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Life Balance: Balanced Software for Unbalanced People

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Like many people, I have been in search of the Holy Grail of personal organizers for years. All of us on this quest are motivated by an almost religious belief that somewhere out there is the magical device that will turn us into Highly Effective People, filling every unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run, as Rudyard Kipling put it in "If."

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The trail on this quest is littered knee-deep with dead hardware, abandoned software, and heartbreak. My own roadside includes a first-generation Sharp Wizard, a few Newtons, a few Palms, and a dozen commercial and shareware applications. Recently, though, I rediscovered Llamagraphics's Life Balance, and while it's not the end of the quest, it's a worthwhile stop on the road. (In the interests of full disclosure, I'm in negotiations with Llamagraphics to write a book about its philosophy. At the time of this writing, though, I'm just a happy customer.)

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Thinking In Balanced Terms -- There are two basic categories for to-do list software. The first category is straight and simple, like the to-do list features in iCal or Palm Organizer, where the programmers say, "Here's a to-do list. It's got some nice features. Have at it, and good luck." The second category is more complex and potentially more rewarding, and says, "Here's a method of organizing your life, which we've implemented in software."

Life Balance falls very much in the second category, and if you're not looking for a new method - or if this method doesn't work for you - you're not likely to get anything out of it. You have to buy into the Life Balance way of doing things, and it can take two or three tries before you get the hang of it. Once you do, though, you get much better results than with a basic to-do list.

The premise of Life Balance is simple, although the software is not. Most people begin using Life Balance by starting from their lifetime goals, the things that they want to do with their lives. Or they include lifelong roles, those things that can never be checked off but which require constant effort and attention: be a supportive family member, a caring friend, politically involved, physically fit. If you're still not sure who you want to be when you grow up, you can start with all of the small things and later come back to see what patterns emerge. Finally, you can tell Life Balance how important these things are relative to each other.

Whichever approach you take, you eventually add the things that need doing, from "take out the trash" to "get a law degree". (Big things like law degrees are broken down into smaller, doable steps.) As you check off items, Life Balance tracks your effort by category and tells you what you need to do next, prioritizing your upcoming tasks in order of what's important, and by how much time you've spent in other areas.

For example, if you tell Life Balance it's important to you that you take care of your family, the software may tell you that right now is a good time to go buy groceries. Or let's say you note that your family is of utmost importance, but you don't have a lot of time to spend on family members not living with you. Life Balance will track your actions, and if you don't contact your relatives for too long, you'll find that the most important thing to do one night - when you thought you were on deadline for another project - is to call your mother first, and then get back to work.

Regular usage of Life Balance will point out something crucial that most people don't know: the most important thing for you to be doing right now. And if you pay close attention, you will start to learn, based on your actions, something very useful: which things you think are important to you, but actually are not, based on your actions.

The Nuts and Bolts of Balance -- Life Balance presents you with a single-window interface to your life. It's rather complex, so you might get more out of this review if you download the fully functional trial version and follow along using it. The Mac OS X version is a 2 MB download, and also includes the Palm OS version. (All files created with the trial version expire after 30 days, but the software does not; in other words, you can play with a demo file now without starting the clock ticking on your "real" trial.)

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Life Balance's interface is split into three sections. The left side shows your goals, tasks, places where you do things, or your overall balanced status. The upper right presents a detail of the currently selected task. The lower right shows a calendar of events; in Life Balance, an event is just a task that has to happen at a specific time.

You begin by building your list in outline format. The crucial constraint to your outline is that when you're done, you should have only a few major goals, commonly referred to as top level items (or TLIs). Llamagraphics recommends between three and seven TLIs, partially because seven is a common upper limit on the number of things most people can think about at the same time. The TLIs are used to show you a pie chart of your overall balance, and if you have too many, the chart loses its effectiveness. Life Balance lets you have as many as you want, and I started with too many; over time, I found connections between some big goals, and grouped them together under new umbrellas.

Every item in your outline, from the biggest lifelong goal to the tiniest to-do, is treated as a task. Every task has its own settings, and subtasks inherit the settings of their parents. Settings include importance, place, timing, amount of effort, and a notes field for anything you want to jot down.

The best way to describe how this hangs together is with an example. I have a TLI of constant educational improvement. It is essential to my life (i.e., of highest importance), and can happen anywhere. Within that TLI is a subtask to learn to speak Italian, which is of moderate importance.

So at some point, the Learn Italian task will move up to a point of prominence on the list. (I can force the issue by setting a deadline for it, such as two months before a trip, or by manually changing its importance any time I feel the need.) When it appears, I can't just learn Italian without breaking it into subtasks, so I need to set up a few more tasks: buy some software (happens once, low effort) and use the software (happens repeatedly, medium effort), or take a class (happens repeatedly in my calendar, medium effort). Eventually, if I feel that I've learned enough Italian, I can check off this master task, or I can simply reschedule it so it doesn't show up for another six months.

Everything in your life goes into some part of this structure: your work, your volunteer time, your religious institution, your family and friends. One thing that takes effort when learning Life Balance is that if you want to balance your work and play time, your social life becomes part of your to-do list (it's a bit disconcerting when you enter someone you love as a "task"). You can leave things off the ledger if you wish, but that circumvents the point of the software.

Oh, the Places You'll Go! You probably don't want to be told it's time to go to church at 6 AM on a Wednesday. So Life Balance lets you set up "places" - which aren't necessarily geographical locations - where all of your tasks have to happen.

Places are powerful, and confusing to most beginners. For example, I've set up a place called Not Working. Since I'm self-employed and my office is in my PowerBook, most of my "places" are conceptual. On the other hand, when I have work that has to be done at a client site, I add that place to the list. Other work that can be done anywhere, even for the same client, goes into a catch-all Work place. Reading the newspaper can happen anywhere, so that's just Not Working, but laundry has to be done at Home.

