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The Toad

I’ve been pretty quiet the last two weeks. Sorry about that. It’s not for lack of topics to write about. Have I been traveling? Making progress on my backlog of novels? Proving theorems? No. Mostly, in time I might have spent writing posts, I’ve been planning my life. That’s too generous. Really, I’ve been immersed in the inane endeavor of planning how to plan my life.

You know Arnold Lobel’s wonderful children’s book characters Frog and Toad? They are good friends, and their adventures are told in four books published during the 1970’s, each comprising five short, easy-to-read stories. Frog and Toad Together, the second volume, opens with A List. Many years ago, when my old friend Dan had two young boys, he had me read it. Perhaps he arranged for me to read it to one of the boys. I didn’t realize it was a setup, with Dan knowing that I would recognize myself as the living embodiment of Toad.

If you don’t know the story, you can read part of it at Google books here. Or, with more time, you can see an animated version in two parts, starting with the embedded youtube clip at the top and continuing below. Pay special attention to the part in the second and third minutes of part 2.

[Spoiler alert: In this paragraph, I’ll give away some of the plot.] The story opens with Toad waking up and making a list of things to do for the day. He starts with “wake up,” then immediately crosses it off. The climactic moment occurs later, during Toad’s walk with Frog, when a gust of wind blows the list away and Toad is paralyzed. He has no idea what to do next, so he resigns himself to sitting where he is and doing nothing. Hours later, Frog suggests to Toad that they should go to sleep. Toad exclaims, “Go to sleep; that was the last thing on my list!” Calm is restored. He scratches the words on the ground with a stick, crosses them off, and goes to sleep.

What does this have to do with me? I could write pages on the matter, but I don’t want to get too personal. Here are some highlights of my list-making evolution:

1. I used to have a powerful memory. I had no need to write down lists. My head was filled with them. I didn’t keep a calendar either. Every obligation I had was recorded in my brain somewhere, as well as phone numbers, birthdays, and whatever else people normally write down.

2. I got older. My memory weakened. Or maybe I decided all this data was cluttering it. Time to write things down. After some years, I developed a system in which I would take a sheet of 8.5″x11″ paper, fold it down the middle horizontally, and, well, never mind. I had a system. It worked. The sheet lasted a week, after which I would make a new one. And I crossed stuff out compulsively, like toad.

3. Those crossouts looked ugly. Eventually, I switched from crossing out to cutting out. This was a partial improvement, but my sheet of paper got to look pretty weird as the week went on.

4. Computers. The Palm. Aha! I could type all this stuff. I still needed written lists, but I could simplify them by keeping some of the information on the computer and sync it with my Palm. This would be nine years ago, when I became department chair. It was also at that point that I began to maintain a To Do list as a Latex file, with all the things I had to do organized into various topics. Personnel matters. Curriculum issues. Whatever. I don’t even remember. It got more complicated when I moved into the Dean’s Office. It worked, though. And I kept parallel lists at home for various projects or trips.

The beauty of using Latex was that I could easily control hierarchies of projects. If you use Latex and its list functions, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, I’ll just say that it beats using Word a thousand times over, as it does in every other possible formatting arena, provided of course that you’re willing to learn the appropriate Latex commands.

5. My system worked well, but I would revise my To Do list daily, which involved a fair amount of editing. And then I’d have to print it and carry it around. I couldn’t sync it with my Palm. Then, a few years ago, I realized that the To Do list built into Microsoft Outlook (which I intensely dislike, but had to use at work as part of the office’s shared scheduling system) could sync with my Palm. I proceeded to experiment over several weeks with making this work. I never did like how it looked — on the PC, on my Palm, or printed out. And I had lost a lot of flexibility. I abandoned it.

6. Two years ago, I left the Dean’s Office and was freed of PCs and Windows. I could put my work and home life on to Macs, with syncing to my Palm, and later (even better) my iPhone. This made my calendars and contacts seamless, but I maintained my old To Do list system. Then, some time over a year ago, I explored for the first time some of the dedicated list programs for Macs, such as TaskPaper and LifeShaker. I came to understand that the main benefit any of these programs offers over my home-made Latex system is that they let you drag items up and down, re-arranging the order, rather than having to cut and paste. And they also let you change the items’ hierarchical positions. But the programs I looked at either had totally useless features I didn’t want to be bothered with or didn’t look as attractive as the output of my own system. I abandoned them.

7. And that brings me to my latest obsession. Two weekends ago, I saw in Apple’s list of hot apps at its iPad store an app called Things from Cultured Code. This had already existed for the Mac and iPhone, but I was unfamiliar with it. It’s a fairly sophisticated To Do program, and I liked what I read about it. Many of the reviews of it compared it to The Omni Group‘s program OmniFocus, which has existed for many years but which I was also not familiar with.

