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Mash up GTD and Autofocus with Toodledo

GTD is David Allen's all-encompassing live-organizing goliath of personal task management methods. Mark Forster's Autofocus, on the other hand, is a supreme example of minimalism. I've written before about the two, and while - being a minimalist myself - I lean toward Autofocus, I find that it suffers from being designed to work with pen and paper rather than digital tools. My personal way of doing things is a middle road - Autofocus plus some features of GTD. And being a computery kind of guy, I find that taking advantage of the power of my iPhone is an undeniable temptation. The problem is that the ideal task manager app that fits exactly how I like to do things doesn't exist.

But there are some that come close. I've already written about using Appigo ToDo to implement an "Action List." This time, I'm going to write about stripping down Toodledo to implement a combination - a mashup, if you will - of Autofocus's simplicity and GTD's structure. The example I'll use is how I do things with Toodledo, but I'll explain why I made the decisions that I made, and what the alternatives are, so that you can decide for yourself what's best for you. Remember: your mileage will vary.

To make sure we're keeping our system as simple as possible, we start with Autofocus (AF). The key principle of AF is, I think, that your brain is fully capable of deciding what you should do next, and that all you need is a way to quickly survey what all your tasks are. Your next task depends on your current situation, and that's something you can't predict. Yet that's exactly what I think GTD would have you do by describing so many different facets of each task. Forget the meta-work needed to maintain an accurate and so-finely-multifaceted description of your tasks, which just eats into the time you could spend actually doing stuff. The real problem is that adding a task to your list is leaving yourself a direction for the future. And we suck at predicting the future. Yet specifying too much information about a task requires you to commit to a prediction of your future self. Even a science geek with a PhD in engineering like me can't predict my own situation for spit.

AF, on the other hand, is more about just leaving yourself prompts or cues, and then letting your future self decide, in the moment of choosing to complete a task, which is the best or most important thing to do.

The basic tool in AF is a simple list. You add new tasks to the end of the list. You review your tasks from beginning to end, one chunk at a time (where, if you're working with pen and paper, a chuck is a page). Breaking your list into chunks is important because your brain's ability to choose well drops dramatically as the number of alternatives to choose from increases. AF has no due dates, no contexts, no projects, and no tags.

Once we move to a digital platform, however, we can change the rules. Chunking things is still important - that's just how the human brain works. But in the digital world, we can edit and rearrange tasks very easily, and that changes everything.

Enter Toodledo.

(I note here that I'll be writing exclusively about the features of Toodledo that are supported by the free Toodledo sync service. Syncing with Toodledo's servers is useful because it (a) ensures you have a backup of your tasks, and (b) lets you use Toodledo's web interface if you're so inclined. Toodledo also offers a premium service for which you have to pay, and that provides added functionality.)

Somewhat ironically, Toodledo is targeted at GTD users, but it can easily be used to implement something very close to AF. It has one (among many) truly fascinating features: you can configure which of the many available fields you actually use. The ones you don't want to use will be completely hidden. As of version 2.1.2 of Toodledo, you can find this under Settings > Fields & Defaults. You are presented with two lists; the first is an ordered list of the fields you want to use, and the second list is of the fields you don't need. I say that the first list is ordered because the fields will be shown in whatever order you put them in the Fields & Defaults settings. You can just touch and drag the fields around into whatever order you want, and pull them from one list to the other. You can also define default values for any of the active fields. As you'll see, this is very useful.

I should mention here what I see as one of the shortcomings of Toodledo: you can't manually reorder tasks. Toodledo comes with a number of interesting built-in methods to sort tasks, but manual sorting isn't one of them. The most interesting of these is sorting by "importance," which is a value calculated internally by Toodledo based on due date, priority, and whether a task is starred. This technique is quite clever because it allows you to focus on very specific task attributes (like due dates) that are easy to set values to, and then the app combines these into a single value of importance. It's not perfect (for me, anyways), but I can see the attraction.

The problem with sorting by importance is, again, that it requires you to know when you create the task what will be important to your future self when you're looking at your task list for something to do. I vastly prefer the AF approach of giving the user more choice so that you can respond to the specifics of your current situation without having to add all those attributes to each task when you create them.

Toodledo's developers have indicated that they may add manual sorting, but apparently this will require a significant rewrite, so I wouldn't expect it anytime soon. Lack of manual sorting is a shortcoming because I don't think there's any single way to comprehensively order a whole collection of tasks that will be suitable for everyone under every circumstance. This is one area in which Appigo ToDo really shines: it has a very powerful manual reordering capacity that includes tweaking due dates depending on where you drop a task in a list of other tasks. Still, as we'll see in a few paragraphs, there can be merit to Toodledo's approach. In the end, users will have to decide for themselves which way is best for them.

