Tech Posts

To Do

I have spent a fair amount of energy over the years trying to perfect a good “To Do” strategy. I say “perfect” but that’s misleading since it implies that I have a good system and that I am in the process of making it better. The real problem is that I have no system and struggle with the self-discipline to get one going.

I have tried pen and paper and diaries over the years. I managed to get to April once. Then I just decided it was easier not to. I started using phones, sticky notes, and all sorts of other techniques – sometimes multiple strategies at once. Of course those were doomed to fail.

When I got my first iPhone with iOS 4, it struck me how gaping a hole was left by the fact that the platform did not have a simple to-do list application built in. As a result, I have tried many of the third party apps.

One of the nicest apps that I’ve used is “Clear” but it only has a Mac client to sync to. And – this is personal, don’t hate me – I can’t work on a Mac (I have one, but I am saved by Bootcamp). Since I often will use my iPad as a desk buddy, it is important that my phone and iPad are in sync. All I want is an iPad version and I’m set. The iCloud sync is already in place, so this is a contender for top spot!

I also attempted to use “todo.txt” which is remarkably simple in its premise, but I never quite understood why it was so tedious to learn the syntax. Also, the sync support, via DropBox, is horrid and ends up in conflict more often than not. Just opening your todo is a pain since it has to download the most recent version from DropBox and often means that you can wait – not long, but noticeable – before you can work. And once you’re finished you have to wait before you can even open your other device’s list otherwise it just starts creating duplicate lists that just need to be managed manually. In Notepad.

Since iOS 5/6, I’ve actually resorted to using the default “Reminders” app instead, despite hating it when I first tried it. The iCloud sync is close on flawless in its speed and accuracy. Siri (on my iPad) is useful while driving. Even if her dictation skills are slightly worse than a monkey bashing its head on a typewriter, at least there is some form of reminder for me to adjust when I have the time to do so

One thing that I have learned to appreciate about “Reminders” is that its simplicity is useful. Most other apps, perhaps the two above are excluded from this judgement, try to do too much. Provided you can get the basics right, I reckon you’ve got a winner.

In the last few days – yes, it has only been a few days – I have attempted to use this app religiously. My workflow is something like this: if someone stops me in the corridor, I tap out a quick reminder on my phone. As I get new e-mail with actionable points, I note them on my to do list and get rid of the e-mail (I like the principle of the Inbox-Zero idea). Incoming phone calls are similarly added. One minor point which I think is important: to get on the to do list, the task must be simple and achievable. It must be able to be ticked off without debate and a twenty step process.

The nature of my job as an IT administrator at a school (although I guess this is true about anywhere) is that my attention is pulled every which way at a second’s notice. I need to know that if I do get pulled away from a complex task, I have a reference about where I was and what I was doing.

I try to set aside some time each morning to prioritise the tasks on the list, but this has been a little too daunting of late (the start of term always is). As I complete items, they get ticked off on which ever device is nearby. Usually this is my iPad sitting on my desk, but if I’m in a server room, or under a desk, my phone will do.

There is a certain satisfaction of knowing what needs to be done and to mark one’s progress through the stages of getting there – in a similar way the how it feels good to be recognised for the work that one does with accolades and prizes. No, I do not intend to frame a printout of my completed to-do list, but I think it is the same psychology at play.

But enough of this. I have things to do!