Flow. What is Flow? Wikipedia paraphrases Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and defines ‘flow’ as the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. But, how do we find optimal flow? A feeling of ‘being’ in the moment? Isn’t it by doing what we can do at this given moment and not letting your brain drift to things we cannot handle? Complex definitions aside, in practical terms how can we achieve this? How to know what we can do now? Task lists? Yes, if they are tagged with ‘Contexts’. A part of GTD jargon, a ‘context’ is a list of tasks that share some unique prerequisite or constraint. Example: calling someone requires to have a phone, working on that report needs you to be in the office, fixing the window requires you to be at home. These locations/tools limit the tasks we can perform in any moment. What if we had such a list at hand every moment, reminding us what we could do then? What if we had a system which housed all our tasks/unfinished work and let us easily filter them via contexts?
What would that system have to do? It should let us clear our mind, capture all our to-dos as and when they pop up in our head with less friction. It should let us assign contexts to these tasks. Let us easily review the data we put in and provide myriad ways to ‘view’ the relevant data at the right time. But, more than anything else, it should scale to our needs. It should be able to adapt to our working style and not force us to adapt to its. Choosing a proper GTD system is very important. In the mac universe there were few apps which stood out in the productivity category, and I chose a beautiful and simple application to help me build my ideal GTD system. I bought ‘Things’. I loved the app’s simplicity and its deep understanding of GTD philosophy (it does so much with so less – next actions list, anybody?) I’ve been using these apps since the day I entered the Apple ecosystem. It provided a nice ‘next actions’ list – which displayed all the open action items – from which I wanted to work. But, working from the ‘today’ list became my workflow (it was too easy to work from). Today list would automatically show all my due & scheduled items for the day. So, I would plan my week in advance during the weekly review and go about doing stuff for the rest of the week just, like I should, (who would want to think in the heat of the day?). Weekly review on the mac, doing and capturing on my iOS apps became my workflow. But, something bothered me.
I almost never touched the ‘next’ action list even when my ‘today’ list was empty. Checking the ‘next’ list and drilling by context/tags almost never worked – ’cause the app filtered all the results irrespective of the fact that some were not yet actionable because of their dependency on other tasks, often showing me tasks I couldn’t perform. The iOS apps had another limitation. I couldn’t do multiple tag filters. So, if I had an action to ‘fix cupboard’ a dependent task on nails & hammer (which I had to buy first), it would show up when I filtered on ‘home’ context, even though there was nothing I could do about it till I had the hammer. This happened quite a bit with projects with multiple steps, often cluttering my ‘next actions’ list with actions I couldn’t perform, that working from it became a pain. in the iOS apps if I had a task tagged ‘important’ and ‘home’, I couldn’t, which defeated the purpose of multiple tagging. which made the mac app so great. So, my workflow was limited to a weekly review and working only from the ‘today’ list. I realised I ended up adapting to the application’s way of thinking and not the other way round.
But, my workflow was fine. Why bother then, I asked myself. What if I fell off the GTD wagon? What if I missed out on my weekly review? There was no easy way to review all the tasks in the system in one glance either in the mac app or the iOS apps, atleast not without any hacks (according to things forums, ’using space’ll solve the problem, cause it’ll automatically show all the tasks in the system as almost whatever you put into the system has more than one word – but it all shows up unsorted). So, slowly, what was in Todays list (which was mostly scheduled work) was the only work I was getting done. That’s when I started thinking about the system. Is the system helping me or hindering me? Sure, no system can do work for me. I need to. But, is it letting me find work easily? Of course you can argue, I should be reviewing all the tasks and flagging them to do. But, throwing up all the tasks pending in that view was only causing me panic and a sense of unaccomplishment, I just needed to see tasks I could do, not the ones that followed it, nor the ones I could not do if something else had to be done first. I wanted multiple tagging (on the iOS), an option to save searches to form smart folders – effectively eliminating the need to redo the same search again. Added to this, I had cluttered Things with mostly my ‘must do’ items which were not necessarily my fun items. So, slowly I started to dread the app and I focused only on the ‘today’ view and quit.
I had problems. If few were the limitations of the app (seriously which app doesn’t have one?) some were with my workflow. How do I work? Not, what I thought about how I should work but how I actually work. Next was with my emotions. If I hated the tasks I put in the system it was hardly the apps fault. What would the app do if I had so much of ’wish-I-could-avoid-this-stuff-in-life?
So, what should I do? I had to re evaluate my preferences: I needed quick capture, sequential lists, reminders, ability to hide tasks if not actionable, smart folders – saving my most used ‘ways’ of looking at data and, flexibility to rearrange the entire setup to fit my new needs should there arise any tomorrow. And, then populate it with not just nasty or no fun stuff but also with fun stuff and the stuff I love.
I just wish Things did more.
And so once again I started my search for the one app to solve my problems. But, this was not a quest to try the latest and brightest app out there but to find the best one which fit my workflow. Only one app fit that bill: The holy grail of productivity apps – Omnifocus. But, that’s an app, I ridiculed in the past for its compexity and for lack of aesthetics. But, now it boiled down to a choice between beauty and power. It had all the features I was looking for: Sequential projects help me hide tasks, perspectives were nothing but saved searches, time based reminders, configurable quick entry panel, planning mode, context mode, etc. It looked like time to switch. If you are a Beatles fan you’re either a John’s guy or Paul’s. I’m a John’s guy and leaving Things for Omnifocus felt like leaving John for Paul. But, I made the jump.