27 May, 2011

Getting Things Done For Developers

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Productivity is something I’ve thought a lot about because it’s something I’ve struggled with, I think a lot of other people have too. As developers we have a lot of tasks and reference materials to keep track of whether we’re working at a company, developing our own projects, or consulting for someone else. For most people it’s hard to not lose anything without a water-tight system to capture and manage it all.

In this article I want to talk about capturing tasks and related materials. If you know GTD, some of it’s going to sound familiar. In GTD one of the core ideas is that you need to capture every item that goes through your head in a trusted place where you know that you can come back to it later and process it effectively. For developers finding a system that’s simple and seamless enough to not interfere is essential.

Methods of Capture

I combine high and low tech tools for capture, and default to whichever works for the context I’m in. As long as I trust the tool and know that I come back to it, the specific method of capture is really pretty secondary.

On The Mac

On my Mac I’ll usually just type into a text file or directly into my task management software. Most of these apps have some concept of an inbox and that gives me a trusted and known place I can come back to for later processing. Pick any tool that makes you comfortable here. If you’re interested in processing your tasks later in a GTD centric way, OmniFocus is a great choice that I’ve had a lot of success with.

A habit that I’ve recently started is having a folder called “Inbox” on my Mac for storing files that I’m not sure what to do with yet. I process this at least once a day to keep it from getting stale. Mine is kept in the root directory of my Dropbox folder and is kept as a
stack on my dock. I’ve also set screenshots I take to go here which you can do from Terminal with this line: defaults write com.apple.screencapture location /Full/Path/To/Folder. Getting transient files off of my Desktop and processing them regularly has turned out to be a great habit for keeping track of these files.

On The Go

When I’m away from my computer and need to capture a task or thought quickly, I normally default to OmniFocus on my iPhone. The thing that’s important when picking a mobile tool is that if you’re going to sync with a desktop app you trust syncing will be automatic and painless enough that your information will be there you need it. OmniFocus has worked really well for that because the syncing is mostly automatic – my tasks have always just been everywhere I needed them. You should consider the level of pain you’re willing to endure here versus what tool you like the best offers. Entering tasks on the iPhone usually works best for me when I’m away and have a quick idea, or remember something I need to do want to jot it down. I don’t try to organize tasks using the iPhone at all and mostly just use it for capture.

If I need to store a slightly more detailed note, or I’m working with someone, a notebook is my solution. I don’t like to type a long set of notes into the iPhone if I can avoid it. Also when dealing with someone else jotting something into a notebook looks like you’re paying attention, pulling out an iPhone and typing feverishly into it makes you look like an asshole. When picking a notebook, find one sturdy and small enough to survive in your back pocket. Carrying it with you at all times is a great habit, and I definitely feel like I capture more errant ideas just by having it. Field Notes have treated me well, both for size and durability. I’ll also use the notebook for sketching into which is a task that neither a computer nor iPhone is particularly well suited for.

Wrapping Up

Capture is one of the most integral parts of any task management system. Without capturing everything you can’t even really be sure what you need to accomplish, let alone start doing it. In future articles I’d like to continue by discussing how to effectively process tasks and manage a reference system. I hope that reading this has given you some ideas for how you can be more effective at getting things out of your head and into a system, next month we’ll talk about processing and turning them into tasks.

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