Do you feel like you’re always behind on all the tasks you need to accomplish? Jeff Porten examines the Getting Things Done system with an eye toward using your Mac to help organize your life. Also this week, Adam and Jason Snell of Mac Publishing submit an RFP – request for proposal – to spur Macintosh developers to create a collaborative writing environment. Plus, Apple announced another banner quarter with a $472 million profit, Adam and Tonya talk about computer book publishing on the MacNotables podcast, and we announce upcoming changes to our back end systems.
Apple Reports $472 Million Q3-2006 Profit — Apple continued its succession of profitable quarters by announcing a $472 million profit for the third financial quarter of 2006, based on revenues of $4.37 billion. Those rosy numbers arrive thanks to sales of 1,327,000 Macintosh computers (compared to 1.1 million last quarter, and up 12 percent over the year-ago quarter), and 8,111,000 iPods (which is slightly down from the 8.5 million iPods shipped last quarter, but 32 percent better than a year ago). [JLC]
TidBITS Back End Changes Coming Soon — After many years of using the same production, issue generation, and distribution tools, we’re going to be switching in the next week or two to a new system that we’ve been working on. I’ll explain more about what we’ve done and why once it’s in place, but for now I merely want to give you all a heads up that the next issue – assuming everything tests out properly – will likely be sent through the new system and will look just a bit different. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong, please don’t tell us about it, since we’ll be watching with test accounts and will post any necessary status reports and explanations on our ExtraBITS weblog. That’s what I did last week when a small percentage of readers received a Web Crossing-generated notification that the issue had been released, instead of the actual issue itself. I’ve resolved that problem within our user account database. [ACE]
Adam & Tonya Talk About Book Publishing in MacNotables — Tonya and I had another interesting discussion with Chuck Joiner on our MacNotables podcast last week – about what it’s like to package a printed book. For those who don’t know, there are two basic ways that computer books are created. Normally, an author writes into Word and takes screenshots and sends it all in to the publisher to be edited and laid out. That may seem fairly straightforward, but we’ve long been using the second approach, in which we do all the layout and editing necessary to provide the publisher with a finished book (we even pay for indexing, though we always hire a professional indexer). Although there’s seemingly more work involved in packaging, it’s all up front, so there are no nasty surprises caused by errors introduced during editing or layout, and the royalties are higher. So if you’re interested in learning about how some of your favorite computer books are made – it’s a lot more work than it seems from the outside – give the podcast a listen. [ACE]
DealBITS Drawing: Image Tricks Winners — Congratulations to Paul Richards of gmail.com, Leonard R. Wines of winesland.net, Gary Wheeler of fairpoint.net, Ezra Nathan of blueyonder.co.uk, David Mackler of mac.com, and Joerg (whose username is, amusingly enough in German, ichwillgewinnen), whose entries were chosen randomly in last week’s DealBITS drawing and who each received a copy of BeLight Software’s Image Tricks Pro, worth $9.95. Thanks to the 510 people who entered, and keep an eye out for future DealBITS drawings! [ACE]
Several months ago, I wrote in "Wanted: Better Document Collaboration System" about how we at TidBITS desperately need a better document collaboration system. It generated many suggestions from readers, and much additional thought on our part, but the final solution we arrived at, particularly after discussing the problem with Jason Snell, editorial director at Mac Publishing, was that the Macintosh world needs a program dedicated to collaborative editing.
First, a quick recap. In my previous article, I talked about how Near-Time’s Flow did nearly everything we wanted, but had some problems and wasn’t being actively developed by the company. I suggested that weblog editors like Ecto and MarsEdit in conjunction with a private weblog might offer what we need. And I discussed the pros and cons of using the Subversion version control system in conjunction with BBEdit. None of these ideas fit the bill. We simply can’t rely on a program like Flow that lacks active support from its developer, and the Ecto/weblog approach proved clumsy and prone to data loss if one of us didn’t do things exactly right. We’re once again using the Subversion/BBEdit solution, even though it’s awkward (requiring phone-based training from Matt, who knows more about it than the rest of us), because it’s nearly unthinkable that data could be lost as the result of a mistake.
