Like many of you, I have been trying to come up with an optimal system for implementing GTD using Outlook and a palm pilot. For a while I experimented with projects-as-contacts, but I've moved away from this method because Chapura KeySuite, which is necessary to use the system on the Palm, is both too expensive and quite slow on my aging Palm Vx. (Besides, there is certain awkwerdness to this method, even apart from the palm end of things.) The only thing that seems to work well on my old palm are the built-in applications, so I needed to figure out a way to use these effectively.
A few weeks ago, I came up with a system that I wanted to share with people on this forum, in hope that it might help others struggling with the same issue. The system is not perfect, but it works well, and it manages to overcome some of Outlook's project management weeknesses, while maintaining compatibility with default palm databases.
The main issue with implementing GTD in Outlook is that there is no obvious way to implement project-actions relationships that are at the heart of GTD. Outlook neither has nested to-dos, nor the ability to link different to-dos to each other. The only items that allow linking in Outlook are contacts, but there are reasons why using these for projects is not an optimal solution. It would be desirable to keep projects as to-dos, so that one can have both projects and next actions in the same module in Outlook, making switching between them easier and quicker. The problem here is to figure out a way to somehow connect projects and next actions that belong to them, using the rather limited built-in to-do manager.
The solution I came up with is a combination of two main elements: a standardized way of entering projects and actions, and a set of custom views that make use of these naming conventions. While Outlook's to do list is pretty basic, its ability to define custom views is excellent, and with a little ingenuity views can be put to use to get exactly the result we need, virtually connecting projects with their next actions.
Here is how it works. My every project is a task in the category "Projects", with a name consisting of a short name, followed by a description of the project separated with a collon and a period. So I might have something like this: "Laptop: .Organize and clean up data on the laptop" Every action for this project has a very similar title, except that it lacks the period, and is categorized with the appropriate context (@Home, @Computer...). So, for the above project I might have "Laptop: Clean up genres in the music library", or "Laptop: Organize My Documents folder".
What this allows me to do is create a view that lists all projects followed by their actions. You do this by first sorting alphabetically (since the period comes before any letter, the projects will always come before their actions), and then by due date and priority. In addition, it is extremely easy to change the appearence of projects in the view to use a different font or color, to quickly distinguish projects from actions. To do this all one needs to do is change the appearence of items that contain a period. This way projects can become bold or blue, for easy recognition.
Of course, in addition to this view, one can create views that only list actions with due dates, that group actions by contexts, only list projects or focus areas, and so on. All this is standard stuff, and I really have nothing much to add there. What I think is important is this ability to see what actions are there for which projects, which projects have no actions, and which projects one has been doing the most/least work on. This little naming convention allows me to see all this easily, without ever leaving Outlook's to-do list.
Since I am only using standard tasks in outlook, the sync with the palm presents no new problems. Granted, the palm does not provide as sophisticated views as outllok does, but when I am out and about, palm's to do list seems to be perfectly sufficient. It allows me to quickly switch between different categories, it sorts tasks by due date and priority, and it easily feeds back into Outllok since I continue to enter new information using the same conventions I use on the pc. This, I find, is more than enough.
I hope this can help a few people come up with a better way of using outlook's task module. Variations on this theme should be readily apparent. The crucial point is that even small standardization in how one enters data can allow one to take advantage of Outlook's powerful system of views, and produce effects that are extremely hard to achieve otherwise.
Now if I could only figure out if there is any way to reverse Outlook's abnoxious inistance on putting tasks with no due date first when sorting by due date. As far as I know Outlook is the only app on the planet that does this, and I after years of frustration I have still not found a way to change this behavior.