The hunt for the perfect productivity app is making me unproductive

In an effort to marshall all the activities of my life hats – employee, mom, grad student, homebody (not really, but I wish), community volunteer, wife, friend, and on and on, you see? – I decided to amp up my chores/tasks/to-dos, noting them down properly and actually ACTING on them.

Easily said.

For the past couple of years, I’ve fiddled around with quite a few applications/systems. I really did start with pen and paper – I LOVE notebooks and agendas and have tons of lists, even a notebook JUST for lists. But during the past four years, coinciding, really, with the birth of le Petit, I’ve tended towards a digital lifestyle: digital writing, journalling, bills storage, document management, and it only made sense that my tasks system should be digital, and any associated task reminders be in digital format, since my iPhone and laptop are daily, essentials tools that are always on hand.

So over the past three years, as I came across task apps, I took note and tried them out. I was looking for one that fit for my, and later, for our life.

The number of apps I’ve actually tried is somewhat ridiculous:

  • Remember the milk
  • Todoist
  • Toodledo
  • Ta-da list by 37 Signals
  • Google calendar
  • Yahoo calendar
  • iCal
  • Producteev
  • Cheddar
  • Asana
  • Coolendar
  • Orchestra
  • Astrid
  • Doit.im
  • HitList
  • Google tasks
  • Wunderlist
  • Any.do
  • Things

(And this isn’t even all of them. There are so many one-offs in the Android Play Store and iOS App Store!)

One would think that with all these choices, there would be something that would work. But nooooooo, maybe I’m just that exacting (not really), or that anal (I don’t think so); I’m still on the hunt for a perfect system. (I’ve listened to enough podcasts to know that ha! I am not the only one with this disorder. There are many many folks out there looking for an app/system that really fits their bill).

So, no, I haven’t found ONE that totally works, but I know now that there are elements that are necessary for me, for my system (which very well may be different for what you need for your system):

  • sync between desktop and mobile device, preferable multi-platform (Android & iOS)
  • time-specific reminders
  • natural language entry (once you start, you can’t go back. That’s entering “2d 1pm” or “next week” or “tomorrow noon” and having the app add the right date/time without having to type in or scroll through a calendar to get it just right)
  • entry shortcut keycombo
  • various views (by due date, by project)
  • really really preferable with Google Calendar sync (since mon mari and I put all our home events into one shared Google calendar, I detest having to enter something twice, once in my task management app, once on the calendar)
  • preferably with Contacts integration (i.e “call Esther” will auto-populate Esther’s phone number)
  • easy edit of tasks, including moving to different project or list
  • hide completed tasks but keep them for reference
  • allow image insert

I have some beefs with apps that I have tried out, some of them for over six months:

Astrid: what’s with “social sharing of lists”? I just want to share my list with maybe mon mari but not see the world’s “featured” lists on my homepage.  Wunderlist: why is it essential to show ALL completed tasks on a tasklist? The length of the completed to-do’s  (much longer than the current tasks)  totally clutters the page and strips away my delight at the brevity of my efficient, manageable to-do list.  Appigo’s To-Do: I totally don’t get the free/pro models since the free app requires an annual subscription to work, and the free model requires one to pay $14 for the app.  Omnifocus: I’m halfway convinced to jump on board but really, would it be worth $110 for the ecosystem of apps for me? iCal: why is syncing with Google so. dang. complicated on the iPhone? There is an exchange way of syncing, an iCal way of syncing, which might/might not be ideal for Google Contacts, but syncing one way won’t get your Google tasks to show up, and another way makes calendars appear twice.

So I’ve just installed Things for Mac. I am a sucker for a gorgeous UI and this one is lovely in spades, but I am daunted at how much there is to learn about how it works. It’s definitely the most complicated to-do management app I’ve ever tried. But I want to give it a go, having read that so many of my hacker/developer superstar idols just love it. (Although I was DISMAYED three days ago to discover that there is no calendar sync with the tasks. But then, it syncs with Reminders on the iPhone, WHICH I DON’T USE. And I’m watching video tutorials on managing tasks and projects in this app. That just seems wrong.)

The short of it all is that I’ve seemingly wasted a LOT of time trying to get a system of managing work tasks, and by implication, my TIME, better.

