Getting Things Done with ToodleDo

Ahoy! It's somehow been a year since my last full post (gack!), so I should probably get back on the horse and get writing again. To make up for it, how's about I post two articles in quick succession? Deal? Deal.

We're gonna be talking about time management and getting-slash-staying organized, which admittedly isn't the sexiest of topics for a comeback tour, but stick with me. Especially if you've never ever thought of working with a 'formalized' system of staying organized (which does sound awfully dull), please please stay with me. This was some legitimately life-changing stuff when I learned it, and it may do the same for you.

Seriously, I've been able to take on somewhere around twice as much workload with half as much stress since I started toying with this stuff a few years ago. And yes, I realize that reads like a late-night informercial for the Shake Weight or something, but just go with it.

First off, let's talk Getting Things Done.

Getting Things Done

If you've never heard of Getting Things Done (GTD), I actually recommend watching this video first. Yes, it's 45 minutes long, but even the first 5 minutes is sufficient to get you at least intrigued. If want the step-by-step manual about the principles and nuts-and-bolts behind GTD, check out this short book by the creator of GTD and the presenter in the above video, David Allen.

It's a short read, I promise! And in case you're still not sold, let me offer my own anecdotal evidence:
Across home, work, errands, phone calls, emails, etc. I currently have on the go:

  • 40 projects.
  • 120 active tasks or todos across those 40 projects.
  • Absolutely zero stress about how much I have to do.

And this is a comparatively light workload because I just started a new job and they're going easy on me. Worth at least looking into, no?

Fair warning: The rest of this post assumes you're familiar with the principles of GTD.

ToodleDo

Once I learned a little bit about GTD and decided that it seemed worth the really small time investment to try it out, I needed to find a good tool to get the job done.

I'll be the first to admit that once I found ToodleDo three or four years ago, I pretty much stopped looking for other task management apps. In addition to the now-standard ability to work with tasks on via a browser AND access tasks offline via the mobile app, it was also pretty customizable (especially where projects and contexts are concerned).

On top of that, the ToodleDo folks added an outstanding feature called Searches a couple of years back that allow you to display tasks according to a combination of criteria, so you can really tailor your visible tasks to exactly what you need. For example, you can show only the At Phone, At Computer, and At Office tasks that are due before tomorrow and have a priority of 2 or higher, sorted by importance and then due-date. Damned quick to put together and pretty powerful stuff if, like me, you're really into seeing precisely the things you can work on at any given moment.

Note to ToodleDo developers: Make Searches available on the mobile app. Pretty please? New versions of the mobile app now include searches. Thanks guys!

Alright, without further ado, here's how I've got ToodleDo set up:

Contexts

ToodleDo allows you to define your own contexts, and I've got the following contexts in my system:

My contexts in ToodleDo

  • Anywhere. This is usually just stuff I have to think about whenever I have a free moment.
  • Computer - Offline and Computer - Online. These store anything I need to be at a computer for. I recently split these up from a general "Computer" context to the online and offline variants above to make it easier to identify things when I'm on a train or airplane.
  • Errands. Pretty self-explanatory, these tasks are things that I need to do when I'm out of the house and running, well, errands. Anything from "Deposit cheque" to "Buy groceries" is on here.
  • Home. Things I need to be physically at home to do. If you've got a couple of places that you spend your non-working time (e.g. a boyfriend or girlfriend's house), make separate contexts for each.
  • Incubate. Tasks that are going to need to be dealt with eventually, but not yet. This is a sort of digital equivalent to a tickler file, I guess.
  • Office. Just like the Home context, except for stuff that I need to physically be in the office to do. Note that this doesn't hold all my work tasks (those generally wind up in Computer - Online), this is for stuff like physically going to see a coworker. Just because it's work-related doesn't mean it goes in the Office context.
  • Phone. Phone calls to make, usually with the phone number attached. So far, I only use this for calls and SMS messages, not the plethora of other things I can do using my smartphone. That sort of task ends up in Computer - Online.
  • Projects. Items in the Projects context are just containers that hold subtasks for the actual Next Steps. Remember, these are GTD-style projects, which are for anything that will take more than one action to complete. See the Projects section for a bit more info about how I've organized this.
  • Waiting For. Stuff I'm waiting for, either from other people or products I've ordered, or just from other things that I need to do first. Everything in here has a note identifying when I started waiting, which makes reviewing for overdue deliverables way quicker.
  • With Doctor and With FiancĂ©. These are 'agenda' lists (to use GTD terminology) of things I need to discuss whenever I'm talking with that person.

