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:
Is electronic (yes, the hipster PDA is a cool idea, but my handwriting is beyond woeful and I already carry enough crap in my pockets as it is);
Works offline (because I often do);
Will work on both my phone and laptop (because I want to have my lists with me when I’m not at my computer, but long-form data entry or manipulation on a phone is painful);
Makes it easy to add, browse, modify, and above all remove items; and
Is “mine” (no central databases I don’t control, proprietary apps on my phone, etc).
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:
I want lists of text items with titles (
Subject:), potentially other metadata (
X-Whateverheaders), and possibly some notes (the body of the e-mail);
I need to be able to browse and remove completed items (that’s what e-mail clients are for);
Getting new items into the system is trivial (Anything I send to my PDA’s e-mail address goes straight into the INBOX, which I can then process as time permits); and
Syncing between my laptop and PDA is as simple as offlineimap and K-9 mail.
So what have I got, exactly? It’s fairly straightforward:
An IMAP account on my existing mail server;
A slightly tweaked copy of mutt (different colours so I don’t confuse myself, and a different layout of the index page to get rid of unnecessary columns);
Another offlineimap account;
Another K-9 mail account;
Note2self (a neat little app to take a typed or voice-transcribed note and e-mail it to a pre-set address) on the phone, pre-programmed to e-mail any notes I write to the PDA’s inbox; and
A small shell script to make it trivial to create new lists (which has to be done on the IMAP server for reasons of offlineimap), add new items to a list, sync my lists (in other words, “run offlineimap”), display my lists (in other words, “run mutt”), and process my “tickler” file.
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.