Getting on the Ball with GTD and the iPhone

I’ve been experimenting with GTD (Getting Things Done) since buying an iPhone. We live in an age where there are just way too many things to rob us of our attention and keeping us from focusing on the things that matter the most. Life is a series of actions that combine to a greater or lesser effect depending on what those actions are and how they are structured. In order to focus on the greater things in life you need to either eliminate the lesser tasks or handle them as efficiently as possible.

The reason why I chose the iPhone to revive my GTD workflow is simple: ubiquity. I will always have my phone with me no matter where I go. Out of all the apps I chose Appigo’s Todo ($9.99) simply because it is the best one out there. It syncs with web services Remember the Milk and Toodledo but works perfectly fine as a standalone. I spend my time at work in front of a Windows pc but use a mac at home so some kind of web service integration is a must. I use Remember the Milk simply because it has a good feature set and there are a variety of tools for posting tasks, such as twitter. So far Appigo Todo is the only native iPhone app that has web synchronization built in.

The reason why I like Appigo’s Todo is simple:

Focus on standard task management

They don’t try to put their own spin on GTD that you must adjust to. They give you a standard, yet well thought out tool set. There’s a quick add button for tasks. You can set a default due date (like today), list, and/or priority level—this is one feature that makes it better than adding tasks within RTM. You can easily set repeating tasks as well.

Quick Context Switching

You can easily switch lists or show All. What’s more you can filter All to selectively ignore some lists. When you switch lists the tasks you add go into that list.


You can sync on startup or manually. I choose manually for the time being since I had a really hard time with my iphone constantly getting trapped in the “black screen of death” but since the 2.1 firmware seems pretty stable, if my iphone doesn’t crash this week I’ll definitely enable it. It was also a real lifesaver when I did have to restore my iphone since there’s an option to “reset and re-sync”. I was up and running in no time. In fact, Todo is the first app I re-installed when I didn’t have time for a full restore.

My GTD System (Obviously a Work in Progress)

Add ALL Your Tasks

There are some tasks in life that you really don’t need to right down. Breathing, sleeping, brushing your teeth, pouring yourself coffee in the morning or eating. However, for the most part, I put down any tasks that are even vaguely optional or those that tend to get ignored easily. Some examples include: exercise, reading the paper, throwing out the trash on the designated trash day, drink medicine, etc. You only have to add these tasks once with a proper repeating schedule and never worry about them again. By putting all your tasks on the list you can forget about it. Just plan out your day, decide on a sequence of tasks and come back to the list as you knock them off. You don’t need to juggle them in your head any more.

Put a Deadline on them All

A task without a deadline is merely an intention. Let’s be realistic. Suppose you have a task called “write my great American novel” sitting at the bottom of your list without so much as a deadline. Do you think you’ll ever complete it? No. It’ll just be there looking up at you, nagging you silently but not nearly enough to get you to actually work towards completing it.

If the Task Takes More than a Couple Days to Complete, Break it Down

Back to our big task of “writing a novel”, smacking a deadline on it alone will not ever make you a novelist. Why? Because you will never write a novel in one sitting. Any task that takes longer than a couple days or even a day needs to be broken down. If you want to write a novel you can start by setting a recurring task for every day or two to “write one page of my novel”. If each chapter is 60 pages, you can set another task to “finish up current chapter in novel” with a deadline two months in advance and so on.

This really applies to any major undertaking whether it’s a medium-sized project at work or hosting a party for a friend (find a venue, email friends, choose a present, etc.) that are ultimately a series of related tasks. You need to break them down into chewable bits you can chip away at on a daily basis. It’s the only way you’ll achieve your greater goals. Just think of how many excruciating hours professional musicians practice scales and standards. They don’t simply say, “okay, perform at Carnegie Hall next month”. Same approach here.

Breaking big tasks also have the added benefit of helping you map out an informal course of action. For example, say you add a task to “host Bob’s birthday party”, you then need to break it down into a series of smaller tasks: pick a date everyone can attend, get party supplies (add a list in the memo section), pick a venue, finalize reservations two days before, collect money for surprise gift, order gift from store, etc. See, just the act of breaking a big task down gives you a course of action you can follow. Stagger the due dates into the proper sequence and then all you have to do is check them off. No frets or worries. Of course, as you go about these tasks new ones will pop up and you’ll have a better chance of discovering holes in your plans before they become an issue.

Make Your Call

Inevitably, some tasks are always going to be lagging. My advice is to either reschedule them or reconsider whether you really need to do them. Maybe you can just cut this task out of your life for good and be better for it. Letting tasks fester in the overdue department only lowers your motivation. If you can leave the task overdue so long then either it’s unimportant or you have some serious procrastination problems. If it’s the latter you simple need to DO IT. Really. Ultimately all tasks come down to the simple question, “are you going to do it or not?”. The only answers are “yes” or “no (physically or mentally impossible, too lazy or just don’t want to do it). You need to make your call and live with it. You can’t have a task list full of intentions. If they are simply overwhelming then you can break them down or translate them into something more realistic.

Stay in the Zone

It feels good to be constantly checking off tasks that you are getting done whether they be errands or milestones in achieving your dream. It also gives you a good idea of what your capacity is. Once you get yourself in a good cycle you can start experimenting with structuring your tasks. What combination or sequence of tasks work best for you. How can you multi-task mundane tasks (like getting back to a colleague while a software installation is running). Which tasks take longer than you thought. The act of writing tasks down and completing them creates a virtuous cycle and ultimately getting more and more things done. It gets to the point where you almost wonder, “hey, maybe I don’t need task lists at all, I can just focus on doing it”. Of course, you don’t want to give in to that temptation. You simply need to find bigger goals to work towards.

So far, the combination of my iPhone and GTD has helped me to get more things done in less time and keeps me from wasting time or avoiding essential tasks altogether. I’ve been able to juggle a variety of obligations more deftly than ever and focus more. However, the best thing is that it opens room for improvement.