The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

The Right Mix

When I first began to write online, I focused mostly on software and personal task management. Both topics fit well on a site titled The Weekly Review. Over the years, I've settled into my own comfort zone in regards to managing my tasks and haven't dedicated a lot of time to writing on this topic.

But during this last year, I have to admit I've been searching once again for a task management tool that better suits how I work. While I've experimented with a few options, I've kept some notes on both how these types of tools are designed and how we try to mould them to our personal habits.

Here are a few of my observations.

Making the Switch

First, changing from one task management tool to another isn't quite as simple as switching Twitter or email clients. Those categories of software tie into a central source and simply display the same information in slightly different ways. It's slightly more complicated than that, but not by much. I can easily switch from Tweetbot to Twitterific, or from Apple Mail to Airmail at the drop of a hat.

Task management tools take a little more work. But if, like me, you have a fairly lean way of managing your responsibilities, it's an exercise that can take less than an hour.

Uniqueness

One thing that has caused me to try the many different options available (besides my fetish with software and a lack of discipline) is that none of them feel quite right. Why is it so hard to find tools that fit our personal needs?

Partly because the everyone is a little different and no developer or team can meet the needs of each individual. I would imagine that many developers write apps for themselves first, believing that others will have the same needs as them. Some teams build the tools to adhere strictly to a particular philosophy. Whatever the reason, it means that many tools will fit 80–90% of your needs.

But it's that 10% that keeps you looking at the other options.

Include Your Vision

It can be easy to fit your concrete projects and their small steps into a task based tool. But what about your larger goals? Items like "Teach the children to be critical thinkers" or "Pursue my wife like we're not yet married" are the kinds of things we think about at New Years, but they should really be meditated on over the year if you want to see progress. Why not include them in your tool of choice?

This recent video from Paul Boag discussing the OmniFocus 2 beta struck a chord with me (the pertinent bit starts at 7:15 into the video). He keeps his high level goals as the top most folders in OmniFocus. If a project comes his way and doesn't fit into one of those folders, he asks himself whether he should really be spending time and energy on it.

Which is always a wonderful question to be asking of anything. Time and energy are limited; we have to choose where to spend it.

The Candidates

When I first became interested in this category of software, fresh off of reading Getting Things Done, the options were less plentiful. Much so. At the time, I was working in IT for a large corporation, meaning Windows was my daily OS … the options were almost nonexistent.

So when Things came along, it was love at first sight.

Over time, I tried all the options as the editor of a site focused on web software. Finally, I settled into OmniFocus and found the tool that best suited my workflow and habits. The iPad version especially; it's the best task management tools I've ever used.

However, if found myself once again seeking other options last year. There were two causes of this and I hope I'm mature enough now to say that an itchy finger and curiosity were not included.

The first was that I now lead a team of men at my church in taking care of the building and grounds itself, as well as various legal and tax related responsibilities. OmniFocus (and most desktop based options in this category) is not well suited for sharing tasks with others. The second is that I am a little slower to update to the newest version of a piece of software these days. And with the entire lineup of OmniFocus apps due for a major version change and hence, a new transaction required, I knew I'd be paying more money to stay up to date.

And so I was back to looking for a better tool.

Teuxdeux

Late last year, I made the switch to using Teuxdeux as my primary tool for managing tasks. Coming from OmnFocus to Teuxdeux is a little like switching from a Swiss Army Knife, one with all the bells and whistles and toothpicks and nail clippers, to a simple pocket knife. Albeit a very well designed, quality pocket knife.

This is an application that has been designed purposefully. It's intended to be minimal. It sports a clean design and the layout encourages you to only include the things you want or have to do each day. It fits my needs really well in one aspect. I tend to keep all my tasks and responsibilities in my tool of choice, but I work day to day off of paper. I always have. Teuxdeux fits nicely into that way of working.

