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
Unless 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.
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.
For those of you who haven’t read my About page, I’ve spent the last 4 years slowly completing a Masters degree, 1 class at a time. Well, I’m happy to report that the 14 hour days of this past semester are behind me (7:10-9:40PM classes should really not be a thing), and more importantly, so is my degree.
Ironically, the defining moment of finishing my degree wasn’t walking out of my final class or applying for graduation. For me, the strangest milestone was checking off my final task in Things and removing my School area, which marks the first time I’ve not had a School area in any task manager.
Now that I’m done my degree, the logical question is “What could I possibly do with all my free time?”
Of course, this question couldn’t come at a better time since I like to spend December reflecting on the past year and planning for the next. Thankfully planning comes after reflection because if anything’s clear, I did not slow down as I had intended. If anything I did the opposite, and I’m feeling it as we wrap up the year.
So for 2019, I’m going the opposite direction. I’m purposely keeping things simple.
My focus is on intentionality.
Instead of committing to new things, my intention is to focus on things I’ve already committed to – like all those house projects that have been on my to-do list since I moved in. (Hello, kitchen cabinet doors that are still sitting in the corner waiting to be painted.)
With that in mind, I will be taking a few weeks off, so this will be my last post of 2018.
Before I leave though, I want to say thank you to everyone who’s read this blog over the past year. A year ago, this blog was just another thing to check off on my path to maybe becoming some sort of writer in the distant future. Thanks to some major encouragement from my boyfriend and all of your amazing feedback, I couldn’t even begin to imagine this blog would be where it is today.
Thank you again, and warm wishes for the holidays.
Switching to Things 3 has greatly simplified how I work. Whereas with OmniFocus, I worked out of a handful of custom perspectives, with Things I just work out of the built-in Today view. The Today view shows what’s on my calendar for the day followed by a list of everything with a start date or deadline of today or earlier. I’ve come to appreciate this much more than Omnifocus’s way of interleaving tasks and calendar appointments.
The Today View in Things is a big change from my carefully tailored (and fiddly) perspectives in OmniFocus, where I could also set times for both deadlines and defer dates. With OmniFocus, the only things on my list were things I could do at that very moment at that location. Things doesn’t account for start or due times, which means anything you have to do that day shows up, even if you can’t do it until later. In some ways, I appreciate having a clear picture of everything I need to do each day (something that actually made me leave Things 2 years ago). There’s no more forgetting to check the Forecast perspective, only to be blindsided by 5 tasks showing up right as I sit down to relax for the evening.
That being said, there are some things I really can’t do until later, and for that, Things has the This Evening section of the Today view. Unfortunately, there’s no way to set a task, like setting out the trash on Monday nights to appear in This Evening by default. However, I’ve found a clever workaround through the use of Keyboard Maestro and a handy Applescript. Each time Things activates on my Mac, Keyboard Maestro triggers the Applescript which scans for any tasks in Today tagged with Evening and moves them to This Evening. It’s so quick, I don’t even notice it running. The only downside is it only works on my Mac.
Note: When you create a recurring task Things creates the next instance of a recurring task and a separate template task, so if you want any changes to stick to the entire set of recurring tasks, make sure you’re applying them to the template task. Otherwise, your changes will only apply to the next instance.
With start dates, deadlines, and my evening script running automatically each time I open Things, my Today View is already in pretty good shape when I open the app each morning. From there, I tag my three most important tasks as “Top 3”. I find it’s a nice way to mentally set my priorities for the day. I also reevaluate whether any tasks should be removed from Today. I’ve been doing my best to move these tasks back to Anytime rather than setting arbitrary start dates in the future to keep my Today view from growing too unwieldy. Lastly, I take a few moments to rearrange my tasks into a rough order of when I plan to complete them throughout the day. This is something I couldn’t get from OmniFocus. From there, the rest of my day is spent completing tasks.
Interestingly enough, taking the complexity out of my task lists has led me to complete more, and I now regularly find myself browsing the Anytime view in search of additional tasks to fill out my day. It’s also led me to a tagging system that truly makes sense (something I struggled with with Omnifocus 3).
