Adding Structure through Top Level Items

By Tom Hoots

Most new users of EccoPro follow a common path: they make outlines! Because outlines are EccoPro's most obvious feature, many new users conclude that EccoPro uses an outline approach to information management, so they dive right in and make a bunch of complicated, multi-level outlines.

However, many users soon become frustrated with their outlines, because they can't do some things that they had been able to do in other PIMs, such as sorting tasks by priority. In this tutorial, I'll show you the steps you can take to avoid this kind of frustration.

TLI's in a single view

The picture below shows a simple outline in an EccoPro notepad, with a typical Priority column. You might notice that the items under each project have assignments in the Priority column, but they certainly aren't sorted in the priorities to which they have been assigned! EccoPro can't sort all the high priority items together, because they are subitems belonging to different parents. So, if you would like a prioritized list of the tasks in this outline, EccoPro can't give it to you.

Unless, that is, you reconsider your approach to building your notepad! Here is the principle I found that made EccoPro much more powerful for me: Removing structure from outline levels and putting it into columns gives items the freedom to serve in multiple contexts.

To illustrate this principle, take a look at the figure below, which shows the same information, in a slightly different format. Notice how the items are no longer under the "Seattle Project" and "Portland Project" outline levels? They are now top-level items, (or "TLI's," as many EccoPro users have come to call them). Notice how the project categorization is now made in a new Project column, rather than the outline levels as in the first figure. Putting the project categorization into that Project column allowed me to sort this view first by Priority, then by Project, with the two keys of EccoPro's Sort function.

Both columns in this view are pop-up lists, which sort in the order that the values appear on the lists. Therefore, High priority items sort above Medium priority items, which sort above Low priority items. For the Project column, I decided that the Seattle project was more important than the Portland project. So, by sorting on Priority as key 1, and Project as key 2, I produced a list that shows all of the tasks in proper priority order, with tasks in any priority level assigned to the Seattle project appearing above ones assigned to the Portland project. This is a very simple and effective method of organizing information!

Perhaps, though, you still would like to see the tasks the way they appeared in the first figure, in the context of Projects, rather than Priority. Well... no problem! Simply sort the tasks with Project as key 1, and you might as well go ahead and sort on Priority as key 2. Take a look at the result at the right, which shows a list of tasks sorted together for each project. Also note that, within each project, they are still sorted by priority. So, this list is even better than the outline in the first figure, since it has the added ability to be sorted by priority within projects, unlike that outline.

Now, I guess it takes some time to get comfortable with seeing your structural context in columns, rather than in outline levels. Certainly, there isn't quite the visual distinction you get with outline levels. But once you get used to it, and as you begin to comprehend the advantages to having your structure reside in folders and columns, you may never go back to just making outlines again!

TLI's across multiple views

So far, we have only been working with items showing in different contexts within the same notepad. But EccoPro becomes much more powerful for you when you start using the same items throughout your file, in different contexts in different views. Let's give our simple Ecco file a bit of a "makeover," and start working within different views.

Here's a new "Seattle Project" notepad. When this project gets complicated with many tasks, it will help to have all of the items showing in one view, separate from all other views. You could create a similar new "Portland Project" notepad.

Here is EccoPro's PhoneBook view, with some new columns.

The figure below shows a new "Tasks" notepad, which gathers items from all of the new views: items from the "Seattle Project" view, other items from the "Portland Project" view, and names from the PhoneBook view. Any item from any of those views can be assigned to the "Tasks" view by simply clicking on the "Tasks" column in any view. Thus, the "Tasks" view serves as a "focus" view, which collects the items you may wish to pull out from any view in your file, and handle them "today," or "this week," as you prefer.

You may have noticed several new columns in the last few views. In the Tasks notepad, you'll find a new Projects column, which simply shows whether items originated in the Seattle Project view or in the "Portland Project" view. This is generally referred to as a multifolder column. You will also notice that, while the Priority column appears once again, it has gained two new values: Call and Left Msg. These work with any PhoneBook items you may assign to the Tasks view from the PhoneBook view. Call appears at the top of the Priority list, and Left Msg appears at the bottom. This way, the calls you need to make will sort to the top of the list, and calls for which you are waiting for a reply will sort to the bottom of the list.

You will also notice a new SubProject column. As all of the projects get more complicated with more tasks, it will help to divide them up into sub-categories. So, you'll see SubProject column values for each of the companies involved in the projects, and another value for the Building issues for the projects. I have also added the To-Do's folder to this view as a column. If you need to schedule a task into your EccoPro Calendar, you can do it via this column, without leaving your Tasks notepad.

And, finally, you'll notice the Tasks column, even in the Tasks notepad. In the other views around the file, the Tasks column will assign items to the Tasks view. In the Tasks view itself, the column gives you the option to uncheck it for an item, which will make it disappear from the Tasks view, though the item will, of course, remain in the notepad from which it originated.

You will see that all of the other new views include the same columns as the Tasks view -- excepting the Projects column, which is unnecessary in the project views themselves. All of the columns work just as I have already described -- they are the same columns, after all! Each of the two new project views, plus the new Tasks view, may be sorted in a similar fashion to the old TLI Approach view. Now, the sort would usually be with Priority as key 1, and SubProject as key 2. Again, this order could be reversed if you wanted to see things more in order by SubProject.

Finally, here's the weekly EccoPro Calendar view, to prove that the items assigned To-Do's dates in the Tasks and Project notepads actually made it into the Calendar.

So: Why TLIs?

I hope you'll agree that the concept of building "structure" into column values, rather than into outline levels, will allow you to build a very powerful Ecco file that will meet your information management requirements. I hope you'll also find that, by using this concept, EccoPro can handle even complex situations in a manner that is actually quite easy to use and understand. The key that makes this possible is giving items the freedom to move around as needed, rather than burying them beneath outline levels, from which they cannot be removed.

Outline level structure makes items show in only one context -- but if you place that structure into folders and column values, the items can "take their structure with them" and can easily appear in different contexts and different views. If you make use of this powerful idea, then you are truly using the power of EccoPro!