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.

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Put Things Off: Great Potential; Needs Work

PTO icon

PTO: will be cool someday

To-do apps for the iPhone are a dime a dozen. So when one comes along that goes about things differently, it’s worth a closer look. Put Things Off, by is that kind of app.

PTO is a very simple task manager, more suited to the AutoFocus crowd than the GTD folks. (If you’re already lost, try reading this.)  But it goes about things in a rather novel way: rather than emphasizing the need to do things, PTO makes it easy to, well, just put things off. Each task can be deferred by a fixed amount of time with just one tap. The period to which tasks are put off can be changed in the app’s settings.

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Getting Things Done vs AutoFocus: A Preliminary Comparison

tempus fugit

tempus fugit

Getting Things Done (GTD) is  David Allen’s blockbuster time management approach.  AutoFocus (AF) is Mark Forster’s method for staying organized, which is gaining popularity quite quickly.  Though they have they same goal, I’ve not seen two more dissimilar ways of achieving it.  As I try to keep myself organized – and (no surprise) doubtless end up designing my own time management system – researching what’s available is an important part of the process.  And while this is neither an exhaustive nor an authoritative comparison, it has been beneficial in my own thinking.  So I thought I’d share.

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My Favourite iPhone Apps (so far)

The iPhone rulez!

I love my iPhone

For a little end of the year fun (yeah, I said “fun.” So?), I thought I’d quickly summarize my favourite iPhone apps.


NoteMaster is my favourite writing app.  You can write notes with embedded images, organize everything in folders, and sync your notes with Google Docs.  It supports landscape mode for those who prefer it.  It’s clean and simple and does its job. It’s not as fancy as, say, EverNote, and not as clumsy to use either.

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Priority = impact + effort

What's a priority?

Priorities are only useful if you understand them.

There’s many time management systems and software tools that include the concept of priorities.  But priorities change with time and circumstance. Priorities can be useful, but not if you’re constantly re-evaluating them to keep them accurate. I think we can get around this conundrum with a combination of due dates and measuring one or both of two other characteristics: impact and effort.

The reason for prioritizing tasks is to help us decide now which task we should do at some future time. Obviously, we would prefer priorities to remain fixed once established. The basic problem is that they do not remain fixed. Continue reading

Teetering at the Edge of the Time Management Abyss

You need to find the time to make time.

Up until January 2008, I was a devoted Palm Treo user. To keep track of all the things I needed to do, I used a nice, simple, and useful app called DateBk by Pimlico Software.  It never occurred to me that there might be other, possibly better software (though even now, I’m pretty sure that DateBk was nearly ideal for me at the time).

Then, in January 2008, I bought my first iPhone. I had to give up DateBk and find something else. I tried a few of the simpler – and more economical – task managers and list apps, but they just weren’t enough.  Then I found Appigo’s ToDo, which I’ve written about before. It had just the right balance of simplicity and functionality, and it synced with a free web service to ensure a functional copy of my tasks were available elsewhere.

The service that ToDo synced with is Toodledo. Eventually I found out more about Toodledo’s iPhone app, bought it, and used it quite a lot.

Toodledo implements Getting Things Done (GTD), the very popular personal time management system developed by David Allen, but of which I’d not heard till then. Naturally, I became interested in understanding GTD, and while I didn’t find GTD entirely satisfying, it had many interesting features.

So I started downloading other task management apps that implemented some or all of GTD, looking for one that gave me just the right function set. Considering how cheap iPhone apps are, there was no reason not to try lots of them.  Eventually, I settled (at least for now) on Pocket Informant (which I’ve also already written about elsewhere).

As I read about GTD, I found that many people tweak the standard GTD method to suit their particular circumstances. (Try googling “tweaking GTD” to find out more.)  This gave me hope that I could come up with my ideal system, one based on GTD but better suited to my specific needs.  (Which raises another prickly question: what exactly are my needs?)

…But wait!  When exactly did I become so fascinated with time management that I wanted to develop my own system?  And doesn’t that mean I have no life?  Would I start waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I was dreaming that I was a complete dweeb?  Or, even worse, hopelessly disorganized?

Well, no, actually, because keeping organized really does give me more free time, and because this is really a design problem: I want a better balance between the work I do, the way I manage my time, and the “meta” work of improving how I manage my time.

