What to do, what to do

With the new semester approaching (why is the most appropriate metaphor an oncoming locomotive?), I thought I’d get prepared ahead of time. Feel free to follow along.

Last year I got around to reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Over ten years old, it’s a bit of a cult in the private sector and with IT people especially (witness its coverage on Grad/ProfHacker). Reading the book for myself, I was fascinated by the way in which he broke down all the types of tasks and projects into discrete elements, and combined them into a coherent system. And his discussion of the psychological barriers to organization and productivity rang oh-so-true to my ears. If you know much about his system, you’ve probably seen this summary diagram floating around the internet (and you know I give him extra credit for creating a diagram with icons):

Advanced GTD summary

Advanced GTD summary

Reading his book, I kept saying, “Yes,” “Word,” “True dat,” and other hip affirmations from the 1980s and 1990s. His main points, not all of which are original to him, include:

  • You need to have a system that you trust, so your brain is free from constantly thinking about what you have to do next, or worrying that you forgot something. Externalize, so your brain isn’t reviewing your day’s agenda while you’re in the shower.
  • Put everything in a comprehensive system (paper or digital), one where every possible type of information has a place, and you always know where exactly to look for any piece of info. My system consists of DTPO and Pocket Informant (with the tiniest smidge of Evernote).
  • Atomize your tasks into small, actionable items that can be done in a short period of time. Keep chipping away at larger projects to avoid getting buried.
  • Keep tasks separate from calendar appointments (appointments are “hard landscape” as Allen likes to say, and cannot be moved like most tasks can). Use a system that allows you to see when tasks are due and how they interact with appointments, but don’t use your calendar as the main place to store tasks.
  • Review your system frequently: daily, weekly, and monthly/quarterly/yearly.

If you consistently follow these steps, you will feel more in control, thus freeing your mind for more important matters.

Not all of his suggestions are relevant to academics – academics can usually get away with deprioritizing a whole category of activity, especially research, when teaching (prepping, grading) and administrative duties loom. But his general principles make a lot of sense, and his discussion of the psychology of “getting things done” was really interesting. After I stupidly missed a meeting at the end of the last semester, one that I’d planned for the previous week, I decided it was time to get serious once again.

So here’s my system, conveniently packed into my iPhone.


My system revolves around Pocket Informant, an app I bought eons ago for the Axim Pocket PC (c. 2003), and now have for iOS. It’s not cheap (as far as iOS apps go), but it’s really really powerful and almost infinitely customizable.

There’s a setup assistant, and just about every view and feature can be modified, moved or hidden. I have PI set up to use GTD – the settings allow you to use either GTD or Franklin Covey, or a simple system, if you have an organizational preference. You can set defaults to speed up data entry, though I often keep them off, because I’ll usually forget something.

Creating an appointment or task is straightforward, but it’s the metadata that provides the power behind PI. First, you can create an appointment for a specific date and/or time, aka an Event:

Appointment item

Appointment item

Events can either be timed or all day.

Distinct from Events are Tasks, “physical” actions to perform. You can use PI to organize all aspects of your life, but for academic purposes this normally translates into mental and manual Tasks with titles such as reading, finding, copying/scanning, moving, transcribing, turning in/checking out, creating, drafting, revising, and so on. These tasks can be assigned a date or left indeterminate. In addition to a title, location, due date and alarms, Tasks also have several other metadata fields:

Create task

Create task

The most important metadata is Projects. Each task is assigned to one specific Project, and I have dozens of projects. A separate Project for each course I’m teaching, one for Advisement (general issues regarding advisement), one for each advisee/student that I interact with frequently, one for each research project I have, one for each committee I’m serving on, one for each blog I write for, one for any grant I might be applying for, and for anything else I can think of (health, finances, travel, shopping…).

I make each of these Projects a subset of a broader Tag category: Administrative, Advisement, Housework, Research, Teaching, Teaching Prep, Service, and so on. A Task can be assigned to multiple Tags, but only one Project. Events can also be assigned Tags, but not Projects or Contexts – create a Task if you need those fields.

If you like Allen’s GTD system, you can also assign one of his Actions to any Task:

Actions choices

Actions choices

PI on the iPhone means that it’s there whenever I need to enter a new task/appointment. I suddenly realize, “Oh sh*t, I need to do task X for Project Y”, and I create a new task under Project Y right then and there. It’s just that easy.

