My GTD (Getting Things Done) software — still searching for the Holy Grail of GTD

I like to lead a scheduled, organised life. I cling to routine with the same tenacity I cling to breathing and my diary assumes properties of absoluteness similar to scripture in the religiously devout.

I prefer my diary to be completely bereft of entries but, if it must have them, I like them to be of the regular, recurring variety, and one-off appointments are only acceptable if they’re booked many months in advance.

I undertake occasional forays into spontaneity but I’m not generally a fan. Unscheduled visitors get treated to the sort of hateful glower one normally reserves for murderers or Sunderland supporters. Tardiness — even my own (particularly my own, in fact) — induces unreasonable levels of anxiety in me and if my routines are even slightly altered I can feel unsettled for many days afterwards.

The prospect of sudden death bothers me, not because I will in fact be dead but because I wouldn’t be able to create a diary entry for it some months in advance.

I mention all this by way of explaining why I like GTD (Getting Things Done) processes; they give my life structure and structure makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Time manager diary page.

I am forever searching for the Holy Grail of GTD too. I want one product I can use for everything I might reasonably need to do to organise my life, and back in the 1980s I found just such a thing. It was called a Time Manager and as far as I was concerned it was the best invention since the wheel. Within it’s binder you had diaries, schedules, planners, tasks, activities, contacts, finances and notes. It was a revelation or organisation way beyond the Filofaxes that were all the rage back then. I gave my life over to this thing and all was well.

Or at least that was the case until I left it on a bus.

I could of course buy a Time Manager now — the company is still going — and I’m sure it would still be an effective tool, particularly since I no longer travel on buses. But we’re in a digital world now and I’m a techie by trade, so I want a software solution. I’m even more demanding than that because what I’d really like is a single bit of software that satisfies all my GTD needs. I want the Holy Grail of GTD.

So, what are my GTD needs? What component activities am I placing under the umbrella of Getting Things Done? The way I see it, my GTD process needs to encompass the following:

  • email,
  • calendar,
  • tasks and tick lists,
  • projects (larger things than tasks that need more structure),
  • contacts,
  • notes,
  • longer-form writing (not strictly GTD but a desirable inclusion),
  • journals (again, not strictly GTD).

I also have a couple of other requirements for my GTD software:

  • for any writing tasks (notes, long-form, journalling), it must support Markdown,
  • it must work on MacOS and IOS. I hate mobile phones and don’t use an iPad but I want the options there in case I choose to do so in the future,
  • it must look reasonably pretty. I have to use it many times a day and I don’t see why I should stare at a Blobfish when I could stare at Jennifer Lawrence instead.

Finding one application that does all that is a big ask but Microsoft Outlook makes a good fist of things. It’s about the closest thing to a Holy Grail I’ve found. It’s a bit cumbersome sometimes and, well, it’s Microsoft and I’m an Apple guy these days. I do have the MacOS version of Microsoft office but I rarely use it. Let’s just say Outlook doesn’t ‘click’ with me for a number of reasons and move on.

Many people would say I should embrace the concept of tying multiple apps together and appreciate the idea that an app that does one thing superbly is better than an app that does many things in a mediocre fashion. To a certain extent I’d agree with people who say that but what’s wrong with an app that does a lot of things superbly? There is no reason why an app must just do one thing and there is no reason why, if an app does multiple things, it must do them in a mediocre fashion. It can’t be beyond the wit of the software world to come up with something.

Nevertheless, I’ll reluctantly have to accept a Holy Grail does not currently exist and I’m therefore forced into a multiple app solution. So what do I use?

I use the native MacOS apps for email, calendar and contacts. I can’t help but think they could be combined into one but MacOS’s email and calendar apps are pretty good. I dislike the contacts app because it seems messy and clunky to me, as if somebody designed on a Friday afternoon after a long lunch in the pub, but I persevere with it.

For tasks and projects I use OmniFocus, which is pretty good although I think it could integrate it’s ‘Forecast’ pane with MacOS’s calendar in a more fluent and extensive way. Yes, I’m angling to do away with the MacOS calendar here and, yes, yes, it’s not its remit or it’s complicated or I’m not embracing some finer point of application philosophy. Blah, blah.

I want to take the three remaining items on my list of GTD requirements — notes, longer-form writing and journals — together for reasons that will shortly become clear. I used to use a combination of MacOS’s notes app and Evernote for my note taking, Scrivener for my longer-form writing and DayOne for my journaling. Under that regime, note-taking felt patchy and uncomfortable and I thought there must be a better way. Scrivener is a very powerful long-form writing app and, whilst I struggle to find objective criticisms of it, I found it a bit awkward to use and lacking in visual appeal. DayOne is lovely for journalling but I always thought a dedicated app for that task was overkill.

These tasks all involve writing and I thought they, at least, could be combined into one.

I looked long and hard at Bear Writer, which is a gorgeous bit of software that’s excellent for note taking. I downloaded a trial and tried as hard as I could to use it for long-form writing and journalling too but these tasks just didn’t fit properly into Bear. Whilst it has an excellent, easy to use tagging system it doesn’t have any concept of directories. You can emulate a directory structure via its tagging system to some extent but it wasn’t quite enough to satisfy my needs for long-form writing. I really wanted to like Bear Writer too because it’s very sexy to look at and use.

In the end, I opted for Ulysses, which I now use for note-taking, journalling and long-form writing. It does have a directory structure (and tagging) and I just set up appropriate directories for each of those individual tasks. Ulysses is an extremely capable Markdown app with a good range of export formats and an excellent search facility. I’m a fan of Ulysses now and would recommend it in a heartbeat.

So that’s my GTD set-up. It’s really a bit more than pure GTD because I’ve included various writing tasks in the process. It’s not perfect of course and I’ll keep searching for the Holy Grail of GTD but I’m reasonably content with the way things are at the moment.