The new iOS application Clear promises to help you get tasks done with its innovative, button free design. After using the application for five days, I can say that it certainly is the best list making app out there. But, list making is not the most effective way to get things done. If you want to make a grocery list where sequence and time don’t matter, go ahead and use Clear. The application designed to really help you get things done is still waiting to be built.
Clear is an exquisite app. I rushed to write about its existence seconds after I downloaded it. It was developed to be as simple as possible and definitely succeeds in doing that. The gestures-only control is awesome, the heat map is beautiful, and using it is genuinely fun. Because of its simplicity, it only thrives at doing one thing: making lists. Making lists will only ever really help to get things done on a micro-level.
Let’s Go Shopping
Let’s take a micro-level situation. Within your weekly schedule (macro), you need to go shopping at some point in time. You pick a specific day (let’s say Tuesday) to get this work done (daily level). In Clear, you have two levels of list hierarchy: list level, and task level. On list level, you could create a list set called Tuesday. But, that would then include everything you need to do on Tuesday, not just the shopping you need to get done. Instead you make a list called “Tuesday—Shopping” and put all the items to purchase in the secondary task level. In Clear, you can easily arrange and rearrange the items so the most important items are on top. (Maybe you have internalized the layout of the store. Then you can order your tasks to trace your path through the aisles.) You’re free to shop and cross things of your task list with the reward of Clear’s great sound effects.
Shopping Isn’t Everything
All of the above works great, so long as you are only shopping at one store. Now, let’s assume you have to go to the grocer and an electronics store. It wouldn’t make sense to put both into the “Tuesday—Shopping” list because you can’t sub-categorize beneath it. Now you make two lists “Tuesday—Shopping, Jewel” and “Tuesday—Shopping, Best Buy.” Great. Now you just add everything to the task level according to whatever arrangement you like, and you can order the two lists in the sequence you plan to go to them. These lists sit next to all your other lists: “Tuesday—Work,” “Tuesday—Home,” “Tuesday—School, Chemistry,” “Tuesday—School, Political Sci,” “Tuesday—Appointments,” “Monday—Work,” “Friday—School, Projects,” and “Thursday—errands.”
Clear is still giving you a nice way to organize things, but the complexity of your life has taken over. Notice how “Tuesday—School, Political Theory” got cutoff at “The.” Many of your tasks from earlier in the week and even the week before are still there too. Not only are they there, but when you open them, there probably is only one or two things in them. It’s up to you to go through those old lists, appraise their contents and re-delegate the tasks to new lists.
You also might have all these highly organized lists, but because you can’t compare the contents between then, you really can’t schedule your day effectively. You know you have tasks to do for “work,” “home,” “chemistry,” “shopping,” and “political theory,” and you have “appointments.” Problematically, you don’t know when anything will occur. When are those specific appointments that you have to schedule everything around? Well, you know they are also in your calendar, so you switch back and forth between your calendar and Clear. You have shopping to do, but no concept of how long that will take. Turns out you also have a sixty-page reading for Political Theory. There simply is no way to look at all your tasks in one view and appraise what you have to do. You can do things as they come or in the arbitrary order you made them in Clear. You’ve now wasted so much time trying to create an organizational system, and the result is just confusion.
Grouping by Day
Let’s still assume you are really keen on using Clear—it’s so pretty after all. You decide it’s okay to have all your tasks for one day in a single list. To deal with confusion, you’ll just preface each entry with a category type. You make an entry for Tuesday try to create the task “Shopping—Best Buy, iPod Nano Cover” but are cut off by the twenty-eight character limit. You re-write it in shorthand: “Shp—BBy—ipdNnoCvr.” It fits. It’s barely intelligible, but it fits.
With shorthand in mind, you proceed to add all your entries and are left with a sequence of near-nonsense characters. It’s not so bad. If you think really hard about each entry, you can figure out what each says. Again, this could work, but it’s less than ideal. Your list is now unfathomably long. To get to your reading assignment, you have to scroll past ten entries starting with “Shp-BBy…” and twenty starting with “Shp—jwl…” You have to scroll up and down constantly because Clear will only show you eight entries on the screen at a time. On top of that, everything is written in a non-codified shorthand, you’re bound to miss things.
Verbs. They’re What You Do
You’re at wits’ end but you want to give Clear one more go. It’s time to accept it isn’t feasible to put multiple days into Clear’s two-level system. After doing some careful thinking about how to organize your day, you decide to make the list level contain verbs describing what you need to do: “read,” “solve,” “shop,” “watch,” “write,” “go to,” etc. On the task level you put down everything that fits under a corresponding verb. To avoid confusion, you add a shorthand category to each item. When you’re in a certain verb, you can sort based on which will take the most time. Under “read” you put all the longer readings or the readings you need to complete for the next day at the top. Because you assume all tasks in Clear are to be completed on the day you view them, you don’t have to worry about searching for old work that you might have made the week before—it’s still under your verb list.
Feeling particularly great at how you managed to crack the system, you can relax and enjoy Clear’s awesome interface to get things done! Swollen with pride, you commit completely to the system out for a couple of days.
It’s difficult to prioritize what needs to get done first and when to do it. You put the “read” list at the top and “shop” at the bottom only to discover that you never get down to “shop” or even to “solve.” Tasks are incomplete left and right but it’s hard to find what you’ve missed. You had a problem set and reading for Chemistry but only got the problem set done because you assumed it was your only work for that class. Not only that, but also data entry is confusing. One category is being split into multiple verbs and you keep losing track.
You’ve become paranoid that you’re always missing something. Before you start one task, you open up all the other verb lists to make sure there isn’t something more pressing that needs to get done. You find a really old assignment still lingering around the “read” list but can’t remember when it’s from or when it’s due. It has been two weeks since you ran out of toothpaste, and you have yet to find time to buy more. Your list of verbs has gone absolutely insane because you encountered things you didn’t know how to label. The “smell,” list is more pressing than the “eat” list, right?
Not a Cure-All
Hypothetical situations aside, Clear does have some purpose for the micro-level of getting things done. It is a listing application, and it handles lists in the best way I have ever seen. The application is inexorably interwoven with multi-touch and mobile DNA. It’s really easy to use and sensible to look at. If you want an application to make lists, Clear is the best you’ll get for 99 cents.
That’s it though. It is just a list making app. Clear will not solve your organizational problems and doesn’t have the capacity to replace a comprehensive getting things done system. If you need to make a parts list, a grocery list, or a list of bands to listen to—lists that require no context, prioritization, or scheduling—Clear is a definite solution for you.
Update: Lest I appear to be a basher of organizational systems, I plan to follow up this article with one describing my Newportian method for getting things done.
Image Credits: Blake J. Graham