This article is part of the "How to Get Real Work Done on an iPad" series. To go to the start, click here.
The iPad is superb for task and project management thanks to the huge variety of apps in this class. You could easily use it as your task manager alone and be happy. The problem is that "productivity" is very personal. One person's system is another's chaos. So, I will give you an overview of how I do things so you can see a specific example of how the iPad can work for managing tasks in general.
The first question you need to ask is "how complex are my task management needs?" for many people, a calendar and simple list of things you need to do is fine. You can use Apple Reminders to make a list, or several lists, and set due dates and priorities for tasks. You can use Apple Calendar for your appointments. Job done.
For others, me included, you have a lot of different projects and tasks to keep your eye on. If you made a list of everything you would be overwhelmed but the sheer amount you have to get done by the end of the day. You need a way to see what you need to do when you need to do it. Your system needs to be more complex to give you peace of mind.
With that said, you don't want a system that is so complex that you spend more time managing your time than actually working. For me, the perfect balance between complexity and effciency is "Getting Things Done" (GTD) by David Allen. Much has been written about the system so I won't reguritate it here except to urge you you buy the book if you are at all interested in being less stressed about your overwhelming workload.
I have an a slightly adjusted implementation of GTD. I have used it with huge success for around 10 years. As I write this I have 24 projects and 71 outstanding tasks. I estimate a further 30 items in my various inboxes that I have yet to check if there is an action to take, and today is a Sunday. You can imagine what Monday is like. Right at this moment this huge and growing list does not bother me in the slightest. I'm doing the very best thing possible in this moment and I'm comfortable with the other hundred plus things I am not doing right now. I know this because of GTD.
Calendar: Hard landscape
The easiest part of GTD, and productivity in general, is your calendar. Everyone has one. We know how they work because it's broadly the same for everyone: If you have a meeting you put it in your calendar. If it's on your computer you can set an alarm for it so you don't forget to attend. GTD calls this your "hard landscape" because its made up of time-dependent events that shape your day. If you miss that meeting it's dead. You have to rearrange it, you can't just do it later like you can with a job like "write the Henderson report".
So, if your calendar has a handful of meetings a week on it you can happily use the built-in iPad calendar. It allows you to enter and move appointments. You can also set a reminder. If you want to go cross-platform, like with a Windows PC or Android phone, it syncs with other calendars, including Google Calendar which works everywhere. It's basic but effective.
I recently changed to Fantastical because I prefer the natural language entry option, but I still have Google calendars at the back running it all so it syncs.
That ability to have multiple calendars is useful if you want to keep things separate. I have a work calendar using Google Apps and home calendar using Google Calendar. I don't want personal stuff on a calendar shared with work mates but I want to be able to see everything. The iPad lets me do that. I also have a couple of custom calendars; birthdays, travel (with TripIt) and cricket fixtures. I don't always want to see those so I keep them separate and turn them on when I need them.
The one weak area in Apple's Calendar for me is entering appointments and meetings. The scroller is slow and fiddly and you have to open the app to put something in. It's awkward. Fortunately now there are some options for natural language entry including Fantastical and Sunrise. These allow you quick entry using natural language, which is a lot faster.
Capture and Process
Taking a step back, another core element of GTD is getting control of what jobs are coming into your life. This will happen in a couple of ways; stuff you are given (email, phone calls, meetings and so on) and stuff you think of yourself. You can't do everything the moment it appears in your life, so you need to make sure it's down somewhere so you can decide what to do with it later. That's capturing and processing.
We all have a number of "inboxes" where these tasks arrive in our lives. The most obvious one is your email inbox. However, an inbox is any place where you put stuff that you have not decided an action for yet, you just sort of know it's important. I gather stuff into a few different inboxes that I process a couple of times a week into proper to do list items.
Email is the classic inbox. It's also slightly different as anyone can put something into your inbox anytime. The capture part looks after itself. Some of those emails will be information and require no action, others will need you to do something. There are many ways to manage the flow of mails, and what you do with them. However, the key point to remember is that your email inbox is a place for stuff to pass through, and not to stay.
As a result, email doesn't need a lot of clever features, even if you have a lot of mail to handle. All it needs to do is allow you to quickly view one mail at a time, decide on the action and move to the next. For me, there is nothing better than CloudMagic.
