It all started going wrong when I discovered “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. That book was a turning point in my life. Up until then I had been drifting along, reacting to events, without any clear idea of where I wanted to be in the future. “The Seven Habits” made me think about where I wanted to be in a decade’s time and how I was going to get there. I also gave me the perspective to divide the unimportant, but urgent tasks from those that were really important to achieving my goals. It’s a fascinating book that’s full of insights. But there was a problem…

Up until then my task list had been kept on an old and trusty Psion Series 3a. I added the odd task as and when needed and occasionally ticked one or two of them off as well. But Covey taught me to plan, to organise tasks into Quadrants that identified their urgency and importance, to think about my Goals and plan accordingly. My list of tasks was getting longer, but I found I was referring to it less and less.

By the time I graduated to a Palm, I was actively avoiding my task list. Its sheer size had become intimidating. There were so many activities micro-planned that it was hard to see the wood for the trees. But worse, when I did take the plunge into the dark forest I found a profoundly depressing catalogue of forgotten activities, delayed projects and missed deadlines.

I am incredibly jealous of those who can sail through life, never making even the simplest list of tasks and yet alway remembering what needs to be done at any one instant. Unfortunately a butterfly mind and a particulary poor memory make extensive tasks lists the order of the day. But how could I become their master?

By the time David Allen sprung to the rescue with “Getting Things Done” I had graduated to Agendus on a Palm. Each of my “roles” in life (Husband, Father, Developer, etc) was allocated a task category, and the priorities reflected Covey’s four quadrants. It worked, but each task category contained hundreds of actions in no meaningful order. It was hard to plan individual projects, or to see what I had to do next to fulfill my goals.

Like many of the best lifehacks, David Allen’s techniques for Getting Things Done (GTD) feel so obvious once you’ve read about them, that you kick yourself for not thinking of it yourself years ago. It is not a big book and doesn’t go into the philosophical and psychological background in the way Covey does. What it does provide is a small set of pragmatic rules for running your life efficiently.

Two of the techniques described in this book showed the way out of my task problems:

  • Firstly, categorise each action according to where it can be carried out, that is give it a context (Office, Shops, House, Garden, Internet, Anywhere…). That way when you are in a particular context you only need to consider the relevant actions.
  • Secondly, mark the tasks that are the ‘Next Actions’ you can carry out on each project. They are what you need to focus on, not the monolithic mass of other actions waiting in the wings.

    It took an evening to bash my task list into shape. Instead of my roles in life, my categories now reflected task contexts - for example I had an ‘@Shops’ category for tasks that can only be carried out at the local shopping mall. In each context the tasks that needed to be done next to progress things were marked with priority one. All others defaulted to five.

How did that help? Let’s say I’m nipping out to the shops at lunchtime. In my Covey system I might have had an action to buy my son a toy Dalek. But it would have been categorised under my role as a ‘Father’ and as a quadrant II task (Not urgent, but important!). The chances of remembering it, when I nipped down to the shops?

But in the new scheme of things the action was in the ‘@Shops’ category, and as the ‘Next Action’ in my project to encourage my son to get good school reports, it was marked with a category of ‘1’. So now, when sneaking out early to lunch, I just needed to pull up the ‘@Shops’ category in Tasks.

When I got back to the office, I marked the relevant actions as complete and then changed the category to ‘@Office’ to see what I had to do next in order to keep the salary coming in. Suddenly it was much easier to find out what I needed to do next in any situation or location.

Using Categories as Contexts

This worked very well, and was a big improvement over my previous planning systems. The only problem was, that it was still difficult to plan projects that contained many actions. A project might have actions that needed to be carried out in many different contexts and so would be spread across many different categories. It was difficult to get an overview of a single project. I tried appending a project ID to each action’s name. Each id was a four digit number in curly brackets, for example {1234}. I could then search for all the related actions in a project using Find. By putting the id’s in curly brackets I made sure Find didn’t match normal data, like phone numbers. By putting the same project id’s in Memos and Note Pad, for example, other documents could also be associated with the project.

It worked, but it was a little unwieldy and still didn’t allow actions to be ordered, let along have more complicated relationships. What I needed was an Outliner. I looked at Arranger, Bonsai and Progect, before finally settling on Shadow Plan.

