Things.app: 12+ months

A little over a year ago, I was happily using my Bullet Journal to track everything in my life. In early October of 2018, I was juggling five research/design projects whose deadlines were shifting rapidly because of an unstable roadmap. The resulting chaos of “which thing is due when” and consequently “what should I do first?” became very overwhelming. On a whim, I installed Things, moved the date-intensive Tasks over, set new due dates… I could feel myself physically relax.

I have now employed Things alongside my journal for a year. I had tried the trial month sometime the summer before last, but I did not yet have the review habits needed to be successful. This particular attempt has left me quite pleased with the software and with @culturedcode in general. While I am still not an expert, I have learned a few tricks and gotchas that may help you.

I will never do as complete a job as the excellent review at The Sweet Setup. That is the right link1 if want to know all about Things’ feature set and differentiators, this will be a more focused conversation about my personal experience2.

The Good

Things.app has many features that are shared with other Task apps… due dates, lists, etc. Here are some of the differentiating features that attracted me.

The “forgetful Task app”

Quick add

Shawn of course has the best quote here:

I need a place to dump all the ideas, projects, and to-do items that come my way so I can happily live in the here-and-now rather than in the what’s-to-come. And Things’ ability to handle vast amounts of Tasks while keeping them in order with lists and notes is better than any other app I’ve used.

While living in the here and now is something I struggle with, this is the reason I am still in Things. I can dump a fragment of an idea, a link to a page I need to read, or a Task I need to complete to the Inbox and forget about it. Eventually, I can file the Task in its proper place, and trust the system to bring it back at the right time.

Ideally, I would only empty the Inbox once a day at the end of the day… but I am still struggling with an hourly impulse to drive to “Inbox Zero3”. I am finding a ton of value of putting any distraction into the inbox, especially during hyper-scheduling focus sessions. I have even experimented with logging “things I want to google” and “questions I am going to ask on Slack” while doing a pomodoro-style focus session. It is surprising how many questions and Tasks get deleted out of my Things Inbox because they were really never needed… and that distraction could have dragged me off a different direction.

Today / Evening

Evening

This is a simple idea, but very helpful for me. I even stole it for my Bullet Journal after the first time I used Things.

By being able to see what I have for the day separated by Today and Evening, I can get a more accurate picture of the day than if they were on separate lists/contexts of Work and Home. This is especially helpful when connected to the calendar view above.

Context notes for Projects

This is one of the main reasons to try Things. By making notes first-class citizens of both a Task and a Project, Things becomes a little more than a Task Manager.

Here are some pieces of context I have placed in the context note of a Project:

  • notes from the meeting that spawned the Project.
  • URLs to Trello/JIRA where all the collaborative work is stored.
  • “links” to bullet journal pages with notes or diagrams related to this Project.
  • names of stakeholders in this Project.

Feature Request: Context notes for Areas

Here’s an example of how I use Launch Center Pro to store “saved filters” for common searches of Tasks in Things.app

I would love to be able to store links to Things URLs for search in the Areas. I have URLs for searching for Tasks by type and urgency, and it would be nice for those to live in Things. Currently, I maintain them on my phone using Launch Center Pro and on my laptop using Alfred. Having a way to store searches in Things means one less thing, and would be very powerful for me.

The Bad

Troubles with with Tags

In Things.app, all filtering is by Tags. Areas and Projects are just views or lists. If you want to have a search that includes work things, you need to add a Tag to the Area or Project to search by. This results in me making a Tag for each Area. Consistent, but weird. There are times I’m grateful for it, because I can search across Areas, but it tripped me up at first.

One thing Omnifocus has that Things doesn’t is the ability to search for Tasks that don’t have a Tag. This would let me do things like create a filter for Tasks that are not estimated. (Basically a review filter.) There is no way that I know of to do that in Things 3. It’s on their list, but no word of when.

I also wish I could search for a Tag, but not its children. For instance, I Tag things related to my team as “@Team UX”, and my teammates’ Tags are children of that Tag. I’d like to be able to search for the team Tag and not see the children’s Tasks too. (I’ll often have Tasks tagged Agenda for the team and for one on one meetings… I’d prefer them to be separate.)