That Saturday night, I downloaded a trial version of Things for my Mac and spent hours using it. I figured the best way to test it was to convert my Latex-based to do list onto it. It looked promising, but I wasn’t yet convinced. In bed that night, I studied up on OmniFocus, read some reviews and blog items comparing the two, then watched a half-hour screencast video through ScreenCastsOnline on using OmniFocus. Early Sunday morning, I downloaded a trial version of OmniFocus and really got to work, moving my life into an OmniFocus file. It didn’t look as attractive on the screen as Things. Plus, it’s not yet ready for the iPad. (Any day now, we’re told.) And, like Things, it’s not cheap. But it clearly fit my way of thinking better than Things does.

I should explain that in the background is a conception of life organization I am completely unfamiliar with, known as Getting Things Done. The GTD guru, David Allen, explains all in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I haven’t read it, but from learning about and using OmniFocus, I have learned one essential concept — contexts.

What you are encouraged to do in OmniFocus is list everything you need to do. If an item is not itself a step, but requires multiple steps to complete, you elevate it to a project and put steps below it in the hierarchy. In project mode, OmniFocus lets you do all this extremely conveniently. As I already noted, you can move items around, indent them as “children” of other items, organize projects into folders — Work, Home, and so on, or maybe Work, House, Medical, Travel, Finances, Children, whatever. This is the planning stage. But now comes the key — if you adopt GTD principles. To each item you attach a context, which is whatever you want it to be but it should be the context you need to be in to perform the step. If an item is “buy hammer”, maybe the context is Errands, or Shopping. You can even build hierarchies within Contexts, so under Errands could be Errands:Home Depot or Errands:Safeway. There could be an Office context, a Home context, a Phone context (for things you can only do when you’re at the phone). Anything you want. The power of OmniFocus (and other GTD programs) is that you aren’t simply making a list in planning mode. You are really creating a data base, with each item being put somewhere in the project hierarchy, but also having (if you wish) a context attached, a due date, a start date, etc. You can then have different views of the data, filtered by a variety of criteria. But in particular, you can have a context view. Call up the context you’re in, see what steps you’re now in a position to perform.

I haven’t gone to this length. What I have found useful, though, is the opportunity to view my to do items — which I generate within projects within folders of projects — by date due, so that I can see at a glance the items I want to do in the next day or two. This forms the basis for my creating daily to do lists. And yes, I still write them down on paper.

That’s how I spent most of my free time for the next week, revising my OmniFocus data, learning more about the program’s features, re-thinking what data I wanted to attach to each item, re-thinking which views of the data were most useful. Oh, that first OmniFocus day, I also got it for my iPhone and tried out syncing. Unlike the Mac, the iPhone has no trial feature. I had to buy it, for $20, pretty steep for an iPhone app. But I needed to see how syncing worked before paying for the computer version. It works well. I’m not so thrilled with the iPhone app’s presentation of the data. It’ll do, but it’s nothing like the computer experience. What I’m waiting for now is the iPad version. I’m sure it will have benefits over the computer. For instance, if I want to move an item up or down in the ordering, I now grab it with my mouse. On the iPad, I assume I’ll be able to grab it with my finger and move it into a new place. That’ll be swell.

8. Alas, that’s not all. Having read up on all things Omni last week as I learned more and more about OmniFocus, I decided I had to try OmniOutliner. That became my project for last weekend. I downloaded the trial version Saturday night, tested it out, then spent Sunday morning watching a series of ScreenCast tutorials. What’s OmniOutliner? Maybe you don’t care at this point. I’ll just note that it too lets me make lists, drag items up and down, and change their hierarchical structure. But it’s not a single database with different views. It’s a list or outline program that creates multiple files. It does both more and less than OmniFocus. I could have used it — I now realize — instead of OmniFocus to do all that I used to do with my Latex-based to do list. And it would have the benefit, like OmniFocus, that I could move items around without cutting and pasting. What it wouldn’t do is organize the data from different views, like project view and context view.

On the other hand, it’s absolutely perfect for a variety of other lists I keep besides to do lists, lists I have historically made with Excel, and that’s what I’ve been experimenting with in recent days. It doesn’t have the power of Excel, but it has so many benefits, like being able to create different styles effortlessly for different levels in a hierarchy. I could for instance replace my holiday present list on Excel with this, having headings for different categories of people (immediate family, other family groups, etc.) in one style and then people’s names in another style. And if I want to move groups or individuals around, I can do that effortlessly as well.

I’m hooked. I bought it. Now I await the imminent and long-overdue version 4 as well as the iPad version, both due this summer.

And last night I realized I could use it to replace my written daily to do lists. I haven’t quite mastered this yet. But once it’s on the iPad (and maybe iPhone), I can have my daily list viewable wherever I am, without having to write it down. And without having to cross out or tear off any items. I can just delete them.

Life is good!

Write post about idiotic obsession with to-do- and list-making software.

Go to sleep.

Categories: Computing, Life, Stupidity
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