Rethinking The Milk

Some Milk, yesterdaySome Milk, yesterday

I’ve been using Remember The Milk as my task manager of choice ever since I started doing Getting Things Done in 2008. RtM is a flexible and robust online task manager, which fulfilled my main need of syncing between mobile devices while also being usable at work via a web app. While it’s not specifically GTD-focussed, RtM has several features which, with some fiddling, allow a GTD approach to be maintained. As well as being assigned to lists, tasks can be given tags and locations, and Smart Lists can be created from this metadata using the very powerful Search syntax.

I’ve had more-or-less the same setup for the last 3 or 4 years, with only the occasional tweak needed to keep things ticking along, and it’s been well worth the $25 annual Pro subscription. Recently, though, I’ve started to find myself bumping against the limitations inherent in any system coerced into doing a job it wasn’t designed for. Two aspects in particular were sticking points: Projects, and Tickler Items. Ahem.

In GTD, a Project is anything which requires more than two actions to accomplish. But one of the beautiful things about the GTD workflow is that you don’t have to know this when you capture it; that’s for later. The lack of an easy way in RtM to take a task and convert it into a project (with its own associated tasks) at the appropriate time meant that I only did this for Big Projects, and a number of ill-defined multi-step tasks languished on my list.

Tickler items, apart from having an obviously hilarious and unfortunate nomenclature, were another hugely powerful aspect of GTD which I never satisfactorily implemented. A tickler file, after which is named Merlin Mann’s hugely influential 43 Folders, is what allows a task to be incubated” until such time as one is able to deal with it (this is not the same as a due date). For example, my MOT is due on the 8th May. I can get it done anytime during the month leading up to then, but until the 8th April there is no point it being on my mind. A tickler file allows this action to only appear to me when it is relevant, and despite much hacking of Smart lists and due dates, RtM couldn’t provide a satisfactory way of handling this.

Eventually it all got too much. Maybe I was procrastinating, but at some point last month I started looking for another service. Thankfully, Macdrifter had done much of the heavy lifting, with a two-part breakdown of basically every task manager in the entire internets. I tried Nozbe and Toodledo before settling on Nirvana. Last week, I moved all of my life out of RtM and migrated to Nirvana full-time.

Nirvana has been built with GTD in mind, and it shows, from the GTD-consistent naming conventions (Contexts not Tags, Actions not Tasks) to the thoughtful design which allows you to step through the 5-step workflow easily and intuitively. One side-effect of it being so strictly designed around GTD principles is that I find am forced to process items more thoroughly and I therefore have less unprocessed Stuff floating around in my system.

It has well-implemented support for Projects (including converting an Action to a Project in one click) and allows for Scheduled’ actions, which is a much less silly name than Tickler’. There’s also a very powerful feature called Reference Lists’ which solves the problem of lists of things that need to be captured but are not yet (and might never be) Actions - details of jobs gone out to pitch but not actually won, for example. These can be easily converted to active Projects and Actions with one click.

Nirvana is missing one thing - a native iPad app - which I thought would be a dealbreaker, but the web app is very usable in Safari and overall, the benefits of not having to battle against my own hacks outweigh the slight inconvenience of not having touch-optimised targets.

I’d still recommend Remember The Milk to anyone looking for an online task manager, whether they’re interested in practising GTD or not. It has a lot of powerful features and the free account isn’t unnecessarily hobbled. However, if you’re planning on jumping into GTD with both feet, Nirvana is the better, more fully-featured option.