Finally giving up on PDAs

I have been one of the early adopters of PDAs. I had a pocket computer always with me circa 1985. I have been a PalmOS user for about 7 years now. But the sorry state of the market, the much improved free online offerings (such as Google Calendar), and the wider availability of WiFi make PDAs less attractive.

I figured out that I can safely have roaming access to my calendar, mail, todos, and so on, at a tiny cost, online. I nearly never work without a computer, and if any computer is good enough to give me access to my data, why carry a PDA?

Well, there is one need that online applications cannot fill. Sometimes, I really just want to jot down an idea, or an appointment, and I do not have a computer with me. Oddly, I am often at a meeting and there is no WiFi available. Or sometimes, I have a nice work-related idea, but I am shopping for milk. Or sometimes, I am at work, and I recall that I must go shop for milk. But for jotting down something in a hurry, paper does the job. I will go back in time to 20 years ago when I used to carry a small (paper) notebook in my pocket. Paper is cheap, quick, efficient, it does not need to be recharged, and so on.

Ah! But here is the real twist. I will not manage my data with paper. Paper is the expendable part of my system. You just collect the random information on paper, and then you later sort it out in digital form where it remains in a more permanent and manageable form. Have you ever tried creating a backup of a paper calendar? What about searching for a meeting by keywords (did I have ever meet with John Borzak?)?

I am already an avid user of online applications including wikis, blogs, Web-based mail client and calendaring applications (Google’s), version control systems (subversion), and so on. This has already allowed me to be a roaming computer user: I can just go from my home computer, to my laptop, to my office computer, and always have all of my data at hand. The nice thing about such a setting is that you also do away with the need for backups, since you are constantly backing up remotely your data as part of the process.

In any case, I’ll let you know how my new paper-based approach goes. Give me a few weeks.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

4 thoughts on “Finally giving up on PDAs”

  1. For years, I missed my (stolen) Newton MessagePad 2100. I tried a Palm, but all that did was screw up my handwriting (just now recovering). OK, to be fair, it beeped at me when I had meetings, and could sync with my computer, so it was usable.

    Then I spent a nice amount of time with and a hipster PDA (Actually, I guess a “mini-hipster”: a single folded 3×5 card with microscopic print. I’m not that hip.)

    Now, I’ve switched to an iPhone and web apps. I installed Tasks on a web server I have access to, and my data is accessible and modifiable everywhere. My wife can even email me things to do and they get added to the system. Well, maybe that’s not an advantage.

  2. Well, your iPhone will only serve you well within the USA because they are not supported in Canada, for one thing. I’d probably own an iPhone right now if they did.

    This being said, my current setup is similar.

    I carry a low-tech analog solution which is just a pocket notepad. I don’t actually use it as an organizer, it is merely a collection tool. Things collected there will either end up on my calendar or my GTD to-do list.

    I now use my Calendar exclusively for meetings. I use Google Calendar. It is on the Web and (in theory) my wife could have access to it.

    Then, I have this GTD todo list that I created using an XML file. The file itself is stored in a CVS server, so it is available from anywhere. It is highly sophisticated in the following sense: projects are organized into goals and I distinguish between “actions” and “next actions”.

    Here are some important points:

    1) Having your projects organized into goals forces you to have goals, to keep them up to date, and to figuring out what you are doing to achieve your goals. You start to see patterns in the various things you do. My goals are very high level, like “unify the laws of physics”.

    2) Organizing actions into projects is obviously useful because it avoid the “one-big-stressful” list syndrome. Because I am a researcher and professor, and not an administrative assistant, some of my “actions” are pretty high level like “implement this algorithm”. I find the decomposing the projects into more actions than necessary is wasteful.

    3) Throwing everything in the calendar is crazy. I invariably end up with “clusters” where I have too many things to do. Then I have to push back my tasks further into the future. In any case, for many reasons, mixing to-dos, reminders and meetings on a single calendar ends up being a source of stress.

    4) My current setup is pretty much stress-free. What I carry with me is a temporary collection of notes and to-dos which I am in the habit of throwing away once I got around to classify it. My calendar is pretty empty. My to-do lists are also pretty thin: I rarely see all of the actions I need to do, I only view the “next actions”. (Since I maintain my to-do file as an XML file, you can imagine how I achieve this feat…).

    The important thing is to setup a system and come to trust it, and get most reminders out of your face, most of the time.

    I think that a PDA ends up being a source of stress.

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