Getting Things Done Software Systems (Part 2 of 2)
As much as I enjoyed writing part 1 of this series about software you can use for GTD even while offline (I've had a soft spot in my heart for offline-capable software forever), I have a feeling that part 2 is what many of you are waiting for - and the question you'd like answered is "how do you implement GTD using online tools, preferably free ones?".
Well, there are quite a number of online options, but in my experience I've found that there is no "all-in-one" solution like Outlook for managing your personal information online. So rather than give a few options that aspire to all-in-one status (none of which I could find myself currently using), instead I will give you what I consider to be the best-of-breed web based services, and how I go about integrating them into a Getting Things Done personal system.
If you're looking for a web-based email client, look no further than Gmail. Although it's certainly not the prettiest webmail client out there, and these days doesn't offer the most storage, if you use Gmail for any length of time you'll discover some magic in the way Google decided to handle mundane elements of dealing with email that we've come to just expect and deal with.
By far, the best example of the genius of Gmail is in its handling of email threads. If you find yourself ever in a situation where one specific email thread goes crazy (for example on a team you work with), you'll find that it can fill up your inbox and bury all of the other important information you have stored there (which should have already been processed into action items, etc... but let's not go there!). Gmail is smart about email threads, and groups all messages related to a single thread together, so that you only see one entry for the thread in your inbox. It sounds complicated when you describe it, but it's deceptively simple in action, and it's the one feature that I think all email clients will at some point need to figure out how to do.
In terms of Gmail's usefulness as an element of a Getting Things Done system, Gmail's use of "labels" rather than folders helps significantly. Instead of filing your messages into single folders, you can instead label them (it's the same as tagging), so that the same message can show up in more than one "folder", if it's been labeled that way. Again, it sounds complicated, but in fact it works in an incredibly simple and intuitive manner.
What Gmail lacks is task-tracking functionality. While I've read a number of schemes that advocate creating task labels and shuttling messages amongst different labels, all of them really end up coming across as the hacks that they are. Use Gmail for what it's good at: email management. So we'll have to come back to task management, but for now let's move on a calendaring solution - can you guess what I'm going to suggest?
Google Calendar - boring name, solid calendaring
Many many companies have attempted to perfect the art of the online calendar, with varying levels of success. In fact, Google Calendar is so late to the online calendar game, it's surprising that it's as successful as it is. Gmail introduced a new way to think about email, which accounts for its revolutionary uptake. Google Calendar is much less revolutionary, but is somehow strangely satisfying to use, particularly in concert with Gmail.
Google has included some intelligent logic to make it a simple task to take an email referring to an appointment, and automatically generate an appointment in your Google Calendar. Google Calendar is also able to show multiple calendars together, each denoted by a different color. That means that I can see what my wife is up to (via a private link), see my Canadian holidays so I know when my next long weekend is coming up, and view my hometown Vancouver Canucks game schedule all at the same time, and turn any or all of them off when things get too cluttered. Note that the holidays and game schedule are examples of public calendars that I simply configure Google Calendar to show - this means that someone else maintains these calendars, and if they get updated remotely, I automatically see the updates. It's a simple task to search for interesting public calendars right from within Google Calendar, and it's just as simple to create your own public calendar for other people to subscribe to, if you're interested in doing that.
In terms of GTD functionality, Google Calendar's strongest features are its integration with Gmail, and its ease of use. I can't claim anything more than that, but once you start using it, you'll understand how pleasant the experience is.
Hey, what about managing tasks?!
Okay, as good as Gmail and Google Calendar are, I've saved the best for last. When I think about Getting Things Done, one word comes to mind above all else: lists! Creating and managing lists of tasks allows you to stop tracking them in your head, where they're causing all kinds of mental grief. And when it comes to lists, the folks at 37Signals have it down cold.
While most people that are familiar with their products are probably expecting me to talk about BaseCamp (37Signals fantastic project management tool), instead I'd like to talk about Backpack. Backpack grew out of BaseCamp as a pared-down single user tool for tracking personal projects, tasks and notes. Backpack uses all of the wonderful interactive technology found in Basecamp, but geared for ease of use for a single user.
