Todoist and you-ist

Todoist for GTD? Hasn't that been covered?

Carl Pullein has taken on this topic in his series of YouTube videos. (You'll find lots of others have, too.) While Mr. Pullein does a fantastic job of highlighting the features of Todoist, I can't say I really agree with his approach to applying it to GTD. Maybe, after seeing how I use it for GTD, you'll prefer his method. However, keep in mind that my approach has one key advantage: It's free! (My accent is a nasal twang from the Midwest, so he wins in the audio department. On hair, it's probably a draw.)

A Parking Lot for Next Actions

I use Todoist (from Doist Ltd.) as my Next Action (NA) list. What's a "Next Action?" David Allen describes a NA as a physical action (requiring longer than two minutes) that's needed to move something forward. Some examples:

  • "Write email to Rick re: borrowed book"
  • "Look up contact info for mechanic"
  • "Take drawings of new widget to the machine shop"
  • "Scan documents into Evernote"

These are tasks that need to be done ASAP but have no real due date. (Things that must be done on a certain day or at a certain time go on a calendar. I'll tell you about my hack for those later.) These are captured on a list instead of rattling around in your brain.

So the NAs list is around for when you're leaning on your broom a bit. You have some discretionary time that isn't earmarked for must-do-NOW work. Most people have dozens, maybe hundreds, of NAs. So how do you decide what to do? You only have so much time and so much energy at any given moment, so that thins the list somewhat. Furthermore, you can only be in one place...or, more generally, what's known in GTD parlance as "context." (The new version of the book uses the term "categories" instead of "context," which is little too generic in my opinion.) It turns out that context is the key criterion, which makes sense. I hate to collapse your wavefunction, but you can't be in more than one place at any given time. (Quantum physics humor!)

A bit more on context/categories

So putting aside my humdinger of a Schrödinger joke, context turns out to be the key for organizing a NAs list. Energy is hard to gauge. Time requirements are estimates. On the other hand, you are always where you are, and most contexts depend primarily on location ("At home," "Errands-bank," "Errands-HomeDepot.")

One subtly to the idea of contexts is that you can also carve out certain tools available ("Internet," "Computer w/o internet," "Calls") or even mindsets ("Home&lazy.") Personally, I've found that it's useful to use Cal Newport's categorization of work: "Deep Work" and "Shallow Work." You may want to check out his book.

Yet another to-do app

So do all C.S. majors worldwide have "Make a to-do app" as a standard term project? Nothing else can explain the hundreds and hundreds of to-do apps filling the app stores.

So why Todoist? You shall see!

So Todoist is an impressively multi-platform service. For an intro, take a look at the YouTube video, but just keep in mind they're not actually doing GTD in it. In my experience, syncing generally works very well. And the free version actually has all the components you need for your NAs list.

The folks at Doist apparently really want you to upgrade for $29/year. For that price, you get "labels," which I'll show you don't actually need. And the limit to 80 active projects at the free level is, in fact, no big deal...as you will see. Since, by definition, NAs are ASAP, the reminders and iCal features at the Premium level are useless for us here. Adding tasks by email is a tad silly since you can put Todoist anywhere you send or receive email.

Oh, and "premium theme colors?" Really? Tomato soup red is pleasant enough.

"Getting things done" by "Doing things wrong"

"Eighty projects max?" you may have objected. "I have way more than that!"

Yes, you probably do since a "project" in GTD is any objective that requires more than one NA to complete. However, take another look at a "Todoist project." It's basically a directory, right? Name it "At Home." Put some NAs in it. Once you get past some functional fixedness, you'll see that "Todoist projects" work quite well as contexts. And you probably have fewer than 80 contexts in your life. Like I said above, you don't need premium "labels," which the developers presumably intended to serve as contexts.

Now, here's a neat trick. Todoist project folders can be nested, so you can have your workplace-related projects separate from your personal ones. (That's right: subcontexts!) At work, I can open my "Work" folder and ignore my "Home" folder, and vice versa. I also have "Home Garage" under "Home" so when it's 34 °F (1 °C) out there, that folder can stay shut while I do other things inside. Mind you, this is without using Todoist's filters, which, if you'd like to define them, are another premium feature.

Data entry. (A boring phrase with important implications.)

Trust me: Little bits of friction with your GTD system add up quickly. If you think it's a bit of a pain to do something, it will grind you down eventually.

And data entry to a digital system is one of the biggest drags you'll encounter. For example, if you need to click something every time you add a NA to your list, oh boy, will that get annoying after your twentieth in a day. Fortunately, Todoist is as easy as it gets.

"Quick Add" is frankly the best part of Todoist. In the PC or browser version, the plus sign at the top of the screen opens a data entry line. Type your NA, and there you go. (In the PC version, Ctrl+Alt+A does the same without touching the mouse.) In the Android and iOS versions, Quick Add is a plus sign button at the bottom left. There's also handy Quick Add widget in the Android version for adding things from the desktop.

And here's the kicker. You can immediately categorize your NA by typing "#context" where context is the name of the "Todoist project." Don't remember the exact name? Type "#" and your hierarchy appears like a drop menu.

So why not use a "GTD app?"

Obviously, the people at Doist are making an app that's general enough to be usable for as many people as possible, and building something geared specifically to GTD would exclude a lot of their potential customers.

Having said that, I really don't see how a GTD-specific todo app presents any advantage. As David Allen says in Getting Things Done,

It’s critical that all of these categories [Projects list, Calendar, Next Actions, etc.] be kept pristinely distinct from one another. They each represent a discrete type of agreement we make with ourselves, to be reminded of at a specific time and in a specific way, and if they lose their edges and begin to blend, much of the value of organizing will be lost.

The best way to do that, in my mind, is use distinct apps for each.

(In my next tutorial, I'll show how I don't take my own advice.)