m on January 16th, 2010

The problem of the war machine, or the firing squad: is a general necessary for n individuals to manage to fire in unison?

Our applications for dissertation fellowships are due at the end of February, which means that I’ve had my sole chapter on the mind quite a bit lately, even while wasting most of yesterday playing Doodle Jump. So it was excellent timing that Ryan Cordell should come out with his post on using Cultured Code‘s Things to help manage tasks over at Profhacker earlier this week. Putting together a dissertation is such a crazy project with pieces all over the place, that I feel that it’s necessary to rely on some sort of software tools just to save on redundancy.1

Anyway, Ryan makes the case for using Things as the general to get the firing squad to shoot in unison, the dissertation being both rhizome and a tree. But more precisely, his post is pretty excellent, because it provides a lot of use scenarios specific to academics–the sorts of scenarios that are completely obvious, but only in hindsight. Making a task with a deadline from an emailed CFP? Duh! Yet I had never thought of doing that, myself. Mostly, however, the post reminded me that not only had I spent a considerable chunk of change on Things, but that adding tasks can be done via the quick-entry popup in any application, a popup that includes references to the url you were looking at when you summoned it!

See, over the past half year or so, Things had become nothing more than the repository of the list of movies I wanted to see along with reasons why I wanted to see them. My inbox, instead, became my to-do list. This is suboptimal for three main reasons: first, even with Gmail labels, it’s hard to distinguish tasks from each other or see how some might actually be related. Second, an email won’t tell you when the deadline has passed. And, third, and most important, your inbox is constantly getting augmented by stuff that isn’t necessarily tasks, meaning that it is an unnatural blend of to-do list and, well, inbox. And that’s a mess.

So Ryan’s piece encouraged me to trim my inbox down to just four emails as well as separate out into discrete tasks the long lists I emailed myself about things I needed to do (read or think about) for my dissertation. Now, in Things, I can order them, group them, etc. And most importantly, I feel like I have some control over the process of thinking about a dissertation again.

Things is not perfect. Sharing the task database using Dropbox is rather risky. Further, syncing with the iPhone is a pain: it doesn’t sync when cradled–one has to open Things on the iPhone while it’s also running on a computer and both are on the same subnet. But why would I ever launch the Things app on my phone when it’s on the same subnet as my computer? If we’re on the same subnet, that means I’m at my computer! It would also be nice, and this may be possible though I just don’t yet know how, if I could have stuff automatically get sorted into certain areas based on the tags I give; everything tagged “dissertation” should land in my “Dissertation” area. And, finally, I would love if I could sync Things with Gcal, as right now I’m sometimes torn between putting something in Gcal and putting something in Things. Usually I opt for the calendar if the stuff is date-specific.2

The standard caveats apply about task managers (and any organizational tools, including DevonThink): it’s only useful if you use it, and what’s useful for one might not be useful for another. But for the time being, I’m back!

  1. My handwritten notes of ideas I get in bed or something, for example, are often very, very redundant. Software helps eliminate that duplicated work by showing one that it is duplicated work. []
  2. Apparently, the application can sync with iCal. I think I knew this, but there was something about the implementation that I did not like. Still, this means that I can most likely use iCal as a bridge to Gcal, but that has been messy in the past. []

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