How I Use Tags in Things 3

A couple people have asked me to post an update on how I’m using tags in Things 3. When I originally discussed how I was using tags last October, I had recently left Omnifocus (ironically due in part to its addition of tags and my inability to adapt to them). At that time, I was mainly concerned with trying to replicate my Omnifocus workflows as closely as possible. Now that I’ve been using Things for a while, I’ve had a chance to test out a number of different tags and figure out what works and what doesn’t.
In short, tags in Things help me to do three things:
  • Filter the default views (Today, Anytime, Upcoming)
  • Easily generate a list of specific tasks across all areas/projects
  • Automation
I’ve ended up with a set of tags comprised of 3 main groups:
  • Area
  • Location
  • When
Let me break down what each of those actually is a bit further.Things Tags.png

Area

Each of my areas (and sub-area projects) has a matching tag assigned to it. Once assigned to an area, tasks are automatically tagged with their respective area tags. Automatically assigned tags are also inherited so a task in Support get both the Support and Work tags. At first, this might seem redundant, but it allows me to filter the default views (e.g. Today, Anytime, Upcoming, etc.) by area – a feature that’s so powerful I’m not sure why it’s not built in.

Location

Locations are just what they sound like. They allow me to filter any list down to only tasks I can complete at the location I’m currently at. If I’m at home and only want to see the tasks I can complete at home, I can do so by selecting the Home tag.

When

I’ve discussed my Evening tag before, but as a recap, I use this in conjunction with an AppleScript as a workaround to automatically move some tasks to the Evening section of the Today view. 
Waiting is for any tasks that I’m waiting for either because they’ve been delegated to someone else or I’m waiting for something else to happen before it can be completed. I review this list each week as part of my weekly review.
There is one last tag that I haven’t discussed, and that’s the very first one, my Goal tag. I mainly use this as a pick-me-up by looking at the Logbook to see all the goal-related things I’ve accomplished.
Because Things doesn’t require tasks to have tags, it’s easy to forget to add them. With that in mind, I try to keep a few things in mind when using tags in Things:
  • Wherever possible, I try to assign tags at an area or project level so that tagging is done automatically whenever a task gets filed.
  • I’ve also learned it’s best not to add tags just because you can. More tags mean more tags you have to remember. If a tag isn’t useful for filtering down a list, it’s probably not necessary.
  • Occasionally it is helpful to add a tag temporarily. If you’re going on a trip, consider adding a location for that place or just “Vacation” so that you can filter your list to only what you can do while on vacation. My Shopping tag is another example of where temporary tags come into play. I frequently add and remove stores depending on where I shop. Just don’t forget to delete your temporary tags!
  • Lastly, it’s worth noting that filtering by tags in Things is additive. Filtering a list by both the Home and Evening tags won’t show a list of tasks I can complete at home OR in the evening, but rather only tasks that can be completed at home AND in the evening. This is something I wish Things would change but understand it’s not likely.

I’ve found tagging (in any app) to be one of those areas where people struggle with (myself included). Most people either don’t know where to start or jump all in and end up with a myriad of tags they never use. Regardless of which camp you fall into, the end result is usually the same – you end up not using them. Hopefully, my tags will give you a few ideas for how to implement tags in your own use of Things.

 

Prioritizing Things in Things 3

emma-matthews-1296167-unsplash.jpgIn recent weeks, I’ve developed a new appreciation for Cultured Code’s reluctance to add new features to Things 3 whenever someone requests them. Like going back to read Getting Things Done after you’ve been practicing it for a while, the more I use Things, the more I find myself understanding Cultured Code’s design on a deeper level. When used to it’s fullest, Things 3’s design almost tricks you into prioritizing your tasks without realizing it at least it did for me. Because it wasn’t obvious to me until recently, I wanted to share a bit about how I use Things each and every day to prioritize my tasks.

The Inbox

Every morning, I begin by processing my Inbox, which happens to be the first section of the app in the sidebar. Things that pop into my head as well as a few automated tasks usually make their way here every day.

