After reading GTD, extensive blog skimming, podcast listening, App Store review reading and plenty of preference pane tinkering I have locked down my GTD tools. My system revolves around synced text files and lists of next actions and projects. A fast and light weight task management app and the ability to search for and quickly find something specific is paramount to trusting my capture system and for effective daily, weekly, monthly reviews.
Before you read further: No, I do not use Omnifocus. Yes, I know how great everyone says it is for GTD. I simply have not had the need (or desire) to implement a tool that robust and expensive into my system.
My GTD system is based in the Apple ecosystem. I use an iPhone, iPad and MacBook Pro for all of my personal and freelance work. My day job does require me to use a Win 7 PC though and therefore I wanted to adopt software and services that could be accessed using Windows through a web interface.
Note Taking and Reference Material
Markdown and plain text files: Everything I write is in a Markdown formatted plain text file synced through Dropbox… everything (even this post). I know that whatever I write in the text file is what I’ll see on any platform, any browser, any text editing software. The real power of Markdown comes with how its syntax is parsed by 3rd party software like Marked or nvALT.
My text files contain content like: blog posts (and outlines of posts during development), reference material – like markdown/multi-markdown syntax or project support documentation, random thoughts or ideas that need further R&D, time tracking for freelance projects, podcast notes, checklists of common tasks etc. – check out how I name them all.
nvALT: When I’m on my Mac nvALT is always open. I use it to create, edit and manage all of my text files that are stored within one folder in Dropbox. I have about 100 text files as of this writing and search is lightning fast. Brett Terpstra created it as a fork of Notational Velocity and by pairing his Markdown Service tools with nvALT I have everything I need for note taking.
Markdown Service Tools and SearchLink: Let’s stay on the Terpstra Train for a second. Brett has created a slew of Services and Workflows that allow you to quickly manipulate and generate Markdown (and Multi-Markdown) syntax. By selecting a portion of text you can convert it into a bulleted list, create a footnote, or add a link to a word or phrase. SearchLink is my most used service. It allows you to "just write" adding links (in a specific format) as you go. Once you’ve finished writing you can select all the text, run the service and all of the links you added will be generated for you. Links to google searches, specific sites, searches of specific sites, App Store and iTunes searches, Amazon searches can all be automatically created without ever leaving nvALT to find the link. I use it a lot for marking items that need further research while writing and linking to the show notes page for a podcast that I have accompanying notes on.
Marked: Another one of Brett Terpstra’s creations is Marked. It takes a text file that is written in Markdown and converts it into a HTML document. This is insanely useful for writing and previewing blog posts but it’s also very useful for reviews of text files. I can add links into my text file for further research or for wiki style documentation.
So it occurs to me that, just as I gave credit to Merlin Mann in a previous post for getting me interested in GTD, I want to send a huge thank you to Brett Terpstra for creating a vast majority of the tools I use to actually implement GTD.
Drafts: When I need to create a quick new file or append/prepend a regularly updated file on my iPhone or iPad I use Drafts. By creating custom actions you can open the app, type your text and send it off to the appropriate place quickly and easily without leaving the app. So far I tend to use Drafts for on-the-go note taking or thought capture. If I am stationary and able to think for a few minutes I will fire up ByWord.
Byword: I use Byword for writing projects (not for note taking) which, for me, are typically blog posts or idea development. It’s interface encourages focus and as stupid as it may sound I feel like a writer when I use it. Just like nvALT I have Byword connected to my Dropbox notes. For a while I kept my polished Byword files in iCloud separate from my messy Dropbox notes but after I established a solid naming convention for my text files I can very quickly filter out my scratch pads and just show the serious writing projects I have going. The Markdown editing bar greatly increases writing speed and prevents you having to switch keyboards every 5 seconds.
PlainText: While I don’t typically take a lot of notes using my iPhone or
iPad when I have to I use PlainText. Sync and search is fast, interface is simple. Not much to it but there doesn’t need to be.
