GTD Journey: Moving back to Todoist (once again!)
I was excited about the Nirvana app as you can read here. I still think it’s the best out-of-the-box implementation of GTD on a multi-platform web-based app. A few things discouraged me to continue relying on the app. Nirvana’s development is slow and I got a little bit upset about an update released back in July with a few bugs. Those bugs were addressed in a later update, but that week dealing with the app’s hiccups got me thinking about other apps for my GTD tasks system.
So, as any good-old productivity nerd, I looked back at some apps.
My initial thoughts were:
- Facile Things: it’s strictly GTD-based, but for me it has a clunky interface and too little flexibility.
- Nozbe: it’s good, but expensive. I like the way it organises and filters by context, but the interface was not my favorite.
- Todoist: I’m already used to it. One of my all-time favourites for task management. Latest updates changed the project's behaviour, but Calendar integration and total flexibility is its highlight.
After a week testing these apps I tried to understand why Nirvana was not cutting it for me anymore. It all has to do with friction. How easy it is to add something to my Inbox? Am I getting a trusted list of my next actions? Are there things falling through the cracks? How can I track them? Is it easy to coordinate my next actions and my calendar events? Do I like to see my lists? Am I avoiding my lists out of fear?
I identified that a critical Nirvana’s limitation to my system was: lack of calendar integration.
I will pause here to mention that the GTD framework does not require you to have your tasks scheduled in your Calendar. That’s something to avoid because it can create stress about “wishing” to get several things done in a given day and then getting frustrated because the plan didn’t work. I’ve been there before. The first time I used Todoist I went crazy with scheduling tasks. But they were not hard deadlines. They were only my wishes. There must be a clear separation between your Calendar and your next actions list. Strictly speaking, what goes into the Calendar are things that must be done that day. Side note over.
I realized that I live inside Google Calendar because of my work. All team meetings/discussions/reviews with co-workers/managers and all deadlines are scheduled on Google Calendar. I always keep it open so that I can be on top of everything.
I need to track multiple deadlines: review estimates, send requests, follow-up on trades. And these are part of various project’s next action lists. Deadlines change, things get moved around, and for me it’s easier to manage all these in one centralised place, with the option to group by Project. Having the ability to see crucial tasks on my Calendar saves me a lot of headaches and help me plan my week and my day.
Todoist came to the rescue!
So, because of my work rhythm and multiple deadlines, I realised that having my task manager linked to my Calendar was important to my workflow. But it must be done in a systematic manner, otherwise I loose control and it’s chaos and overwhelm again!
Apart from the Calendar Integration, I must highlight additional Todoist features that I enjoy:
- The “Quick Add” feature is extremely handy, and the natural language recognition makes processing tasks a breeze.
- The mobile app is smooth and responsive.
- The inline commands and natural language processing that recognises dates in tasks makes organising my system a friction less process.
- Emojis and colours 🎈! I missed those. They make my lists attractive, and the last thing I want is to be repulsed by my to-do list.
- HTML links on the task titles/comments. I missed those on Nirvana, it’s visually better.
- Integration with Gmail to send messages as tasks directly into Todoist. I was using an @Action tag in Gmail to mark messages I needed more time to elaborate a reply (if I can do it in 2 minutes I just do it straight away from my inbox). It turns out these labelled emails would pile up and I would forget about them. I don’t lose track when they are neatly organised in a context inside Todoist.
Getting back to Todoist
Question I had to ask myself: How could I simplify my system and make it work on Todoist?
I once had my system on Todoist but I abandoned it because it was too complex. I got lost trying to make my filters work. I didn’t have a clear understanding of what was active or not. I suffered from “list overwhelm”. I went off the GTD wagon. But now, after spending some time with Nirvana, I got a few ideas on how to reconfigure my system on Todoist. These were my thoughts:
I was inspired by the neatly organized categories in Nirvana and its “Focus” function. It works as a daily dashboard with those Most-Important-Tasks up front.
Some crucial tasks will be scheduled. These will include any actions with a hard deadline. I must do it with careful precision so not to create an overwhelming and unattainable weekly plan.
I will use Todoist for routines and deadlines because of the Google Calendar integration. I like to mark them as “completed” once I’m done.
I discovered that the previous setup I had on Todoist was not so bad, I had to make some changes to have more streamlined lists and a clear distinction between what was active and what belonged to “Someday-Maybe”.
I wanted a simpler way to deal with “next actions”. Previously I was using a “@next-action” label on Todoist to mark them. I decided to delete it and use the built-in priority flags to indicate action status.
My Todoist Setup
- Projects for Projects, tasks within projects for next actions and labels for next actions contexts. Yes, I am the kind of person who likes to have tasks linked to their projects, so that I have the option to view actions by Project or by Context.
- 2 Main Areas of Focus to group Projects: Personal and Work. I use these main areas to filter between work and personal tasks.
- I have Someday/Maybe as a separate “project folder” so that I can filter it out of my next actions list filter. All inactive projects and tasks go here, and they will never show-up on my actions lists. It’s an easy way to temporarily “deactivate” a project. To make it active again, I just move it back into my “Personal” or “Work” folder.
- All my Routines are grouped using the new “Sections” Todoist feature: Daily, Weekly, Monthly and Yearly tasks. They live inside my main Areas of Focus project folder.