Today

Moving down the sidebar to the next section, I start processing my Today list. I used to throw anything I hoped to do on this list, but I’m more judicious than ever about this list now. Only things I realistically need to do today stay Today list. Any tasks that I’m just hoping to get to get removed. Being ruthless about what appears in Today means that I can actually complete everything on the list most days, and I can go to bed feeling accomplished rather than defeated by the uncompleted tasks I didn’t get to.

Anytime (Maybe)

If, and only if, I complete everything in the Today list and I’m still in the mood to keep working, I’ll move down to the Anytime view. Once again, the key is to be strategic about what’s in Anytime. Things I would like to do but probably won’t have time to tackle anytime soon aren’t Anytime tasks. Only things I’ve committed to doing and can actually start right away appear in Anytime. Because I tag my tasks by location,I can quickly narrow down the Anytime list based on where I’m at, and know that anything being shown can be worked on right that moment. By ordering my areas and projects in order of priority, I also know the first item on the list is usually the most important which takes reduces any need to shop for tasks. I just work my way down the list.
That’s my daily workflow – process the inbox, work through Today, maybe move onto Anytime. Nothing fancy.

The Weekly Review

It’s important to not miss the critical step though. It’s a weekly review that keeps everything going.
Once a week, I will go through the Upcoming, Anytime, and Someday lists making sure everything is in its right place. If a particular date in Upcoming looks overloaded, I’ll try to move some things around. If something’s in Anytime, but I know can’t work on it anytime soon, it gets moved to Someday. If something in Someday can or should actually be started now, that gets moved back to Anytime.
By using Things more strategically, I’ve been able to counteract my tendency procrastinate on larger priorities by shopping for less pressing tasks in Anytime or Someday.

Optimizing a Quick Entry on the Mac

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I wouldn’t be able to do things I do on my Mac without the use of keyboard shortcuts. I use them constantly throughout the days and seem to be using more and more each day. Unfortunately, using more shortcuts usually leads to creating more complicated shortcuts to avoid conflicts, and more complicated shortcuts means more to remember.
The one keyboard shortcut I could never forget is Command-space, which I use to launch Alfred. Command-space is muscle memory at this point.
Need to open an app –> Command-space.
Need to do a quick calculation –> Command-space.
Need to open a URL –> Command-space.
Need to find a file –> Command-space.
Apple now uses Command-Space for Spotlight, so remapping it back to Alfred is one the first things I do on any Mac. Unfortunately, until now, I never really put much thought in what I was remapping Spotlight to, lazily picking Option-Space because it was close.
It only recently occurred to me that using Option-Space for a function I rarely use, was a  waste of a perfectly good shortcut. When I stopped to think what I could use it for, I started thinking of the apps I’m constantly dropping things into on my computer. It boiled down to three apps: Alfred, Things, and Drafts.
Things and Drafts both offer a quick entry option, but I’d never really used them because I could never remember their default shortcuts, nor had I bothered to change them. So here I was needing two memorable shortcuts, and there happen to be two memorable modifier keys right next to the command key – option and control.
I decided I could use the spacebar along with these modifier keys to create two memorable shortcuts just like Alfred’s Command-Space. I also decided that the more I used an app, the quicker it’s quick entry shortcut deserved to be to the spacebar, so I ended up with the following:
Alfred = ⌘Space
Things = ⌥Space
Drafts = ^Space
Remapping the quick entry shortcuts took only a few moments, but it’s already saved me countless hours of time. I love being able to quickly send tasks or thoughts that pop into my mind to their proper holding place without having to stop what I’m doing. It’s been one of those game changing, “Why didn’t I do that sooner?” moments.

Adding Some Spark Back to Email

I’ve been a long time Airmail user. It was the closest thing I could find to replace the now-defunct mail client Sparrow (RIP), but for as long as I’ve used Airmail, it’s never been without bugs. Even worse, those bugs seem to not get fixed. Over time, those bugs, mainly one where emails I’d already processed continued to show back up in my Inbox, started to irk me.

