Alex Payne

Writer, backer, erstwhile technologist.

The Anti Task List

I’ve never subscribed to Getting Things Done (GTD) verbatim, but I’m big on personal organization. I’ve been practicing Inbox Zero in an informal way for some time, and more strictly since Merlin codified the practice. I’ve pushed Trac, Basecamp, and wikis on coworkers. I’ve tried scads of different ways of organizing myself, from a plain ol’ todo.txt to beta fanciness like OmniFocus. The solution that works best for me is a bit unorthodox.

Much like I believe that there’s a right place for particular kinds of content, I believe that there’s a right place for each of your tasks. That place is in the application that can do the most to benefit that task. Or, to crib from the esteemed Andre Torrez:

“How about less to-do apps, and more apps that help me do things?”

As I mentioned above, OmniFocus is the most recent organization application I’ve tried. It’s also the best, a great Mac app and a superb implementation of the GTD approach. Problem is, OmniFocus is a bit too much fun to use. I was so eager to get everything into OmniFocus and out of my Gmail/chat/conversation that it became a secondary inbox, albeit a more organized one. My lists of things to do, books and articles to read, media to download, videos to watch, and songs to listen to quickly grew out of hand.

My remedy was to take out the middleman. Most applications have queues built into them which can be appropriated as a kind of task list. GTD suggests that you define a context for each action, but I found that most of my contexts are virtual, implicit, and intuitive. That is, when I’m done with one task and ready for the next, I switch to the application in which I can accomplish my next task.

I don’t create a list of things to blog about, I create drafts; when I have time to write a blog post, I’ll open up my blog editor. Similarly, I no longer take the time to create a task to download something and assign that task a “web” or “home” context. Instead, I just download that something right now or queue it up in a download manager. Where possible, I create a Hazel rule to take care of filing things away in application-specific queues for me. If I have a frequent task that I don’t have a specific tool for, I find one and make sure that the tool supports some kind of queuing.

There’s likely no escaping a task list for multi-person projects (read: real work). For team projects, invest in a tool like Trac and leverage its features and metadata. Don’t replicate task lists between collaborative tools and your personal organization system; abolish your personal organization system. Keeping tasks in a contextual, collaborative application provides them with more value than when jotted on a piece of paper or entered into to-do list software.

Learn your tools well and the task list as an entity disappears. Instead, you’ll find yourself prepped and ready to work when you move from one tool to another, always with the next task clearly ahead of you.