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On todo lists

How I am managing my life and keeping track of the things I want to do

Disclaimer: this post is going to be more of a story rather than a bunch of recipes for you since I find it hard to justify speicific task management features without the context. If you want some specific tips, jumpt straight to the org mode section.

My quest for task keeping started few years ago, during the uni, when I found myself forgetting things increasingly more often. Perhaps that was just basically having a proper grown-up life: moving for a different city to study, having to care about physical well being, looking for internships, so the various responsibilities accumulated and started tipping over my brain.

That wasn't just with day to day life through, I thought I was bad at memorizing structured information as well like math definitions or language grammar. It didn't have much impact on my studing though: thankfully, most of our classes did not require cramming and as long as one understood the subject they were fine.

Forgetting felt really irritating, so I started seeking ways of compensating for that. In hindsight, I'm not really sure whether I actually was that worse than other people at remembering and memorizing. I just sort of assumed everyone else was good. But anyway, here I am.

One approach some people choose is just letting it flow and accepting that things that you didn't manage to memorize were actually not that important. I find that quite terrifying on many levels so instantly rejected that.

Pretty much the only and the obvious choice was moving to digital way of managing tasks.

1 Tools

I think I've tried pretty much everything that existed, so I won't list them all. The ones I actually heavily used were:

  • gmail (???-now)
  • google calendar (2010-now)
  • wunderlist (2013-2016)
  • remember the milk (2016-2018)
  • emacs + org mode (2017-now)

I'll talk in more details about them now.

Gmail

Email is basically a todo-list if you keep it organised enough.

I'm using categories in Gmail, which is the only thing apart from spam filtering I've delegated to Google's algorithms, and it works surprisingly well.

I'm keeping inbox empty:

  • if an email is some sort of useful information (e.g. discount/promo/TODO), I
  • For emails with specific deadline (e.g. tax self assessment), I'll also set it in Org agenda If an email has to be acted upon at some point, I just share it directly in my todo list (via grasp on my desktop).

For emails with specific deadline or that need to be actioned upon sooner than later, I just manually create a task in my actual todo-list, schedule it and archive the email.

Most messages are used as a means of notifying and don't require replying. If it does, but I can't do it immediately or waiting for something I'll just star it so it ends up in my 'Primary' which makes it noticeable.

Every once in a while when I don't have better things to do I go though 'Updates', 'Promotions' and 'Forums' and act upon items there, cleaning them up a bit.

Google Calendar

I suppose most people use it anyway, so perhaps not worth a long explanation.

Killer feature (and also the only reason I'm using it) of Google calendar is Gmail integration: extracting calendar events from things like reservations, booking and appointment confirmations. Even though there is a 'standard' way of suggesting a calendar entry for a recipient by attaching an '.ics' file, it's not widely used. Apart from that feature, for personal use any calendar software works as long as it's capable of syncing.

I'm only using calendar for tasks that have specific date/time and timespan: work holidays, regular meetings, appointments, social occasions with friends etc. Everything else goes into my todolist which I'll write about later.

Here's how I organise the calendar:

  • Main

    This is the default calendar and I just dump everything in it.

  • Work

    I can't import my work calendar into my personal calendar due to security policy. So instead, I just reserve slots for regular meetings without any metadata. Normally I remember what this slot corresponds for, so this is just so I don't schedule something over work event.

  • Imported:

    One feature people often overlook in modern calendar software is that you can import other calendar feeds. Some examples of mine:

    • public holidays (default in Google Calendar)
    • meetup.com events
    • Facebook events: displays events you are attending as long as the ones you marked as 'Maybe'
    • Hackerrank events (programming competitiotns like Google Code Jam/Topcoder).

    The latter one is actually very spammy since it's not personalised and just lists all programming contents. If I keep it on, it just dominates my calendar. To get around this, I normally keep it disabled, but check it once a week and duplicate the events I want to participate in to the Main calendar.

I'm also importing google calendar in my org-mode agenda via org-gcal module (in read-only mode).

Wunderlist

Can't really say much, about it. It was a nice simple todo task manager, but as I got a taste for task management, I started hitting its limitations.

Remember The Milk (RTM)

I was quickly hooked once I discovered it, and ended up as kind of a power user, I even won a year of subscription for some tips I shared!

For full list of features see 'Compare plans' section.

Org mode

I've had several attempts at trying to use spacemacs and Org mode in particular until something clicked and I got hooked. Most of my org mode habits actually got seamlessly transplanted from RTM workflow, so I'm gonna talk about them further.

2 TODO Workflow etc? or something about features I want

After thinking for a bit of the best way to write both about RTM (which I am really greatful for) and org mode without repeating, I realized easiest way to avoid repetition would be some sort of Rosetta stone mapping between RTM and org concepts I've also marked feasure

TODO third column – what it does?