So when the Sweet Setup posted an update to their Best Third-Party Email App earlier this month, they caught my attention at just the right time.

They didn’t change their pick. It’s still Spark, and I’d tried Spark in the past but decided to stick with Airmail. Still, I found myself wondering if there wasn’t something to their recommendation.

It turns out, Spark’s grown up a lot since the last time I tried it – enough so that I’ve made the switch.

So what’s good?

  • I haven’t come across any bugs. Once I clear my inbox it stays clear.
  • Readdle, Spark’s developer, is a pretty big name, so I don’t feel worried about their ongoing development.
  • Search is incredible. I even have a few saved searches which have replaced any need for creating project-based labels.
  • It doesn’t add a bunch of extra labels to my Gmail accounts.
  • The smart inbox is pretty handy, although it does require some tweaking to get the training right.

And the bad?

  • Spark doesn’t have all the integrations Airmail had. For instance there is no DevonThink integration. (Airmail’s wasn’t great though.) Moreover, it doesn’t have a native share extension so I’ve been relying on Hook more to create links. It does have integrations with both Things and Evernote though.
  • Both Spark and Airmail create links using their own URL scheme so I’m finally experiencing the pain of email links being tied to a mail client.
  • I’m still trying to wrap my head around the Seen behavior in Spark’s Smart Inbox. If I happen to view an email without processing it, I wish Spark would leave it alone. Instead it either removes it from your Smart Inbox entirely or moves it to a Seen section.

So I’m still trying to understand Spark, but overall, I am happy with the decision to switch. What mail client do you use?

Practical vs. Pretty: Finding Balance Between Features and Design

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With all the buzz about Cal Newport’s latest book Digital Minimalism, I’ve been thinking a lot about intentional use of technology. It’s something that’s always in the back of my mind, but right now, it’s front and center.

As a self-proclaimed power user, I’ve always had a thing for finding the best apps. Finding the “best” app meant finding the app that let me accomplish what I want while spending the least amount of time doing it, which usually meant finding the “pro” app with the most features.

But something else recently slipped into my decision process – almost without me noticing.

“Best” is no longer just about what saves me the most time. It also now includes whether or not I enjoy using it. The Marie Kondo’s of the world might ask, “Does it spark joy?”

These days, I’m becoming less and less interested in the apps with the most features. Features mean nothing if I don’t enjoy using the app. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Almost weekly, I discover a former OmniFocus user discussing why he or she has switched to Things. Things is not only practical. It’s pretty. It’s the balance between practical and pretty that wins people over. It’s why people really enjoy using it.

Another example is something I’ve been struggling to write about…

In the tech world, once you write about using an app, there’s a belief that you’ll continue to use it in perpetuity. It’s an odd belief, really. Just because I blogged on LiveJournal when I was little doesn’t mean I should still be using it for this blog today. Our needs change. Our thoughts change. Technology does as well.

So with that disclaimer out of the way…

I’ve recently succumbed to DevonThink’s terribly outdated UI and moved back to Evernote. Like OmniFocus, DevonThink is still an incredibly powerful (practical) app that I highly recommend for archival knowledge management. For daily knowledge management, however, I just didn’t enjoy looking at it which kept me from using it to its full extent. To be fair, I don’t particularly enjoy using Evernote either, but based on the balance of practicality AND pretty, Evernote wins.

More and more, I’m finding myself swapping practical apps out for prettier apps, and I’m seeing others do the same. I can’t help but wonder if this is part of a larger trend of people really starting to rethink how they use their technology and why. If it is a trend, I’m excited to see where this new wave of both practical and pretty apps can take us.

Photo by mnm.all on Unsplash

Understanding Agenda

Today I want to give a shout out to the awesome folks over at Agenda. While browsing the Agenda community, I found a link to Alexander Griekspoor’s presentation at Do iOS 2018 in which he discusses how Agenda came to be.

In short, Agenda started as a running text file Griekspoor was using to capture notes, reminders, and events throughout the day. He added new items to the top pushing older items down further down. As text files grew complex, he started creating separate files for each project, eventually moving the whole system to Simplenote before making Agenda. Overall, this running text file isn’t too different than how my colleagues and I manage our shared agendas in Google Docs, which is probably why Agenda clicks for me today.

