Big Bucket Software you like to use
March 17th, 2008

For a few weeks now, I’ve been using Things to manage my tasks. It’s a free preview release at the moment, (the full version is due in spring) and even in its current state, it’s a terrific application.

I can’t speak for how Things compares to other GTD apps as it is the only GTD app I’ve ever seriously tried to use, unless you count the TextMate bundle, GTDalt. I suppose GTDalt was my first attempt at GTD. My biggest problem using GTDalt was that I basically treated it as write-only medium; I would jot down things that I thought I might forget and maybe mark them off when I actually did them. I rarely consulted the list before getting down to work and I didn’t use it to record everything that needed doing.

Things, on the other hand, is almost always the first app that I launch after booting the iMac. The basic interface, predictably, involves a source list on the left and a list of tasks on the right. The source list is broken down into the sections Collect, Focus and Organize. The other GTD stages of Review and Do are presumably something that’s left up to you. Presumably, you’re reviewing when you’re consulting Things and you’re doing when you’re, well, not consulting Things.

First up: the Collect section. This section contains the Inbox. It is where Tasks go before they are organised. I’ve never actually placed a task into the Inbox as there is minimal effort involved in filing the task upfront.

The Focus section contains the items:

  • Today
  • Next
  • Someday
  • Scheduled

My basic workflow is to consult the Next list and move anything I intend to do that day into the Today list. Predictably, anything that I intend to get around to doing someday goes into the Someday list. I won’t be going into the Scheduled list as I haven’t had much exposure to it, other than to misuse it, (more on that later).

The Organize section contain Projects and Areas. I quickly discovered that what I initially assumed would be a project, instead turned out to be an area. A project is defined as:

A complex task that cannot be completed in a single step.

An area on the other hand,

Corresponds to an ongoing activity. These could be, for example, job responsibilities, roles you have taken on in your family, or personal responsibilities like health.

As a developer, I found it useful to create an area for each application that I’m actively working on. The TV Forecast web app, for example, is an ongoing activity; I certainly don’t expect that I will stop working on it any time soon. A project, then, is as it is defined: A complex task. Any difficult feature that I plan to add to an application is created as a sub-project within the application’s area. The individual tasks that make up that feature are then added within that project.

The concept of tagging is generally something that doesn’t gel well with me; I like order in my applications and tagging seems to be something that shouts “go for your life!”. My only suggestion would be to read the Real-world tagging examples section of the Things wiki and be sure to remain diligent. I’m no expert, but I would suggest that before you create a tag, you first determine if there would be any value in filtering by it.

An excellent feature of Things, which I only recently discovered, is the ability to associate files, folders and URLs with a task by simply dragging the item into the notes section of the task. My only criticism here is that it should also be possible to assign notes to a project or an area.

So what’s missing? My first request would be for network collaboration. I’ll soon be working on an iPhone app with Jess and I would love to be able to use Things to manage our tasks. This feature is listed on Things’ Future Features wiki but as it is vaguely described as Powerful network based collaboration features, I have my doubts that it will appear in version 1.0. The current version of Things features the ability the add People to the source list to act as placeholders. I’ve found this to be quite useful when I’m waiting on an email (and I’m afraid I might forget that I’m waiting).

For me, Mail integration is absolute must. I daily send myself emails with the subject “todo” and the task as the body text. I manually transfer these from my Mail Inbox into Things. The ability to automate this process (either through Mail integration of AppleScript) would be fantastic.

Something else that I feel is missing is the ability to specify dependencies. I realise that at first, this might sound like feature creep, but I’ve found it to be a real problem that deserves a solution. For example, I have a client that I’m waiting send me a company logo so that I can incorporate it into the design. This is a fairly contrived example, but the concept is clear: A task can be blocked waiting on a resource.

Currently, I create the task and file it under Scheduled. I schedule it for ‘Tomorrow’. If tomorrow comes and I haven’t received the logo, I defer the task one more day, ad infinitum (though hopefully not). Consider the following hypothetical workflow:

  1. I add the client to the Persons list
  2. I create the task: “email Matt the logo” and assign it to the client
  3. I create the task: “incorporate logo into the design” and specify that it is waiting for the “email Matt the logo” task

If I looked at my Next list, the “incorporate logo into the design” task would be hidden. It would only appear when I check the “email Matt the logo” task as completed.

My wish list aside, if Things were released tomorrow, I would buy it. As I say, it is a terrific program that has helped me to remain focussed and organized. If you’re interested in doing the same then I recommend you sign up for the newsletter. You’ll get a 20% discount on Things if you sign up before it is released.

  • Hi – nice review.

    One comment: you can add notes to projects and areas. It may not be immediately obvious because you can only see the notes from the top-level Projects or Areas view, but if you double-click on any item there, you will see the notes. It would be nice if the notes were visible when you select an individual project or area from the list.

  • Simon Johnson — 9:18 am on 5.4.2008

    NIce summary. I too have just started with Things and it’s a great GTD app. I have half-read the GTD book, but this application visually explains the strengths of this system.

    I feel I am missing the full potential of tags and would like to see more real world examples and workflow descriptions.

  • Feature creep is right. If they listened to you we’d have another outlook, bloated and slow.

    For 90 percent of users a slim, fast program that does what it does well is good enough. Quality over quantity.

    Hopefully they’re smarter than to take your suggestions.