Best online organizational tools for 2009?
February 5, 2009 8:47 AM   Subscribe

How do you organize yourselves using online tools? [lengthy]

I have reached the age at which I feel I can no longer keep up with all the geegaws and doodads and fooferaw tumbling out of the Internet, but I'm peripherally aware that there are all sorts of excellent tools out there for organizing one's life more effectively.

I'd like to know which tools you are currently using to organize your work/home, professional/personal, at-desk/roaming lives. Here's my (tediously overexplained) situation:

I work full-time M-F at an ad agency; I have a budding second career writing comic books and several other minor sidelines besides. I currently have trouble maintaining a coherent to-do list, especially one that can follow me from my home to the office and back again.

I have e-mail accounts with all the major free services, plus about nine for various personal and comics-writing projects. I have practically infinite hosting space and unlimited domain/subdomain names with my webhost. I am not afraid of a little HTML and CSS, and maintain several WordPress-powered blogs, but anything beyond HTML and CSS at an intermediate level (including "real" programming languages) is far beyond my capabilities. I'm not afraid of FTP.

I have oogy vague apprehensions about storing essential life/project data on third-party major-enterprise services. I'm vaguely aware that Amazon and Google have neat storage options but I'm kind of leery of them. That can be overcome.

I currently use Firefox almost exclusively as a browser; XP at home and Mac OS X 10.4 at work. I use Dropbox to maintain current project files as a transit system from home to work and as a half-assed backup.

My goals:
- Maintaining a coherent, easily updated and revised to-do list;
- Prioritizing projects, especially non-office projects;
- Keeping track of my varied e-mail accounts and replying to people promptly;
- Keeping abreast of a multitude of Internet forums on subjects of interest as well as said e-mails;
- Maintaining off-site backups of data efficiently (I have Acronis 10, but its FTP functionality is dismal).

Metafilter seems to be chock-a-block with informed, well-organized people -- I'm wondering what tools are out there that are currently top of the line. There's a dizzying array of things like Todoist, Joe's Goals, Remember the Milk, etc. Google now seems capable of doing everything but my dishes.

Ideally, I would like a tool that will let me keep quick and easy track of tasks and goals as well as what I eat, when I exercise, and what I spend as well; preferably a way to sit down periodically through the day, update my to-do list, track my food intake, jot down my exercise and rummage through the receipts I've accumulated. I've tried a variety of Web-based solutions, but none of them seem to "stick," possibly because I don't really understand how useful they can be. What do you recommend?

I'm willing to invest $100 or so in this, by the way, in terms of software (but free is always preferable). I am not looking for a Palm, iPhone, Blackberry, or similar: too expensive, I'm currently locked into a long-term cell contract, and I don't want to add more gadgets or recurring expenses to my life.
posted by Shepherd to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I use Remember the Milk online and the iphone app, it's $25. It really has made me a new person - I actually get stuff down on Saturdays now.
posted by plexi at 8:56 AM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: I use Evernote, it has a Windows and Mac client as well as online viewing. The clients all sync online to keep everything up to date. If you pay to go premium($5/month, $45/year) you get SSL encryption so if your worried about that its safe. You can also update it from your cell phone.
posted by lilkeith07 at 9:07 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Remember the milk, ftw!
posted by coolnik at 9:10 AM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: Google it is for me. All my various mail accounts go through Gmail. All activities are planned/tracked in Calendar. If there's a task that needs doing, I just pick the day I plan to do it and create an all-day event on the Month view (easy to do, single-click). If at the end of the day it isn't done, I drag it to the next available day.

My day job makes me use Outlook and its calendar; Google Calendar Sync automatically takes all of those entries and puts them on my GCal. A similar sync tool sends everything in GCal to the native calendar app on my Blackberry - as a result, all of my to-dos and appointments are available to me everywhere, and I don't have to do anything to make that happen. When I turn on the phone in the morning, the first thing it shows me is a list of things I need to accomplish that day. Finish those, and I can feel good at quitting time.

