Wrestling With Task Managers

2017 appears to be the year I either sort out my to-do list, or abandon all hope.

At the moment, abandoning all hope seems far more likely.

Let’s start at the beginning, which is about ten years ago when I stumbled across the then very-new GQueues while trying to find something better suited to my mental organization style than Todoist had proven to be. (For people who think like Todoist, that’s a pretty decent system. I’m not one of them.) GQueues lets me to do things I need from a task manager: hierarchical tasks, project organization, the ability to attach links and notes, and I can color-code projects to match my Google Calendar color scheme. But I walked away from it earlier this year for a bit because it doesn’t allow a basic user a calendar view (integration with Google Calendar for subscribed users), and I was trying to develop an editorial calendar that made sense to me.

I briefly tried Trello, but it turns out that a board system only works for some of my projects and not so well for others. I wasn’t willing to split my time between even more task managers than I currently am (we’ll get to that in a moment), so I tried Asana. I had tried Asana before and found it a bit too inflexible for how I prefer to work, but they’ve made a number of changes. Each project space has its own calendar, which makes it easier to see everything related to that project in one place and easier to shift things around when schedules change. And you can decide whether a list or a kanban-style board would be better for each project. But repeating projects don’t work the way you expect them to, and completed repeating tasks don’t go away unless you delete them, removing any trace of your hard work. (Asana does not see this as a problem, and has refused all requests to change this behavior.)

So, I shifted back to GQueues, my projects much more streamlined after a turn through Asana. And I was working along happily…until a recent revamp that, without warning, reduced the number of characters available to a queue’s global notes. (I lost so many notes in trying to address this discovery.) In an angry panic and a certain fear of losing more to GQueues (nothing like this had ever happened before), I shifted everything back over to Asana…only to find the system’s true weakness. Asana has no one place where you can see all of your tasks across all of your workspaces, and connecting it to Google Calendar was unpredictable. (To be fair, Asana warns you up front that there are some hiccups between the two.)

It took two missed auditions and a nearly missed work deadline to realize that was not going to fly. I need a central list with all of the day’s task. So back to GQueues I have gone, mindful of the situation in the global notes. (I’ve also started streamlining the notes of separate tasks…just in case…) I also have a Smart Queue for the week’s task, so I can still look head while working on the day’s tasks.

Earlier, I said I split my time between task managers. About a year and a half ago, I started using Habitica. (Re-using, really, since I first used it back when it was HabitRPG.) Habitica is a charming task manager that turns your to-do list into an RPG. You take on a class. You join a party and guilds. You complete quests. You earn XP, gold, and loot for just getting things done. And while it’s fun and all, it’s not really geared toward managing large projects…or long-term projects…or multi-part projects…or “down the road” tasks. That said, it’s great for managing habits you’re working on and predictably repeating tasks (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.) with a minimum of fuss and clutter. It’s also good for keeping immediate projects you’re working on, and for prioritizing your day. You can even include notes and links, and decorate your tasks with cool little emojis.

For the time being, I use GQueues and Habitica in tandem. Far fewer things slip through the cracks. Far fewer project steps or pieces get forgotten. It’s worked fairly well for me. On GQueues, I keep track of those large, long-term, multi-part, and “someday” projects. On Habitica, I keep habits, daily tasks, and the projects I’m currently focused on. I even manage my reading and listening habits, keeping upcoming books, audiobooks, and audio dramas on GQueues, and the one(s) I’m currently reading on Habitica. (I’ve helped my party defeat more than one boss, simply by reading a Brandon Sanderson novel.)

I assume I’m settled for now, but you might be struggling with your own task/project management woes. Perhaps you can find a solution somewhere in my own experimenting. If you do, let me know in the comments!



Lessons Learned From Reconnecting With Journaling

Like so many little girls, I grew up with a journal hidden somewhere in my living space. Okay, mine might actually have been sitting out wherever I left it last. Still is. The point is, I’ve spent most of my life with a notebook in my hand, documenting life, working on ideas, trying to keep track of things.

But last year, my life took a pretty hard hit, and like so many other things my journaling stopped being useful. It wasn’t that I stopped journaling. It’s more that it became nothing but a to-do list of those things I was doing just trying to keep sane when sanity just wasn’t to be had.

I came into 2016 hoping to put 2015 squarely behind me quickly, and that meant getting my to-do list under control and actually serving my various projects. Which really meant getting my journal and my daily habits going again to help focus my day. But it hasn’t been the easiest path.

