Elgan: 'Getting Things Done' to go

Three free tools power the ultimate GTD system for digital nomads.

I'll admit it. I'm one of those annoying "Getting Things Done" fanboys. I love David Allen's productivity system, which he lays out in three books: Getting Things Done, Ready For Anything and the brand-new Making It All Work.

I recommend that everyone buy all three books. They pay for themselves -- both the time and money you invest -- in weeks or even days. And the peace of mind his system gives you is priceless.

If you'd like to first familiarize yourself with Allen's methodology, please check out the Wikipedia or WikiSummaries entries. (Note: Normally, Computerworld does not reference wiki-based information, but I can vouch for the fidelity of both these entries.)

Allen's system is flexible; you can choose your own software and systems for storing your information. His suggestions, however, default to physical in-boxes, ink pens, index cards and paper folders as primary methods for collecting, processing, organizing and reviewing actions, projects, goals and the like.

Most technology-loving people (the kind who would be reading this article on this site) avoid the physical and gravitate toward the digital, usually Microsoft Outlook. Dedicated Getting Things Done (GTD) applications exist. Mobile professionals add a smart phone to the mix for capturing ideas and information.

All this is great. But for digital nomads, there are three missing elements to the standard setup used by most GTD enthusiasts.

1. Ability to capture hands-free. Sometimes you can't stop what you're doing and type on a smart phone, but you need to capture an idea or send yourself a reminder.

2. Graceful handling of recurring tasks. Many of our tasks are recurring actions -- daily, weekly, monthly or even annually. And it's great to be able to quickly switch frequencies (from, say, daily reminders to weekly).

3. Access from any PC. We digital nomads never know where we'll be or what kind of access we'll have. Sometimes the only Internet access is somebody else's PC -- say, in a cybercafé or hotel business center. It's important to be able to access 100% of our GTD system from any computer.

I've looked far and wide, tried dozens or hundreds of potential solutions over the years and have finally found what I believe is the ultimate combination of software and services for digital nomads who want to "get things done." They give you all the benefits of GTD, fill in the "missing three" gaps mentioned above and, best of all, are completely free. Here they are.


You may not have heard of reQall. And if you have, you probably think of it as a service for sending reminders to yourself by phone. But it's also a shockingly usable to-do list system (and a whole lot of other things).

Here's how the note-to-self thing works. When you call the reQall phone number, a recorded voice gives you command options. If you say the "Add" command, the phone beeps, and you leave a message. It's like calling someone's voice mail. When you're done, hang up -- reQall takes your spoken message and converts it into text. It then e-mails that text to you, and also adds it to your to-do list, which lives on the reQall Web site.

When reQall's number is on speed dial, the process of entering an item into your GTD to-do list system is: Press one button. Talk. Hang up.

That's the most minimal and widely known use of reQall. But the service also has an extraordinarily powerful, simple and GTD-compatible system for managing action items. The basic view shows "Today," "Soon," "Overdue," "Later" and "Shared Reminders" tabs.

When you call in a reminder, new items go into "Today" by default. By clicking on an item, you can see its completion status, what folder it's currently in, a "when it needs to be done" item and a "who needs to do it" option.

When you set the due date, the menu of options -- like everything in reQall -- is in plain, casual English. Options are expressed like these examples: "Tomorrow morning," "in a couple of days" and "in a month." The due date (and even time, if you wish), determines which tab it goes under. For example, if you choose "in a month," it goes under the "Later" tab. As the due date gets closer, reQall automatically moves that item from "Later" to "Soon" to "Today" and, if you don't complete it on time, "Overdue."

There is a long list of powerful, easy-to-use features in reQall that I'm not telling you about for the sake of brevity. In a nutshell, it's awesome, powerful, flexible and -- best of all from a GTD perspective -- gives you mental clarity about your unfinished tasks.

The ability to phone in your to-do items, then manage them online from any PC is great. But even greater are reQall's incredibly appealing iPhone and BlackBerry applications, which let you do almost everything you can do on the Web site, but from your smart phone.


A free Web-based service called Re:snooze lets you set reminders, which will arrive in your e-mail in-box at whatever frequency you set. Best of all, the e-mail it sends offers four "buttons" that you can click on directly from the e-mail message. Those buttons offer to change the frequency of that message or delete the reminder, all with a single click.

And, per our requirement, your Re:snooze items are all available online from any Internet-connected PC.


The combination of reQall and Re:snooze covers individual tasks -- both one-off and recurring -- brilliantly. But these two services aren't great for organizing whole projects, which GTD defines as anything that requires more than one action. So, for example, "Take a trip to Italy" is a project. "Buy tickets" is an individual task within that project.

Those two applications handle text, but can't deal with a wide range of other forms (although reQall, surprisingly, has a photo section). That's where Evernote comes in. Evernote lets you drop just about anything -- text, Web pages, photos and other things -- which are then indexed and made searchable.

Here's just one example of the magic that Evernote can perform. Let's say your travel agent mails you a paper-based itinerary for your trip to Italy. Just use your PC's video camera, your cell phone, your digital camera or your scanner to take a picture of that paper. Drop it into Evernote, and the service will recognize the text in that picture, index it and make it searchable just like text you type in.

Evernote also has a checklist function. You can create boxes to the left of your items, which get a checkmark when you click on them. It's great for projects that have a long list of small to-do items.

You can interact with your Evernote-based projects using Evernote's downloadable desktop application, which syncs automatically with the Web-based version. Evernote also has iPhone and Windows Mobile applications that give you a third conduit for getting at your projects.

Again, Evernote is spectacularly flexible, powerful and feature-rich. I'm just scratching the surface here.

With these powerful, easy-to-use and trustworthy services, you can "get things done" from anywhere. It's the best combination of tools for digital nomad productivity I have found.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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