I’ve written about Agenda in the past. It’s been working great for keeping my personal notes from meetings sorted, but understanding the mindset behind Agenda has helped me understand how to use it even more.

In the past, I created reminders in my task manager whenever there was a need to discuss something with someone. The problem was that I don’t usually have my task manager open during meetings so things tended to get missed.

This is where Griekspoor’s initial inspiration for Agenda was useful. The idea behind Agenda wasn’t just an app for keeping track of today’s notes and past notes. Griekspoor used it for future notes as well. When needing to discuss something with someone, he put it at the top of the note in a sort of holding area that he later converted into the section for the date it was discussed.

That’s what I was missing.

All those reminders to discuss things that I was keeping in Things could actually go directly into Agenda and even be attached to our next meeting, so that the next time I meet with that person, they’re front and center.

Griekspoor’s presentation was incredibly insightful. If you have a bit of time to check it out, I highly recommend it.

Quick Condo Update

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I’m popping into the blog today for a quick post to explain my brief absence from posting.

It’s been quite a long time since I posted any updates on my condo. To be frank, not a lot has changed, so there haven’t been any updates to share up until today.

I’m pleased to say that a major project has been checked off my list in the past week.

My condo finally has new windows!

The builder-grade windows and patio door from the 70s that only served to keep the rain out have been replaced. The replacements already seem to be doing wonders for my energy usage. My Nest thermostat is already reporting my heat is running an average of 1-2 hours compared to 6-10 hours previously.

Of course, such a massive project has left my house and daily routines in shambles, so I’m still trying to play catch up to return to some sense of normalcy.

I’ll be back to my normal posting schedule soon.

Tricks for Improving Things 3

Now that I’ve been using Things 3 for a while, I wanted to share some of the “workarounds” I’ve been using to overcome some of my minor gripes along with some tips and tricks I’ve been using to make my life easier.

Denoting Projects vs Sub Areas

2019-02-06-screenshot-2Unless Things 3 decides to add headers to areas, you’re stuck with using projects or tags to denote your sub areas of responsibility. I’ve opted to use projects because I like seeing the visual reminder of what I’m responsible for. This, unfortunately, leaves me with no distinction between my projects and sub areas. Admittedly, this was an issue with Omnifocus as well, so I’ve gotten into the habit of prefixing projects with a checkbox symbol to differentiate them from sub areas. It’s not perfect, but it works.

Improving Mail to Things

The ability to email tasks into Things is something I don’t widely use at the moment, but I do use it for one task in particular – checking my physical mailbox. I have IFTTT set to email Things whenever I get an email from the US Postal Service’s Informed Delivery informing me I have new mail arriving later in the day.

Unfortunately, Mail to Things is limited to sending a task to your Inbox, not the Today view where I need it to appear. Sure I could have just moved it every day, but that’s a pain. Using the Things AppleScript Guide and a little trial and error (it was my first time using AppleScript), I was able to craft a script that finds my “Check Mailbox” task in the Inbox, moves it to my Household area, and assigns it to “This Evening”. The script runs anytime Things activates on my Mac thanks to Keyboard Maestro.

It’s worth mentioning that moving the task to This Evening automatically is dependent on a separate script which checks for any tasks tagged with Evening and moves them to This Evening. This script triggers along with the previously mentioned script as part of the same Keyboard Maestro macro anytime Things activates on my Mac.

Utilize URLs

I started adding URLs to tasks years ago mainly to save me time locating bookmarks and navigating to websites, but lately I’ve also gotten really into using URL schemes throughout Things.

On the Mac, I’ve started including links to Keyboard Maestro macros in some tasks. Some are simple like adding a link to my Weekly Review task so that I can open BusyCal directly to my filtered Weekly Review view. I also use them to generate new templated projects either from a task itself or within a project’s notes field. For projects that may require follow up tasks or projects, this allows me the option to generate them as needed rather than adding them up front and then canceling or deleting them later.

