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Choosing a GTD Reference App

Thursday, August 30, 2007

While much effort and discussion is put into selecting software to manage GTD action and project lists, it seems less attention is given to managing digital reference material. Reference material is essentially anything that you want to have readily available but that does not directly require action. Obvious enough, perhaps, but one thing to consider is that completed actions and project materials can also become useful reference material. And a reference item can also become active in some cases. So it may make sense to have one application that can serve both needs: manage project and action lists as needed but also be able to move these items out of active views when done while keeping them around to refer back to later. Here are a few things to consider when setting up your digital reference system.


It's important to have continuity with a digital reference system. I've tried many different approaches throughout the years, and the result is that I have a ton of possibly valuable data tucked away in various files, created by various applications, on various machines and backup media. This really limits the utility of keeping reference data in the first place. It has to be easily accessible and whole to come in handy. One of my slowly moving after-hours projects is to consolidate this old data by going through a vast sea of old stuff and converting it to plain text files, which can serve as-is or be imported into whatever information manager is striking my fancy at present. I'm also getting into the habit of saving out current material to plain text, RTF, HTML and other ubiquitous formats since I never know when I might switch programs again. Ideally, I would stop switching altogether. Any basic system used consistently beats a feature-rich system used haphazardly.

Old or New School

Another consideration is whether you want to go with an online or offline application. There are several web-based apps that have sprung up for keeping online notes, and I don't have anything against them. There is the blatant advantage with online apps that your information can be available anywhere you can get a net connection. My main objection to this approach is not even security, although that can be an issue depending on the sensitivity of your information. The one thing that makes me still prefer desktop applications for digital reference material is speed. I don't want to wait for a page to load (or even an AJAX edit box to appear); I want to start typing or pasting or importing as fast as my fingers will let me. You have to remove every possible barrier to getting information in and out of the system. I do believe that eventually the lines between desktop application and web-based application will blur to the point where we'll get the benefit of both at the same time, but for now I'm going to use the processing power I have on my desktop for reference material (and possibly reveal that, yes, I'm over thirty-five).


Scope is another factor. Do you want to save only ideas you personally generate, or do you want to download the web? I believe you have to strike a balance between these extremes. It is obviously silly to clip or save everything remotely interesting you come across on the web, because 95% of the time, that same information will always be out there to find again. On the other hand, clipping something from the web into your local store can provide benefits:

  • you now have it in case it disappears from the web
  • you eliminate the time it takes to search for the item again, especially if it was difficult to locate in the first place
  • information in your local store has a higher implicit relevancy

Since disk storage is practically free, if you can quickly get something you think you may need or want again into your reference system without interrupting your workflow (any method that takes longer than 1-5 seconds will probably end up being a barrier), I say go for it if it makes you feel better (it does that to me). Caveat: you will probably be a happier person if you never even consider the problem of the best way to clip material from the web.


Determine what you most often do with reference material. Do you just quickly look things up? Do you need nice output options with formatting? There are countless apps for storing snippets of information and features do vary widely. Try to select one that has the feature set that is most likely to help you with the way you live and work and don't be wowed by features that you may never use.

A reference system can be built from everything from a single text file to a vast array of customized databases. The key here, as with many things in life, is to go as simple as possible but no simpler (yes, Einstein). I struggle with this, tending to attempt to make complicated systems to mirror life, which is complex. Simpler systems will reduce stress and you will also remove the inefficient time spent maintaining an elaborate system (granted, you may also become bored once your fiddling has been taken away). You may think that adding 29 custom fields to each entry or devising an intricate ontology to represent your knowledge model is a good use of your time (I've thought this before, too), but I doubt that it really is. The essence of a reference system is to enter information easily and retrieve information easily.

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Posted by murt at 11:53 PM  |  3 comments  |  links to this post