One of the modifications that I’ve made to MLO is to add some custom status icons so that I can scan the list and get a quick visual indication of what is going on with each task.  This is especially useful in the MLO Outline tab where I usually do not apply any filtering (see the screenshot below).  Some of these icons were inspired by the tool Tudumo which looked great with a clean UI but didn’t have some of the features I needed (e.g. mobile apps).  The other inspiration was the need to have a hard/strict status for each task which also helps me set up my views/filters.  In the MLO To-Do tab, I generally use custom views with similar logic to filter the tasks by state and create partitioned lists. (I will share more on To-Do views in a future post.)

For me, a task can be in one of a handful of states: [!] Hot, [A] Active, [H] Hold/Scheduled, [SM] Someday/Maybe, [WF] Delegated/Waiting For, [C] Complete, or [X] Dropped.  It can alternatively be designated as a [P] Project (i.e. not a “task”).  The hot and active states are fairly self-explanatory.  I generally follow the “active” definition used by MLO, and identify “hot” tasks with a star + a “NOW” context.  For active tasks, the icon is a green LED.  For hot tasks it is a red LED.

If a task is on hold, it gets a pause icon similar to what you might see on a CD or MP3 player.  These tasks are scheduled for some date in the future and will automagically switch to the active or hot state when the scheduled date arrives.  Until then, there is no need to look at them and I generally filter them out of my views.  Think of these tasks as comprising your 43-folder tickler file a la GTD.

Someday/Maybe tasks are a bit different than scheduled/hold tasks. Someday/Maybe tasks have no due date.  Also, to keep them from appearing in MLO “active” lists, I set the start date to 5000d (5000 days or 13.7 years into the future).  These show up in their own Someday/Maybe To-Do view and get periodically reviewed during my weekly review process.  As needed, I manually promote them to active tasks during the weekly review.  The icon for Someday/Maybe tasks is a fluffy cloud.

Tasks in the “Waiting For” state have an icon with a small person indicating I am waiting on someone else to do something.  These are usually indicated with the context of “@WaitingFor” or more commonly with a context of @WF-XX where “XX” is replaced with the initials of the person working on the task.  This is very handy during 1-on-1 meetings or status reviews.  Whenever I am meeting with someone I will quickly scan the appropriate @WF list in MLO to see what they owe me or what items I may need to discuss with that person.

Complete and Dropped tasks are both marked complete in MLO, and both result in a grey/unlit LED icon.  It’s good to periodically prune your task list and drop items that are no longer important or that you know you’ll never do.  Sometimes, I may need to resurrect a set of dropped tasks if, for example, a canceled project comes back.  To make them easier to find, I prepend {X} to the beginning of the task prior to marking it complete.  This allows me to search for dropped tasks and distinguish them from completed tasks.

Projects and folders do not get status icons.  For active projects, I color the entire line in light blue so that it stands out as a sort of header in the MLO Outline tab.  This creates clear separation between a project and its subordinate tasks.  It also serves as a visual reminder for which MLO items are tasks vs. projects in case I forget to set it correctly in the properties pane.  Inactive projects get a similar treatment, but with grey coloring.

All of the icons and logic are set up in MLO by going to the Tools > Options menu.  Select “Automatic Formatting” then click the “Automatic Formatting Rules…” button to bring up a dialog similar to the one shown below.  You can painstakingly create each one by adding a rule and then assigning the condition, format, and icon.  I have, however, created an export of my auto-format rules which you can download here.  Note that this is a standard file exported directly from MLO.  It is text/XML only so there is no executable code or anything that can harm your computer.   After you unzip it, you can open this in a text editor to view the contents if you like, but I would not recommend trying to edit it directly.  Note that you will see large blocks of gibberish in some of the XML fields.  Those blocks are the actual custom icons encoded and embedded in the .mlaf file.

Save the .mlaf file somewhere on your computer where you can easily find it.  Next, click the “Import…” button, select the file you downloaded, and click “Open”.  You should see a message that says “11 Autoformat rule(s) have been imported”.    Since you likely already have some rules, these 11 will be added to your current list.  Unfortunately MLO seems to add them by default to the top of the list.  Note that the order of rules in the list can sometimes affect the behavior since earlier rules trump later ones when there is a conflict.  For this reason, I would recommend dragging the 11 rules down below the “—Add custom rules here—“ entry but keep them in the same order as shown in the screen shot above.

One additional icon you may have noticed is the red exclamation point indicating that there is some problem or inconsistency with the task.  I use this to highlight problems such as tasks with no context assigned.   I separate these into multiple auto-formatting rules because I want to provide unique text/hints when I hover over the icon with my mouse.  This helps me quickly diagnose and correct the inconsistency.

Once you’ve had a chance to try the rules, you can go back to the same dialog and make adjustments to the logic, switch off portions of a rule, or disable certain rules altogether.   If you plan to make changes, be warned that it may take some experimentation (and persistence) to get the logic working properly in all cases.

UPDATE: I have uploaded a zip file containing all of the various icons as individual files. This might be handy if you want to use them in other programs or if you are having trouble importing them into MLO via the XML file. You can download the zip file here.