Steve Kemp's Blog Writings relating to Debian & Free Software

Why do you keep torturing yourself?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Recently I came to realise that my planning and memory skills weren't adequate to keeping track of what I want to do, and what I need to do.

For a while I've been fooling myself into thinking than "emacs ~/TODO" was a good way to keep track of tasks. It really isn't - especially if you work upon multiple machines throughout the week.

So I figured I needed something "always available", which these days mostly means an online application / website.

Over the years I've looked at many multi-user online "todo-list" applications, and inevitably they all suck. Mostly they suck because they're either too rigid or don't meet my particular way of working, living, and doing "stuff".

To my mind :

  • A todo-list should above all make it easy to add tasks.
    • If you cannot easily add tasks then you won't. So you'll never use it.
  • A task might be open or closed, but it will never be 23.55% complete.
  • A task might be "urgent" or not, but it will never be "urgent", "semi-urgent", "do soon", "do today".
  • A task might have many steps but they should either be added separately, or the steps noted in some notes.
    • I find the notion of making "task A" depend upon "task B" perilous.
  • A task belongs to one person. It cannot be moved, shared, or split.

Some of those things such as subtasks and completion percentages I guess are more application to project management software. Those and time-sheet applications really wind me up.

With my mini-constraints in mind I sketched out a couple of prototypes. The one I was expecting to use had a typical three-pane view:

[ Task Menu ]     |  Task1: Buy potatoes
                  |  Task2: Remember to check email
  All Tasks       |  Task3: Order more cake.
  Completed Tasks |------------------------------------
  Urgent Tasks    |
                  |  [Taske Details here]
  Tags:           |
   * Work         |  [Urgent | Non-Urgent ]
   * Fun          |
   * Birthdays    |  [Close Task | Re-OPen Task ]
   * Parties      |
   * Shopping     |  [Notes ..]
   ...

That turned out to be a pain to implement, and also a little unwieldy. I guess trying to treat a tasklist as a collection of email is a difficult proposition at best - but more on that in my next post.

So a quick rethink and now I've came up with a simple but functional layout based upon the notions that:

  • Adding tasks must be almost too easy.
  • Most tasks only need a one-line description.
  • Adding tags is good. Because tasks cross boundaries.
  • Adding notes is good.
  • No task should ever be deleted - but chances are we don't actually wish to view tasks older than a month. We can, but we can hide them by default.
  • When a task is closed/completed it cannot be edited.
  • All tasks belong to their owner and are non-public.

So what I've got is a multi-user system which is essentially split into four behaviours: Adding a task, viewing open tasks, viewing closed tasks, and searching for tasks.

Tasks can be tagged, have notes added to them (but never deleted/edited) and over time closed tasks fade away (though they're never deleted).

Some of my constraints or assumptions might change over time, but so far I'm happy with them. (e.g. I can imagine tagging an entry "public" might make it appear visible to others.)

Anyway the code is (surprise) built using minimal perl & jquery and you can play with it:

The site contains a demo user which you can use. I don't much care if people wish to use it for real once it is more complete, but I expect that it will either be ignored completely or be the kind of thing you wish to self-host.

With that in mind the code is currently closed, but I'll add it to my mercurial repository soon. (Maybe even tonight!)

ObSubject: Dog Soldiers

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