Table 1: This is the caption for the next table (or link)
RTM org mode
tags tags
priorities (only three) priorities (any number)
hotkeys (gmail-style) emacs/evil mode hotkeys
smart lists custom agenda
search custom agenda query or tag search or any other means of plaintext search you can possibly think of (TODO link to swoop)
smart add a bit different, but available via capture templates and datetime prompt
recurring tasks repeated tasks (three kinds of them, actually!). However, 'repeat every' is only partially present. TODO float etc
per-task reminders missing in standard org, although present in Orgzly app (TODO link)
API N/A; can be manipulated via elisp/python/other bindings or as any other plaintext
completed tasks archive
subtasks sub-outlines (hoever behavior for subtasks of recurring tasks is not present though)
phone app orgzly is superior for Android, there are some apps for Iphones, but don't know how good they are
cloud sync N/A; any means of plain text sync you prefer
lists separate files
collaboration missing, or at least not that I know of

I think that stuff above the separator is what made RTM superior for me until I hit its limitations. If you're looking for an elaborate GTD-style task manager, but not willing to dive into Org mode, this should probably be your choice.

Best thing about org mode is that if something is missing, you at least have possibility to hack it and even contribute back. 1 TODO recurring tasks thing,

TODO tag examples

  • priorities TODO how I use priorities
  • smart lists (specified by search query) TODO list examples
  • subtasks
  • cloud sync and offline mode in android app
  • repeating tasks (e.g. 'every fifth day of month' or 'every other

    TODO explain why rtm repeating tasks are good

  • API script for packing list rtm-paranoid script to add tasks from telegram

workflow I had with RTM, pretty similar write how I am rescheduling tasks in the beginning of day

3 misc

I think I can claim that my life is mostly driven by my todo list. Not in the sense that my whole day is scheduled up to the minute and I have to obey it. Quite the opposite actually, I've stopped scheduling things unless they absolutely require a specific time slot.

I can survive few days without looking in my todo list at all, e.g. on holiday (although I still do once a day since I'm a bit anxious of missing Somthing Really Important). But when it gets to day-to-day routine, I am never bored and always have something meaningful I could read/watch or do. It doesn't feel overwhelming, I kind of accept I don't have time (at least currently) for many things I've marked as TODO. YMMV, of course :)

4 TODO [2019-05-13 20:44] write about todolists for travel and org mode workflow?

5 TODO write how I'm using todos with :noexport: right inside this file as I'm coming up with ways to simplify and imporve blog rendering

6 DONE [2019-05-29 19:05] write about gmail and zero inbox?

7 TODO [2019-05-29 19:35] youtube as watchlist?

8 TODO [2019-05-29 19:35] nocommit and TODOs in code

TODO [2019-09-02 22:39] hmm maybe write about how I've set up search over everything first? it's kind of a dependency

9 STRT [2019-05-29 19:38] scripts for adding TODOs from hypothesis, instapaper and kobo (orger)

10 TODO [2019-09-02 22:38] capture

11 TODO [B] I don't use time estimates.   blog todos

Reasons: no need reminding me that there very little time remaining after you account for sleep, full time job, exercise and other maintenance I'm not good at time estimates, although that could be something to improve As long as you have the priorities, you just do the most important things and it doesn't really matter how long rest of them take

12 TODO [C] workflow with todos   blog pkm orger

Yesterday: ran into an article https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-feynman-diagrams-revolutionized-physics-20190514/ which seemed interesting judging by the title, so I immediately shared opened it in instapaper Reading through "Now, a group of physicists and mathematicians is studying a geometric object called an “amplituhedron” that has the potential to further simplify calculations of particle interactions." I realised it would be interesting to find out and learn what is amplituhedron. But I'm on the run and a bit tired, and most important hasn't finished reading the whole article yet! So I highlight this sentence and add 'todo' as annotation. Next morning, as I check my agenda, this is added as a task in my agenda (note that it got a 'scheduled' thing) by one of my 'orger' scripts

* TODO group of physicists and mathematicians is studying a geometric object called an “amplituhedron” that has the potential to further simplify calculations of particle interactions. :ip2org:
 todo
 from [[https://www.instapaper.com/read/1193269751/10712031][ip]]   [[https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-feynman-diagrams-revolutionized-physics-20190514/][How Feynman Diagrams Revolutionized Physics | Quanta Magazine]]

As I go through agenda, I decide it's somewhat interesting to read about at some point, but not very critical. So I unschedule (, u in agenda) give it medium priority [#C] (press 3 in agenda) refile to study.org file (, r in agenda) your hotkeys may vary of course.

While reading the same article, I've highlighted "learn more about Feynman diagrams and how they’ve changed the way physicists work, watch our new In Theory video" and marked as 'todo' as well, so it's now in my agenda. I suspect that that video wouldn't be too heavy on math, so I can watch it tonight while eating my dinner. So I don't unschedule it, but give it low priority [#D] by pressing 4 in agenda and tag it (pressing T in agenda) with 'watch' I still tag and prioritize in case I wouldn't manage to do it today for some reason. Then I'll probably just unschedule the item since planning to watch some short video days in advance is a bit too high friction. Next time I want something to watch I will just call org-tags-view with 'watch' and pick something depending on priority or what I fancy more at the moment.

[2019-05-15 08:09] TODO shit if I keep scheduled in text, it gets detected by agenda. Write that down as one of org mode downsides

[2019-05-18 23:32] Ugh. add back properties and created to the quoted thing…

TODO [2019-10-01 23:49] write about orger

13 TODO [B] post about org mode sort by property - tags   blog reddit

14 TODO [C] touch 'TODO do something'   blog

[2019-12-02 21:55] basically use anything you can as a reminder.

15 TODO [B] remove 'due today' from org super agenda   blog org