Three Tools For Three Types of Tasks

The Techie Scheky series offers tips and tactics for being more productive and creative through technology (especially with a Mac).

Anyone who dabbles in productivity eventually ends up with system for handling their tasks. If you are hoping to get a tremendous amount done (or in my case, anything done at all)1, you are going to need a way to process everything that has to get done. It can be a simple piece of paper or as elaborate as what I am about to share with you, but eventually you are going to have to find what works for you.

I am quickly becoming a big believer in a place for everything and everything in its place. The problem: people look for “everything buckets” to offer a single solution that solves all of their problems. This is where I think many get lost when developing their system. Different kinds of tasks have different needs and don’t often play well together. I’ve found a lot of success by using three separate tools for handing the three major types of tasks: Reminders, Appointments and To-Dos.

The Reminder

The first type of task is the easiest to handle and often the easiest to forget. Almost daily, there will be something small and inconsequential that I need to remember to bring in the morning or take home at night. These tasks are rarely essential and my brain has an uncanny knack for forgetting them altogether. I’ve tried a variety of solutions, from post-it notes to iPhone alarms and nothing worked until I was recently turned on to Due. This iPhone app is nothing short of a stalker. It takes seconds to set up a reminder and upon the due date, your phone will start sending you an iPhone Notification every minute. While this sounds horrible, it is ideal for those of us who set alarms. It is annoying, but it is a fantastic way to never forget the little things again. I’ve gotten my $5 and more from this app and I’ve only had it a very short time.

Due

  • The Pros: Super fast to setup, easy to use and almost impossible to ignore.
  • The Cons: Limited functionality and has the potential to become redundant with the introduction of Apple’s own Reminders app.
  • The Flat-Out Bad: iOS limitations mean you can only get a reminder every minute or every hour when 5 minutes would be ideal.
  • Alternatives: The built-in Alarm Clock or Calendar and the upcoming Reminders App.

The Appointment

Appointments are any tasks that need to happen at a specific time. Until recently, I’ve struggled with a good calendar app for quickly setting up appointments. While I use Google Apps to store my calendar, the native iCal on my Mac sucks (I use the native calendar on the iPhone, which is livable). I’ve tried a few things, including the popular BusyCal, but nothing was ever really sufficient. That is until recently when the utterly amazing folks at Flexbits introduced Fantastical. This menu-bar based application drops down to provide you with a look at your week and makes it fast and easy to enter new appointments (which has always been painful for me.). Now, I simply use one keyboard command and start typing in natural language (e.g. Lunch with Dad at McDonalds at noon tomorrow) and Fantastical takes care of the rest. It also works without Outlook and Exchange, so those of you Mac folk who still have some remnants of your Windows life can still take advantage of this kick-ass way to quickly get a look at your week or to swiftly add something to any of your calendars.

Fantastical

  • The Pros: Could not possibly be easier to use and is almost impossible to screw up creating an appointment.
  • The Cons: Still somewhat limited, you still need to double click into iCal to edit or delete appointments (although this functionality is coming soon).
  • The Flat-Out Bad: The fact that (for now) you still need to have iCal, which is just a terrible, terrible app.
  • Alternatives: iCal, Busy Cal or, if you hate yourself, Outlook.

The To-Do

The most common type of task, this is anything that you hope to accomplish that isn’t minor, like a reminder, or time specific, like an appointment. This includes anything from the need to write an email to all of the elements needed to accomplish a major project. While OmniFocus is the leading choice amongst nerds everywhere, I still prefer Things. Things has some glaring issues, especially when it comes to syncing, but I still like the overall simplicity and focus on the app. I will warn you that if you are using multiple computers, Omnifocus or the newly released Hit Listmay be a better option. However, if you are only using one computer and any amount of iOS devices, this is not as big of an issue2. Things and Cultured Code have lost themselves a lot of friends and a lot of fans because of their poor communication and seemingly endless timeline regarding OTA (over the air) syncing, but I still find the robust focus of the app worth the headaches it has caused me.

Updated: I’ve moved over to Omnifocus and I am never looking back!

Things

  • The Pros: Simple to use and easy to organize, be it a project or a solo task.
  • The Cons: Things does not play well on multiple computers. If you accidentally leave a copy open on one computer and open Things on another, it will mess up your tasks.
  • The Flat-Out Bad: The communication from Cultured Code leaves a lot to be desired and OTA Syncing has been “imminent” for far too long.
  • Alternatives: OmniFocus3, Hit List or Wunderlist.

It May Not Be Perfect, But It’s Mine!

While there are tons of tools and tons of methods for getting things done, I wanted to share a few of my essential apps and workflows. Don’t get me wrong, I wish there were one app that could do it all4, but for me, the feature bloat of applications that are powerful enough to handle it all tend to overwhelm me. My system may seem like a bit much, but when you are using it, you hardly know that it is there. Due only shows up when I need it, Fantastical is always one keyboard command away and Things (which is where I spend most of my time) makes it easy to see, prioritize and tackle the daily workload. It may not be flawless, but I can sure as hell attest to the fact that it is making me dramatically more effective.

