There was a time when I was able to remember tasks to do without any help. No lists, no reminders, no knots in my hanky. Then I got older and life got complicated. The task list became longer and I started relying on my notepad to keep track of chores. For the last ten years or so, pads and checklists – with a little help from Outlook – have kept me on top of the things I had to do. But last year the level of complexity in my work increased once again, and I began to notice the cracks in my old system: forgotten tasks; the stress of beginning the day with a long list of things to do, in no particular order of importance or priority; having to take my notepad everywhere, which wasn’t really practical… I realised that life would be much easier if I could keep a task list somewhere ‘in the cloud’ and access it from anywhere. As I already had access to just about everything else from my phone and tablet, finding for a tool to manage my ‘to do list’ seemed like a logical step. Thus, I started looking for some software that met what I thought were some simple requirements:
- Easy to add and edit tasks and categorise them by type, priority and due date
- Accessible from my work and home computer, phone and tablet
- Can synchronise across all these devices
- Ability to filter down the number of tasks I see at a time. For example, show me just what I have to do today, or tomorrow or this week. Basically, I was looking for something that cut back information overload and would make my task list less overwhelming.
I suppose, another implied requirement was that the tool would be free. My phone and tablet are both Android devices and in all the time I’ve had them I’ve barely spent any money on apps. I just haven’t had any need because the Android Market is full of good quality apps which are often completely free.
However, I soon discovered that task management apps were a different kettle of fish. It’s clear that there is money to be made helping people to stay on top of their workload, because most the software I found came at a cost. Very often you could install a trial or cut-back version, but it was lacking essential features like synchronisation or had limitations on the the number of tasks you could create. And worse than that, one after another, I downloaded and installed software and apps and found them all unsatisfactory in a some way
- I started with Wunderlist which was simple to use and available on Windows and Android, but I soon found it didn’t allow me to filter and manage the tasks effectively and it wasn’t much of an improvement over my paper notepad. The android apps were also quite buggy and took a while to refresh.
- Tried My Life Organized, a proper GTD based application and run with it for a while but felt there was too much going on and the screen always looked very busy. I didn’t really want to adopt the GTD system in full, just some elements that suited my way of working and this software seemed overkill for that. If I’m honest, I didn’t like the look and feel of the product either – very Windows 90-something and, shallow as that may sound, I find that if my tasklist is presented in a way that I find ‘attractive’, it helps with my motivation to actually work on the tasks. Bottom line: I wasn’t keen on paying for the full edition.
- I moved my tasks to Action Method Online which unlike MLO was aesthetically pleasing and very good at cutting back the ‘noise’ of incomplete tasks. However, I found that the functionality was more geared towards managing tasks that you shared with others and again, I didn’t see a point on paying for a system that only partially ticked my boxes.
- I read blog posts about using Evernote or Springpad to implement GTD. I had a go with Springpad but, I found that I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole and I wasn’t really using the tasklist to manage my work load. I wanted to make task management simpler, not more complicated so this defeated the object.
- I then moved to using Astrid – Chrome app, Android app, nice simple interface, but despite the positive feedback from other users I found it completely unreliable. Synchronisation didn’t work and tasks appeared and disappeared at will. No good.
After going through lots of reviews for other applications, even installing and quickly discarding a few more, eventually, I decided to take another look at Remember the milk. I had seen the app on the Android Market early on, but I dismissed it because the name made it sound as if it would be far too simple for what I needed. I was wrong. RTM was exactly what I was looking for:
- Browser app – tick
- Android app – tick
- Nice, clean interface – tick
- Ability to add and manage tasks easily – tick
- Ability to tag tasks so you can filter by due date, priority, project, location, etc – tick
- Reminders that work – tick
- Instant synchronisation – tick
I loved it from the moment I installed it on my pad. I even forked out £16 for a year subscription to a pro account pretty much straight away. I have only been using RTM for about a month, but it’s made a huge difference already. Now I feel like I’m on top of my task list. I can easily add new jobs wherever I am, even if it’s just a quick note that I tidy up later. It tells me at a glance what I should be doing today. It’s not overwhelming, but it has plenty of functionality to tailor your list(s) to your personal needs.