However, there is some secret pleasure in the fiddly-ness of it all, a weird, somewhat twisted pleasure that’s ok until it cuts into my ability to actually get things done.  I’ve heard people swear by their systems, and ultimately, there is some effort/learning curve in getting up to speed with a system that will ultimately help one become a task ninja. That’s what I’m aiming for: becoming a task ninja and mastering my life projects.

 

Evernote, I’ve lost that loving feeling

The title is an exaggeration: just as I will always be interested in the original Star Wars film, even after the next installment, The Empire Strikes Back, became my favorite, I will always love Evernote and will harken back to it fondly when I think about my introduction to info collection applications. And I mean, you can’t have Empire Strikes Back without the first Star Wars, right?

It’s just that I’ve become infatuated with a new (well, newer) kid on the block: Springpad.

I stumbled across Springpad recently when I went looking for viable alternatives to Delicious when I thought Yahoo was setting it adrift (Yahoo has since announced they were looking to sell Delicious, not nix it, so my momentary dismay was for naught).

I didn’t end up migrating my Delicious bookmarks there, but I did explore a bit and signed up to put Springpad to use in some other ways. A great number of other ways.

Though I signed up for it on my browser, I didn’t start using it until I installed the Android app, added the widget and voila: TOTAL usecase love.

widget, app, android

The Evernote widget has been replaced on my homescreen. Why’s that?  I can still take pictures and add notes via the widget, but for me, the primary advantage of the Springpad widget is that I can scan barcodes of objects and snap, they are imported into Springpad, taggable and with the ability to add notes and assign it to a notebook.  Then, get this: the imported items automatically link within Springpad to Amazon or Netflix or some other shopping site to give you further info or price comparisons on the select item. PLUS, you can set an alert to watch an item if, say, it drops in price somewhere online.  Love it. (Too bad that as a Canadian, I can’t take advantage of the shopping deals [well, I have workarounds — :-)].)

Springpad also has a web clipper extension for Chrome, or a bookmarklet for Safari  which I have been using for a couple of weeks now. It lets you tag and categorize the item as you clip it. Handy. See how similar it is to Evernote?

Another bonus with the Springpad application, just look at its eye-candy dashboard:

springpad, app, notetaking

This is the home screen of the application. You can click on any notebook, or “All My Stuff” which provides an overview of everything, sortable by date or name.

And what does the notebook look like?

notebook, springpad

To me, this is much more visually appealing than Evernote’s notebook layout. And both notebook and home screens have customizable backgrounds, with layout options as well.

I’ve been using Springpad for about 3 weeks now and it seems like I am still learning all the capabilities of this little application. For example, yesterday, I just read that I can add tasks via the web or mobile app and set up alerts on the tasks that sync with Google Calendar.  I set up a notebook, “ToDo” to catch all my tasks and will see how well it works over the next couple of weeks.

I’ve yet to even try Springpad’s location function. If I tap it on my phone, it will bring up places around that I can try/note/rate and it links directly to Yelp. I’m a bit overwhelmed with location-based social media apps right now so not really keen on trying a new one, but in time I will get around to playing around with Springpad’s version.

Anyway, for now, I am using Springpad for a lot of the things I used to do with Evernote.  I’m still using Evernote mainly for work, but Springpad is my new go-to pal for the rest of my life.

Just notes, really

In my endless quest to simplify life, I’ve been increasingly drawn to simple looking software applications that do few things well, and look good.  The look good is aesthetics only, but I find that if the user interface is cleaner, then I am more motivated to perform next actions instead of getting distracted on a button or a function or a border that just seems to get in the way.

A recent discovery that fit that bill, and that I am finding extremely useful, is JustNotes. I had read about it from a Smoking Apples blurb a few months ago and just lately downloaded it. It does what its named after: it’s only for notes.

It’s a super small application, and runs in the menu bar and/or dock, as you wish and has hotkey triggers, always a plus in my books.

It also provides users with a choice of fonts, which is really nice in a free app.

