In twenty-three years of personal computing, I have never encountered a truly useful To-Do list facility. Every tool that I’ve picked up has quickly turned out to be ineffective for one reason or another, usually by failing to realize the dreams of hyperproductivity that automated To-Do lists by nature inspire. After all, if your To-do list can take care of itself, then why can’t it actually do the work that it outlines?
In twenty-three years &c — until today. Today, I read Chapter 5 of Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy , “Managing Todos.” Given my long experience with frustration, I wondered what the guru was going to come up with. When what he came up with turned out to be an online service that his outfit, Good Experience, Inc, provides for a small monthly fee, you may be sure that I blinked. In his opening pages, Mr Hurst is eloquent about the flimflammery of most “productivity solutions”:
Although we need hardware and software to work with bits, no technology company has the solution to bit overload. It’s far too rarely stated that the technology industry is not in the business of making people productive. It is only in the business of selling more technology. Granted, some companies make better tools than others, and users can be productive with some of today’s tools. But in the technology business, users’ productivity is secondary to profitability. No matter what a company claims, feature lists and upgrades are designed for the company’s success, not the users’. This isn’t a judgment against technology companies; to the contrary, they are a vital part of the economy and do the world a service by creating new and useful innovations. The point is merely that users should not look to the technology industry to deliver the solution to their overload. Doing so cedes control to companies that, whenever they have the choice, would rather have paying customers than productive customers.
([Gnash!] No wonder I was invariably disappointed.)
Now here was Mr Hurst, turning around and presenting himself as a “technology company” in search of paying customers! I blinked, as I say, but then I forged on. The faith that I had already placed in Mr Hurst’s advice had earned me, within an hour or so, a totally empty inbox, with all the email that I chose to save stashed in handy folders that I already had the wit to set up according to the way my mind works. By the time I read about Gootodo.com, I was fairly sure that the $18 investment (for six months) would not be a waste of money. The secret of Mr Hurst’s To-Do list lies in a blend of its simplicity and its interaction with email: to add a To-Do item that’s due next Wednesday, for example, you write an email addressed “firstname.lastname@example.org,” summarize the task in the subject line, and add any details in the body of the email. Done! (Assuming, of course, that you have set up a Gootodo.com account, and that you are writing from the email address that the service recognizes as yours — in case you have several [and who doesn't?]. And don’t forget to hit “Send.”) You can work with the service from outside its interface. Pretty cool.
Mark Hurst has apparently been a computer person since childhood, and he has two degrees from MIT. More importantly, perhaps, he is a shrewd psychologist. He prescribes that computer users read personal mail first, not that they wait to get their work done before hearing from friends and family. The only people who will abuse this liberty at work probably don’t merit their jobs for other reasons. About To-Do lists, Mr Hurst’s eye is gimlet:
The truth is that many users just don’t want to do their work. Given a choice between completing a todo or spending several minutes deciding what color it should be, lots of people — especially techies, who love playing with software — would choose the latter. Color are fun, and don’t require much thought. Doing the actual work in the todo requires time and energy, risks railure, and might not be any fun. Users are best served by a tool that encourages the discipline of actually getting the work done, rather than endlessly tweaking the system.
Let’s hear a bit “GOTCHA!” for Mark Hurst! After all, instead of getting round to my first To-Do item — organizing my in-box — I’ve been merrily blogging away!