I started hearing about Bullet Journaling and gave it a look. While it isn’t for me, it has made me realize that my journal is not only my notebook, but also my digital life management tools. And it has inspired me to be more conscientious about how I rebuild my journal. My daily habits have been restructured into Tiny Habits to support my personal and project goals. (I also identified some daily habits that were nothing but time sucks and kicked them to the curb.) I also now have a better weekly review process that is already helping me find and change what hasn’t been working in my weekly routines and work habits. It’s proven to be a good start.

Some of the Bullet Journaling community are exploring merging GTD and Kanban into their journals. While GTD has not historically worked for me, I looked into it again to see if that had changed. I even found a system that converts Evernote into a GTD/Kanban workhorse and started cleaning up Evernote. It turns out my brain still does not do GTD, and Evernote is nothing more than a cabinet in my workflow. But it’s a more organized, more relevant cabinet now, so I consider that a win.

The Bullet Journaling community is a very visual group, which I’m not. But in the spirit of giving it a fair chance, I’ve started adding color to my paper journal in the form of tick boxes shaded with colored pencils, and I’ve discovered washi tape to add a bit of personality to my pages. The tick boxes have turned out to be invaluable. In only three weeks, I started seeing at a glance where things weren’t working, and what really needed to be tracked. (I also started scheduling my colored pencil pattern so it creates pretty gradients on my page.) I’ve made some great improvements in my study habits, inspired by the sudden discovery I’m more likely to keep up with audio materials than text materials, and I’m doing a much better job of keeping up with my daily reading.

One of the stranger side effect of falling in with the Bullet Journaling crowd has been joining #rockyourhandwriting. As I said, many BuJo enthusiasts are very visual people. They doodle. They handletter. They’re really kind of cool. But this hashtag simply invites participants to work on their daily handwriting as they respond to a prompt. I’ve been wanting to create blocks of text in my graphic design for a while, and this has proved to be just the nudge I needed.

I don’t know if any of this was interesting. Maybe you’ll read this and consider looking into Bullet Journaling or GTD to help organize your work and keep you moving forward. Maybe you’ll check out #rockyourhandwriting and come write with us. Maybe you’ll stop following this blog. But for the first time in three years, I feel closer to being in control of what I get done.

Creating Editorial Calendars

Creating an editorial calendar has always seemed like a good idea. Write down key events you need to be aware of as you’re working, and then plan your work to coincide with those events. It gives your work a structure, a deadline, and a theme…all in one little calendar.

My problem, though, is that sometimes I work toward something going on, sometimes I work to my own little themes because I realize I have something really on my mind, and sometimes I just write in response to something going on. Not only do I have these random bursts of meaningfulness, but I also keep a backlog of ideas for those times when I’m not inspired by something at the moment.

The first three groups are often added to my GQueues task list as I think of them, and they’re dated with the date I want to write about them, which then changes to the date they’re going to post when I’m ready to share them. But that last group has no dates because they’re “filler” ideas, something to do when I’ve got nothing better to do.

How do you account for those on an editorial calendar when you’re tying yourself to a dedicated calendar or integrated calendar/task list situation? I haven’t figured that out yet.

At first, Springpad looked like it might offer some hope. There is a Blog Planner app… that keeps track of your blogging archive (pretty sure that’s what your blog is for), your ideas for future posts (good), and what claims to be a schedule for your posts…but doesn’t actually link to anything that would help you keep track of when things are supposed to happen (bad). There’s a calendar that should integrate with Google Calendar. I haven’t tried out the integration yet, but each new “event” creates a new note, and I’m already trying to manage nearly 2,000 notes. (No, I’m not making any apologies for that.) You’re also only aware of upcoming events (if you choose to not integrate) if you set an alarm or if you continually check the calendar.

That doesn’t exactly simplify my situation.

WordPress also has a plugin to set up an editorial calendar in your Dashboard, but again, it only deals with those posts that are drafted and have publishing dates assigned to them. Not terribly helpful, either, especially when some of my posts have to double-post to my website and my dA account. Scribefire, which I relied on quite often when I was using Firefox, doesn’t have the ability to handle multiple posts (and refuses to recognize my blog, anyway) in Chrome, so that’s no good, either.

For now, I suppose my current set-up on GQueues will have to suffice as the best possible set-up. It’s really frustrating, though.

Knowledge Without Action is Pointless

I have this written down in a notebook somewhere. after the past couple of week, though, I’m thinking I should write it on a sticky note and tack it to my monitor so I’m less likely to forget.

