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A Minimal Amount of Things

Published about 1 month ago 8 min read

Taking the time to scale down your task management system leads to greater focus on the things that you care about and want to accomplish.

Why Switch from OmniFocus?

If you’ve followed me for a while, you may know that I was a die-hard OmniFocus user. I loved it to the level that I wrote a God damned AppleScript library for it. I wound up feeling dissatisfied with OmniFocus for a few reasons in the end though. The look of the application felt old and I was tired of looking at it. While wonderfully scriptable, the JavaScript support was kinda wonky, and OmniFocus is overly customizable. It got to the point that the thing I spent the most time on each day was managing and tweaking OmniFocus.

I used Things back in v1 and I liked it then. I went nuts on listening to productivity gurus who told me I need to reach Inbox Zero and schedule projects out like…

Fix Broken chair:
1. Go to store
2. Buy hammer
3. Buy nails
4. Go back home
5. Go downstairs
6. Fix chair

You Can Take Things Too Far

I gave up on OmniFocus. I considered going ultra-minimalist and use Taskpaper, but there’s no official Taskpaper app for iOS and the developer of Taskpaper (and Writeroom and Folding Text) has a bad history of building something that strikes his fancy and then letting it die on the vine after a brief period of support. Things has a long history of continued support, started on iOS, and is by far the most visually attractive task manager out there.

I started using Things by mimicking what I had done with OmniFocus for the last few years, but because Things is more limiting (by design) I ran into roadblocks when I attempted being a power user. What I eventually found that worked was throwing tasks in, not worrying too much about removing everything from view like you would with Perspectives in OmniFocus, and I tried to let tasks rollover day to day if I didn’t get around to them.

The Difference is in the Details

Where I continued struggling was in my task organization. I was used to a myriad of folders, projects, tasks, and sub-tasks in OmniFocus. While you can approximate all those items in Things, OmniFocus gives all those different items the same assignable properties. Aside from folders, they can all have start and end dates, tags, be sequential or not. Things’ take on these items is built for the most common use case—lacking OmniFocus’ level of customization.

Areas (of Responsibility) act like folders, projects are projects, and tasks are tasks. Instead of tasks being able to have sub-tasks, they have checklists—they work the same but much simpler. This is both a blessing and a curse. When you want things to work, it’s great. When you crave more control, you feel like Things isn’t powerful enough.

A Moment of Clarity

I found that what I required was a change in my mindset. The old me would create a project for a trip to the supermarket. I’d make each food item a task and in my crazier days, I’d tag each item by aisle or create aisle tasks and fill each aisle task with the foods to be found in those aisles. I had elaborate scripts and templating system to make a grocery list. You could say I overdid it.

I started by doing the same thing in Things. Because creating a project is a more involved action in Things and because templating projects isn’t as easy as it is in OmniFocus, I found it even more tedious than I used to. Where I found that Things worked and I didn’t feel like it was fighting me was when I made the mental shift of thinking as a a trip to the supermarket as a task instead of a project. I then made a checklist for the task and added all my food items as checklist items (which is a faster, lighter weight action in Things). After that, I felt like Things worked (for me). This is when I decided that I needed to rethink what a project was, what a task was, what areas of focus/responsibility were, and how I need to simplify my outlook on task management.

Areas of Focus

Instead of thinking in Areas of Responsibility, I wanted to think in Areas of Focus. What do I want to focus on daily or at least regularly? I found that thinking about the areas of my life this way not only helped me decide what was important to me more than before, but it cleaned up my sidebar and brought a calmer feel to Things’ UI. In the end, I settled on maintaining 3–4 Areas of Focus.

  • My employer
  • Blog (which is on-going project with no clear end)
  • Development (honing my craft as a software developer)

All other tasks and project are left to float in No Area-land. Having uncategorized projects and tasks made me feel uneasy at first, but after living with it for a few days, I accepted the idea that certain things don’t line up with your Areas of Focus. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t important or urgent—that they don’t meet the criteria of being something you want to focus on. I’d urge you to try choosing what you’d like to focus on doing, not only what you have to do.

What is a Project?

I mentioned this earlier when talking about the grocery list, but I’ve started rethinking what makes a project a project. There are those who would say that anything that requires two or more steps is a project. I subscribed to this idea for a while. This leads to over analyzing. While it’s true that you can benefit from listing out all the required steps necessary to achieve a goal, one can take this too far. List as much as you need and as little as you can. “Make coffee” is plenty. You don’t need to create a project with tasks like

  1. Boil water
  2. Grind beans
  3. Brew coffee

“Make coffee” should get you where you want to be.

Chunking Work

That’s not to say you never need to create chunks of work in your projects. It makes sense to group related tasks and sub-goals as necessary. Things has a lovely feature called “headings” that create sub-sections inside projects. These are actionable themselves—they merely serve as section markers for tasks. My one wish regarding headers would be that they could take tags so that the tasks listed below could inherit tags the way they do from tags on areas and projects.

One of These Things…

I had a bad habit of putting things that didn’t belong in my personal task manager into OmniFocus. OmniFocus and Things are both deeply personal systems. There’s no sharing of tasks beyond copy/pasting them into an email and trying to manage tasks that involve others leads you to create an elaborate system of agenda contexts and people tags.

Tasks that involve co-workers or even your spouse should live in another system. You can double up tasks in both an external and personal task system, but you’re better off creating personal reminders to check the shared task repository.

Where I haven’t worked out what do is with wishlists (shopping lists for things you someday want to buy and lists for books to read or games to play. These are things I want to do, but I feel weird having a project for a boom series where reading each book is its own separate task. I’m further annoyed that since these tasks are ever going to be in an Area of Focus, they float in the un-sectioned sidebar—taunting me.

Simplify Tags

The last area that I’ve given thought to is tagging. If you follow GTD, you likely have tags like phone, email, laptop, insert name of store, and names of people you work with. I worked off a system of contexts like this for years. It’s overkill.

What I’ve found to be better is to tag based on the kind of work. Labeling tasks as building or learning helps you group work in projects by stage and mindset. Time tags like 2 hours or 15 minutes work for a lot of people. I never found myself struggling with deciding what to do because I couldn't determine if I had the time to do it.

Things lets you apply a tag to an area or project and all the tags contained while inherit those tags. You can filter further by selecting multiple tags in the UI. If you dig into Things’ URL schemes, you can craft URLs that let you approximate OmniFocus’ Perspectives even. While OmniFocus’ AppleScript dictionary is amazing, Things can read a block of JSON to template out any kind of data structure. It’s powerful and deserves a look from anyone with scripting knowledge.

Wrap-Up

While my experience may not convince you remove all complexity from your current setup, I hope that it makes you think about how you might be able to simplify how you use whichever task manager you use. It’s amazing how much calmer you can feel when your task list doesn’t feel busy. }

If you have any thoughts about the ideas presented in this post, please reach out either through the contact form on this site or over Twitter

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