Pocket Informant is also by my side to facilitate Inbox Zero. In the past I made various email folders to classify emails, and I’d leave “To Do” items in the main Inbox as a reminder. But now I create a task/appointment for each actionable email item, then delete the email or send it to a Reference folder (as per GTD).

Once you’ve created events and tasks, you can sort or filter a list of just about any subset of these by any category, or combine as many as you want.


In a nutshell, Pocket Informant is a mini-database that, once you’ve defined each item and added the appropriate metadata, you can easily call up any task/event in a variety of views (or searches, or saved searches), depending on your purpose. It wasn’t until I read Allen’s GTD that I appreciated the importance of the distinction between tasks and appointments. It was only then that PI’s variety of views suddenly clicked: you should alternate between the different views, rather than try to put everything on your calendar in a single view. Metadata allows you to do that. Good boy, metadata.

This distinction also explains why I’d abandoned PI in the past: I created tasks and then assigned a start and due date for each of them, even which hours of the day they were to be done. This over-scheduling made it very difficult to read the calendar, and every view was littered with too much information that I had to mentally process. For me, eliminating the clutter was key: what exactly do I want to see in this specific view, and what information is better seen in another view? When I violate this parsimonious dictum by assigning too many tasks specific (yet arbitrary) deadlines, I don’t use PI because I don’t want to wade through the extraneous details.

Thus PI allows you to view either calendar appointments, tasks, or a combination of both. So here’s how I use PI on any given day, after I’ve created the various tasks and appointments:

  1. Start with the Today view, which illustrates today’s appointments (Events) from the calendar, as well as chronologically-sorted tasks that are scheduled for today (Due Today), followed by Tasks Due Tomorrow, Tasks In Progress, and finally Tasks Starting Today. Note that in this view the text colors indicate the tag of the item: red for research items, orange for the blogs, blue for teaching, etc. This view allows me to see what’s due today, both event and task.  I can choose which of the various tasks I want to focus on, and check them off when I’m done. With the text colors indicating the tag category, I can even make sure that I have at least one research task (red) for the day.
    Today View

    Today View

    All-day Events are displayed at the top of the day, before any timed appointments, and have a ’24’ with a circular arrow surrounding it. I’ll let you figure out what the 24 stands for.

  2. Tap the Today clock icon (at the bottom) again and it will show you the same information for tomorrow.
  3. If you want to filter your tasks by tag category or by calendar (you can have separate calendars, e.g one for you, one for your spouse…), you can easily do so.
  4. You can always end your daily review with the Today view if you prefer. You should obviously refer to it throughout the day when you need a reminder, and when you want to check something complete.
  5. With the day’s appointments and tasks reviewed, I turn to the calendar. This first view (Calendar Agenda list) gives me all of the appointments and task deadlines for the next several days. It eliminates the clutter of the In Progress tasks from the Today view, telling me when exactly I have to get what done, over the next several days.

    Calendar Agenda list

    Calendar Agenda list

  6. The next option is the Calendar Day View. In this view you can pinch horizontally to change the number of days shown, two days in the following screenshot. You can pinch vertically to change the scale of the Y-axis as well.

    Two-day pinch view

    Two-day pinch view

  7. If you want to see how your time blocks are scheduled throughout your entire week, you can go to Calendar Week view. Here I chose the tag colors (research, teaching…) to be the cell background color, largely because the text is rather small in this view, and some of the text is difficult to read when it’s yellow, for example. I also flipped the orientation, but you can tap on any entry and the full task/appointment will pop up.
    Calendar Week view

    Calendar Week view, landscape view

    There’s another Week view if you want to read all the events, and only see the busy periods with small colored time bars:

    Calendar Week view, vertical orientation

    Calendar Week view, vertical orientation

  8. Then of course you can always look at the full month Calendar view. This looks better on the iPad with the extra real estate, but here’s a screenshot of the iPhone version:
    Calendar Month view

    Calendar Month view

    Note that the tasks are indicated with the background colors at the top of each day cell, whereas the appointments are the color text.
    If you want a quick zoom in, tap on a day and it will pop up, with its surrounding days in context:

    Day detail in Calendar Month view

    Day detail in Calendar Month view

    All these allow you to look at your Events and dated Tasks at a variety of scales; Allen uses the airplane metaphor of looking at your responsibilities from 10,000 to 50,000 feet. Use a different view, depending on your focus.

  9. Pocket Informant offers a wide range of Task views, in addition to viewing your date-assigned tasks in the Today and Calendar views. Since tasks can be assigned projects and contexts and tags and actions (among other things), there are separate views for each of them, depending on your need. In addition to Smart Filters (saved searches which aren’t pictured here), they include:

    Task views

    Task views

  10. So if you want to focus your attention on a specific project after you’ve looked at your calendar, or maybe before, you can pull up a view of all the tasks associated with that Project, and sort the results by any field you like:
    Specific Project task list

    Specific Project task list

    Those little circles on the left provide the satisfaction of checking tasks off, a feeling of accomplishment second only to the satisfaction of looking at an empty inbox.

  11. Or maybe you want to look at all your Research projects, to see their tasks. That simply requires a Tagged view of the Research tag sorted by Project:

    Research tag by Project

    Research tag by Project

  12. You can also get fancy with Contexts. Say I’ll be going to the library (@ECSU Library), or I’ll be traveling to visit my parents (@Mom&Dad), or I’ll be traveling (@Airplane). I just pull up a Context view, and it displays a list of all the tasks I need to complete when I’m “there.” Not all tasks require a context, thanks to smartphones and laptops and the Cloud. But because some are still context-dependent, I need to know what to do when I’m in that context (Allen rightly makes a big deal of this). This Context view allows a quick look at those tasks in a single view. As with every other task view, you can sort it any way you want: by progress, by start or due date, by action, by priority, by tag, by project, by title, or by context if you’re in a different task view.
    Tasks to do while in the office

    Tasks to do while in the office

    I’ll admit I vacillate whether to identify people as Projects or Contexts. Contexts are generally more permanent, whereas Projects are more discrete and time-sensitive; Projects can and should be closed once all their tasks are complete. So for now I keep students (temporary) as Projects, because there’s usually some specific project relating to them: an independent study, an honor’s thesis, or an advisement issue that will be finished at some point and the project deleted. Colleagues, family and friends are (permanent) Contexts. Wishful thinking on both counts I realize.

  13. If you like to star certain tasks, there’s a view for starred items, just like there’s a view for Next Actions, the most important next step to take for any project, à la GTD.
  14. Did I mention you can create custom views, using almost any criteria you want? Maybe you want to create a high-level overview of your most important academic tasks for the coming year? Make a Smart Filter that only shows the high-priority Research, Teaching and Administrative tasks – this would probably work well with parent/child tasks. Or, on a more mundane level, if you’ve created a separate @Shopping context for stores A through D, make a smart filter that will combine them all when you’re in store E:

    Sample Smart Filter builder

    Sample Smart Filter builder: What should I buy?

  15. You can, of course, use the Search function to find any Event or Task or comment independent of remembering where to look for it in the various views.

In short, lots to see.

Helping You Help Yourself

Why am I returning to PI? Last semester I tried the alternative. I used iOS’s native Reminder app, and I had 100s of slips of scratch paper in neat piles. I wrote down thoughts, notes, tasks, and appointments on them. I put them in an Inbox, or left them out where (I thought) I’d see them. But then I found myself returning to old habits – recreating to-do lists at my home office, another slightly-different one at my work office, a third variation by my reading chair…

To-do list

To-do list

And yet those to-do lists did me no good after a day of phone interviews, when my brain failed to remind me that I had another meeting scheduled. No more!, he pledges, without the slightest bit of irony.

Remembering to check PI does require practice if you’re not used to looking at your smartphone every 3 minutes. In the future I’ll try to set an alarm reminder on long days, to sound minutes before I leave work to check for anything I’ve forgotten. It’s a habit that I’m still working on, but I’m getting much better. And it really is a liberating feeling to know that you have 267 tasks in 31 distinct projects, as well as 307 tasks in 37 different contexts (there’s some overlap of course), to be done over the next few years, and yet you don’t need to worry about forgetting any of them because they’re right at your finger tips, and you’ve set alarms to remind yourself of them throughout the year. And you review them regularly.

Other PI factoids if you’re still reading:

  • Pocket Informant allows you to create either a stand-alone task, a parent/child task relationship, or a checklist task.
  • You can create and use templates for Events and Tasks.
  • You can add photos to tasks.
  • You can store free text notes in the tasks.
  • You can add icons to tasks. For some reason I’m not actually interested in that feature, though it could save space.
  • Pocket Informant also allows you to set multiple alarms for each event/task (which will ring even when the iPhone is off)
  • It allows you to set repeating appointments, even complicated ones.
  • It takes advantage of GPS to provide location alerts, to remind you of something once you are within its proximity.
  • The calendar syncs with Google Calendar, and the tasks with Toodledo. There’s a native, subscription-based online sync service as well.
  • You can back up your databases to Dropbox.
  • It connects with your Contacts list.
  • Everything is customizable, which sounds kinda like another software product I’ve posted a fair amount about.