For iOS, I’ve also started linking to Shortcuts. One of my favorites is the link attached to my meditation task which runs a shortcut that enables Do Not Disturb for 15 minutes and then opens the Headspace app.

The Delegated Tag

My last little hack mainly just satisfies my OCD. While my boyfriend and I share the responsibility of the household chores, the master list of those chores resides in Things. I use a “Delegated” tag to denote things he completes so that I can distinguish them in the Logbook section of the app. If there’s something he’s usually responsible for, I’ve tagged the task with Delegated permanently, which also gives me an easy way to let him know of any chores he can do when he asks what needs to be done around the house.

Creating Project Templates for Things 3 with Shortcuts and Keyboard Maestro

If there’s one thing I’ve missed since moving from OmniFocus to Things, it’s the ability to use project templates. It’s hard to beat Omnifocus’s support for the TaskPaper format. Project templates can be created in a flash and added by simple text expansion tools.

That being said, it’s also hard to beat the design of Things, and for that reason, I set out to learn how to convert my templates.

In migrating to Things, I decided a number of them would be better off just scheduled as repeating projects in Things, which cut my list in half before I even started. Working at a university, most of my work tends to repeat each semester, but the actual dates of semesters tend to fluctuate slightly, so my projects tend to do so as well. I can, however, count on those projects happening roughly around the same weeks each year. With Omnifocus 2, it wasn’t possible to schedule a project to repeat yearly on say the first Monday of November, but it was in Things 3. It’s worth noting that repeats like this were added to Omnifocus 3, so if I were still using it, I’d have moved these templates back into Omnifocus too.

Unlike Omnifocus’s TaskPaper format, templates in Things 3 are possible through a URL scheme. If you’re interested in testing it out, Cultured Code has a really nice Link Builder to help you get started. While this works great for static projects and actions, it doesn’t let me create the variable templates I was trying to create.

Naturally, I turned to the trusty Keyboard Maestro to see if I could pass variables into a Things URL. It turns out Keyboard Maestro’s variable format doesn’t really get along well with Things’ URL scheme though. All those percentage signs make for a confused mess. I even found a post on Keyboard Maestro’s forums asking for Keyboard Maestro to play nicely with Things URLs, which I nervously bumped 8 months later out of desperation.

After hours of frustration trying to get it to work and searching relentlessly for a solution, I stumbled upon a blog post that used Alfred instead. While I was at least able to get this working, entering the variables was nowhere near as user-friendly as having the dialog boxes that I had been used to while using Keyboard Maestro. That being said, if you’re an Alfred fan, this may be just what you’re looking for!

Things Templates Using Shortcuts

At some point, I conceded that Keyboard Maestro wasn’t going to happen and tried my hand at creating them with Apple Shortcuts. Let me just say Shortcuts handled Things URLs beautifully. Having little to show for all my time dabbling with Shortcuts other than my Spotify playlist shortcut, I was surprised, to say the least.

The basic shortcut is only 5 actions (I’ve used my Book Project to help illustrate.):

  1. Ask for Input (e.g. What the’s title of the book?)
  2. Replace text (This finds spaces in whatever you inputted and replaces them with %20)
  3. Set Variable (In this case, to bookTitle) – I’m going to skip forward onto the remainder of the shortcut here for simplicity’s sake, but it’s safe to say you could keep reusing steps 1-3 to prompt for as many variables as you need. You can use them for any field supported by the URL scheme including (Notes, Tags, Deadlines, etc.) so there’s plenty of room for exploration.
  4.  URL (This is where you’d put your URL you got from Cultured Code’s Link Builder unless you’ve got the URL scheme down to which I’ll say Kudos! This is also where you’ll be replacing the fill-in areas with your variables from earlier. Admittedly this is kind of a pain because the URL is long, and the URL field in Shortcuts is a single line, but copy and paste works quite well if you’re using a keyboard.)
  5. Open URL – You’re done.