GMail has recently added rudimentary to-do lists. They're very low-fi, but that's appealing to me. I've tried RTM and always felt like I was creating more work for myself, rather than making life easier.

Finally, if you find that the GCal approach isn't GTD enough for you, there's the awesome hosted version of Tracks that lets you do projects, contexts, next-actions, all that stuff.

Everything mentioned here is free!
posted by jbickers at 9:27 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Forgot to mention Google Reader, for all things related to reading and "keeping up."
posted by jbickers at 9:27 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd use gmail for all the email management. Set Automatic Labels so you can identify and sort mail quickly by account.

I use a windows mobile phone and outlook to manage my calendar with two small adjustments. DESKTASK embeds my outlook calendar and tasks on my desktop(s). And Google Calendar sync so it's available at all my computers as well as online. (Or simpler maybe just embed gcal on your desktop, which I imagine is possible). Can't really help with the forums.
posted by syntheticfaith at 10:49 AM on February 5, 2009

Wow, that's quite a wishlist. But guess what, one tool can do all those things for you. It is...

Emacs + planner! It will be "online" when you email/ftp/rcs it to your hosted space. Alternately, you can ssh to a remote emacs session if your host will allow it. You can check email accounts, and I'm pretty sure there are ways to check forums. It's all free, non-subscription, techno-difficult, and can be as private as you like with some strong gpg. You don't have to trust anyone else with your to-do list.

Admittedly, there is a little learning curve. I am not a programmer. I use emacs as a writing environment (for fiction and journal writing). So, without being super-techno-savvy, I somehow figured out how to use this byzantine and powerful software. It's pretty cool. Plus it will give you killer geek cred, but you're not worried about this.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 11:01 AM on February 5, 2009

I'd probably go with Evernote. (Although I liked it so much better about two versions ago when it took up only a little corner of my screen.)

The best thing about Evernote for you is that you can use it off-line, which is deadly important if you're keeping your whole life on it and the network goes down. It will also keep your lists, etc synched between your computers.

Google might be able to do this too, now that they have Gears to let you use gmail, docs, and calendars offline, but I don't have experience with it.

On review it looks like you can use RTM with Google Gears, so you can use it off-line as well. Not sure if it causes madness when used between two computers though.
posted by Ookseer at 11:12 AM on February 5, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far.

I'm a bit baffled by Evernote, which seems (from the intro video) to just be some sort of drag-and-drop scrapbook for neat stuff you see online/photograph. Does it also have list, calendar, etc. etc. functions?

Will definitely explore Remember the Milk and the Google monolith of features.
posted by Shepherd at 11:54 AM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: I prefer surfulater to evernote. Its enormously powerful and yet has a drop-dead-simple interface. Great for organizing everything from notes and tasks to internet links.

I do use evernote and onenote, but mostly as a complement to surfulater.

Having tried nearly everything under the planet. I actually came back to good old fashioned MS Word for outlining things (using its outline feature). Its simple and easy and in a standard format.

Notezilla for post-its which you can organize by group/folder and also have them auto-pop-up based on which window you're working in. Easy way to set reminders based on what program/site you're working on. Well worth paying for it, its not much; free trial for a month which you can extend.
posted by jak68 at 12:57 PM on February 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

To-do list: remember the milk + tasque (as a desktop front-end to it)

Email accounts: For pete's sake, over a dozen email accounts? Condense those things. At the very least, set up a gmail account and pull (or redirect) all of your mail there. If you have accounts that lock you in (ala hotmail), ditch them, or use freepops + thunderbird to download them.

I have oogy vague apprehensions about storing essential life/project data on third-party major-enterprise services.

Bottom line: Love the cloud, use the cloud, but also keep your own backups. Use google docs, but also use Google Docs Download or gdatacopier to back it all up locally. Use gmail, but also use Thunderbird to pop down a local copy.