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2 responses to “What to do, what to do”

  1. jostwald says :

    Other additions I’ve added in the past year+ that I’ve been really using PI. Still loving it by the way, though there’s always room for improvement.
    1. I’ve adopted my old compound naming system to simplify things in PI. Since I have a 64 Projects and 26 template Tasks (77 contexts and 18 tags, FWIW), both projects and templates are now prefaced by a letter designation: R- for research tasks/projects, T- for teaching tasks/projects, D- for departmental tasks, etc. Not only can I now see all the possible options for a particular type of project grouped together (instead of scrolling through an alphabetized list), but a ‘controlled vocabulary’ like this is especially useful because I might forget which synonym I used for a task action verb, e.g. do I use “Pick up library book” or “Checkout library book”? Turns out I was using both.
    It helps to be consistent, so you can, for example, create a Smart Filter that will show you all tasks of a given action type, e.g. a list showing all the “Transcribe*” tasks, or all the “Draft*” tasks, all the “Brainstorm*” tasks, etc… I think I like this solution better than creating a separate Context for each action verb, if only because you might need to do a particular task, say, brainstorming in a particular context (e.g. on the airplane, when you are in the library…). Not to mention defining Contexts too broadly increases the number of contexts you’ll need to scroll through each time you pick one. And, finally, you probably aren’t going to need that subset of info very often for significant projects, though having a Context like @Email or @Phone might make sense, since you could complete several such tasks in a sitting (vs. brainstorm on project X and also project Y) – at least assuming your tasks are discrete and small (which they should be).
    You can also identify a specific physical location for each task/event, but I haven’t used it that much, other than to notice it bases its values off of Google Maps, which doesn’t always match your needs.
    Consistency also helps if you’re using templates, which leads us to templates…
    2. I’ve created a variety of templates that I use with some frequency – there are certain tasks/events that you’ll find yourself entering over and over again: lots of different books to read, chapters to draft, papers to grade, etc. etc. Templates obviously speed up the process by allowing you to preset many of the values, e.g. a template of my ‘R-Checkout’ task will automatically set the task’s context to @ECSULibrary, the Tag to Administrative (or should it be research? or both?), and so on. After I create an instance of the template, I just type in the book call number and add whatever other metadata I need. But you can also avoid a couple of taps if, in the Settings>Calendars,Templates>Manage Templates section, you click on the Show Template in Menu button. That gives you something like this when you tap the Menu + button to add a new item:

    The main downside to this is that if you have a lot of templates, you’ll need to scroll through your list, which takes time, though no more time than if you scroll through the same list after you’ve created a new blank task. But if you try to limit the length of the menu list by excluding some templates, you may not remember which template is in the menu list and which template is only available from the template icon once you create a new blank task. Which means you might spend precious seconds scrolling through the template list in the Menu, only to realize that you didn’t include the template you’re looking for in it, in order, ironically enough, to save time by not having to scroll through a long list. This would of course take more time. So give some thought about how streamlined of a template list you want in the Menu.
    3. I also just figured out the significance of Next Action Handling. Recently I wondered how I can keep track of the order in which I should perform various tasks, without adding some kind of number naming convention (e.g. Task names like: 1-Get software; 2-Read software manual; 3-Import data…). Turns out each PI project can deal with related tasks in one of three ways. Each task in a specific project can happen at any point during the project (i.e. task 1 can be ongoing at the same time as task 4 and task 8, and there can be multiple tasks assigned as Next Action) – known as ‘Parallel’ handling in PI. Or each task in a specific project can be ‘Sequential (GTD)’, which means that you manually drag each task to the order in which the task needs to be completed (in the normal Project view), and PI will automatically assign the first task in the project as the Next Action, and, after you complete that first task, PI will automatically assign the next in the sequence as the next Next Action. There’s also a Single Action setting, which I haven’t bothered to figure out.
    So now I will go through and define those larger projects as Sequential (choose Edit from the Project view), so that I only need to figure out the order in which tasks need to be done once. Plus, you don’t need to constantly be defining the Next Actions for those projects. Easy-peasy.

  2. jostwald says :

    I’ve significantly revised my usage of PI to make it more consistent with orthodox GTD. Check out the GTD tag for more recent posts.

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