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GTD with Mybase

Saturday, August 28, 2004

For whatever reason, I can't stop experimenting with the tools I use to implement GTD. While GTD is a workflow built on abstractions, and thus will work with any tools (including pen and paper), I find that my choice of implementation tools affects my ability to follow the methods prescribed by GTD. Of course, this penchant for experimentation is a barrier to building a trusted system, but at least the experiments provide blog fodder.

My latest experiment involves Mybase, a hierarchical, freeform database tool that in my opinion offers several features that make it the best of breed in its category (tree-based tools). I am enamored with a lot of software (and equally disappointed with a lot of the same software), so a drooling review isn't going to be necessary. I'll just outline what I am attempting in case someone else wishes to give it a go.

Mybase can be used to implement Getting Things Done in a way that combines your reference and action material into one application. Doing so requires a bit of manual maintenance to your file, but the benefits may outweigh that constraint. Most of the things I am doing here can actually be implemented in much the same way in *any* freeform text software that allows full-text searching. The piece Mybase adds is the seamless integration of rich reference material, which I will discuss further below.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the fact that the key to GTD revolves around words; more specifically using certain words as "tags," not in the sense of an HTML tag, but in the sense of a marker. This may be painfully obvious, but reducing it to this simplicity has been important for me to break out of what I see as software constraints and my own tendency to over-complicate my systems. Many information management applications provide fields, categories, keywords, etc. These all boil down to having a string of text that is labeled as a category, keyword, etc. But labeling it as such doesn't mean it isn't anything but a string of text. Using particular strings of text in any app with a good search can provide you with the equivalent of fields, categories, and other word-based tags. The ideas here are hardly unique, and I've seen several other people using a similar approach.

So, here's what I am trying with Mybase. First, I organize my tree topically as I normally do. I'm so used to tree-based software that by this point I have a fairly firm mental tree that I recreate accurately whenever I have a new, blank hierarchy to use. Of course, the tree outline can be rearranged at will, so it's not necessary to have a firm tree structure when starting.

To quickly insert my GTD tags, I use MacroExpress, which allows me to assign one- or two-character shortcuts to my tags. You can accomplish the same thing with ActiveWords or other macro software. The point is that you want to reduce the need to type in the tags manually since you will be using them so often. A slight glitch here with my particular setup: Mybase does not seem to always recognize the input from MacroExpress, so I have to quickly alt-tab to another app and then back for it to work. This is annoying, but I haven't tried resolving it yet.

Here are my current tags:

  • [Project]: indicates a project in the GTD sense (any outcome that requires more than one step to complete)

  • [@anytime], [@calls], [@errands], [@waiting]: context tags used to identify next actions; these are examples and of course the contexts are chosen to match your own life

  • [@someday]: items that I may want to do someday and that I wish to see during my weekly review

That's it. With a handful of tags, I can implement GTD, sans hard landscape (calendar), which is a tricky point I'll address further down. Again, note that this will work in any software with a good search. For example, this could work in Info Select equally as well (and the search filter in IS may make it even easier to work with this action material, although the support for reference material would be weaker).

In the tree, I indicate certain topics as projects by prefacing their titles with the [Project] tag. It doesn't matter where in the tree these are, because I can see all projects by doing a search on "[Project]". So, I can use the tree like an outline, brainstorming, organizing, etc., and anything that I want to do requiring more than one step gets a project tag. I search for the project tag, and a list of current projects is shown in the Mybase search pane. The benefit of the search pane is that I can see a subset of my data (in this case, projects) while still seeing and working with the entire database.

Now I can go through the list of projects and make sure each one is assigned a next action. To do so, I simply preface a sub-item of the project with the appropriate context tag. Building a context-based action list is done by simply using the same search method I use for projects; e.g. search for "[@calls]" to build a list of calls. I can include a due date as long as I follow a standard format, like "due 8/28/2004"; then I can gather items that have a due date, see things due today, etc. Finding overdue items is not very straightforward with this setup, which could potentially doom its long-term use.

Anyway, so far, that's all pretty obvious. Here's where the features of Mybase come in handy. Mybase can have attachments to any item. These attachments can be any file type. Certain file types, such as images, HTML and text, can be viewed directly in the Mybase viewer pane. Also, Mybase performs well with large files and has built-in compression. Anyway, this all combines to allow me to have supporting reference material from different sources directly below the project item or even the next action item. Using the WebCollect plug-in for Mybase, I can even have web clippings (with formatting and images intact) stored below my action items.

I've also gone the extra step of associating different icons with different types of information, simply to give some visual indicators to browsing the tree and search results. This adds a little to the maintenance, but I enjoy having the graphic indicators of content type. For example, I use different icons for projects, next actions, and default items (which may be actions that aren't the next action yet).

Of course, all of the aforementioned features come in particularly handy when creating a reference database. In fact, Mybase really shines for building a reference database (and you may consider using it in that capacity even if you want to manage your projects and action lists with another tool). The reference database can be included in the same file as all of my project and action material, and I can freely move things around between the conceptual types. Mybase's search is strong, and it will even search the contents of some types of attachments. There are a lot of plug-ins for Mybase that really make it a great application for creating and managing reference material.

Mybase does not include a calendar, so handling your hard landscape may be a bit tricky. Some folks have to have a graphical calendar, and I admit I also find that preferable when it's available. I've experimented with having a list-based calendar as the root node's content. You could insert a graphic calendar for the current month here as well, simply to orient yourself with the dates. In any case, I still think it's possible to do although it requires some mental adjustment.

Finally, there is no Palm component, unlike NoteStudio. However, the reality for me is that I am at my desk 99% of the time, so I have begun to consider the Palm as an input tool and collection point rather than a reference mechanism. Having calendar and contacts always available is a strong enough benefit that I will probably continue to use the Palm for those functions.

Unfortunately, to really use Mybase to its full potential, you are going to have to use an IE-based browser. You want to be able to quickly clip portions of web pages or entire pages to your Mybase database; that's part of its advantage over similar products. The WebCollector plug-in only works with IE and IE overlay browsers. It's possible to save full web pages from Firebird and then import the resultant HTML file, but that adds a few extra steps.

Last Modified
8/28/2004 11:14:02 AM

Posted by murt at 11:31 AM


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