FocusTodo: AutoFocus for the iPhone

FocusTodo is for those who dislike GTD.

AutoFocus is a minimalist time management system by Mark Forster.  It certainly has its merits, especially if you find that time management systems like Getting Things Done (GTD) are too complicated.  While there’s all kinds of GTD apps for the iPhone, only recently have apps based on AutoFocus started to appear.  A very interesting AutoFocus app is FocusTodo (n.b. the website seems nearly entirely in Japanese) by Syncreticworks.

I’m going to do a short review of FocusTodo and suggest some possible improvements.  It’s a pretty cool app anyways, and I think that AutoFocus purists in particular will really appreciate it.

Time management systems are methods for organizing yourself so that you can increase your productivity, be effective and efficient, and – at least in my own case – free up more time to be with my family.  They usually involve writing down to-do lists in one way or another.  Some people think GTD is a rich and multi-layered system can cover improve every aspect of your life.  Other people think GTD is arcane, obtuse, and overly complicated.  AutoFocus (AF) is pretty much the opposite of GTD, so it appeals to those other people.

AF (in any of its variants) is designed to be extremely simple, and leverages as much as possible the natural capacity of the human brain to make quick, reliable choices in the moment.  It’s quite simple to learn – much easier than GTD – and is based on using a simple paper notebook (so it’s great for people disinterested in spending hundreds of dollars on fancy binders, booklets, specially printed pages, and thick manuals).  AF is very well-described at its website, so I’m not going to get into it here.

Notebooks view in FocusTodo
Figure 1: Notebooks in FocusTodo

FocusTodo (version 1.2 as of this writing) is a pretty faithful implementation of the original AF system, although it can be used for any of its variants too.

In FocusTodo, you create notebooks, into which you put your tasks.  You can assign colours to your notebooks and order them as you like.  Since it strictly follows the analogy of a paper notebook, you can define how many pages are in a given notebook, and how many lines are on each page.  The default number of lines per page, 8, is good because 8 items just fit on the screen without scrolling.  However, once assigned, you cannot change the page size or number of pages in a notebook.

When a notebook is full, you can delete it or archive it.  (The archive of old notebooks is accessible via the tray icon – shown at the lower right of Figure 1 – and can be useful if you need a record of when you did things.)

Once you’re in a notebook, you get a page layout like a lined notebook.  (See Figure 2.) You add one task per line, by tapping the + icon (top right).  You can add multiple tasks at once.  Each item is stored with the date and time it was created.  The asterisk to the right of each item lets you edit or delete the item.

By default, tapping a task will mark it done.  You have three choices here: cancel the operation (always good to have that option), mark the item done, or mark it done and add it again at the end of the list (this is in keeping with the standard AF method).  The date and time of completion is also added to the item.

Alternatively, you can highlight items easily in yellow, by selecting the highlighter tool from the tool-bar (see Figure 2).  The tool-bar is accessed by tapping whatever symbol is at the centre of the bottom of the screen.  By default, the selected tool is the red-pen used to cross out a completed task.  The tool-bar shown in Figure 2 is normally hidden.

FocusTodo main screen
Figure 2: Inside a FocusTodo notebook.

The space in the left margin is for icons meant to distinguish certain tasks with icons.  These icons are also accessed through the tool-bar.  There’s no specific meaning for the icons, nor are they part of typical AF systems, but it’s easy to imagine what one might use them for.

The “first” and “last” buttons at the bottom of the screen let you get to the first and last pages of your notebook.  This is an important feature derived from how AF works.  You also move from page to page with finger swipes.

If you want to undo having marked a task done, just tap it again.  Tasks are never deleted automatically – though you can do it yourself very quickly – because you keep your old notebooks for your records (in AF).

FocusTodo is a relatively small app, so it’s very fast, which is nice.

