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.

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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:

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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

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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.

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

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.