Over the last few days I’ve had a significant shift in how I view my personal productivity and time management. My new way of looking at personal work habits is something that will take a separate article (and will probably go in the Essays section of my website) but one of the major outcomes of that is that I now need slightly different tools to manage my time properly. I’ve never been a fan of big complicated time management systems or programs; even full blown GTD is overkill for me. I like simple tools and for a long time I used Google Tasks, but I suddenly realized yesterday that Google Tasks didn’t cut it anymore. Here’s why.
Google Tasks is a very simple application. It lets you create tasks and subtasks, put in descriptions, add due dates and not much else. There is no taggin or organization into projects (though you can multiple lists) and as far as a I could tell, no reminders either. The people actively using Tasks use it especially because it is a lean, no-frills tool. That was also why I used it. I tried multiple lists, but found myself never actually switching to the other lists. So I stuck to using just one big list, organized into ad-hoc large projects under which I placed all the smaller, discrete tasks. However, I came to realize that while Google Tasks isn’t a bad application by any means, it is a bit too simple for my needs.
Before I go on, I need to say a little about my new system. I realized that strictly scheduling blocks of time for tasks simply doesn’t work for me, especially if it’s for stuff I don’t enjoy doing. I’ll procrastinate until the time passes and it’s time to do something I want to do. As you can imagine, this isn’t productive at all. For my new system, I’m borrowing a popular computer science concept: the priority queue. Instead of scheduling and blocking, I just keep a list of things I need to do, ordered by priority. I then work on things on that list, starting with the higher priorities and working my way down (but not necessarily in strict order). This way I get things done, but avoid the stress and guilt that comes from trying to stick to a schedule but not being able to quite make it. It’s worked quite well so far.
If I’m to use technology to help me, then I need a priority queue to store all my tasks. I also want to add some kind of tag data so that I can separate tasks into groups of similar tasks (and potentially knock them all off together, even if they aren’t near each other in priority). Unfortunately, Google Tasks fails on both counts. There is no concept of priorities and though I can manually reorder tasks, that can get tedious if there are lots of tasks of different priorities mixed together. There is also no way to tag or group tasks. Creating subtasks is possible, but that then rules out reordering them on priority. From past experience, I know I forget even high priority tasks just because they are grouped with other tasks that happen to be at the bottom of my list.
So after a good few months, I’ve decided it’s time to bid adieu to Google Tasks and search for something that is a bit more powerful. I wanted something web based because though I move around computers a lot, I’m always near an internet connection. My friend tycho garen suggested using Emacs Org-mode with Emacs by connecting to my server via SSH. While that’s certainly a possibility, it’s something that I’ll put off for experimenting with till a later date (and I’m not always on a machine with a SSH terminal). In the future, if I find myself on a Linux or even OS X machine for extended periods of time, that’s definitely something I’ll try out.
But for the time being, I’m moving back to Remember the Milk: a web service that I’ve used on and off at various times in the past. Remember the Milk isn’t perfect but it’s good enough to get the job done, as long as I exercise some caution. For starters, there are both lists and tags. A task can only be in one list at a time but can have multiple tags. Previously I used a number of different lists: one for academics, one for coding, one for writing etc and used tags for individual projects under those broad headings. But this time I’m simplifying. I only have two lists: one for tasks that will be done right now and in the near future and another one for things that I would like to record, but have no timeline for. Everything else is sorted by tags. As for the actual priority queue, RTM offers three priority settings and automatically reorder tasks according to priority. I would really like more priority levels or manual reordering, but it’s good enough to start with. I’ll see if I find it too limiting after a few weeks.
RTM’s interface is really well thought out, giving easy access to all the important features. I particularly like the smart add bar and the nice large tag cloud off by the side which will make it a snap to view my individual projects. I wish there was a way to complete a task with one click, but thanks to some awesome keyboard shortcuts, that’s not much of a problem. Even though I’ve already been using it for a evening, I can find myself really getting used to it. RTM has a bunch of other features (including integration with other services) that I’ll be looking into as well (especially adding via Twitter) but since I plan on keeping things simple, I probably won’t be playing around too much.
As an ending note, I’d like to address the idea of switching services. I know that as power users, we’re often early adopters and love trying out stuff. Shiny toys are fun to play with. But constantly switching to something new means that you spend more time learning new tricks rather than putting those tricks to work. At the same time, if some tool really isn’t working with your workflow you shouldn’t hesitate to move to something better. It’s not easy to find a balance between moving around and settling down. I think that evaluating how things are working every few months (once a semester if you’re a student) is probably a good way to keep the balance right (in addition to keeping an eye on how productive you actually are).