A smart tool to help you get things done

Bill Mount

If you are overwhelmed with too much to do, Things is for you.  It’s a subtly powerful organizational tool that, in the right hands, combines the best of an analog paper-list-and-planner system, with the convenience and technical magic of a digital one. But that’s only if you put in the […]

If you are overwhelmed with too much to do, Things is for you. 

It’s a subtly powerful organizational tool that, in the right hands, combines the best of an analog paper-list-and-planner system, with the convenience and technical magic of a digital one. But that’s only if you put in the work to tune it – otherwise you’re going to waste money and time.

Productivity or work management systems (and here I’m using the term “system” loosely) have two functions: When you are working, they help you not to forget anything that needs to be done. When you’re not working, they give you the peace of mind to relax.

Fans of the “Getting Things Done” method, popularized by a book of the same name by David Allen, will find a lot to love in the Mac and iOS-based program. Things shines in the way that it blends your calendar with your other priorities, giving you a clear overview of your day. 

Helps mesh your work and your calendar • Gives a clear picture of what needs to be done • Well designed with thoughtful features

Steep initial price • Apple-ecosystem only • Needs fine-tuning to get the full benefits

A sophisticated project-management tool for people with a lot of information to stay on top of.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of Things, a note on terminology: The program uses as titles a lot of regular works, like “list,” “today,” and “anytime.” For ease of reading, I’ve put “proper Things nouns” in italics and capitalize them where appropriate. 

How to use Things

Things is created by software company Cultured Code, which is based out of Germany. Like other sophisticated project management software, you’ll need to spend time setting Things up to your specifications, and the pricing structure of the app can be an obstacle here. It’s $50 outright for the desktop app and another $10 for an iOS app.  The iPad app costs $19.99, but I found I didn’t need it. In a world of recurring subscriptions, it’s refreshing to not be held hostage by an ongoing revenue stream. However, my two-week free trial felt too short to fully appreciate all that Things had to offer. I could see its potential, but found it hard to fork over the fee. 

The all-purpose entry point of Things is the Inbox – a place that GTD stans and devotees of blogs like 43 Folders will recognize instantly. Here is where you can jot down every random to-do that crosses your mind (you’ll worry about organizing them later). 

Tasks feel more like cards from Trello or a Kanban board, though without the visual progression through statuses. They unfurl to reveal space for notes and checklists, tags, and deadlines, though I’m not always sure where to draw the line between a project, a task, and subtasks. If your task has a checklist, does that mean it’s really a project? It’s to-dos all the way down. 

The When pop-up for a task.

Image: courtesy cultured code

A look at Things' lists on the iPhone.

A look at Things’ lists on the iPhone.

Image: courtesy cultured code

A field called When is part of Things’ secret sauce. It refers to when you’re planning to do the work, not simply when it’s due. If you have a report draft on Friday, but you’ve set aside time to write it on Wednesday, you’d add your to-do with a Friday deadline and choose Wednesday in the When field. It forces an extra step of thinking ahead – which you probably should be doing anyway. Then, when your daily agenda is generated, Things shows you what you actually need to work on. For anyone who’s opened up their computer and frittered away 30 minutes of their morning deciding what to work on, circumventing that distraction is a dream. 

In addition to the Inbox, Things auto-populates several views of information. Today shows events and tasks that are due or being worked on today. Upcoming shows the next few days, again mixing events with tasks. Two future-looking lists are Anytime and Someday. Tasks without start dates or due dates are , since by definition they can be completed at any time. The Someday list is for tasks that you want to accomplish at some point in the future, but aren’t being worked on right now for whatever reason. 

Here’s the difference in a nutshell: 

“Call and catch up with Joyce” is a to-do that belongs on the Anytime list. It doesn’t have a specific time it has to be done (unless you decide to schedule it) and there’s also nothing preventing you from being able to do it. 

A to-do like “Visit Italy” goes on the Someday list because while you want to remember that it’s important to you, right now there’s a global pandemic and traveling isn’t happening. 

The Today list pulls tasks from across all your projects that are slated to be worked on “today” or have a due date of today, so you don’t need to check the deadlines of tasks inside of each project. 

Anything from a previous day that you didn’t finish will stay in Today until you check it off or change the date. Each task in Today is also labeled with its project. If you switch into a project view, any tasks that are for today will have stars next to them. There’s visual prioritization no matter if you’re looking at the project level or day level.

Tags are also available, for both projects and tasks. In an AreaThings’ term for a project header – you can filter the view by tag. I’ve used this to label my active projects by client, and it’s nice to be able to zoom in on one client’s outstanding work. 

Officially, only Apple Calendar works with Things, but in practice it’s more porous since you can add external calendars into Apple’s Calendar app pretty easily. Being able to see the day’s events in the same space as the day’s tasks feels like it solves one of most enduring annoyances of digital work management. Paper planners get around this issue by making space for both temporal events and to-dos, but of course they lack some of the convenient features that digital tools have.

