Remaining Productive with Things: The Pandemic Edition

Back in March I wrote about how I managed my time using the task manager app, ‘Things’. The gist of that post was that rather than struggling to remember or stay on top of all of the various activities you want to complete (no matter how small) – you chuck them all into Things, and free up the mental energy that would otherwise be expended in tracking them.

For a while, this approach worked really well, but over time I found that I was confronted every day with a huge list of tasks that needed completed, and there wasn’t any kind of tangible satisfaction in completing them, as I knew at midnight the next day’s tasks would appear on cue. Rather than helping to alleviate stress, Things began to contribute to the overwhelming pressure of everyday life, which had come sharply into focus thanks to national COVID lockdowns and varying restrictions. Things I was ment to enjoy (like making music) were reduced to yet another tickbox to be churned through.

What made the above worse was that there were recurring tasks that I wanted to complete, but often failed to find time for. I didn’t want to take them off my daily list, but I didn’t want them to have the same mental load as other tasks.

Taking inspiration from this blog post, I followed Andrea’s lead, and changed the way I approach task management with Things. Rather than having one large daily list of jobs to get through, I now have them separated into their respective categories. The tasks that I definitely want to complete that day come in at the top, under ‘Daily Tasks’, and I try to keep this to a manageable load, so that I can always clear them out. Other things that I want to get done, but don’t necessarily have to get done that specific day are then available for me to work through, based on how I feel/what energy I have that day.

How my Things to do list is organised now.

This new approach has made a huge difference to my relationship with the daily to do list. Rather than feeling like I am endlessly fighting a losing battle to keep ticking off checkboxes, I can now see at a glance exactly what tasks need to be done that day. By keeping those separate, deliberately chosen, and manageable, I no longer feel like the other bits and pieces that I want to do are a chore. If something isn’t in the Daily Tasks list – it can be done another day… and ironically, since adopting this method, I’ve gotten even more done than usual, because I don’t feel the same pressure to complete everything.

Pomodoro

One other thing that I have adopted which is worth mentioning is the Pomodoro technique. The general idea here is that you split up your time into chunks of about 20 minutes, and deliberately focus on a particular task for that period of time, before taking a break and either moving on to something else, or committing to another 20 minute period of focus.

This notion isn’t anything new. I am sure I’m not the only one who sat in maths and thought ‘Okay just get through the next five minutes and then it’ll be another five minutes after that’. Plenty of people have written about this extensively elsewhere… but it’s not an approach that I’ve ever really come to use in any disciplined way. Breaking up my tasks at work was always too difficult, and concentrating for 20 minutes to then have a break and return to the same tasks felt too artificially scheduled for my liking.

However… since I switched up my approach in Things, I’ve had success using the Pomodoro model for my own personal projects – particularly those that I want to get done but struggle to get the motivation to start. For example, I am currently learning Japanese, but sometimes (often) the prospect of firing up the flashcard app for an indeterminate amount of time seems like too much of a chore, and I put it off. Before I know it, I haven’t done it in days.

Now, I sit down and say – okay, I’ll just do it for 20 minutes just now, and then go off and do something else. Knowing that it’s such a short amount of time means I can focus much more than I normally would, and I have been rattling through tasks like never before. This also helps me work out just how much time I actually spend or need to spend on certain activities to complete them, and it can be much less than I expected.

We’ll see how this mutates and modifies as time goes on, but for now… this is the approach.

Staying Productive with Things

Things Logo

More than productivity

I am a person that needs to have a bunch of different projects going on at any one time. Whether it’s making music, writing blogs, building weird keyboards, or restoring old iPods, if I don’t keep my mind busy, it quickly begins to turn in on itself. At the same time, my work involves managing a variety of disparate projects that can vary from day to day.

All of this has become increasingly difficult to keep track of over the years, and none of the various calendars, diaries or bits of software I tried really helped. However, about six months ago my colleague and friend Bryan convinced me to give an app called ‘Things’ a go, and it has pretty much transformed how I manage my time. As well as becoming far more productive, I have found that I am far less stressed out, and feel more in control. I had never appreciated just how significant the cognitive load of having to juggle so many tasks was, or how much anxiety I had internalised as a result. Now, I no longer worry about forgetting to do something, or lie awake at night unable to sleep while my brain organises the things I have to do the next day.

At the end of the day, Things is just a To Do list app, but it’s an especially pleasant one to use, with a really smart workflow. Rather than wasting what Bryan would call ‘brain cycles’ worrying about er, things, you let Things take care of them. In particular, it wasn’t until I found myself increasingly filled with despair about the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic that I realised just how invaluable Things had become for keeping my mind clear. Rather than allow myself to become consumed with the developing news cycle, I instead chose to rely on Things more, and focus on what I wanted to get done in the following days. While it seems trivial, this helped tremendously. So in this blog I wanted to share a bit about how I make use of Things, and what I’ve learned.