- Tickler: A place to park a reminder for the future. It will show up on my lists and on my Calendar on the day scheduled. I don’t use it too often.
- Agendas: I create a task to store agenda items to be discussed with other people.
- Books: I track all the books I already own that I want to read next using the priority flags (P1 = Reading, P2 = Read next, P3 = Read Later). It’s where I go to at the end of the month to decide what I want to read the following month.
- Yoga: A placeholder for online yoga classes I want to check out.
- Recipes to try: A placeholder for recipes I saw online and want to try.
- To Watch: a collection of movies I want to watch. No rush.
- My GTD System: a resources list with links to my other GTD tools (mostly kept in OneDrive as Word or Excel files).
- GTD Review: I have a separate project to store my GTD Review tasks. These are all repeating scheduled actions, so they will only show up on the day they are due.
Action Status and Contexts
Next Action Status: I use the Priority flags to indicate the status of the task because they are mutually exclusive. It’s easy to update them if needed (no confusion with adding /deleting labels). This is how I use flags:
🟥 P1 – MIT (Most Important Task) => Do Today! (these will show in my “Focus” view)
🟧 P2 – NEXT / THIS WEEK
🟦 P3 – SOON/THIS MONTH
⬜ P4 – NO PRIORITY/NOT READY/LATER
Contexts (labels in Todoist): I have the classic ones, plus a few more. They are updated/deleted as needed: @computer, @calls, @deep-work, @quick, @email, @home, @ideas, @errands, @plan-brainstorm, @waiting-for, @writing, @learning, @for-fun, @routines, @deadlines
Filters: this is how I organise my Lists
Filters: I have the filters on my Favourites list and it’s my daily view when I use Todoist. The rule here is to have only P1, P2 and P3 tasks showing up on my lists. A P4 flag indicates that an action is not ready yet, so this flag “parks” next actions inside a project if needed.
FOCUS ⭐: all P1 actions, due today, overdue
DEADLINES 💣: tasks with the label @deadlines. Used to track my work tender closing dates.
NEXT ACTIONS-WORK: all active tasks, for when I want an overall view of what’s on my plate => Today + overdue + P1+P2+P3 that are inside the Work Project
NEXT ACTIONS-PERSONAL: all active Personal tasks => today + overdue + P1+P2+P3 that are inside the Personal Project
ERRANDS: 🚙 all my @errands
COMPUTER 💻 : all my @computer, my filter query breaks them into “Work” and “Personal”
CALLS: ☎ all my @calls, my filter query breaks them into “Work” and “Personal”
EMAILS: ✉ all my @emails actions, my filter query breaks them into “Work” and “Personal”
FOR FUN & LEARNING: 😎 a recent addition to my lists, it groups my @for-fun and @learning labels. This will include browsing the internet to search for something, online courses, playing video games, hiking, etc.
HOME 🏠: all my @home tasks
DEEP WORK 🧠: I use it as an energy level indicator for tasks that will take more than 1 hour and requires my full concentration.
QUICK AND EASY ⛱: another energy level, to have a list of easy tasks when I have 10 or less minutes before a meeting, for example.
🎨 CLARIFY: groups all that is inside my Inbox + @plan-brainstorm + @ideas
WAITING-FOR ☕: @waiting-for, my filter query breaks them into “Work” and “Personal”
LATER: all tasks that are P4. I only review these on my Weekly Review to see if there are actions that need to be activated.
SOMEDAY-WORK: for Weekly Review purposes, showing all someday-maybe tasks.
SOMEDAY-PERSONAL: same as above.
How do I use Todoist with the Calendar Integration
I set up Todoist to show me my “Focus⭐” list when I first open it up.
This is my favorites section that is always open on my side bar:
I keep the Projects, Labels and Filters Menu hidden.
On Google Calendar my actions that have a due date (always set as an “All Day” event) will show up on the top portion of the calendar. Once I complete the actions on Todoist, they disappear from the Calendar. In the past I’ve had “all day events” on Google for scheduled routines but then I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t mark it as complete. Things like “Pay the Rent”. I like to check if off as done, it gives my brain closure. I need (and love) the satisfaction of crossing things of my lists.
And since there is 2-way sync between Google Calendar and Todoist it’s handy for me to move actions around in Google Calendar while I’m planning my week/day and the changes will be reflected on Todoist.
So, I moved all actionable recurring tasks from Google Calendar to Todoist. That way I can see a complete list of my routines in one place and make updates or adjustments as needed.
Final thoughts about the transition
I started transitioning to Todoist back in July. It was a busy month, I was overwhelmed with multiple projects and feeling anxious. I did not have everything under control. And while “Rome was burning” I needed a tool I was familiar with that offered nimble capturing and processing capabilities. I could quickly transition to Todoist and make it work to handle the fire.
It’s been going smooth so far. I’m satisfied. This setup is running on the background without getting in the way. I solved all the friction issues I was having with capturing, processing and organising my actions. I don't avoid my task manager out of guilt and anxiety anymore.
This transition triggered changes in other aspects of my GTD system as well. After I got the ground floor (actions) and Horizon 1 (projects) under control, I had some headspace to think about the higher horizons , references and planning routines. I will talk more about those changes in future posts.