Other Suggestions — And so, our search continued. Our clever and knowledgeable readers made some interesting suggestions, including three relatively comparable online word processors: Writeboard from 37signals; AdventNet’s Zoho Writer; and Writely, which was just acquired by Google. All of these programs work, and work fairly well, but they don’t take into account certain realities of the business world. First, they assume online access at all times, and as much as it’s a nice idea that Internet access is ubiquitous, in today’s world, we find ourselves in plenty of offline travel situations via bus, train, and plane, not to mention hotel rooms or airports that charge a pretty penny for access. Second, although they do an astonishing job of embedding a word processor inside a Web browser (at least some browsers; Writely and Zoho Writer don’t work in Safari or OmniWeb), they don’t begin to compete with real Macintosh word processors. It’s impressive that the bear is dancing, but you shouldn’t expect Swan Lake. Third, since they’re hosted services, everyone who uses the program is at the mercy of the host. I’m extremely uncomfortable ceding control of something as essential as my writing environment to another company about which I know next to nothing. I worry about uptime issues, storing potentially sensitive documents, possibly unwanted upgrades, and long-term availability. All of those worries disappear – or at least become my problem – with something I can run on my own computers.
Another interesting suggestion that came from a number of readers was MediaWiki, a free wiki package originally created for Wikipedia and now in wide use elsewhere. Like other wikis, MediaWiki enables easy editing of a Web page, but where it diverges is in its excellent version comparison capabilities. Plus, there are extensions for the Mozilla Web browser that enable users to edit wiki pages in Mac editors, rather than in the highly constrained Web browser environment. However, as much as we could probably install MediaWiki under Mac OS X and try it out with an external editor, it still suffers from needing Internet access. Like the three online word processors, MediaWiki also treats document comparison as a task entirely separate from writing, so you can’t see a comparison in the document in which you’re working, as is possible in Microsoft Word.
Request for Proposal — Despite the utility of these tools, they haven’t been designed with the needs of a group of decentralized professional writers and editors in mind. Or more to the point, they haven’t been designed by professional writers and editors who spend their lives immersed in creating and editing text in collaboration with others. These tools understand the basic concepts, but miss completely on key aspects of implementation – they see the forest, but miss the trees.
With that in mind, Jason Snell and I sat down and created an RFP – a request for proposal – that outlines exactly what we’re looking for. It’s not as detailed as a specification, of course, but it describes in broad strokes the kinds of features that organizations like TidBITS and Mac Publishing need. This is a real RFP – we’re actively seeking proposals from Macintosh developers to create the application currently code-named GroupEdit. Being like Dilbert’s customers, we would of course prefer a completely polished open source program for free, but we’re willing to help design and test it to make sure it meets our needs, and we’re even willing to pay some thousands of dollars to have this application created. Of course, should the developer wish to market it, that would be totally hunky-dory, and (without compromising our editorial integrity, of course), it’s a pretty good bet that such an application would merit mention in at least TidBITS and Macworld. We believe this application has a broad audience, and that a real business could be created around it. Or it could become a poster child for an open source program with a fabulous interface and excellent documentation.
I won’t recapitulate the entire RFP here, but I’d encourage everyone who’s interested to take a look at it in QuickTopic Document Review, where you can leave comments and have side discussions about our proposal. If you’re a serious developer and have a track record creating solid Mac software, drop me a line, and Jason and I will be happy to start more detailed discussions.
Longtime readers of TidBITS and listeners of MacNotables probably recall Adam mentioning that he and Tonya have been users of David Allen’s "Getting Things Done" method of personal organization. For those of you who are new to it, GTD (as it is frequently abbreviated) is not merely the eponymous book, or an organizational method. GTD is a cult, or at least it sounds like one if you listen to many of the thousands of people online who practice it. And like any self-respecting cult, it aims to reorganize your basic life principles, and even the way you think, with the ultimate goal of making you happier – while funneling some amount of your money to worthy product manufacturers. I’m a very happy cultist myself.
Most of you are already a member of a productivity cult which may be less than fully functional – how many email messages are in your inbox? finish your to-do list today? – and GTD works very well for those of us with computer-centric personalities. Perhaps more importantly, it’s one of the few systems which makes it easy to fall off the bandwagon, and then get back on.
This article will share some tricks I’ve learned setting up my own system on my Macs, but I’ll start by briefly summarizing the principles of GTD, which is based on procedures rather than specific mechanisms. Each adherent has his own idiosyncratic way of setting up an implementation; I’ll talk about mine and a few other popular methods. I’ll wrap up with an overview of the best GTD-related resources on the Internet, so if you choose to join the party you’ll have a regular supply of new ideas. As a companion to this article, I’m posting a set of AppleScript scripts on my Web site which provide me some of the mindless automation that makes any GTD system hum.