The Basics

Things is a beautifully designed to-do list app from Cultured Code which runs on both Mac and iOS. It doesn’t run on Windows, and (annoyingly) there is no web or Android version (though see this post for my workaround). The current version at the time of writing is Things 3. It is apparently based on the ‘Getting Things Done‘ methodology.

Boiled down, Things essentially just provides a very pleasant way to quickly create and manage tasks – the beauty of it though is the myriad of different ways that you can view and organise these. At its most simple, you have an Inbox where you can dump all sorts of to do items to be organised, and then categorise them into different subject matter areas or projects.

Things Inbox

Tasks can be set to only appear on a specific ‘due date’ – presented in the ‘Today’ window. They can also be set to recur upon completion, or at set intervals.

Things Today view

For tasks that absolutely must be completed by a certain date, you can flag them up with a deadline.

Deadline - Things

Selecting an Area or Project on the left will display only the tasks that are associated with it, if you want to focus on something specifically.

Things

If you have tasks that you want to get to, but they aren’t time specific, you can throw them in the ‘Anytime’  bucket… and for ideas that you want to explore at some point, they can be filed away under ‘Someday’ for when you get time. You can also tag any task to further organise them to whatever level of detail you want.

Things Anytime

There are a bunch of other features as well which I won’t go into in any depth just now – such as the Logbook which keeps track of all of your completed tasks, the calendar integration so you see what appointments you have on any particular day, and the ‘Upcoming’ view which provides a longer term perspective of what’s on the horizon.

How I use Things: Workflow, Tips & Tricks

Everybody will use Things slightly differently, and I borrowed a lot of my approach from my sensei Bryan. However, here’s some of what I’ve found works:

Add everything – no matter how small – I literally add everything I need to remember to do as a task into Things. Whether that’s remembering to wash the dishes, or to chop carrots for dinner, I offload everything onto there so that I don’t need to think about it. At first this can seem pretty ridiculous, or like you are outsourcing your faculties to an app, but it frees up your mind to focus on other things that are more important. This also means that you have a mixture of things you enjoy as well as specific obligations – which helps to avoid dreading opening the app in the first place.

Make use of shortcuts – There are a bunch of useful shortcuts, the most important of which lets you very quickly add in To Do list items to your inbox while you are browsing the web, to be categorised later. Learn these, as the less friction you have in adding tasks or managing them, the easier and more natural it becomes – and the more you can focus on what you are doing at the time.

Only add things to your daily pile that you can actually achieve – It took me a while to realise that I would add all sorts of tasks to my daily list that I wanted to do, but which realistically I would never be able to get done. That ended up pretty demoralising, as I saw the same To Do items rolling over day after day, unchecked. Now, I only add things that I either have to get done, or which I have a reasonable shot at completing, and it has been far more effective.

Organise your tasks for the following day – Every night I look over the tasks I have for the next day, and organise them roughly by when I want to complete them, and ask myself what seems reasonable to do in one day. If it seems like there’s too much, I punt it to the following day. This ritual helps me organise my thoughts and get to sleep faster.

Set smaller goals, and be judicious with repeating tasks – It can be tempting to set a goal like ‘I will do one hour of Japanese study every day!’ and to add it in as a repeating task that appears on your list on the stroke of midnight. However, I found that this was actually counter-productive, as I began to just ignore these broad repeating tasks. Instead, I would manually set much more specific, one off tasks, like ‘Do 2 lessons on DuoLingo’ – which made them far easier to complete.

Use tags creatively – There are all sorts of cool ways you can make use of tags. For a practical example… I save lots of news articles to Pocket, but never actually get around to reading them. The same applies to YouTube videos. Now what I do is chuck them into Things, and tag them with the time they will take to complete – ’10m’ for example. Then, whenever I have a spare ten minutes and I’m not sure what to do – I can dip in and quickly find something to fill that time.

Separate out evening tasks – There’s no point having stuff you have to do after dinner wrapped up in the same list as everything else, and Things lets you specifically ring-fence tasks for the evening within a specific day. Make use of this!

Projects are useful! – I didn’t really utilise the Projects feature for ages, relying instead on individual tasks within Areas, but then I realised you could put Projects under Areas. Game changer. Now I use Projects a lot to manage groups of different tasks that add up to a larger goal, which is really useful.

Summary

…and that’s it. At first I didn’t really get what the big deal with Things was, and thought some of the practices were a bit bizarre and redundant, but I genuinely think that organising things in this way has made a huge difference to both my productivity, sense of achievement, and overall zen. It ain’t cheap, and they need to hurry up and just make an Android app already damnit, but I’m not sure what I would do without it at this point.

Things Blog