Flow, Stuckness, and Interruptions

Edd Dumbill points to a [great article](http://recycledknowledge.blogspot.com/2005/06/flow-stuckness-and-interruptions.html) on programmer productivity. These are issues that any manager of programmers should familiarize themselves with if they really want to understand how programmers work. Experiencing Stuckness first-hand changed the way I think about multitasking and priorities. I used to think that switching back and forth between tasks was pointless because it would just mean that *all* tasks, except for the lowest priority one, would be done later than if I worked on them serially. For this reason I always wanted my managers to assign absolute priorities to the tasks they wanted me to do, so I would know what order in which to work on them. Then I realized that I was wasting lots of time banging my head against tasks on which I was stuck. These days I set a time limit, if I’ve been struggling with a problem for more than half an hour with no progress I switch to something else and come back to it later with a fresh perspective and, hopefully, new insight. So now I prefer it when managers give me multiple tasks with vague priorities, there’s nothing more frustrating than *having* to work on a stuck problem.

Backpack and Web-only GTD, The Verdict

So it’s time to look back and see how my week of running GTD with only Web-based applications went. Overall it was a good experience and I’m definitely going to stick with it in some form. Let’s go through the tools and see how it went.


####How I Used It
I used Backpack for informal project planning. I created pages for each of my projects and collected actions, notes, files and support material. I ended up working mostly off the action lists on my project pages rather than moving those actions onto context lists as GTD would dictate. Backpack doesn’t let you move actions between pages except by manually deleting and recreating so it was too cumbersome to work any other way.

####The Good

37signals is famous for making web apps with brilliant user interfaces and Backpack is no disappointment. Much of the code is client-side so it is as responsive as a desktop app and the superior interface design means that most tasks, such as creating a list item, are easier and faster to accomplish than in any PIM I’ve used.

Backpack nicely facilitates GTD’s natural project planning method. You can lay out purposes and outcomes and do brainstorming and outlining in the Body section. Identified next actions go in the List and project support materials can be stored in the Notes, Files, Images, and Links sections.

####The Bad

Some features I’d like to see are reportedly already on their way: recurring reminders and an API. I assume some form of Palm syncing will follow once the API is released. The biggest problem for me was the inability to move list items between pages. Some other things that might be nice are: the ability to tag items and view everything with a certain tag, Markdown syntax support, and Gmail-style keyboard shortcuts.


####How I Used It

I used Tadalists to maintain my context-based action lists. This ended up being mostly non-project one-off stuff since it was a pain to move stuff from my project lists.

####The Good

Tadalists really is fun to use so it’s a nice motivator for getting things done.

####The Bad

Backpack has made a few small improvements to the task list interface and I found myself missing that in Tadalists. I’ll definitely be moving my context lists over to Backpack.


####How I Used It

I try to keep lots of little notes once I’ve figured out how to do something: Unix commands to remember, how to do something in a piece of software, programming notes, etc. Traditionally, I’ve kept these in disorganized text files strewn across multiple computers. Lately I’ve tried keeping them in a Wiki on my web host. This week I added them to Jotspot.

####The Good

Jotspot beats out regular wikis in one important way: it has a nice big “Create Page” button. Creating a page on a wiki normally involves finding the page from which you want to link your new page, editing it, adding a link to a new page, saving the change, and clicking on the link. With Jotspot I just hit “Create Page” and type up my note, secure in the knowledge that I’ll be able to find it again with a simple search.

####The Bad

The Jotspot folks are already fixing my two main gripes: they’re adding Markdown support and fixing the Index page so it only shows your pages rather than cluttering it up with a lot of system pages. I would also like to see tagging support on Jotspot.


####How I Used It

I imported my Palm calendar into Trumba and did all my calendaring with it. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I don’t have many appointments so I didn’t give Trumba much of a workout.

####The Good

Trumba is a high-quality web calendar with an attractive interface that keeps it simple almost to a 37signals degree. I especially like Trumba’s List view of all your upcoming appointments. I’ve seen this in some other PIMs but Trumba’s is the nicest.

####The Bad

There’s no convenient way to sync your calendar to the Palm. This is probably a deal breaker for me.


####How I Used It

I imported most of my mail from my IMAP host and used Gmail exclusively for email.

####The Good

Gmail makes processing your inbox really quick and easy. The keyboard shortcuts mean you can do everything with a few keypresses and because you’re archiving everything away in the same place you don’t have to think about where to file anything. And of course Google search makes it easy to find the message you’re looking for.

####The Bad

My main gripe with Gmail is that when a page first loads the focus ends up on the address bar, so you can’t page down with the keyboard without first clicking on the page or tabbing down to it. I only have this problem with Firefox on Windows, it works great on Linux.

##Tips & Tricks

I solved a couple of annoyances you might want to know about.

###Sorting your Backpack page list

I got in the habit of prepending the names of my Backpack pages with certain characters to get my page list to sort the way I wanted it. Context lists started with @, project pages were unmarked, and reference and other pages started with ^. That way, context lists are first, project pages next, and other pages last.

###Editing textareas with an external editor

Using these apps meant that I often found myself editing significant amounts of text in a browser textarea, which makes a terrible text editor. Fortunately, the [MozEx](http://www.extensionsmirror.nl/index.php?showtopic=70) Firefox extension let’s you edit textarea text in an external editor. I set it up for [Vim](http://www.vim.org/) and couldn’t be happier.

##Other Ways

Of course, Backpack and friends aren’t the only way to go if you’re considering web apps for your organization system. These two options have the benefit of being completely free:

  • [GTD TiddlyWiki](http://shared.snapgrid.com/gtd_tiddlywiki.html)
  • [GTD with Gmail](http://saw.themurdaughs.com/gtd-with-gmail-whitepaper/)


That’s it! I’d love to hear how others are using web apps for organization. Comment away.

Backpack and Web-only GTD

37signals‘s new project planning/personal wiki app Backpack launched today and it’s prompted me to try a little experiment: I’m going switch from my regular productivity apps for one week and use all Web-based apps for my GTD setup. I’ll try to keep track of what works and what doesn’t and report back in a week. Here’s what I’ve done so far:

  • Set up all my next actions on Tadalists.
  • Created a project page for this project on Backpack, I’ll create more for the rest of my projects.
  • Created a Jotspot page where I’ll keep personal notes.
  • Imported my calendar into Trumba.
  • Imported most of my mail into Gmail.
  • Took some screenshots of it all.

**Update:** I made my Backpack page for this project public.

Why we overcommit

Psychologists are studying why we always think we’ll have more free time in the future.

Zauberman and Lynch continue, “People are consistently surprised to be so busy today. Lacking knowledge of what specific tasks will compete for their time in the future, they act as if new demands will not inevitably arise that are as pressing as those faced today.”

In short, the future is ideal: The fridge is stocked, the weather clear, the train runs on schedule and meetings end on time. Today, well, stuff happens.