The zen of productivity

POSTED: September 28, 2012

Someone asked me last week what was the best calendar/to-do app for the iPad, and I was unequivocal. Pocket Informant is the best general purpose app. It is the most well-developed, most stable, and most flexible of the available apps. It has an active user community and the CEO, Alex Kac, is active on the forums on a daily basis. Even better he is honest and transparent about bugs and flaws, and issues updates to fix issues as frequently as necessary.

I added that I had used PI with complete satisfaction for almost three years, but over the last six months I had gradually migrated to Smart Pad, and now use that exclusively: despite the fact that it has some irritating and potentially serious bugs.

The reason for this is simple, but will certainly not apply to everyone. Pocket Informant is designed to be user-agnostic. For example, it will work with tasks in three ways. It can use Toodledo’s system, it can use a version of GTD, and it can use the Franklin-Covey system, whatever that is. It is like a top-range family saloon car that can be happily used by many different kinds of people in many different circumstances. Smart Pad has a distinctive point of view, and so works with tasks in just one way, which is derived from GTD. It is something like a Smart Car, which is perfect for congested city centres but a poor choice for driving across the country. Smart Pad has been carefully honed for one highly specific approach to planning, and if that is your approach then it will be perfect. On the other hand, if you are used to working with the Franklin-Covey system, Smart Pad will get in your way and you may well learn to hate it.

I have switched because Left Coast Logic’s vision of the “zen of productivity” seems to be the embodiment of an approach I have been trying to force various different software (from DateBk5 to PI) to adopt for years. Smart Pad is definitely not better than Pocket Informant, which probably has what many (and maybe most) people are looking for: it is however radically different.

How stuff arrives

The best overview of the way I think of the stuff that comes into my life demanding action of one sort and another can be found at the website of the late, lamented Chandler Project. “Stuff” arrives by various routes and it is not redefined as events or tasks or notes. For me, it usually arrives as mail, as phone calls, as decisions minuted at meetings, as requested appointments inserted into my Outlook calendar, as the outcomes of conversations, or as bright ideas that occur to me without external prompting.

The system that I use to capture and process this has Outlook on my laptop at one end and Smart Pad on my iPad at the other. Google calendar, gSyncIt, the native iOS calendar and Toodledo are the elements that form the pipelines to connect the two. The principles that inform the capturing and processing are based on several readings of David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

Emails are dealt with in Outlook. I read them and then either delete them; file them in a Reference folder; answer them and file them in an Actioned folder; turn them into tasks; or turn them into events. The difference between a task and an event is simple: tasks are actions that I need to do, by a certain date or just by sometime in the future. Events are actions that I need to do at a specific already-decided date and time in the future.

I sync Outlook and Smart Pad at least two or three times a day, including the time when I arrive and the time when I leave work.

Processing: the weekly review

Early every Monday morning I conduct a GTD-style weekly review, using Smart Pad, in which I look at my weekly schedule and at all the outstanding tasks. If there are large tasks (tasks that will take longer than 15-30 minutes) that need doing this week, then I look for gaps in my schedule and insert them there as events. I then star the remaining tasks for the week, perhaps also starring one or two other tasks that I would like to get done soon, and would like to keep in focus.

I have a number of project folders, and one of them, in best GTD fashion, is Someday/Maybe. During the weekly review I look through all of these, sometimes shuffling the order of tasks by manually dragging them up and down. Sometimes I star a task. Sometimes I move a task from Someday/Maybe to an active folder. This process is helped greatly by the fact that Smart Pad keeps only one category list. Each category (or project or folder) holds both events and tasks. That means if I create a category “Write Bestselling Novel” then I have, in effect, created both a calendar and a project folder for associated tasks.

This sounds like a simple idea, and it is certainly one you could enforce manually by habit in almost any other calendar/tasks app, including Pocket Informant. Its effect, for me at least, has proved startling. The fact that I can’t have a project folder that isn’t also a calendar, and the additional fact that tasks cannot have sub-tasks, has focused my thinking, and is presumably a key part of what Left Coast Logic mean by “the zen of productivity”.

Processing: the daily routine

For the rest of the week I work almost exclusively in Smart Pad’s Daily view, switching temporarily to Monthly view to get a view of the longer term, or when I am asked a question about my availability.

