I started talking about Things by saying,
For a very long time my way of organising bits and pieces was, for short things in a hurry creating a new folder and sticking the information in its name, or for longer a note in TextEdit, or dragging bits of text or links or whatever to the desktop, to end up being dealt with later, or accumulating in folders called ‘detritus’ and ‘blllrrrblllrrr…’. Somewhat adequate, but not particularly. And as I quite enjoy the interplay between iCal and Mail (and my phone), I’ve always wanted something a little more… ummm… useful.
… and then veered off to talk about MailTags and MailActOn for quite a bit, before deciding to write a completely separate post on Things
I’ve tried various project or task management software before, but Merlin which I would unhesitatingly use for managing projects is completely not appropriate for daily blllrrr… stuff. And a lot of the ethos of GTD which underlies the practical workings of many applications is a bit too dogmatic for me. Or failing that causes so much time to be spent in the Getting, that things don’t get done. Getting Busywork Done might be a better name.
So I decided anyway, bored while erotikputzenarbeitsdurchsuchend, to play a little with Things and see if it was anything I could find useful. I’m not in the habit of idly playing with software too much, and Things is barely out of beta and very much still in development with many additions yet to occur. But what’s more important for me is how it feels to use. And it’s rather pretty.
Familiar enough to be Mac-like with a sidebar containing five general areas, Collect, Focus which is split into Today Next Scheduled and Someday, then Active Projects, Areas, and Logbook, Trash, then a main window which lists things either individually or combined into a project, or separately for recurring scheduled items. mmm, rather difficult to explain the interface, because it’s more in how I use it that it finds itself.
While it’s not immediately apparent visually, Areas are like overarching projects and Projects are sub-projects within an Area. Though it doesn’t have to be used like this, I find the nesting of projects suits how I think and also comes from my use of Merlin. Then individual items, To Do’s, tasks can be created or stored in the Inbox or Today or Next (or Scheduled for later, or Someday for unlikely to be done before spring), which I think of as items in a project.
So for an example of how I use this, I have an Area called Computer, which has two Projects in it, Blog and Computer Maintenance, several uncategorised items and one recurring task, a weekly scheduled reminder to back-up my data. Items that will appear in Today have a yellow star and a bar showing how many days left until due, which becomes red when it says, ‘! day left’. Projects have a blue bar at the left end showing how many items are contained, and scheduled items are set apart and below, indented with a dropdown menu on the left for the schedule. Weirdly this also puts a task in the main list of the project…
Knowing my tendency to let things unravel and not be attended to, I assign due dates for everything. Things does this firstly with a calendar, and secondly with an option to Show in Today either on the day or as many days previous as I like. Or I can place a project or To Do in Scheduled and set a date when it becomes active. Up until then it’s hidden from my default view.
The difference between throwing files and folders all around, or putting them as iCal Events, and having an ordered list of stuff is that I can have an active, timed flow. These things need to be done now, these things soon, don’t worry about those and these are deeply overdue which is why you are unemployed and broke.
Tagging is something I first started with on my blog, rewriting a script so blogging client ecto’s Keywords would build a list of tags to search my blog with. Then of course was MailTags. I rather like the idea though am torn between the need to tag and the need to physically group stuff together.
Things tags are fairly standard, but the ability to build nested tag groups, say a main tag called Location and sub-tags, Home and Away… is very useful, and also the built-in groups for priority, time, and difficulty. I especially like – though am lazy in using – filtering via multiple tags and sorting lists by tags, and that Projects and Areas can have overarching tags that are applied to their contents.
The difficulty in using iCal for everything for me is that I have things which happen at certain times I’d like to do, such as dance class, and things which can be done whenever this week or in the future. Supposedly the latter are To Dos, but I don’t ascribe to a clear delineation between the two. Being freelance means most of my work is done when I decide, rather than at fixed, immutable times. A genuine To Do for me would barely be worth registering as I tend to remember stuff quite well. It’s more about the organising of that stuff that I’m concerned with. So in a way Things is just making neat piles out of already serviceable mess.
Largely I’ve avoided iCal’s To Do’s. They are messily implemented, difficult to edit and view, and… uuhhh… enforce the annoyance of Event / To Do hegemony, a distinctly American obsession with labeling and ordering and structuring even if all this kills whatever life there was in living.
