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.

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.

Using Anytime as a Next Actions List in Things 3

It’s crazy to think I’ve been practicing GTD for over a decade now. My system today looks nothing like what I started with (feel free to venture back to some of my older posts to see what I’m talking about), which comes as no surprise since my life today is drastically different from when I was in high school. Life changes aside, one of the reasons my system has changed so much in the past year or so is actually due to Things 3.

Now that sounds like a bad thing, but coming from the virtually unlimited possibilities of Omnifocus, switching to the much simpler Things 3 and working within its constraints has actually strengthened my understanding of GTD.

One of the concepts I’ve been rethinking in recent months is projects.

David Allen’s concept of a project is anything that requires more than one action, but I’d long resisted that idea. It seemed pointless to clutter my system with overly fussy projects for seemingly simple things like buying a new jacket.

Instead, I’d just toss “Buy New Jacket” onto a list where it’d inevitably languish because, just as David Allen warned would happen, the next action wasn’t to buy the jacket but to first figure out what size my previous jacket from the manufacturer that fit so perfectly was.

Once I loosened my grip on projects needing to be 10+ actions, it became quite clear that even after years of using GTD, I was still relying on my mind to track a LOT of things. I had a lot of open loops I wasn’t accounting for.

So as pointless as it seemed to introduce clutter into the Things 3’s sidebar, following the more than one action definition of a project actually has gotten me closer to a “mind-like-water” state, as David Allen would say. If a little added clutter means less stress overall, that’s a trade I’m willing to make.

It also turns out that a more fine-grained approach to projects lets me use the Anytime view in Things as a de-facto Next Actions list.

The key is to

  1. Be intentional about keeping only things I can and also intend to do within the next 2 weeks in Anytime, and
  2. Limit the view to only display 1 Next Action Step (View > Next Action Steps).

With that, Anytime becomes a list of only currently actionable projects with their next actionable step I can take to move each one forward.

If you’ve read Getting Things Done as many times as I have, you know David harps on how freeing of a feeling it can be to have a grasp on your “open loops” at this level, but reading it and experiencing it are two totally different things.

I now have the clarity of being able to see exactly what I can to do to move a project forward. Ambiguous, overwhelming tasks end up being pretty easy. Moreover, I’m more cognizant of making sure there’s always a next actionable item on my part (even if it’s following up with someone else in a few days) so that the onus is on me to make sure projects I’ve committed to continue to move forward.

Both of these together mean I’m finishing more projects, doing them more quickly, and feeling less stressed about them. It also makes providing weekly updates to my colleagues a breeze since everything’s right there.


And with that, this will be my last blog post of the year. I’ll be taking off the remainder of the year to decompress, plan for the upcoming year, and spend some much-needed relaxation time.

As always, I want to give a big thank you to my friends and family, and most of all, you wonderful readers for supporting me and encouraging me to continue blog over the past year.

I’ll be back in the new year with my annual yearly update and goal post and plenty more content.

-Andrea

Quirks with the Things 3 Sidebar

by default 2019-10-29 at 8.54.29 AMToday I wanted to take some time to talk about something that’s been on my mind for the last few months, and that’s Things 3’s sidebar.

I’ve raved on here in the past about how much I love the design philosophy of Things. The top part of the sidebar really does make sense in terms of guiding you to prioritize your work using the GTD methodology. I’ve come to realize the way it handles areas and projects could use some serious rethinking though.

For starters, if you adopt David Allen’s definition of a project where anything that takes more than two steps is a project you end up with an unwieldy sidebar of projects. I’ve tried breaking my areas down further, but then you just end up with a bunch of areas as well. While not as big of a deal on macOS, it certainly makes managing things on iOS cluttered and complicated.

Another perplexing choice is the progress pies. At first, I loved them, but now I’m just not sure what their purpose is. I’ve already mentioned my desire to have them be optional to allow for sub-areas, but there’s a bigger issue at play.

By not allowing for task dependencies, Things 3’s design encourages you to adopt a strict adherence of GTD where only next actions exist for projects and subsequent actions are stored elsewhere. If you do this, Anytime becomes a functional “Next Actions” list, but it also means your progress pies will be never accurate. A project will appear to be almost complete when in reality it could have 20 more actions, they’re just stored elsewhere.

I’m not really sure what could be done in terms of rethinking the sidebar, but for now, I’ve basically stopped using it. When it’s not completely hidden, my areas are almost always collapsed, and I work from the main area view. This has some limitations because you can’t drag a task into a project within that view – only via the sidebar. Why this is, I have no clue…

Progress pies have entirely lost their intended meaning in my workflow. Instead, what they’ve come to symbolize are stalled projects. If a progress pie is full, that doesn’t mean a project is complete but rather that it is missing a next action. Progress pies on my areas reflect how much I’m spending on them – the fuller the circle the more I’m accomplishing in those areas.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still love Things, and I’m using it every day with no plans to move anywhere else. It has just been a surprise to me that an app so focused on its design has ended up with some oddly thought out quirks.

