The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

GTD Overview Part 4: Task Management using Things

Effective task management—, the organization of the building blocks of your 'system'—is crucial to getting things done effectively. In part 4 of this series I will be demonstrating how I manage my tasks using Things from Cultured Code. The information included will be both a review of some of the features of Things, as well as I how use the application in my workflow.

But it's important to remember that the actual application is not the key, but the concepts which govern how you use it. Most of this article should also be pertinent to readers who use other tools.

Overview of Things

There is no doubt that Things is a good looking app. The interface is sleek, even in beta. For me, this is a feature in itself. It was one of the reasons I was quite interested in Things when I first read about it.

After several months of usage, it's clear to me now that the good design is more than skin deep. Even in beta, Things offers most of the features I'm looking for. And the developers are promising more by the time the 1.0 version is released. More importantly, the way in which the features have been implemented makes Things a real pleasure to use. The gang at Cultured Code clearly spend a lot of time considering how the end user will interact with their application.

Basics

If you have never seen Things in action, the first thing to know is that there are three categories under which your tasks may fall. They can be assigned to a Project, an Area or stand alone completely on their own. Understanding Projects and Areas is key to using this app. Projects are simply a list of tasks to accomplish a goal that has an end. On the other hand, Areas (areas of responsibility in the world of GTD) have no final end. There is no date or final task that will complete an area—a person will continue to accumulate tasks in this regard.

This is the most basic understanding a person needs to get started with this application. But if you would like more of an introduction, spend some time at the Things wiki.

The first aspect I want to focus on is the setup of the application. It's simple—there are two main sections. The tasks pane and the sidebar.

Tasks Pane

The tasks pane is where you work with your actual tasks. You can create, delete, check off or rearrange tasks here. As well, this is where you add any metadata necessary (title, tags, due dates, or notes). The navigation in the task pane is very fluid and moving tasks around is intuitive—average joe user could figure this out without reading any documentation. Clicking on the name of a project or area that a task is assigned to will take you straight to the project or area itself.

Also, you can drag and drop tasks into a project, area or even a focus source list in the sidebar. There are a few drag and drop operations that are currently not supported, but all documentation indicates that this is a priority to the developers and will be addressed soon.

One feature that could be added to the task pane navigation would be a browser style back button. I often find that I've dug down into a sub-project and simply want to go up one level. But I have to start over by navigating in the sidebar. A couple of Finder or browser style navigation buttons would fix this.

Sidebar

The sidebar is where Things really shines. It has three headers—Collect, Focus and Organize—and resembles a source list that is quickly becoming the de facto standard in applications for OS X.

Collect Section

This section is straight forward. This is where the Inbox is located. There is nothing else currently located in this source list. Perhaps the developers will add more in the future, but for now the Inbox is where you can add tasks that will be processed later. Most often these tasks will be added via the Quick Input panel rather than directly in the Inbox itself.

Organize Section

The organize section is where the aforementioned projects and areas are listed. This is where you can reference everything related to each project or area and where the user would go to move tasks around.

A nice design touch should be mentioned here—I've done so before. When viewing your list of projects, Things shows you how many tasks a project contains as well as giving the user an idea of how many of those tasks are already completed. It does this in a subtle way, as seen in the screen below. The two shades of blue elegantly indicate a percentage of overall completion.

Another nice touch here is with due dates. If one of the projects you are viewing has an item that is due today, or is overdue, then the text of the project is red, as seen here.

Focus Section

And lastly, and in my mind most importantly, there is the Focus section. This section is where I spend most of my time in Things. The four sources under Focus are somewhat like smart folders in the OS X Finder or smart playlists in iTunes. The items that show up in here can do so based on values you have assigned to individual tasks. Example – if a task has a due date, it will display in the Today source on the day they are due. You can also manually assign tasks to one of the Focus source lists.

  • Today – the Today source list consists of any tasks that you have assigned the Today flag or any tasks that are due today. It can also include overdue tasks—if you do not check off a task that comes due, it will not be removed from the Today source list until you do so manually. Even updating the due date will not remove the Today flag.
  • Next – this source list simply lists the next couple of actions for each project or area (you can modify the number of next tasks that display under the View menu option). In addition, tasks that have been added to Things but are not assigned to any project or area will display at the very top of the Next source list.
  • Someday – this source list is simply your archive. This is where you can assign tasks, projects or areas that you eventually want to complete, but are not able to get to now.
  • Scheduled – lastly there is the Scheduled source list. Cultured Code published a great blog post regarding all the different iterations they considered for just one aspect of this feature. In the end, they implemented a really great way to schedule tasks and create recurring tasks.

Quick Input Panel

One other feature to touch on is the quick input panel. This feature uses one of the newer, HUD styles that have become so popular in Mac applications the past couple of years. You can assign your own hotkey combination to initiate this panel to appear from any other application. This is the easiest way to add tasks to Things.

