Using Tags to Plan my Day with Things 3

Working from home during the pandemic has unsurprisingly impacted how I do my work. Back in September I wrote about the first of those changes – namely turning on the preference to group my Today view in Things by project to feel a little less overwhelmed.

A side effect of this setting is that I could no longer manually order my tasks to reflect the order I planned to do them during the day. As I shared in that earlier post, when first made the switch, I thought I’d be fine with this tradeoff because my areas and their respective projects are ordered by priority. This meant my highest priority tasks were always at the top for me to do first thing in the morning.

In theory, this change was great for my workflow. In practice, it was less so.

Sometimes those highest priority tasks weren’t things I could do in the morning. Making a handful of phone calls while the other half is still sound asleep in the next room probably wouldn’t go over well. Similarly, if my morning was full of appointments, I probably wouldn’t have time to handle putting together a report. I also tend to work better on reports in the afternoon anyway.

At the time of making that change, I even noted that I was already finding myself jumping around in the list. Little did I know just how much jumping I would end up doing. Over time, I found myself spending a LOT of mental bandwidth simply scanning through my list multiple times a day to figure out what I could work on next.

Ordering my list manually allowed me to build out a plan for my day every morning, and I no longer had that plan.

My solution ended up being a fairly straightforward method that I adopted from my Erin Condren paper planner days. While there’s now a few different layouts, the original Erin Condren planners I used broke each day down into three blocks, Morning, Afternoon, and Evening.

Things 3 already has a This Evening section, but I’ve manually created tags for This Morning and This Afternoon. (Cultured Code, if you’re listening, an option to have a This Morning or This Afternoon section could be nice.)

On mornings where I’m feeling a little more overwhelmed, I can go through and find all the tasks in my Today view that I need and can do first thing in the morning and tag them with my morning tag and (optionally) do the same with the afternoon tag.

Once I’m done, I can filter my Today list by the This Morning tag which reduces my Today list to only tasks I can do that morning and nothing more.

I’ve been using this method for a few weeks and I’m actually really liking it.

It’s also a bit reminiscent of my days using Omnifocus’s start times which prevented things from showing up until I could truly do them. As an Omnifocus user, I loved start times. Why see a task before you can work on it?

I’ll tell you why.

I’d start my day with no clue of how many tasks were scheduled. I’d check everything off for the day and revel in the feeling that my tasks were done, not knowing another task (or tasks) had a start time later in the day.

In the worst case scenario, I wouldn’t see those tasks until the next day missing them entirely. The more common scenario was that my task list started to seem neverending – “Congratulations! You’ve done all your tasks for the day! Just kidding! Here’s another one at 9PM!”

The lack of start times in Things 3 was actually a good thing for my life, but I still did miss that ability to filter things.

Now by using tags in Things 3, I still see every task I have on my Today list at the start of the day so I know what I’m in for, but I also have the option of breaking it down further if necessary.

Mind Like Water

First of all, wow it’s been a long time. Sorry for not posting since May. I feel like I blinked and now we’re already more than halfway through 2021. Full disclosure though, I also haven’t had a lot of inspiration to write either. Posts that seem to do well on here are typically related to Things 3 or note taking, and quite frankly, my system doesn’t really change all that much to have new things to write about.

When I found Getting Things Done (GTD) in high school, it was life changing. The methodology just clicked and I never looked back. Whether I was using Things 2, a Filofax, Omnifocus, or now, Things 3, GTD has always been the backbone of how I manage life.

My concept of GTD has changed significantly over the years. GTD is one of the few books I reread every few years. Each time I read it the book seems to hit differently and I grasp the concepts a little more. Every so often I also find myself having small breakthroughs where a concept clicks just a little more. While the breakthroughs seem to be fewer and far between these days, I do have occasional moments where I still find my GTD practice changing.

In the past, examples have included fully understanding what capturing everything actually entails (It’s more than you think!), why something that takes more than one step really should be a project and not a single action, and why it actually can be sufficient to only have a single next action in a project rather than planning every detail out at the start.

My most recent breakthrough is understanding mind like water.

For much of the past year and a half, I’ve run myself ragged, stressing about all the projects I was responsible for, many of which I had never encountered like managing a remote team, setting up a socially distanced office, planning a return to the office when the conditions seem to be shifting daily (go get vaccinated folks!), or dealing with a sick pet.

In every one of these cases, most of the stress was due to simply not knowing what to do next, and as more and more of these piled up, the overwhelm set in hard.

