The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

GTD with Highrise

Since I have not been able to find a really good desktop task management application for Windows, I have tried quite a few web apps to fit this need. I've spent a good bit of time with a few and took a quick look at some others. I finally decided to go with Highrise from 37Signals. It is not a perfect tool for GTD (does that even exist?), but it fits quite easily into my workflow and how I manage my tasks.

Now before I get too far, I have to state that if you are looking for an application that strictly follows all the concepts of GTD, Highrise might not be for you. It is designed first and foremost as a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool. That means it is people focused, rather than task focused. This works for me, because a good amount of my work is focused on people—tasks I perform for others or communications that I need to have with others. But there are also ways to get around a people-centric application to track projects. I'll expand on that a little later.

But if you are looking for a good web application that is more task focused, I would suggest using other 37Signals tools: Backpack or Basecamp. These have been around for a bit longer than Highrise and are built with the same great design and usability.

One last note. Highrise offers another core element—these are referred to as Cases. Cases are basically projects. But with the free plan for Highrise you are limited to one Case. I am using the free plan, so I will not be examining how to use this functionality with GTD.

The Setup

To start, I want to mention that I still use Highrise as it is intended—I add people as contacts and create tasks for myself that are associated with those people. This still follows GTD principles as you may have lists for specific people.

However, Highrise does not allow you to easily use contexts with your tasks. You can use them—each task gets a category, which you can edit to resemble your different contexts. But the application does not let you easily view tasks sorted by these categories\contexts. Rather, each page has it's tasks sorted by due date with the category included along side the task.

This usage is not really a problem for me. Most of my work is at the computer, or face to face with a person. So associating tasks with people works for me. I tend not to focus too much on contexts.

And lastly, the Highrise dashboard and Tasks page list all of your tasks. In both locations, the tasks are again sorted by due date. This is not perfect. Most of time I do like to see my tasks laid out as they are approaching their due date—but it would also be great to have a choice to sort by another task element.

Remember, the key with any GTD setup is to make sure your tool fits your working style. So far, Highrise works for me.

Projects

All right. We've covered people, but how does Highrise allow you to add projects with the free plan?

Simple. You add each project as a person. That's it.

Then add the different tasks for each project. Each project will now have it's own page where you can add tasks, notes, tags and summary information about the project. Each of these pages also has a timeline summary of activities that have occurred.

Using the System

Collect

Again, Highrise will not fit the strict defintion of a GTD inbox. And again for me, this is not an issue. Most of my task\information collection comes via email or is written down in my notebook (a post for another day). Both of those tools play nicely with Highrise when you begin to process.

Process

On a good day, I get the chance to process new items at least once and clear out my email and new tasks I've written in my notebook. Items from my notebook get added to Highrise directly from the web page. Same goes for emails.

37Signals have also done a lot of work to enable Highrise to fit in with email. Check out their help page on email to learn how to use this functionality. Generally I don't use this - when I'm sitting at my desk I have my email open as well as my browser so items are entered manually.

Organize

This process is basically what I have mentioned above in the setup. As you are processing your tasks and have a new project to be created, it's a simple as clicking on the 'Add a new person' button.

Work

Once all that is done, you can begin to impress others with your ninja-like ability to get things done and cross off tasks. Or in the case of Highrise, check off tasks. And Highrise has some very satisfactory AJAX action that occurs when you check off a task - the item is crossed through and then slowly fades off the page.

Tagging

One last item I would mention is tagging. The good news is that Highrise makes use of tagging. The bad news is that you can only assign tags to people (and in my case projects as well). Highrise does not allow you to assign tags to individual tasks.

The same goes for I Want Sandy, Joyent Connector and all of the 37Signals products. It seems to be a common missing feature from a lot of promising web applications. And in my opinion this will stop a lot of people from using some of these tools and to stick with more fully featured desktop apps.

Summary

Like I've mentioned, this is not perfect. If I had my way I would use Things from Cultured Code to manage all my projects. But at work, I find that Highrise meets my needs.

And it's important to mention the feel of the application—all the 37Signals products give you a sense of good, solid user-focused design. That is a feeling that is not easily imbued in a user. Highrise also looks good—across browsers and across operating systems. It is an application that I enjoy to use.

Check it out.

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