Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Tippopotamus 'todo' system

I've tried a lot of things over the years to try and keep organised. To be honest, I'm a bit of a hard sell as I can quickly tire of a system if it's not easy to access and easy to use. I started with paper and found that I didn't always carry a notebook and pencil with me. I tried using my laptop, but again, it's not something I always had with me.

Only recently (the last 3 or 4 years) have cellphones become powerful enough and sufficiently user-friendly to take on an organizational role. The good thing for me is that I carry my phone everywhere, so long as I'm wearing something with a pocket. I plumped for an iPhone as it really is the canine's cahones. The App Store really was the icing on the cake.

I set about trying a bit of everything until I found a system that really worked for me. This took a while, but I was very strict with my criteria, having been through a number of failures:

  • I needed to have an offline to do list on my iPhone
  • It needed to sync to the Internet for total backup
  • Ideally it would sync to an application on my laptop for offline bulk entry
  • It would also sync to a web-app that was easy to use, anywhere
  • Items would need dates, categories, tags, importance and notes
  • Tasks that had specific times or dates would show up on my calendar
  • I wanted the ability to add tasks verbally
  • It needed to cost very little, or be free
My current system covers most of these, but not all - there's still room for improvement. Here is a diagram of how it all works, and I will explain each piece of software and numbered step below:

The system really revolves around this excellent todo list web application. I only hit upon it after finding out that my iPhone app of choice synced with this and Remember the Milk. I tried out RTM, but found that you got more for your money (i.e. free) from Toodledo. The interface wasn't as pretty, but I rarely actually use the website itself - I do it all on my iPhone and synchronise.

Toodledo has lots and lots of features and ticks all the boxes in terms of functionality. I really don't have any gripes with it, especially since it is completely free. You can pay for some advanced features, but they're just dressing and not needed, in my opinion.

Essentially, Toodledo acts as my todo hub. Everything passes through it and I can trust it as a constant backup of all my task and notes information.

Appigo Todo
Toodledo does have its own iPhone application, but, my favourite is Todo by Appigo.

It's not free (it's £5.99 in the UK), but I think it's worth the money. They have provided a lovely clean interface and do updates every now and then that add lots of functionality. They made an update a couple of weeks ago that allowed nested tasks and checklist tasks, without compromising the simple and easy to understand interface.

Synchronisation (1) can be done to RTM or Toodledo. you simply press a button each time you want to sync (or make it automatic). This is great, because you have a constant backup and can recover your data in seconds if something goes awry.

I would add, that pretty much all my task population and editing is done directly on my iPhone, so the user-friendliness of this app is perfect for me.

UPDATE: Check out this screencast if you are interested in Appigo Todo's functionality and interface:

Appigo Notebook
I found that I was also keeping some records that weren't really tasks. Lists of things to buy or present ideas. Measurements or other data to remember. These did not suit a todo list, but i did want them available and backed up. I useed to jot them down in the iPhone notepad, but this wasn't that secure. I then tried the service called Zenbe Lists and was impressed for a while. However, it wasn't very fast and seemed a little clunky to me.

I then saw that Appigo released a notebook and decided to buy it for £2.99. It was worth it and now my todo list and notes are consolidated, since both apps sync to Toodledo (2). This is great for backup, but also means that where I have lots of text to enter into a note, I can do it quicker by accessing the notes portion of Toodledo and doing it there.

Phone numbers also show up automatically on the iPhone version - I have found it great for doing research on my laptop for suppliers or trades persons and then calling them from my iPhone after a quick sync.

I was envious of all the folks in the US being able to use Jott for free before it started charging. The great thing was that a couple of options presented themselves that worked in the UK soon after Jott went fee-based.

I tried reQall for a bit, but it was trying to do more than I needed it for. I then found the brilliant Dial2Do - a free service that works just like Jott does and it does the UK.

Using it, I am able to send emails and sms messages, but more importantly, it can populate tasks in Toodledoo directly (3). This means that if I'm out and about, I can simply phone my Dial2Do number and say "Toodledo", then say my todo item. When I next launch the iPhone app, I sync and there it is!

There are lots of other functions you can do with Dial2Do, but I stick to Toodledo and the Email (which I use to send myself the odd piece of information I could forget). I don't use Dial2Do much, because I can often just enter the data directly into the iPhone, but it's a useful option to have in your todo arsenal.

Google Calendar
GCal as it is sometimes known is great and I would normally fully adopt it if I was not bound to using Outlook at work. Toodledo recently added the functionality to import your tasks into GCal using the iCal protocol (4):

This means that I can now look at my weekly calendar and see tasks with a date at the top of each day. Tasks with a specific time get placed at the correct point in the day. This is a great way to look at the week ahead - you can see todo items and your schedule all in one place. Now, if only I could get that into Outlook...

Microsoft Outlook
As you may well know, Google Calendar Sync allows you to synchronise your Outlook calendar and your GCal (5). This is great as a backup and also so that you can see your calendar online wherever you are. However, there are a couple of drawbacks (or opportunities for Google to work on, if you like).
  • GCal can only sync with the default Outlook calendar
  • GCal can only sync the main calendar in GCal, not iCal imports
This means that I can't (for the moment) get my Toodledo tasks into my Outlook calendar, which is a real bummer. I'm sure they'll sort this at some point, but right now, I'll just have to make do.

Furthermore, I keep two calendars active in my Outlook mailbox. One records my forward plan and the other records what I actually did. I find this useful for retrospectively finding out when things happened (e.g. tax returns). Only one of these syncs to GCal.

Before I move on, I would like to give a nod to Chromatic Dragon's utility ToodledoSync which allows you to sync from Toodledo (and hence from your iPhone) to Outlook's tasks. I used this for a good while, but then decided to stop as I was not using the tasks function in Outlook much. It works really well, and if you need this option, this is the solution.

iPhone Calendar
Of course, all this syncs back to my iPhone from Outlook (6). In a perfect world, my todos would be in Appigo Todo, Toodledo, GCal, Outlook calendar and my iPhone calendar. The only thing stopping this is being able to sync iCals in GCal to Outlook. It does manage to sync my two Outlook calendars, though, presenting them in different colours, which is really nice.

So, I'm almost there - just waiting on technology. I'd be interested to see what anyone has to add on this and if I've missing any utilities that can fill the gaps. I'm sure there might be other solutions out there that do the same things in slightly different ways, but I find this one works well for me and has cost less than a tenner (so $15ish). I have definitely become more organised because of it and find that after a little bit of setting up categories, tags, folders and whatnot, every piece of information has its own place.