The Web App as Your Personal Assistant

Posted by Bryan Collick on Saturday, February 16th, 2008. Filed under: eHub Features

Ehub reviews free web-based personal task management

There are dozens of ways to keep a calendar, make a list, or get reminders online. A few web offerings do all three very well. A human personal assistant is best but, for many, not in the budget. Until you reach that stage, consider three free sites that are serious competition for your personal assistant needs.

First up is the site with the longest name, Remember the Milk. In public beta for the last two and a half years, I honestly don’t know what else they could possibly cook up to make this very efficient management system better than it already is. Perhaps, as indicated by the recent introduction of paid “Pro accounts,” beta means that they’re still working out a way to make this great product profitable.

As its name implies, Remember the Milk started out as a way for the developers to remember the items you tend to forget. It would be easier to remember milk (or anything else, for that matter) if you had a handy list to keep track of it, right? Well that’s what RTM does. Items on the list can be prioritized or assigned to a certain date or time. Keyboard shortcuts make it easy to enter in all the necessary metadata, and reminders can be set to email you or send an SMS message to your mobile device, making it very handy when you’re not in front of your computer. You can even assign locations to your items, allowing them to be plotted on a map.

To add to its functionality, the RTM team has gone the extra mile to make notification and list modification as convenient as possible. You can do so through RTM on Twitter, as well as through support for a whopping eight different IM systems. It has extensions for both Google Calendar and Gmail, and there’s even software for your iPhone or Windows Mobile-enabled device!

RTM takes a very GTD approach, as it encourages you to make lists of items to be tackled. Lists can be shared and collaborated on with other RTM users, which can be helpful if you’re like most people who find themselves working with others to clear off your to-do list. RTM really takes your checklist to a new level and works hard to be where you need it to be.

When it comes to the Getting Things Done approach to a to-do list,however, Todoist is a stricter adherent than any of the management systems we’ll discuss. Deceptively simplistic, it does a lot to ensure that you know not only what needs to be done but the action items that are required to get you to completion. To accomplish this, Todoist re-envisions your lists as projects. They are listed neatly on the side with a number reflecting the amount of tasks within each project you create. Projects can also be color-coordinated and re-ordered according to your whim or preference.

A neat feature that sets Todoist apart is task heirarchy. Perhaps I need to remember to buy milk but I also want to make sure I check the freshness date on the carton; this should not be a separate task but a subitem that determines whether the primary task was completed correctly. With Todoist, I can place such a task under another to show what tasks may be dependent upon smaller action items. This may seem like overkill for “Remember to buy milk” but is perfect for “Plan Family Vacation” or “Get Taxes Ready.” Heirarchy can also be used at the project/list level as well.

Todoist offers great keyboard shorcuts and has recently added support for mobile phone, as well as widgets for iGoogle and Netvibes. If you’re a Mac power user, you’ll be happy to know that Todoist has a quicksilver plugin as well. Of course it also allows for reminders to be sent for you time-sensitive assignments.

Bringing a level of simple elegance and fluidity that departs from the quirky cuteness that RTM establishes, Todoist makes managing your work more efficient and easy to do. As their main page warns: “Warning: High usage of Todoist may result in an organized life :)”

Speaking of simplicity and pervasiveness, the problem with most organizing systems is the learning curve one must undertake in order to use it effectively. Keyboard shortcuts, action items, heirarchies

that’s all stuff we’ve got to learn in order to be effective. If we all could have a real, live, 24-hour personal assistant you’d never learn all that stuff–you’d just pass it off to them and they’d gladly handle it. If that sounds like you, perhaps you’d like to meet Sandy.

Iwantsandy.com is the home of Sandy, your very own personal assistant. She doesn’t make you do lists or calendars or anything; you simply write to her and she will take care of the rest. It’s true! Using a core set of commands that are based on common sentence structure, Sandy converts your messages into tasks, lists and appointments. To make sure she understands you correctly, she’ll shoot you a confirmation email–or text message, if you prefer. Email confirmations come with an attached event to add to your Outlook, Entourage or iCal calendar with a simple click.

Sandy’s on Twitter as well! Sending her a private message–say, “Remember to get milk tomorrow”–will result in a reply confirmation and a new item on your daily agenda, which she sends to you every day at 7am. Got an email you need to be reminded of? Forward it to her with an instruction in the Subject line and she’ll forward it back to you at the appointed time. If you really want to be fancy (and who doesn’t), use her in a group email: Simply make a single line starting with “Sandy, “ and she’ll pick up whatever instructions you leave. And yes, she can pick multiple instructions from the same email!

For power users, Iwantsandy may be a bit unusual when accessing it directly from the site itself. Think of it this way: if you had a real person doing this for you, would you find their organization methods exactly like yours? You’d be able to see what’s going on, but mainly you’d want to leave their system be if it works for them. Kinda the same with Sandy. Not at all organized like the other mentioned management systems, Iwantsandy probably looks like a regular person’s jornal or planner. The Comic Sans font choice helps to give it a handwritten feel.

Again, the current incarnation of the web is all about user experience, and it takes a few good applications to provide a convenient solution for all. These three web apps may be just what you need to take your personal organization to its own 2.0.

Comment(s)

  1. Craig on February 16, 2008 at 06:59 AM:
    Great article. I had not seen the last two. Thanks for the links. I would submit Vitalist (vitalist.com) as one of the best also. It is a GTD modeled system which is very true to GTD practice and has worked well fro me for about a year.
  2. David Gerbino on February 16, 2008 at 11:00 PM:
    I like RTM and its integration with Jott which I also use. Jott is a service that lets you use your cell phone to create reminders with your voice. Works great then you drive.

    My main organizer is still Scrybe. I like the To-DOs and how it integrates with the calendar. Would like it better if they integrated with Scrybe. The best feature is the printed lists and calendars. I like both web and paper. I hope Scrybe survives.

  3. Cesar Castro on February 21, 2008 at 04:51 PM:
    Someone must have gotten inspired from this article just check out PageOnce and tell me they didn’t read this.
  4. Matt on February 26, 2008 at 06:57 AM:
    RTM becomes especially hand with their Netvibes module – you can view your RTM tasks alongside your RSS feeds and notes.
  5. Arka Roy on March 02, 2008 at 02:25 AM:
    Thanks for the article Bryan, this is a topic I’m interested in… always searching for the Holy To-Do Grail.

    I find the lack of sub-task hierarchies on Remember the Milk to be a big shortcoming.  Maybe I will take a look at Todoist.

    I’m baffled by the lack of a task list feature in Google Calendar.  Yahoo Calendar has one, but it too is not hierarchical, alas.

    Zoho, among its zillion other features, has a pretty good planner.  However it too is not hierarchical.