The Efficient Mac User

Getting Things Done: 12 Task Management Solutions for Mac Users

- 2006.10.04 - Tip Jar

If you've read Getting Things Done: 9 Online Task Management Solutions, you know that I'm on the hunt for a new way to manage my digital "Getting Things Done" task and project planning. I was using Kinkless GTD, but a bug in that system caused me to lose trust in it as a "trusted system". Because I want to be "mind like water", I need to find another option soon.

In part one, I outlined my preferred criteria and looked at the Web-based and browser-based systems. This time I'll look at applications that install locally on my Mac.

Ultra-thin Local Applications

ZooDo (free) is a basic task-creator for iCal. It's a stand-alone application, but it serves as a "collection bucket" of sorts. Certainly helpful in the gather/collect stage of planning, ZooDo is particularly friendly to those who prefer keyboard interaction to a mouse/keyboard combo. Some folks have brainstormed about how this makes GTD easier, particularly with regard to further integration with Backpack (see Chris Messina's Zoodo for GTD).

High Priority (single user, $6; family license, $12; business, $60) is a system preference pane that creates a menu item in the menu bar. With High Priority, you can see and update your iCal tasks, but not add to them. I've mentioned High Priority before - see Managing Tasks with iCal's To-Do Feature.

Another utility similar to High Priority is iClock, which also brings a host of new services and functions with it. iClock doesn't have iCal interaction, but it does offer a menu bar-based method of managing task lists.

To-Do X ($15) is another basic task manager. To-Do X is another stand-alone application, and while it will import tasks from iCal, it has no further interaction with it. To-Do X offers a number of good features for a task manager, including categories (which could double as "contexts"), priorities, and attached notes.

Stapler (€7.50 shareware) is a combination of a basic notepad and a to-do list manager. It's very simple in orientation: creation date, notes, and a checkbox for completed items. Tasks can be color-coded based on a low-level preference setup. Stapler is not really designed for GTD, but it could work for the right user.

If I were looking for a straightforward "To-Do" manager, one of these might be sufficient, and all of them are affordably priced. It's certainly conceivable to combine several of these - maybe in conjunction with one of the online or browser-based systems - to have a complete GTD system.

What I want, though, is an all-in-one application to manage my tasks that will also interact with iCal bidirectionally - I want to pull tasks from iCal and also update iCal's task list within the application. And I want to be able to organize by context, priority, and project, accordingly to the GTD system.

For what I'm looking for, none of these "thin" applications suit my needs and preferences.

Robust GTD-oriented Task Management Applications

Midnight Inbox

Midnight Beep has been working hard to get Inbox out the door; it's still in beta, but the release version is on the way with a promised price at $35 (you can register now, and the beta won't expire). Inbox is specifically designed to be a GTD application, and thus a top-to-bottom implementation of the GTD system. What is more, Inbox is a well-designed application with a beautiful Mac-like interface, and I've been assured that iCal integration is on the way.

Inbox is sort of a "meta-application": It gathers events and tasks from iCal, messages from Mail, and other documents, bookmarks, notes, and other files and allows you to process them using the GTD model: collect, process, review-plan-do. It gathers them on its own, by the way, which is both blessing and bane; to build a project from scratch requires going through iCal, Mail, etc. You can monitor your progress, archive projects that are completed, and organize your work patterns.

In a way, Inbox represents your personal David Allen coaching you through your projects. One thing Inbox gets right that the others sort of miss: GTD is more than mere task management, and Inbox's "meta" quality addresses this more thoroughly than any other application for the Mac. But this is also where Inbox goes awry. I already have systems in place for much of what Inbox sets out to do; specifically, aggregate my documents and files according to task. I doubt that Inbox will surpass DEVONthink for archiving, reference, and search ability of past and current files, and it feels like early onset feature bloat because of that.

Inbox was supposed to be at release by now, and the beta still feels very beta - it has a slightly unfinished quality to it. I think Inbox looks like it has a lot of potential, and there are lots of great functions planned for future versions, but it isn't yet to the point where I'm willing to commit to it. I'll keep my eye on Inbox in the coming weeks.

Thinking Rock

Thinking Rock is another stand-alone application - and free at that. Like Inbox, it follows the GTD model closely, with steps for each of the three main steps (collect, process, review-plan-do). Thinking Rock has a more interactive collection process, allowing you to enter all of the items manually instead of finding them for you (which is also blessing and bane - after all, manual entry of all of your projects is a lot of work and sometimes redundant).

One big thing I like about Thinking Rock is that it's easy to enter lots of new tasks at once: The collection stage as simple as typing a brief description, then tabbing or hitting return a couple of times to a new line.

It also has the nuance of being a Java application, making it very portable: You can install Thinking Rock onto a flash drive and use it on any computer, any platform. Because it's Java, it doesn't feel exactly like a Mac app - but neither does it have the clunkiness or sluggish operation that many Java applications have.

At version 1.2.1, Thinking Rock is established and bug-tested - something that Inbox has working against it. Still, Thinking Rock felt a bit buggy to me, and while I like some of its features and setup, I can't commit to it for my system.

Park

If GTDTiddlyWiki is getting close to what you're looking for in a GTD solution, Park might be the final answer. It takes the TiddlyWiki idea and localizes it, plus it adds on a few more features.

Park is as much a note-taker as it is a task-planner - which, in GTD parlance, makes sense to a degree. But Park's emphasis on notes doesn't feel like a task manager to me, and it reminds me of Midnight Inbox's tendency to reach too far into other parts of my existing workflow, often making it redundant.