Keeping abreast of a multitude of Internet forums on subjects of interest
Do the forums offer RSS feeds? Use bloglines or google reader to keep abreast of what's going on in a fraction of the time. Ditto for all those websites you read. Use RSS to dump them all into one place that you can check daily.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:57 PM on February 5, 2009

for backups, why not get a free mozy account? it'll back everything you want off your hard drive onto the internet, without reminding/bothering you about it.
posted by jak68 at 1:02 PM on February 5, 2009

Remember the Milk allows me to email tasks from my phone. I used to use Jott, but moved after it started to be pay for even Basic service. I'm actually going to put the $25 down for RTM as I find it very useful.

Remember the Task is a desktop application that syncs with RTM. Not perfect but useful.

Evernote acts as a type of memory for me.

Google mail for personal mail; Google Calendar/Sync for 3-way sync between my Outlook/BB/GCal calendars; Google Reader for my feeds.

Simple is good - cut down the hurdles to being organised and you'll actually use the system.

Great question!
posted by arcticseal at 1:07 PM on February 5, 2009

Best answer:

Treepad for storing the endless myriad of passwords, notes etc. Sync them however you like. Treepad (for Windows) has been extremely stable for me across ... probably a decade now, and even with a decade's worth of cruft, search is as fast as ever.

The file system is pre XML but strongly resembles XML. I consider it to be "the notepad of outliners." It's indispensable to me.

For keeping it secure.

Tasks Jr as a simple to-do list, installed on some web space I have.

Basecamp for project management - the to-do lists are good and the milestones is basically a calendar based to-do list. Highrise for contact management. May be worth the subscription for the advanced features.

To make sure you answer emails promptly - set each to forward to a central account.

Syncback for keeping the offline stuff backed up, uploads to the same web space that I have Tasks Jr hosted on.
posted by Muffy at 2:22 PM on February 5, 2009

(note: I've never used the Mac/Java/Linux version of treepad)
posted by Muffy at 2:25 PM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: Try a private wiki. I've been using DokuWiki for the past six months and at this point I'd be absolutely lost without it. I use my wiki to organize and archive personal information (long-term to-do lists, my CV, research), as well as documents that I use daily in my teaching job (class outlines and plans). My wiki is installed on the same server as my website and is private (password protected, although I wouldn't trust it with sensitive or financial information), and accessible from any web browser. Although DokuWiki isn't as well-supported as some other wiki tools, there are plenty of useful plugins, and as I'm familiar with PHP I've been able to completely customize the code and design to suit my needs. I keep finding new ways to make it more useful - last week I spent some time improving the print stylesheet, and now I can print properly formatted documents (class assignments, etc) straight from my wiki using Firefox, which means I spend a lot less time pasting things into OpenOffice. Having tried MediaWiki, TiddyWiki, and Wordpress, I definitely prefer DokuWiki. I'm not very proficient with MySQL, so I really like that DW stores information in flat text files instead of a database, which means that even if it should somehow break, I can simply use FTP to get my data back. And it has a backup mechanism which I try to use regularly.

Aside from that, I've set up a page on my home computer that I use as my "home" page, sort of like iGoogle but homemade. This has links I use every day, search boxes I use often, and also a few custom tools I've built using PHP and javascript, including an RSS feed reader, a simple to-do list, and a calendar. Having all these tools on one page simplifies things immensely for me. I keep a more limited version of this page on my website, with just the links and search boxes. I haven't put the calendar and other custom tools on the online version yet as I don't want to have to make it secure.

I use Firefox with Adblock, and the Foxmarks add-on to keep my bookmarks in sync. I have just two e-mail addresses, personal and work (if it was possible I'd just have the one Gmail address, but my job requires Outlook). I don't have a cellphone or PDA.