I use tags to filter my Today view down at various times of the day. For instance, I can easily filter my list to my Top 3 tasks for a quick priority check, or I can use tags to batch my tasks.
I have my tags broken up into 4 main groups, which Things display’s quite nicely at the top of the Today view:
- Area of Responsibility – I picked up this tip from Shawn Blanc’s All the Things course at The Sweet Setup. It seems a little redundant to recreate your Areas as tags, but it’s actually quite handy to be able to sort your Today view by Area of Responsibility. Each of my areas gets tagged with its respective area tag causing any task within an area to automatically inherit its area tag.
- Location – These are my traditional GTD contexts (e.g. Anywhere, Home, Work, Errands). Unfortunately filtering by multiple tags is additive in Things, so these don’t completely replace my custom perspectives in OmniFocus, but they come close enough.
- When – This is where my Evening tag mentioned above lives. I’ve also added Morning and Afternoon tags. This comes in handy on busier days when I want to break up my Today list into more than just Today and This Evening. I have my fingers crossed Cultured Code might consider allowing users to break up their Today view in the future, but for now this works.
- Action – This is where batching comes in. I have tags for various activities I do regularly (email, research, chores, etc.) As someone who tries to avoid keeping my email client open all day, being able to work through all my email related tasks at once is quite handy.
Lastly, I have 3 straggler tags that don’t fall within any group. This includes the Top 3 tag I mentioned earlier, a goal tag for tagging any tasks related to my yearly goals, and a Waiting tag.
With regards to tasks I’m waiting on, Things doesn’t offer stalled tags like OmniFocus, and I still haven’t quite worked out how best to handle waiting for tasks with Things. Setting a task to Someday with a deadline creates a really nice visual distinction by graying out the task’s checkbox while still reminding me to follow up on the task, but it goes against my rule of setting arbitrary deadlines. For now, I’ve gone with the lesser of two evils, and have been setting an arbitrary start date as a reminder to follow up on the task.
Again, Things 3 has made me once again realize how easy it is to overcomplicate things over time. Sometimes simpler is actually better.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
Multiple tags first came to OmniFocus 3 for iOS in May of this year. I hoped that multiple tags would mean drastic improvements to my workflow, but with most of my Omnifocus work done on a Mac, I was stuck waiting until tags also came to OmniFocus for the Mac.
As of last Friday, I was invited to test the beta version of OmniFocus 3, so my wait is officially over! For the rest of you, it should be out later this month.
Looking back to my initial tag list for OmniFocus for iOS, much of my tag system is still intact.
Part of this because I restrained myself from going crazy with tags and opted to stick with tag groups that mapped to David Allen’s four criteria for determining priority: context/location, energy available, priority, and time available. (Note: For Time Available, I use Omnifocus’s estimated duration field, not a tag.) I also have two “On Hold” tags for tasks I’m “Waiting for” or any “Someday/Maybe” tasks I’m considering.
In addition to traditional GTD tags, I’ve also added a few additional tag groups related to people (e.g. boyfriend, boss) and actions (e.g. call, email, read), as well as, one called “Today,” which I’ll discuss in more detail later in this post.
To be honest, my hopes of tags significantly altering my Omnifocus workflows and therefore supercharging my productivity didn’t really pan out.
Despite all the improvements to custom perspectives, there still isn’t a way to create the perspectives I was hoping for. I had hoped to create perspectives that show any tasks I can accomplish at a specific location (e.g. Home, Work, Errands) but also have them grouped by another tag group (e.g. by Energy Level or Priority).
Unfortunately, there is no way to filter by some tags and also group by another. A perspective that shows tasks tagged with Location:Home or Location:Anywhere and also tagged with Priority:High or Priority:Low doesn’t give you a list of tasks sorted by priority. Instead, it gives you a list of all tasks grouped by ALL tags given to those tasks meaning you actually end up with groups like “Anywhere, Today, Read” and “Home, Today”) which actually isn’t that helpful.
Because of this limitation, most of how I use OmniFocus has remained relatively the same. Multiple tags simply provide additional ways to filter my tasks within my existing custom perspectives on an as needed basis.
There is one aspect of my OmniFocus workflow that tags did change for me though.