I find FocusTodo to have a very natural interface – it took me less than 10 minutes to figure out all of its features. (Granted, I already know about AF though.  Users unacquainted with AF may find it longer to get used to, but the built-in help is simple and complete).  It’s also very clean: buttons are fairly large and well-spaced, and very few taps are needed for most operations.  A lot is done with translucent popups (like the tool-bar at the bottom of Figure 2).  I like this because it keeps the main page visible as a cognitive anchor when navigating through other screens and their actions.

I think FocusTodo is a very promising app, and already quite useful, but it’s main drawback is that it is too fixed on maintaining the analogy to a paper notebook.  Here’s what I mean:

No annotations. I think it’s important that an app allow you to add notes to a task.  Let’s say you complete a task, but as a result, a number of new tasks arise.  When that happens you might be in the middle of a meeting or have to proceed immediately onto some other task, and you may not have the time to sit, think through, and add all the new tasks properly.  I’ve found it useful, then, to leave myself a note in the task I just completed: just enough of a memory cue to get me back on track later.  Once I’ve found some time later in the day, I can go back, check the memory cues, and then update the new tasks.  All you need is the ability to add notes to tasks.

No deadlines. Adding deadlines for tasks would be a huge benefit.  As it stands, you would need a separate app just for your tasks that have hard deadlines.  That’s ridiculous.  On paper, one can always add deadlines – say, in the margin – but in FocusTodo there just isn’t any sensible way to even capture the deadline.  The only place to add it is as the first thing in a task description, but that just cuts into the number of characters of task description that you have available.  The deadlines could be controlled by a Settings option, so that AF purists can just turn it off.

No task reordering. AF is built to accommodate a task list that is not ordered because it’s based on pen and paper.  But FocusTodo is an app.  The underlying goal of AF is to be as lightweight for users as possible.  If FocusTodo aimed for the same goal, I think it must support task ordering, because that’s something a computer can do extremely well, even if reordering is not part of AF.  This need for reordering impacts FocusTodo in several ways.

  1. Completed tasks really should be moved out of the way.  I suggest having an option to move them either to the very start or the very end of a task list (depending on which variant of AF you prefer); or even possibly just make them “invisible” (present but not rendered).  I hate having to wade through pages of tasks containing only one or two unfinished tasks.  True, this might seem to run contrary to AF, but remember that AF is optimized for use with pen and paper.  No way will something optimized for situation A work well in some significantly different situation Z.
  2. Deferring tasks (i.e. deciding you’ve done enough but not all of a task) in AF means marking the task done, but also adding it again to the end of the list.  FocusTodo mimics this exactly.  A deferred task appears as a crossed out task, and as a new task at the end of the list.  Again, this just clutters the list with things-marked-done.  I say: at least provide an option whereby deferred tasks are just moved to, not duplicated at, the end of the list.
  3. It is supremely painful to reorder tasks in a list, if that list is on a sheet of paper.  However, it’s trivial on a computer.  So why not allow items to be manually grouped?  This would help keep similar or related tasks together – which could be very useful for some people.  It even approximates GTD’s projects, without any of the extra interaction needed to support them.
  4. Only one line of text is displayed for the task.  Having the text truncated can be very confusing.  (It certainly is for me.) I would suggest that at least two lines worth of text should be display per task.
  5. If deadlines are supported, then it should be possible to sort tasks by deadline.  I mean, why would I want to scan through many pages just looking for the one task that must be done today?  I would suggest having only dated tasks due today appear in a special location.  All others would just be in whatever order the user would have put them.

Doesn’t remember state. When you start FocusTodo, it always takes you to the notebook view (per Figure 1), and the red marker is always the selected tool.  This is, I think, annoying.  It makes far more sense for the app to pick up wherever you last left off with it.  Many iPhone apps act this way – it can’t be that hard to program.  When restarting the app, you should be taken to the list that was last active, and whatever tool you’d selected should be the selected tool again.

The verdict: FocusTodo is a really useful app that’s a little short of being wonderful.  It’s developers have stuck too closely to the pen and paper metaphor and, in so doing, have lobotomized their app.

AutoFocus purists should love this app.  Others, like me, hope that the developers will enhance it while keeping the very clean interface intact.

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