The e-mail PDA

Posted: Fri, 26 October 2012 | permalink | 5 Comments

I’ve been a wannabe GTD afficionado for some years. I’ve wanted to do it, but managing lists has always been something that has too much friction, overhead, or whatever. Finally, though, I think I might have found a way to manage lists that works.

My use-case isn’t unique, although I will concede I’m perhaps being more dogmatic than most. I want something that:

My previous attempt was a tool I called “tagnote” – it was a vim-outliner file full of hierarchically organised outliner entries, with tags inlined. It was a neat idea, but it wasn’t smooth to add/browse/delete items, and didn’t work with my phone at all (trying to use vim for any length of time on a bottom-of-the-range Android phone would kill me).

The current iteration, as the title of this post suggests, is a list manager that entirely uses e-mail. It really is a perfect symbiosis:

So what have I got, exactly? It’s fairly straightforward:

That last point is the one I’m really happy I achieved. I’ve always been a fan of “hide it until you need it”, but my previous system didn’t let me do that. Now, though, I have a separate list called tickler, and all the items in there have an X-Tickle header, which specifies the date I want to see them. Each night a cronjob runs through the tickler and moves anything for today into the INBOX. An X-Tickle-Repeat header lets me have things that repeat over and over again.

So in short, using entirely open-source tools and a couple of hours of my time doing things I enjoy anyway (shell scripts! woo!), I’ve now got a list manager that doesn’t get in my way more than it absolutely has to. We’ll see how long I last this time before I feel the urge to “improve” my lists again.


From: Steven C
2012-10-26 11:48

I’ve had a GTD ‘inbox’ and maildir hierarchies for ‘actions’, ‘projects’, ‘someday’ and ‘waiting’ for a little over 5 years now. I wish I could say I’ve been Getting Things Done, but I have to wonder why there are still mails in here dated September 2007.

I count over 3,000 mails in my trash that have been deleted from one of these maildirs. That could include a lot of duplicates or revisions. It’s disappointing to think I averaged only 1 or 2 things per day since I started this, but maybe the situation without it would have been much worse.

The most awkward thing with this has been editing mails and keeping them up-to-date. That seemed painfully awkward from Icedove all these long years. But as I get to know mutt better I will surely discover its ‘e’ (edit message) function.

Anyway, the neatest trick, and definitely worthwhile if you get nothing else out of this, is the tickler maildir hierarchy. 43 folders, for months 1 through 12 and the days, and I have a daily cronjob (some Perl script I pilfered) that moves that day or month’s entries to the tickler main inbox. I can file any memo to myself, or any email at all, there and have it come back to me exactly when it needs to.

From: Kint
2012-10-26 13:22

Todo.txt would have been a nice alternative. I don’t use the mobile phone app, I stick my entire ~/.todo/ in git and just push it back at the end of my work day and pull it back down on my home machine.

I manage my entire todo list from the command-line and the backend is always a human-readable flatfile.

From: Matt Palmer
2012-10-26 16:39

Kint, I looked at todo.txt some time ago. Needing a dropbox account in order to be able to look at my todo list on my phone wasn’t practical. My todo lists drive my whole life, not just the bits of it that are done in front of a computer (although my wife will probably claim that part is vanishingly small), so just having it on the computer wasn’t practical. The lack of ability to jot a quick note into my phone while I’m walking and have it drop into the system is also a big downside of the “big flat file” approach that my old system (and todo.txt) suffers from.

From: martin
2012-10-26 17:04

offlineimap nowadays can propragate new local folders to the IMAP server.

Apart from that, I am using a system very much similar to yours. One of us should be packaging it ;)

From: Matt Palmer
2012-10-27 09:36

Martin, what qualifies as “nowadays”? I’m running offlineimap 6.3.4-1 (as present in wheezy), and it most definitely doesn’t propagate new folders back to the IMAP server.

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