Getting productive – an exploration into holistic task management

Introduction

To integrate tasks, reminders, notes, coding workflow into a single framework is no easy challenge. Org mode and Emacs help you do just that.

After trying out several tools, IMHO : Todoist offers the best bang for your buck, especially with it’s natural language parsing ability, smooth and reliable sync as well as its multi-platform availability. Many describe Omnifocus to be the king of task management tools, with dedicated apps for different purposes and probably well integrated.

My journey veered away from Omnifocus since it is limited to the Apple platform and this is obviously a serious handicap for people (like me) who are often forced to use multiple operating systems and devices distributed between personal and work environments.

I’d religiously managed my tasks on Todoist for over a year via the Chrome extensions/add-ins, the stand alone apps on Windows and the Mac, and on Android as well as iOS.

However, there was something missing in terms of being able to truly capture it all. This led me to Emacs. My search is summarised in this article.

Needs versus the software development

The real problem surfaced when my needs evolved at a pace and specificity that a general software’s development could not cater to. The problem is characterized by an endless wait for seemingly simple features that could make a phenomenal difference to personal workflow and productivity. This feature may range from a small tweak or bugfix to a rewiring of the basic behavior of the program itself.

Additionally, the proprietary format of tasks/notes and entries in Todoist or even Evernote is not a comforting aspect. On the other hand, using a simple text file with lists of work or notes is too simplistic to address a complex problem.

However, the issue could be resolved when the simple and ubiquitous Text file is parsed by a system like Org mode with in built and novel routines to filter and present the data in the text file in a very useful. Ultimately the key factor is that the workflow and output can be completely customised as required.

Things I’d like from a task management tool:

  1. Rapid and seamless Task/Note taking ability – could be generic, or specific to a particular project/task.
  2. Quick capturing of links and snippets from websites and emails
  3. Consistent experience across multiple platforms and very fast sync.
  4. Ability to manage personal or work related projects
  5. A date management system with atleast reasonably good understanding of natural language
  6. Refiling tasks/notes very easily across main tasks or categories or projects
  7. Customisable Views of the task summary along with the deadlines
  8. Task and Note search and filtering at every level possible
  9. Ability to easily export notes to multiple formats and write in some form of markup language so as to take care of formatting on the go.
  10. Preferably an all-in-one tool for managing notes, all kinds of writing, research, tasks, recurring reminders, maintaining an activity log/journal, project summaries .. etc.
  11. Includes ‘clocking’ abilities for tasks.
  12. Fast keyboard based shortcuts and ‘bookmarks’ to do all that is required.
  13. Recording tasks or notes from the phone, while on the go.
  14. Should have the lightest footprint possible in terms of time spent on the tool, as well as system resources with no compromise in benefits derived.

Can it be achieved?

Short answer: Yes. Through Emacs.

Sure, several of the above points can be done in Todoist and other tools, in one way or via combining different services.

However, a holistic consideration of the above points indicate a system that is a cross between Todoist and Evernote, capable of being utilised for a multitude of purposes : a customised GTD workflow plus an organiser for notes or writings. Point no 9, could serve to be a concise but incomplete statement of Orgmode’s capabilities, and is a stark reminder of Todoist’s specific expertise in only task management. Additionally, the above points can be done in orgmode, very, very quickly. Evernote has a great system, but is not as fast, because it indexes a huge variety of content. 1

Examples of workflows

Lets say that while typing up a project summary, I remember an additional task for another project or perhaps need to note down a snippet of generic information. To compensate for the lack of a photographic memory without breaking my on-going workflow – I need to be able to store the task/note/idea in a place that I can easily look up for further processing.

Such an activity is not at all streamlined with Todoist, and definitely not so with Evernote. With Org mode its just a C-c c, or Control + c and hit c again. Optionally, a C-cw for refiling the note on the spot if desired. When I hit refile – I can search through my org headings or projects and place the newly captured item exactly where it should be.

