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Productivity Tip: Using specialized lists for specific use cases

It's time for this week's Productivity Tips column. While I use OmniFocus for just about everything, there are times when I prefer other task managers to handle certain things. Many productivity gurus advise against using more than one tool to list tasks, but I don't like putting short-term list items into OmniFocus.

More to the point, I use specialized list tools for specialized tasks -- groceries, kid chores and the like. While you can put all of that into OmniFocus and see it only when you want to, there's something to be said for specialized tools which are tuned to a specific purpose, and may offer features not found in a more general-purpose product like OmniFocus.

You can always use one task manager to rule them all, of course, but there are limitations. OmniFocus, for example, isn't where I store my recipes. If I want to create a grocery list in Sous Chef, it's a relatively easy affair. Better yet, I can plan a week's worth of meals and then make a grocery list easily from those menus. To do this in OmniFocus (or other general-purpose task managers like Remember the Milk), I have to do a lot of copy and paste work -- which sort of defeats the purpose of using these magnificent technology products, doesn't it?

If I need a short list for a short period of time, I use a "punch list," which requires no contexts or setup. Sometimes an app with a narrow focus has so many great features that I can't help but use it. I've also found geofenced reminders in OmniFocus to be less useful than I'd like, but that's another story. Here are a few ideas for when to use specific task managers, and some of the ones I use.

Punch Lists

A punch list -- the term comes from the construction industry -- is the stuff you need to do in sequence, right now or by a specific deadline. It's often used for the "fixes" that accumulate towards the end of a project, with only a few loose ends or tweaks to finish off. For quick turnaround projects, it may be all you need.

As I tend to use OmniFocus for bigger/long-term projects, I do also sometimes use it for these punch lists, but only when a series of steps will take me longer than an hour or so to complete. If I'm making a quick list to prep for my kids coming over to stay for a weekend, I use a short-term list tool (I don't always have to do the same things each time they come over).

Apps: For general, short term lists I love Clear. If I have 3 or 4 things to do in a given hour, and I'm just coming up with that list on the fly, I'm likely to use Clear to quickly set those up and knock them down. Quick, short-term lists are great with Clear, which also syncs with my Mac. Wunderlist is a great solution as well, and so is Remember The Milk if you need to collaborate. There's also iOS/OS X Reminders, but I have wired most of my reminders to go to OmniFocus because I want to capture once and process later.

When it comes to making lists that need to be in cold storage for a while (like Christmas wish lists), or lists of info which I need but not on a regular basis, I use Evernote. Evernote makes it easy to find lists I've made earlier, and add to those from anywhere.

Kids or pets

As a divorced dad, I have to keep up with a lot of info on my kids. From wish lists (often generated while we are at a store -- the old "daddy I want this!" cry) to favorite foods to blood types and other medical info, my puny brain can't keep it all. We've also started a chore chart, and I wanted to use something a bit friendlier than OmniFocus.

If you have pets, there are a number of things to track and keep on top of, from vet visits to dietary needs and more. Luckily, there are a few apps for that.

Apps: If you have pets, check out PetMinder, which will track all sorts of things about your pet including vet appointments and allergies.

If you have those other household inhabitants known as "human children" I have been loving iAllowance for their chores. iAllowance allows me to use Dave Ramsey's system for saving, spending and giving, and handles all the math and checklists for me. I can even sync with my iOS devices, so I put the iPad on a table and as kids finish items they come and mark them off.

Travel

Do you really want all those shops, restaurants and tourist sites in your task manager along with all your work stuff? Aren't you supposed to be on vacation? Just like how I use Firefox for work stuff (well, and Chrome) and Safari and Opera for personal browsing, I like to keep my vacation info and work info very separate.

A great example of a punch list, too, is your typical packing list. Again, you could keep a list of potential packing items in your task manager, but that could add hundreds of items that you may only need once in a while. I find packing lists are an easy win when testing list apps, not to mention there are some great special-purpose apps for this.

Apps: Travel apps could be an entire month's worth of posts, so all I'll say here is that if you frequently travel for leisure you'll want to look into the "to do" aspects of Foursquare and Yelp. By creating accounts and using the app's bookmarking features as your wish list of stuff to do, you can quickly get directions and reviews in the app, saving you time.

