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Getting Things Done with Your Mac

by Giles Turnbull
Running Mac OS X on Windows

I'd like to tell you about my new PDA.

I'm a journalist and a dad. I frequently need to make rapid notes and reminders of important tasks, dates, phone numbers, or URLs. I often get inspiration for new articles when I'm away from my computer, so I need to record those ideas, too.

I need something very simple, with extremely long battery life, resistant to damage by excitable two-year-olds, and easy to synchronize with the rest of my workflow.

I spent quite a while considering what hardware I could use to fulfill all these requirements. I have an ancient Palm III sitting in a drawer somewhere and briefly considered bringing it back to life. But that would be overkill. My needs are simple. And so is the solution.

Here's my amazing new PDA:

My Hipster PDA

A design classic: the Hipster PDA

It does everything I need. I accidentally dropped a mug of tea over it recently, with minimal data loss. My two-year-old can play with it whenever he likes, without me worrying that it will be ruined. And syncing with my iBook is simple: I type stuff from the paper notes right into my to do list, or in a DEVONnote document, or in a Notational Velocity note.

This wasn't my idea. It's a variant on a concept known as the Hipster PDA. It was recently highlighted, to wide acclaim, by the talented Merlin Mann, owner and publisher of a web site called 43 Folders, which has been generating a certain amount of hype and excitement in some corners of the Mac community recently.

This article is for the people who haven't heard that hype yet. Being a smug Mac user is one thing, but even the smuggest of us (including me) have problems staying organized. A great number of tips on using your Mac to help organize your life are available from 43 Folders and other sources. We're going to take a look at them here, with the help of Merlin Mann himself.

Getting Started

There's Getting Things Done (with capital letters) and there's getting things done (without). In this article we're going to concentrate on the latter, with some references to the former along the way.

If you haven't heard of Getting Things Done, or GTD, allow me to explain. The simplest explanation is that it's a book by David Allen that you can buy from Amazon for about $10. But more than that, it's a concept, a viral idea, a mission. Some observers might even call it a cult.

Because once you've got the Getting Things Done bug, it's hard to shake off.

The central idea is to change your habits so that you are automatically more organized; you always know what thing you have to do next. You stop forgetting things, you find yourself with more time for fun because you're better at doing things in their allotted time, and your life becomes a compartmentalized list of projects and files.

This is a very simplistic description of the Getting Things Done idea, and it has to be because to explain it in any detail would mean republishing the entire book, which we're not going to do. (Other people have made their own summaries of the essentials of Getting Things Done, notably Matt Vance and Merlin Mann; more from Merlin shortly.)

Instead, this article is for people who find themselves constantly trying to get organized—and to whom the idea of having a system in place to achieve that organized state is appealing. Plenty of other people have been switched on to the GTD idea recently. Besides 43 Folders, there's a Flickr pool devoted to it, some tags to subscribe to, and several related web sites.

The work of Merlin Mann, creator of and of the related 43 Folders mailing list, has inspired a lot of people (myself included) to take interest. We'll take a look at some of Merlin's works and, with his blessing, offer some useful tips for anyone wanting to be more organized.

Getting Things Done Electronically

One of the main ideas in the Getting Things Done mantra is the idea of emptying your head of thoughts. Write it all down to get it out of your brain where will just ferment and stagnate. Get it into a state in which you can put it to use.

Another central tenet is that you should have a series of "inboxes" for all the incoming stuff but that it's important to minimize the number of these inboxes. Too many of them and stuff will build up.

Usually you need more than one inbox because incoming data comes in different forms: paper stuff that gets pushed in your hand and through your mailbox, and electronic stuff that arrives in your mail client and through your browser.

Our mission for the next 1,500 or so words is to find some (only some) of the tools that can help you with that last aspect of things—ways to deal with the incoming flood of digital information that has to be processed.

So, next action: Start writing (or in your case, reading) the rest of the article.

Getting in Merlin Mann's Head

Okay, now it's time to meet musician, web geek, and writer Merlin Mann. It was his web site, 43 Folders, that caused a stir last year with its super-friendly, super-useful and very Mac-oriented tips for people wanting to be more productive.

