Putting the THINGS in GTD: Managing an Academic Life with Cultured Code’s Things

[This is a guest post by Ryan Cordell, a Ph.D. Candidate in the University of Virginia’s English Department and current director of UVA’s Writing Center. Learn more about Ryan at his website. —JM]

Recently Bethany Nowviskie posted a plea on Twitter for a detailed guide to Cultured Code’s Things to-do list apps. I responded by declaring my devotion to the software, which led in short order to my first ProfHacker commission from Julie Meloni [who has no authority to do that, but in my standard "better to ask forgiveness than permission" style, I jumped at the chance for a Things evangelist to quickly write 2500 words for ProfHacker readers! —JM]. Immediately after that exchange, I did what I always do when given a new task. I hit CTL+SPACE, which opens Things’s quick entry panel on my computer, and created a new to-do.

creating a new to-do in Things

creating a new to-do in Things // click to enlarge

Discovering Things revolutionized the way I work because it centralizes and organizes all of the tasks I get each day through my email, the web, (increasingly) via Twitter, from my wife, over the phone, etc. There are many programs that can do this. Remember the Milk is a popular web-based to-do manager that can integrate into Gmail and several other services. Gmail’s own Tasks is popular with folks who keep a Gmail window open at all times. Perhaps the most thorough to-do list manager for OS X is OmniFocus, which models David Allen’s popular Getting Things Done (GTD) workflow, which is often discussed at ProfHacker. And Lifehacker just posted a glowing review of the method- and platform-agnostic TimeGT.

Ultimately, the best solution to managing your to-do list is whatever works best for you. When first exploring to-do managers I tried OmniFocus, but found myself overwhelmed by its intricacy; creating to-do lists in the program seemed to take up more time than having the lists saved me. If you’re already a hard-core GTDer, then you may need OmniFocus. But if you’re a GTD newbie, or want some of the structure of GTD without its constraints, then Things should appeal to you. Things allows me to manage my tasks without becoming a task in and of itself.

GTD/Things Overview

Cultured Code’s website already provides a great “Getting Started” wiki for Things, so I won’t try to cover everything here. Instead I’ll give a brief overview, and then turn to a few use cases illustrating how the software can help academics manage their goals and obligations.

Central to GTD and Things is the idea of contexts (academics love to contextualize, right?). At any given time you have lots to do, but you can’t do each task at all times or in all places. For example, you might need to clean out the gutters at home, but you can’t do that on a Monday when you’re on campus all day. So, if you look at the main Things window—

the main Things window

the main Things window // click to enlarge

you’ll see that it’s divided into Areas and Projects (I’ll discuss Focus later). Areas are the biggest categories: they’re, well, areas of responsibility that you create to sort your tasks into. So, if I needed to clean out the gutters that would go into my “Family” area, whereas hiring new tutors would go into “Writing Center.” Using Areas, I can concentrate on the to-do lists relevant to where I’m working, or what part of my life needs the most attention at a given moment. So when I’m working on tasks related to “Teaching,” I’m not distracted by those in other Areas.

A Project, on the other hand, is a group of to-dos that has a definable end-point. They’re bigger than single to-dos, because they comprise several steps or elements, and they can themselves be placed within Areas. So, my work on (shameless plug) is a Project, and grouped within it are to-dos for each of the versions of “The Celestial Railroad” I’m currently tracking down, need to scan, or need to transcribe. Those individual to-dos can carry their own due dates or not as needed.

a Things project

a Things project // click to enlarge

Things really shines when managing complex tasks like this one. In a single to-do list, in which all of my areas of responsibility were grouped together, I would be forced either to oversimplify—”Finish”—or risk overwhelming the list with individual to-dos. Using Projects I can outline the nitty-gritty details of the work I need to do for this website but keep those details separate from my other professional and personal tasks.

I won’t spend much time on Focus, except to say that these views allow you to see your to-dos across Areas and Projects based on urgency. Your most urgent tasks move automatically into “Today” (you can set when this happens or move tasks here manually). When those are done you can turn to your “Next” group. I’ll discuss “Scheduled” tasks in more detail below in “Hacking the Small Stuff.”

“Someday” is the most wistful Focus. You put tasks here that you’d love to get to, but can’t commit to a schedule right now—hike the Grand Canyon, learn the oboe, finish that incomplete from your second year of grad school (attention job committees: I’m not carrying any incompletes from the second year of grad school). The “Music” area in my Things is full of albums I want to buy, all marked “Someday.”

Things also includes a robust, auto-completing tagging system that allows you to tag similar to-dos, even if they’re in different projects or areas, in much the same way you tag links on Delicious or Diigo. To be honest, I don’t use Things’ tags as fastidiously as I could; organizing tasks into Areas and Projects works for my needs. I know others, however, who use tags almost exclusively, often forgoing Areas and Projects altogether. I like that Things has this flexibility—whether you use Areas and Projects, tags, or both, you’ll be able to find the to-dos you need quickly (this is one important way that Things differs from more orthodox GTD apps like OmniFocus).

The level of detail Things offers for to-do lists can seem overwhelming. Once I developed the habit of adding to-dos as soon as they come up, however, Things became a natural part of my workflow. Things saves me time digging through emails, paging through my calendar, and searching my RSS feeds trying to remember what I needed to do and when. Things saves me the anxiety of worrying that I’ve forgotten something important.

So, how about some use cases relevant to harried academics? These should give you a better idea of how Things’ contextualization of tasks helps me organize my academic and personal lives.

