Thursday, February 12, 2009

I miss Sandy...

Don't worry, no one passed away. Sandy isn't a person.

A little background. It all started with me reading Getting Things Done by David Allen. And while I'm not a religious GTD follower, I did take away one concept that has served me well. That is to have a system that gets things out of my brain so I don't have to worry about remembering them. It is very empowering to just know I have a system with which I won't forget things. I find it very stress relieving, letting me concentrate more fully on other things.

What does this mean in practice? Well, my todos fall into a few categories. Some have an obvious time they have to be done, like a meeting or a vet appointment for our dogs. There is a while array of calendar services out there with configurable reminders so that I can be emailed or SMS'ed to remind me. I like Google Calendar and it works well for these.

The next category of todo items is the "someday" category. These todos don't have any hard deadline, but when I have free time, it's nice to have them listed so that I don't have to try to remember them, they are just in front of me. Examples include writing a blog entry, cleaning up some source code I was playing with, or investigating a new technology. Really any sort of task list application works for these, but I found it is nice to have the same application for these todos as for the final cateogory.

The final category of todos is the most tricky, it's the "must be done by" group. For example, a report that has to be written by next Friday, a paper read before a meeting three weeks from now, or a phone call made before the weekend. I include in this category repeating housekeeping tasks like watering the plants in my office every week and checking up on a task I delegated.

These todos don't have a specific time they must be done, just a due date. Sometimes one can schedule them and put them on a calendar like an appointment, but often they take much longer than any single block of time I can schedule. And they are flexible, so I don't want to block out a time I could be using to meet with someone.

What I want with this category of "due by" todos is something that will start pestering me when the due date approaches, where the lead time is configurable depending on the amount of time I need to do the item. If I think it will take me three days to do the task, I'd like the pestering to start a week ahead of time so I know I can find time. If it's a 5 minute task, a day will do.

OK, so back to the title of this post and Sandy. IWantSandy, or Sandy for short, was an online service that offered a service which provided this todo list and reminder functionality. I could enter todos and tell her (yes, I will use the feminine pronouns for Sandy) to bug me when the date approached or not associate a date with "someday" todos. She had a great email interface, allowing me to add items by email and use email to mark them as done. This worked well with email, around which a lot of my work life revolves.

Well, last December, Sandy left me (OK, technically, the web site shut down) and I was forced to find an alternative. First, I tried Remember the Milk, but it just didn't work for me. Here's why:
  1. It didn't let me configure how far ahead of time I should get reminded about something. It always uses 3 days before the event. This was too long for some todos and not long enough for others.
  2. If I have multiple events on the same day, I would get them collectively in one email. I really use my email inbox as a short-term todo list for each day and I found not having a separate email for each todo just didn't work for me.
  3. The web interface was flashy, web 2.0, but it was too flashy. For example, one has to hover over an todo to have a menu appear to edit it and if one wasn't careful in how one then moved the mouse to that menu, it would disappear before one got there. I felt like I was playing a video game trying to use it.
I moved on and tried EverNote next. And I have to say as a note taker and organizer, EverNote rocks! It has native clients for the Mac and for the iPhone, my two primary work devices, and a decent web interface for everything else. (As much as I like web-based services that be accessed from anywhere, they still cannot beat a good, well-written native client.) If you are reading this and can't understand why one would be exciting over a note organizing application, you should give EverNote a try.

EverNote also allows you to upload pictures and then recognized text in the pictures so you can search on it, something I haven't really used yet, but just seems cool! So far I've been happy with the free version, though if I continue to like it as much as I do now, I'll probably support it by upgrading to the pay verison.

But EverNote has one big short-coming for my todo management needs - it doesn't do reminders! One cannot associate a due date with an item and get email reminders. Alas.

For the moment, I'm using PingMe for this functionality. It offers nice functionality for setting reminders - offering one time or a "pester" mode, which causes it to keep reminding me, at a configurable interval, until I tell it I've done something. The interface is web-based, and nice and clean.

So I'm currently using two services - EverNote for "someday" items and PingMe for "due by" items. It's livable. Somethimes a item moves from one category to the other, which is a pain.

Which brings me back to my title: I miss Sandy. Both EverNote and PingMe do their thing better than Sandy did, but she was a good combination of both and I have yet to find her equal as a reminder assistant.

Thanks for listening.
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