My quest for the perfect GTD (Getting Things Done) system has been on-going for a number of years. Of course, what is “perfect” for me at any given time has varied based on my individual needs at the time, and the system that works best for you will need to be tailored to your own needs for task management. As defined, the “getting things done” methodology basically “rests on the idea of moving planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and then breaking them into actionable work items. This allows one to focus attention on taking action on tasks, instead of on recalling them.” (Wikipedia) Back in the early 2000’s, I started (as I suppose most did at that time, before smartphones) with a paper-based project checklist and daily assignments of tasks from it. Some may still use a paper-based system, but in the post-paper and post-PC era, many are turning to mobile devices for time management, as they always have their trusty iPhone or iPad at their side to keep them on task and available.
In our era, with our multiple devices and a plethora of software options, we are fortunate to have the means of figuring out a way to keep on top of things, and increase our productivity. With the advent of the Apple Watch, now, we have another device as well, that can boost our potential for tracking and doing things. And, with the release of one of the first to-do apps for the Apple Watch, Things, I think I have found the software that best matches my philosophy and workflow, along with a little bit of “gamification” of task completion, designed along the lines of the Apple Watch’s own fitness goal gamification. I believe I have finally found the system that truly “just works” across my entire device line-up (MacBook Pro, iPad Air 2, iPhone 5S, and Apple Watch), with effortless instant sync and now with Siri integration on the Watch, the ability to add a to-do item by very simple dictation within a second or two, as I think of it, without even the need to pull my phone from my pocket.
Things shines above the competition in a number of ways. Its interface is super easy to learn, and it took only a few minutes to get acquainted with Things’ way of doing things. The interface looks similar enough between the various platforms, including the Watch, so there is only one very minimal learning curve. Things offers several distinct staging areas for your to-dos, based on your initial assessment of where they belong, with it being very simple to reassign things later. The Inbox is where all new to-dos are entered, and this can be either through dictation on the Watch, entry on iOS or Mac, or importing from Apple’s Reminders app via Siri. Once your things are in the Inbox, a quick triage gets them into either Today, for immediate attention, or one of the other lists, such as Next, for something less than immediate but more immediate than just “whenever I get around to it.” After that comes Scheduled, for activities that come with a specified date; then Someday, whose icon even looks like a little storage box, to keep reminders to do things that you want to eventually do when you’ve got nothing else clamoring for your attention and time. Additionally, there is an interface for Projects, which is used to track goals which have multiple steps and perhaps multiple due dates along the way.
Things comes with the ability to assign contexts as well, called Areas, and tags, which can be one or several descriptive terms, such as maybe a description of how long the item is expected to take, perhaps a name of to whom it pertains, or a location for where it is to be done. Searching and sorting can be done by Areas and Tags.
Each new day, Things presents for your review those items you have designated as being scheduled for that date. You can either accept them and place them into the Today box, or delay them until any specified time in the future. What's really neat is that even the Apple Watch app for Things allows you to do this, as well as to move newly dictated tasks from the Inbox right into Today with a single tap.
When a task is completed, you have the option to log it, which adds the completed item to the Logbook, a running list of archived completed tasks (perhaps to review when you have completed everything and want to reminisce about how productive you’ve been).
Things includes—at no extra cost—a built in cloud sync service that is remarkably fast. A lot of apps rely on kludgy Dropbox integration or the like in order to sync between devices, which results in errors frequently. I have lost count of how many times I’ve had to reset the sync on other to-do apps, which is time wasted and always worries me about lost task entries. I have been nothing but pleased with Things’ cloud sync service and recommend it without any hesitation. You might look at the cost of the various Things apps and balk at paying for two or three different apps, but remember that unlike other to-do apps, there is no monthly or annual fee to keep syncing tasks between devices: once you buy the apps, they are yours for keeps.
I’ve found Things to be very user-friendly, and over the past four weeks of usage, I have yet to find anything to be disappointed about. I’ve not been able to say that about every to-do app I’ve tried. By this far into using most to-do software, I’ve usually come across shortcomings or frustrations about user interface issues. So far, I’ve been nothing but pleased with Things. The apps are fast, very responsive, and each utilizes the best features of their respective platforms’ interfaces. The Mac app allows you to quickly and easily drag and drop tasks between Areas and Focus lists as well as ordering them within same. On the Mac, a little alarm clock icon near the top of the Things interface lets you quickly see which tasks you have with assigned due dates, anywhere in your Focus lists and Areas. On iOS, the more limited screen space of the iPhone is well utilized, and the iPad app also makes good use of its own screen space. I’ve often been disappointed with apps whose iPad version is little more than a blown-up version of the phone app, or which does not play to the strengths of the iPad screen size and interface.
Things has been designed well and benefits from apparent attention to detail throughout. It is fully compatible with Handoff between iPhone and Mac apps, as well. The Mac and iOS apps have their own Notification Center widgets also, bringing even tighter integration to the system.
After a month of use, I’ve become totally invested in Things and have moved all my projects into it. The Apple Watch integration has really wowed me. Other to-do apps are promising Apple Watch apps as well, and it will be interesting to see how those pan out. But Things was first to the party and even so, did a great job and the Apple Watch app does not appear to be a rush-job as many other Apple Watch apps seem to be. A lot of care and attention has gone into the Things app ecosystem.
I also like how the software is broken into separate apps and thus separate charges for the apps per platform. Sometimes it can get expensive to pay for the combined costs of an iPad and iPhone app if all you’ve got is one or the other. Things is available on each platform, iPhone, iPad, and Mac; links below.
The only good to-do app, and indeed the only good Getting Things Done system, is one that you will actually use on a daily basis. In order to be that sort of system, it has to be unobtrusive, not a time waster, and generally pleasing to use, not a chore. Things succeeds on all counts.
iPhone/Apple Watch ($9.99)
Ronald C. Schoedel III is an attorney, former broadcaster, student of Welsh, and Sinophile. He has lived in Alaska, Wales, and China (Hong Kong specifically), and presently calls Utah home. He has been teaching and training Mac users for nearly a decade, and started blogging as a software reviewer in 2004.