In a recent chat with my therapist, we discussed how one of my coping mechanisms for stress is creating systems and solving problems. Sadly I usually do this out of desperation rather than regular practice. Rather than feeling helpless in a situation, her suggestion was to shift my thinking and problem solve at least one thing I could do to make me feel more at ease – to make a stressful situation a little less scary.

In writing this, I find myself realizing this probably sounds a lot like next actions, but I actually think about it a little differently.

For next actions, I ask myself the question, “What is the next thing that needs to get done to move this project forward?” This question is all about progress and completion.

For mind like water, I’m asking myself, “What is something I could do to feel more at ease?” Here I’m more concerned about what’s going to make me feel better.

In some cases, the answers to these questions might even be the same. In my sick pet example, the next action was to clearly call the vet to schedule an appointment. However, I found myself stalling because I hate making phone calls, how busy my vet is, how much my pet hates going to the vet, and how scary the diagnosis could be. All of these things were overwhelming, but what was more overwhelming? Knowing my pet was sick, not knowing why, constantly telling myself I should be calling to schedule an appointment, and beating myself up for not doing it because I’m a responsible pet owner. Without question, the thing to put me more at ease was to just make the call.

It’s a small mindset shift, but in cases where I’m truly feeling stressed, it’s that small shift that takes me from feeling like things are out of control and helpless to seeing a path through.

Learning to Relax Again

One of the things I’ve struggled with for most of my life is maintaining a sustainable pace. I’m someone who tends to run non-stop until I’m overwhelmed and exhausted leaving me with barely enough energy to get out of bed.

Over the past few months, I’ve been coming to terms with how sustainable that lifestyle actually is (It’s not!) which has lead me to build intentional pauses into my life rather than being forced to take them.

By taking these pauses, I’ve learned a few things about myself:

  • Things that should be relaxing aren’t anymore. For instance, playing Animal Crossing has become just another thing to check off my to-do list each day.
  • Taking a break seems like I luxury I can’t afford. I often find myself making excuses for why I shouldn’t take even 60-second break because I should be doing other things. Never mind, how much time I spend on Reddit though…
  • My ability to focus has become nonexistent. Whether I’m pausing for 5 minutes or 60 seconds, the struggle is real keeping my brain from jumping to the next task.

Sadly, as I’ve mentioned this way of life just isn’t sustainable. Constantly rushing from one thing to the next means I’m in a state of constant stress and anxiety, which can and has lead to real health consequences.

Knowing my strengths lie in finding solutions and staying on schedule, I’ve started scheduling 2 short meditations (5 minutes usually) every day – once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Like exercise, I now consider these non-negotiable.

Some days I use a guided meditation. My current and free app of choice is Insight Timer. Other days I use the Breathe function on my watch. Other days I just honestly use the time to do nothing.

The important part isn’t how well I do or what I do. It’s actually teaching my body a new baseline of reactivity. Honestly, it seems silly to think that I’m having to teach my body to relax, but, then again, after all that’s happened in the past 12 months or so, nothing about this world surprises me.

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

Switching Things Up in Things

I’ve been using Things for years at this point, and while my workflow has changed here and there, there is one thing that has remained the same.

I’ve always kept the option to organize my Today list by project turned off, opting, instead, to order my tasks manually.

At least, that was the case until about 2 weeks ago.

With the defined boundaries of my day now gone due to working from home, I started noticing that I was resenting my Today list. Despite being relentless about what I put in my Today list, the list just felt overwhelming, and who needs to be more overwhelmed right now?

So in an effort to bring some control back to my day, I’ve done two things.

The first, of course, was setting my Today list to be grouped by project (Preferences > General > Group to-dos in the Today List by project or area). This meant giving up my ability to reorder my list manually, but with my areas and projects already ordered by priority, my Today list more or less ends up ordered close to how I’d have ordered the tasks on my own. I do have to jump around the list a little bit depending on how late the other half sleeps, but it’s not been terribly difficult to adjust to.

The second change I’ve made is to create a lone project called Daily Tasks above all of my areas. This is where my non-negotiable tasks go – things like exercise and taking a mindfulness break at some point during the day. It also includes the chores I include as part of my daily home reset.

For reasons I can’t explain, separating these daily tasks from my other tasks has removed a great deal of overwhelm. Instead of a sea of endless tasks, my brain has no trouble looking at the list, seeing them front and center, and thinking, “Okay, these are the things I do every day regardless, and these are the other tasks I hope to accomplish.”

