Refactoring my GTD system – part 1: list managers are overcomplicating our systems

I’m using GTD for almost ten years now. I consider myself an advanced user, but last December, I wanted to simplify my system, my tools and return to the basics to get better at the end. I started refactoring every aspect of my GTD system—digital and analog as well. This is a series about how I did it and why.

The initial version of GTD is based on more straightforward tools than most digital list managers. It is essential to learn how to do GTD in the default way because each step and tool has a purpose; there are no unnecessary things. We’re doing something wrong if we can’t keep our GTD system up and running with just the tools and ideas mentioned in the book.

Avoid having a connection between projects and next actions

Many list managers connect projects with the next actions, but in the original GTD approach, there are no connections between them. Everything is on a different list. We’re the ones who connect everything when we do the Weekly Review.

Digital list managers connect only subsequent actions to projects; they skip calendar events, project plans, etc. We have to find these on our own, but doing it can be confusing. When we do the Weekly Review, we can be under the impression that all we have about a project is the next actions connected to it, forgetting other activities like events on our calendar. We have to get the pieces together of all the remaining stuff for ourselves. It is way easier if the software can connect everything to us, but there is no technology capable of doing this, so we have to find the logical connection between things. Having seen the entire picture is the only way we can relax our minds.

Connecting subsequent actions to projects can result in unnecessary steps when adding a new to-do. Using simple lists is straightforward: we add a new item, and we are done; on the other hand, having a connection between projects and next actions is meta-information, usually yet another field to fill, which makes adding things slower.

If we don’t expect to see the title of related projects in our next actions lists, we will be more considered about how to phrase our actions. It results in a more precise next action which we can imagine easier, thus doing it without much thinking later.

Having many features is distracting

Professional task managers have many features which have to be set up and maintained, which takes a lot of time. These features can be helpful, but GTD doesn’t need more than having simple lists. We can even do the right thing at the right time with GTD on paper where advanced features are absent.

Before we try to solve a problem with advanced tools, we have to consider using something simpler which can yield the same result. For example, we can use paper to think, but store the result of that thinking in digital tools. Having many features can distract us from work by fiddling with the tool. The importance of a project is not defined by the tool we’re using to administer it.


The readability of GTD list managers

There was a subreddit I saw a couple of days ago on /gtd, where Redditors discussed which GTD app is the most good looking. It reminded me of a problem I wanted to write about for a while now: their list design’s readability. I know OmniFocus, Things, and Reminders well, so I concluded my experience about their typography below:

A lot of people would say it’s Things. It has a friendly UI, but from a readability point of view, it is one of the worst.

In my daily work, I have two problems with Things:

  • It only displays one line per task, which means, if you have longer task titles, you’ll end with a bunch of text clipped out, which is annoying on an iPhone. You have to open each task to see the full title, which is no fun when you quickly want to review your errands list.
  • Things displays every task list grouped by project. If you like me, you’ll usually have one next action per project, so having each project being this prominent is making your lists very noisy.

I stopped using Things because of these issues, and I switched back to OmniFocus, which displays full task titles, and has nicer list readability overall. Apple Reminder is also good at showing lists, which matters the most at the end, so I would go with OmniFocus and Reminders.

Let’s see these apps next to each other. From left to right are OmniFocus, Reminders, and Things.

As you can see, Things overflows the text and group actions by projects which makes the readability of a typical next actions list much worse. It was the main reason I left Things after using it for two years and switched back to OmniFocus.

I also made a switch from OmniFocus to Reminders in December, but that’s a topic of another post.


Small surprises of Siri Suggestions

Siri’s suggestions are starting to get better on my iPhone. Let’s see the following screenshot from yesterday.

Siri suggestions

I usually write entries to my food log via Drafts and check my sleep patterns in the Health app around noon. These recommendations are spot-on. But I love how Siri recommends Handoff as well.

I was in the middle of reviewing a next action list yesterday in OmniFocus on my iMac, and I had to leave for a couple of minutes. I grabbed my iPhone to continue, and even before starting to search for that specific next action list via Spotlight, my iPhone was already recommending what I wanted to do.

I love small UX surprises like this.


OmniFocus quick-entry iOS 14-ben

Tegnap megjelent az iOS 14, amiben van egy Back Tap nevű funkció. Ezzel a telefonunk hátulját kétszer vagy háromszor megtappolva lefuttathatunk különböző actionöket. Az Apple leírásából:

Back Tap lets you double-tap or triple-tap the back of your iOS device to automatically perform a range of custom tasks — from opening your favorite app to taking a screenshot. Choose from 24 different actions or create your own automated shortcuts to simplify your everyday tasks.

Mivel shortcutok is beállíthatók, így létrehoztam egy, a desktop todo menedzser alkalmazásokban látott quick-entry funkcióhoz hasonló shortcutot, ami bekér egy szöveget, majd azonnal elmenti azt az OmniFocus inboxszomba. Az egészben az a legjobb, hogy ehhez nem kell kilépnem az adott alkalmazásból sem, helyben lerendez mindent. Nagyon hasznos például telefonálás közben.

Az alábbi videóban megnézhető az egész működés közben és a használt shortcut felépítése is.