You have the option to choose here to file your new task to a focus source list or any existing project or area, as seen in the drop-down list here.

But my usage has been that 90% of all tasks added via the quick input panel go to the Inbox. I then process the tasks at some later point.

Tags

One last feature to mention is the use of tags. Tags are one of the most attractive and powerful features of Things. This is a tag based application, meaning you can apply any keyword or tag to each task (and projects and areas as well). The purpose of tagging—searchability and focus through filtering. You assign certain keywords to your tags so that even if you have a large number of them, you will have an easy time of finding what you want. Things makes this feature really easy to use via the Tags bar at the top of the task pane.

If any task has a tag, the tag bar will display no matter what source list or section you navigate to in the sidebar. This makes it easy to filter to any particular tag—essentially making use of the idea of contexts in GTD.

The developers have also made Things usable for everyone. If you are a strict, by-the-book GTDer and have your entire life in your system, you can make use of tags to manage the crazy amounts of information that comes your way. But Things works just fine even if you don't know a tag from a hole in the ground. If you do not use tags at all, Things simply does not display the tag bar.


So that is a summary of the features that have stuck out to me in my usage of this application. Now I'll briefly summarize how I use the application with my GTD process/habits.

How Things Fits in My Workflow

Collect

As I mentioned above and in part 2 of this series, the majority of my tasks are entered into Things via the quick input panel. I do this when I'm on my computer and working on a particular task. Often I'll have a thought come to me that I need to get out of my head right away. So without greatly interrupting my workflow, I hit ctrl+alt+space (my choice for hotkey combo) and enter in my task with minimal details and hit return.

Now I have a new task sitting in my Inbox source list in Things.

My other major source of tasks is email. So if I'm processing emails and have one that involve tasks for me, I follow the exact same procedure. Occasionally I will fill in a few details like due dates or notes, but most often it is simply the title.

The idea behind collecting is that it's quick and easy and does not take your focus away from what you are doing. Of course, when you are working away, some part of your brain is being creative and thoughts come to you that need to get into your system. The quick input panel in Things is a great tool to get those thoughts captured while allowing you to keep doing—whatever your doing happens to be.

Process

Again, as referenced in part 2, I process my collection buckets at least once per day. Email is usually processed two to three times per day and my binder at least once. My Things Inbox generally is about the same as my main binder.

In part 2, I listed the processing of the Things Inbox under the habit of Organize. It could go under either Organize or Process – it crosses the line between the two—the actual work involved could fall under both categories. When I process the task, I remove it from the Inbox. Where I move it to is organizing in action.

What happens here is that I take all the tasks in the Inbox and make sure they have all the necessary information included. Once completed, they get filed—they are added to an existing project or area if one applies. If the task is a single action then it is moved out of the Inbox to the Next source list.

Tasks that require more than one action are dragged to the sidebar to be converted to a project.

Organize

So organizing is basically the process listed above. But there is one further point I will go in to here.

When I mentioned the Scheduled source list above, I did not get into a lot of details about the implementation of this feature. At first I didn't really use this source list—I was missing the intended point the developer had in mind. After using it a few times, the usefulness of it hit me hard.

This is basically your tickler file. You can schedules tasks that need to occur on a particular day and for which you need to be reminded.

At first glance, this can be mistaken for a calendar replacement. However, you must remember that a calendar is a hard landscape—calender entries have a date and a time and should be reserved for meetings/appointments. The tasks that are scheduled in the Scheduled source list can occur any time during each particular day. I find it very helpful to open Things, navigate to the Today source list and see all my tasks that are scheduled for that day as well as tasks that have become due.

The developer also recently added recurring tasks as well. This was a feature that was a high priority for many users, and Cultured Code delivered it well. Adding in those weekly/monthly tasks only once is great.

The entire source list is summed up nicely in the screenshot below. Scheduled tasks come first, followed by recurring tasks (indicated by the circular arrow symbol beside them). Information about each task is listed on the left, as well as above each task. In addition, if a task is assigned to a project or area it is indicated in muted text immediately preceding the task title. All in all, it's an effective attribute of the application.

Review

And lastly there is the review. I generally keep to a weekly review with additional, smaller daily reviews. Thie weekly review is a complete look at each project and area to ensure everything is up to date. Using Things, this has not been the tedious process I have found it to be in the past. Rather, it's enjoyable.

Do

Things is not really used here at all. After all, it's a tool to help you keep track of the items you need to do, but the doing happens elsewhere. All you use it for here is to reference any information you have saved as a note for any particular task.


It ended up taking a lot of words to go over something that's actually quite simple. That's part of the beauty of this application—it's simplicity makes it easy to use—yet it has powerful features that are waiting to be used should you have the need or inclination. For anyone trying to get a handle on everything they have to take care of in their life, I highly recommend giving Things a try.

&