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TaskPaper 1.0, a review

Scott McNulty

I am known for many things amongst my circle of friends: my rapier-like wit, my roguish good-looks, and my humility. The one thing that I am assuredly not known for is being organized. I lose things all the time; I forget people's birthdays and I can never seem to recall what I need to do on a given day.

Good thing there is a whole cottage industry developing around the concept of "Getting Things Done." The idea behind GTD (as the Getting Things Done wonks call it) is to create a framework around your tasks which enables you to succeed in getting those things done. Sadly, it just doesn't work for me. I get so lost in the details of creating the "System" that will supposedly let me accomplish my goals, that I never spend any time actually doing anything, other than figuring out what I have to do. That's why, time after time, I return to the age old method: a handwritten To Do list. It works like a charm every time, and creating one (which I do in a hierarchical fashion with several To Do's each having multiple tiers of sub-To Do's under them) is simple enough that it takes mere minutes to set up, and is flexible enough that one can track any small to medium scale project with it (assuming, of course, that the project doesn't involve too many folks).

There have been a slew of GTD-focused apps introduced on the Mac in the last few years. I've looked at each with the hope that they would free me from my disorganized shackles, supplanting my paper for something more technologically advanced. Each has failed me. That's not to say they are bad apps, they are just too complicated for my rather simple needs. I thought all hope was lost, and that's when I met TaskPaper.

TaskPaper, from Hog Bay Software, is my favorite new app of 2007 (Skitch is also high up there, but it is still in beta. Shipping has its privileges). TaskPaper, as the name suggests, offers itself up as a replacement for pen and paper in your organizational world. Shockingly, it has convinced me to give up my paper based list once and for all. Read on to find out why.

TaskPaper's interface is simple and to the point, as is the structure of a TaskPaper file itself. You have projects, shown underlined and in bold, and under those projects you have tasks which, in turn, can have sub-tasks (as shown in the screenshot above). These tasks exist by themselves; there's no any way to link a task to another, or set a due date. TaskPaper's strength is that it lets you focus on crossing out those tasks instead of building a self-referential web of unfinished business which separates you from the cold, harsh reality of all the work you need to do.

That's not to say that TaskPaper doesn't have some features influenced by the cult of GTD and Web 2.0. Everyone's favorite buzzword is in full effect in TaskPaper: tags. You can tags your tasks by hitting a space and typing an '@' followed by whatever tag you want. If I had a task called 'Blog about cool stuff,' and I wanted to tag it TUAW I would simply insert a space and then type '@TUAW'. TaskPaper keeps track of all the tags you use, and offers to auto-complete tags based on that history with a helpful popup menu (pictured to the right).

I'm something of a tag curmudgeon, so it is odd for me to actually enjoy tagging, but TaskPaper has done the improbable: it's made me tag more. The tags, you see, aren't just there for fun. If you click on any given tag TaskPaper switches to a search view listing all the tasks that have that tag, no matter what project they're under. The built-in search view isn't limited to just tags, it can also be used to search for any text string. It'll look at all your tasks and return those that match, and it's fast (more on this in a second).

One of the most satisfying aspects of keeping a To Do list on paper is the act of crossing off task that you have accomplished. It makes you feel like you're earning your keep, and TaskPaper doesn't rob you of that. Once you've finished a task you simply click on the circle next to it, the circle fills in, and the task is crossed off. Some people might fault TaskPaper's default behavior of not automatically hiding completed tasks. Instead, you must manually Archive the tasks, but I think that is the right choice. I enjoy filling my task list with crossed out items; it makes me feel important, and gives me a sense of accomplishment (yes, I am a sad little man). Archived tasks are hidden from view, but still come up in search results.

Finally, let's talk file format, shall we? TaskPaper uses a fornat called 'TaskPaperDocumentType.' Some might be rolling their eyes and thinking, 'not another proprietary file format!' I'm happy to report that every TaskPaperDocument is merely a plain text file with a fancy extension (so one can associate the file with TaskPaper without having to open every text file it). If you were to open my TUAW To Do list in a text editor you would see this

That's it. TaskPaper is a custom viewer for text formatted in a particular way. Not only does this make TaskPaper both portable and extensible, but it makes it fast. Everything you do in TaskPaper happens instantly: searching, editing, opening a file. This app is smokin' fast.

Thanks to the use of plain text you can create or consume TaskPaper formated text in a number of interesting ways. The Hog Bay Software site lists a few options, including:

Ahh, the power of open formats (and the minty fresh taste of plain text)!

Just in case you couldn't read between the lines of this review, I heartily recommend TaskPaper to anyone who is looking for a simple app to track To Do lists. This app isn't for everyone, as Merlin Mann points out, but it will cover the vast majority of people's needs.

TaskPaper is available at an introductory price of $18.95, and there is a free trial available. Check out the release notes and see what TaskPaper can help you do today.

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