Editorial: Up until Editorial came out I couldn’t get into a rhythm taking notes on my iPad but this amazing new text editor/workflow automator has changed that. Using the built in workflows (or others that are popping up everywhere) I can achieve a lot of the functionality that I enjoy with nvALT on my Mac. Still early days yet but the past two weeks have seen my note taking/writing increase 10 fold using only my iPad.
TextDrop: When on my work PC I use TextDrop to access all of my notes. It’s appearance is similar to nvALT and search is quick. I miss all the services available to me while on OS X but I can always go back and edit/run services later when I’m back on my Mac. TextDrop has improved my workflow at the office and it prevents me from losing ideas/tasks/projects that I wouldn’t normally capture on my work PC.
Pen and Paper: I love using a notecard (lined on one side, blank of the other) with a Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine Black for taking notes. I don’t do it enough and I always feel guilty about using the notecard and then throwing it away after I’ve typed the notes into a text file and taken a photo of any sketches but I find that I end up with superior notes using pen and paper.
Tasks, Projects, Committments
Reminders.app – I used Things for a long time and have played with Omnifocus but for me Apple’s default Reminders App does everything I need from a project/task manager. I keep a list of open projects that feed my context lists like @home, @iPhone, @errands, @waiting-for etc. New actions are added to my inbox and then processed at the end of each day. The project list makes my daily/weekly reviews very easy. As I’m reviewing my project lists I can add new next actions to the Inbox by using an Alfred Workflow.
One feature I think I’m missing out on is the ability to assign a task to a project. As a workaround I add "Project: [Project Name]" to the first line in the notes field. It’s purely for isolating all the open tasks related to that specific project when using search.
The biggest advantage to using Reminders, for me, is that it’s baked in to iOS, OS X and iCloud. That means it works great within each OS and the sync through iCloud is ridiculously fast and reliable. A huge benefit to me is the iCloud web interface for Reminders. I can have it open on my work PC, just as I would on my Mac, to ensure I don’t miss anything. It means I don’t have to email myself (or maildrop) tasks or enter them twice.
There are time/date and location specific reminders that are awesome for trusting that I’ll be reminded at the right time and place about a task.
One last trick I use is inserting a link in the notes field to an nvALT note. It saves me from writing a lot of text in the Reminders note field, which doesn’t support Markdown, and isn’t visually appealing at all.
If you want to read more on using Reminders as a GTD app then Mike Vardy has a good write up of how Reminders can be used as a task manager
Fantasical – I don’t directly enter items into my calendar a lot as Reminders has great support for adding date specific tasks. Those date driven reminders will automatically show up in Fantastical (on the Mac at least, and accoring to the developer it’s coming to the iPhone). It has plain language parsing so entering "lunch with my wife at noon tomorrow" is all I have to type to get it on the books. Honestly, most of the time I use the calendar function within Reminders more than Fantastical or Calendar.
R&D, Reading and Bookmarks
For keeping track of articles, posts etc that I think I might want to read later I use Safari’s Reading List, Instapaper and Pinboard.
Reading List is a quick capture of anything I think I will want to read later. I then process that into Instapaper, if it’s a longer article that doesn’t fit into the 2 minute rule, or Pinboard, if it’s something that I will want to reference again sometime in the future. If the URL proves to be useful to a project or action item I will add the link to the notes field of the Reminders task.
I use the default Mail.app on both Mac and iOS for my primary iCloud based email. I have the slew of other accounts forward into that one inbox for processing and task creation. I do keep one gmail account that stays outside of the iCloud inbox. I use it as a newsletter, marketing email, junk mail inbox that I quickly process on the go using Mailbox. I don’t get a huge number of emails everyday, typically 20 or less, so I try to process an email as soon as it comes in to get it out of my inbox. Either, I reply to the email quickly (2 min rule) and then archive the message, a task is created (email dragged into a task in Reminders) and then archived, it is just archived as reference material or it’s deleted. With smart folders for emails regarding active projects and search I can always find an email quickly and easily. No need for a ton of folders.