The "cult" label is the first thing Merlin likes to tackle head-on:

"It's fashionable to cast GTD as a 'cult' partly because new practitioners tend to run on about it well beyond the point that their brow-beaten peers have tired of hearing about the thing," he says.

"The fault there, of course, lies more with the new kids' social fu than with any notional zombie-making qualities of GTD. Fair's fair."

Any "light at the end of the tunnel" self-improvement program tends to have the same requirement that newbies must "throw themselves into it with complete gusto," he remarks.

This, as it happens, is a virtual requirement of GTD, since a half-cheeked approach to the process can actually cause more harm than good—or, at the very least, will almost certainly waste the better part of a few full days.

"I think the zeal that makes people become GTD boosters comes in part from the realization that all the seemingly disparate stuff in your life can actually be wrangled into something more manageable, provided you're willing to reevaluate your commitment to all of the tiny pieces, to square your to do list with reality. That's powerful and empowering stuff the first time you encounter it."

Merlin's own moment of transition from the "religious" to the "secular" (as he puts it) came after having put GTD principles into action over a period of months. After the novelty wore off, after he'd tweaked the process to suit his needs, and after the use of it had become an automatic, no-thought-required part of his life, that's when everything clicked.

"All the productivity pr0n, and label makers, and lists of lists of lists can certainly be useful, but ultimately, they're all McGuffins. The real trick is to find the handle that gives you self-awareness and access to the parts of you that could use the most 'patching'. For many people, GTD ends up fitting that bill nicely, even if it sometimes takes a few weeks to get over futzing with 'the system'."

What GTD (the David Allen book) didn't do very well was cater to Mac users. As Merlin puts it, they "weren't invited to the party." But recently (and partly thanks to the success of 43 Folders and the interest it has sparked within the blogosphere), things have been improving for Mac users.

"There are a number of open source and free productivity software projects emerging that will work on OS X—much of it, it must be noted, based on technologies like Linux, Ruby/Rails, and other not-strictly-Mac technologies," says Merlin.

The projects he's describing include:

While he's hardly a Mac zealot ("if it works for you, just use it and move on; it's not a contest"), Merlin advocates Macs because "that's a voice that doesn't get the mic very often."

Well, we have the mic now. Let's have a look at some of the tools available.

Getting Things Done with Quicksilver

If you haven't heard of Quicksilver already, it's about time you discovered it.

This much-praised, free application lets you launch files and documents in an instant, without having to ferret around in the Finder looking for them.

Simply by hitting the key combo of your choice (usually Command+Space), you call up a little input box into which you type the name of whatever it is you want to use. Quicksilver swiftly narrows down your options to a handful of files and, with eerie Google-like accuracy, tends to have the one you want at the top of the list.

But Quicksilver is way more than just a launcher. It has modules for accessing your email contacts, your web browser bookmarks—even names inside your Address Book database. In short, it lets you find and manipulate almost any kind of data you can think of.

Once you start using Quicksilver (or one of its competitors—several are available and Mac DevCenter carried a comparison article on them last year), you'll find it very hard to go back.

This one little anecdote speaks volumes: Over the Christmas holidays, when I had to spend some time using my mother's Windows PC, I was constantly hitting Alt+Space to call up apps and files, and constantly feeling frustrated that doing so didn't result in anything happening. My fingers do Command+Space without my thinking about it; the movement is a central and constant part of my normal working day.

How does this help you get things done? It speeds up lots of minor little processes that get in the way of doing real work.

Say you're writing a document that needs to have images dropped into it. There are plenty of microtasks (open your chosen editor, open the file if it already exists, browse to your pictures folder and find the correct image, drop it into the current document) that can be hugely sped up with a tool like Quicksilver.

The less time you spend on microtasks, the more time you have for the important stuff: writing the words, or answering the emails, or making the calls you have to make.

Merlin Mann says of Quicksilver: "It's one of the two things (the other is HumaneText/Markdown) that I couldn't live without, full stop."

Getting Things Done with Your Memory

It's been quite a while since the publication of my Outboard Brains for Mac OS X article, which took an all-too-brief look at some of the apps available for keeping an electronic record of the thoughts in your head.

