How I replaced everything with Notion: Recurring Tasks and Wishlists

Things: To Do items and other projects

I’ve written before about how much I love Things, and that hasn’t changed. When it comes to organising and tracking daily tasks, Things is still my go-to. However, there were a couple of issues that I had begun to run into which were becoming counter-productive:

  1. Too many tasks, not enough organisation: Similar to what I had experienced with Evernote, while I was quick to dump all sorts of things I wanted to do into Things, it seemed like the ‘Someday’ and ‘Anytime’ pile were growing and growing into a huge, unmanageable mass. Piles of articles to read, videos to watch, and miscellaneous tasks. Even using tags, it was becoming a strange source of low-level anxiety, as I knew I would never get round to doing anything there.
  2. Recurring tasks never ‘completed’: Lots of the things I want to do are daily tasks, such as practicing Japanese, or making music. The problem with this was that most of my To Do list never really changed. I would tick off the checkbox, only to… immediately re-create it for the next day. It felt like a pointless exercise, and didn’t provide any of the satisfaction that I should feel upon completing a task.
Things Organisation
Eugh, what a mess.

What I realised was… neither recurring tasks or lists of videos to watch, articles to read, or music to listen to are actually To Do list items at all, but something quite different.

What I thought of as daily tasks are actually habits, rather than ‘to do’ items.

This was an important one. Realising this was liberating, as I could approach the issue differently – with a Habit Tracker.

My habit tracker within Notion.

There are various different kinds of habit tracker templates available, and I customised one that I found online (I can’t remember where now, sorry!). Each week I create a new table, and adjust the habits I want to focus on as appropriate. This not only allows me to more easily track and report on my progress – but also frees up my To Do list in Things for one-off, immediate tasks that need to be completed on a specific day.

Things to Read, Watch, and Listen to

As I mentioned, my Things ‘Anytime’ lists were filled with different articles I wanted to read, or videos I wanted to watch at some point, and it simply wasn’t working. Instead, I created different databases in Notion to gather and organise this stuff.

For example, here is my list of films to watch…

an excerpt from my Reading List (don’t judge)…

and my trimmed down YouTube list (filtering out the Japanese learning videos, as there’s so many of them).

The beauty of this is that I can organise them in a much deeper way with Notion, assigning tags, related URLs, authors, etc – and then sort/display them on that basis. Rather than facing a huge list of items to get through like when they were chucked into Things, I can now dive in to the specific database and find exactly what I want when I have some spare time. I can also add notes and ratings when I’ve actually read or watched them, which are also reportable/sortable.

Blog Post Ideas

Ideas for blog posts were another thing that I used to store in Things, which didn’t really work out all that well. The reality with blog posts is that they all exist at different stages – and are more like mini-projects than To Do list items to be checked off.

Now, I organise them as documents within Notion, like so:

Each entry acts as its own ‘page’, which can contain notes, images, etc, and I can assign tags depending on the status of any particular post (from idea, to ‘in progress’, to completion).

Again, doing this means that my To Do list is freed up and reserved for items which require action and completion in the short term – which brings added focus and clarity.

Visibility

Aside from the deeper meta-data capabilities that come with Notion’s database approach, there’s also something else which has proven to be invaluable, but also really simple… and that’s the visibility of the tasks.

While hard to capture in a screenshot, all of my different lists or projects can be displayed on my home dashboard in a neat, logical, organised way.. with a custom view as appropriate. This means that instead of dumping things into ‘Anytime’ or ‘Some Day’ in Things and forgetting about them, I can keep certain projects or items on my radar – without them becoming too intrusive or overwhelming.

Summary

Things is great, but trying to use it as a master tracking utility for everything simply wasn’t working for me. Offloading the larger and longer term projects to Notion, and having Things focus on specific things I need to get done on a day to day basis has made a huge difference. Give it a bash. 

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

Submitting to Things 3 App from Telegram with Integromat

My colleague Bryan is a productivity whizz. So much so that we often question whether he is actually human, and whether or not he would pass a Turing Test. I too am partial to finding ways to improve things that I have to do every day, and so when he gave a passionate recommendation for the To Do list app ‘Things’ from Cultured Code, I wanted to dive in headfirst, and I loved it straightaway.

No Android App

The problem with Things 3 however, is that it runs entirely within the Apple ecosystem. That means there’s no web interface, and crucially… no Android application. Having ditched the iPhone a while ago, I was left with no easy way to quickly add items to my To Do list while out and about. There is a way to send tasks via e-mail, but having to open up my mailbox, find the contact etc felt like too much friction for what should be much simpler.

Telegram and ifttt

What I do use all the time is the secure messaging app Telegram, and my dream was that I could just fire off a quick message and somehow have that shoot off an e-mail which would add the task to the Things inbox. It seemed like ifttt.com would make this simple, but it was actually much harder than expected. GMail’s ‘send’ integration no longer seems to work, and the built in ‘e-mail’ service only allows you to have one address associated with your ifttt account at any one time – restricting my workflow options as a result. This really should not be that complicated!

Integromat

I came across Integromat, which is essentially a much more powerful version of ifttt. The premise is the same though: You connect up a bunch of services, and tell them to do various tasks based on different circumstances. Unlike ifttt though, you can delve pretty deeply into the automations. It’s a bit trickier to pick up at first – especially if you aren’t familiar with programming, but gives a far greater degree of customisation.

To get my messages from Telegram into Things, I created the following ‘scenario’:

Integromat Telegram Bot ThingsThe way it works is by having a dedicated Telegram bot watch out for messages and send them via my GMail account to the special e-mail address for the Things inbox.

I decided that I might want to use this virtual helper for other things though, and didn’t want every single command I sent it to end up in Things as a To Do list item. To avoid that, I set up a filter on the scenario so that it would only send e-mails if the message began with ‘todo’ or ‘/todo’. Additionally, I used a text parser to take out those trigger words, and to add in a prefix of ‘via Telegram:’, so that when I look back on my outstanding tasks later, I have a bit of context about where they came from. In other words, if I add some bizarre things to my To Do list when intoxicated, at least I’ll know that it was down to Telegram.

For the final bit of the puzzle, I added in a step for the bot to reply when the workflow was processed successfully – including a copy of what was sent to Things:

Telegram Bot success messageIn Telegram, that looks like this:

Telegram Bot Things 3

Finally, here it is, magically appearing in my Things inbox for parsing later:

Things Inbox

p.s. You might be wondering what that reference to ‘operations’ at the end is all about. With Integromat, you get a certain number of resources allocated per month, depending on what kind of account you have. A free user gets about 1,000 operations per month, and each time I add a To Do list item, it takes up about 5 operations. With my awful maths that works out at about 200 To Do list items per month… which should be way more than I ever need, but I wanted to have some kind of visual indicator, just incase things started re-routing to a digital black hole somewhere.

The End?

So there you have it: How I got around the problem of adding tasks to my Things 3 To Do list when I’m not near my computer. Integromat looks very cool, and I’m going to have to think up some other commands for my bot to respond to… but really, this would be much simpler if Cultured Code would release an Android app.