I’ve mentioned in past posts that I work from 4 main perspectives (Today, Work, Home, and Errands). These perspectives show me any tasks I need to work on based on where I’m working from. With Omnifocus 2, this meant a perspective that showed any due or flagged task within a certain set of contexts grouped by project.
With Omnifocus 3, my 4 main perspectives now show any available tasks that are due, flagged, or tagged “Today”, grouped by project and sorted by flagged. Essentially, the Today tag has replaced how I was previously using flags, leaving flags open to be used for what they’re truly made for, denoting importance. Sorting by flag means my most important tasks are at the top of every project. Using flags to denote importance also means I can look over my perspectives, and quickly see what’s most important (e.g. flagged and or due soon).
So the jury’s still out on Omnifocus 3. I don’t plan on switching applications any time soon, but until perspectives can be customized at the level I’m looking for, I probably won’t be seeing any of the drastic improvements I had been hoping for.
Omnifocus plays such a major role in my life, so with Omnifocus 3 for iOS being released today, it only seemed fitting to write about it. I’ve only had a short amount of time to play with it, but I’m already envisioning new ways to improve my workflow.
Arguably one of the most sought-after features of version 3 is multiple tags. One of the first new tags I added was a “Today” tag. I foresee this Today tag replacing flags in my workflows, but until multiple tags are ready in the Mac version, I’m stuck using them to maintain my custom perspectives on the Mac.
I knew the lack of feature parity between version 2 on the Mac and version 3 on iOS would limit how much I got out of this release, so, for now, a lot of the benefits I’ll get out of the new features will have to wait.
So far, I’ve just started playing around with reorganizing contexts to fit within the new tag scheme. So far my list is broken up into the following:
- Location (note this section is my existing context breakdown)
- Waiting for
- Coworkers, family members, etc. will be listed here as needed
- High Energy
- Low Energy
This list will likely change and evolve as I get my hands on it more, but I can already tell how powerful tagging will be over contexts.
Omnifocus 3 brings with it many other major changes but tagging is on my mind most right now. I can’t wait to get my hands on the Mac version so I can really take advantage of them fully.
A few months ago I wrote about how I’m organizing Evernote. Have no fear! I’m still loving my basic set up, but I have made a few additions to keep important information at hand.
I’m not sure which podcast introduced me to Tiago Forte, but in the weeks after learning of him, I spent hours reading into his P.A.R.A. method – a “universal system for organizing digital information.” His idea is simple – The tools you use aren’t important as long as you have a system to organize things. Of course, any mention of systems has my attention.
I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but P.A.R.A. stands for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. He has a 4-part series if you’re interested in learning all the details. Unfortunately, the posts are now behind a paywall though, so here’s an interview he did with Evernote that goes over the basics.
I’ve not adopted his system fully, but I did walk away with a few insights.
Take Away 1: Projects vs. Areas of Responsibility
Coming from a GTD mindset, projects and areas of responsibility seem fairly straightforward, but I was surprised to discover I was mixing them up just as Forte mentioned. He describes a project as “a series of tasks linked to a goal with a deadline,” whereas an area of responsibility is “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.” Projects can be completed. Areas of responsibility are ongoing.
Forte argues that when you mix the two together, it’s difficult to see everything you’ve committed to, and I couldn’t agree more. Clarifying the commitments required by my ongoing areas of responsibility has given me a better understanding of just how feasible taking on that extra project might be.
Take Away 2: Make Most Used Information the Most Accessible
It’s no surprise that information isn’t equal. Some notes are used more than others. Part of Forte’s P.A.R.A. method includes keeping your notes organized hierarchically so that your most used information is easily accessible. More actionable information flows up to the top Project level, whereas lesser-used information flows down to Archives.
Forte suggests moving everything into Archives to start. As you need to use notes, move them to their appropriate level, and they will gradually end up in their respective areas. I actually tried this, but quickly found his distinctions between Resources, Areas, and Archives too arbitrary for my needs.
Instead, I settled on a simplified system. I created two stacks – one for Current Projects and one for everything else, Reference. Like, Forte suggested, I just moved my existing notebooks into a Reference stack. For any projects that require supporting documentation, I create a notebook under Current Projects. Once completed, their content will be archived to their respective area under Reference.