Toodledo has a special list, the Hotlist, that gathers only those tasks that need to be done, based on certain criteria that depend on the various fields. The Hotlist can be a very good friend, as we'll see below.

If you put all the fields into the unused list, all you'll have is a list of tasks with no other fields at all (except the ability to add a note to a task). Combined with the lack of manual reordering, you've just turned Toodledo into a pretty good version of classic AF. The Hotlist will be useless because there are no criteria to identify the most important tasks. You can use the All Tasks list in this case, and it works fine in this role.

Now we can start adding fields, one at a time, based on the features we want. Again, I can't guess which fields will work best for you, so all I can suggest is ways of deciding and showing you how I decided. The one piece of advice I would urge you to take is to add new fields slowly. You might think that you really need one field or another, but you won't actually know until you add it and use it for a while, and reflect on whether the addition of that field is making you more effective, or more efficient, or both. If you add multiple fields at once, you will only cloud the issue and you're less likely to be able to tell if one or the other or all the fields you added are good for you. So, adding one field at a time is the way to go.

The first and most obvious field to add is Due Date. Setting a due date means that Toodledo will push that task into your Hotlist. How exactly it does that depends on how you define the due date. Toodledo supports four kinds of due dates: Due On (the task will appear in your Hotlist only on the day it's due), Due By (the default, the task appears immediately but moves towards the top of the list as you approach the due date), Due After (for tasks you can't complete until at least a given date, the task appears in the Hotlist on that date but is never overdue), and Optionally Due On (especially useful for repeating tasks, the task will be removed, and advanced to its next occurrence, after the due date). I've had trouble using Due After and Optionally Due On, on the iPhone, in that they don't really seem to do anything. However, even just having the choice of Due On or Due By is very useful.

You can then set a default value for the due date. I set it to "today" thus forcing me to make the time to either do it, or spend a few minutes deciding what exactly the due date should be.

Depending too much on due dates can be a problem. I use them only for tasks that really have a hard deadline, not just for scheduling when I would like to do them. This allows me to easily distinguish between the things I really must do today and tasks that I would just prefer to do today. It's very easy to set due dates for every task, especially if you set a default date for the field, but I would discourage you from this practise since you can (or, at least, I can) get wrapped up in doing things that really aren't due just because I prefer doing them to those other tasks that have harder deadlines.

Enabling the Due Date field in Toodledo also adds a new list to the home screen. This list orders all your tasks by due date, so you can switch to that list to see only tasks that have due dates, sorted just as one would expect. I personally don't like switching between lists because I tend to forget what list I'm actually looking at, which confuses me. But that's just me; I know there are many people who find it very useful to switch between different "views" of their tasks. If you're one of them, then the Due Date list could be very useful to you.

A second field that I find infinitely useful in any task manager app is the repetition rate for repeating tasks. When you complete a repeating task, the next occurrence is immediately scheduled. Toodledo can set the next occurrence to be due either a fixed period from the initial due date, or from the date you actually complete the task, which can be two very different things. Repeating tasks are great for things like remembering to pay certain bills, putting out the garbage, and checking certain websites, to name a few.

Another field that Toodledo supports is Start Date. Any task with a Start Date set in the future will not appear in your Hotlist until that date. You can set start dates independently of due dates, so you can have tasks that have a start date but no due date. This is a great way to put tasks off for a time, but know that sooner or later they'll pop up so that you won't forget about them.

A fourth very useful field to use is the Folder field. This allows you to create folders to contain tasks. You can use folders to group tasks any way you want. I have folders for each of the courses I teach, for each of my graduate students, and for key projects that each might have many tasks associated with them. Because I dislike contexts (more on them later), I also have folders for Home, Work, Computer, and so on. The usefulness of folders is when I'm looking through undated tasks for ones that I want to do next.

This too is an important feature of AF: that you choose what to do and work on it as long as you like. The choosing is greatly facilitated by grouping tasks into logical chunks. If all you have is pen and paper, then a page is a logical chunk. In a digital world, however, one is not so constrained, so a logical grouping by subject makes sense. Hence, the usefulness of Toodledo folders.

So far, the fields I've suggested are pretty conventional. The reason for adding them is to take advantage of the inherent abilities of a digital platform while remaining true to the intent of AF.

There are other fields in Toodledo that can be useful. Again, remember that you should only add one field at a time and the use it for a while to evaluate whether it is adding to your effectiveness and efficiency.