I was able to recreate all of my templates in Shortcuts fairly quickly by duplicating and then modifying this shortcut, and I can easily run them from Spotlight by typing in the name of the shortcut.

While I was glad to have my templates back in some form, it was fiddly having to grab my iPhone or iPad to generate a template when I was already on my computer.

Back to trying to get Keyboard Maestro to work…

Things Templates with Keyboard Maestro

Thankfully in the months since I’d bumped that post on the Keyboard Maestro forum, a kind soul by the name of gglick came to my rescue. (Note to self: Pay better attention to forum replies.) I really cannot take any credit for this because he or she really did the leg work to make everything work. Even better, the way it’s set up makes the template super easy to update – even easier than Omnifocus’s TaskPaper format in my opinion.

I’ll give gglick credit by linking to the post if you’re interested in the macro, but in short, the macro is 4 actions:

  1. Prompt the user for input (Note: Unlike with Shortcuts, you can add all the variables you want in this step.)
  2. Set Variable to Text (In this case, Keyboard Maestro is going to be doing most of the link formatting, so you can pretty much write out all your tasks in plain text with the exception of a few bits like the variables and the starting syntax.)
  3. Filter Variable with Percent Encode for URL (This turns all the spaces into %20 like Step 2 of the Shortcut earlier.)
  4. Open URL (Note: the URL you’re opening is actually the Variable you made in Step 2.)

As I did with Omnifocus, I’ve set up a macro palette to display the templates that I can trigger via the same keyboard shortcut (⌘+F4) I used with Omnifocus saving me from having to retrain any muscle memory. All this is is a macro containing the action “Show Macro Group”.

I know I spent countless hours trying to figure this out, so I’m sharing this in hopes it saves someone else time. Happy templating!

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

My Current Apple Watch Face

plush-design-studio-503363-unsplash.jpgIt’s been a little over 100 days since I upgraded my Apple Watch to the Series 4. Like many Series 4 watch owners, I was pretty excited when Apple announced new faces with even more complications, but it didn’t take long for me to realize more complications didn’t make creating the perfect watch face any easier.

Even months later, a number of complications haven’t been updated to support the new watch faces, some of the complications don’t work the way I had hoped, and there’s also the issue of 8 complications being visually overwhelming.

That being said, I think I’ve finally landed on a watch face that works for me, and I actually am using the ever cluttered Infograph face with all 8 complications. Even better, I’ve gotten out of the business of different watch faces for different activities on a regular basis. Goodbye separate faces for workouts, work, and weekends. Switching faces is strictly reserved for special occasions when I want to have a nicer looking face.

The main function my watch serves is to provide me with an overview of how my day is going with a quick glance. For those of you who’ve been following my home screen posts, my watch essentially replicates the top row of apps on my home screen.img_58f7e21be1c0-1

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In the top left corner, I have the date (via Better Day). The top left is reserved for the calendar. I’d honestly prefer to have the calendar displayed on along the top dial, but Apple made an unfortunate decision to link the top center complication with what’s displayed on the dial and also lock the digital time complication to that same spot. Unless I suddenly start reading analog clocks as quickly as digital ones again, which is pretty unlikely, I’m stuck with giving up arguably the most prominent complication location to the digital time. In the bottom left I have the Activity complication, and on the bottom left is Dark Sky. Within the watch dial itself are the complications for Things, Workout, and Waterminder.

Now, this watch face isn’t pretty, although it is the prettiest combination I’ve come up with. It is, however, exactly what I need my watch to be – quick access to see and do the most important things in my day – what’s going on and what I need to be focusing on. Complications on the outside of the dial are for quick status checks. Complications on the inside are for action items.

The only thing I wish I could add is Streaks, and I’ve toyed with replacing Waterminder with it as I’m also tracking hydration within Streaks, but being able to both quickly see and track what I’m drinking from Waterminder’s interface on my wrist seems to be the key to making sure I actually use the app, and as you can see by the fact that I hadn’t tracked anything by almost 9:30, I need all the reminding I can get.

Photo by Plush Design Studio on Unsplash