Where it breaks down for me was the totality of everything I need to track. I really appreciate the design and if I had less going on in my life, it might have been the tool of choice for me. Here's what I like about it:

  • it sports a very clean interface and UX
  • ever since Jonnie Hallman got involved, the speed and performance have improved nicely
  • it comes with a very fast iPhone app that includes some slick animations and a pleasant to use UI
  • with this tool, the focus is on today … I love that
  • if something doesn't get completed today, there's no worry of losing it because it simply slides over into the next today (tomorrow)

Here's what didn't work for me:

  • there is no ability to share tasks with others and I like to keep everything in one tool rather than have half my tasks in my own tool and the other half in Basecamp or the like
  • it has recurring tasks, but the functionality is not like what's available in a tool such as OmniFocus
  • the last, and most important, issue was volume … Teuxdeux couldn't quite handle all my stuff

To get into that last point a little further, I have several majors areas of responsibility in my life. Each of those has recurring tasks I have to remember (I used a single items project in OmniFocus to manage these) as well as various other projects that have a specific end goal. Teuxdeux includes lists at the bottom half of he interface that can be used for specific projects. That works somewhat well, but once the number of those lists grows large enough, the usage becomes problematic.

Overall, this is a great tool that I enjoyed. But the points of friction were enough to keep me looking.

Asana

Truth be told, I started to use Asana while still using OmniFocus and Teuxdeux last year. Why? It works very well with teams.

I gave Asana a look when it was first available, but no more than a glance. Over time, it matured quite nicely and being web based on focused on teams, it was a solid option for me to assign tasks to my guys at church. When I decided that Teuxdeux was not quite going to fit, I decided to try keeping everything in one place. Since I was using Asana for some of my church projects, trying it for everything was a logical choice.

Again, this is another well designed service that has been built purposefully. It's intended for teams, completely.

Likes:

  • the ability for a small team to use it at no cost
  • each of these guys can use email to interact with me without having to log in to the app itself
  • the little touches like color coding on a task assigned to a teammate
  • the well done help documentation

Dislikes:

  • the iOS app is slow and cumbersome
  • the inability to view all your tasks across workspaces
  • being web based, getting tasks into the app has more friction that the desktop based options

On this last point, I found Asana less than ideal. I don't keep a browser open at all times, so having to open Safari, type Asa, then add a task to the correct workspace was more cumbersome than other options. Asana does allow for emailing tasks, but it comes with problems. Each workspace requires a different email address to specify which workspace to put the task. If you forget to specify the correct from address in the email, the task can end up in the workspace. To make it worse, you cannot drag and drop a task from one workspace to another in Asana.

At the end of it all, the ability to quickly dump something from my head into my Inbox was vital. Any friction at all in that process was problematic … I hate needless tasks being in my task list, but it's better than missing important tasks because they didn't end up in the right spot. A good review will take care of tasks that don't belong in there or aren't worth my time and energy.

Again, this is another nice tool that works well for 80% of my needs. I'd recommend it to anyone who works in a team environment and it's a nice alternative to Basecamp.

Full Circle

Here I am today, back to OmniFocus as my tool of choice. It's ease of use on the desktop are top notch. And if it's overkill for my needs, it's designed well enough that the features I don't need do not get in the way. And the improvements in the desktop version make it an even better choice.

The sync between versions (and online backup) and easy entry alone make OmniFocus great. But the Forecast and Review features of the iPad and desktop beta versions are fantastic. I've yet to see another GTD type of tool that incorporates these concepts into the UI. I live in the Forecast view about 90% of the time I'm using this tool.

You could look at all this as a waste of time, but I consider it time well spent as it causes me to evaluate how I process my work and ideas.


I'm convinced that unless we all build tools for ourselves, we'll never find ones that fit perfectly. That's okay.

There's always going to be a little elbow grease involved to mold our tools to how we work rather than the other way around. And as long as I'm seeing progress in my work, I'm happy to check out new options from time to time. I'll get to the right mix one way or another.

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