Time is scarce today. It’s an oft repeated statistics that the information we deal on one single day, is equal to the information one person used to deal with in a lifetime in the sixth century. We are constantly juggling multiple tasks at any one given point of time. No wonder we are constantly in stress. The ability to allocate time to all the things calling our attention – time management – has become an art today. Are we able to get things done? In short, are we productive? Over the course of the last decade many theories have been proposed to answer this burning question. Some stood the test of time, some didn’t. One such theory, which I feel is genuinely beneficial to all is GTD system – ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen. According to him, it is not just a time management philosophy but a life management one. It has a cult following across the globe. I’ve been practicing GTD over the last 5 years, and though it is tool agnostic, I’ve always gravitated towards the high tech side looking for a one stop solution – the one app wto solve my task management woes. But, slowly I realized that, there is no such solution. We can only find a good app and make it work for us.
In the mac universe, two apps come to mind when we think of GTD – Omnifocus & Things. Omnifocus has been dubbed as the app for the power users. And, I never could take to that app so, I voted for Things. I simply love the app. It’s available for Mac, iPhone & iPad. I capture, process, organize tasks on the go, and have them all synced back to my mac. With Things Cloud, sync is lightening fast. It’s very relieving to have ‘Things’ with me all the time, on the road and at home. This ubiquity of the tool made it indispensable to to me.
So, How is Things structured?
Unlike other GTD apps, Things does not pride in many options, but in few. It has a beautiful uncluttered interface with a sidebar and main work window. The sidebar shows the Inbox, Focus lists – Today, Next, Scheduled, Someday to work from and Projects & Areas for higher level organizing and tracking of tasks. Tags (which double up as contexts), notes, due dates, and start dates can be added while creating a task. Tags is the most flexible aspect of Things which can be used to specify the contexts, time estimates, priorities, etc of the the to-do item. A tag bar running over the top of the main window lets us filter the current list’s view by tag, by schedule, or both. There’s also a logbook to house all completed tasks and a trash can at the bottom. Let us see these different lists in detail:
- Inbox: This is where we collect all our thoughts, capture all the open loops, unfinished work in our mind – our dumping ground till we decide to plough through. Once collected, we can process all tasks at our ease.
- Today: As the name implies, Today is a list of tasks we want to complete today. All to-dos from Next & Scheduled lists starred for today or scheduled for today are highlighted in yellow and appear here.
- Next: This list shows all the active, incomplete to-dos grouped by projects or areas of focus. If we are done with the today list, we can then move to this list to flag tasks to do.
- Scheduled: If there’s a task or a project that cannot be done until a future date, we move it here. For example, I have a doctor appointment on coming saturday, then, there’s no point in having it turn up in my current agenda, since there’s nothing I can do about it till that day. So, I drag the item onto this list. A dialogue box then appears letting me specify the date I want this task to turn up in my Today list. (Another advantage of Things – scheduled tasks reflect in Today list when they are due)
- Someday: This bucket is for those tasks that we want to do someday. Tasks we want to do, but do not know if we want to, or when we want to can be put in this category. Tasks/projects in this list will not appear in any other lists, unless moved out.
- Projects: According to GTD, projects are the outcomes we want to achieve that take multiple actions to complete. Projects appear in the Active Projects list on the left-hand side of Things’ window which can be clicked to view its tasks. Tasks even appear in the focus lists depending on how we processed them. Tasks can be moved from one project to another by a simple drag and drop. Things shows the list of all projects when clicked on ‘Projects’ in the sidebar.
- Areas: These can mean two things. The different areas of responsibility in our life – Personal, family, career, finances, health, etc. Or areas of focus. We may have individual action items or projects under these areas. Areas are ongoing unlike Projects which have specific outcomes.
With these simple categories to organize our tasks, Things paves our way to GTD.
The only gripe I have with Things is it does not do timely reminders. Other than that, this app is perfect for me. I’ve sent a feature request to the developers. Hope they include it soon. But, till that happens I’ll have to rely on a reminders app for any time sensitive tasks.
How I use Things:
I have ‘Areas’ setup for all my roles & responsibilites – Personal, Family, Friends, Health, Finances, Career, Home, etc. with related projects and single actions under them. I add tasks to the Inbox all through the week but may or may not process them. I set up sometime every week to do the processing & organizing aka weekly review. I’m very particular about doing this periodical system review because any system is as good as the trust we put into it. For our minds to trust an external system and stop tracking tasks unconsciously, it needs to believe that there’s an external system that tracks all our tasks well and reminds us at the appropriate time. For this to happen, we need to have our system up-to-date which will in turn happen only if we setup some time on a regular basis to do a system audit. Thats my weekly review – the time I’ve put aside to update the system with the most updated reality. This, review generally takes 2 hours every week (‘have a repeating ‘weekly review’ to-do in my scheduled lists for saturdays) to do my review.
During my weekly review, I check all my collection zones – my inboxes – 3 in my case – one at office, one at home and my iPhone and upload what all I’ve captured into the Inbox of Things mac. Then, I do a mind sweep to check if I missed out on anything else. Once, I have all the tasks in the inbox, I sit and process them. I schedule tasks I want to get done in the coming week so they can reflect in the Today list when the day arrives. I try keep these scheduled tasks to a minimum ’cause seeing 20-30 to-dos hit my Today list on any given day when I’m not sure I can get them done, demotivates me. I generally limit them to below 10. Similarly, I use due dates also very sparingly. Unless and until the task is truly “due” on a particular day, I don’t use them. Once done with the Inbox, I review tasks in the Next list. I try to schedule some tasks from this list for the coming week. Similarly, I check the Scheduled list to see if any tasks/projects need be advanced or postponed. Then, I move on to the Someday list to see if any tasks/projects can be moved to Next or Scheduled (i.e. made active). This completes my weekly review. Now Things is updated. I trust it. And, with a trusted system in place, and a realization that I’m making the best use of my time, I know I’m managing my time productively.
We all, in our capacities need to work on setting up one such system (paper or digital) which works for us. What we get in return is a relaxed state of mind. And with so much of information overload all around us, I think it’s a smart bargain.