You see, some people collect stamps. Some collect comic books and collectible figurines. Some even just collect “stuff”. Me, I collect information- articles, notes, pictures, what-have-you. I thought I was keeping it all neatly organized across delicious, EverNote (or whatever note-taking app I was using at the time), and my online journal. All of this lovely knowledge right at my fingertips.

Except any time I needed information on something, I never stopped to see if I already had that information. I looked it up on Google, and then added the newly found information to my collection.

If you think this led to a massive collection of duplicated and useless notes, you’re right. I didn’t realize just how out of control my collection had grown until I went to try Springpad (which, with its most recent changes, is probably about to become my note-taking app). I thought I’d get a certain subset of my notes under control while playing with Springpad and seeing how things worked. It took me nearly three months to pull that subset into Springpad. I had to hunt down everything because not everything was neatly organized to begin with. I promised myself I’d fix things, but I never quite made it back.

I didn’t give it another thought until earlier this year when I decided to see what I already have information on for this learning project I want to do. I pulled all of the notes relating to those skills into a spiral notebook, which took two months because I had to hunt down everything. And then I started realizing there was a lot there I already knew, so I had to delete those notes. And then I realized I had the same information in ten to twenty different places (that’s not an exaggeration) and had to delete all of the duplicates. By the time I had everything not outdated or duplicated in the notebook, I’d filled 60% of a 5-section spiral notebook. By the time I finished sorting out and grouping notes, I’d removed another 40% of my notes.

The point is: I never should have been in that position to begin with. Notes are meant to be living documents. They’re meant to be worked with, used up, and thrown out. The work may not happen quickly (I do have a ton of ideas for writing and other creative projects that have been building up for years), but it should happen. Having the knowledge and not doing anything with it doesn’t do you or the knowledge you hold any good.

Why Did I Bookmark That?

I’ve been trying to organize and consolidate my presence online, starting with the components of my PLE. I literally had notes, links, and thoughts stored everywhere when I started this little project six weeks ago. Now, I have notes, links and thoughts nearly everywhere. I’ve managed to get my to-do list consolidated and working well, and now I’m turning my attention to my notes and thoughts.

Right after I started streamlining my notes and thoughts, I realized I might want to re-read everything I have on information architecture and tagging in the hopes I might actually make my storage methodology more useful this time around. But as I started going through my links on delicious, I noticed a disturbing trend: Many of the articles I was reading were about things I’d already considered when I was setting up to reorganize my notes.

Even worse, there were a fair number of articles that covered concepts I’d learned in collections management classes in grad school. It made me wonder why I’d bookmarked those articles to begin with.

Somewhere recently, I read that bookmarks are almost a bad idea because the information either becomes outdated or part of your base knowledge before you ever really get back to it. In my case, though, bookmarks seem to be a bad idea because I’m almost using them more to validate what I already know. Occasionally, I’ll bookmark something because it’s an interesting twist on something I already know, but more often than not, it’s just redundant.

It’s certainly something I’ll be keeping in my mind as I read through my links when I’m cleaning them up, or when I’m reading through them while working on the projects I saved them for. Do I really need this? Do I already know this? If I recognize this, why am I not trusting myself to remember it?

Productivity Ninja: GQueues

About a month ago, I posted about my attempts to get Todoist and Remember the Milk to handle my task lists in a way that worked with my brain. A commenter suggested that I check out Gqueues, and I did. After a month of using GQueues, I only slightly miss Todoist.

GQueues allows me to create tasks, break those tasks into subtasks, tag and re-mix sets of tasks, and leave notes on tasks. Tasks and subtasks are easily moved around (although they don’t always land where you drop them). I colored my lists to match the GCal label the tasks went with, even though the GQueues calendar in GCal is the all one shade.

Where GQueues makes me miss Todoist is in how it interacts with its gadgets. You can see the tasks. There are toggle boxes to check them off. Nothing actually happens when you mark something as done, though. I keep hoping that eventually that will be fixed, but for now the gadgets are good visual reminders of what needs to get done.

There are some definite hiccups, but the site is young and growing, and the staff is pretty responsive when you let them know you’re struggling with something. They keep evolving features, which is helpful. When I started, you had to create duplicate tasks for recurring tasks and use a complicated, carpal tunnel-inducing keyboard shortcut to create subtasks. Both are now much easier processes to accomplish.

All in all, I’m pretty happy working with GQueues as my task manager.

Productivity Ninja: Todoist vs. Google Tasks vs. Remember the Milk

I’ve been slowly trying to convince myself to streamline my workflow. I wanted to start with my calendar, but that soon gave way to wanting to think about how I maintain my online notes, which in turn gave way to stressing over my to-do lists.