I was initially using it for to-do lists, but I recently started a class, and for the first time in my life, wanted to try working with lecture notes/research/reading notes in a digital format rather than trusty old-fashioned ink and paper. So I starting recording all class related emails and notes in JustNotes. And I wanted to get into syncing. (Normally, I use Evernote and don’t worry about syncing, but I had recently read quite a few articles (i.e. here and here) mentioning SimpleNote and Notational Velocity and that got me thinking about testing syncing out.)

Syncing saved my life. I forgot my macbook one day but the room where we have our seminar is a computer lab and I was able to go online to simplenoteapp.com and get my readings and homework notes.

Other than the “Beta” heading in the frame of the app window, I think this great piece of software has gorgeous presentation as well as terrific functionality. And despite its beta moniker, it has yet to bug out on me.

Good job, developer. If and when JustNotes moves out of beta and becomes shareware, I’ll be happy to buy it AND recommend it to others.

alfred web mac application launch

Application launchers

I’ve read a lot of about application launchers, but no one has ever used them before in our house.

Since my interest in computers and the MacBook took off 2 years ago, however, I have slowly been switching over to using more keyboard shortcuts over mouse gestures and clicks where possible. I find that the shortcuts are way more productive and like getting to pages/windows/the next tab without having my hands having to leave the keyboard.

So, I have been interested in app launchers but have never got around to using them. The ones I read alot about were:

All three of these had quite extensive documentation, and I listened to a very informative podcast about LaunchBar.

As much as I was attracted to a system whereby one could open a new application via a keyboard and not mouse clicks, I never quite got around to installing or using any of them.

Along came Alfred.

I read about it on another blog a few months ago and found  it to be a simple little app that did nothing but

  1. launch applications
  2. find things on the web
  3. find things on my MacBook

Loved the premise and the idea of Alfred, a service to help one out, quietly, unobtrusively, in the background. Like a butler, like its icon, get it?

Well, since installing it, I’ve found it to be extremely handy – when I remembered to use it! I wasn’t in the habit of hitting option-space bar to call up the Alfred dialogue box to implement my searches or to find a application.  It’s a very handy key-combo that calls up a big box in the middle/top of your screen:

Then I could type in the first few letters of any application on my MacBook – usually it would only offer one suggested option, and then I hit enter, and voila, the app is launched. So, the MacBook’s native Spotlight does the same thing, and I was using it to do so for awhile, but honestly, I didn’t like having to look at the upper right hand corner of my screen at very small font to do so. Alfred pops up in big letters in the center of my desktop display and I found this much more attractive as a UI feature.

Another very useful task Alfred performs for me, the one I’ve actually utilized the most, is web search. Press option-space bar, type in the search item, and you are given your choice of three massive web search engines to choose from.

alfred web mac application launch

So far, that’s been sufficient but I haven’t quite gotten around to figuring out how to add other engines, i.e. Amazon Canada, and IMDB, which would be very very helpful for me. In any case, I love the functionality. Pretty simple.

The last thing I’ve used Alfred for is to search for items on the computer, usually documents, but also film clips and some photographs. As I only have about 90 gb of documents and files stored on my hard drive, the search takes place at a zippy pace and pops up with the what appears to be most recent items. It’s handy but not super useful as yet. I still like manually searching down file trees for items.

Anyway, I like what I can do with Alfred, and it is an attractive little app. Has it improved my productivity? The answer is yes so I would recommend this app for sure. Did I mention that it’s free for now? It’s currently in beta, so I look forward to seeing what the newest tweaks will be when the company is ready to release the updated version.

Anxiety: A Lightweight Mac Task Manager

There was a review posted recently on WebWorkerDaily of Anxiety, one of the first task managers I started using on the Mac.  Some of the awesome features of Anxiety highlighted by the review listed below:

Unlike many of the more full-featured task managers, it’s relatively unobtrusive, taking up a tiny amount of screen real estate. The interface to check (and check off) your tasks is always easily accessible via a menubar button, but disappears when not required.

Anxiety presents your tasks as a simple to-do list in a small semi-transparent window that can hover over the other apps open on your desktop. It’s integrated with Apple’s other applications that posses to-do functionality; double-clicking a list item reveals the task in iCal or Mail for extended editing. Simple shortcuts allow you to see your full list externally.

via Anxiety: A Lightweight Mac Task Manager.

