Why I Switched Back to Taskpaper

6 minute read

Simple works.

Sometime around early 2012 I switched over to using Things for OSX from the spartan essentials of Taskpaper. I have to admit, at the time I was angry with Taskpaper. It was still using the SimpleText service (Taskpaper now uses the uber-reliable Dropbox) for synchronizing with my iPhone and it had done what I felt was the inexcusable: It had lost tasks I had to complete in a sync conflict and even after I recovered the file, I didn’t know what they were (partly my stupidity for not having it source controlled in git).

That, and the fact I wanted a better system for future reminders and the shiny and effortless syncs of the Things beta (and another killer feature, the putting of URLs in Notes links automagically from the Quick Fill) seduced me. But, after a year, I’ve just switched everything back. Here’s why.

While Things is a great task manager, it, and many other like it, ask the wrong question:

What tasks do I have to get done?

The correct question I need answered,

What do I have to get done and what tasks are necessary to accomplish them?

A subtle difference perhaps, but I’ve noticed it makes a huge difference in the way I end up managing my life. Perhaps it’s merely the way I used Things, but I never felt that I had a bird’s eye view of all the things I wanted to accomplish in a year or even a month or week. Instead, Things kept feeling like a stack of stuff I pushed things on and pulled things off of. A queue for the more technically minded amongst you. Tasks were so easy to add to it, I often never reviewed if they should be on there in the first place and when I was going to get them done because there was no bird’s eye week or month view for me, things (no pun intended), just accumulated.

For some reason, the hierarchical lists in Taskpaper and the freeform tagging seem to work well for me in that regard. Not every thing I do is a project or an Area but just about everything I do can be denoted in hierarchical lists.

Also, and this is just a personal preference, I really, really like the fact everything is just a simple text file. While I love the Taskpaper app for its simple filter-in-place searching and the way you can chop and dice your task list with searches like @week = 9 and not @done) in comparison to the simpler tags in Things, I also like the idea that I have the ability to query my entire task list in ways that make sense to me (to be honest, that’s the app’s only killer feature in my regard. Overall, it’s a bit of a usability nightware other than that.).

But ultimately, I already feel more organized and vastly more relaxed even though I’m accomplishing more in the scant two weeks I’ve switched back. Perhaps it’s just the ability to see everything at once and then filter it down to what I need ot focus on, but also, it’s forcing me to plan and move things into realistic periods when I can get them done. With Things, I found whatever was urgent just pushed down the current things that needed to get done and I had a focus on what needed to get Real Soon Now™ and whatever got thrown in the bucket. Admittedly, we’ll see how it runs over the longer term (and I worry about not having the reminders pop up on each day for future Ticklers I had with Things which did make sure I didn’t miss things), but overall, and even with my ultra-hectic task list, I’m feeling better.

On the bad side, Taskpaper does drive me nuts in that you can’t save certain well used searches for your own constructed views or map keys to specific tags or searches themselves (for example, why is @today a mapped key and @done (though that makes sense) mapped, but not others?

Equally, making Taskpaper just smarter in that the application should understand dates of form 2013-02-27 would make it immensely more powerful or some default formats (ie. allowing a @start(2013-02-27) tag for when you create a task would be great just so you can track things over the longer term. Also, I wish you could denote that # should be a tag delimiter rather than @ since now, every reference I have to peoples’ twitter handles are a bit broke from Taskpaper’s perspective. Oh, and having the QuickFill populate a note with a URL if you’re on a web page (or in a google mail) would be killer. Hog Bay, can you just get on that so I don’t have to program it myself? Seriously, about time you released a proper update to Taskpaper, don’t you think?

As it is, Taskpaper the app stands as a simple shell on a text file (perhaps a too simple) and I have to admit, if not for the filtering in place feature, I’d probably start using the text file format with vim’s taskpaper plugin or the even more impressive Sublime taskpaper plugin (check out the video, it and Sublime as a nice editor nearly made me switch from vim). Plus, with Sublime, I’m already thinking I could add in a filter and boolean search in there to completely replace the Taskpaper app with PlainTasks and some filter in place with booleans hacks. Hmmm…

In any case, I’ll let you know how the experiment (or re-experiment) goes. I have to admit, I also for some secret, geeky reason also feel smugly better about taking the absolute simplest thing that will work (a text file) and hacking it to work. It feels more portable, I can review it in the future (for example, it was looking at my Taskpaper type lists from 2010 that made me realize I was missing that strategic planning element I like so much which really makes me feel like I’m getting the important things done) and also, I can tailor Taskpaper to focus on what I want to get done in weeks and months, rather than madly running round worrying about particular days. For some reason, that seems to work for me better.

Still, I’d invested quite a bit of time in putting a lot of tasks in Things and have to admit, one of the things I missed from Taskpaper was the ability to just look back at the various tasks and projects I’d knocked off in the year in that same bird’s eye view I’ve mentioned.

So, I modified a basic script I found somewhere on the Internet for exporting the “Today” tasks for Things and extended it a bit to get more info out of it and put it in a Taskpaper format conducive to switching over effortlessly (after moving things out of the “Scheduled” projects since Taskpaper has no sense of dates) and hitting the ground running. A few evening hours of hacking and going over the API docs (not to mention, getting my head around the awfulness that is Applescript), but the result is here in Things2Taskpaper.scpt (link to Github gist). It could definitely do with some refactor and DRY love, but it works, and had me over and back up and running on Taskpaper about 15 minutes after I ran it and culled some dupes (nb: If you have a really large number of tasks in Things, it will take quite a while to run).

I split off all the archived 2012 tasks and saved that as a separate file, but it amazed me at how much, well… stuff had piled up in Things without really having a grip on it. A week later and some major life triage in Taskpaper and I feel like I’m totally back on top of things. I have a plan, things seem to be getting knocked off the lists like I imagine and there actually seems to be a planned pipeline for the month and (what I know of) the year ahead. It feels like Big Picture stuff is aligned again with stuff I’m doing each week.

I also modified one of the themes for Taskpaper from the lovely HelveticaLight one and called it HelvetiCan. Drop it in ~/Library/Application Support/Taskpaper/Themes. It’s clean, has a few tags associated with colour coding priorities but overall it focuses on legibility and clean looks .

YMMV, but if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed it might be a good idea to think about swapping out your fancy task manager for something much much simpler.

I’d also be very interested in hearing what various people do to manage forward dated tasks in Taskpaper more effectively. It’s probably my biggest concern and while you can write nice searches if you use tags like @start(2013-06-25) and the like, it is less than conducive to making sure something doesn’t slip through the cracks. I know the shortcomings of the original client are making me take a good look at both the vim and (very attractive) Sublime plugins.