So, yep, it’s been a long quest, but ‘Remember the Milk’ has saved my bacon and got me organised at last. It just goes to show that you should never judge a book by its cover!
Last week I attended the CILIP CDG National Conference. The programme included a presentation by Phil Bradley on social media and why it is important to Librarians. It was a full-throtle, engaging talk explaining where social media is today and how its exponential growth is affecting the world of information. As always, Phil made very good points in favour of engaging with social media. We know this can be an issue for librarians, not always through personal choices, but because their organisations have decided that social media is BAD and should be blocked. Phil made powerful arguments for information professionals taking action and communicating the value of social media to their organisations.
One of these arguments was that social media have become the new way of finding information. Users no longer look for authoritative content on a company’s website, they expect the information to come to them via a combination of news feeds and recommendations on social networks. These may come directly from friends or as a result of the user’s browsing history.
I can’t possibly disagree with any of these points. However, what Phil said next gave me a lot of food for thought. Social networks (or rather the people that inhabit them) are not only replacing websites as authoritative sources, they are also taking the place of search engines as a way of finding information. I find this idea misleading and overly simplistic and this is why:
- I have observed people asking questions on Twitter and even asked some myself. Crowdsourcing information can be very effective, but the quality of the response depends on the subject of your enquiry and the appropriateness of your network. As with many things social media, I feel virtual and physical networks mirror each other. Tweeting “how do I make spaghetti carbonara?” will have a similar effect to turning around in the office and asking my colleagues. Obviously, going online increases my chances of getting a response, but the quality of the information I receive will always depend on how ‘expert’ my contacts really are. If you haven’t got the experts right, you may end up having to do a lot of filtering or even and worse of all, following incorrect information. It takes a while to develop a good network and, if like me, your job spans across various disciplines, you’ll need to include people from all these areas. Throwing random questions at them is likely to produce a lot of noise, in their direction and mine. For me, searching online for a carbonara recipe or looking at the cookbook on my shelf would be a quicker and more accurate way of finding the information I need.
- As an information professional, I feel I should always try and find an answer by my own means. This may just be a personal gripe, but I feel it is lazy to do otherwise. I’m often bemused by people going on Twitter and asking things like “does anybody know any good books on XXX?” Errr… couldn’t you have checked on Amazon? The information is already there. Also, much of the knowledge I need to do my job exists on technical lists, forums and wikis and the best way to find it is to use a search engine. Of course, if that doesn’t work, I would always try and ask those who may know, whether they are local or virtual contacts. However, there again, I would target a particular list or group, to make sure I get an informed response.
- Similarly, when I answer a question, particularly online, very often I’ll use a search engine somewhere along the line. I know there is a useful resource out there, but I’m not a walking encyclopaedia. Before I can send you the link I’ll have to Google it or search my Delicious bookmarks or whatever.
- Why should information professionals want to replace the search engine? By all means we – as any professional in any other area – should aspire to be experts in our field. That does not mean we have to have all the answers. As I said earlier, most likely we don’t and we’ve just used a search engine to find the link to that resource we were asked about. Search engines, like social networks are tools. What makes information professionals experts is their ability to master these tools and use them to meet the information needs of their users.
This is not meant to be a dig at Phil’s presentation. It was just one of many points he made and, I think the intention was good: to expose the importance of social media and encourage librarians to engage in social networks, even if it means having to sell them to their organisations. I just feel that generalisations like this may be harmful at a time when many people are confused about their role. Social media serve a very important purpose in enabling us to have, enhance and amplify conversations, to connect with likeminded individuals and to reach out to people on the other side of the planet at the click of a button. They transcend social barriers, they give a voice to multiple causes that would otherwise remain hidden. And yes, they are a source of information too, but replacing the search engine? I don’t think we are there yet. However, I would be very interested to see if anyone else has any other thoughts on the matter.