Task management using the shell and dmenu

Or else why I uninstalled Taskwarrior

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I came up with my own solution to managing my task list. Yes, there probably are a zillion such approaches in the libre software world. And yes, mine is not the best of the bunch. But I am happy with what I got, so I might as well share my experience.

It all starts with the realisation that a task list is just a plain text file. You do not need a spreadsheet or some other type of structured data. Manipulating text is what the terminal is good at. The point is to be able to control everything with standard shell programs, such as cat, sed, grep, sort.

Here is a sample of my task list:

cat ~/.my_task_list

Continue with the work @swätzchen =2019-01-23
This should pop up first =2016-12-21
Contact <person> @chat =2019-01-22
Another test @dots =2017-01-20
Date is not added @dots
this task starts with a lower case letter

I can add items to the list by editing the file. Such as:

  • By using Vim or another text editor.
  • Or by appending some text directly echo 'string' >> ~/.my_task_list.

As this is plain text, no markup is needed, no further requirements. Just write.

Managing the task list

Writing to a file is only the beginning. Now we get to manipulate that text. Some examples are in order.

Print the contents of the file and capitalise the first letter on each sentence:

cat ~/.my_task_list | sed 's/\(^[a-z]\)/\U\1/'

Continue with the work @swätzchen =2019-01-23
This should pop up first =2016-12-21
Contact <person> @chat =2019-01-22
Another test @dots =2017-01-20
Date is not added @dots
This task starts with a lower case letter

Print only the tasks that have a due date assigned to them. Also sort numerically and put the date at the beginning of the line:

grep -e '=[0-9-]*' ~/.my_task_list | sed 's/\(^.*\) =\([0-9-]*\)/\2: \1/g' | sort -g

2016-12-21: This should pop up first
2017-01-20: Another test @dots
2019-01-22: Contact <person> @chat
2019-01-23: Continue with the work @swätzchen

Sort and display tasks that match a specific string or pattern:

grep -e '^This\|^this' ~/.my_task_list

This should pop up first =2016-12-21
this task starts with a lower case letter

You get the idea… It is new to me, so I might figure out more use cases and better ways of doing things. Everything will be made clear in time as I believe I am on the right track.

Simple formatting

While everything is plain text, we can still use typographic symbols to give a sense of structure and assign meaning to different parts of the string.

This is particularly useful for printing the data in a different format than its original. Such as what I did in the example above where I got the tasks with a date assigned to them. The date appears first and then the task description, even though the actual file has the date after the task’s description.

Without any kind of structure we find ourselves more limited in what we can do. Adding a few minor things here and there can help us greatly. As such, I follow this pattern for marking my tasks:

<description> @<context> #<tag> =<date in YYYY-MM-DD>

I usually need only the <description>. Every other piece of “meta-data” is added in that given order, so that the context always precedes the tag, which always precedes the date.

Introducing a couple of scripts

To further improve my workflow, I just finished writing two scripts that iterate on my task list file:

  • The first is stm, the Simplistic Task Manager which is a wrapper for the scenaria I showcased above. So I can run stm to get a list of my pending tasks; stm due to show those with a due date; and stm list <string> to search for something specific.
  • The second is stmmenu, which is a dmenu tool that displays a list with all my tasks. If I select an existing item, it is removed from the list. If I type something new, it is appended to the list.

While stm is meant to be used in the terminal, stmmenu is invoked with a hotkey. Need to quickly write down a task? Press the key binding and start typing <description> @context #tag =<date>. Done!

These new scripts are part of my dotfiles. Look inside the “bin” directory. Note though that I plan to review them, so things might change in the future.

“Do one thing and do it well”

Plain text. Standard shell utilities. A user-defined methodology for writing things. Minimal. Super effective.

I am so satisfied with the results that I have completely removed task (aka “Taskwarrior”) from my workflow. That tool has served me well over the last couple of years or so, but I always felt it offered more than I ever needed. Or it tried to perform too many specialised functions outside the narrow confines of controlling a task list. Something was amiss.

Now I have found solace in the simplest of tools which, rather unsurprisingly, involve the application of UNIX principles and use of relevant commands.