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Things for Mac: Intuitive & Streamlined Task Management Software

Things for Mac: Intuitive & Streamlined Task Management Software

things

    I’ve followed the development of Cultured Code’s Things with keen interest since it was announced in its early stages. It seemed like it was going to come closer to providing a truly seamless and ubiquitous, but most importantly, smooth application for managing the things that need to get done each day.

    My problem with task management applications is this: they require too much conscious effort on my part. Task management apps should flow, should make using them easier than jotting things down on a napkin. Many are perfectly functional but don’t put the effort into creating that flow. Things is the first OS X task management application I tried where I felt like I didn’t really have to try, despite it some similar features to other offerings.

    It received its fair share of praise and criticism while in beta, and I referenced both Things for Mac and Things Touch (the iPhone and iPod touch version) in articles here and elsewhere, but I always find it best – in terms of good etiquette, at least – to allow a product to exit beta before judging it.

    For those of you who want to save time, my verdict is this: it’s still the smoothest experience, and I still don’t feel like I have to try. For those who want the grand tour, follow along with me.

    The Inbox

    The first thing you’ll see when you open Things is the Inbox. Falling in line with good GTD methodology, you capture everything in your inbox as you go, and you process it later at an appropriate time. For me, this is the cornerstone of the system, and any good custom productivity system, because it allows you to keep track of everything that needs doing without allowing it to steal mental processing power and attention at that time.

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    1inbox

      The Inbox is built so that you can rapidly enter tasks in succession as they come to mind, which is great for a mind-dumping session. You can just enter the tasks as they are, or you can include notes and a deadline. Usually for a mind-dump, the description of the task is sufficient, but the extra features come in handy.

      Of course, rapid mind-dumping is important and Things caters to this, but perhaps even more important is ubiquitous capture. If all you want is ubiquitous capture on your one computer running Things, you’ve got it with the help of the Quick Entry feature. Tap a keystroke on your keyboard, and this window will appear:

      1bquickentry

        After you’ve captured tasks either on the fly with Quick Entry or in a mind-dumping session, getting those tasks sorted is an easy and smooth process. Once you’ve done some initial set-up work with Things, it’s a matter of drag-and-drop, and the occasional need to begin a new project or area of responsibility.

        Things offers ubiquitous capture beyond the computer, but it comes at a price. That price is the need to own an iPhone or iPod touch. You can then purchase and install Things Touch which is an excellent companion with sync capability, but is the subject of another review, another day.

        Today

        One of my favorite parts of Things is the Today screen. This section allows you to see tasks you have either manually designated or automatically (and perhaps recurringly) scheduled to fall on the current day. Basically, it lets you narrow down and focus exclusively on the tasks you wanted to get done today, and it reminds you of any deadlines that might’ve slipped past your memory.

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        2today

          I often have hundreds or thousands of tasks floating around in my task management software. Don’t worry, I haven’t been writing one thing here and doing another for the past year, because many of these are someday/maybe tasks I’d like to get around to in the future, when I have the time and inclination. But still, having dozens of projects and plenty of someday ideas can be a little distracting when you need to hunker down and work. I don’t need to or want to see them on a day-to-day basis; I need to see what I assigned for today on my last weekly review, hunker down, and get off the computer in time for dinner.

          And this is something I miss in too many programs: there’s not enough to focus you. There’s plenty to capture, sort, record, archive, and do all sorts of librarianesque stuff. But focus is perhaps the most important, and most frequently missing, key to having an effective and efficient day.

          Next

          The Next screen is another pane of focus, but of a different sort. Today is a focus restrained by chronological factors. Next is, as GTDers would expect, a list of the immediate next actions of each project or area of responsibility you’ve used Things to track. Today helps you focus on what you need to do to finish work and go home. Next helps you focus on what you need to do to move each of your projects forward, whether you want to finish them this week or this year.

          3next

            Scheduled & Projects

            The Scheduled pane shows you a list of all tasks for which you’ve elected to assign a due date or a recurrence. The way the data is presented is refreshing; some programs sort the tasks by numerical dates (like 12/12/12). It’s important to see this data, but what’s better is to sort the tasks by a more human-readable name and provide the exact date next to the task description as Things has done.

            So what you get here are tasks sorted by names like Daily, Every month, or just March, to give you an overview of when and how often things happen:

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            4scheduled1

              I would suggest that Cultured Code implement a calendar view so you can see what’s coming up in a more tangible way.

              Projects is a succinct, well-presented listing of all your active projects, as well as your someday and scheduled projects which can be hidden from view until the time comes. I haven’t got a lot of them going on in this reviewing deployment of Things – there are a heap in my day-to-day deployment and I’ve just taken that and stripped it of sensitive projects for screenshots, and that happened to be most of them!

              5projects

                Things will give you the name and rough due date of the project, along with the number of tasks inside and a satisfying checkbox for when you’ve completed the whole thing.

                The pane for active projects themselves gives you all the information you’ve recorded regarding the project as a whole at the top — description, due date, notes, tags, and so on — followed by a listing of all the tasks that comprise the project, with similar data available. You need to double-click tasks to see info other than the description (which I think is a good thing), but the project overview information is persistent:

                6activeproject

                  Area of Responsibility provides a place to assign those tasks that don’t fall under a time-constrainted, results-oriented project, and are either one-offs or recurring tasks for a role you occupy. This pane works a lot like the Inbox, a clean listing of the tasks, and nothing but the tasks.

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                  Someday

                  Every good system needs a place for you to dump the ideas you’ve ubiquitously captured but can’t or don’t want to work on yet. Someday items and projects stay out of the road until you’re ready to review them or drag them onto the production line. If a piece of task management software doesn’t have a Someday section, I won’t use it, so I’m glad to see this.

                  someday

                    What I’d Like to See

                    While Things is a great piece of software and is now my preferred day-to-day digital task management system, there’s one place where I think it falls down the most: synchronization. The ability to sync between my phone and one Mac is a great start, but I have more than one Mac and I spend equal amounts of time working on each.

                    So while Things works great when I’m out and about and need to remember something, or I’m plugging away at my iMac, I’m left out in the cold while I’m on my Macbook Pro. So far I’ve made this work by using Things Touch, but trust me when I say this approach gets mighty tiresome. I’m longing for Things to synchronize between my iPhone and multiple Macs.

                    Perhaps the best way to facilitate this would be by syncing through a service like Remember the Milk; it saves Cultured Code from having to develop an entire online infrastructure to facilitate said synchronization over the Internet, and it allows you to access your tasks wherever there’s an Internet connection if you don’t have an iPhone or you lose it.

                    Go take a look at Things for Mac — I highly recommend it!

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                    Joel Falconer

                    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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                    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

                    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

                    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

                    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

                    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

                    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

                    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

                    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

                    Curiosity

                    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

                    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

                    Patience

                    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

                    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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                    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

                    A Feeling for Connectedness

                    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

                    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

                    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

                    How to Self-Taught Effectively

                    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

                    1. Research

                    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

                    Learning the Basics

                    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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                    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

                    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

                    Hitting the Books

                    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

                    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

                    Long-Term Reference

                    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

                    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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                    2. Practice

                    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

                    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

                    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

                    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

                    3. Network

                    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

                    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

                    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

                    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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                    4. Schedule

                    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

                    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

                    Final Thoughts

                    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

                    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

                    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

                    More About Self-Learning

                    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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