Some of those apps have changed a lot since then; there's a great many of them for you to try, some veering towards the outliner way of doing things, others leaning toward wiki technology. Suffice to say, my opinions have changed too. I no longer use StickyBrain but have switched to Notational Velocity as a means of storing information.

Just in the last week, in the course of researching this article, I've been very taken with the abilities of a little application called DEVONnote. It offers excellent editing and writing tools wrapped in a convenient and slick outliner. DEVONnote and DEVONthink users have been talking about using these apps for GTD; it's worth reading their comments to learn about their experiences.

There are many other software recommendations from GTD freaks. Obviously we can't list them all (we'd never finish), but here's a selection.

One of these is Life Balance, a cross-platform application for creating to do lists and outlines.

What distinguishes Life Balance is the built-in system for assigning priorities. Each new task is given a priority using a simple slider; move it one way for something essential, another way for something that can wait.

Life Balance looks at all these competing demands on your time and works out what needs to be done when; it also offers simple pie charts so you can monitor your progress and see what has been completed on time and what has been left to rot in the pile.

Merlin Mann makes extensive use of Entourage (though he uses Mail as well) and has documented some of his uses for it on his 43 Folders site. One of the most interesting ideas is about linking simple text files (funny how they keep cropping up—simplicity matters to organized minds) to tasks, events, or contacts within Entourage. Thanks to Quicksilver, adding to those text files can be incredibly swift and simple. The result? The geek-like appreciation of text files combined with the boss-pleasing calendar functions in one of Microsoft's best-known Mac products.

Witch is a new, little utility that enables rapid keyboard switching between individual windows, not just between apps. Better still, it allows you to access minimized windows without having to mouse over the Dock.

For tasks that recur systematically (or even semi-randomly), there have been many pointers to Sciral Consistency; like Quicksilver, it's an app that takes some getting used to but can be very helpful to the eternally forgetful.

Since the process of getting things done often involves making and maintaining lists, there's a great deal of crossover with the world of outliners, of which there are a dozen or more excellent competing applications to choose from. About This Particular Outliner has this covered in far more detail than we could ever manage here; Ted Goranson's writings on the matter are authoritative and always a good read.

It's useful to mention a handful of recent outliner-related memes, worth considering alongside Fraser Speirs' OmniOutliner experiments:

Gee, some people even find iCal useful. Day Chaser is aimed at people wanting more than iCal's basic offering, but in some respects it is more like a slimmed-down Entourage than a beefed-up iCal.

Task Completed

Finally, some more pointers for the curious.

Here are the apps that Merlin Mann lives in: TextMate, TextEdit, OmniOutliner Pro 3, NetNewsWire Pro, Transmit, iTunes, BBEdit, Ecto, Excel, iVolume and Volume Logic, AutoPairs, WordService.service, and xJournal.

And these are the apps your humble correspondent lives in: BBEdit, DEVONnote (as of about two weeks ago), Notational Velocity, Eudora, Firefox, X-Chat (did someone say "productivity"?), QuickImage, MarsEdit, and Graphic Converter.

My system is very simple: New to dos get written into todo.txt in BBEdit or on my paper PDA when I'm not at the computer (from which they will later be transferred to BBEdit). Articles and ideas for articles are stacked in a sensible (to me) hierarchy in DEVONnote. Snippets of stuff that I have to remember get shoved into Notational Velocity. It works, mostly.

Everyone's requirements are different. I've written before about mine, which boil down to something pretty simple. As a writer, my to do list is mainly a list of things to write or ideas for things to write. I wanted a simple GTD system that allowed me to write swiftly in the same environment I use to manage my list of ideas. At the moment, DEVONnote performs that task very well.

It's important to remember that getting things done (no caps) isn't so much a "state of mind" as an "application of self." It doesn't matter how many PDAs (electronic or otherwise) you own or the number of incredibly cool applications you install in your Applications folder. Your efforts to be more productive will fail unless you want them to work. In addition, there's no rule that says you must read everything there is to read about gtd (or GTD) and apply it all; take what helps you, and use that. The rest is a someday/maybe.

Ultimately, many of the steps you can take boil down to a willingness on your part to make something happen. Self-imposed systems of goal-and-reward will only work if you have the determination not to break the rules and reward yourself anyway, even when you haven't reached the goal.

Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at

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