GTDwRTM anyone?

Remember The Milk logoIncreasing productivity certainly seems to be one of the biggest challenges of the decade as the available time is set (only 26 hours a day and 7 days in a week) and the things to do increase on a regular basis. One of the most popular methodologies, especially around high-tech geeks around the world, to increase productivity and to deliver on commitments is called “Getting Things Done” and has been defined by David Allen in his book with the same name. Wikipedia and 43 Folders have very detailed entries about GTD, abbreviation under which this is known by its followers.

To help implementing the GTD methodology, many software and online implementations that have been specifically developed. One of the software I used initially is called ThinkingRock, a Java based software that works on Mac OS, Windows and Linux, and applies GTD to the letter. Many more are available and there are even sites that index all the GTD applications available. While the data file saved from ThinkingRock works on all platforms, I ended-up carrying a USB stick with me at all time when going from my home computer to the one I have at work. I also wasn’t able to quickly add something to my inbox when on the go or check my lists while away from my computer(s).

I therefore decided to move to an online solution, and the one I selected is called “Remember The Milk“. While not specifically designed to implement the GTD methodology, its approach at managing lists and its support for off-line, keyboard shortcuts, notifications and mobile access, including an iPhone compatible version, ended up making this my solution of choice that is both fun to use and easy to maintain up-to-date.

When I initially looked at Remember the Milk, or RTM as it gets regularly abbreviated as, I saw a flexible solution that could adapt to many different usages and that didn’t force you into one specific methodology. At the same time, I wasn’t clear if this would be something that could replace the tool I was using at that time. Doing a quick Google search online, I found a very interesting article on the Republic of Geektronica Blog about how to implement the Getting Things Done methodology using Remember the Milk. While this post and all the comments below gave me a good idea on this site and how it could be used, I very quickly added a few tweaks of my own.

It all begins with lists. In addition to the mandatory Inbox and Sent lists, I have added following ones:

  • Delegated: For all the tasks that have been delegated to someone else (very good when sharing tasks)
  • Private: For all the stuff I have/want to do on my private side of life
  • Projects: This list includes all the tasks related to projects that take multiple actions
  • References: A list dedicated to all the notes I make with references and information that can be useful for me
  • Someday: Stuff I will need / want to do one day is stored in here and I look at it when I do my weekly action review to see if there is anything to move in another list
  • Thoughts: This could be collapsed with the Reference list, except that I store ideas that are not necessarily actionable in this list
  • Work: All the single tasks that are not in a specific list
  • Everything: This is actually a saved search that shows me everything that I have captured in RTM

When it comes to the GTD methodology, contexts are an integral part of system. While some people have recommended to simply use tags for the context, I’ve decided to actually leverage the “Locations” feature of Remember The Milk to define context… Living in Ottawa, Canada, I’ve for example defined the “@home” context as being my home address as a location in RTM. @office is at my work address. And for the contexts that don’t have a specific address, I picked a spot on the map: @errand is for example in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, @online is in China, @phone is in Tokyo, … At the end, I’ve got various contexts defined by locations for my various needs. And if you pick points far enough from each other on the map, you can quickly display a specific context such as @phone when you are in front of your phone and have some time. And because all my contexts start with the @ sign, they are all together in the tag cloud as well.

Next steps: Tagging. While you can search for anything easily, populating the tag cloud makes it very easy to find stuff quickly and easily. While you can use any text as a tag, I defined some basic rules about those to help me group these in 3 different categories: People, Projects and the rest.

  • People: Any time I tag a task with a specific person name because I am working on this task with that person for example, I use a pre-defined rule. If the person is called John Smith, the tag will be +johns. Using the + sign at the beginning, following by the short name of that person combines all the tags related to people together at the top of the tag cloud. In addition to that, when I add tags to a specific task, starting to type +j will show +johns in a drop-down list in real time (very nice and fast AJAX implementation). I also have a +team and a few other +groups tags that I use on a regular basis. When I have a meeting with someone, I simply click on his tag, et voila, I immediately see all the tasks related to that person.
  • Projects: Applying the same concept as for People, I use the – sign at the beginning of the project tag. This will combine all the projects together in the tag cloud between the people (with the + sign) and the contexts / locations (with the @ sign). For example, I’ve got a “” tag for everything related to the community site. In addition to that, these next actions are all combined in the “Projects” list described above.
  • The rest: I use various tags for the tasks I have across the site. All the non-people, non-project related tags don’t have any specific sign and therefore are listed at the end of the tag cloud.

With all this configured, everything is ready for GTDwRTM… on a daily basis, using the keyboard shortcuts, this site is fun to use and easy to maintain up-to-date. The overview screen shows what you have to do today, tomorrow and what is overdue. The weekly planner makes it easy to get a full overview of your tasks. Using the Netvibes module or the iGoogle one integrates your scheduled next tasks very nicely with your home page of choice. And for the Gmail users out there, RTM is now integrated directly in your email application. There is even an off-line mode using Google Gears (I already use it for Google Reader)… works great when on a plane for example.

Being able to use various different ways to manage your lists, add tasks and get reminders makes Remember the Milk a very flexible tool to work with. You can for example email tasks to yourself, which is great for crackberry users on the go such as myself. Just add the unique email address in your contact list with the name RTM, and start sending yourself email. You can even set priorities, tags, lists, locations, … directly from the email using a simple to remember syntax. You can get notifications per email, Skype, MSN and other instant messaging protocols and the iCalendar support works really great, except that the version of Outlook I have at work doesn’t understand this “non-Microsoft” standard. The mobile version of RTM is also great from cell phones with limited web capabilities, and there is even an iPhone optimized version for the users of the Pro version of Remember the Milk.

Now that I’ve started to get some of my colleagues to try this online service out, we are also increasingly using the task sharing feature, so that when I add a to-do item in the delegated list, I actually delegate it to someone else who will see it appear in his/her inbox. And being able to define the due date as “next tuesday 4pm” makes it very easy to set time tracking in place. Really cool.

There are a few things that could be improved: First, there is no way to export your data from Remember the Milk in a clean XML file for example. While this isn’t a big issue as you can use the iCalendar connector or the ATOM feed to get all the information, it should be rather easy to offer an export feature. Another thing that I would like to see is to be able to set the SSL version of the site as the default in your profile. While RTM works both with HTTP and HTTPS, the default is to go to the HTTP URL, not the encrypted one. Would it be possible to have an option in your account settings to automatically redirect you to the encrypted site? Finally, I am surprised that there isn’t a desktop software version of it available yet, using the open API to store all the information on the server.

And to finish this review, I’ve left the best for the end: Remember the Milk is free and there is no advertisement over-crowding the site. If you like it and plan to use it on a regular basis, please go ahead and get the Pro account option for $25 per year. In addition to knowing that you support a great online service, it adds nice little extras such as the iPhone /iPod touch interface and a sync tool for Windows Mobile devices.

The team behind RTM has done an amazing job at adding new features on a regular basis… next step, get out of beta :-)

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