Personally, I don't use notifications for mail, as they are a distraction. So, two or three times a day, I'll "do email" by going into the CloudMagic application and starting at the top. The fastest way is to do it in portrait, with no sidebar and go to the first mail. From here, look at the email and decide,
- Nothing is required, it is information only. Archive it by swiping left.
- Action is required that will take about 2 minutes. Do it immediately.
- Someone else needs to take action. Forward the mail and send it to my task manager app Todoist tagged as "wait".
- Action is required that takes more than 2 minutes. Send it to Todoist as an action and archive the mail.
That's it. This system makes email much easier when handling incoming mails as there are only very quick decisions to be made on each mail. Email time is processing time, not time to do work.
CloudMagic is powerful here because it integrates with Todoist. With a tap you can turn an email into a task in a larger project with a due date. Everything is then in one place when I go to do work, or check on items I am waiting for.
I know some people do more with email, including sending mails to Evernote for reference and tagging or filing emails to help find them. As I use Gmail, I find that all reference material is easy to find using the search function and the time cost of filing is too high to bother. I'll occasionally file receipts as PDF files for expenses reasons, but that's about it.
I also have a number of email filters set up to automatically handle a number of work emails that are only ever reference emails. They can be filed right away so I let the system do it to save time. I'm very conservative with these filters as I don't want to miss anything.
A lot more can and has been written about email. Check out David Sparks for a deeper dive. My only additional advice is to keep it as simple as you can by managing the email you can control and keeping a handle on the stuff you can't. You don't need "inbox zero" to feel in control, but you do need to know what's in there, and what you are going to do with it. Otherwise, each email is a tiny packet of anxiety.
Another inbox is your own head. You are constantly having ideas, remembering things, finding links online for further investigation and many more inputs. Drafts is the perfect way to capture all that stuff quickly, then decide exactly what to do with it.
Drafts is a note-taking app that opens onto a blank text entry field. If it stopped there it would have limited use, but the power of the app is the ability to swiftly move your note to somewhere else very quickly. It's your raw thoughts put into actionable tasks.
So, from a capture point of view, you can get it down fast, decide what to do with it and get it to the right place fast. Here's some examples,
- Thinking of a new task, typing it into drafts, and sending it straight to my task list.
- Writing up meeting notes and emailing straight out.
- Sending links to another computer.
- Posting to multiple social media at once.
For me the strength of Drafts is that it's always the starting point for text. You don't have to think about which app to open you just open Drafts and start capturing. It's a digital notebook. Once you have got the text out into the world you can then decide where it goes. It might be an article idea, a task, a reference note, the start of an article (I began this article in Drafts before realising it needed more attention in Editorial), a tweet, a Facebook post or something else. The writing and decision making are separated. That fits with GTD perfectly.
Evernote is a dumping ground for reference material. For me, this is most saved web pages for things like cricket drills, recipes I want to try and make (badly) and exercises for the gym. I have a Notebook called ".inbox" (the dot is to keep the inbox at the top of the list of notebooks) to capture things quickly for later processing. This is frictionless because Evernote capture tools are everywhere in iOS share sheets.
Like email, at a separate time I go through .inbox and decide what to do with each item. Most things are filed away in another Notebook as reference material, but if there is an action attached I will add it to the relevant list in Todoist. Unlike email, I very rarely need to share an Evernote note with anyone else and so I don't forward anything (or have any shared notebooks). If I need to share something, it goes into Dropbox.
If Drafts is for text and Evernote is for the web, Dropbox is the place to capture and process files. This can be anything digital; documents, spreadsheets, images, fonts, executables, and anything else that's a file. To allow this make a Dropbox folder called Inbox where everything starts and you can process later. This has a number of benefits.
- Get email attachments. Email attachments have traditionally been a pain on the iPad, but with Dropbox and the IFTTT service you can set up a rule that automatically downloads all attachments into your Dropbox inbox.
- Sharing documents Anything in your Dropbox inbox can be seen on all your devices so it's a handy place to save files to move to and from a phone or desktop. It's a good idea to set up the automatic image upload option in Dropbox so that images you capture on your iPad are sent directly to Dropbox and you can delete them from your camera roll to save space.
The same rules apply for processing as any other inbox. Set aside time to process this inbox, start with the first file and ask yourself "what do I need to do with this file?"
- Requires action: Do it if it takes less than two minutes or add it to your list if it takes longer.
- Requires no action: If it's not important then delete it, if you might want it later, move it into reference material.
