Software tools allow people to manage the clutter that threatens to overwhelm their daily lives
By MICHAEL TOTTY
–Mr. Totty is a news editor for The Journal Report in San Francisco.
December 11, 2007
It’s an axiom of the computer age: The very technology that was supposed to make us more productive has instead overwhelmed us with more work, too much information and a blurred line between the office and home. And we’ve repeatedly turned to software to get more organized. But can it really help?
Sometimes, yes. Users have found a batch of software tools that can help manage the flood of assignments, projects, calls, reports, meetings and emails that fill our work days. By themselves, the tools are only modestly useful, users and productivity experts say. But used as part of a broader organizing system, they can make it easier to store, sort and retrieve the stuff that clutters our lives.
An obsession with personal-productivity tools isn’t new — remember the cult of the Filofax? But interest in them is growing, partly because people feel increasingly snowed under at work. Desperate knowledge workers are also flocking to the dozens of Web sites devoted to “lifehacking” — practices for solving everyday problems.
Still, while there’s a lot of software to choose from, picking the right solution isn’t always easy. Different tools work best for different people; for some, pen and paper is still the most useful. Some people can get by with software for generating and managing to-do lists, while others need some way to keep track of all information associated with their daily tasks. Some jobs require better ways of storing, organizing and retrieving massive quantities of information.
Here’s a look at tools that help with those different tasks.
The simplest tool for getting organized is still the basic to-do list, and several automated list makers can be found free online, including Remember the Milk, Ta-da List and Toodledo.
But the average office worker might be in the middle of a dozen or more projects at work and at home, each generating scores of individual to-do items. In those cases, it can be helpful to have a program that can organize all those tasks into more-manageable groups, help set priorities and even arrange items so that tasks that need to be done in sequence pop up in the right order.
Laird Popkin, chief technology officer at Pando Networks Inc., a New York-based maker of peer-to-peer file-sharing software, has tried simple to-do lists, but they were inadequate for handling the scores of projects and activities he has to juggle. “Having 75 priority-one, must-do things was too many,” he says. “It made figuring out what to do next too difficult.”
So, for the past few years, Mr. Popkin has been using a program called Life Balance to keep track of all his projects and to-do items. With it, he can arrange his tasks based on their relative importance, or by the context where they’ll be performed. For instance, when he’s in his car, he can call up an Errands to-do list on his Palm Treo, and when he’s at work, he doesn’t have to sift through his at-home list.
The software, from Llamagraphics Inc., of Franklin, Mass., requires some time and effort to set up and to manage. A user begins by establishing a top level of broad objectives or activities, such as “Earn a living” or “Stay healthy,” and rating each one on its relative importance. Each of those main categories can then be broken down progressively into projects, tasks and subtasks, and each of those can be rated for importance and difficulty. They can be set to occur once, routinely or on a deadline, and are then assigned a place where they’re usually handled — the office, home, the grocery store. Based on all this input, the software generates daily to-do lists for each location.
Mr. Popkin says Life Balance’s ability to show him only the tasks that need to be done at a particular time or place helps him stay more focused. For instance, for a recent unscheduled meeting with the company’s chief executive, he could quickly call up only the items that were important to his boss, without sifting through his entire list of tasks. “I can sit down in a meeting and tick off the things we need to talk about,” he says.
The software also helps him track his completed assignments by the day, week or month, so he can easily prepare status reports for meetings with executives.
For some people, it isn’t enough to just keep track of what tasks need to be completed. They need a better way to organize all the information associated with those tasks.
Some office workers can do that by taking advantage of software they already have: the email and calendar programs that sit on most office computers. Both Microsoft Corp.’s Outlook and International Business Machines Corp.’s Lotus Notes have built-in tools for managing tasks, and with some tweaks they can be set up to do so more efficiently.
Jim O’Donnell, a sourcing director at General Mills Inc., uses the Tasks folder in Outlook to keep track of all his projects for work and home along with his long-term objectives, and to organize meeting notes and other information. By having all his stuff in one place, “I can quickly make a decision about what I want to do next,” Mr. O’Donnell says.
Setting up Outlook this way takes some initial work. A detailed description of how to organize Outlook for using the “Getting Things Done” system created by management consultant and corporate trainer David Allen can be downloaded from the David Allen & Co. Web site, DavidCo.com, for $10. In addition, outside software companies offer add-on programs that automate the process and make it easier to add reminders, organize emails and defer actions — for instance, to schedule a reply to a message for later.
For a recent project, managing the launch of a new company Web site, Mr. O’Donnell created an item in Outlook’s Tasks folder with a broad description of the project’s scope. He then set up individual tasks to be completed, such as “meet with Fred” and “develop a presentation.” Other projects are also stored in Tasks and similarly organized. This gives him one place where he can review all his pending projects and actions once a week to make sure they’re on track. And the Tasks folder is tied to his Outlook calendar, where he can place regular reminders for tasks that need to be done at a certain time.
He also uses Outlook Tasks as a spot to store meeting notes, jotted-down ideas and other information related to the projects. “It’s the one placeholder that allows me to manage it all,” Mr. O’Donnell says.
GETTING THE PICTURE
For some people, putting all their stuff in a list — even a well-organized one — doesn’t reflect how they think; they prefer to view things laid out on a page in a more graphical way, so they can move items around and find unexpected relationships between them. So, many lifehackers turn to “mind mapping” software to display the bits and pieces of their work and their lives.
Mind maps are diagrams that show ideas, bits of information or tasks to be completed radiating out from a central theme or goal, rather than in the linear way that lists are arranged. A typical mind map broadly resembles a spider, with the body as the central theme and the legs leading out to related items. Connections between those items can be more easily shown, simply by drawing lines between them. New items can be added without deciding where they fit in the larger scheme, spurring creative thinking, and lots of information can be taken in at a glance. Mind mapping on paper is a fairly common way to brainstorm, or to organize meeting and research notes, and software that makes it easy to create, edit and share mind maps has been around for a decade or more.
Fans say mind-mapping software can give them a single view of all the aspects of a project. It gives an “air-traffic controller view of what you’re doing,” says William R. Miller, a controller for the information-technology group at a unit of Nationwide Financial Services Inc., the Columbus, Ohio, insurer. He uses the MindManager mind-mapping software from San Francisco-based Mindjet Corp.
MindManager can also help in organizing all the information that collects around a project, by attaching emails, documents and other files to items on the map.
Eric Mack, a productivity specialist in Southern California, uses MindManager to organize notes, plan projects and brainstorm for new ideas. But when starting out on a book or other research project, he needs to collect lots of information without necessarily knowing ahead of time how it’s going to all fit together. For that, he uses another information-visualization tool called Personal Brain.
Personal Brain, from TheBrain Technologies LP, based in Marina del Rey, Calif., purports to help computers work more like people think. The concept is simple enough: Ideas, contacts, emails, Web sites and just about anything else can be added as “thoughts,” and then links can be created between any two thoughts. For example, an entrepreneur could use Personal Brain to collect information on venture-capital firms and their investments as it becomes available, forging links along the way. Then, when he wants to check out a prospective investor, with a few clicks he could see everything he’s collected about the firm and its other investments, and follow links to information on those companies.
For a possible book project, Mr. Mack is dumping research material and ideas into a Personal Brain file, linking them in whatever ways seem relevant at the moment. As he proceeds he can browse through the Brain and see the relationships visualized. “Often I discover new relationships and ideas that I was previously unaware of — ones that probably would not have otherwise become apparent,” Mr. Mack says.
Source: Wall Street Journal