Geeky Quick Tip

One of the reasons I love Things is a handy keyboard shortcut that I use to stay on top of emails. I use Mailplane to run Gmail as a standalone app and the two programs work really well together. When I need to create a task from an email, all I do is highlight the relevant text and hit the keyboard command Shift-Control-Option-Command-0 (You quickly hold down all of those keys at once for you non-geeks) and it will automatically create a task in Things5 with the highlighted section as well as a link that takes you directly back to the original email in Mailplane. This is great if, like me, you constantly create tasks that require you to respond to the original email. If you adhere to or strive towards Inbox Zero, this tip is an essential piece of how I keep my email inbox clean.

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  1. and you are one of those naturally organized people that I spite. []
  2. As long as you don’t mind syncing when both your computer and your device are on the same WiFi network. []
  3. The hands-down geek favorite, but it feels like too much for me. []
  4. Although a lot of people are starting to do this in Omnifocus. []
  5. Sometimes, if the app is not open, it will do a weird thing where it asks you to select a library. Simply quit and reopen the app and your task will be there waiting for you. []
  • http://www.expatlifecoach.com/blog John Falchetto

    Hi Michael,

    Good you are a Mac guy! I made the move back int he fall of last year when I started online. My laptop couldn’t cope with all the extra stuff happening. I use Google calendar which I link to my iphone calendar and it keeps everything smooth between my iMac and my phone. For To-Do I use Teuxdeux.com which also syncs with my iPhone. Off to go and check the new apps you mention, I would love one which makes coffee in the morning :)

    • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

      Die hard Mac guy. My ADHD never quite played well with Windows. Mac just tends to know how to get out of my way.

      I have a feeling you are going to love Fantastical, you just may need to setup your calendar to sync with iCal (if you havent already) to make everything work.

      As for due, it can’t make your coffee, but it has a timer for steeping if you are a French press guy :)

      Off to check out Teuxdeux as Things really is still the weak link…

  • http://DempseyMarketing.com/journal/ Robert Dempsey

    I’m a huge fan of Things and have had it on my iPhone and Mac for more than a year. Super quick to enter a new to-do so I can finally go to bed at night. Google Apps and BusyCal are also in my toolbox. Fantastical may be next – it sounds fantastic. Thanks for the heads up on that one Michael.

    • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

      I have a feeling you will LOVE Fantastical! Once they add in delete and update (right now it just carries you over to iCal), it will seriously be a killer app. Even with the limitations, it completely rid me of BusyCal.

      • http://DempseyMarketing.com/journal/ Robert Dempsey

        Been using Fantastical and must say it’s freaking awesome. Thanks tons for that recommendation Michael. Just being able to pop up a calendar immediately is worth the price, but the way you enter in appointments – using plain English – is toooo good.

        • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

          Glad you are loving it as much as I am! Both the quick reference and the quicker entry have finally given me a way to actually use my calendar!

  • http://chelpixie.com/ Chel Wolverton

    Have you found a way to make that shortcut work with Omnifocus or other to do apps? This is my missing link!

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      Are you talking about the way to quickly clip tasks from things like email, the web, Evernote and more? If so, OH YEAH!

      One of the major reasons I switched away from Things over to OmniFocus was their powerful quick entry form and clipper. Here’s a walkthrough of how I capture pretty much everything into it along with a video that shows the steps: http://bettermess.com/how-get-all-of-your-crap-into-omnifocus/

      There is a plugin you would need for either Mail.app or Mailplane (if you are a gmail user) to make the clipper work. You can find the Mail.app plugin in the preferences menu in OmniFocus. As for Mailplane, it’s a bit tricker, but you can find the download and walkthrough here: http://mailplaneapp.com/download/omnifocus_plugin/

      Last but not least, the process I was using for Evernote (my reference material storage app of choice) was driving me crazy, so I made this to speed things up: http://bettermess.com/bridging-the-omnifocus-and-evernote-gap-with-keyboard-maestro/ This clipper/quick entry is the thing that keeps me from ever considering anything else.

      • http://chelpixie.com/ Chel Wolverton

        I think I just fell for you. Copy/paste isn’t the most efficient way to deal with transferring things out of my inbox and I hate leaving “to dos” in my inbox.  I hadn’t yet found an simple way to get them out.

        Really. Going to try this now.  (Been waiting all week to give it a shot.)

        (PS – I know that you can send emails into Basecamp to create stuff now, but sending more email isn’t really that efficient either.)

        • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

          Live to serve! Both the clipper and the use of Start Dates in OmniFocus were both game changers for me. Couldn’t handle the inbox to-do list and couldn’t stand having to see things that didn’t start for weeks if not months.