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Cool Tech -- A Cautionary Tale

Posted by: David Allen on July 24


I was just talking with a friend who was boasting about all the nifty features of his new iPhone, especially all the capabilities it now has to collect data and input. Taking pictures of business cards that can then be text-searched, recording notes, etc. Seemed, indeed, like the result of lots of creative thinking and design. Then I asked him how often he cleaned up all that exciting new input – i.e. emptied his virtual “in-basket” the phone had assisted him in generating. He sheepishly admitted that was a major problem.

This is indicative of the potentially frustrating side of all the new technology. Lots of new and exotic ways to capture, slice, search, and retrieve data. But no matter how slick the gear, nothing has yet been able to replace the personal and individual executive function of actually deciding what, exactly, all that input means. What action, if any, do I need to take about that interaction that produced the business card I can now take a picture of? How critical is that data, for what purpose(s), now or later on? Until the very specific and discrete meaning of data is determined, there is no criterion for how to organize it.

The cool tech is cool, to be sure - but only if you have installed the best practices of processing the exploding plethora of miscellany it fosters. When they come up with an iBrain you can plug into your iPhone, so you actually don’t even have to think about the contents it collects any more – wow! Of course then you’ll have to choose whether you want the Fast-Track-Executive, Laid-Back-Retiree, or Liberal-Arts-Student version of the premier Decision-Support package add-on (for a nominal additional fee).

If you’re betting on the latest feature-laden nifty small and sexy tool to relieve the pressure of life and work, be careful. The weekend it will require to learn how to use it will be a mere drop in the bucket compared with the extra time you’ll need to wade through the additional stuff it may foster.

Reader Comments


December 11, 2008 05:00 PM

Based on what people say above about OmniFocus... I tried it and just got sick of there be no web access and no windows support. So I'm using RTM now. I'm very happy with it. I could never get omnifocus to process my email tasks either which RTM does without fault (yet).


September 1, 2008 01:18 AM

Christopher wrote it, but at the risk of redundancy, OmniFocus for the iPhone is a mobile GTD app, and is the best I've seen. Its strength though, IMHO, is when synced with OmniFocus in OS X, where there are more features, and you have your keyboard for input. Then be aware of actions you can take in contexts like 'grocery store' while running around with your iPhone.

The iPhone is my first smart phone (or net PDA if you will), but with that caveat, I've found its usefulness to be far more amazing that I ever could have imagined.

I *was* flabbergasted though that with the v.2 firmware, there is still no copy and paste, and I am not as fast a 'typist' as a I was with the pen and a Palm. I do a lot more in terms of input using Jott (speech to text by humans), both using the phone number service, and the (free) Jott iPhone app which allows you to record your 'note' even faster.


August 17, 2008 12:08 PM

Hallelujah - I 3rd Christopher's comment!

I would argue some executives are not so much task jugglers but rather need tools to help them share and enroll others in their projects effectively. Being able to share a promotional trailer, share a compelling slideshow, or even hold a spontaneous "dance experiment" on the fly thru the convenience of iTune playlists are the media-centric use cases that are more appealing to this crowd.

This is an open invitation to step away from the Outlook-mindset and look at things a bit differently. I, too, am an OmniFocus user and while there is much work to do with the iPhone UI - I have achieved a new level of my GTD implementation and quite surprised how easily I could step away from Outlook!

What I am eager to discover is who the "mashup leader" and who will lead the core platform/architecture to integrate all these differing input/workflow mechanisms together!

Dan Rxn

August 17, 2008 03:43 AM

Peter, Tamara is sooooooo right. OmniFocus runs on OS X (not Windows or Linux, etc.) and there's a native version for iPhone. The two sync pretty well over the air, using MobileMe or any other WebDav server.

OmniFocus is SUPER FLEXIBLE/CUSTOMIZABLE. On the surface it manages tasks, as they relate to Projects & Contexts. That is, each task you enter will be associated w/ one project and one context. You can view your tasks (aka "actions"), sorted by either criteria. If you have a pretty good idea of what you want your system to do and you enjoy tinkering, OmniFocus is perfect :D

But I'm at my computer almost all-day, which makes OF the perfect environment. If I was out of the office or anywhere where i couldn't use a full keyboard to input/manage my stuff, i wouldn't like it. I wouldn't wanna handle high volume using any mobile device as my input system.

iCal allows for day-specific and time-specific actions/appointments — which is exactly what GTD recommends. It also syncs from the Mac wirelessly to the phone (and vis versa), via MobleMe, or every time you plug in, via iTunes.

Def. do research and extensive demoing if you can. If you go w/ it, take the time to customize the interface ("perspectives", toolbar buttons, etc.). Also, set/learn the speed keys. You can VERY QUICKLY/EASILY enter a new task w/o leaving the application you're in when you think of a task to add. i.e. You can read an email and add a task w/o ever leaving your email.