I appreciate this review because it pinpoints all the features I am usually attracted to in an app: simplicity, focused functionality, terrific UI and some integration with other native MAC OS applications.

I used Anxiety for about 7 months after I discovered it, but as I started to learn about GTD, I started looking for other options, and about 2 months ago, I switched to Dejumble. I haven’t quite got the hang of using Dejumble yet, but I as soon as I have, I will post my own review of this application.

Small accomplishments in getting organized

Why is it so hard to just DO the things I have on my mind to accomplish?

Lethargy, laziness, the overwhelming feeling that there are so many things to do and not enough time to do them just paralyzes me. Ends up being useless. HOWEVER, it helps to have mon mari standing over me and MAKING me take steps towards….ie deciding what to throw out, what to keep, what I really need ….

I took small steps the last weekend and got rid of 150 CD in cases and put them into a binder for holding CDs. WHAT a GREAT feeling that was. Why didn’t I do that earlier? So refreshing to get rid of stuff. Much better to do that than sit around on my ass all weekend.

Another thing: I spend all this time trolling and browsing on design sites: Apartment Therapy (LOVE it) and some Swedish sites (what is it about their design eye?). It will take a little effort to take some of the ideas found there and DO something with them at our place, wouldn’t it? Not hard. Why can’t I just do something with it?

Something to work on.

Look forward to the next 2 months. I will work on:
1) one wall at a time to start at least making it look GOOD
2) devoting 1 day a week, 30 minutes, on prepping and planning for the kids’ lessons at the Korean community church
3) 1 day a week doing Pilates, 1 day a week doing cardio, just to START
4) making breakfast for mon mari one weekend day every week 🙂 My pleasure to do so.

Hard to keep up

It’s hard to manage blogging, even if it’s just microblogging, working at the office, spending time with Le petit at home, writing in my journal, and all during the month when the Winter Olympics are happening and thus cause me to spend way more time in front of my parents’ TV than I would ever watch.

Interesting where our values go at this time, i.e. I would never approve of letting Le petit stay in front of the TV for 2 hours especially when it’s public TV with all the commercials and interruptions. However, b/c of the Olympic events, this intention has gone out the window. How quickly our values change.

Satisfaction

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction at the end of a weekend. Well, hallelujah, today marks the end of such a weekend. Got lots done – work that is not the M-F work, but the other kind of work that crops up your whole life long. Some of stuff done was so daunting to start but just SO satisfying to see finished.

This weekend has made me realize that I need to tackle and make bite-size progress on these personal projects more often than I have. Not only is there the rush of getting things done and seeing the finished product, but it’s made me so motivated to start the next tasks for my ongoing and new projects.
This feeling of satisfaction as I turn in to sleep is so worth it, and it makes me look forward to waking  up buzzed for Monday morning.

Step zero, by Merlin Mann

Asked and answered by the wonderful Frank Chimero:

Anonymous asked: ‘How do you maintain focus (on work, dreams, goals, life)?’

You do one thing at a time.

You might be amazed how many times–and over how many years–a given person can ask this same simple question, hear that same simple response, and still find themselves casting about for the great and arcane “secret” to achieving real focus.

But, this is pretty much it. Mostly.

Although, I must add one important “Step Zero,” borne of my own tedious experience.

Before you sweat the logistics of focus: first, care. Care intensely.

Caring is not one of the first words that come to mind in the context of my workplace, or even of my own work. How did such an essential thing get forgotten?

Identifying talents and goals

I realized today that I am NOT using my best abilities in my work, in my home, with friends…. What a waste to not make good use of things I am capable of, what natural abilities I have, the skills I’ve developed, and the mind I have. Do we all have moments like this in life, or times in life that we realize that we are NOT living up to the potential that exists in humans? I think there is a rhythm in it, but it still is disappointing from time to time when realization dawns on me. It does take some deliberate introspection to be aware of where we are at in order to move forward to where we, individually, in family, corporately, communally want to be.

I made a resolution today: to spend 2010 figuring out, pinpointing WHAT I am good at, WHERE I can develop/use those skills, and HOW to translate those skills into worthwhile work and hopefully something financially viable.

I want to get MY VOICE OUT there.
Therefore, I need to FIND MY VOICE.