I’ve been following the GTD (Getting Things Done) method to organize my life since 2013. GTD is a method of organization and personal productivity created by David Allen (this is the book). The main objective is to “empty our minds” and have a trusted system to store and manage our actions, projects, events, goals, objectives and even life purpose.
I’ve just spent around year in the following cycle: trying Nirvana, loving it, using it for a while, then looking at other productivity apps, switching to Trello then Todoist, moving back and forth, then deciding I would stick with Nirvana.
Nirvana is a cloud-based task manager that can be accessed online on any platform and has Windows, iOS and Android apps as well. There is a basic version with some limitations (like the number of projects), a complete Pro version or a Lifetime subscription (you can check their pricing here). Disclaimer: I’m not affiliated with the company in any way. It’s just an app that I love!
Nirvana is made by a small independent team in Canada. So don’t expect constant updates. The team is very deliberate on improvements and that makes the app extremely reliable. It brings together he GTD concepts beautifully. The developers attended the GTD Summit in 2019.
The one thing that made me fall in love with Nirvana at first sight was the global filter. It is brilliant and I had never seen it working so seamlessly in other apps.
I can setup different Areas of Focus, like “Personal”, “Work” and “Blog”. The global filter works across the whole system, so I can focus on my Work related Actions and Projects being sure that nothing from the other area is showing as well. I can also see the whole picture grouping all my areas together.
Also, keyboard shortcuts make it even easier to switch between areas of focus. There is a good list of keyboard shortcuts for adding items to the Inbox, adding a next action or a new project, for example.
The second thing was the implementation itself: it is based on GTD. After I saw Nirvana I wanted to have the same experience while using Todoist, for example. I tried to mimic Nirvana’s setup on Todoist but it was not the same: trying to find the right combination of filters/tags/projects levels was not giving me the results I wanted (not to mention the time spent trying to get it right).
In Nirvana all Actions can be categorized into “GTD-style” buckets right there, “out of the box”:
It offers a way to easily send emails into the app so that it goes directly to the Inbox.
The projects can be set up as “Parallel” or “Sequential“:
- Parallel: The actions are meant to be completed in any order.
- Sequential: The first action is intended to be completed before the second, and so on.
All items (even projects!) can be assigned to totally customizable labels (as GTD contexts like: @home, @calls, @errands, etc.)
There is even the option to assign levels of energy and time to each action so that we can filter using these parameters.
This Quick Guide shows all the main features of the app.
Nirvana versus Todoist
So right before moving to Nirvana I was using Todoist.
To be honest I enjoyed adding emojis to my projects and tags, getting a little elephant icon whenever I linked a note from Evernote, changing projects colors, the seamless Google Calendar integration, etc. And I knew that was only possible if I used Todoist (or some other similar app). But, during my quest to try to make Todoist behave like Nirvana, I just got frustrated. I tried hard! But it never ended up as simple and elegant as Nirvana.
So after I realized I was spending too much time tinkering with an app trying to make it become something else, I looked back at Nirvana and listed all the things I would miss if I did the switch.
These were the features I used in Todoist that I thought I would miss:
- The Groceries list => it could be implemented in Evernote or OneNote, so no big deal
- Integration with Google Calendar => I thought it was crucial, but is it really?? (I discovered it was not!)
- Emojis => no alternative, just live without it = less distraction
- HTML links on the task title => I can use the Notes field on Nirvana for links
- The little Evernote icon when I added a link to an Evernote note in Todost => no big deal
- Colors => no alternative, just live without it = less distraction
- My Book List => I used to have a book checklist on Todoist. I already use Goodreads to track my reading, so this list in Todoist was duplicated anyway.
I understood that all those bells and whistles were not an essential part of my GTD system. So I went back to Nirvana and moved everything I had in Todoist to it. This is a screenshot that shows the same projects on both apps after I did the move:
This image compares the Projects view (Work Area of Focus). You can see that my Todoist was all colorful and beautiful, but I had a lot of different filters to try to emulate Nirvana’s global filter, and I got maybe too excited about creating contexts and putting them all in my favorites list on Todoist.
What I like about Nirvana is that I can see at a glance the full picture: my active projects, what is inactive, what is in “someday/maybe”, what is incubated (I use the “Later” option in Nirvana to park incubated projects). And it’s super easy so go through the Next, Later and Waiting lists for each of my Areas of Focus or for all of them at once! In every view there is the option to filter by the labels (contexts) as well.
Seriously, simply classifying my projects between “Active” and “Inactive” has been a power struggle for me for years! I could never get it right! I realized I needed it to be clear and in front of me: the way Nirvana does.
Nirvana organizes the information better and that works pretty well with my agitated brain. Everything is listed in such an orderly manner: Inbox, Next, Later, Waiting, Scheduled, Someday, Projects, Reference. Projects in blue are active, Inactive projects are grey! Awesome for weekly reviews!
Also, I have a clear understanding now of the hard edges between my Calendar and my to-do list. I confess that with Todoist, given the focus it has on dates, I was “blurring” my calendar with my next actions and it was getting rather messy!
The “Focus” feature is another reason I love Nirvana! Focusing items gives them a star ⭐ and makes them appear in the Focus list. I tried to do that with my “Highlight Today” filter in Todoist, but it was too manual (I was using the priority flags to filter them… it was not as easy and clean as Nirvana). Also in Nirvana items will show up automatically in the focus list if it’s been scheduled or assigned a start date or due date. When the date arrives, the item appears in my Focus list.
It’s true Nirvana lacks some hot exciting features (like Calendar integration or attachments), but it’s all about having the essentials and getting rid of the superfluous.
After using Todoist for a while I missed something simpler with no distractions. Todoist is a good app…but…too many personalization options were making me spend too much time “tinkering” with the system instead of actually executing my next actions.
My Final Setup
So I’ve finally settled with the trio:
- Google Calendar: for all events, reminders, day-time-specific stuff. (**)
- Nirvana: for all projects and next actions.
- OneDrive + OneNote: for reference and notes.
Nirvana is powerful and simple. Without a doubt an excellent implementation of the GTD framework!
(**) As a side note, although I have a personal Microsoft account my work is all about Google and it was easier to centralize both my Personal and Work Calendar in Google Calendar due to synchronization issues between Outlook and Google.