Fast GTD in Windows Mobile

(This was originally posted on the old version of with pictures, but this is all I could salvage out of the Google cache.)

I’ve been a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done time management methodology for years. And while I had it down to a science on my various Palms and Treos, a really good GTD implementation has eluded me on Windows Mobile until just recently. There are lots of different ways to do it, of course, and a few dedicated applications designed to guide you through the GTD workflow on Windows Mobile.

The problem I have with those is that they’re all too bulky. They either don’t sync with my Exchange server or they don’t do it well. It’s too much effort to set up the system, and too cumbersome to use it in the moment. One of the hallmarks of GTD on paper is that it’s fast. Fast enough to be usable. Fast enough to become a "I don’t even think about it anymore" habit. Every second, every fraction of a second, that you add to that process makes it less likely you’ll actually stick with it.

"Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler."
– Albert Einstein

So I set out to create a GTD implementation that used as little outside software or structure as possible. I wanted it to sync, mostly, via Exchange, which meant limiting myself to Contacts, Tasks and Calendar (with one exception). I wanted it to be fast to use on the device, just as glanceable as the paper version, but with even less overhead due to the digital nature of the data. It should be easy to collect, process, decide and do. And I think I pulled it off.

As you might expect, the system is based around tasks. According to Allen, you should not prioritize your task lists, and for the most part I agree. This freed me up to use the high/normal/low priority system in Outlook/Exchange for something else: defining your lists.

Three kinds of things go on task lists in GTD. Next Actions (things you can actually do something about), Projects (lists of Next Actions relating to the same goal) and Someday/Maybes (things you might do at some point but have no commitment towards). In my system, Next Actions are all set to High importance, Projects are Normal importance and Someday/Maybes are Low importance. When sorting your task list by priority, this shows all your Next Actions grouped at the top of the list, then your projects. Running out of Next Actions is a good sign to look at your Projects and create more Next Actions to move things along.

In each Project (normal importance task), I use the note field to jot down potential Next Actions. Allen cautions against doing too much or too detailed hierarchical planning on the theory that it will almost certainly change once you actually get into it.

"No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."
– General George Patton

Allen instead recommends "back of the envelope" planning, just jotting down a simple list of things you know the project will require. This gives you the flexibility to do things in whatever order makes sense in the moment and still be sure you hit the major points. When necessary I copy each line to a new Next Action (High Importance task) so it shows up on the main list, and the next time I have the Project open I put an X in front of the ones I know I’ve done. When all of the actions are done and I can’t think of any more, the Project itself gets marked as complete.

When viewing the list as a whole, I can either look at all my Next Actions or I can filter the list by context. A curious side-effect I’ve noticed of using mobile technology is that I tend to need far fewer contexts than most people. I don’t need an "@phone" context, for example, since my smartphone is always with me. Nor do I need @internet, etc. I only have four contexts that are meaningful for me:

  • @Computer, for things that require a desktop PC
  • @Home, for things to do inside or around my apartment
  • @Out, for things I can do pretty much anywhere, or things to do on the go
  • @Work, for things to do at my office

That’s it. Individual tasks can be assigned to any or all of those categories, and I can filter the list to show just the Next Actions I can actually do in any particular context. This filtering is a built in feature of the Windows Mobile tasks application, as is filtering to show only Active Tasks (not complete, with a start date either null or before today). I assign Projects to the !Project context, so they don’t show up in my normal context lists (Projects will usually span multiple contexts anyway) and so I can catch things I forgot to categorize by using the built in "No Categories" filter.

The nice thing about this system is that it’s all in Tasks (so far), which means it all syncs automatically to Exchange and thus is all available to me anytime, anywhere, no matter if I’m using Outlook at home, my smartphone or Outlook Web Access at the office. But tasks will only take you so far. I still need to capture ideas about stuff to do in the first place.

I talked about this recently. I have a simple plain text file called Notebook.txt on my device set to sync to my desktop, and I have shortcuts in my desktop and handheld Start Menus to open this file quickly and easily. When a thought occurs to me, no matter what it is, I open this file and jot it down. Every so often, usually once a day, but sometimes more frequently and sometimes less, I open up that file and cut and paste from it into new tasks, appointments, other documents, whatever is appropriate. Notice that I said cut. Once it’s processed, it’s gone from my notebook. I like to keep the notebook as clean as possible. If I’m doing my job and processing new ideas regularly, that text file should be 0 bytes big more often than not. I use PHM Notepad for this just because opening the file is nearly instantaneous, but Word Mobile works nearly as well if you don’t want to install extra software. It takes a second or two to open the file, but I’m looking for speed. (This is also why I keep my notebook in a plain text file instead of a Word document; I want it to open instantly on the phone and the desktop.)

And that’s the whole system. It’s quick, simple and all but one text file syncs via Exchange. The only part that doesn’t sync doesn’t strictly have to, if you don’t mind having separate "collection buckets" on different computers. And it catches the basics of GTD without unnecessary overhead. Give it a try, and let me know how it works for you in the comments.

11 thoughts on “Fast GTD in Windows Mobile”

  1. I guess you don’t want to hear these two little words – “wordpress backup”. Sorry to hear you lost everything from your last blog. Yours was one of the first sites I found about using GTD with mobile devices and applications.
    If it is any consolation to you, I like the new theme a lot better 🙂

  2. Been using your system for a few days now and I have to say so far I love it! Makes GTD much easier and I too have reduced the number of contexts I require.

    The only drawback is the note file. Don’t like having to manually synchronize every time I get back to my machine. As a matter of fact – I rarely sync. To much of a hassle – sometimes it works – sometimes it doesn’t.

    I prefer all my synchronization to happening in real time. So Exchange is definitely a plus. But for capturing ideas nothing beats Evernote on Windows Mobile. It’s surprisingly fast and I can even send my self audio notes when driving etc. Jott is also great if you pay for the transcription service.

  3. I like your method, because it is very similar to my usage of GTD 🙂 Even I have same contexts, except computer. I removed it also. Instead of a text file, I am using Outlook Notes as inbox. the uncategorized notes are my unprocessed items. it is fast enough on PC and Smarthone, to enter new uncategorized not.

    One of the thing that I have some difficulty to overcome is the project planning. my projects are too big, and there are too many thoughts just come up. for example “finishing phd thesis” is one of my project. do you have any methodology to handle big project planning. Or should I remove big projects and create some small projects which are manageable by your methodology?

    Thanks for this great sharing

  4. Thank you for that article.
    It really helps, since I have outlook, an Exchange account with web-access and a mobile device I will give it a try.

    As for the note file – how about sending yourself emails with your thougths? Can also be enhanced with an automatic forward rule, to a predefined outlook folder 🙂


  5. Nice article, I’ve been doing pretty much the same thing, although I do not have an exchange server to sync with.

    I use ActiveSync for tasks and calendar, and use OneNote on my phone collect my Projects, Someday’s and random notes. I have OneNote installed on my desktop also, and ActiveSync takes care of syncing them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *