Besides being a great tool to comb Craigslist, find the best restaurants and occasionally slay zombies, the iPhone makes a fine implement for getting things done. I mean that in the general sense of being productive, but also in reference to Getting Things Done (GTD), the cult productivity system that has taken hold around the world and especially in the tech community.
As a huge fan of GTD, I rely on my iPhone to stay organized while away from the office. Three indispensible iOS apps in particular stand out as the most helpful from everything I’ve tried. Each reflects a different habit in my Getting-Things-Done-based workflow, but should be useful even if you do things differently, or don’t follow GTD at all.
Editor’s note: If you’re not familiar with GTD, Wired’s interview with creator David Allen lays out a lot of the basics in an easy-to-digest way.
Captio: Ubiquitous capture
“…if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside of your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.” – David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
Captio emails notes to you. The app presents a blank text area, a keyboard, and a send button. Notes sent via the app appear in your email inbox moments later. This is all the app does. It’s fantastic!
Captio has more functionality, but only a bit. It offers offline storage for notes it’s unable to send and optional image attachments, but that’s about it. It’s lightweight, and intentionally so — its launch speed is one of the main features promoted by its developers.
As simple as it is, Captio may be the most-used application on my iPhone. Whenever I have access to Captio, I can use it to take things off my mind and put them in a safe place for future review.
The difference between Captio and other note-taking applications is its use of the email inbox for collection. This is helpful in two ways. First, email is the inbox I process most often, so notes from Captio get into my system more quickly than physical notes. Second, using email reduces the number of inboxes I have to empty on a regular basis. This ensures that prompts for action don’t go unprocessed somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of my system.
I still fall back on a Hipster PDA for more extended meetings and in-car capture, but you may be surprised how often Captio will be exactly what you need to store that important idea.
Elements: Ubiquitous access
“…once you’ve decided on all actions you need to take, you must keep reminders of them organized in a system you review regularly.” – David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
Elements is a Dropbox-based text editor for iOS. Like Captio, it’s a relatively simple application. It does, however, offer full-text search, an offline mode, and integration with SmileSoftware’s excellent TextExpander.
In its most limited use, Elements reduces friction in the same way that Captio does by providing the freedom to save longer ideas whenever you have your phone available. I’ve found that having the freedom to capture bigger ideas nurtures more of those big ideas in the future. Though this is valuable, where Elements really shines is in a plain-text-based workflow.
I organize everything I’m able to in plain text files (for greatest portability and efficiency) maintained in a Dropbox directory (for greatest accessibility and durability). These text files store tons of support information for my active projects. Elements can be really empowering with this kind of system. Wherever I am, Elements is a magical link back to the text files that define my active projects.
Mobile access to all of this information can be incredibly useful. It’s great, for example, to be able to review your agenda for your cofounder during the ten minutes afforded by the dinner meeting’s delay. It’s even better when access to project-planning data saves an hour’s drive because you can look up exactly how many S-Hooks you need to hang the sound proofing in your hobby studio. With a text-based workflow, Elements provides an ease of mobile access unthinkable just a few years ago.
ShopShop: Ubiquitous… OK, it’s just a shopping list app
“I suggest that people build into their personal systems whatever checklists might prevent things from glitching on the back end, assuming they are reviewed appropriately.” – David Allen, GTDTimes.com
Though ShopShop is “just” a shopping list app, you’d be surprised what an improvement that can be.
ShopShop remembers items from previous shopping lists and presents them to you as options to add to future lists. It also provides incremental search to help you locate and add items as quickly as possible. There are other features, but, to be honest, I don’t use them.
ShopShop helps me be a little less stupid during each trip to the grocery store. The purchase history it maintains has become a pre-grocery checklist. Each item on the list is a prompt: do I have enough milk? Hot Pockets? Beer? I’m a simple man, but I have needs. Returning from the store having forgotten to address one of those needs can lead to real frustration.
Having an iPhone-based shopping list is also helpful because, let’s face it, you almost always have your phone nearby. Optimally, you should capture “purchase bacon” as soon as you recognize that need — whether it’s time to go to the store or not. Yes, you’ll probably remember bacon when making a list before going to the store, but there’s a chance you won’t. Capturing the first time into a trusted system eliminates this potential leak.
Pro tip: Because ShopShop sorts alphabetically, consider a small front-end taxonomy representing different store aisles. Examples: “Dairy: Milk,” “Dairy: Eggs,” “Froz: Pizza,” “Froz: Corndogs.” This helps you make sure to grab the things you need from each aisle the first time and won’t have to return later.
ShopShop was produced by a German developer named Nikolaj Schumacher, and is available in the app store for free. In lieu of donations, he asks that you click his Dropbox referral link so that he can earn extra free space. What a cool guy.
Danger: Fiddling ahead
Though the app store presents options for helping you get things done, it can also be an absolute black hole of “fiddling,” or work that distracts you from the more important work you should be doing. Skilled use of these apps is not an end in itself, it’s the means to a more meaningful end: Doing the work you want to do, and doing it well. Always keep that in mind!