Uncommon Ground

Getting organized in 2018 – Tracking tasks

Introduction to the series

Last week I described the approach to an Everything notebook that I’m trying this year. With another week under my belt, I can report that it’s going very well. I have a few small things to add to last week’s entry:

  1. I’m using two different fountain pens in my notebook. I use the Rotring I mentioned last time when I’m working at my desk, but I use a fine-point Namiki Vanishing Point (with a blue carbonesque finish, image above from Fahrney’s Pens) when I go to meetings.1
  2. I make it a habit to review my notebook at the end of every working day so that I can transfer any notes I have to one of my electronic applications, including the task manager I’m about to describe.
  3. I use a Moleskine Classic Notebook (Black, XL) for my notebook.2

I first started tracking my tasks more than 30 years ago when I was a Miller Fellow at UC Berkeley. For some reason, I received a catalog from DayTimer, and it struck me as a good way to keep track of my appointments, which were few in those days, and the things I needed to do. I used a 1-page-per-day compact planner for several years before switching to a journal-sized planner. I mention this because it shows that long before I read Getting Things Done, I was following David Allen’s advice: Write everything down in a place where it won’t be lost. As I told many people, the great thing about my DayTimer was that if it went into my DayTimer, I wouldn’t forget about it.3

When DayTimer came out with an electronic organizer in the mid-1990s, I started to use it. I even printed my own pages through the software. By the late 1990s or early 2000s, the redundancy made even less sense than it did when I started, and I stopped using paper. I’ve been through several different electronic task managers since then, and I’ve settled on OmniFocus as the best fit for me, at least for now. Here’s why:

  • I always have a complete inventory of everything I’m committed to doing,4 including dates by which projects (or components of projects) are do. It synchronizes across my MacBook, iMac, iPad, and iPhone, so no matter what device I happen to have handy, I can add an item or cross one off when it’s completed.
  • It provides a convenient way of grouping tasks into projects, and to making subtasks within tasks. As a result, it works as a lightweight project manager. For example, if I am working on a grant proposal, I’ll construct a preliminary list of all of the things that need to get done before it’s submitted with target dates for completion (e.g., outline proposal, develop budget, share initial draft with collaborators/colleagues, get letters of support, submit budget to Sponsored Programs for approval, submit final draft). The outline approach to organizing makes a lot of sense.
  • It lets me know when I haven’t completed a task by the time I said that I would. Its icon even tells me how many tasks are behind schedule, which makes me feel exceedingly guilty when I see it. My only options are: (1) finish the task, (2) decide that I can re-schedule (delay) the due date beyond what I originally planned, or (3) decide that I no longer need to complete it, so that I delete it from the list.
  • It works with Siri. If I’m walking across campus or driving somewhere and a task occurs to me, I simply say “Hey, Siri. Remind me to XXX at YYY” and a new task shows up in OmniFocus that I now won’t forget.
  • It has a nice “Review” option that I use every Sunday to review the status of all of my tasks.5

There are a lot of other electronic task lists out there, and I haven’t tried most of them. OmniFocus is moderately expensive, and it may be more complicated than you need, but if you have a smartphone or tablet and a laptop or desktop, you probably would benefit from using one of the many cross-platform task managers.

One thing I haven’t described is how my everything notebook, paper and pen, integrates with OmniFocus. It’s very simple. At the end of every day I review notes I’ve written in my everything notebook. If there are any notes that require some action, I create a task in OmniFocus. If there’s information in my everything notebook that’s relevant to the task, I use the “Notes” field in OmniFocus to make a note of how to find that information again.6

  1. If you care about why I use two different pens, leave a comment and ask. The bottom line is, I am more than a little peculiar, and this approach is just one more piece of evidence.
  2. Please remember that I am mentioning the pens and notebook I use for the same reason I’ll be mentioning specific software packages in this post and those that follow. If you happen to be interested in using any of the ideas I present here yourself, you’ll know exactly what I’m using, which may give you a place to start in deciding what you want to use. There’s no reason you need to use a fountain pen, and certainly no reason you’d need to use two different ones. Similarly, I happen to like Moleskine notebooks, but there are many other brands that would work just as well for you. None of the manufacturers are giving me anything for mentioning their products, and the link to Fahrney’s for the Namiki Vanishing Point is there simply because that’s where I’ve purchased all of my fountain pens. There are other places you could buy them. I just happen to be a satisfied customer.
  3. The flip side is also true: If it didn’t go into my DayTimer, I was likely to forget about it.
  4. If you’ve read Getting Things Done, this will sound familiar.
  5. Again, those of you who’ve read Getting Things Done will recognize this.
  6. You’ll see in a later entry that the way to find that information may or may not involve referring back to the everything notebook.

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