Doing it this way, you will find that there is a lot of stuff to process where you just delete. For example, I am emailed several reports a week that require nothing from me but it's good to have them. I have a rule set up in Gmail to automatically file them, so I know they are sitting in my email if needed and I don't need to duplicate the data by filing in Dropbox. I will delete those files instantly. You might want a backup of certain things, in which case you can file them in Dropbox too but I find that just creates work. I would rather just fly through the inbox. The golden rule for this time is "touch it once and get it out of the inbox fast".
Some people also have a lot of rules set up using IFTTT and PC based services like Alfred or Belvedere that automatically file things. Aside from the obvious issue of needing a Mac or PC to do this, I have never felt the need. I have experimented, but I guess I don't have enough files that can be automatically filed to make it worthwhile. I like to be able to touch everything and decide for myself what to do with it. The volume of files I need to look at is still low enough where this is not an issue for me. Perhaps your needs are different, in which case take a look at the above options.
Todoist is the place where tasks end up once You have processed your inboxes and decided what to do with each one. The app is a project and task manager that has a lot of advanced features. This is great if you have more than a handful of tasks and projects and want to know at-a-glance what you need to do next. Frankly, if you have fewer moving parts (tasks, projects, priorities and contexts) you will find the Apple Reminders app is simple and effective. What reminders can't do is,
- Cross platform: iOS, Android and web versions sync seamlessly (this is why I prefer it to OnmiFocus).
- Tasks can be viewed by project, context, or due date.
- Tasks and projects can be quickly added using the app, Drafts or Launch Center Pro.
You'll notice the last one on the list is a "capture" feature. This is done in a number of ways depending on your needs in the moment.
- If you know the next action you can open the app and put it straight in avoiding the inbox altogether. The app lets you set due date, project and context if you wish. It's not the fastest way, but you can get it all in.
- If you know the project and want to think through some actions you can open up the project and start adding tasks.
- If you have something that might be a task or project but you need to think it through more, you can add the thought to the Inbox. This is an inbox inside Todoist that you can process at a later time.
So, the Inbox is your dumping ground for things that might be tasks or projects but you have not decided about yet. You can add emails into it, send a Draft into it, or open the app and type straight in. This is powerful because you can capture from any source and process it later. For example, say you get a Facebook Messenger or Messages note that has a task in it. The task is complex enough that you can't do it right away. You could leave it in the silo and forget to do it until you get another message. Or you could copy the text and paste it into the Inbox (perhaps via Drafts) knowing you will get to it in a timely manner because all your unprocessed stuff is in there.
I'd love it if Apple allowed share sheets in the Messages app so I could use the Todoist extension to make the process even quicker.
Processing is, as always, a quick decision making process of of moving stuff out of the Inbox and into the right place or deleting (practically nothing in here is either a sub 2 minute task or reference material). Here is my procedure
- If it's a project, create a project in the sidebar and delete the Inbox item.
- if it's a task, give it a GTD verb, due date and move it to the relevant project.
Before we continue, it's apt to have a sidebar here about task and project "metadata". You can add a task then give it a load of extra information:
- Due Date
- Notes, links and other references
I used to use an app that also gave me start dates, but I tried Todoist and loved it's feature set I decided to try and live without them. As it turned out, using due dates instead made me far more focused and productive. I'm fast and loose with due dates, often casting them far in advance of the real deadline, or postponing when I decide to. But the due date allows me to control what I see far better than start dates without feeling overwhelmed, or letting anything through the gaps. That was a nice surprise.
The other data is mostly self explanatory. However "context" is less clear. For the uninitiated, a context is a list based on restriction. You can't make a phone call unless you are near a phone, so you might have a list called "Calls". You can also set up agenda based contexts for when you are meeting with people such as a boss or spouse. This way, when you are at you phone you can go through your list of calls and not worry about tasks in other contexts.
In Todoist you set this up by tagging tasks when you put them in, then when you come to do work, using whatever context is most suitable for the moment. Tap on "Calls" to see all you calls. This is better than simpler list apps because you can have one task in multiple contexts. It makes it a lot harder to put a task in the wrong place to lose or forget.
As I work at an iPad almost always (and have a smart phone), I don't need many contexts. I have some I use occasionally such as one called "quick" for those unimportant but easy tasks I want to get done when I'm too tired for something epic. In all honesty, I prefer just looking at my list by due date and making decisions at the time rather than tagging when I enter a task. It's nice to have the option to create ad hoc lists from existing tasks though. I'll sometimes create a list called "offline" for when I'm travelling and can't be sure I'll have a reliable wifi connection.
