can type any of the following: ‘2d,’ ‘3 mo,’ ’45m,’ ‘next wed 1pm’ … and OmniFocus will interpret the date and time correctly.

‘Perspectives’ (the other info pane in screenshot 6) is, as far as I know, an idea unique to OmniFocus. Essentially, a Perspective is a way to capture a certain view for later. This little organizational tool is like a super-bookmark: it reminds me of a similar OmniWeb feature which allows one to take snapshots of all open pages and current views on those pages to save for later. I love this feature. It’s a nice idea for OmniFocus — especially if, over time, you discover that you really like one particular view (or three or four) and would like to get back to that view quickly at a later time. Given the hundreds of viewing combinations one can choose from in this program, it’s a good idea to give the user a way to store it. The one potential pitfall of this is that you must remember you are storing a snapshot of all your data in one particular viewing state. If you forget this, you might choose to view a Perspective and incorrectly think that some of your data is missing! It’s not missing, of course, it’s just that your ‘Perspective’ only includes a subset of all of your data.

 

Quick Entry

I want to point out that OmniFocus offers what, for me, is essential: the ability to invoke a new action from anywhere at anytime on the Mac (screenshot 7). OmniFocus allows you to choose your own shortcut for this. It’s simple and straightforward. Since I love Services, I want to point out that the app also places a little OmniFocus shortcut in your Apple Services menu. This allows you to select some text in any application and quickly insert it into a new OmniFocus action (even when the program is not open). While not all apps require the ability to enter data on the fly, apps like OmniFocus really do. You’ll find yourself using it a lot more once you get used to quick system-wide data entry shortcuts.

 

The OmniFocus Right Click menu (Dock)

I thought I’d show you this final screenshot just as as indicator of the thought process that went into the application. I think it’s telling that the right-click menu focuses on Contexts. OmniFocus does seem to favor them — apparently iCal also synchs based on contexts. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: I frankly never organized my task lists based on location before trying out these types of programs. It’s a way of thinking that some will love and some will probably find abhorrent. Me? I tend to think in terms of projects, so I would rather see projects in a quick-access list. Better yet, I’d like the ability to toggle between projects and contexts.

The Verdict

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

No. I had to view the tutorial video and read the tutorial help files to really get going.

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

Yes and no. I have a lot of respect for OmniGroup. I am impressed that they brought in productivity gurus to try to get this application done right. I can see that they tried hard to make it simple enough for basic use but powerful enough for serious business use. I think it’s a great start. I was still excited about the potential of this app a week later, but all of the sorting, viewing, and tagging options started to weigh on me. It’s too much work! I began to feel that I was spending too much time planning and not enough time doing. To get the most out of this complex app, I think the secret would be to stick with it for a long time — you would have to commit to it, get to know it inside and out, develop routines and workflows that work for you. Then, I imagine the curve would change: it will begin to feel more like a a powerful tool that helps you get more done instead of a powerful tool with too many options.

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

Pretty good. Good integration for system-wide data entry (so you can easily enter new items, even when the program is hidden or closed). Not as many options for integration with other apps as iGTD (in fact, I think there is only iCal integration right now).

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

It did a good job of keeping track of the things I had to get done, but I found myself playing with the View options too often. I kept adding more metadata so I could use the various sort options to see how they worked. In other words, maybe there are too many options.

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

I think the user experience is good, but not great. The application is very Mac-like, in that I immediately knew how to move data around. I like the clever way that OmniGroup embedded the Views and Perspectives — when you step back and look at all the sorting and viewing tools they squeezed in there and then ponder how clean the user interface still looks, it’s an impressive feat. The question is: are there simply too many viewing and tagging options? I felt bogged down in the end.

In conclusion: this will likely be one of the top three GTD-based task managers. It’s a solid program — and it’s only at version 1.0. However, it costs too much for most Mac users. Those who are willing to plunk down for this will likely be serious business users who are serious about task management. The rest of us? I for one am still still seeking something a little easier to grasp, an even simpler user interface, perhaps a few less options, and a lower price point.

Once again, I want to point out that ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co. I still don’t want to get sued.

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.