Using Shadow Plan

Shadow Plan is an outliner for the Palm platform that provides a very flexible way to organise all the resources associated with a project. Each item in a Shadow Plan has the following information recorded about it:

  • a title, which can take multiple lines if needed,
  • a priority (1 to 5 or ‘-‘),
  • a percentage complete (0%, 10%, 20%, .. 100%)
  • a target date,
  • start and finish dates,
  • a creation date,
  • a task numbering scheme (such as 1-2-3-4, or i-ii-iii-iv etc).

So far not so very different to any of hundreds of Palm ToDo managers. However you can also set the way that the information is displayed for each item - for example a ‘Note’ item won’t display a completion checkbox, while a tasklist item will have a progress bar that shows the percentage complete.

Actions

As you can see in the screenshot, items can be organised into a hierarchical structure to reflect their relationships. My top-level ‘Frogplate’ item contains all the resources for maintaining this Web site. Clicking on the down arrow beside it would collapse all the child items and show only the parent Frogplate line. The right arrow beside the ‘GTD and UIQ’ item near the bottom of the screen shows that numerous items have been collapsed to that one summary line.

Note that some of the items, such as ‘Outline’, have been configured as ‘Note’ rather than ‘Checklist’ items and so do not display a completion checkbox or progress bar. Meanwhile the screen shots item is a ‘Task’ and so has a progress bar showing it is 50% complete.

Details

Opening the screen shots item shows the type of item at the top of the screen, the dates, progress and priority at the bottom. The black rectangle at the bottom right opens a colour picker and the [B] sets the item to bold in the item list.

Shadow Plan items can have notes attached and they can also link to other databases. For example an item could link to an entry in the standard Tasks application, or to an appointment in the Calendar. It could even link to another Shadow Plan if needed. Links to Tasks and Calendar can be dynamic, so that changes in one application affect the entry in the other.

Tags

However the single most important Shadow Plan feature in helping to Get Things Done is the Tag. Shadow Plan has a very flexible Tag Manager that allows multiple, custom tags to be associated with each item. You can then filter the plan by those tags. Absolutely perfect for implementing GTD.

The trick is to define a tag for each context in which you need to allocate actions - Home, Office, Shops, Internet etc. Also create a ‘Next’ tag to indicate that an action is the next to progress a project. A Tag Wizard makes it very quick and easy to tag an item. For GTD purposes its just a matter of adding a tag to indicate context and perhaps another to indicate its the next action to be carried out.

Filter

Once all actions are tagged, Shadow Plan’s Filter Manager can be used to filter the outline for particular combinations of tags. The standard filters include a ‘Next step only’ filter which includes only the first child at the lowest level of each hierarchy of items - this assumes that the items are listed in the chronological order needed and just the first item needs to be done next in each sub-project. That is not really flexible enough for GTD use, but the Filter Manager also allows custom filters to be defined.

I set up a filter for each context plus a filter for the combination of each context tag and the ‘Next’ tag. So the ‘@Library’ filter will list all the actions I plan to do at the library, whilst the ‘@Library-Next’ filter lists just the subset of those actions that have to be done next at the library.

This scheme works well unless you have repeat tasks. The standard Palm Tasks application has particularly flexible repeat task handling, but Shadow Plan doesn’t support the concept at all. Unfortunately the nature of many of the projects I wanted to plan meant that I needed to use repeating tasks.

It was time to go back to the drawing board…

Handling Repeating Actions

The key to handling repeating actions is to use a combination of the best parts of both Shadow Plan and the built-in Tasks application. Shadow Plan is great for planning projects, for slicing and dicing the actions, collecting together other related information and viewing the results in different ways. The Tasks application is very good at handling repeat actions and can switch between categories very easily. Shadow Plan’s ToDo links can integrate the two applications into a powerful GTD system.

In essence, Shadow Plan is used to plan all of the actions. The tags don’t need to be used to define contexts, but it may help to do so. I use just a single tag to identify ‘Next Actions’.

Using Categories as Contexts

In the Tasks application I have a category to represent each context - @Car, @Home, @Laptop etc. The actions listed in these categories are the ‘Next Actions’ to be carried out for each context. So when I sneak out to the shops at lunchtime I select the @Shops category in Tasks and that shows me the list of things I need to do at the shops today. When I get back to work, I change the category to @Work and it shows me the next actions to be carried out at my desk. Each category contains only the next actions, keeping the list simple and uncluttered.