The latest version of Park includes Spotlight support, which could be huge. Park is free, and it's well-done in its version 1.0 status. It might be right for you; it's not right for me.

Actiontastic

Another project in beta, Actiontastic, barely made the "GTD-oriented" list; it's basically a simple task manager - and an ultra-thin one at that. But it has markers for categorizing by project or context, which qualifies it as GTD-friendly; further, the developer openly says that he created it for a GTD purpose, so I had to include it here in good conscience.

Actiontastic

Actiontastic is, like many betas, a fairly bare-bones app that the developer wants to make something more of. As it is, three tabs offer you views of the inbox, projects, or contexts. Creating a new item in the inbox allows you to enter a line of text, then select whether it is an action or a project. That's all there is to it for now.

Clearly, this won't cut muster for managing due dates, iCal integration, etc. But it will be worth watching if the developer makes any advances on its progress. As it is, the beta version is free with a stated expiration date.

Action Tracker

I'm cheating a bit including this one here, because all of the rest of these are stand-alone applications. Action Tracker isn't; instead, it's a FileMaker Pro document. But it's a well-designed GTD environment, and since I happen to have a FileMaker Pro license, it qualifies for consideration.

Like Inbox, Action Tracker is more than simply a task manager; instead, it serves as an interface for your project management. In addition to a very complete task and project management element, it also organizes notes, contacts, and other files related to the project, and it can create iCal events as well.

Jumping between entry mode and list-view mode is easy, and an added bonus is that it has a 3x5 card printout function - any item or list can be dumped onto an index card. This should make HipsterPDA fans happy.

Action Tracker is free, but you must have a FileMaker Pro license, version 7 or later.

Frictionless

If the name sounds like a play on the Kinkless GTD name, you're spot-on. Frictionless was developed as a stand-alone rendition of Kinkless, with a goal to create the same basic toolset of an outliner/task-planner. As such, the developer included a major boon for Kinkless users like myself - the ability to import projects and tasks from Kinkless GTD.

Frictionless is possibly the most thoroughly GTD of all GTD applications. It's fairly easy to collect and gather, and new tasks go immediately into a flat file of actions. These can be organized into subsets of each other, creating a hierarchy of projects and sub-projects. A lot of this can be done via keyboard or mouse, so proficiency with the system could mean very fast organization of new projects.

A Next Actions window is ready to give context-specific counsel about tasks, and the This Week window allows for very easy weekly reviews. David Allen would be proud.

Frictionless also has QuickSilver integration, which instantly moves it up a notch or two for many hard-core Mac users (and, frankly, for a lot of GTD Mac folk already adapted to Kinkless). And it has an AppleScript that allows an action to be created directly from Mail.

Frictionless lacks the ability to sync with iCal, but this may be covered by the QuickSilver and Mail actions.

When you open Frictionless, a lot of windows show up at once - no less than four windows have a regular function in the application. It's easy enough to command-tilde through them, and each of them has a command-# hotkey assigned. Still, it seems like a lot of windows to me, even though each has a specific and important function in the GTD system. While the application generally feels very Apple-icious, the large number of important windows makes Frictionless feel a little cluttered.

EasyTask Manager

OrionBelt's EasyTask Manager rounds out the list of GTD applications available for the Mac. EasyTask Manager is another stand-alone app that has some maturity, with version 1.6.6 available for $19.99.

EasyTask Manager is well-named: It manages only tasks, and it does so easily. It has a lot of heavy GTD influence, though (unlike Inbox and Frictionless) you could certainly use it if you weren't familiar with the GTD system.

Tasks can be sorted by project or category, and they can be assigned due dates, priorities, and notes. It will sync with iCal, either by only importing tasks from iCal or by a bi-directional sync. A calendar function makes it easy to perform regular daily and weekly reviews, and heavy drag-and-drop ability makes for easy sorting and categorization in process stage.

I like EasyTask Manager for what it isn't as much as for what it is. It's a simple, straightforward application with a pleasant, but not showy, interface. It has nearly all of the functions I want - and not much that I don't want.

EasyTask Manager has little difficulty rising to the top of the list in this comparison.

OmniFocus

OmniGroup has announced a forthcoming project they are calling OmniFocus. Omni, whose applications are regularly lauded as the most Mac-like options around, built the wonderful OmniOutliner, the pro version of which is the basis for the Kinkless GTD system.

Omni wisely brought in Ethan Schoonover, the developer behind Kinkless, and Merlin Mann, the master of GTD fu, as consultants for the development of OmniFocus. Because it is coming from Omni, and because they have enlisted the help of these two capable partners, I have every hope and confidence that whatever Omni eventually develops will be an excellent option for a GTD-specific application.

Making the Decision

Clearly, it is the best of times and the worst of times for seekers of GTD software. There are lots of great products out there that are in development, meaning that the landscape for doing GTD on the Mac is always changing.

Finding a working, usable system right now is a more difficult exercise. My guess is that most users will find themselves right where I am: Ready to commit to a good system - even ready to buy - but unsure whether to shell out for what's available now or wait until something closer to perfect comes along.

There will always be something better in the future, but waiting for it won't meet your needs now.

My decision is to be consistent with one of my rules for technology: If you need it today, buy the best that's available today. Don't wait until tomorrow, hoping for something better. There will always be something better in the future, but waiting for it won't meet your needs now.

By the time you read this, I will own a license for EasyTask Manager. It covers nearly all of my wish list, and it doesn't cost very much.

While Frictionless was a very close second for me, and I think OmniFocus will eventually woo me once it's available, EasyTask Manager is more mature and compatible with my needs in a GTD app.

EasyTask Manager is the best buy for me today. LEM

If you find Ed's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.


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