Yojimbo and Getting Things Done

yojimbo-logo.jpgSo obviously I haven’t posted in almost a week, because week 10 of the semester is traditionally the start of Crunch Time, where the ratio of (work load)/(student and faculty preparation) is at its highest point. Later in the semester the workload is actually heavier, but everybody is ready for it so the ratio is lower. Right now, not so much on the preparation side, and everybody is stressed out and working like dogs.

And so there’s no better time to talk about GTD, because in situations like this you really need a system that allows you to get your work done without having dwell on it so much. And you especially need that “trusted system” that GTD champions, so that the scatterbrained-ness that always comes with high load/prep ratio is mitigated by not having all that “stuff” in your mind. If you need a backgrounder on GTD, read this before going on.

The last time I blogged about GTD proper I was comparing some ways to implement a GTD system with software. Specifically, I was reporting on the impending alpha (not even beta!) release of OmniFocus, a GTD app from the awesome OmniGroup (makers of two of my favorite apps, OmniGraffle and OmniOutliner). I was using iGTD and looking forward to trying out OmniFocus. Well, since then, I ditched iGTD and moved over to OmniFocus full-time. For an alpha version of software, OmniFocus is quite nice. There were (and are) bugs but this is going to be a major piece of software, perhaps the next killer app for Macintoshes once it’s in post-beta format.

So OmniFocus is nice, but a couple of weeks ago — possibly out of sheer boredom, or out of a desire to get away from software bugs — I decided to look around at different software GTD solutions. After Googling a little bit, I came upon this post about Yojimbo, a sort of “digital junk drawer” software, and one person’s method for using Yojimbo to do GTD. It looked promising, so I downloaded the demo and have been slowly learning its zen and building a GTD system with it. Yojimbo is pretty impressive, and I’m going to be blogging about my efforts in using it for GTD in the near future, starting now.

Yojimbo is software intended to collect stuff — stuff of all kinds, including but not limited to web links, serial numbers, passwords, text notes, PDF’s, media files, and so on. The basic idea behind Yojimbo is you add stuff to the “library” that is created in Yojimbo, and then you can add tags and labels to each piece of stuff. You then use the tags, labels, and other meta-information about your stuff to organize and search your stuff for whatever purpose you may need. Essentially Yojimbo is a sort of database program to index and search whatever stuff you drag and drop into it.

yojimbo-1.jpgTo the right is a screenshot of my overall Yojimbo library (click to enlarge). As you can see in the large pane, I have some text notes, a web bookmark, a PDF (which is being previewed in the lower pane), an encrypted text note (“Allocation of Problems”), and something with a yellow label at the bottom… more on that in a minute. These are just items that I either authored directly in Yojimbo or added to Yojimbo from outside the software. The PDF, for instance, was a web page that I printed to PDF and sent to Yojimbo; installing the software adds a very handy print menu item that allows you to print anything — anything! — directly into Yojimbo as a PDF. You can then move the PDF elsewhere later just by dragging it to somewhere else on your hard drive.

yojimbo-2.jpgThe real GTD action takes place over in the left sidebar, which contains what Yojimbo calls “collections”. A collection is just a subset of your stuff. Some of the collections (the first five you see here) are program defaults. But the user can create his own collection, and that’s the real strength of this program for GTD.

You see two kinds of blue folders, which are the collections I’ve made for GTD. One has a little tag on top of the folder, and the other doesn’t. The tagged folders are collections that contain only items with a specific tag, so they function much like smart folders on OS X. The untagged folders contain whatever I put in them.

So Yojimbo has a rather simple, unstructured approach to collecting and cataloging stuff. That makes it very flexible and particularly well-suited for GTD, especially if your house rules for GTD may be a little nonstandard — as is the case for a lot of people in academia.

My usage of Yojimbo for GTD is evolving daily — I’ve only had the demo for 12 days — and so what I’m about to describe as my system is a work in progress. Pretty much my system looks like the one I linked to above. Let me explain.

Every project that I have is given an untagged folder. You can see those in the lower 1/3 of the sidebar. The number off to the right of those folder indicates how many pieces of stuff are in the folder. What’s inside those folders? Glad you asked. One of my advisees is doing an independent study with me next semester on mathematical methods in artificial intelligence. Getting that study ready is a project, which in GTD-ese means that it is a large-scale item to get done that involves a succession of individual, atomistic tasks along with supporting material. Here’s what’s inside the folder:


The top thing in the list is a PDF of an article that I want to include as part of the independent study. Later, once I have the study more fully fleshed-out, I will create a folder on the hard drive for it and move that article there permanently. But for now, this is supporting material for the project of getting the study ready, so here it belongs.

The other things in the folder are my actions. An action in Yojimbo is represented by an empty text note with the action listed in the title. If I have notes for the action, like I have for the one highlighted here, I can add them in the text field. The thing to note here are the tags. When I create an action (just Cmd-N inside the folder) I can add a tag to it just by tabbing into the tag field and typing the name I want. The tags are used to indicate the context. For example, the action I have highlighted above involves doing some web searching about projects in support vector machines, so the context is online. Every context ends in an “@” symbol; traditionally, contexts in GTD start with @, but as Robert Foxworthington points out, it works better if you put the @ at the end because of the way Yojimbo auto-completes the tag name.

So now, the moment I entered in that action with the “online@” tag, it not only was entered in to this project folder, but it was also automatically entered in to the “online@” tagged folder. Here’s what’s in that folder:

This way, whenever I am online and need to get stuff done, I can view the “online@” folder and see what actions have that context. (You can Cmd-click multiple folders in the sidebar to see multiple contexts. For example, it would make sense to select “online@” as well as “email@” and “computer@” all at the same time if I’m in my office and online.)

Yojimbo lets you not only tag items but also label them. The difference, from what I can tell, is that tagging is adding metadata to something, whereas labelling is merely adding a visual distinction to an item by means of color-coding the item. You can search by label type, though, so this distinction is somewhat fine. Every next action — the all-important element of GTD which indicates the next physical thing that can possibly be done in a project — is labelled as such with a bright orange label. Every action that is not a next action is labelled with a light gray label. Every action that must be completed today is given a bright yellow label. The labels allow me to quickly distinguish between next actions, regular actions, text notes which are not actions at all, and other stuff when looking in a folder.

Once I complete an action, I simply click on it and hit the delete key, and it goes in the trash folder in Yojimbo. Same for projects that reach completion.

I’m getting more comfortable with Yojimbo and GTD each day, although I don’t think I’ve honed it to quite the level of trustworthiness I would like. There are some things to watch out for when using Yojimbo for GTD and some features that I really wish Yojimbo would add. But there are plenty of positives as well which give Yojimbo an advantage over OmniFocus and iGTD. I’ll write about those in the next article.


Filed under GTD, Profhacks, Software, Technology

4 responses to “Yojimbo and Getting Things Done

  1. I like how you are tracking “next actions”. A great start and the software seeems to be a help also.

  2. I find funny that you ditched igtd for OF and then started using a system that takes you ages to even setup to be like a gtd. And when it’s finished, it’s not actually a GTD.

    Granted, when igtd 2 is out, you will switch to it again. 🙂

  3. It was more like “hours” rather than “ages”. And 80% of the gtd setup took place in the first hour I used it.

    iGTD 2 will indeed get a look from me, only because I believe the non-“Pro” version will still be free. I’m all about free.

  4. Pingback: Sticking with OmniFocus « Casting Out Nines