The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

GTD Overview Part 5: Information Management

In this, the last segment of my GTD Overview series, the focus will be on what to do with the non-actionable 'stuff' that comes your way. The items here include information which will help you complete tasks and\or projects now. Or they contain information that may be needed at some point later in the future. Items like this are filed away as reference or stored for later.

This overview will be broken down into three sections:

  • The Principles of Reference Information
  • Tools Available for OS X
  • My Setup

The Principles

The concepts here are again simple. But it's so easy to forget the simplicity of these concepts when working on your tasks. Many people struggle with GTD because it's they tend to over-complicate things.

When it comes to processing your Inbox[s], you need to identify whether or not each item contains a task that needs to be performed. If not, one of the following actions is taken:

  • File it for reference
  • Incubate it for possible action at a later time
  • Trash it

If one of the first two actions are taken, then a tool is needed to store the included information. And similar to Task Management, there are a lot of choices for this type of tool for OS X.

The Tools Available

This is another area where you can debate on whether to use a digital tool or good old paper. For me, I like a mix of both. For reference information, I use a digital tool along with twenty-six file folders (alphabetized). You will inevitably receive pieces of paper you need to hang on to, and this is where an organized paper filing system works well (unless you have a scanner and prefer to put everything in a digital format).

For a digital tool, I recently spent some time researching available 'information organizer' applications for OS X. I wanted to choose a tool that would play the role of my digital filing cabinet—a place to store all the information needed when researching any particular topic.

For clarification, when I say information organizer, I'm referring to the class of applications that are intended to gather all the information that comes your way and to make it easy to find again. Sounds like a description right out of GTD doesn't it?

The typical applications in this genre do things like save bookmarks, PDF's, web archives and basic notes. And for OS X, there are a lot of options. Here are the applications I looked at: Bento, Evernote, Journler, Scrivener, Together and Yojimbo. There are even more applications available, but these are the six that I've been paying attention to recently. I felt that they were the best options available.

I'll state right away that before I started this review of these applications, I already owned a license for Yojimbo. I knew that would be somewhat of a factor when making my decision. But on the other hand, I have never had much hesitation to throw $40 at a Mac developer so I was not worried that I would feel pressure to settle for Yojimbo even if I felt it was lacking against one of these competitors. So I went through the exercise of downloading and evaluating all six of these applications.

Here is a brief overview of each.

Bento

Created by Filemaker, Bento is actually a personal database program, similar to Microsoft Access. Here's the product overview:

Bento brings your important information together in one place to help you get organized. So you can manage your contacts, coordinate events, track projects, prioritize tasks, and more - faster and easier than ever before.

It comes with several prebuilt templates that would allow your average user to get started. But it didn't take me more than a few minutes to realize this was not an application I would enjoy using. First, the interface and aesthetics were of a lower quality than the other applications. And secondly, this application seemed a bit more complicated and tried to do more than just be a reference tool. I quickly scratched this one of my list.

Evernote

This is quite an interesting application that seems to be getting a lot of recognition lately. The company claims that the purpose is to capture EVERYTHING that comes in to or out of your head. Here is the product overview:

Evernote allows you to easily capture information in any environment using whatever device or platform you find most convenient, and makes this information accessible and searchable at anytime, from anywhere.

It needs to be said here that this application is still in beta. When I started this evaluation, it was quite soon after the beta was made available. At the time I did not give the application much of a look—due in large part to it's un-Mac like appearance and behavior—and moved on to the other applications. But I've been watching the progress the Evernote team has made and it's looking like this app could get a lot of attention from the Mac user community.

There are two main features that give Evernote a nod over the competitors in this arena. First, it can be used with Windows XP or Vista and with OS X (10.5 only). Or you can use a web browser and access your info from any computer. Don't have a computer handy? No problem. Just use your phone.

With the small amount of testing I conducted, the syncing to the web and across various platforms has been trouble–free.

Secondly, Evernote makes use of a visual recognition technology to grab words right off of digital images. This means you can upload a photo or scan a piece of paper and Evernote will read the words within either. Do a search for these words and Evernote will bring up the files in question.

There are quite a few rough edges, but this is an application that bears watching in the next few months.

Journler

A solid entry in this category, Journler has a few features that make it stand out from the rest. This application is intended to be used as, well, a digital journal. Here is the product overview:

Elegant, beautiful, powerful. Journler is a place for your thoughts and everything they touch. Journler is a daily notebook and entry based information manager. Scholars, teachers, students, professors, scientists, thinkers, the business minded and writers of every persuasion use it on a daily basis to connect the written word with the media most important to them.

Journler is similar to some of the apps being compared here, but offers built in audio and video capture for entries. Care to capture a thought without typing? Simply click the audio button and your Mac's built in microphone. Do the same with your Mac's built-in iSight (or external web cam) and you can capture video or a still image.

The app also features great Apple script support, iLife integration and strong importing and exporting. Check out the full list of features.

Scrivener

Scrivener is an interesting app, but it not in the same category as the others listed here. Rather, it is a tool for writers. Here is the product overview:

Designed for use by writers of all kinds, Scrivener is a virtual writing studio that integrates the processes of outlining, storyboarding, research and writing. It's a notebook. It's an outliner. It's a cork notice-board. It's a ring-binder. It's a place to store and cross-reference your research. It's a basic word processor. From first idea to first draft: Outline. Edit. Storyboard. Write.

Although Scrivener is not specifically an information organizer application, I decided to give it a try. After all, a lot of my tasks are writing or research related. I liked the direction the developer is taking for this app, designing with writers in mind.

In comparison with the other applications, Scrivener holds its own in terms of overall features. You can import PDF's or web archives. And movie, image or audio files as well. Scrivener also allows the user to view imported files along side your writing, allowing you to reference your research easily as you write or make notes.