GTD, the Short Version — The premise of GTD is that we all fill our lives with "open loops," promises we make to ourselves to get something done later on. The problem is that our brains aren’t built for this kind of work; if you remember you need milk only when your cereal is dry, or you need to send an email message when you’re in bed staring at the ceiling at 4 AM, you can’t actually fix the issue at that moment. These open loops create a sort of psychic backlog, since all you can do at that point is worry about things, not do them.
The GTD method has five steps: collect, process, organize, review, and do.
Collect simply means that you note these items in specific places; i.e., a dry-erase marker on the kitchen fridge, or a voice recorder by your bed, for the examples I mentioned above.
Process takes all of the items you’ve collected and determines what needs to be done next, such as "buy more milk."
Organize puts all of these actions into "contexts," so you’ll complete them more easily; when you buy your milk you can also buy bread, but you can’t usually send an email message.
Review places these organized lists back into your brain, at least enough so that you have the lists you need, when you need them.
And finally, you actually do the things on these lists, when you’re ready to do them with the least effort and the most effectiveness.
Simple, no? Note that this approach doesn’t include saying that sending email is more important than buying milk and hence goes on the Priority B list, and filling the gas tank doesn’t get written down on the Tuesday calendar. Instead, the benefit of this organizational process is that it clears your mind of small items to allow you to focus on important issues – a state Allen calls "mind like water."
Crucial to the system is the concept of the "next action," which is the very next physical thing to do in order to get something done. I’ll use a ridiculous example that other self-employed people will recognize: let’s say the problem you need to solve is, "I’m hungry and the fridge is empty." Most to-do systems would have you write down, "decide on lunch." But your next action might very well be "put on pants," unless restaurants in your neighborhood are more Bohemian than mine. I also find that I tend to decide between Thai and a burrito automatically by the time I’ve gotten to my shoes; in any case, my next action after being properly dressed would be "choose a direction to walk," which influences the choice of restaurant as well as the next steps in my afternoon.
The distinction is between specific choices and vague ones; thinking about a plate of pad thai is likely to cause 15 minutes of daydreaming out the window, which importantly has not moved you any closer to eating lunch. A next action is always concrete. More importantly, since next actions are always very small and immediate, they lead you to consider how one action might impact multiple to-do items. "Have lunch" is not a next action, because it requires more thought; "go to the restaurants next to the post office and see what the daily specials are" is a next action.
Listmania — The core of a good GTD system is a stack of lists. These lists are organized and frequently reviewed, and each task on them is a specific next action which is usually connected to some larger project.
The first stumbling block for Mac users is the question of where to keep these lists. We’re so spoiled for choice that this option can be paralyzing; any software that can accept text can be used to make lists. It’s important to note that GTD can be implemented with pen and paper, or with judicious use of TextEdit documents. But many GTD practitioners want software that will sort and puree their lists automatically. Here, therefore, are the principles that I developed when choosing mine:
Quick processing: I want to use a system that allows me to organize collected items as quickly as possible.
Flexibility: sometimes it makes sense to have everything in one place, other times I want to break things down into separate files and document types.
Self-categorization: whenever possible, I don’t want to type in "Review Software X" when it’s easier just to drag the application somewhere and let it be its own reminder. Likewise with URLs, documents, media, or anything else I might come across.
Ubiquity: in addition to the ability to collect at any time, I want to be able to access my lists at any time. In my case, that meant synchronization to my PDA; for others, that just means a good printout.
The core of your processing system is going to be some kind of master list; you might have a hundred different lists (especially if you’re primarily working with paper), but you need the One List to Rule Them All. For example, I start my day, every day, reviewing my Routine list; most of these items are brainless but necessary recurring tasks that are especially suited to when I haven’t yet fired enough caffeine into my cranium. I come back to this list throughout my day, hopefully emptying it before bedtime.
My Routine list is also my master list; it made sense to me because I routinely need to "do work." So "tackle the Work list" shows up on a daily basis; in a similar fashion my Routine list points me both to other lists I’ve made (such as "geektime" projects that aren’t too important), or to other places where things collect for me (a reminder to check voicemail).
Over time, this becomes your trusted system; once you’ve added your tasks or projects to the appropriate place, your mind allows itself to relax, because your subconscious knows it doesn’t have to nag you about upcoming tasks or events anymore. Anything can be made into a GTD collection or review list, from your laptop to your glove compartment; all you have to do is have your master list remind you to look there, and means of organizing what you keep there.
