I’m busy. And like everyone and his brother (although not my brother), I’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) and thought about how his organizational theories might line up with the way I work. If you’re uninitiated, GTD is a collection of methods and tidbits that Allen says are better for keeping your projects organized and your head clear than the old-fashioned alternatives. It has quite a following, and I like a fair number of the informational nuggets inside.
The trouble is implementing GTD in software — there are a zillion and a half software solutions, all of which are single-purpose, incompatible with each other, and walled data gardens. Most are not even cross-platform, nor do they support networked backends, meaning you must keep duplicate copies of your info and worry about syncing it. I’ve learned to dislike such solutions for personal data — I want my personal wiki to be available to me wherever I am, I want my addressbook available on every device where I might need to call, email, or send an IM, etc. So I don’t want my GTD projects sealed in a single-purpose app on one computer.
I have found a GTD Web app that I like quite a bit: Tracks. It is free software (of course), it is simple in its interface, and it provides output data in a lot of useful formats — including iCalendar feeds. I can access and update Tracks from desktop Linux, Mac, Blackberry, Maemo, and Symbian platforms — all of which I use regularly. The only trouble is that it produces read-only feeds, meaning it does not integrate into any of the available calendaring apps. That would be too easy.
But more importantly, looking at Tracks got me thinking about how to represent GTD information in a standard format. Since it is essentially calendar scheduling and to-do management on roids, the best fit of any RFC’ed standard is VTODO. Lots of calendaring apps already support VTODO, although in most it takes a back seat to VCALENDAR.
The question is how to represent GTD’s unique ideas in VTODO. As a refresher, the important concepts in GTD are that you track “next actions” — single-step to-dos that are more easily managed and attacked than large-scale projects. But you also keep track of projects as a whole, and you sort your next actions by context — at home, in the garage, calls to make, emails to send, etc.
Though individual VTODO tasks are a natural fit for next actions, how to map projects and contexts is not as clear. VTODO has 33 defined properties (although two of them are mutually exclusive, if I read correctly). Some are basic (description), some are calendar-like (duration), some computery (geolocation), some Exchange-like but potentially useful (attendees).
The “categories” property seems to be the only real option for GTD incorporation — but is it better used as a “project” field or as a “context” field? Whichever you choose, the other field will have to be represented some other way, perhaps as an iCalendar calendar. That is because VTODO items must belong to an iCalendar; they cannot be separate. Thus you cannot just have a single calendar for all of your GTD items. You could have one calendar for each context, and within it use VTODO “categories” for each project, or you could have one calendar for each project, and use the VTODO category to denote the context associated with the action. Which is better?
At first glance, it seems like one calendar per context is better; contexts are less transient than projects, and if you wanted to make certain contexts available only on certain devices, the calendar subscription method makes that possible. What doesn’t work so well is that most calendaring apps don’t pay much attention to “categories” support — predefined categories are always trite alternatives like “work” and “birthdays,” you cannot create new categories from within the task manager, you cannot vary display colors on the basis of category, and so on. You are also supposed to be able to assign multiple categories to a VTODO task, but that is also unsupported in the client apps I have tried — Thunderbird, Chandler, Evolution, probably some more….
In fact, as I am typing this entry right now, I’ve discovered that I cannot open and edit existing tasks in Thunderbird/Lightning. I can right-click and access menus for progress, priority, and calendar, but progress and priority are grayed out. I certainly can’t change the due date, location, or status.
I guess the ultimate question is why are there so many single-purpose GTD silo apps out there, while our existing calendar applications need so much work on task support. Am I missing something? Is there a killer task-supporting calendar out there?