It also includes some other features that set it apart—the corkboard and outline modes are especially aimed at writers.

Perhaps Scrivener is too different for the majority of users looking to organize their information. But if writing takes up a good bit of your time, this app gives you an interesting alternative.

Together

The application formerly known as KIT, Together is eerily similar to Yojimbo in form and function. Here is the overview:

Together lets you keep everything in one place. Text, documents, images, movies, sounds, web pages and bookmarks can all be dragged to Together for safe keeping, tagged, previewed, collected together in different ways and found again instantly.

From the drop shelf to the types of items Together can handle, you'd almost think this was Yojimbo with a slightly more elegant interface.

But there are significant diffences. In fact, one of the main features I prefer in Together is purely interface. The views that Together offers—using a Portrait preview with or without tabs—is much more pleasing than the basic three pane Mail–like view that Yojimbo uses. Another handy feature is the ability to edit the documents imported into the application's library. And Together can also create PDF files out of a document, web archive or note.

But overall, there is not a lot of difference between Together and Yojimbo.


After spending some time with all six applications, I was able to narrow the field down to three. Evernote, Together and Yojimbo would meet my needs over the other three.

Together was a good option, and one I would recommend to anyone. But since it was so similar to Yojimbo, and I already own a license for the latter, I stuck with what I had.

I'll admit right now that I am keenly interested in the development of Evernote. Right now it's a bit too raw in beta form—not to mention that it's being designed by a company that traditionally builds Windows apps—but the strides the team has made so far have been impressive. There's some chance that I'll switch to this app in the future.

But for now I'm using Yojimbo. It stores all the files and document types necessary, makes tagging easy, has great Apple script integration and Barebones (the vendor) has long offered exceptional support.

My Setup

Overview

Shrewd readers will note here that I did not give a summary of Yojimbo as I did the others. Here it is. Barebones describes their application as follows:

Yojimbo-Your effortless, reliable information organizer for Mac OS X Yojimbo makes keeping all the small (or even large) bits of information that pour in every day organized and accessible. It’s so simple, there is no learning curve. Yojimbo’s mechanism for collecting, storing and finding information is so natural and effortless, it will change your life—without changing the way you work.

Yojimbo sports a clean interface. It consists of a source list sidebar, a Finder–like list pane, and a preview pane. The default view is exactly like Mail. It also offers a Drop Dock, a quick input panel and hot keys to quickly get items into the application. The interface is intuitive and, as Barebones claims, easy to work with. Adding new items to your library is quick and simple.

The main overall factor I enjoy about Yojimbo is findability. There are several methods I can use to sort, organize and search for my information:

  • Search Window – Since Yojimbo uses tagging for it's database, every item I enter into my library is assigned a tag. The Yojimbo search bar allows you to search by various content: comments, content, name, labels or tags. This makes it possible to find any particular item fast.
  • Tag Collections – The source list in the sidebar can contain up to 9 default Smart Collections, but you can add your own collections or tag collections. A tag collection is just like a smart folder in the Finder or a smart playlist in iTunes. Add the tags you desire and any item in your library that contains those tags will display in the tag collection.
  • Smart Folders(Finder saved searches) – Yojimbo supports Spotlight integration. This means you can specify in Spotlight to search only for Yojimbo items and save your search results.

Add to the findability great Applescript support, easy importing and exporting, encryption, and .Mac synching and you've got a very full featured application.

Usage

There are only three things I need from Yojimbo: put information into the library, organize said information and find everything quickly when needed. Here is how I use the app to do just that.

Item Entry: Adding items into Yojimbo is really simple. 90% of the time I use the quick input panel, which automatically fills in the contents of the system-wide clipboard. It will attempt to guess what type of item you want to create by the contents of the clipboard. If it's wrong, simply choose the correct type of item. Fill in the metadata you desire—the options will depend on the type of item you are creating—and hit enter when completed. And as Steve would say, Boom, you've got a new library item.

The other options are the drop dock and, of course, creating items directly in the Yojimbo main window. I have the drop dock disabled myself—your milage may vary. It's a mouse friendly interface, where the quick input panel is more keyboard focused.

What kinds of items do I store in my Yojimbo library? All my passwords—ALL of them. The encryption is a great feature for this usage. Also notes from meetings and any brainstorm sessions. Project plans are also included as notes. And lastly I add PDF's and web archives when researching topics.

Organizing Items: As I mentioned above, I group frequently accessed items as tag collections, seen here.

All of the items in Yojimbo are simply entries in a MySQL database, but Yojimbo enables you to group them visually. Tag collections my favorite way to do that. I have some tag collections that are always there. But I will create temporary collections (non-tag) when working on a particular project. Once the project is complete, I delete the collection (but not the actual items).

Finding Items: And the most important aspect of Yojimbo is finding my information quickly. I do this most often with spotlight searches. Items in the Yojimbo library show up under the Documents section in Spotlight. When clicked, the item itself will open, rather than the Yojimbo main window.

And because I often have a Finder window open, I've also added a saved search (smart folder) to my Finder sidebar. By specifying all Yojimbo items that include the value twr, I now have a search that includes all of my library items with information relating to this blog. Here's how the smart folder looks and the search criteria I use:

Summary

I've chosen to use Yojimbo as my tool in this area, but the reality is that any of the applications listed above could meet a persons needs. If you are looking forward a more straight forward organizer, Yojimbo and Together are great options. If you are more of a writer, give Scrivener a try. And if you want to capture everything that comes your way, Evernote looks promising.

All of these applications will fit the needs of GTD and are flexible enough to fit into your workflow.

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