Pick an Inbox, Any Inbox (Updated)

January 29th, 2009  |  Published in attention

I just did an inventory of all the things I have licenses for, accounts on or access to that I could use as an inbox/organizer:


  • Remember the Milk

  • Backpack

  • Remind

  • Unix calendar

  • Redmine

  • OmniFocus

  • OmniOutliner

  • Emacs org mode

  • Mail.app todo/notes

  • gMail todos

  • Google Pages

  • iCal

  • plain-old-textfiles

  • plain-old-paper

    • post-its

    • notebooks

      • small, medium, large Moleskines in soft or hard cover

      • assorted hard cover journals

      • a large format calendar/planner

    • ring binder

    • graph paper

  • VoodooPad

  • Entourage

  • iPhone

    • Evernote

    • Appigo Todo

    • reQall

  • Yojimbo


I grouped them into three general lumps based on how well they can be tied to other tools I use with minimal fuss.

  • very integrated – OmniFocus, OmniOutliner, Yojimbo

  • somewhat integrated – VoodooPad, iCal, iPhone

  • not integrated – Web-based todo lists, Emacs, paper-based stuff, text files

A well integrated app has hooks into other apps — iCal, Mail, my browser and my feed reader — so I can get stuff out of those apps and into my inbox. Something like OmniFocus or OmniOutliner, both of which have extensive support for the services menu, count as “very integrated.”

Apps that have a scripting dictionary I can use to set up imports count as “somewhat integrated.”

Apps that either don’t provide scripting hooks to move stuff around or cannot be reached from other apps go in the “not integrated” category. Things that require a mastery of lisp, btw, go under “not integrated.”

Integration is an important axis to consider because I need a sweet spot: Too little integration, and it becomes tedious to get stuff out of various inputs; too much integration and it becomes easy to lose a certain deliberative pace that helps when processing stuff. That makes it easier to just whip through a list of inputs without thinking about each of them and giving them a chance to register somewhere besides a nested list somewhere.


I also grouped based on the context in which a given tool can be used:

  • computer (local app)

  • computer (hosted app)

  • phone

  • paper


I don’t think I need to track states beyond “is it done?”, “is it not done?” and “when is it due?” I don’t need to categorize much beyond “personal,” “work” and “freelance work.” More than that and things rapidly get too fiddly.


Some day a giant space bird is going to come down and eat all the Macs, leaving us nothing but what we had the foresight to stuff in a Subversion repository. The same space bird will probably also convince Google to kill our Gmail accounts and drive Remember the Milk into bankruptcy (or sell it to Yahoo, in which case we’ll know its days as a useful, ad-free resource that cares about keeping users are numbered).

“Portability” is a measure of how well–given nothing but a Linux box accessed via a serial console, the first CD of the latest Debian release and no X11–the stuff stored in a given inbox/organizer would survive. If we measured portability on a three point scale:

  • The highest scoring tools will use plain text in a human-readable format (markup like Taskpaper, Markdown or org-mode, YAML, plain paper)

  • The middle scorers will use plain text or a format that can be parsed with minimal effort (HTML/XML, sqlite/MySQL with a simple schema, OPML, RSS/Atom, iCalendar) and can be backed up/exported with minimal effort via cron/launchd, etc.

  • Low scorers offer no easy export or access to information outside the context of the app itself; or they export data in formats that would take a lot of effort to transform into something useful elsewhere.

Define “Easy”

If I look at setting some element of the inbox up as a great opportunity to hack, it’s not “easy.”

Why, Mike, Why?

Because if I don’t sit down and figure all this out in advance, I’ll have what I’ve got now: A documents folder that has half-processed data from a solid 75% of the apps listed above, an overflowing paper inbox, a stack of Moleskines with three pages filled, and accounts on every organizer/list service I know of.

But You’ve, You Know, Been Screwing Around With This for, Like, YEARS!

That’s why I don’t point and laugh when you do stupid shit.


I made a spreadsheet to help me think it through:

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