Task Fields

When it comes to actually defining tasks, ToodleDo has a big list of fields that you can enable or disable for your tasks. Here are mine:

My fields in ToodleDo

  • Context. This one is pretty much required to get any value out of GTD at all.
  • Due Date. I actually use my calendar to store any tasks that have to be done on a certain day, but ToodleDo requires a due date for repeating tasks, so I have to keep this enabled.
  • Repeat. This works in conjunction with Due Date for any repeating tasks that I don't want cluttering up my calendar, like a daily reminder to scan the Waiting For context. This combination works great for trying build habits and routines, such as packing tomorrow's lunch or calling parents every week.
  • Length. For most things, this is a rough guess as to how long I expect the task to take. For client-billable work, I update this field with the amount of time a task took to complete.
  • Priority. Self-explanatory, this one. See the priority section for a bit more info in how I choose priorities.
  • Tag. I use tags to group tasks by overarching project or 20,000ft goal. All my work tasks and projects, regardless of context, get labelled with TravelPod (the company I work for). Similarly, all my wedding-planning tasks and projects get a tag of Wedding, and any health-related tasks get tagged Health. Tags aren't useful on a day-to-day basis, but they make it easy to get an at-a-glance look at the volume of tasks you have for a particular part of your life.
  • Trashcan. This one just has to be there for the trashcan icon to show up ;)

Projects, work-flow, and weekly review

GTD describes projects as anything that will take more than one Next Action to complete. Washing the dishes is not a project since it can be finished in one step (assuming that you're planning to wash and dry all at once). Buying a computer is a project because there are several steps required that won't all be done at once (deciding what your budget and feature requirements are, researching for the right model, and either ordering it / waiting for delivery or going to pick it up at the store). Watch out though, because something deceptively simple like going out for dinner could become a project (brainstorm where to go, get location and time approval from everyone else, make a reservation, etc.).

As mentioned above, I keep a Projects context into which I put all of my projects. Because I have the ToodleDo Pro subscription, I create my Next Actions as subtasks under each project

My projects in ToodleDo

If you don't have the Pro subscription, you can also use either Folders or the Notes section of ToodleDo to keep a list of projects, but I've been unsatisfied with both of those options as far as speed and usability is concerned.

The general workflow for any new task is then handled as follows:

  1. Does this take more than one step to complete?
  2. If not, create a task with the appropriate context, length, tag, etc.
  3. If it takes more than one step, create a new task with the Project context.
    1. If the project has higher-level or non-obvious steps / phases, I'll jot them in down briefly in the Notes section of this task. This is really handy to refer back to when trying to sort out what the next action should be.
    2. Set the Priority to Negative and the keep the Length empty. For me, there's value in giving Next Action tasks a priority, but I haven't seen much return on assigning priority to project. Ditto for length.

The GTD standard weekly-review is then mostly a matter of going through all of the tasks with Project context and making sure that the subtasks in each are prioritized appropriately and still accurately reflect the next action for that project. This makes the weekly review substantially quicker.

Priorities

Priorities (like most of what we're talking about) come down to personal preference, but here's what works for me:

  • Top priority is used only for things that are urgent and really need to get done. I try not to put tasks in here very often in order to leave a little headroom for the big surprises and immediately urgent stuff.
  • High priority is for things that I'd like to deal with ASAP, but for which the world won't end if they're not done today. When I do the weekly review, most things that really should get done over the next week are given a priority of High.
  • Medium priority is kind of the dumping ground for stuff that needs to get done eventually, but not with any urgency. We're talking things like buying new shoes, downloading new video games or movies, brainstorming big-picture ideas for work, etc.
  • Low priority is where I put the little things that I can tend to whenever I want a break from the real work. Things in here are generally a hair's width away from being moved into the Someday Maybe list (and frequently are).
  • Negative priority has a special connotation within ToodleDo, so I reserve it for tasks that I don't want showing up in other searches. In my current system, only items with the Project context are given negative priority.

