Today I want to talk about the idea behind Astrid, part two in my ongoing assessment of the project and process.
What was the idea behind Astrid?
My biggest complaint with todo list applications and websites is that they simply are not annoying enough to be useful. Once upon a time, I signed up for Joe’s Goals, a website that allows you to track your progress on your goals. Guess what happened? After a few days, I stopped visiting Joe’s Goals, and that was the end of that. If you don’t look at your todo list, it can’t help you. To be fair, Joe did e-mail me a few times, but those went straight for the trash when I got busy.
On the other hand, one of my most effective todo lists was a big long Word document. It was my journal, and I kept all of my todo’s at the top, right before the latest entry. Because I would look at my list every single day when I journaled, I would eventually get so annoyed by seeing the same tasks every day that I eventually did them (it usually took about two weeks). Having finished one long-standing todo, I would usually go ahead and finish a few more. This was a really effective system. I use the same system for my e-mail inbox: e-mails I have replied to / that are not actionable are moved into subfolders, so just the ones I need to do something about are in my inbox. I see them every time I check my mail, so I theoretically do them. One of my biggest gripes with this system, however, is that once the todo’s start piling up, I become paralyzed by indecision and unwilling to do anything but skip over them.
These experiences led me to two fundamental values that have guided Astrid:
Squeakiness – as humans, we put up filters to allow us to process one thing at a time. Unfortunately, what we’re currently doing might not be the most important thing that we have to do. An effective todo list has to break through these filters to get our attention, presenting information in a way that cannot be pattern-matched and thrown into the garbage. It needs to do this frequently enough that the cost of doing the task becomes outweighed by the cost of ignoring the reminder. This is the principle behind nagging, and guess what? It works.
Information Hiding – again, as humans, we can only process so much at one time. The rest is useless to us, and actually hinders productivity. If you can only do one task at a time, why would you need to see 20? That’s just excessive and takes away focus from the one that you optimally should be doing. It leads to information overload / paralysis. Furthermore, certain tasks are not actionable, and you should not worry about them until they are.
How does Astrid do?
So far, I have walked a fine line between squeaky and annoying. When Astrid is annoying, you just want to throw your phone into the toilet. When she is squeaky, you are reminded just when you have forgotten about the task, and it stays in your consciousness until you do it.
Ideally, people should strive for an empty task list, and reminders are an appropriate interruption that let you know that the world is not as it should be. However, people use Astrid for different things, so I have made a rather extensive alerts page, which looks like this:
There are options for everyone. If you just need to be reminded of something, you can choose to be reminded “Every day”. If you want to do something at a certain time, you can set that up, and if you want to be warned when your deadline approaches, that’s possible too. My biggest complaint here is that you can see the name of the task when Astrid delivers the alert, which means that you can delete it very easily if you don’t feel like doing it. I am going to need to find a way to fix this =)
This is the problem. Everyone wants to use this application in a different way, but I don’t want to make it overly complex, with options left and right. What happens when you build an application and try to please everyone?
Is this bad? Actually, wget is an amazingly useful application exactly because it is so flexible. So I’m not sure.
To wrap this up before it gets too late, I realize that I am basically fighting against the human subconscious by writing Astrid, and I need to continually work the cat & mouse game… otherwise, it’s easy to drop Astrid into the bin of neglect when things get busy and never pick her up again.
Maybe I need to remind people to look at Astrid every once in a while =) She’s getting some attention for now, at least – this past week I was estimated the #88 top downloaded Android application!