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Friday, July 25 2014

Todoist, GTD, and Inbox Zero

I'm big on keeping my world in order. I want my email inbox to be empty every time I finish processing my mail, and I want all of my upcoming tasks to be committed to some trustworthy application that will keep track of them so I don't have to. That's one of the principles of David Allen's Getting Things Done, but it's something I started doing long before he wrote the book.

I developed my own version of GTD in the 1980's when I inherited the highly dysfunctional service department of an electronics manufacturer. It was explained to me by my employer's production manager thusly: "Service is an evil, a necessary evil". I was shocked to hear that, but soon came to understand why it was seen as a necessary evil within the company. The department was chaotic in just about every way, left behind a trail of dissatisfied customers, and had never in the company's history operated at a profit. I brainstormed a system to bring order to the chaos and transparency to the opacity, implemented as a handful of manila folders and a magnetic whiteboard. There were, of course, many other changes required, but the core of the system consisted of the folders and whiteboard. Proving out my perception that we had good people on staff, within a few months we had nothing past due in our repair queue, our efficiency was greatly increased, and our turnaround time greatly decreased. The technicians were happier, too, because our system was predictable, easy to live with, and drove away the unreasonable time pressures that had been a constant. At the close of the fiscal year the CEO dropped by to congratulate me for being the first one in the company's 20 year history to manage the service department profitably.

Tangentially, turning the service department around proved to be the key to making customer win-backs, too.

I've used variants of that system I originally developed decades ago in every position I've held since. Today, of course, the manila folders and whiteboard have been replaced by applications for computer and cell phone. Over the years I've tried just about every application, be it a graphical desktop application, command-line driven, or web based, that I couldn't immediately rule out before trying it. I've found a few that I've really liked, but keeping them running over the long haul has proven problematic. For the last several years I'd been very happily using a graphical desktop application which shall remain unnamed, but which was quite satisfactory once I got used to it.

Then disaster struck. I discovered it when I rebooted my workstation, a thing I only do after upgrading the Linux kernel, when I found that several completed projects and individual tasks were resurrected and everything from the previous two months was gone. The failure was completely silent, which struck me as both odd and disconcerting. I felt like Charles Grodin's character in the movie Taking Care Of Business upon discovering that he's lost his planner: My whole life is in there!

More out of habit than anything else, I opened a support ticket with the application's vendor to report the problem and seek guidance. I suppose it's generally a good thing to call a developer's attention to a problem in his commercial product, but by the time I opened the support ticket I already knew that I could never trust the application again after suffering a perfectly silent failure. There's just no excuse for any application to fail silently — the implicit agreement between user and program is that if the user does his part correctly, the application does its part correctly, too, or gives some unmistakeable indication that it hasn't. It being a graphical desktop application, the thing should have punched me in the face with a warning dialog. As it happened, it didn't even write any error messages to its own logs, so the developers were unable to gain any insight into the failure and my already lost trust in the thing became a greater distrust of it.

The developer's response: "I don't think this problem has happened before."

Before that wholly unsatisfactory response from the developer was received I'd already installed a number of desktop GTD applications and started trials of several web based versions, as well. Most of them were just not well suited to my purposes. Some were merely glorified shopping lists, others were unwieldy, many offer no support for Android phones, and some that offer support for Android offer only limited functionality compared to their iPhone versions. There will never be an app so compelling that I'll buy an iPhone just to run it.

Enter Todoist. It's easy to use, offers a well rounded feature set, and can be plugged into just about anything. I use the web based interface on my desktop and the Android version in my phone, and when I encounter an actionable message in my email inbox I can just bounce it over to Todoist to make it a task. I've actually got that set up in my mutt mail reader so I can create a task and archive the message in one keypress. If you're a mutt user (and a Todoist user, too) you might want something like this in your .muttrc file:

macro index <f3> "b [your Inbox project ID]<enter><enter><save-message><enter>"
macro pager <f3> "b [your Inbox project ID]<enter><enter><save-message><enter>"

Or, if you'd like to forward rather than bounce so you get the option to add labels, due dates, reminders, and so on, try this:

macro index <f3> "<forward-message> [your Inbox project ID]<enter><enter>
macro pager <f3> "<forward-message> [your Inbox project ID]<enter><enter>

Of course, you'd replace [your Inbox project ID] with your Todoist Inbox Project ID, which you can find in the Todoist web interface hiding behind the "Email tasks to this project" menu option. There will be a different email address for each project; I send all of mine to my Todoist Inbox.

If you opt to use bounce rather than forward and your mutt configuration is such that <save-message> always does the right thing, just mash the [F3] key and away you go. If you use forward instead you'll have to save the message with a couple of additional keystrokes. Either way, you might have to edit the task in some Todoist client to make the title sensible and strip some irrelevant information out of the note attached to it (that was the body of the mail message), but it's there in your Todoist Inbox just that easily and, more importantly, the message is not in your email inbox any more. If you want to aim for Inbox Zero, as I do, this one simple thing will get you closer to it than anything else you could possibly do.

Todoist offers apps for Android and i-Devices as well as plugins for Gmail and several web browsers and popular mail readers. I don't really use Gmail for business correspondence, but I do have some role account mail that goes there so the Gmail plugin is handy if/when I use the web interface rather than mutt (via IMAPS). I assume it works as well on Apple's i-Things as it does in Android, which is nice, intuitive, and so far, flawless. I run the Todoist widget so I don't have to open the application on my phone to see my list(s); I simply scroll to the left-most screen where I've placed it and there it is.

At $29 per year per user, Todoist Premium is inexpensive and well worth the price — with the ease of use it brings, it should pay for itself through increased productivity in almost no time.

Is it possible for Todoist to fail silently? I don't know. I would expect Doist, the folks behind Todoist, to say that it cannot whether or not they're certain of it so I see no point even asking the question. What I know, though, is that the Software-as-a-Service model dictates that they have to be as compulsive about software quality, service availability, and data integrity as I am. I assume that they are because they've the financial incentive to be, which is the very same reason for my confidence late in the last century that the Y2k bug would be fixed before it could be expressed. People pay attention to their income streams even if they neglect everything else.

Just in case you've never seen an empty email inbox, here's mine:

inbox zero

Not bad, eh? Thanks, Todoist, for making that possible. And not just possible, but downright easy.

→ committed: 7/25/2014 23:00:00

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