Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mac Getting Things Done Applications

I'm ADD. The most direct way that this impacts making code, doing dishes, and writing a letter to Grandma is that I have difficulty in clarifying the exact steps that I need to do to get a project done, and so I get really overwhelmed and go watch the GodTube (Slogan: Broadcast Him). Then, it's three hours later, and I don't know how that happened.

The Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology has been priceless for me. Merlin Mann on 43 Folders probably has the best musings on the topic, on the whole Interweb, so I won't be too pedantic in describing the method.

The shortest summary of GTD that I can give is:
  1. Break down each complex project you have to do into short, concrete steps
  2. Categorize each step in each project according to contexts
  3. When working, try to do a handful of things with the same context at the same time, even if they're from different projects
(Yes, I know there are five steps to GTD, and these three correspond to about two-and-a-half of those. These three steps here are the most important, in my opinion, to a GTD app.)

The kicker is that you have to re-collate your task lists depending on whether you're planning (sort tasks by project) or working (sort tasks by context). The method lends itself to simple, specialized applications that can do this one thing and do it well. The remainder of this post is 1-paragraph reviews of nine GTD applications for Mac; I've tried each of these personally.

My idea of an optimum GTD app is the following:
  1. Sorts tasks by projects and contexts, and doesn't do much more
  2. Cooperates with Quicksilver
  3. Tight keyboard commands -- almost to the point of being easy to use cheerfully, keyboard-only
Other people do not share my philosophy, and I respect that; if you're looking for something else, my reviews won't be so helpful. Also, I only consider apps that run locally on a Mac (webapps put me too close to Interweb distractions).

Each review is of the form:
Name of app
Which of my three criterion does this app meet?
One line review
One paragraph review

Kinkless GTD
Free, requires OmniOutliner Pro
Probably Merlin Mann's favorite GTD app
Simple, QuickSilver, Keyboard
Kinkless was the first GTD app I ever tried, and I still like it very much. It's a set of Applescripts running on OmniOutliner Pro, which is pricey, if you don't have it, but worth the money, and not just for Kinkless. I quit using kGTD for one reason: you have to manually sync, and, for a sufficiently large GTD database, this takes about 30 seconds. While I'm waiting for the sync, I mosey on over to qwantz.com, and all of a sudden, it's three hours later, and I don't know how that happened. I can't afford any program that takes 30 seconds to do anything. The developer of Kinkless is helping Omni make OmniFocus, and so Kinkless is dormant indefinitely.

Simple, QuickSilver
My favorite GTD app
I like Actiontastic because it syncs instantly and automatically and does only does three things (inbox, planning, and doing), so I don't waste time fiddling with it. My beef is that the interface is clunky; you can't drag-n-drop multiple items simultaneously, and you can't enter a context or project using the keyboard alone -- I'm a keyboard-only junkie. This should be changed in the 1.0 release, coming in a couple of months. Until then, it's good enough for me. Bonus: a web app that syncs with your local app is forthcoming.

Free, donationware
GTD app that does more than I want it to, and not very well.
iGTD has some very nice features, like a calendar to specify a due date, flagging several tasks that become viewable separately from the rest of the task list, and projects broken down hierarchically into sub-projects. However, having the tasks viewed in six tabs, with, at worst, something like eight sub-tabs, is excessive. The keyboard interface is about as clunky as that of Actiontastic, but with so much more to do, this is even more of a hindrance. I could take an app as complicated as this, but it really needs good documentation for the idiosyncratic interface; the documentation is cursory, in moderately broken English. iGTD is rapidly becoming popular, but it looks like many of the iGTD users haven't considered Actiontastic. Yann provides a good discussion of the differences between the two, and explains why Actiontastic is his preferred choice, and for slightly different reasons than my own.

Midnight Inbox
Shareware, $35
So big, it could invade Tokyo, plus it has a "yak timer"
Midnight Inbox is much more polished than, say, iGTD; if you're a fan of GTD apps that can do everything, this is a good one. I'm not, though. There are six major modes you can work in, which makes sense, on a certain level, because this puts the entire GTD methodology (5 steps + reference material) in one app. The thing is, though, that there doesn't need to be a one-to-one correspondence between steps in GTD and features in a GTD app. For example, collect and process don't need to be separate modes; when I collect, I dump stuff into the in bucket, and when I process, I kick stuff out of the bucket, I use one bucket in two ways. When I do monthly review, I take a notebook to a coffee shop, and respond to a questionnaire I wrote for myself -- I don't want to touch my GTD app that I use for my runway-level decisions.

Shareware, $20
Quicksilver, Keyboard
Buggy and poorly organized
This one isn't worth considering at all. There is no good reason that a dialog box has to pop up for each task I add. There is no good reason that, although I specify a new project or context in the new task dialog box, a corresponding project or context is not created. There is no good reason that a task can be viewed in detail in a side panel *and* in a dialog box. And then, in my five minutes of playing with it, two or three widgets have gone invisible and reappeared. This scares me.

25 pounds
Middle of the road in terms of complexity, feels like a beta.
The keyboard interface is okay, but not as tight as it should be; for example, the space bar doesn't do anything when it could be used to check a completed action. The only way to edit a task is in a dialog that is very busy. It does more than Actiontastic or Ghost Action, but less than Kinkless or Midnight Inbox. Not worth the price.