Things more-or-less is an iCal To Do editor. Or it helps me to think of it as that. I create Areas that correspond to iCal Calendars, and within those Areas, various Projects where the actual To Dos that appear in iCal mostly for me are found. Well, that’s if you have iCal syncing turned on for it.
In Things preferences, by choosing Custom from the list, it brings up all my iCal Calendars, in pretty colour too. Then I can choose a calendar to sync with either a group of tags or Projects and Areas, or both. Under Options I can show the tags in the iCal Todo, and also the Projects in the To Do Title. All of this turns a To Do for ‘Back-Up Weekly’ into ‘Computer Maintenance: Back-Up Weekly @Computer@Cleaning’, the first part being the Project, the last the tags. And this with a weekly scheduled recurrence.
Which is nice.
Mainly because I put off backing up until it’s been a month or more…
Things’ New To Do or Quick Entry are quite straightforward, a Title, Tags field, notes Due Date and Where to place it, in any of the Projects, Areas or Focuses. Possibly too simple. Setting an alarm would be nice, or setting a time rather than just a date. But the notes section is as good or better than iCal. Dragging any kind of file or folder into this area creates a link. Well, one that doesn’t remain working if the file is moved but that might just be my overly abused system.
What I really like, and why Things will likely remain on my laptop is I can assign a key combination, in my case command-control-z which brings up the Quick Entry pane in any application and stays there while I copy useful stuff into it.
And for MailTags, which is where this all began, this is quite excellent.
One of the things you can do with Mail Rules is run an AppleScript. One of the things you can do with an AppleScript is tell Applications to do things.
So when I press my MailTags ‘Things Create Task’ keys, control-z, it runs an AppleScript which brings up the Things Quick Entry pane then goes through the email and fills the previously mentioned fields with information from the email, MailTags tags included, and a link to the email itself. Find the script here. There’s other too for non-MailTags users.
Other than remembering to change my key commands, and upgrading MailTags to the latest version because of some weirdness, using this is so simple. I made a folder called Scripts in my ~/Library/Mail, to keep everything together and now have a rather serviceable and useful discussion between Mail and Things. Which makes me want MailTags to do the same for New Events.
How does it look on my phone?
I don’t have an iPhone, (Things also exists as an iPhone app) but my now venerable Sony Ericsson k750c does a fairly good job of keeping things synced between iCal Events in the calendar, Adress Book in the… uhhh contacts, and To Do’s buried in Tasks. Just as they are formatted in Things and iCal as ‘Project: description @tag’, so do they appear on my phone, with the addition of red ‘!’ for things important or late.
Some improvements I would enjoy very much, and I suppose a philosophical musing on applications making you do things in certain ways and imagining how an application might be built that I could drag stuff around to make it work the way I wanted… Nested Projects are hugely important. Syncing with iCal Events, and I don’t care how much this is not of the ethos of Getting Things Done, but I suppose if you want to limit potential users to autocratic geek-zealots then… I mean to say even Merlin has a calendar view, and no it’s not doubling up on applications. To have the same finesse over Events as Things gives over To Do’s would be really nice. I’d still use iCal, it just means how I might do things more coherently could change.
The Logbook needs work, where finished stuff is archived. This mainly though is a slight need for the interface to develop more. And some key commands are… mmm unpredictable. And some general ill-defined strangeness… The database is in my favourite XML, which makes for ease of doing other stuff with it, like web-based task management for groups (People currently suck, a placeholder rather than an AddressBook-synced useable aspect), and reliable back-ups (yet to turn up in the file menu). Though the forums, wiki, blog, twitter and developer contact are all rather special and that makes up for a lot.
I realised while writing this that MailTags has long been a part of my daily computer use, and Things is still… we are coming to terms with each other. That I can look at it now and see what I need to do tonight and tomorrow that is pressing, makes it undeniably useful,. And perhaps this is it. Anything that I take the time and care to put into Things is something that is important. I’m allowed to arrange my stuff in such fluid combinations and views that what remains important is this, not the application’s determination of what is. It makes use of iCal’s to Do’s, which I never really used, and if I really want, I can drag a To Do from the Items window in iCal into the calendar and make it an event… mmm mindless doubling up?
I guess also, would I take the time to learn another task manager, especially when none are as pretty to look at or use, to find if it was capable of my decidedly evasive habits?