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:
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.
From: Steven C
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.
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
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.
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
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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