5.12.05. Tinderbox, Planning, and Getting Things Done

Over recent weeks, I've been trying (as I often do) to get and stay on top of things. I think I may have found a system that works. I've said this many times before, but this time may be different.

It started a couple of months ago when Kinkless GTD showed up on the scene. Kinkless GTD, also known as KGTD, is an implementation of David Allen's Getting Things Done system as an OmniOutliner document with supporting AppleScripts. It's an excellent showcase for what can be done with a well-scriptable application. OmniOutliner (and the pro version which KGTD uses) is fast, nimble, simple, but still quite powerful. It's been one of the best Mac OS X applications, and one I've owned since the first release.

Kinkless GTD had some great features that made maintaining my list of things to do easy: combination of projects and contexts (projects are a collection of actions, contexts is where those actions take place). Actions can be entered in either the project-oriented or action-oriented view and get synchronized between the two lists (different sections of the outline). Next actions are distinctly highlighted. Archival of completed actions is a single click action, easily hiding old actions and information. All of this, and more, done by taking advantages of some of the simple yet flexible features of OmniOutliner and its scripting dictionary.

At the same time, there were some aspects of KGTD that didn't quite work for me. Upgrading wasn't always easy and it's still in active development. I stopped upgrading after 0.69 (it's at 0.75 as I write this). In order to keep the lists in sync, deletion and completion required using special buttons that could be installed on the toolbar that ran applescripts to make sure the version on the other list was removed or cleared too. Changing the text of an item on one list would cause the old version to re-appear (sometimes twice) after synchronization. There's good reasons for why this happened - the script just copied items from the lists (projects, actions, and 'next actions' - the single next action for any project). It was hard for me to break habit from regular OmniOutliner usage - using native widgets to mark 'done', etc. The number columns in the document started growing rapidly, which cut back on room to dedicate to the actual text of the action. Configuring the toolbar with the new buttons caused all documents to pick up those buttons, whether they're KGTD or not. This is a Mac OS X detail. So while the toolbar made working with the KGTD document easy, it was useless for other OmniOutliner documents.

So while I was really impressed with KGTD, the shortcomings (which are admittedly minor) bothered me enough to start looking at something bigger: Tinderbox.

Tinderbox is a strange beast. I've looked at it before and have downloaded the demo often, but I couldn't quite understand it well enough to justify the cost involved. Tinderbox is really a sort of free-form hierarchical / hypertext database for notes. What attracted me this time is that it too has some strong templates for implementing a system for Getting Things Done - Ryan Holcomb's "GTD Improved" and "GTD Lite" templates, available from the Tinderbox File Exchange.

Tinderbox features prototypes, extensible attributes (that don't eat into column views), Rules and OnAdd actions for automatically setting attributes for children of certain elements, and most importantly - agents. Agents are queries and actions that can be run automatically or manually. For Holcomb's template, they do a lot of what KGTD's synchronization script does - bring items from the project lists to contextual action lists. Unlike KGTD, they're not copies - only aliases. No manual 'sync' action needs to be run - as you mark things off as completed, for example, they disappear from the action lists. Holcomb's template is not under heavy development, so there's no upgrade worries. The way that it works is done using standard Tinderbox features, and it was pretty easy for me to start customizing some behaviors and defining new agents and prototypes without even having read much of the Tinderbox manual. It didn't take long for it to start feeling like my own system.

In Kinkless GTD I stayed in project mode most of the time, in a fashion I was used to working with outliners for task lists. The contexts didn't impact me that much, even though it was KGTD that showed me why the context lists were valuable. With Tinderbox it's easier to separate planning from doing - to go through and plan out the list of next actions, their contexts, notes, etc, and then look at the '@office' agent view and start churning through the list. As that list is churned through and items are marked completed, they disappear from that list. The original item is colored orange so that when seen in other views there's a visual cue that the item is completed. The orange coloring is done by an agent. Other agents modify visual cues based on whether an item is on hold, due soon, or past due.

So this is all really cool. It's a hierarchical active database. The agents, prototypes, and ability to tweak 'OnAdd' actions bring the active parts without need for heavy scripting - just learning the query language. In some ways, this might sound like it's entering into Frontier territory. But Tinderbox is not a development environment. While it uses agents and prototypes, and can house/use AppleScript, it's a very different beast than even old versions of Frontier. Tinderbox is very much focused on maintaining projects, notes, and plans, and has many different ways of viewing and interacting with your data. And today, two weeks after finally purchasing it, I finally used one of its most powerful features: map view.

In map view, you work with visual representations of notes, appearing as boxes with the title displayed. You can add extra adornments (items only seen in map view) to group items together in a non-containment way. You can resize notes and drop other notes inside them to turn those notes into children. And perhaps most importantly, you can easily create links between items in this view. While I'm not a fan of hardcore mind-mapping, I do like the basic concepts. And sometimes it just helps to think visually. With Tinderbox, you can have many different windows open on the same data. So today, I opened one of my projects up into a map view window and started re-thinking what needed to be done in order to get things moving. I'd avoided the map view up until now, even though there's a note in Holcomb's document that says it's great for brainstorming. And boy did that prove right. Normally I think very well in outlines (and thinking rapidly in outline mode is still where OmniOutliner excels over Tinderbox), but I just couldn't do it today. Thumbing back through a small notebook I've been using on recent projects, I came across a mind-map style pair of graphs and thought "maybe that's what I need."

Working in the map view of Tinderbox enabled me to see the items I'd already thought of and I could start playing with them spatially. Using adornments to make visual groupings, I was able to start segmenting off the tasks involved. And before long, I had a document that looked something like the following. Note: The following is a quick example I made up tonight - keep your eyes off my project!

Tinderbox Map Example, 1

Since this was in my Getting-Things-Done document, all of the items in my new visual plan were still picking up prototypes and attributes and responding to the agents already defined. I initially worried that using map view would work best with separate documents, so I was especially happy to see it work like it did. In any of the outline views, I could still do basic prioritizing by reordering items, and this did not effect the layout on the map.

Outline Example
Outline View

Of course, this is a hierarchical system, and that works even in map view. Notes that contain other notes can appear like this in map view. When zoomed in on any level, you can see a faint grey outline that represents the boundaries on the parent view so you can get an idea of what the thumbnailed view will look like.

Map View Example, 2

Finally, agents can be written to collect interesting items. So while working in map view, properties can be set that affect the agents and you can quickly get another view of your data. This, again, is from my example document. Holcomb's GTD template has plenty of great agents that I've found useful for working in action-mode, wherein its important to just keep an eye on just enough of the road ahead to be prepared while being comfortable knowing that all other plans are in the system and don't have to be worried about.

Agent Example
Agent Example

Overall, I'm impressed with Tinderbox. Being able to sort-of free think in map view and still have all of those items flow into my daily work-management system is great. The application is a bit strange, but manages to be lightweight and flexible. A blank document imposes no structural inhibitions - you can keep a document as flat and boring as you like, without having to "program down" complicated defaults. At the same time, an active user community and file exchange provide a lot of insights into the program. The price is a little steep, but after using it it's starting to feel like a true professional application - that is, an application that really helps me get my work done in a way that I want.

Finally, I'm working on using Tinderbox for managing actions and planning for both my personal and professional life. I'm working on using DEVONthink to organize and manage reference materials - artifacts that need to survive beyond the day to day morass of planning and thinking and working. So far, it's working out pretty well. In the past, I tried using DEVONthink in the planning process as well as reference, and it just didn't fit the bill so well. Separating these systems has taken away the open loop of wondering where to deal with big chunks of text or random note-taking versus where to deal with planning and acting on that plan.