Meeting Notes with Evernote and Things 3

When the makers of Agenda announced they were adding support for Reminders, I immediately began envisioning a future where action items were seamlessly captured and imported into Things via its Import from Reminders feature as I took meeting notes. Unfortunately, in practice, the process wasn’t nearly as seamless as I hoped.

When creating a reminder in Agenda, the developers’ expectations were that users would want to process the details of task immediately. In my opinion, there are two problems with this line of thinking:

  1. It’s often best to capture action items quickly and worry about adding in the details (due dates, sorting them, etc) later so that you can maintain your focus on the meeting.
  2. You may not have all the details of a task up front. You might need to reword it or you may need to spend time thinking about when to tackle it. Processing a task properly requires additional thinking, which is why it’s often a separate step in a planning process.

Another important but missing feature is a lack of any way to view all of your outstanding reminders in one place inside Agenda. You have to use the Reminders app. You can view dated reminders within the calendar view in the sidebar, but undated reminders only reside within the note. If you’re a Things user, like myself, any imported reminders are immediately deleted from the Reminders app after they’re imported to Things, so for my use case, they’re basically lost in Agenda. The suggested workaround in their forums is to not only create a reminder, but also add a tag to it such as #todo. By tagging the reminder, you could then create a saved search based on that tag to see any outstanding reminders, which is more work on my part.

Now before I continue, I want to say the guys behind Agenda are great. In fact, they already have a few solutions up their sleeves to solve the problems I mentioned above. Unfortunately, those features don’t have any definite release schedule, and with my premium subscription up for renewal, I wasn’t sold on paying for a note taking app I was only using for meeting agendas when I already pay for similar apps.

In the end, I decided not to renew my subscription and opted to move all my meeting notes back Evernote.

A few of you long time readers might be thinking, “But wait a minute, Andrea. You said you moved to Agenda because you like keeping your meeting agendas separate.” But in the time since that post, I’ve seriously rethought how I use tags, which has allowed me to create a saved search to quickly see all my active meeting notes throughout Evernote.

The saved search simply looks for all notes tagged with a “#meeting note” tag that’s not tagged with an “archive” tag. I’ve saved it as a shortcut so all of my active meeting notes are just a click away.

by default 2019-08-21 at 8.54.30 AM

And now you might be asking, what about your vision of a seamless integration with Things? Evernote definitely hasn’t added any integration for Things nor do they have plans to, but the ever-trusty Keyboard Maestro can automate just about anything, so that’s what I did.

I set up a macro triggered by typing the string “/todo”. By typing “/todo” at the end of a line in Evernote, Keyboard Maestro copies the current line of text, launches the Things Quick Entry pane, pastes the current line of text into the Quick Entry Pane and saves the task. It then returns me to Evernote where it formats the line as a To-do item. You can see it in action here:

evernotethings

The whole process takes mere seconds, and instead of shifting my attention away from the meeting, I can remain focused on what’s being discussed in the moment knowing my action items will be waiting for me to process them in the Things inbox later. It’s exactly the seamless process I was hoping for.

Distinguishing Sub-Areas in Things

A pet peeve of mine in Things is the inability to have sub-areas. In my eyes, you’re forced into categorizing your tasks into one of two ways – neither of which work all that great:

  • Option 1: Areas for all the things!
    Pro: You’re actually using areas and projects as Culture Code intended
    Con: In order to pull this off, you’ll likely have lots of areas which becomes overwhelming to look at, especially on iOS.
  • Option 2: Areas for higher level things, and projects for sub areas.
    Pro: Less visual clutter
    Pro: By using projects for sub-areas, you can take advantage of project-only features like headers
    Con: You’re not using the app as intended so you lose the distinction between actual projects and sub areas

While I’ve settled with Option 2 as the better option for my use cases, I’ve never been fully satisfied with my projects and sub areas being indistinguishable from one another.

Over the past several months of using Things, I’ve played around with a few characters to differentiate the two. The two that have stood out in my mind are the checkbox symbol (☑︎) and what Apple’s character palette considers a “Parenthesis Extension” (⎜). ( They actually have separate characters for both left and right extensions, but I can’t seem to find any visual difference between the two.)

I eventually settled with prefixing my sub-areas the parenthesis extension rather than prefixing each project with the checkbox.  The extension seemed to introduce the least amount of visual clutter, and I find the divide also visually indents the sub-areas nicely under their main areas which helps to further the idea of it being nested under the area.

I still wish Cultured Code would just allow us to selectively disable the “progress pies” for sub-areas, but until then, this is a nice way of quickly distinguishing sub-areas from projects.

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

denisse-leon-1320856-unsplash
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.