My daily screen on the day I wrote this

Smart Pad has a very particular kind of daily view which works perfectly with its overall philosophy. It shows events on the left and tasks on the right. I usually set it to show only starred tasks, so that the screen shows me my schedule for the day and the tasks that I have decided to focus on. I drag these up and down in an approximate order of importance. Smart Pad inserts tasks into the blank spaces in my daily diary according to the order in which they have been arranged. If I have no appointments between 14:00 and 15:00, for example, it will suggest one or more tasks that I could do then.

If I do not like the plan Smart Pad is making for me, I can rearrange the tasks on the right to change the tasks it chooses to insert. If I still don’t like the plan I can ignore it. If it is distracting I can go to Settings and tell it to stop planning for me for the moment. On the other hand, if I like the suggested plan, I can drag a suggested task on the calendar to the left which will automatically turn it into an event, and will then delete it from the task list (and from any subsequent sycing with Toodledo).

This process works because, when you create a new task, Smart Pad places more emphasis on how long you estimate the task will take than on what context or priority you want to assign to it. With this system I find that my needs are reduced to estimated length, star/unstar, and deadline or due date.

I can turn tasks into events (and events into tasks) manually by opening their detail pane and switching their type. This instant two-way flipping is important in the workflow I have described, because everything that takes longer than 15 minutes will necessarily end up as an event. This might sometimes mean that a previously assigned event needs to be flipped back into a task.

Suppose that on the Monday review I turned a task “Write grant application” into an event for Wednesday at 14:00. On Wednesday morning I learn that the deadline for something else has been brought forward. I need to clear something from today’s calendar. I turn the other task into an event for 14:00, and turn “Write grant application” back into a task, knowing that I need to soon figure out when I am actually going to do it. The fact that I can see both side by side, and can flip them both with a couple of gestures, makes this as painless and distraction-free as possible.

It is worth noting that Smart Pad does not have a Weekly view, or an Agenda/List view. Weeks can viewed as details from the Monthly view, but you cannot move directly from week to week. At first this puzzled and irritated me. After a while I realised that I was now being forced to focus on the big picture and on the details, and that the Weekly view I had previously been used to using had, in fact, been a brilliant aid to procrastination.

Nothing is easier in the weekly view than sliding something from Tuesday to Wednesday, and then twenty four hours later from Wednesday to Thursday. Smart Pad makes this harder: not impossible but harder. It forces me to focus on what I want to get done today, and helps me do this. For example, in the scenario above, I would previously have wasted time working out where to shift “Write grant application” in my weekly calendar, because the existence of the weekly calendar would have encouraged me to think along those lines. In Smart Pad’s daily view I flip the event and the task, and then get on with what is important now, knowing that later, when I have finished the work at hand, I can sit down for a mini-review and figure out whether to assign tasks to time slots or wait for Smart Pad to make suggestions.

Distraction free

I am writing this in Focuswriter. On the iPad I use WriteRoom. Both of these are “distraction-free” writing tools that do a lot less than traditional word processors in the (correct) belief that this will cause you to be more productive. Focuswriter is cleverly designed to do a lot less than Microsoft Word while doing everything that you actually need; as opposed to Notepad, for example, which just does a lot less.

This is the principle behind Smart Pad. It does a lot less than many other calendar/task apps, but it is cleverly designed to give you everything you actually need, and to help you keep focused on it. Less in this case really is more. I know many people who cannot bear applications like Focuswriter, and cannot understand why I have abandoned MS Word for everything except formatting complex documents after I have finished writing them. Many people may feel the same about Smart Pad. However, for those who embrace its method of working, it will be the best planner app you have ever used.


To reiterate, when I was asked recently to recommend a calendar/task app I recommended Pocket Informant. PI is, in my opinion, the best all-round luxury family saloon in the PIM market. Personally, though, I have come to realise that I need something different: a tightly focused, distraction-free GTD-like planner that does some of the work for me. That is why, as a very satisfied customer of PI, I have found myself switching to Smart Pad. It does a lot less, but deliberately so; and the less that it does appears to be exactly what I need.

If my description of my workflow sounds anything like yours you should at least look at Smart Pad. You may not see the point of it. Alternatively, it may be what you have been waiting for since you first decided that your planner should go digital.