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.

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Creating Project Templates for Things 3 with Shortcuts and Keyboard Maestro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Templates Using Shortcuts

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

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

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

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

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

Back to trying to get Keyboard Maestro to work…

Things Templates with Keyboard Maestro

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

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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.

Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash

Getting Things Done with Things 3

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.image.png

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).

image.pngI 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.

 

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