I’m not sure whether this change will stick once things get back to a new normal, but for now, it’s a welcome and simple change to my workflow that has helped keep me on track.

Saying Goodbye To OmniFocus

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One of the key things for any productivity system is that you have to trust it. For me, the center of that system has been OmniFocus. To say it has run my life over the past 4 years is an understatement, so it was a no-brainer to purchase OmniFocus 3 when it was released for macOS a few weeks ago.

Then the unthinkable happened. I have to be honest, never in a million years did I expect that I’d be writing this post.

I can’t really pinpoint where trust in my system started eroding with OmniFocus 3. Maybe it was the constant threat of tags teetering on the line of becoming out of control, struggling to adapt my perspectives in meaningful ways, or maybe it was just a feeling that my projects were staring me down. Within a matter of weeks, it became overly clear that OmniFocus was no longer a joy to use, and I found myself opening it with dread.

Being a natural planner and someone who’s been using OmniFocus to manage every aspect of my life for years, not trusting that system sent me into a spiral of chaos fairly quickly. Before I knew it, I was 2 hours into setting up a trial of Things 3 on my Mac.

Yes, Things.

I was a Things user before switching to OmniFocus. I actually wrote about it on here many years back. Many of my gripes with Things 2 have been corrected with Things 3, but Things 3 isn’t perfect just yet. There’s a lot to love, but there’s also a lot lacking when you’re used to a task manager as powerful as OmniFocus.

What’s changed?

My experience with Things 3 this time around was a little bit like rereading a book later in life. My life isn’t drastically different. I still have the most of the same responsibilities and projects, with a few more added (Hello, condo and management position), so my needs haven’t gotten simpler. My mindset around managing tasks, however, seems to have. A task manager at its heart should help you accomplish tasks, and OmniFocus had led me down a road of managing tasks instead.

Migrating to Things wasn’t without its challenges though.

First and foremost, my project list had to change.

OmniFocus lets you organize tasks in a number of ways. For one-off tasks, they give you Single Action Lists (SALs). These most commonly end up being used for tasks related to the ongoing roles of your life (e.g. health). For traditional projects in the GTD sense (a completable task comprised of more than one action item), they give you sequential and parallel projects (depending on whether actions are dependent on each other.) SALs, parallel projects, and sequential projects can be grouped by folders (typically used for Areas of Responsibility). This gives you several levels of hierarchy to organize your tasks.

Things 3 only gives you two – Areas and Projects.

In the past, I struggled to find a way to migrate my project list from OmniFocus to Things because of this. I tried to either abandon my high-level folders entirely (resulting in a ton of areas) or I tried to collapse my SALs into a single area (requiring a ton of tags).

The key mindset shift here is that Things 3 is only loosely based on GTD. As soon as I loosened my definition of a project, I opened the doors for projects to be used as sub areas, just like my SALs in OmniFocus.

There are a few additional benefits to Things’ project lists. Areas can have their own tasks allowing me to get rid of my “General
tasks” SALs. Projects can be organized by headings allowing me to organize my lists in ways I’d never been able to before (e.g. breaking my cleaning list down into daily, weekly, monthly chores). Lastly, projects are denoted by completion pies. Since I’m using projects as both SALs and actual projects, it remains to be seen how useful this will be, but for now it’s a good visual representation of where I’m focusing most of my attention (a more complete Health pie means I’m spending more time on my health than a less complete Car pie).

A second mindset shift was about complexity.

Much like Things’ vastly simplified project list, how you work with your tasks is simplified. Forget stalled projects or tags. Forget setting times on your tasks. Forget action item dependencies. Tasks are available unless you set a start date or set the task to Someday.

In some ways, I miss Omnifocus’s attention to detail. I can’t set my task to take out the trash to only show after 5PM, and projects with sequential actions require a bit more thought. However, thought, in this case, isn’t a bad thing. Omnifocus’s ability to fine tune tasks gave me the option to get fiddly without realizing it. Migrating to Things forced me to reconsider just how bad it had gotten. Most of my sub actions could be removed entirely or accomplished with Things’ barebones sub-action feature of checklists.

My third mindset shift is probably the most difficult – giving up custom perspectives.