Thinking Rock
A handy starter app
It's made out of Java, so it doesn't feel like a Mac app, which is a bad thing. The interface relies on icons with meanings that only make sense when you see what they mean. For example, "Do ASAP" is a running man and "Delegated" is an index finger, which makes sense, but when I see an index finger, I don't instinctively think, "Oh, that's the universal symbol for delegation." I like the idea of a GTD app that looks like the flowchart in the Getting Things Done book, which is helpful for someone learning the methodology. However, it still falls under the same problem as Midnight Inbox of trying to force a one-to-one relationship between steps in GTD and modes in an application, which isn't necessary for users familiar with GTD. Thinking Rock might work as training wheels for someone just starting to learn GTD, and, out of the several applications reviewed here that try to do all of GTD, this one seems to do that most plainly. I don't have much use for it, though.

Got a spare monitor?
Only Photoshop is allowed to have multiple windows. I use two monitors, and this one app's four windows that come up at startup cover both of them. What you're supposed to do with these four windows isn't as obvious as it ought to be. I spent about 15 minutes with this app, and didn't get anywhere. I would have tried harder, but it just took starting the app up to tell that it was trying to do more than I'd like a GTD app to do; I didn't really need to go any further.

Ghost Action
Shareware, $20
Simple, QuickSilver
Ghost Action = Actiontastic + $20
Ghost Action is very similar to Actiontastic. The only obvious difference in their appearance is that Ghost Action uses the Cocoa brushed aluminum interface (like Finder), while Actiontastic has a plain, grey gradient (like iTunes). And Ghost Action has a calendar widget. Both can sync with iCal or an iPod, both have essentially identical interfaces. It's really quite freaky how similar they are. But Actiontastic is free.

GTD is very simple. I want a program that sorts tasks by context or project, and doesn't do much more. I don't want an app that does all of GTD, because some GTD has to happen on index cards, when I need to collect an idea, but I'm not near my computer. Some GTD happens in a coffee shop, when I ponder high-level things like where my energy goes and why I've avoided doing the dishes this past week.

Stuff on a calendar is technically GTD, but calendar programs are already quite good at managing hard landscape, and don't need to have GTD ideas of project, context, and energy put on them -- if I have a meeting on Wednesday at 2:30, I have a meeting on Wednesday at 2:30, and it doesn't matter if I don't have the energy for the meeting, or if it fits with the main project or context I'm working on that I day, I still have to go to the meeting. Yet, I see hard landscape being mixed with next actions in most of these apps, in ways that they probably shouldn't mix.

In mechanical engineering design, we have a saying: "No one needs a drill. Some people need holes, though." I don't need a GTD app. I need to do the dishes, make code, and write a letter to Grandma, and I need a little help figuring out when and how to do those things.


  1. I think you're selling iGTD short. Or at least it's come a long way since you last saw it.

    I've been looking for a reasonable GTD app on a mac for 2 years. Not finding one I fell back on "High Priority" and Mailtags. The trouble was I had no way to represent Projects, so could only use the system half way.

    Still better than no way ...

    iGTD popped onto my radar screen last month and I've been thrashing the bejesus out of it ever since. It has its bugs still, but really it is exactly what I need to do GTD. Integrates perfectly wtih iCal, Mail.app, Finder, Safari, and about a dozen other apps. Gorgeous to look at and generally reliable to use. Lets me order projects as I like, not according to bloody priorities. But still lets me use priorities to order the next actions.

    Really it's just a wonderful app. I don't know the author and have no reason to say that other than that I'm genuinely pleased. It's so cool to finally be able to do GTD as I'd always imagined it ...

  2. At this point, the discussion isn't very meaningful to me; I switched to the OmniFocus alpha this week, and it makes me very happy. You can sign up for the free alpha at:
    I'd truly recommend checking it out.

    Recall that I wrote my reviews from a very specific perspective: the optimum GTD app, for me, sorts tasks by project and context, does that well, and doesn't do much more. Any extra features had better well be useful to me, or easy for me to turn off -- I'm ADD, so if there's a button there, I will push it.

    Admittedly, it's been three months since I posted my slew of GTD reviews; I haven't touched iGTD since then. With that disclaimer, I would still say that I strongly prefer Actiontastic (and now, much more so, OmniFocus) because their interfaces are much less busy; features used more rarely are tucked away into drawers and inspectors, which I can pull out while planning, but put away when I'm working so I'm less distracted.

  3. I have been weighing the benefits of either iGTD and Ghost Action. iGTD has more visual bells and whistles, like flags and an Effort sliding bar, but in the printing category, Ghost Action wins. I need to put Next Action lists on paper into a folder, and Ghost Action does that neatly, sorted by context. iGTD, on the other hand, does not do any usable printing functions, so it has no way of putting Next Action lists into a folder.

    I am a little curious about Actiontastic, which is touted as a a free version of Ghost Action. But Actiontastic is beta, and no mention was made of its printing function. Synching with iCal is important, but so is printing out the Next Actions list, if you want to do real GTD.

  4. Oh, just use OmniFocus, everyone! When I started using it, I didn't look back.