For the statistics-minded among us (we poor souls), I find there to be about 50% of non-project (i.e. non-negative) tasks that are High priority, 40% are Medium priority, and 10% in the Low priority range. Top priority tasks are so few that they hardly count.

My priorities distribution in ToodleDo.

Bringing it all together with Searches

Alright, if you've got things configured like I have above, you probably have a pretty decent GTD system in place. I was content with this for awhile, but I always felt like I was wasting time having to flip between tasks in the Phone, Computer, and Home or Office contexts to figure out what I should actually work on next.

Enter: Searches.

ToodleDo's Searches interface gives you a powerful tool to display tasks that meet criteria you define. Rather than going back and forth between contexts and having to compare priorities and due-dates, you can instead create a search that shows tasks from all the contexts you can do when at home. For me, that's Anywhere, Computer - Online, Computer - Offline, Home, and Phone. Tasks are sorted by Importance (a ToodleDo sorter which combines Due Date and Priority), and then you never have to wonder what you should be working on next.

My searches in ToodleDo.

As an added bonus, the estimated time at the bottom of the Search page sums the length for each of your tasks, so if you've filled out the lengths reasonably accurately you'll get a pretty good idea of how much work you have on your plate at any given time.

I use a number of saved searches on a regular basis, but I'll also create them for one-off situations like riding the train when the internet connection is shaky at best. I currently have the following searches saved for easy access:

  • Home. Tasks to do at home. Combines Anywhere, Computer, Home, Incubate, and Phone contexts.
  • Errands. Tasks to do when out and about. Combines Phone and Errands contexts.
  • Office. Tasks to do at work. Combines Anywhere, Computer, Office, Incubate, and Phone contexts.
  • Completed (Today). Useful for tracking client-billable work and also for a nice motivational boost to you see how much I've accomplished in a given day.
  • Projects. Shows the list of projects. This is purely for convenience, so that I can check all the projects without having to go to the Contexts section of the ToodleDo site.
  • Waiting For. Shows the list of Waiting For items. Also here only for the sake of convenience.

The team at ToodleDo has already documented how to create searches, so instead I'll just show you the recipe for my Office search, from which you can intuit how to create the rest:

My typical search configuration in ToodleDo.

  • Checked off: no. I only want to see tasks I haven't yet completed.
  • Due date only shows tasks that are overdue / due-today or don't have a date. This hides all future tasks.
    • is before tomorrow OR
    • is no date
  • Context shows only the things I can do while physically in the office.
    • is TravelPod (my office)
    • is Computer - Online
    • is Computer - Offline
    • is Phone
    • is Incubate (so that I can easily see tasks that need to be revisited)
    • is Anywhere
  • Tag hides tasks that aren't work-related. I use the opposite of the below rules in my Home search to help keep work and life somewhat separated. This diverges from core GTD somewhat, but I've found it keeps me more at peace.
    • contains TravelPod (all my work tasks have the TravelPod tag)
    • contains Perl (this is a technology I'm learning and is thus permissible to work on while in the office).

Conclusion

Whew! That was a lot of stuff to cover, but I've found this system works remarkably well for me in practice and lets me ride above the great and growing wave of things that I have to do. Give it a try, and (as always) drop me a comment or two to let me know how you're getting on , tweaks you've made, etc. Things like this aren't meant to stay static, so I'm always looking for new ways to make this more efficient :)

Stay tuned next time, where I'll write a word or two about how I use Evernote as the ultimate Read / Review, Someday Maybe, and Reference system.

Christopher Millward

Web engineer, lover of chiptunes, hobbyist game developer living in Ottawa, Ontario. @ChrisMillward


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