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

Thoughts on (Flexible) Working From Home

It’s been a few weeks since I started working from home for Automattic, engineering happiness for users of WordPress.com.

Having moved from an (almost) standard 8.30-5pm, office-based working day, the switch has proven to be an interesting experience.

Even with my youth squandered in online tech communities that operate in very similar ways to Automattic, it’s definitely a mindset shift to go from that sort of world being just something that you do, to something that actually pays the bills. Work is meant to force you into set patterns begrudgingly… right? I didn’t expect there to be too much of an overhaul, but a job with complete flexibility has definitely brought with it some interesting quirks.

happy monday - working from home

Here are some of my observations:

You don’t get distracted

One of the usual reasons that people give for ‘not being able’ to work from home is that they get distracted and can’t concentrate on what they’re meant to be doing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s nonsense. Sure, it may well depend on the person, but if you are independent and self-motivated, you shouldn’t find it a problem to set out an area and dedicate the time you need. If a Gen Y-er can do it – with our alleged ridiculously short attention spans – then so can you.

Going to the bank isn’t the headache it used to be

Ahh… the dreaded trip to the bank/post office/travel agent/loanshark. It was always such a torture to have to undertake any sort of task that fell during the working day. This equally applies to the receiving of parcels. Sure, you can get small things delivered to work, but what happens when you order something big? Carting it back from the office is never a fun task… even if you are lucky enough to have access to a car. Working from home sweeps all of these troubles away in one fell swoop.

Your Neighbours Will Love You!

If you play your cards right, that is. So long as they’ve met you (and you’ve not been weird about it), you can easily become a local everyday hero. Just make it clear that you’re usually around during the day if they have parcels getting delivered, or need an eye kept out for something. Even if they never actually ask you to do anything, you’ve won major brownie points – especially handy when you throw that 7am-finish party with all of your dubious mates.

lunch

Lunch is better

The first week I worked from home, I ate nothing but bacon sandwiches – purely because I can. That can’t continue for long though, or I’ll balloon to some ridiculous size. In general though, it means you have access to your own kitchen, rather than an awful, over-priced canteen (or a microwave, if you’re lucky). I was never any good at avoiding squashing my sandwiches anyway, so this is a winner. The only real dilemma is… what to have? So much choice!

You get to mock those who have to commute

I’ve luckily managed to avoid travelling every day during the onset of the Scottish winter this year, which is undoubtedly one of the greatest perks about being based from wherever you choose.

It’s pretty soul-destroying to wake up early, in the dark, to make your way into work, only to return home at night, in the dark. What has never made any sense to me though, is the preposterous notion that people should fight their way for hours through gridlocked motorways in the rain, sleet, and snow, to get to an office to do a job that they could arguably do just as well from home. I’d even go so far as to argue that it’s negligent for employers to expect people to physically come in to work on days where the police are ‘advising motorists not to travel’.

That said, I think there are those who genuinely love this sort of daily battle, as if there is some sort of valour to be had in succeeding in such a pointless trip. Those, my friends, are those whom we should mock relentlessly.

Electricity bills

Uhhhm, Leave this one with me.

You can go hours without saying a single word to anybody

Insert your own joke about how it’s better if I keep my mouth shut here. There’s a lot of commentary about how it can be unproductive to be constantly interrupted in an open plan type office, and it’s definitely true. The flip-side is the total opposite though. Unless you live with other people, you can go entire days without uttering a single word. I’m not entirely sure whether it’s a completely zen-like experience just yet.

Watch this space.

The banter

This is related to the above. Sure, there are a lot of downsides about working in close proximity with over folk – like having people hang over your shoulder, or force you to look at links on the Daily Mail website (shudders – Linda, you know who you are!), but you can’t really beat the days in work when you’re surrounded by people who are working on the same thing, having a laugh together.

You need to make more of an effort to stay in the loop

This could well be partly because I am refusing to pay for a TV licence, and so am missing out on the news at night, (disclaimer: I don’t own a TV, or watch it as it’s broadcast online) but more often than we think (yes, even in the age of so-called ‘new media’), news is spread by word of mouth, through the people we come in contact with every day.

If your community is online rather than round about you, very quickly you might find that you aren’t as up to speed on local happenings as you might have been previously. It takes a real effort to keep up to date; a battle that I am currently losing, it has to be said.

You can find your natural schedule

I’ve never been a fan of mornings. Not that I don’t like the crisp, fresh air; the tweeting of the birds; and all that. I simply don’t function well at that time.

Part of the problem is that due to whatever screwy Circadian rhythm I have, I don’t naturally get tired until around 2-3am. Irrespective of how early I was up at in the morning, the time I went to bed remained the same. Working from home, I’ve shifted to a 10am-6pm day (roughly), which already means if I go to sleep at 3, I’m getting 7 hours sleep, compared to 4. That’s almost double the amount, and has meant I feel 100% better during the day, with no irresistible urge to disco-nap early evening.

Working from bed is the best thing ever

…for a few hours anyway.

Days seem shorter

Even though I am working the same number of hours, and finishing up the same time I would be getting in from work if I was commuting, the days still seem to fly by. Those extra 3 hours spent getting up, getting ready, and travelling to work in the morning have been converted into sleeping hours, which is probably what they should always have been in the first place.

life work balance

Concepts of time become more fluid

Weekend? What’s that? With total flexibility, there comes a blurring of the lines between the ‘working week’. When you are able to choose a schedule that fits around your life, that may not be in traditional daily blocks. Many people will shudder at the thought of the lines between work and personal life ‘blurring’, but that isn’t really what’s happening. Just because work becomes spread more diffusely, doesn’t mean that it takes over; it just allows you to integrate it more closely to what fits best for you. Working two hours in the evening or at the weekend instead of on a Monday morning doesn’t mean you are a slave to the job, it means that you are more in control of how and when you choose to give it your full attention.

When you spend all of your time in the one place, with work spread out more than beforehand, It does mean that weekends never feel quite like they used to.

I don’t actually think that that’s a bad thing, for what it’s worth.

People don’t get it

‘But… How do they know you’re actually working?!’