There is also a *Scheduled category, which is used to park any scheduled or repeat actions that are not currently due. Repeat actions have entries in Tasks since Shadow Plan cannot be configured with the details of their reoccurrence. Scheduled actions have an entry so that they are remembered when I carry out my daily review of scheduled actions.

Let’s step through how each type of action is handled. They are:

  • Ordinary actions, with no specific target date.
  • Scheduled actions, that have a specific target date.
  • Repeat actions, that are configured to recur at set intervals.

Ordinary Actions

Ordinary actions are entered into Shadow Plan and can be moved around the outline as project needs change. When they become ‘Next Actions’ I hit the [Link] button at the bottom of the item’s details and select ‘Link to Database’ in the ToDo link dropdown. The ToDo category that identifies the action’s context is selected and finally the ‘Next’ tag is selected from the Tag Wizard. The tag isn’t really necessary but makes it easy to list all the ‘Next Actions’ in Shadow Plan.

LinkMgr

Adding the ToDo link means that the action will now appear in the Tasks application under the relevant context. When I mark the action as complete in Tasks it will be automatically completed in Shadow Plan too.

Scheduled Actions

Scheduled actions are treated exactly the same as ordinary actions except that when a target date is set in Shadow Plan I also add the ToDo link to the Tasks database and specify the *Scheduled category. I have the sort order in Tasks set to ‘Due Date, Priority’. This means that when the *Scheduled category is displayed any due actions will be at the top of the list. At the end of each day I update Shadow Plan and then check the *Scheduled category in Tasks. I move each action due tomorrow to the category that represents its most suitable context.

Scheduled

An alternative to keeping linked copies of all scheduled actions in the Tasks *Scheduled category is to use Shadow Plan’s ‘Today’s target items’ filter and only link them to Tasks when they fall due. However my experience has been that it is quicker and easier to link them to Tasks at the time that the target date is first set.

Repeat Actions

Repeat actions are created in exactly the same way as scheduled actions, setting a target date in Shadow Plan and then adding a ToDo link to the *Scheduled category in Tasks. The recurrence details can then be set in the Tasks application. When a repeat of the action falls due it will appear at the top of the *Scheduled category during the daily review and can be moved to the relevant Context category.

When a Repeat Action is marked as completed in Tasks the additional step of moving its category back to *Scheduled is needed, ready for the next occurence. By the way, don’t mark Repeat Actions as complete in Shadow Plan - it will cancel the action from Tasks completely, including all future reoccurences.

In Summary

Set up

  1. Create Shadow Plan outline of actions.
  2. Create Shadow Plan ‘Next’ tag.
  3. Create Shadow Plan Custom ‘Next’ filter.
  4. Create *Scheduled category in Tasks application.
  5. Create categories for each Context in Tasks application.
  6. Set Tasks sort order to ‘Due Date, Priority’.

Ordinary Actions

  1. Add to Shadow Plan outline.
  2. When it becomes a Next Action, create ToDo ‘Link to Database’.
  3. Set ToDo category to relevant Context category.
  4. Add ‘Next’ tag in Shadow Plan.
  5. When action has been carried out, mark as complete in Shadow Plan or in Tasks.

Scheduled Actions

  1. Add to Shadow Plan outline.
  2. When target date is set in Shadow Plan, create ToDo ‘Link to Database’.
  3. Set ToDo category to *Scheduled.
  4. When action becomes due, move to relevant Tasks Context category.

Repeated Actions

  1. Add to Shadow Plan outline.
  2. When target date is set in Shadow Plan, create ToDo ‘Link to Database’.
  3. Set ToDo category to *Scheduled.
  4. Go to action in Tasks application and set recurrence details.
  5. When action becomes due, move to relevant Tasks Context category.
  6. Mark action as completed in Tasks only, not in Shadow Plan.
  7. When action completed, move next occurance back to *Scheduled category.

Daily Review

  1. Switch to *Scheduled category in Tasks application.
  2. Recategorise any actions due today to relevant Context categories.