Once accustomed to the speed of recording stuff with Org-capture, along with the myriad possibilities of auto-save, backups, moving the cursor to the last location you were at, switching to another document/heading at lightning speed and etc – it will be hard to find another system that is truly competitive.

Project management via Emacs using the excellent projectile package can enable you to find information at a speed that is very pleasing. I have often needed to deal with several customers of different kinds, thoroughly understand their requirements, resolve technical and commercial ambiguities and be able to refer to earlier jobs where something was agreed upon. I’ve often worked in projects with a bewildering number of aspects to take care of, along with sporadic infusions of information which could be clarifications or even new information altogether.

Included in project / productivity /relationship management are several subsets of activities like Minutes of Meetings (MOM’s), summaries of travel/visits to the customer, telephonic discussions, indications of future projects as well as generic or specific problems.

Using Org mode, it is possible create customised workflows and templates to manage all the above aspects, more than any other note taking system, including only handwritten notes. An excellent, comprehensive overview can be found in Bert Hansen’s article.

Everybody’s needs are unique

Eventually, I guess we all come to realise the fact that each human being is truly unique. Each one of us have our own ways of thinking, being and approaching problems.

While Todoist worked very well for me – I was still bothered by being constrained by it’s proprietary format and the lack of a lifetime membership with a one time payment. Money spent should give me a tool that brings supreme value and satisfaction with it. It was also tiresome to take detailed notes on tasks and rely on a separate Simplenote/Evernote system via Sublime Text for this purpose. You may have a different viewpoint. You may want a great GUI design and app that works well on your phone in addition to other environments. 2

Orgmode is more aligned to people who prefer to get most of their work done on their computers, who are or atleast don’t mind being keyboard shortcut freaks and those who would like to take the effort to learn a souped up text editor like Emacs that can evolve to cover a lot of needs efficiently. It’s not going to work well for people who need a reminder to pop up on their phones, with a fancy GUI and those who expect a software to work extremely well right out of the box. However, this is Org mode and Emacs…. there are ways to sync your iOS / outlook calendar with orgmode’s calendar, or with wunderlist or Toodledo. Anything is possible, but it just won’t be via some classy GUI..

Concluding points

While it may seem daunting at first – the feeling of being able to search through existing notes to know whether you have met this particular thought/aspect before, can be extremely valuable and very satisfying. There are people like Sacha Chua and Bert Hansen, who’ve built complex, efficient, and beautiful workflows through which a great deal of achievement has been made possible using the resulting streamlined tool. As Cal Newport often reiterates in his blog and exploration on productivity – it is important to be able to accurately quantify the time being spent on different things. The awesome-emacs list on github offers several worthy resources, along with the excellent Planet Emacsen.

The organiser tool by itself should have the lightest possible footprint in terms of the time taken to enter in stuff. Certainly – most people spend a lifetime in customising emacs and that may seem contrary to the previous point. However, it is possible to quickly reach a certain point that results in a marked improvement in productivity and workflow. Beyond this, leisure time can always be spent in fine-tuning the basic setup and understanding the code better.

The customisation options with Emacs and Org mode are literally endless and constrained only by programming skills, or Googling skills to find the code snippet that can get your work done, not to mention social skills in getting help via online communities. This is actually a lot easier than it sounds. While a bunch of people would call this a weakness, there are a large number of people who see the value in a customised tool which will evolve to facilitate a very fast and efficient workflow.

Deliberate practise towards improvement is certainly boosted when one is able to work consistently in a environment customised to needs and workflows. Using Org mode and Emacs is a firm step in this direction.

Footnotes:

1

While Org mode is optimised for text, it is possible to attach any kind of file to a ‘heading’, and use interleave and other techniques to browse and annotate PDF’s. The possibilities are too numerous to be covered in a blog post or a single google search.

2

On iOS – I’ve found Drafts is a great app for writing fast and appending the notes to an org file, which can be refiled later, using emacs. One problem I’m yet to resolve is that appending to an org file in dropbox, requires a network/internet connection. There should be a way to deal with situations without handy internet available.

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