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)
For Gmail fans on the Mac—especially for those with multiple Gmail accounts—there is no better choice than Mailplane 3, to integrate the best features of Gmail with useful operating system integration that makes working on the Mac so productive. Typically, webmail services have two major shortcomings: you can only be logged into one of the same account type at a time (e.g., only one Gmail account at a time) and they are usually left out of interoperability with system-level functions such as using the OS X Contacts app, sending files from the Finder, mailing PDFs from the Print dialog box, true OS-level QuickLook functionality for previewing attachments, and accessibility to Apple Script functions. Because webmail accounts typically live inside a web page, loaded within a web browser more or less like any other page, they are isolated from the system and must be interacted with solely from within the web browser. Mailplane solves these problems and brings the power and ubiquity of Gmail to the integration with Mac OS X that non-webmail accounts, or webmail accounts loaded in to a typical Mail client (like OS X Mail, or Eudora of old, etc., or either of the other two modern mail apps I’ll be shortly reviewing) have enjoyed.
If you’re like many folks, you’ve quite possibly got a personal Gmail account or two and a work Gmail account with a custom domain. If you’ve been using only browser-based email, you’ve likely been logging into one, doing your email within that account, logging out, logging into another…lather, rinse, repeat. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could fire up one app (especially an app with a snazzy icon!) and have a tabbed interface, just like a browser, but with each of your Gmail accounts and their respective calendars occupying a unique tab that you can easily switch between without any logging in or logging out, ever? That is, at the very minimum, what Mailplane can do for you. I’ve been using Mailplane with three Gmail accounts: one personal, one work, and one using the custom domain of my alma mater.
In my mind, one of the things (aside from massive free storage) that sets Gmail apart from the other webmail providers is a keyboard-centric user interface that really shines for power users. But the downside is not being able to keep two accounts active at once. With Mailplane, I can use keyboard shortcuts to advance between messages, apply labels to messages, archive them, and then zip over to the other accounts and do the same. The preferences also contain the ability to record your own keyboard shortcuts, providing an extra level of customization. And, because Mailplane is integrated into OS X instead of just being a browser, its icon in the dock as well as the application switcher (command-tab) shows the unread message count with a red badge, as the stock Mail app does in OS X. The unread message count also shows up as a badge on each account’s tab.
Speaking of notifications, a menu bar notifier as well as integration with OS X’s Notification Center are also available within the preferences of Mailplane, and those notifications can be turned on account by account, rather than universally. Use one account primarily for spam/subscriptions? Turn of the notifications and just see those messages when you choose to, not being bothered by badges and notifications.
One of Mailplane’s cleverest features is the ability to edit attachments you’ve received (such as PDFs for signature) and then turn around and email the edited version back, with just a few mouse clicks. This can be a real workflow time saver, freeing you from first saving a file, opening it, editing it, saving it again, locating it on your hard drive, and sending it back. As with OS X’s Mail.app, you can also drag and drop a file icon on the Mailplane app icon in your dock to attach a file to a new message, something that is impossible with the web client.
And if all that wasn’t enough, if you never use GChat or Google Plus, you can suppress those functions, as well as block Gmail ads from showing up within the app window. It’s the best of Gmail whilst cutting out the annoyances.
The same productivity tools that Mailplane providers for Gmail are also available to your Gmail calendar, which can reside in its own tab within Mailplane, again for multiple accounts if that is your need.
If you are a fan of Gmail and Google’s approach to email, but wish for better integration with your Mac, Mailplane is the way to go. At only $24.95, it’s a small price to pay for a huge productivity boost. I highly recommend Mailplane for power Gmail users on Mac OS X. A 15-day free trial period is offered.
Get Mailplane here: http://mailplaneapp.com
- Ronald C. Schoedel III
Calendars 5 is the latest iPhone and iPad calendar app from Readdle, the same folks who brought us PDF Expert, which I recently reviewed here on iLegalPad.com. Calendars 5 is a universal app, meaning it works on both iPad and iPhone, with just one purchase ($6.99 on the App Store). I used Calendars 5 on both my iPhone and my iPad for a few weeks and what impresses me overall is the attention to detail paid by Calendar 5’s designers, who have added subtle touches that make it intuitive and easy to use, in all of its various views and on both types of devices, as well as its integration of tasks and appointments into one application. Calendars 5 works with iCloud and Google calendars, and works just fine with the five calendars I synced with it. Of course, you can choose to display or hide calendars on an as needed basis.
Calendars 5 makes very good use of the iPhone 5 screen area, and offers a list view of your daily appointments something like the iOS Calendar app used to offer until iOS 7’s redesign. Lots of folk I know loved the list view; with Calendars 5, you can have it back, and in a visually intuitive form that shows color coding for each event to match the calendar, as well as a “slider” at the bottom of the scree showing your position in the current week, for reference. Daily, weekly, and monthly views provide detail and bird-eye views of your calendar, as needed.
Whilst the iPhone version provides a number of advantages over the native iOS 7 calendar app (some of which will be mentioned shortly), my favorite iteration of Calendars 5 is on the iPad, where it really has room to shine thanks to the large screen format. I love the day view, which shows a rolling list along the left side, and the hourly calendar on the right, along with the current time displayed as a line across the timeline. Individual events show the scheduled time (e.g., under my event entitled “Work”, the blue event box also shows the times scheduled, 8:00 - 17:00). Recurring events display a small circular arrow within the event box, providing an immediate visual cue. A date slider along the bottom of the screen shows two weeks worth of dates between which you slide. On the iPhone, the list and day views are separate due to the limited screen area.
The week view on both the iPad and the iPhone cleverly indicate that events are scheduled before or after the actively visible screen area with little arrow icons in the color of the calendar on which events are scheduled, to make sure you don’t overlook something that is scheduled later in the day. In the same manner as the day view, the week view has a slider across the bottom through which you can scroll through the weeks and choose which one to view. Ditto for the month and year views. The month view looks fairly similar to the native iOS app, but the year view shows each day color coded as to how busy it is: white for days with nothing scheduled, yellow, orange, and red for progressively busier days. This is great to get a bird’s eye view of the year and see when you’re booked out, at a glance.
My absolutely favorite feature is the natural language input method employed (optional to use). Don’t get me wrong: I think the sliders and wheel metaphors in iOS are great and handy and all. But sometimes it’s easier to just type “Meet Jim at Paradise Bakery tomorrow at 13:00” and have it automatically know the date, time, and location, as well as the title of the event. If you’re a fast typist, this may be the easiest way to add an event to the calendar--much the way that advanced typists can do with their keyboard using shortcuts a task for which many would prefer a mouse. Of course, dictation (on those devices supporting it) works as well, so you can just speak your event into existence.
The task list integrates with iCloud’s Reminders, so you can stay synced between your iDevices and your Mac’s Reminder list. The primary advantage is that both tasks and calendar events show up in one app, giving you an idea of how busy your day is, when you’ve got due dates assigned to your reminders or tasks.
Other intuitive features include drag and drop for events and tasks, the ability to send SMS reminders and custom alerts for events. Event invitations can be sent from within Calendars 5 as well.
Calendars 5 has a nice, iOS 7-inspired design that looks sharp and crisp. I am a fan and enjoy using it daily. You will too.
Get it here: Calendars 5 for iPhone and iPad by Readdle
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.