If you want a packing list, PackingPro is one of the best, and Stow features a clever Q&A method for using templates. If you're collaborating on a list with your partner or spouse, Avocado's one-to-one messaging includes a flexible list feature as well -- good for those last-minute pretrip items.

Food

There are some outstanding apps for wine and beer out there. To replicate those databases elsewhere would be onerous at best. So if you're a fan of touring wine country and want a list of wines to check out, you're more likely to use one of these special purpose apps here.

Everyday cooking and food shopping are greatly enhanced when using one of the dozens of great cooking apps available. I am still in the process of finding my favorite, but most of them offer features out of the box that would be a pain to replicate in a general "to do" app.

Apps: When it comes to food, I use Sous Chef or Groceries. If I haven't planned my meals, Groceries has a nice interface and makes it super easy to add items (even those not in its database). Sous Chef is my go-to for meal planning and recipe-keeping.

Fitness

Along with food, there are some great fitness apps out there with lists of exercises or tools to track your weight, food, etc.

Apps: I don't actually use a lot of fitness apps, but I have used 30/30 to create a workout routine and it's great. 30/30 can also be used for daily routines, and I love the interface and experience. I used Lift for a while, and if you're trying to get into a habit of doing something, it's quite good.

My only problem with Lift was that the entire interface was completely dependent on a network connection. Given AT&T's coverage where I live (and in many cities where the networks are clogged), I found that the simple act of loading the basic interface would sometimes fail -- which isn't very encouraging. That said, there are lots of options here for goal-setting apps, and they are all essentially list tools.

DIY

There are a number of awesome apps available to help you plan construction projects or minor repairs at your house. Like a food app, these take a project and break it into a parts list -- again something which you'd have to copy over to another tool.

Along with DIY home projects, anything involving crafting, knitting, sewing, etc. will result in a specialized list. Do you need that list of yarn for that one project forever archived in your task manager? Probably not.

Apps: DIY is another huge topic, but as an example of specialized apps, I like to point to My Measures and Woodcraft. My Measures will create a list of dimensions for a room and its fixtures. Woodcraft will create a list of wood you need for a given project. Both are quite excellent, and getting that data into another app is onerous and not that useful. I'm sure there are similar apps for sewing and other crafty stuff.

Daily Routines, Location-Based Reminders

While OmniFocus is pretty good at most things, I have resisted using it for daily repeating actions. For one thing, I keep running into a repeating item that starts multiplying itself over time (no, I don't need to balance my checkbook 4 times a day!). Also, there are tools out there which are more aimed at motivation (like the goal-setting apps mentioned in the fitness section) vs. plowing through a set of tasks. If you are self-motivated a one-size-fits-all approach might work for you. If not, check out some recommendations below.

Lastly, OmniFocus does have a pretty good location system but I found it a bit onerous to use (espeically on the desktop) and annoying in daily use. No, I don't need to be reminded to fix something every single time I pull into my driveway. But I do need to be reminded to put out the trash when I arrive home on Wednesday mornings. For this, I use Siri and it's the easiest method I've found so far. "Remind me when I get home to..." just sounds like the future, doesn't it?

Apps: For daily routine stuff I do wind up using my squishy brain for a lot -- but I also have a variable schedule. If I have a set of routines for a day, I hop into 30/30, where I have a list. I also use Due to remind me about repeating items. Due is very insistent, but makes it easy to move an item to another day, plus it sync with my Mac.

Conclusion

I do not use a separate app for inboxing items. I do believe that this is important, because the more complexity in your task management, the less likely you're going to get things done. I still use OmniFocus+Siri to capture stuff. In rare cases I use Clear to make a quick list, but that list is very quickly sorted and knocked out, eliminating the need for messing around in OmniFocus for those tasks.

Similarly, if you find yourself needing one-off or specialized lists, consider looking at a specialized tool. While OmniFocus and other power tools can be bent to your will, sometimes an app offers features you would have to spend a lot of time replicating elsewhere. And that's what this is all about, really: Getting things done and saving you time. Isn't that what technology should be doing?

Shout out your favorite special-purpose apps in the comments below and we here at TUAW will try to review any we haven't looked at before.

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