I lived out of my custom perspectives in OmniFocus. Being able to easily bring up a list of all my available Work tasks was great. Things isn’t quite there yet, but because I’ve simplified everything so much in switching to Things, I can truly work out of the built-in Today view (filtering by my location tag if necessary). The one thing I can’t do is filter by multiple tags at once (e.g. Office OR Anywhere). Things treats selections of multiple tags as an AND operator, but overall this hasn’t been a deal breaker.

What I’m loving about Things:

  • The interface is incredibly simple. Seeing my tasks in OmniFocus vs. Things is a staggering difference, but now my focus can return to tasks, not the interface.image.png
  • Despite the simplicity, there’s incredible attention to detail. Tasks with deadlines even include a handy countdown letting you know how much time you have left.

What I’m missing (and hoping for) with Things:

  • Dates are just dates. There are no times. The only option to defer to a later time is to set a Today task to This Evening.
  • Task dependencies are a huge loss. Having to set arbitrary dates to overcome the lack of sequential actions is a bummer.
  • I’d also love to see Headers (currently only available in Projects) be made available in Areas or the Today view. Headers in areas would give me the true distinction of Areas, Sub-Areas, and Projects I am hoping for.

Things 3 has been a refreshing switch for me, and I’m interested to see where it takes me going forward.

Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash

Overlooked Apps: My Favorite macOS Utilities

If you look at this blog’s tag cloud, you can get a quick overview of some of the apps that are essential to my workflows. These are the apps and services like Omnifocus, Keyboard Maestro, and Pocket, but there’s another set of apps that don’t get as much love that are just as essential. In fact, I have used them for so long I often forget they’re not actually part of macOS in the first place. Today I wanted to share some of my favorites that don’t get as much love on the blog.

Bartender ($15)

I cringe a little bit whenever I catch a glimpse of a menu bar that stretches across an entire 27” display. Don’t get me wrong, I love my menu bar apps, but Bartender allows me to be much more intentional with how I use my menubar. My default menubar now only contains Fantastical and the time. Everything else lives tucked away in the Bartender bar or is hidden entirely unless I need it.

Minimal MenuBar

A view of my menubar while I’m working

One of my favorite features of Bartender is it’s ability to only show a menubar app when it has an update. This lets me see when Crashplan or Time Machine are backing up or my MacBook Pro’s battery is dying without having them in my menubar. Not only does it keep my menubar streamlined, but I now notice when something pops into it much more helping me to know what’s going on on the computer.

Taking things a step further, many of my menubar apps only launch under certain conditions thanks to Keyboard Maestro.

Healthier ($3.99)

Healthier is one of those menubar apps that Keyboard Maestro launches only when I’m at work. It’s function is simple – every 60 minutes, it overlays the screen with a quote and a quick timer to remind me to get up and take a break from my computer. Unlike other apps that remind you to take breaks, this one lets you continue to work if you happen to be working on something important which I like.

Moom ($9.99)

Apple tried to improve window management in El Capitan, but it just didn’t work in the way I had hoped. As much as I hate to admit it, Microsoft was on to something when they added the Aero Snap feature to Windows. Moom brings that experience and more to the Mac. Snapping windows side by side is something I do regularly and immediately notice when it’s not there.

PopClip ($6.99)

The first time I tried this app, I hated it. It was always getting in the way and seemed like a total nuisance at first. It wasn’t until I took some time to explore the various extensions for it that I learned to love it. Now sending highlighted text to Day One, Deliveries, Notes or Omnifocus are just a click away. It also automatically calculates word counts and allows me to highlight PDFs in Preview with ease.

QuickCast (Free)

Working in tech support, I’m often needing to show people how things are done. QuickCast is the best lightweight screencasting app I’ve found.

ClamXAV ($29.95)

While viruses are still fairly rare on Macs, I still like to keep some sort of virus protection on my computer. I never know what kind of attachment someone might attach to their support request or email. I also don’t want to be that person who unintentionally sends something malicious along to some poor unassuming Windows user. ClamXAV has been there for me as long as I’ve used a Mac. It’s not free anymore, but for $30, it’s well worth it.

GhostTile ($9.99)

This is one of those apps I never see mentioned anywhere. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m very intentional about what is visible on my devices, and many of the apps I like to keep running in the background don’t have settings to hide their dock icon. Apple’s also made it increasingly difficult to modify the app’s settings to hide the icon without also breaking the app. Ghosttile is the only app I’ve found that successfully hides the icons of apps I truly never need to have in my dock.

I’m always on the lookout for new apps, so what are some of your favorite “hidden gems” for your Mac?