Software for The One True List — This review skips a crucial preliminary step to setting up your GTD system, which is the point where you take the existing mass of chaos in your life and process all of it into GTD. GTD will fail if you attempt to modularize only part of your life into it; the psychological returns that fuel the system only work if you have nothing outside of GTD to worry about. Allen documents that process in his book, and I suggest you read it to get the idea of "putting everything into the inbox;" once you’ve done that, you can take advantage of these suggestions for using your Mac to process it all.
If you haven’t read the book, the crucial thing to remember as we discuss building these lists is that we’re talking about processing, organizing, and reviewing. Your collecting is done elsewhere, and sometimes for you: your email, your voicemail, your notes from Friday’s meeting. Likewise, you don’t actually do these things while you’re in these stages; it’s possible to process 2,000 email messages and 400 files on your Desktop, so long as you have a quick system for processing. The doing comes later.
I still use Life Balance from Llamagraphics to manage my master list, which I reviewed in TidBITS in 2004; its implementation of "places" is very similar to GTD’s "contexts," which is how I narrow myself down to just my brainless Routine list every morning. Life Balance also has a Palm component, so anything that’s in my master list is automatically transferred to my Palm when I synchronize it.
A popular alternative is OmniOutliner, which may be the best outliner software available for the Macintosh. One advantage it has over Life Balance is its ability to accept any file that is dropped into one of its document windows, which is a great way of organizing and annotating a bunch of files into a project hierarchy. If you use OmniOutliner Pro, you have the additional option of using the freeware Kinkless GTD template. Kinkless GTD is a set of AppleScript scripts which, like Life Balance, takes an outline of your tasks and breaks it down into a flat list of things to do. If you’re already a fan of OmniOutliner, you’re likely to be quite happy in this system; I might be using it myself were I not already comfortable with Life Balance. But others comment that the Kinkless software feels bolted-on to OmniOutliner (which, in fact, it is), and not seamless enough to provide the best user experience.
It’s also possible that both OmniOutliner and Life Balance are overkill for your needs; many people maintain their GTD systems with a series of plain text files, and others set up all of their next actions in iCal to-do lists. iCal calendar groups in Mac OS X 10.4 are a particularly good way to organize your tasks by context. The most common failing of these systems, though, is their inability to create recurring tasks without jumping through extra hoops; it’s much easier using both Life Balance and Kinkless to say, "I’ve done that now, but tell me again tomorrow." That being said, I still use iCal to-dos in addition to Life Balance, which I’ll return to in part 2 of this article.
I can’t make a recommendation for which one will work for you; this is the most individualized choice in setting up your own GTD system. All of the above options have free trials (and some of them are entirely free), so go ahead and kick the tires. The best suggestion I can make is that you already have a model in your head for how complex your life is; you want a system that will accept your life model without using shoehorns and battering rams. Like the man said, "As simple as possible, but no simpler."
The danger to watch for is that most of us find it more stimulating to play with our organizational software than to actually do stuff. In the words of Merlin Mann, "Like a short-order cook, you want to stay focused on making sandwiches, not on putting the orders into pretty piles." Pick a system that works well enough to start; then, if you wish, make improving (and perhaps radically revamping) your system a GTD project which you can prioritize along with everything else. That way, you won’t fall into the trap of making pretty piles while the sandwiches are burning. I can personally vouch that I’ve used dozens of organization systems and software packages, read four score and seven books, and have literally spent weeks writing custom FileMaker Pro databases which I later abandoned. Try not to waste as much time as I did being "productive."
In part 2 of this article, I’ll dig into the specifics of setting up a GTD system on your Mac, using a little-known, but effective, organizational tool: the Finder.
[Jeff Porten is an Internet consultant in Washington, DC. He practices maybe three out of seven effective habits.]
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Resurgence of Intellitext? Some Web sites use the IntelliTXT technology, which creates links out of keywords to display pop-up ads or other content. What creates the effect, and can it be turned off? (7 messages)
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Simple iPod/Auto Integration — Last week’s article about radio adapters to listen to an iPod in the car prompts plenty of suggestions for other products and solutions. (15 messages)
Vista Requirements Released — Readers report their experiences running the latest beta of Windows Vista on Macs, using Apple’s Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop. (3 messages)