Let me emphasize that first reason, because it’s really important.  The real reason I keep myself organized is that I’m basically lazy. Many of the things I enjoy doing most involve my wife and kids, and also a lot of sitting around, preferably under strong sunlight, and with something cold to drink near at hand, not far from one of my notebooks or my iPhone in case I am suddenly  inspired. By staying organized, I have more time to do things well but without rushing, and still have free time left over to watch TV, play with my kids, go out with my wife, and generally veg.

That is, I stay organized because it helps me live better. In my opinion, that’s the only reason to worry about staying organized.  This is, I think, a good way to check and make sure you’re not obsessing over your time management system: if you’re using time management to schedule things like “play with the kids,” you are, in my humble opinion, in deep trouble.

There’s something else, though, that eggs me onward: I’m an academic and a designer. The way I naturally look at things is from a design point of view.  Is a thing well-balanced?  What does it do well, and what does it do poorly, and why?  Things work poorly because they aren’t well-balanced in use.  And that’s the rub: I’m drawn to design something better because that’s the way I am.

So will I be going head-to-head with David Allen or Mark Forster?  No, not at all. I’ve got a job and I don’t need another one.

On the other hand, design is a service: one designs for the benefit of others, so putting my ideas “out there” is not only natural but also quite necessary for a designer like me.  (Although how exactly I shall do that is not yet clear.)

My designerly sense of all of this may be a benefit; but it’s also a hindrance because designers create specifics, not generalities. David Allen, Mark Forster, and others who develop time management systems, are trying to build systems that are in some ways very general so that they work for as many people as possible.  But my training keeps pulling me to design specific solutions for specific (groups of) people.

The problem is that I don’t have anyone for whom to design – except me. This works out well because I started all this wanting to keep my self organized.  But it also means that what I come up with is unlikely to work well for others.

Again, we’re back to the question of balance. How do I balance designing a time management system that works well for me with my designer’s instinct to design for others?

My solution is to capture the process I followed (indeed, am still following) to build my system, and to present it in a way others can reuse to develop their own time management system.  I’m using the process to develop my own system. Someone else using the same process might develop an entirely different system.

I don’t know if people will cotton to this idea – having to develop their own system – but as I see it, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Either you have to learn someone else’s time management system, possibly tweaking it over time and without any particular guidance, or you have to invest time up front to work through a process with guidance on decision-making, and then start using a system that is, in principle at least, finely tuned to your specific needs.  The advantages of weaving your own system using a process are that there’s (a) more assistance where most people need it (at the process level), and (b) less change of having to backtrack and rebuild things because your own tweaks weren’t as successful as you’d hoped.

In the end, perhaps it’s all a rationalization: I’ve long gone off the deep end, and I’m just trying to reconcile my extreme nerdiness.  We’ll see once I get things sorted and posted somewhere.

In the meantime, you can take this post as a case study in how design and balance can fit in to nearly any situation.

A new iPhone PIM on the block – and it’s good!

After all my ranting and raving about ToDo versus ToodleDo, Pocket Informant comes along and changes everything.

Just a few months ago, I went to great pains to write about my anguish over choosing between ToDo and ToodleDo as my iPhone task manager.  So it’s rather ironic that I should be writing about something else now.  But write I must, cuz Pocket Informant – though not perfect – raises the bar in some pretty fundamental ways.

When I was using ToDo and ToodleDo, I was also using the iPhone’s built-in calendar app for personal appointments.  I had another system on my server, Calcium, on which I kept my work appointments.  Calcium is cool because you can configure it to allow anyone to add an event so long as that block of time was free.  So any student could book time with me without logging in or jumping through any other hoops.  The problem with this was (a) most students didn’t make an appointment – they just dropped in, and (b) I had to “sync” Calcium and my iPhone calendar by hand, copying appointments manually when needed.  This led to more scheduling malfunctions than I would have liked.

I’d looked at using iCal on my server, but it was just too hard to sync things with my laptop at home and my iPhone, without converting to MobileMe and whatever else Apple wanted me to use.