If you use folders, you might end up with a large number of them. This can become a meta-work problem: if there's lots of folders, then finding the right folder for a given task can become more of a distraction than an aide. If you prefer single, long lists of tasks - and if you already use AF, this could very well describe you - then you might prefer using Toodledo's Contexts.

A context, per GTD, is a classification of tasks based on circumstance - usually a location. Some apps actually connect contexts to GPS locations using the iPhone's location services. Toodledo doesn't do that. Still, with the Context field active, you get a top level list of contexts and can choose which context best describes your current situation. I'm not fond of this approach myself, but given Toodledo's popularit, many other users are quite happy. As an alternative, Appigo ToDo treats contexts as filters that modify other task lists. If I used contexts, I would prefer ToDo's approach.

In any case, contexts let you hide tasks that aren't pertinent to you current situation, so you can use it as another way to chunk tasks in a meaningful way.

One word of warning: I am not fond of using both contexts and folders. These two fields are supposed to be orthogonal - entirely disconnected from one another, but it's very easy to fall into a trap of having both folders and contexts for the same thing. And that just complicates the matters of deciding how to classify new tasks and finding out what tasks are relevant at a given moment. For instance, I could easily see myself using a folder for tasks relating to general teaching stuff, and a context for making sure those tasks only show up when I'm in "teaching mode." So the question is, where do I add a new teaching task? To the Teaching folder, the Teaching context, or both? I just can't see how having to make those kinds of decisions can improve effectiveness or efficiency; as far as I can tell, doing this just adds to your meta-work, which just ain't a good idea.

Another field in Toodledo can be useful: stars. Stars are especially useful because you can arrange your Hotlist to automatically show a starred task regardless of any other field. What I do is:

  • activate the Star field in Fields & Defaults settings;
  • set the default value of the Star field to Yes - this will automatically turn on the star for all new tasks; and
  • in the Hotlist settings, at the bottom, check the Has A Star option.

Now any new task you create, even in fast entry mode, will have a star and will appear in your Hotlist immediately.

I often find that I add tasks that I can't do now but will do later today. This is a great way to quickly and easily enter such tasks - no due date or other data is required. They'll be there in the Hotlist so I can quickly move on to other things, till I have a chance to do them. If you also happen to set a default due date of today, and sort your tasks by Importance, those starred tasks will appear quite high in your Hotlist, so it's less likely that you'll overlook them.

There's one more technique available in Toodledo that can be quite useful, if you're so inclined: tags. Indeed, you can use tags as a replacement for nearly everything else. Say you create a tag "Now" that you assign to any task you want to do as soon as possible. You just add that tag to any tasks you want to do today and, regardless of any other fields, you call easily pull all those tasks into a single screen with Toodledo.

You can also replace Folders and Contexts and even Stars with tags. By adding many tags to a task, you can make a single task appear in any number of tag-based views.  Indeed, there's a task manager app called Voodo that only supports tags (and I like it's design).

Once you enable the Tags field in the Fields & Defaults, you'll have a special list for tags on the Toodledo home screen, from which you can select any tag and see all the tasks with that tag. You can even set a default tag of Now in Fields & Defaults, so that all new tasks will immediately appear in your Now tag view - which is why tags can replace the use of stars as I described it above.

The problem I find with this approach is that you can quickly end up with many, many tags. Since all the tags are arranged in alphabetic order, you'll end up with folder tags mixed up with context tags, priority tags, and any other tags you think of. Because of this, the Now tag will likely end up somewhere in the middle of the list of tags. But you can make it appear first in the list by adding a zero (as in "0Now"). Or you can even just name the tag "0." Since numbers come before letters lexically, the 0 tag will be the first tag in the tag list.

So there you have it. A whole gaggle of things you can do with Toodledo to streamline its use in keeping with Autofocus, without getting too mired in all the different options and capabilities of Toodledo. Of course, if you use all the things I've suggested here at once - due dates, start dates, repetitions, folders, contexts, stars, and tags - then you've pretty much got GTD again.

The point is that you don't need them all. Remember: try one at a time and actually use it for a few days before deciding if you want to make it a permanent part of your task management system. That way, you'll be sure to use the fewest number of fields, which will keep the whole process as lightweight and easy as possible.


  1. Thanks for this. I have been getting to grips with toodle do and your post helped me to think through which fields and options I really needed

  2. You're welcome! That's the problem with "choice", isn't it? Choosing requires attention, knowledge, and diligence. Not 3 of the most common characteristics these days....


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