Also, if you're creative, you can keep really good someday/maybe, waiting for, etc. lists. Also, ad hoc checklists or whatever. If you tinker, it can really become a generic list manager for anything you want to list :)

Then when you're out w/ your phone, you have access to all your stuff. You CAN edit it, although it's obviously MUCH slower than on a full size keyboard. The big thing for me is having it to reference.

Anyways, I really love my Macbook Pro, iPhone, OmniFocus, iCal combo. Wanted to encourage others to check it out. Hope this helps some?? Best of luck!

Peter Gormley

August 14, 2008 07:39 AM

Tamara, how do you deal with the lack of a syncable to-do list? I am just about to move to a smartphone (currently use an older Palm Tungsten for my data) and operate in both Mac and PC environments - although I have long preferred Mac.

I'd rather move to an iPhone (over a Treo or Blackberry), but not if it is doesn't support a useable overall organizational system (like some version of GTD). I have not used iCal or Omnifocus, so I will do a little research on those.



August 1, 2008 08:05 PM

I have the perfect solution for the iPhone backlog: iDelete.

Or I can go the other way. The perfect time waster: iYouTube.

I really don't see the need for another rich source of information overload.

Arif Vakil

July 31, 2008 11:37 AM

Hi Finn Ove Lium,

I track the mobile market quite closely too and have been an ex-treo 650 user myself. I never thought I'd succumb to any other phone as it just won't move as fast as I do. But that was till my younger brother bought the Blackberry.

I'm currently using the Blackberry Curve 8310, with a Blacberry Enterprise Server installed at my office. It's comes as close to perfect can get. My speed on it is phenomenal. It maps so closely to outlook, it's as if they were made for each other. No problems with crashing, slowing down, which happened as and when my Treo got heavy with data.

I plan to do a detail review on how I use my Macbook, Blackberry and Outlook to do GTD, Inshallah soon. :-)


Tamara Nelson

July 29, 2008 10:35 PM

I second Christopher's comment.

The iPhone/iCal/Omni Focus/MacBook Pro combination is wicked powerful. I have never been so organized on the personal side. Being able to use all these tools at home and on the road with a minimum of effort has completely changed my ability to GTD at home. I can't speak highly enough about the combination of tools.


July 29, 2008 03:53 PM

I like to use Evernote with my iPhone to capture pictures of products such as wine labels or types of coffee that I may want to pick-up later. I was in Ikea the other day and took a picture of the product label that I wanted to pick-up later online. In that way, It's pretty cool, because it's already on the evernote "cloud" when I go to my computer.

It's also a nice list tool for those reference lists of Information... Lists of Membership Numbers, Lists of Books to pickup, etc. (Not my daily management tool, just as a reference capture.)

But I agree with David's post. All this is meaningless if you don't process the captured information. iPhone just makes capturing all that information oh-so-much-fun!

Finn Ove Lium

July 29, 2008 02:17 PM

And also notice that there is no task application on the iPhone, and also no sync support for tasks. I was not impressed by the input speed on the iPhone. If they just would flip the keyboard horizontally it might work better (like they in fact do in Safari, but not in other apps). To me speed is everything. I follow the mobile market closely, but I cannot find anything to this date that beats the Treo 650 when it comes to speed of input of tasks, notes, calendar items, contacts. No iPhone for me until Apple understand what David talks about, and build a basis for GTD applications to evolve. Without built in support for tasks in the iPhone and MobileMe service the Apple way is not the way to go for GTD...yet.

Clifford the Red

July 29, 2008 01:58 PM

The iPhone is really pretty, but it lacks something as essential to life management as a syncable task list, let alone the maddening lack of ability to even copy/cut and paste. I'll take the comprehensive and integrated tasks, calendar and contacts of Outlook that syncs with everything any day. A smartphone should do more than just eye-candy.

Christopher Tilley

July 29, 2008 01:48 PM

The iPhone or any 'smart' phone is just a tool. Technology needs to support what it is that the person / business needs or wants to do.

I do have an iPhone and I've started using OmniFocus for the iPhone in conjunction with OmniFocus on my mac. It works pretty well in supporting me.

Brian Sweat

July 24, 2008 04:43 PM

I really wanted to love Evernote. It's definitely "cool tech", but the process of converting the captured data into tasks was too much for me.

I have Windows Mobile and do NOT have an iPhone. Heh, maybe that's my problem? ;)

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.



Julie Morgenstern, Linda Stone, and David Allen Productivity guru Julie Morgenstern teaches us how to get organized, save time, and reclaim our sanity. Linda Stone, a former Apple and Microsoft executive and frequent speaker and consultant, helps us learn to manage our attention. And David Allen, the widely followed author of the popular book Getting Things Done, helps us accomplish things more efficiently.



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