Places serve as filters, so you only see the things that are relevant to where you are. If you have things to do that must be done at work, you'll only see them when you're at work - whether your workplace is an actual place or more a state of mind. Places can be open (always available) or closed (on a time schedule), and you can group places together. In this way, you can view master sets of tasks and not be bothered by the things you can't complete right now. When I'm home and not working, I choose that combined place and I see the newspaper and the laundry, but I don't see the things I need to do when I visit my extended family - that place is closed until I start to pack.

Your Task List, the Next Next Thing -- The fruit of all this labor is your master task list, which filters all of your tasks through various algorithms, incorporating their importance, deadlines, and time already spent on them and other tasks in your various categories.

If this sounds like a lot of work for a simple result, you're right. What's easy to miss, though, is how important it is to know that what you're doing right now is the right thing to be doing. My next task as I write this article is to tackle a folder of things I've set aside to read - in my conscious scheme of things, it's pretty unimportant. But I've told Life Balance it's important that I keep up with that category of minor tasks, and apparently I've been neglecting it for a while. I didn't know this; Life Balance informed me. More importantly, I feel comfortable setting things aside because I know Life Balance will bring me back to them later.

Your tasks are presented as a flat list, without any hierarchical outline. You see only the current subtasks of a given project; I don't see Learn Italian, I see only Buy the Italian Software. You can set up any list of subtasks so you see them all at once, or only one at a time (if they must be completed in order).

You assign each task an amount of effort, and get credit for that effort when you check it off. This determines the balance you bring to your various TLIs, and also reorders your other tasks as you check things off - which can be done automatically or manually. Your overall division of effort is presented in a pie chart, and you can change your target pie chart to devote more or less time to any of your TLIs.

Falling Short of Nirvana -- Life Balance incorporates many great ideas that you won't find in other life management software. Still, there are several areas in which it falls short.

The first is the reason why I've devoted so many words to the Life Balance way of doing things. Making this software work for you requires you to figure out its philosophy, and then integrate your own way of doing things into that structure. Despite good documentation and an active user forum you can refer to for ideas and questions, relying on Life Balance involves a major adjustment in how you accomplish your tasks.

For example, I've set up a place of Drop-Dead Projects to store deadlines that I absolutely can't miss. I needed this because with my initial Life Balance setup, some crucial items were being ignored in favor of less important tasks in my task list. A separate conceptual place won't be necessary once all my tasks are set up with accurate importance ratings and real deadlines; this is exactly what Life Balance is supposed to do for me. But my use of the software still isn't effective enough for me to trust the results entirely. However, this is my fault, not the software's, and does improve over time.

Second, a true Holy Grail of applications would be a full personal information organizer, and Life Balance doesn't even try to do that. You have a task list and a calendar, and that's it. There's no address book to connect people with tasks and no connection to your email. URLs in notes text are Command-clickable, but they don't appear to be any different than regular text (no blue and no underlining). The only way to link a task to a file is by creating an unwieldy file URL - that file on your Desktop might look like "file://Users/yourname/Desktop/file%20name.rtf"! It is possible to store and search for text and graphics in the Notes portion of any task, but the restricted viewing options for these notes makes this feature less useful than in a full-featured snippet organizer (many of which Matt Neuburg has reviewed in these pages).


This brings me to the biggest failing of Life Balance: it offers no integration with iCal, iSync, or Address Book, and no AppleScript support. Synchronization is possible only with a Palm OS handheld, and then only if you have Life Balance installed on your Palm device as well (which requires an additional $15 license). If you have a Palm OS organizer, you can move data through it and back into your iApps if you use both the Palm Conduit and Apple's iSync software; otherwise, get ready to retype a lot of events.

The good news here is that Llamagraphics has told me that it is committed to the Macintosh platform; Life Balance started life on the Newton, moved on to the Palm, and only then to Windows and Mac desktops. Llamagraphics is run in-house on Macs, but is also supporting multiple operating systems with a small staff and can't commit to a schedule for more advanced Macintosh features. Until those arrive, I'm currently using a combination of Life Balance and iCal because my handheld device isn't running Palm OS, and keeping all of this organized is more work than it should be. (Enough work, in fact, that I'm considering returning to the Palm.)

Another flaw is working with the master outline, which can be unwieldy - especially when you have many deeply nested items. Adding a new task takes a little thought; the creation is easy, but putting it in the right place is more difficult. A search feature that brings up any task nearly instantaneously helps greatly, but more flexibility here would be nice.

The same can also be said about the interface. You're stuck with always seeing your tasks, the detail, and the calendar. If you want a full-screen view of your calendar like you see in iCal, you can't have it. This, like many other features, would be immediately available with AppleScript support and some shareware help, since you could then use iCal as a viewer for your Life Balance calendar. Some integration features may be possible shortly thanks to the capability to export Life Balance files in XML format; these files can be parsed with AppleScript in ways that are impossible with regular Life Balance data files. Possible, unfortunately, is a long way from available.

Mostly Balanced -- Despite these criticisms, if you think Life Balance sounds like fairly amazing software, you're correct. I intend to trust my life to it eventually, which you can't say about most applications.

Life Balance should not be approached casually; it's not a quick fix, and you won't be able to integrate it into your life without some effort. If you do make the effort, though, this is software that will pay you back. Life Balance costs $65 direct from Llamagraphics, or $80 for a bundle license that includes a Palm OS installation. The trial version is a fully featured free download, so if you're at least somewhat interested, give it a spin.

[Jeff Porten is an Internet consultant in Washington, DC, who practices maybe three out of seven effective habits.]

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