The GTD app for the rest of us: Pen and Moleskine?

| Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

I struggle with ToDo list applications. While Susan and I have vastly differing opinions on whether tag-based systems or hierarchical systems provide a better organizational tool for most of these apps, I have to admit, neither really cut it for me. I need to be in it. What does that mean? I need to be able to look at my ToDos and prioritize them constantly over the course of a day. Outside of knowing that I have something I want to do today, I feel very little need to actually schedule time to get some of these things done.

Today, for instance, I knew that I was supposed to write a review of the MoviePeg and Vitamin-R, in addition to covering the usual news cycle. To me, those things are the important tasks, keeping things vague helps me to formulate my own ideas, and being able to re-organize my priorities at any given moment throughout the course of the day is extremely important.

We spend a lot of time on this website explaining the ins and outs of ToDo list applications, but we have never stopped for a moment to evaluate the most obvious of them all—pen and paper.

So, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, considering my evangelical meanderings about embracing technology these days, but I’ve gone back to my trusty Moleskine and pen method for creating my ToDo lists. And ironically, I’m a lot more effective this way than I am with Things or OmniFocus or anything in between.

Sure, things might get a lot busier as the site continues to grow, making it more difficult to embrace pen and paper, but for the last four weeks I’ve been creating a weekly ToDo list in my Moleskine. It’s been one week per page, and the page is broken into six sections: ToDos, Meetings, Articles, Hardware Reviews, iOS Reviews, and OS X Reviews. From there I break down exactly what I want to do over the course of the week, assign each topic a day to go live on the website, write the daily initial (Tu, S, Su, etc) next to it, and leave it at that. They get a checkmark when they’re done, a line through it if I push it off to the next week, and a bullet point if it’s a priority. Pretty simple, and it seems like it’s a lot more effective for me. There’s no key combinations to get a ToDo entry made, no tagging, no priority setting, and no alerts if things approach a deadline. I no longer feel the need to complete a ToDo because of an arbitrary deadline, but instead, I do them when I feel the desire to do them. The only deadline I set is Friday. Everything needs to be checked off, or re-organized by Friday. It has released a lot of stress, and I think the site has benefitted from better articles over the last few weeks because of it.  Articles are done when they’re done, not because some ToDo application tells me they need to be done because a deadline is approaching.

Here’s a word of caution: don’t get bogged down in your GTD applications. They’re supposed to be tools to assist you, not make your life more complicated. You don’t have to sync a Moleskine, back up a database with a Moleskine, or multitask a Moleskine. It’s just a book with some ink in it. It stays open, between my keyboard and the edge of my desk, and all day long I can look the Moleskine over, analyze my thoughts on the topics, and work on every article in the book at the same time, letting the thoughts come naturally. It’s more freeing than I would have expected it to be.

So, what happens on a task by task basis? It’s simple, for me. My tasks completely centre on writing, so at the beginning of the week I create a new entry in Notational Velocity with the title of each of my ToDos for the week. As interesting ideas and thoughts pop into my head, I add a quick point form note in the appropriate article file. The articles just seem to write themselves nowadays, instead of me forcing the issue because one of my ToDos turned red in Things.

So here’s my suggestion to you: find a system that works for you; don’t place yourself into someone else’s system. If you find your brain works better while you doodle with a pen in a notebook, embrace it. Write your ToDos by hand instead of using a computer or an iPad. This is the system that works best for me, and I don’t expect it to work best for you.
The goal here is to get something done, not create more hurdles to doing the things you need to do. For me, a Moleskin, a pen, and Notational Velocity work best, but for you, it could be something else entirely.

While this article is unorthodox for the site, I thought it’d be a little bit of fun to explore your GTD methods in the comments below. Maybe we could even use it as a framework for creating a new GTD app for those of us who still don’t fit into the ToDo list applications out there. If you could, what would you ask for in a ToDo list application that doesn’t already exist? Maybe we can try and make it happen for you.

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