Actually, it may have been the last Firefox upgrade that led to my focusing on my to-do lists over everything else. You see, I’m in love with Todoist. I have been for quite some time now. I used to keep it open in my sidebar so it was always right in front of me, keeping me on task. But the extension didn’t keep up with Firefox through the latest upgrade, and I’ve been forced to find another way to keep my to-do list in front of me while I try to work out my calendar.

Really, my calendar and my to-do list are tightly tied together, so I guess learning that Google Tasks integrated into Google Calendar also led to my focusing on my to-do list. At first, I thought I’d like Google Tasks. It allows for hierarchical tasks like Todoist, and it allow for separate projects like Todoist. It actually puts the task on my calendar on the due date, which makes it far more visible.

There was a problem, though. It only shows tasks for the selected project, and only one project can be selected at a time. Those familiar with how I work know that I’m usually juggling two or three projects at a time. It wasn’t practical because I was almost spending more time jumping between lists as I tried to make sure I was getting everything done.

I thought about going back to Todoist, but I am starting to have my calendar tab open more than my iGoogle tab (where my Todoist gadget happily keeps me company). It wasn’t the right solution.

Then, I learned Remember the Milk, which I’ve avoided forever because it doesn’t offer hierarchical tasks, had a Calendar gadget. I’ve decided to give it a try. I’ve only been using it for a week, but I find that I’m liking it for managing recurring tasks (which it handles far better than Google Tasks) and for more straightforward, smaller projects. It’s easy to use, has gadgets for both Calendar and iGoogle that allow me to see what’s due on all of my projects today and through the next few days. It also allows me to tag and annotate tasks, which has already proven useful more than once.

I’m not really ready to give up Todoist for Remember the Milk on larger, more complicated projects yet, but the two working in tandem seems to be my best solution so far.

Living and Working in the Same Space

Whether it’s in a studio apartment, a dorm room, or even just a room in a shared house, a lot of us wrestle with the challenge of living and working in the same space. It’s easy to let one overtake the other if you don’t have a plan in place.

I’ve been wrestling with this problem for over a year now. In my case, the problem stems from the room’s architecture. It’s an odd size. The window and doors, placed well for a bedroom, impede the development of a good workspace. I’m finally to the point where I’m thinking about making the room look more like an office that someone just happens to live in, but that hasn’t been terribly helpful yet, either. I’m also looking at keeping the furniture simple and modular so I can experiment with arrangements until I find the right one.

Through this process, though, I’ve learned a lot about how I live and how I work. I’ve known for years that I don’t need a whole lot of living space because I tend to either be at my computer working or playing, or I’m curled up on my bed with a book or my DS. Now I know that I need space to spread out to work. (It’s amazing how often I work on my bed because of space issues.)  I also work better if I have something interesting to look at (and sadly, my lilac wall covered with a calendar and to-do lists isn’t it). That’s helping me stay focused on what I really want as I redesign the room.

So, what I’ve learned about trying to create a space I can both live and work in:

  • If something doesn’t work, tweak it before making a radical change. A small change can sometimes make a big difference. (I moved my desk over to a wall to make room for my bookshelves. The move wasn’t thought out beforehand, and now I’m stuck at a desk that doesn’t inspire to do anything but ask myself why I did this.)
  • If something worked but needs to change to make another change happen, think through the change carefully before implementing.
  • Figure out what your must-haves are, and then don’t give them up and call it “compromise”. It’ll make you miserable and potentially leave you with a productivity-sapping workspace.

If you’ve had to arrange a space so that you could both live and work in it (or if you’re currently going through this process), how did you resolve problems?

Make Do With What You’ve Got

“Life consists not in holding good cards but in playing those you hold well.”- Josh Billings

The idea of making do with what you have is coming up a lot lately. In these tight times, recycling and repurposing is becoming an art form. Getting the most you can from what you have is more important than keeping up with the trends.

But recycling and repurposing aren’t just for materials. Being able to reframe skills and past projects allows you to get more from yourself. And just like repurposing material possessions, repurposing your skills gives you the opportunity to consider “what if”. It allows you to become more flexible as you consider different ways to apply those hard-earned skills (or different audiences for past projects if you are able to go that route).

More than that, figuring out how to refine your skills or to use them more efficiently can make you valuable. You can take classes to differentiate or sharpen your skills. You can volunteer or write for trade journals to keep in practice. Focusing on making your skill set stronger or more visible makes you a better commodity.

During a time when no profession is safe from the specter of unemployment, focusing more on how you can use or sharpen your skills can help you become more useful at work or can help you find your feet when that dreaded pink slip arrives.