I understand Omnifocus has concepts related to sequencing and automating by location or time that makes surfacing the right Tasks easier. I’ve hacked some of this in using Launch Center Pro… it prompts me to open a search for Tasks tagged “errands” when I leave my house.

Omnifocus also has the concept of Status on Tags. The biggest use is to say that this Tag is “blocked,” allowing you to hide Tasks that depend on a colleague on vacation for instance… I guess I could manually change the name of the Tag or move it in the hierarchy to a category of Blocked, but eh.

Mass-add

I really wish you could mass add Tags easily on desktop. You can use keyboard shortcuts, but only on a case by case basis. There’s a ticket for multi select and add… which is especially weird because it works on mobile and iPad.

I have to imagine that with catalyst now in the wild, Cultured Code is considering consolidating their code base, maybe we will see more consistent interactions at that point.

Priority and Scheduling

The relationship of scheduling and priority is odd.

Priority by Date? 🚫

When I first got the app, I took my list of Tasks, assigned each and every one of them to a day in the future, and started busting through them. At the time this seemed awesome because Tasks automatically dropped into my Today list on the scheduled day.

Don’t do this.

Inevitably, you’ll have some mild emergency which means that tomorrow you’ll either do two things (unlikely) or have to push all of your Tasks forward a day.

Scheduling a Task is more about deferring the mental overhead of dealing with this Task until later. This is clearer when you notice the option to hide Tasks that are scheduled.

Now I put time blocks on my calendar by theme (email, design, communication) or Project, then pull Tasks out of Things based on the block I’ve prioritized. This has worked well for me.

The Due Date concept works as expected. It shows you how many days are left in that Task or Project, and has an inherent “scheduling” feature where it’ll show up in your Today list in the days leading up to the Due Date.

So if priority in the dates, when is it?

Priority by order? Maybe.

Things definitely would prefer you to order your Tasks by priority. The way Anytime hides all but the top few Tasks on each List definitely indicates that you ought to order Tasks by priority. But some Projects… the priority isn’t always that clear. Sometimes I have just a collection of possible Tasks, and some of them are important, and others aren’t.

Tricks and Tips

Anytime is your friend

I was really stumped by Things for a while… the views in the sidebar (Today, Upcoming, Anytime, Someday) all have to do with time, so this lead me down the wrong path for a while until I learned the truth.

You can do most things just about Anytime. So Anytime is your best buddy.

Today is the home of Tasks and Projects I have committed to today. When I run out of Tasks, I often reach into Anytime to identify the next things that I need to do.

If you go to an Area, you’ll see the Projects and Tasks for that Area… but you won’t see the Tasks inside the Projects in that Area, which is often the information you need to decide what to spend time on next. Anytime can provide that to you… especially if you use the search/filtering features.

Every single review, agenda, or fancy search that I have set up in Things is a Tag filter of the Anytime view. It’s the “backlog” of Things.

Create recurring Tasks for rituals

There is not a GTD-esque “review” view in Things.app. One way I found to make these rituals a little easier is to use Things to prompt you to groom Tasks in Things.

Repeating

While it is a helpful reminder for me, the real benefit is that you can put URLs in the Checklist and Notes… walking me through the habit that I want to build in my life. This is the only way I have found to implement the saved searches in Things.app that I was talking about in the above section.

Summary

I really like Things. I have my quibbles, but honestly it’s been more good than bad, and it’s beautiful design and context-centric view of task management keeps me coming back. Like all task managers, you get out of it what you put into it, and a couple good rituals and habits

I could see myself investing into Omnifocus at some point, but I honestly haven’t found too many problems I haven’t been able to tackle with the simple tools that Things provides, and as word-y and context-heavy as my Projects are, Things seems to be the best tool for the job.


  1. As of November 2019, that link recommends Things. As they have built a whole course around it, I don’t see that changing soon. 

  2. I have used Omnifocus only to play with the free trial. People I follow discuss it a lot, so I do hear about its featureset… and I read all its documentation while researching Tagging systems. I have also used vimwiki, Taskpaper, todo.txt, trello, Todo.app, wunderlist, and of course bullet journaling. 

  3. Nothing intrinsically wrong with inbox zero, I just want to avoid the context shift. I stop thinking about focused work when I’m answering the question “where does this go?”