I go through to-do lists like a mad scientist and haven't found anything that I like as much, for daily goals and disposable notes, as a little dollar-store pad of paper.
posted by oulipian at 3:30 PM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Does it also have list, calendar, etc. etc. functions?
Yes to lists (make your own!) and no to calendar. I tend to use it for everything that isn't date-sensitive; the myriad ways of getting data into Evernote is what really appeals to me -- photos (with text recognition), screenshots, desktop app, iPhone app, even by emailing stuff to my Evernote account. If it weren't so ubiquitous, I'm sure I'd use it less.
posted by impluvium at 4:29 PM on February 6, 2009

seconding dokuwiki which I just discovered. SO much easier to use than mediawiki, and so much more geared towards writers, in every way. With fantastic set of plugins. Its actually amazingly easy to do even things like footnotes and tables of content and indexes and searches and sections. Easiest wiki markup I've ever seen. And it can import/export to Open Office (amazing, huh?) and pdf's and html. Neat-O. Loving it.
posted by jak68 at 1:09 AM on February 12, 2009

Response by poster: Following up! Rather personal and me-specific but I wanted to get back to all of the fantastic replies and ideas in this thread. I haven't had time to explore all of these yet.

Remember the Milk is fantastic, but it took about three hours of learning how it works to get into it. Its offline features are especially attractive when my Internet connection gets buggy. There are some great articles on working with RTM and Getting Things Done (which I know next to nothing about) that have helped me ratchet up my RTM usefulness by factors.

Gmail is now consolidating all of my e-mail addresses. It's... interesting. I'm not sure I like having them all dumped in the same place, but that's probably because I'm just accustomed to this being my personal stuff, this being project stuff, etc. I'm aware I can customize labels and folders to address this and may do so shortly.

DokuWiki looks cool. I used ZuluPad for a while, and even upgraded to Pro, but it couldn't handle Mac export to the server after a certain (modest) file size and the developer had no apparent interest in fixing the problem, so I dropped it. Unfortunately for Doku, I don't want to get into Apache installs on the multiple computers I use (especially at work), and the on-a-stick version only works with Windows computers. Other cross-platform wiki-on-a-stick things might fit the bill, though.

I've also found that my mind tends to sprawl when I'm given something as open-ended as a Wiki -- my ZuluPad wound up being an unnavigable sea of links, ideas, notes, factoids, math, figures, snippets of HTML and CSS, and so on. Constrained task managers like RTM and what I've seen of Tasks/Tasks Jr. are better for me personally to organize with -- I need to make lists and set deadlines, and the ability to make notes ad inifinitum just turns things messy in the end.

Notezilla: again, I need a Windows/Mac cross-compatible solution.

37 Signals looks cool but is "too much gun" for my current needs...

Tasks Jr. is very nice but more restricted than RTM. It DOES have the advantage of not being cloud-based, and I like that privacy/control. I strongly suspect that if RTM ever goes hinky or adopts a pay model or starts throwing ads at me, I'll move over to Tasks.

Emacs/Planner looks like a fantastic new hobby I don't have time to delve into.

Evernote/Surfulater look really cool too, but remembering cool stuff I've seen on the Web isn't my top problem -- they do seem to have other task/management applications, but secondary to the "remember where you saw stuff and what was in it" organizational capacities. I'm focusing more on the organization-first stuff like RTM and Tasks and putting the Web-memory apps on a second tier for when I've got things more or less organized.
posted by Shepherd at 7:58 AM on February 12, 2009

I agree with you about sprawling when using wikis. I tend to prefer old fashioned folders. But dokuwiki is different there too. It has namespaces (which are -- folders, literally so; when you create a namespace you've just created a folder on the disk). You can nest them just like folders, and put articles in them just like folders.
Then you can put a navigable table of contents on the front page of the wiki. Or pop open the index which looks just like a folder-tree. Its really different as far as wikis go. I'm still learning about it but so far so good.
posted by jak68 at 2:21 PM on February 12, 2009

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