Academic Use Cases

1.) Hacking Your Inbox. When I get an email with a specific task, I immediately create a new to-do with the body of the email in the notes field, either using the quick entry panel (shown) or by pulling up Things itself. If the task has a due date, I enter that. At this point I can choose to send the task to the Inbox for later sorting, or to send it to a specific Project or Area right away. I can also set when I’d like the task to move into the Today list. Depending on the complexity of the task, I will set this anywhere between one day and a week. Then I archive the email.

archive email after completion

archive email after completion // click to enlarge

Doing this keeps my inbox clutter free (or nearly so; you can see that I’m at Inbox Four right now) and allows me to assign due dates to emailed tasks. Things will remind me of the task on the date I set, and until then I can focus on more urgent to-dos.

2.) Hacking Conferences and CFPs. One of the most important areas I’ve created in Things is “Conferences”:

organize CFPs

organize CFPs // click to enlarge

I use this area to organize two things: accepted conference papers that I need to prepare and CFPs that I want to submit proposals for. When I come across a CFP that sounds intriguing (even if I’m not sure I’ll respond), I immediately create a new to-do with the submission deadline as the due date, set to alert me a few days before the due date:

using alerts

using alerts // click to enlarge

By creating a to-do for every panel I’m somewhat interested in, I don’t forget about them. By using Thing’s scheduled to-dos, however, I don’t have to think about them until closer to their due dates, by which time I usually find it much easier to discern panels worth my time from those that don’t really fit what I’m working on.

3.) Hacking the job market. When browsing the MLA Job List, the Chronicle’s job ads, or Inside Higher Ed’s job ads, I create a new Project for every job I’m interested in applying to. I copy the job ad itself into the Project’s notes field, enter the date applications are due as the Project due date, and set the Project to move into my Today list early enough that I can submit the required materials on time. This value varies depending on what materials the ad calls for and how they need to be submitted (USPS or electronic).

managing job search materials

managing job search materials // click to enlarge

Then I read the ad again carefully and create an individual to-do for each item requested. If the ad gives any detailed guidelines about a particular item, I include that information in the to-do’s individual notes. If one of the requested items will require significant extra effort to produce or procure (transcripts from my undergraduate institution, for example), then I add a custom due date to that task well in advance of the Project’s due date.

This system approximates the spreadsheets that many applicants keep to manage the details of job applications, but I find Things much easier to both look at and follow than a spreadsheet. I can focus easily on one application at a time, and easily check off individual elements when they’re ready.

4.) Hacking your classes. I’m not teaching this semester, and so don’t have handy screenshots of a class Project in progress, but #3 actually gives a good idea of how I use Things to manage a class. I create a new Project for each class I’m currently teaching. As I write or tweak my syllabus, I add any course-related tasks that I already know to Things—assignments that need to write, etc.—and assign due dates that will prod me to prepare materials well in advance. I also create to-dos for any reading (or re-reading) that I’ll need to do through the semester. As the semester progresses, lots of tasks are added: student requests, exercises that need to be prepared, etc. Again, the key is that tasks go into Things as soon as I know them, in part so that I won’t forget and in part so that I can (temporarily) forget and focus on more urgent matters.

5.) Hacking the small stuff.One of my favorite features in Things is the ability to schedule to-dos. These can be one-time tasks that you don’t want cluttering any of your projects or areas until closer to their due date. I’ve used this feature when someone tells me to “check back at the end of the semester” about something. I create a to-do—”Call Prof. Hacker about the sprockets”—and schedule it to appear in the appropriate area or project in four months.

More often, however, I schedule repeating to-dos to remind me about important but occasional (and often less-than-stimulating) tasks that I’m otherwise sure to forget:

scheduling the small stuff

scheduling the small stuff // click to enlarge

So here I’ve set Things up to remind me every other Monday to approve time sheets for the tutors in UVA’s Writing Center. I’ve also set it up to remind me every three months to apply a flea-and-tick-treatment to my dog, and to remind me every January to update our family van’s state inspection. By letting Things manage these tasks, I can rest easy knowing that I won’t forget them and, in the meantime, I can concentrate on other tasks.

The Bottom Line

Things has become an essential part of my workflow. I value its flexible structure—the GTD elements give shape to an often-overwhelming mass of tasks, but the software can bend outside of GTD walls and allow me to manually tweak the urgency of tasks when I need to. I’m a forgetful person, and Things helps me to be productive and thorough anyway.

Cultured code has also developed a companion Things iPhone app, which syncs easily with the desktop application over wifi. There’s not much to say about the iPhone app, really, other than it puts the beautiful design and ease-of-use of the desktop application in your pocket. It’s one of the four applications in my iPhone’s dock because I use it constantly.

syncing content

The applications aren’t cheap, though. Things costs $50, and the iPhone app costs another $10. I used Things for about a week before happily paying Cultured Code for the ease of mind the software brought me. Of course, your mileage may vary, so please try before you buy. As I said at the beginning of this post, there are a number of other task management applications out there that can accomplish similar feats to Things, but Cultured Code’s beautiful, intuitive interface deserves a test run by any academics on OS X who are looking for a task management solution.

Bonus Things Tip

If you have multiple Macs and you’d like to use the same Things library between them, this post explains how to use Dropbox (another of my top 5 applications) to sync multiple installations of Things. A word of caution: because of the way Dropbox syncs files, you have to be very careful when using this hack. You can’t keep Things open on both computers simultaneously, because Dropbox saves the most recent instance of a given file. If both computers are simultaneously trying to update the Dropbox library, then they’ll keep overwriting each others’ updates and you’ll lose to-dos that you’ve added. On the same note, if Things is open on a laptop that’s asleep (say, in your briefcase), then the next time you wake the laptop Dropbox will overwrite your Things library with the one on the laptop. Dropbox will see the laptop’s library as the newest version, even if it’s not current because you’ve been adding tasks to Things from a desktop in the meantime. I use this hack very happily, but I had to cultivate the habit of shutting down Things each time I leave a given computer.

task complete!



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