The toolbox: ThinkingRock 2

About Personal Productivity

I am always on the lookout for personal productivity tools.  And it is very difficult to have any interest in this area without having, at some stage, stumbled over the "Getting Things Done" book by David Allen. 

Whenever this topic comes up, I always give people the following backgrounders – and perhaps not surprisingly it all comes from the person who is fast becoming my favourite blogger of ‘stuff you can use’ – Leo Babauta. 

Leo has a beginner’s guide to Getting Things Done, and even gives some hints about how he does it through his own GTD implementation.  And as a man who thinks things through and gets it right, he has even come up with a slight variation on GTD – Zen to Done – which recognises that GTD is all very well and good for us who like to spend all day processing our inbox, but there is a path to enlightenment that must be trod.

Zen Habits is Leo’s blog, and although I’ve only been following it for a while it is a lifesaver so far.  Anyway, enough fanatical zen – more about ThinkingRock. 


ThinkingRock is the application that, on the basis of my research (OK, Google), most closely follows the GTD approach.  You can do GTD with GTDInbox, and you can do it with Outlook and all sorts of other tools,  but they all seem to make compromises and they don’t work as well in my view (perhaps subjects of later posts).  ThinkingRock is actually an Australian effort (Claire and Jeremy seem to be in Sydney, so we’re practically neighbours with only 1200 kilometres separating us), and is threatening to go open source very soon.  I have been using the software for about six weeks, and – if I can build myself up to the good habits espoused by David Allen and Leo and the like – there is a good chance that this perhaps may be the most productive personal productivity software of all time.  Like all these things, though getting the rhythm and the habits is very important – the software is a tool, it isn’t the answer. 

I should point that the software I am reviewing is the Epsilon version of Thinking Rock 2 (TR2).  There is a Thinking Rock 1, which is the current ‘live’ version but also the one around which there seems to be ‘no buzz’ any more – I believe it is the rock-solid, complete, mature software and all its major functionality has been included in TR2. 

The software is written in java and as a result is multi-platform (so works for people of all kinds – Apple, Linux, and the evil evil Micro$ofters 🙂 such as myself).  The files are stored in a local XML file, which makes the system very portable (in fact, apparently many people run it from a thumbdrive, although I have never been confident that I can keep the files in synch using this approach – I have a laptop and Blackberry for portability. 

To me, major issues with most of these productivity applications is the following:

  • Remote access (with me all the time)
  • Carry over of tasks ‘not done today’ – most systems force you to reschedule those tasks you didn’t get done yesterday to a new date.
  • Simple addition of a task to be done then and there
  • Ability to reorganise your tasks and manipulate them into multiple lists.
  • Coordinating with multiple people


The screenshot below shows the opening screen of Thinking Rock, and it is very clear and helpful – this is built around the GTD specific approach. 

Importing from an existing task list was excellent – a simple text file that import as individual tasks.  Projects then need to be created and managed from these lists.

All the components of a GTD system are there:

  • Future Tickles
  • Information Repository
  • Contexts
  • Projects
  • Topics
  • Status
  • Priority

As I say, a very complete implementation of GTD.

Remote Access

Remote access can only be addressed through using a thumb drive approach or lugging about a laptop.  Perhaps you could set up a net-drive to handle your xml file.  Again – sounds terrifying for what is after all my life.

Still, there are some good reports available to carry around so perhaps that’s how I should address this and leave processing for later on.

Carry Over of Tasks

The Tickle function is very good – an item either ends up as information or a future tickle (reminder) of the job to be done.  And if your productivity is driven by having a list that gets ticked off, you will be very effective using Thinking Rock.

So very good in this area – which is a wonder compared to all other tools I’ve flirted with.

Simple addition of tasks

GTDInbox was very good for helping you process your inbox – you simply emailed off a task to the system and then processed it.  However there are a couple of flaws using that approach – for instance, multiple emails relating to a single task.  ThinkingRock forces a manual re-compilation of the task, but it is amazingly efficient to simply tap F6 and add a thought for later processing – ensures that you don’t have to stop and do the whole thing then and there – you simply collect thoughts and process later (and, I love that it combines with the Tickles so your morning habit becomes to collect your thoughts and then process them – and you’ll process your Tickle file at the same time). 

Reorganise and create multiple task lists.

Using the projects, priority and status components for each task, you can quickly create lists of tasks to ensure focus.  A very useful tool and filter system.

Coordinating with multiple people

GTD and therefore ThinkingRock are personal productivity tools – therefore coordination with other people doesn’t come into it.  Tasks come in via email or other sources, and they are added to this system by yourself.  There is no integration with team productivity software and such things as MS Project Manager or such like (although you could easily import a text file.

So although it has a space for delegating tasks, you’ll be doing it manually.

Highlights:  Pros and Cons

  • Simple and effective
  • Very GTD-focussed and forces a GTD regime upon the user.  That’s either a pro or a con depending on you.
  • Effectiveness is very dependent upon developing good personal habits – but the same is true for all systems.
  • Separates the task from the tools needed to create a task – so ‘read and comment upon this paper’ is a task but you can’t embed the document in the task (there is a file link though that you can point it to so requires good information management).  This makes it difficult to do tasks anywhere if the work associated with the task is on an inaccessible server.
  • A very active project team – Claire and Jeremy have done an excellent job with limited resources.  As an open source project it will hopefully now have sufficient head of steam to be an actively developed project.
  • Quite robust – I am fast finally becoming a convert to the reliability of java applications.


Excellent software, a very good tool, very useful in helping people get organised.  Does need you to develop those good habits so I would focus on using ThinkingRock to develop those good habits and move on from there.