Ascend 4.0. (personal information management system) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Clifton Karnes
I can't imagine life without Ascend. There are very few programs I can say that about, but Ascend is definitely one. In fact, it's probably my most important tool.
Ascend is a Windows-based personal information manager, or PIM. And like most PIMs, it manages diverse types of information, including a prioritized daily task list, an appointment schedule, calendars, a master task list, a telephone and address book, a journal, a database, and much more. The program's newest version, 4.0, adds many state-of-the-art enhancements--like drag and drop and Ole--that quickly become addictive.
Before discussing Ascend's specifics, I want to talk about its background-there's more to Ascend than might be apparent immediately. It's based on a philosophy, and every module in the program relates to this philosophy.
Ascend was developed by Franklin Quest, a time management consulting company that has been teaching time management techniques and selling paper-based Franklin Planners for years. The Franklin method is based on a top-down approach to time and task management with the final goal being inner peace, something most of us feel is not only worthy and desirable, but seemingly unattainable.
In the Franklin system, you begin not with figuring out how to arrange tasks for the day or manage contacts, but by defining your most important lifetime goals. From these long-term goals, you construct midrange goals, and from these you begin to plan your daily tasks. Obviously, every task can't relate specifically to your long-term goals, but many can. And if they do, not only will you be more productive, but you'll also be at peace with yourself. This is the Franklin philosophy. Ascend's modules are well designed and general, so you can use them without buying into this philosophy. But then you'll lose some of the program's power. Now, on to the details.
Ascend sports a colorful multiple document interface (MDI). MDI applications, like Windows' own Program Manager and File Manager, let you have any number of modules open at a time, and you can size, maximize, and minimize each to get just the organization you want.
To make navigating these modules easy, there's a button bar with one button for each module. You can customize this button bar and determine which buttons go on the bar and in what order. You can place the button bar at the top, bottom, or side of your display; or you can let it float. If you'd prefer to use the shortcut keys instead, you can even hide the bar.
The first module we should discuss is the Productivity Pyramid. This module helps you build your long- and midterm goals and apply them to your daily tasks. You don't have to use the pyramid, but if you do, you'll keep focused on your most important goals.
Ascend's centerpiece is its Prioritized Daily Task List. Note that this isn't called a to-do list, and with reason. Ascend wants to emphasize that this is a prioritized list.
Ascend's task list uses a system, recommended by several time management experts, of grouping tasks into three categories: vital, important, and trivial. Then the tasks in each group are ordered by priority. This is clearly the way to construct a task list, but it's amazing how many PIMs fail to follow this recognized formula.
All this ordering and reorganizing is a snap with Ascend. There are special dialog boxes that make sorting as easy as double-clicking. And Ascend 4.0 lets you simply drag and drop tasks to change their order. If you follow your carefully prioritized list, you may not get to every task, but you'll always get the most important ones done.
In version 4.0, all of the modules have similar button bars. If you dislike them, you just double-click on the band that the button bar rests on, and the bar disappears. To get it back, double-click on the area where the button bar would rest. It's hard to imagine a slicker system.
One of the most useful new features is the ability to link tasks to contacts. You simply click on the Link button, and a list of your contacts appears. Select one, and the link is made. You can then view all the tasks and appointments associated with an individual.
To support the Prioritized Daily Task List, there's a Master Task List module, which actually holds several lists: one for work, one for home, and two for miscellaneous lists. You can move tasks between you daily lists and the master list. The Master Task List also displays the age of each task in days. This is a useful form of passive nagging.
Ascend boasts several calendars. You can display a weekly or a monthly view, complete with the amount of free time available each day. Ascend lets you place information icons on special days (suit-cases for travel days, palm trees for vacation days, and closed signs for days your business isn't open, to name a few), and these are visible in the calendar.
There's also a small monthly calendar that you can leave on your desktop all the time if you like. It's useful for quickly changing the date, and you can reschedule tasks and appointments by dragging them from their respective lists to the days on this little calendar. This is the easiest rescheduling system I've ever seen.
Ascend's Address Book was completely rewritten for version 4.0, and it's a terrific tool. It has fields for almost every imaginable aspect of a person, and you can link appointments and tasks to individuals in your Address Book.
Ascend 4.0 supports DDE and OLE, and it comes with Word for Windows macros that let you search you Ascend Address Book and insert names--all while you're in a Word document.
If you're looking for information that you know is hidden somewhere in Ascend, you can use the improved global search, which lets you select which modules to search in. And for taking notes, there's a journal, a record of daily events, and Red Tabs, which are special areas for storing information grouped by topic.
If you want to print your tasks and appointments and take them on the road with you, Ascend makes superb printouts on two size of Franklin Planner forms and on standard 8 1/2- x 11-inch paper.
You probably realize that I'm enthusiastic about Ascend, and I am. I've found very little to complain about, but here are a couple of gripes. The program doesn't seem to respond to the standard Windows exit protocol, so if Ascend is open on your desktop and you exit Windows from Program Manager, the next time you run Ascend, it will tell you that its index is corrupt and it needs to reindex. I've never lost any data from this, but it's annoying.
Ascend 4.0 supports drag and drop all over the place (you can even drag and drop between appointments and tasks, which is pretty neat), but you can't drag a task from your Master Task List to your Prioritized Daily Task List, which is something most people would want to do every day. (You can drag tasks in the other direction, however.)
Both of these complaints are minor. And Franklin Quest has a history of quickly fixing bugs and relentlessly improving Ascend.
Should you buy Ascend 4.0? Yes. It won't solve all your problems, but if used conscientiously, it'll help you solve the most important ones.
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