Some unexpected gems

One unexpected delight of Things is the This Evening section of the Today list. Just as you can mark that a task should be worked on today, you can mark that some tasks should be worked on “this evening.” It’s useful for non-work tasks or projects that you’re doing in your off hours, and helps nudge Things into a whole-life organizational tool. 

This Evening ports to the iPhone app well, helping you stay on top of things when you’re away from the computer. In fact, were it not for This Evening, I probably would have skipped the iPhone app since I’m working from home and am hardly ever away from my computer. 

A view of a project in Things. The left rail shows all projects and lists and the main window shows the tasks for this project.

A view of a project in Things. The left rail shows all projects and lists and the main window shows the tasks for this project.

Image: courtesy cultured code

To sync Things between your phone and desktop, you set up a Things Cloud account, which is only used for your Things data. You can also keep your information local to your devices, which is easier to do if you only use Things on either your iPhone or your Mac. But if you want portability, you’ll need to enable the cloud. 

The Logbook is another feature that sets Things apart from other project management software. All completed tasks get filed here, creating a running “done” list. Projects have an option to show completed tasks as well (Things refers to them as “logged”.) This makes it easy to see what’s been done – helpful if you want to pat yourself on the back or send a weekly report to a boss. 

Things integrates with Apple’s Reminders system, so you can, naturally, remind yourself to do something without having to leave the app. 

Enabling the Things Cloud also opens up a feature called “email to Things.” You’re given a unique email address, to which you can send short messages that will be automatically added to your Things Inbox. The feature seems most useful when you have a task in one system, like a company email, that you want to port over to Things. Otherwise, it’s pretty easy to open Things on either your computer or phone and just add the task to the Inbox directly. 

Within a project, you can hide items that are due later, beyond the next week or so. It’s a good way to approximate a Gantt chart, or a dependency in a project, if you can’t do subsequent actions without the prior one being completed.

Scheduling repeating tasks is another unexpected, but much-appreciated, feature. Similar to being able to use Slackbot to remind you of recurring deadlines, you can set up a recurring task in Things, like “send a project update every Friday.” You’ll specify how many weeks the tasks should repeat, or a repetition interval after the previous task has been completed. A good example of the latter would be something like “Remind me to update my budget 4 weeks after the last budget was updated.”

The downsides of Things

The biggest hole in Things is a use-case for which it is clearly not designed: collaborating with others. There are no multi-user accounts and in general all your data stays local to your devices unless you enable Things Cloud, but even then that just lets your phone and desktop apps sync with each other. 

But Things isn’t going to be a solution for teams at an enterprise level. If your role is one where you have to share a lot of information with your colleagues, or make it accessible across groups, Things isn’t for you. You’ll spend too much time duplicating information in other places.

Some of Things’ terminology also feels needlessly particular. You add a new project making a “new list” on the bottom left, which you can either categorize as a “New Project” – which has a goal you work toward – or a “New Area,” which is just a header under which projects can be grouped. 

Next to each project is a pie chart that measures progress based on the tasks you’ve logged inside of it. It’s helpful to see this progress, but it doesn’t fit for ongoing lists that will never be completed. I wish there was a list that wasn’t a project and wasn’t “done” I have some recurring spaces in my week where I dump similar types of tasks, a weekly “office hours” for things like expenses, following up on emails, and filling out school forms. I want a dedicated space for these tasks to live until I’m ready for them, but they aren’t a project that will ever be finished. 

You can add tasks directly into Areas, as well as projects. I can see this being useful for something like a home improvement list. Some of your tasks will be one-offs and others will be small projects in and of themselves, but again, the nesting feels a bit arbitrary.

One thing Things doesn’t do well is goals. I use a Full Focus Planner, which encourages you to set quarterly and annual goals, and then identify 3 priorities each week, ideally which propel you toward meeting those goals. With that guiding light in place for your quarter and then your week, you can set your daily intentions accordingly. Things is excellent at managing the day-to-day, but it doesn’t ladder up well to bigger picture goals. 

You could, of course, make a goal like “take a vacation” its own project and tackle it without putting a deadline on it. But nothing in the software will visually encourage you to think of and set these bigger picture goals. Things assumes you already know where you want to go, and it’ll help you get there. For a person whose work is largely directed by other people, like a boss or colleagues, and who needs to stay on top of vast amounts of information and deadlines, Things is probably the best tool I’ve encountered.

Bottom Line: Things is a tool, but you still need a system

Things is a powerful, full-featured productivity tool, but to make it worth your while you need to make sure it’s right for the job you’re doing. Just like you can’t drill with a hammer, it’s worth making sure you have a workflow in place that Things will fit in with. 

To make the most of the time-based organizational structure, you’ll need to actively think about deadlines for your projects (and the tasks within them) as well as when in your days and weeks you’ll do the work. It’s helpful to end your day prioritizing tasks for the next day, so that when you open Things in the morning, you will already have your Today list populated. Otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of lists of to-dos and no real way to figure out what you actually need to be working on at a given moment. 

Things won’t save you from the labor of evaluating and prioritizing your work. If you already do this, you’ll either love Things, or already have a workflow that suits you and you won’t need it. 

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