Additionally, You can review papers in a physical, real world inbox and put the resulting actions into Todoist. Even in this increasingly digital world of work, there are dead trees to negotiate. This is best managed by a single place to dump stuff until you get a chance to process it. If the outcome of the processing is an action, it goes into Todoist directly. If it's reference material you can file it. I tend to use old fashioned A4 folders for this as I get very little paper reference material. if the original paper doesn't need to be retained, I'll scan the document, and file it in Evernote. I don't think I will ever be paperless, but the less paper in my office, the better.
More on filing in a moment, but the take home point with Todoist is this; once I'm done processing everything, I have a list of items that need to be done, and I don't see any items that can - or have to - wait. If you have never experienced the mental unclenching that goes with a trusted system like that, you have never lived. It's bliss in the midst of chaos.
Filing with Evernote
Filing is dull but necessary. Some documents you need to keep "just in case" you need it at an unspecified future date. This is why you need something simple to keep your filing that makes it easy to find. That something is Evernote.
Evernote makes filing as seamless as possible. As I've already noted, you can dump anything into it from webpages to video to documents (scanned and already digital). You can throw everything into one big pile and rely on search to find things, or you can sort everything into neat tags and notebooks. Either way, you know it's all in one place and accessible anywhere because it syncs between PC, Mac, Phone and iPad automatically.
My method is mainly "dump and hunt" because the search is so good. It even searches within PDF files. If I ever need anything again, I know it's in Evernote because all long term filing is in Evernote. Most filing will never be touched again, but you might as well keep it in Evernote just in case. The cost of storage is zero.
I also scan in most paper files worth keeping to save physical space. I use the excellent app PDFPen+ from Smile to do this quickly from my iPad. You can scan in papers, crop the image, OCR the text and send to Evernote in one go. Since I bought the app Evernote brought out a scanning app too that looks good but I have not tried it. You could argue that digitising paper is time consuming compared to shoving it a filing cabinet. That's a decision only you can make for yourself, but personally I prefer the minimalist feel of having as little paper as possible (and the knowledge the digital versions are backed up).
I do need to keep a few real items around. Pay slips and utility bills are two examples, asIll occasionally need to show these for ID reasons. Here I have a few A4 folders and a labeller to hand and I keep only what I feel absolutely can't be scanned. If you prefer to keep more paper around, then I recommend you follow the guidelines for filing in David Allen's Getting Things Done..
Todoist for action
The final element in GTD is to actually get on with some work. Todoist makes this easy because you should have in front of you a total overview of what you need to do and what you can do based on the current context.
For me, this means glancing at my list of items due today and working down the list. Inevitably, I'll have "overdue" items, but these are rarely ever overdue in the sense that someone else is waiting for me to complete the work. They are mostly arbitrary deadlines set by me, I'm using them as start dates. The ones that are true deadlines get done in time because I know they are true deadlines (like writing the day's article).
This is so easy, it turns even complex multi week projects into a simple list of tasks that I only see when I need to see it. It's a great weight off my mind and so makes me more productive. I just sit down and decide what's next, then do it. And because it's cross-platform, I can sit down at my iPad, computer or even my phone and know what I need to do.
One extra in the app that works is Karma. When I saw Karma I thought it was a gimmick I would never use. In reality, it's motivating to get a few extra things done every day. The idea is simple; you set a target for daily and weekly tasks completed. If you hit the target you get Karma. If you miss you lose Karma. This makes working a game. You have to beat your score to keep your run going.
As you can see, I've got a streak going well at the moment with a weekday target of 18 tasks a day (weekends are not counted). And while I realise this is just a silly game that's easy to "cheat", it does motivate me to keep my streak going. I've gradually pushed up both the daily and weekly task target to push myself, and it works. I'll often find myself on 16 tasks at 5pm and will spend a little more time finishing some things to get over the line. It a minor but it's a plus.
I think productivity is my favourite use for the iPad. I know it's possible to do all these things on desktop and even a phone, but when I have my list on the screen, and am choosing the next job then just doing it, I feel like a well oiled machine, operating at the height of my powers.
I can be sat at the big screen computer with the iPad as a companion. I can be in a library or coffee shop with just my iPad and a good cup of Americano. I can even be waiting for a train and glancing at Todoist instead of mindlessly scrolling twitter. It all makes me feel super productive, and gives me the evidence to prove it.