A Superficial Review of TaskPaper (Cuz superficial is all my backlog allows)

It doesn’t matter how much we complain about time, we’re not being realistic or honest about our use of it. Everyone gets the same amount every day; that is, if we’re getting the whole day. But asking for more time to do things has to strike someone as having too many things to do, and being grown up enough to abandon or postpone those things for which there isn’t time.

There are plenty of Time Management systems out there. Gettings Things Done (GTD) is a recent one with a lot of buzz and adopters. There are plenty of GTD software packages for those who prefer computer-based systems to paper, including two versions for Mori: Jeff Fisher’s mGTD plugin and Jim Harrison’s MoriGTD scripted system.

Now, I’ve had the audiobook for GTD for years but I’ve never listened to it. (I did at least listen to Merlin Mann’s David Allen interviews when I was on the road.) And now that I’m developing (and using) Mori I’ve even installed the mGTD plugin, but that was more for testing purposes than actually knowing what GTD was about (or how to use it).

So when Jesse introduced his own GTD app, TaskPaper, as a simpler way to getting things done with “paper-like simplicity” I was of course concerned that it would cannibalize Mori sales. But TaskPaper only manages tasks, not notes like Mori does. So unless your notes are one-liners used only to manage your activities, you’ll still need to grab a copy of Mori. ;)

But the real reason not to be concerned is TaskPaper is an awesome app in its own right. Jesse prodded me a couple times to try it, and even provided me with a license. So the next time I needed to jot down a task reminder, instead of using Mori, I opened up TaskPaper and gave it a try.

Now I have to admit, being both a GTD noob and a programmer, TaskPaper’s interface threw me at first. Let’s face it, any device with less than five buttons on it leaves me scratching my head. But I do know how to use an outliner. So with that interface in mind I set out to discover just how it was earning such wonderful reviews.

But TP isn’t exactly an outliner. It just uses an outline-like interface, and I emphasize that point. You’ll be productive very quickly, but I also got my list complicated very quickly by adding sub-sub-headings to my project. (But you have to expect that from a GTD noob and a programmer.) The beauty is that by using a very simple text editor/outliner interface, TP doesn’t complicate the ability to change your organization of tasks and projects. Nor does it complicate your ability to add extra info about the task (its metadata). Avoiding special columns and a form interface, TP instead uses the following special text characters to signify meaning: “:” for projects, “-” for tasks, “[tab]” to nest tasks within other tasks (which are themselves nested within a project), any non-reserved character for notes, and “@” for the interesting context.

Contexts are GTD’s way of giving you a way of lumping similar activities together. They aren’t necessarily part of the same project, but just things which are done at the same place (e.g., @home, @mall), the same type of activity (@computer, @phone), and so on. TP refers to them as tags, and uses the normal GTD syntax (I guess) to refer to them.

TP’s interface is very sparse, which means less clutter and distractions. It’s nonetheless powerful, letting you filter to a specific project or context. The point is to spend more time doing your activities than actually organizing what they are. And TaskPaper handles that beautifully (and elegantly). I now understand what the Hog Bay Notebook users have been clamoring for!

I also have a better understanding of how GTD works, even more so after I sat through the mGTD screencast put up by Jeff, which in turn helped me make better use of TP and GTD.

There are definitely some features I’d like to see added, though:

The UI signifies task completion by changing the text style to strike-through, but the only way to mark the task as completed textually is by adding the context @done or the keyboard shortcut cmd-D. (You can also mark it completed by clicking on the open circle in the left margin or the menu item “Project > Mark as Done”, but that requires lifting your hands from the keyboard to use the mouse. I would prefer some other delimiter such as “x”, or a checkmark to signify completion, just for continuity.

I’d like to see true tags supported, perhaps using Chris Messina’s “#” tag delimiter.

So while there are some features I’d like to see added for more sophisticated capabilities, for GTD noobs like myself (still) and those who just want to work and not manage yet another system, TaskPaper should be the first stop to GTD (and priority) mastery!

In time, I might become profficient enough at GTD to be able to use mGTD or MoriGTD. But for now I just need to start the “filtering the inbasket thing” to help things along. That, and redefine my understanding of the word “superficial”.

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