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Getting Things Done with Your Mac

by Giles Turnbull
03/08/2005
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 del.icio.us tags to subscribe to, and several related web sites.

The work of Merlin Mann, creator of 43folders.com 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.

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