(Side note: I’ve also made two other changes: Agendas now live in their own notebook for easier access, and I created a separate Reference notebook for book highlights.)
Take Away 3: Review and Improve your Notes as You Use Them
A lot of people seem to treat Evernote as a junk drawer. I’m guilty as well. Forte has a whole system for randomly resurfacing his notes and annotating them. As cool as it is, I simply don’t have time to review and revise notes each day. Moreover, I find his rules for when to highlight versus bold a bit fiddly. Instead, I’m simply trying to make a point to improve my notes each time I use them. As I use a note, I’ll clarify or highlight the portion I used.
With these three takeaways, my notes should become more and more useful over time. I’m sure that the system will evolve, but for now this seems to be a nice blend of simplicity and functionality.
As each year wraps up, I, like many, start thinking about my goals. What did I set out to accomplish for the year? How did I do? Admittedly, I did pretty well, successfully completing 12 of my goals for 2017.
But there were equally as many that I didn’t get to. A handful of them are simply still in progress or wrapping up, but it was clear the others failed because I just wasn’t tracking them.
This makes me laugh because anyone who knows me knows I track just about everything: tv shows, tasks, activity, sleep, habits, how I spend time on my computer, water consumption… the list goes on…
For 2018, I set out with a plan, ensuring each goal had a way to be tracked. How to track progress on some things were a no-brainer. Tracking my weight is done automatically with Fitbit scale provided I remember to stand on it. Meditating regularly is something that Streaks can track automatically as long as the app sends the data to Apple Health.
It was the larger objectives I was having trouble with – my reading goal, financial goals, interpersonal things. They were things I really wanted to work on, but without some sort of accountability, ensuring steady progress on them was easily forgotten during the day to day activities.
Seeing as I run my life out of Omnifocus, I figured that was the best place to start, but I had a few problems:
- I didn’t want my goals to get buried amongst my ongoing responsibilities.
- I didn’t like the added visual clutter of prefixing each project with something like [GOAL]
- Some of my goals like posting to this blog regularly were just tasks, not full blown projects.
- I wanted them to live within my existing folder/project/context structure of Omnifocus.
My solution was quite simple. I simply added #goal to the Notes field of each project or task relating to a goal. With that, I created a custom perspective (project-based, grouped by folder, showing any remaining tasks that included the text #goal). The perspective gives me a list of all tasks related to my goals (at least the ones being tracked in Omnifocus) in one list.
I’ve added the perspective to my toolbar, so that whenever I’m in Omnifocus, I can see all my goals in one list. It’s become a valuable part of my daily planning and keeps me focused on ensuring I’m always making progress on my goals.
I’ve been using Omnifocus for over 3 years now. It’s effectively become my second brain at this point. But lately, I’ve been running into a few hiccups.
For anyone interested in GTD or task management, I doubt I need to mention how gorgeous Things 3 is. Looking at Omnifocus feels like I’m looking at a complicated spreadsheet now. I’d switch to Things in a heartbeat, but it’s lack of sequential tasks or perspectives are deal breakers. I also find that the sidebar gets quite overwhelming fairly quickly if you use a task manager to the extent that I do. If they’d add the ability to have headers in Areas, I’d be thrilled.
Now that I’m sharing tasks with another person, mainly my grocery list, I’ve had to look elsewhere and abandon my wonderfully organized list in Omnifocus. I’m back to using Reminders for now. For a brief time, I explored GoodTask and 2Do which both sync with Reminders, but found GoodTask lacking in features and 2Do just too complicated.
Testing out Things 3, GoodTask, and 2Do really opened my eyes to how valuable a tagging system could be. While not critical to my workflow, I do think there is value in being able to assign things like energy levels, priorities, or people to certain tasks in addition to just their context. Multiple tags is on the roadmap for Omnifocus 3, but it is yet another thing to be desired in my current set up.
For now, I’ve resigned myself to keep using Omnifocus. Tags are at least on the roadmap, and sharing of lists has at least been hinted at so it seems like my best bet is to keep waiting. Hopefully, the next version will feature a simplified design as well and the wait will be worthwhile. Until then, it seems like I’ll be dealing with a little more friction when it comes to my task management system then I’d like.