Then along came Pocket Informant.  It’s been around for other platforms for a while, but the iPhone app is quite recent.  PI includes a very full-featured task manager, and a full calendar system.  And it syncs tasks with Toodledo’s servers (like ToDo and ToodleDo) and calendar events with Google Calendar.  And I can access GCal from any browser, so syncing my laptop would be unnecessary.  PI gives me a wide variety of layouts, including a very useful Today view of what I have to do just today.  It supports both GTD and Franklin-Covey prioritizing systems.  It also has an integrated search capacity that looks through my calendar, my tasks, and my contacts too.  Another really cool feature is that it looks for the first reasonable task from each project that has been started but that isn’t complete, and creates a list of all next actions, which are then displayed on the Today view.  Of course, you can reorder tasks in any project, so the right item comes up as the next action.  Brilliant!

There were three things I had to give up, none of which are showstoppers for me.

  1. Letting students book themselves time with me.  Fortunately, as I’ve suggested above, this wasn’t a big deal.
  2. My iPhone is jailbroken, and I had bought an app called IntelliScreen that showed my calendar on the iPhone’s lockscreen.  With this app, I don’t need to unlock the phone every time I want to check my next appointment.  IntelliScreen only works with the native iPhone calendar app, so switching to PI meant giving that up.  I can say, however, that after a couple of months of living without IntelliScreen, I’m doing very well indeed.  So I guess I didn’t need that feature after all.
  3. Under iPhone OS 2.X, third party software can’t access the system to alert the user – so event alerts and reminders in PI’s calendar don’t work.  This would be a big deal if I depended on those reminders.  Fortunately, I don’t.  And it seems that in the next release of the iPhone OS this is changed, so it won’t be long before PI’s reminders work properly.

One thing I had to think through was how to deal with my personal appointments on GCal.  I want people to know I’m busy, but not necessarily why. So I set up a “personal” GCal calendar that I can edit from either my laptop, my server at work, or my iPhone, and since that calendar is configured to hide details, others only see that I’m busy.  Combined with my other GCal calendars, I get what I need.  Not as elegant as I would have liked, but plenty good enough for me.

There are some things about PI that bother me (given my experience with ToDo and ToodleDo).  Some things are just annoying, others are probably bugs.  But PI for the iPhone is only at version 1.02, so I’m willing to cut them some slack and give them a chance to sort it out.  (I should add that the differences between version 1.01 and 1.02 were huge and excellent, so I’ve got big expectations.)  A few of these things are:

  • The star icon for “starred items” is yellow, just like the icon used to indicate that a task has a “note” with it.  As a result, I often get confused between notes and stars.
  • There’s no way to choose which GTD features you want to use.  ToodleDo let you configure that yourself, to cut down on the size and complexity of the data entry fields.  In PI, you just have to ignore the fields you don’t want.  Which means you end up tapping the wrong item sometimes.
  • The order of next actions shown in the Today view appears random; I wish there were ways to sort those things in some way.
  • There’s no “fast” way to enter a task(1).  In ToDo, there’s a “lightning add” function that uses user-defined defaults for all task parameters except the task name.

So it turns out that neither ToDo nor ToodleDo are the right answer for me.  The ability to have a calendar and a task manager together just outweighs everything else.  So I’m with PI now.

Now, there is one more app, a real dark horse in my opinion, that has huge potential.  The app is SmartTime.  It has an impressive user interface: clean, simple, and usable.  It also has a fascinating way of arranging your tasks.  You tell it how long you want to spend doing something, and SmartTime will schedule it wherever in your schedule it can find the time.  If you don’t get to something in time – i.e. you don’t mark it complete – it can just bump it forward in time to the next available slot.  And it syncs both tasks and events into GCal alone.

I really, really like it, except for one thing that, for me, is a mortal flaw: each project requires you to create two Google calendars, and the process of connecting those calendars to the projects is not very easy – certainly not as easy as it should be.  Indeed, I’ve found it to be supremely inconvenient, especially as I keep a fairly large number of projects, and add new ones quite frequently.  This is the only thing that has stopped me from switching to SmartTime.  It’s too bad, cuz I love the user interface.

Anyways, there it is.  Even if you go through massive rationalization to decide on a good solution, you must always be ready for the alternative you never thought of till someone bring it up.

  1. Update 21 June 2009: Actually, PI v1.02 does have fast task entry, but it is active only in some folders, like the Inbox.  It is not available in project folders, which is were I do all my task entry, and which is why I didn’t notice the feature till late last night.