I should note here that while Gmail and Google Calendar are free applications, Backpack is a commercial product, with a limited free version available offering up to 5 pages of information. So far, I haven't found a need to grow beyond the free account, but it's nice to know that if I need the room to stretch out, I can do so for an affordable price.
Backpack's beauty lies in its simplicity. It truly can be whatever you make of it. And this can actually be a bit daunting at first - like staring at a blank page. To put together a GTD system, just think about the kinds of information you want to track. Personally, I use the main page of my Backpack account as an "inbox", which lets me dump links, thoughts, and anything else there to be dealt with later.
I then use successive pages to organize an area of my personal life - blogging article ideas, tasks at home, even a simple list of quotes that I find inspiring. Note that the link to my quotes page actually goes to the public-facing version of my quotes page - Backpack gives you the flexibility to denote any page you choose to be a public page, and generates a unique public URL pointing to it.
The hardcore GTD practitioners have probably noticed at this point that I'm glossing over the issue of tracking both contexts and projects using Backpack. There's a good reason for that - Backpack isn't particularly well-suited to tracking tasks in this manner. There are many systems people have devised online for how to go about creating a fully 2 dimensional GTD system using Backpack. To be honest, it doesn't bother me too much that it's not there, particularly for my personal task tracking. I can get away with simply creating different lists for different contexts, and putting tasks into the appropriate context list. For me, Backpack's ease of use and elegance outweighs any deficiencies it has in adhering to a "pure" GTD system.
Postives & Negatives of an online GTD system
This is a pretty easy section to write - the positives and negatives of an online GTD system are pretty self-evident in my book. Being online, you can access your system from anywhere, which is a huge (really, a massive) plus. In today's mobile world, that means that if your laptop dies or gets stolen while you're away from home, your information doesn't go away with it. Of course it's always smart to back up your information, it's definitely nice to know that it's up in "the cloud" somewhere.
The negative aspects of an online system are fairly simple as well. Firstly, it relies heavily on connectivity. In other words, no connectivity, no personal information. The good news is that our access to the internet is growing daily, and some people never really find themselves without web access. For those people, an online system is a really good option.
Another weakness of an all online GTD system is the fact that none of these sites (and really, no truly useful and currently available PIM sites) support native synchronization with modern PDAs. Both Gmail and Backpack have very usable mobile versions, which makes working with them on a PDA tolerable, but it still requires an active web connection. I get my Google Calendar appointments onto my PDA by simply inviting myself (my Outlook email address) to all of the appointments I create in Google Calendar. This gives me my appointments offline, so I get reminders whether or not I'm at a computer. But maintenance of this system leaves something to be desired. To be honest, I'd much prefer to try CompanionLink for Google Calendar, but so far they have not released a version that works with Outlook 2007 beta.
Other interesting online options
While I strongly advocate the web applications referenced above, I don't want to imply that they're the only viable options. Some options I'm following closely include Foldera, voo2do, TasksPro, and even quirky options like MonkeyGTD, which we've covered before. If you have a favorite online GTD system, please post it in the comments - I know that my solution is only one of thousands.
Speaking of commments
I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the great comments and suggestions posted by commenters on Part 1 of this series. Alternative ideas to the ones that I suggested included Taglocity for Outlook, SmarterTasks for Windows Mobile 5 based devices, LifeBalance for Palm, KeySuite also for Palm, My Life Organized, and ThinkingRock for Macs. Thanks David, Teddy, Michelle, Scott, Fernando and Jeff for the suggestions. If you've got your own favorite offline application, please head back to Part 1 and leave a comment!
Although this is part 2 of 2, and therefore the end of our Getting Things Done Software Systems series, we can take solace in the fact that as soon as we decide on a system to use, someone comes along with something new and different that we want to explore. That's the blessing and curse of maintaining a Getting Things Done system in software. If you take anything away from this series, let it be that there are a multitude of options out there, and one that is perfect for you. Find it, use it, and love it. And try not to monkey with it too much!