How I Use Things To Set Up A GTD Workflow

Understanding how a system like GTD works is the theory. You have to put the theory into practice to gain any benefit. Typically that means finding a tool to store all your tasks and setting it up in a way so you can make use of the system.

For the last few weeks I’ve been talking about focus and productivity. I mentioned Getting Things Done (GTD) as the system I use and the difficulty using GTD for creative tasks and projects.

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One negative of GTD is it was written with a pre-digital focus. It holds a very physical paper and physical inbox view of work. It would be great if the book were updated. Using email or phone as a context meant something 20 years ago. It really doesn’t today, when you almost always have access to both.

There’s nothing wrong with using physical tools to organize your tasks and I’m sure it works fine for some, but we live in a digital world now and most of us will use digital tools to manage our tasks.

Things for Mac

My tool of choice for managing tasks is Things by Cultured Code. It’s a Mac only app and there are versions for OS X, the iPhone, and the iPad. I only have the OS X version at the moment and it’s that version I’ll be talking about.

If you work on another operating system, I realize many of the specifics that follow won’t apply to you, though I suspect they can still help you set up a GTD workflow in a different app. It might even help something about GTD make a little more sense.

When I was looking for an app the choices were basically Things or OmniFocus. The latter is probably the better app if you want to strictly follow GTD and it’s the app David Allen recommends.

I chose Things in part because it’s more flexible and while you can use a GTD workflow with it, you don’t have to. Things also has a shallower learning curve and in the end I thought it was better designed and I enjoyed using it more.

At the top of this post is a screenshot of the app with an empty inbox. If you look down the left hand sidebar, you’ll notice there are four main sections.

  • Collect
  • Focus
  • Active Projects
  • Areas

Collect is where you add new items to your inbox for processing. Focus is a mix of organization and viewing what’s in your system. Active Projects and Areas help you organize tasks multiple tasks into a directory like structure.

The Focus Section

The Focus section provides different filtered views about your tasks. You use the views in this section to find the tasks and projects you’ll work on when you’re ready to work on them.

The Today view is a Things addition and not something that comes from GTD. I tend to move items into the Today view and work off that list each day. It’s not how you should work GTD, but I can’t seem to break the habit.

Next is the view you should work from most of the time. Within the Next view you can select the different criteria to filter your tasks. Things uses a tagging system so you aren’t limited to the four criteria of GTD. For example I have a tag for each client so I can quickly find tasks specific to each.

I use the Scheduled view as a reminder to look at something. On Friday I’ll schedule a few tasks to appear on different days the following week. I currently have a task set to call a client Thursday at 1:00 PM. The task is scheduled to appear in my Today view Thursday morning so I don’t forget.

Note: For those of you who worry about things such as these, my scheduled task reminded me to make the call like it was supposed to. My client and I had a pleasant conversation and there was much rejoicing.

The Someday view is for projects with loftier goals like write a novel or sail around the world. I also move projects I’m not currently working on, but will again, into Someday so they become inactive projects. It helps to keep the list of active projects more manageable. In this view I have projects like redesign this site, which I’ll do someday, but not in the next few weeks or even months.

Projects and Areas

Projects and Areas are where your tasks are organized. The Projects listed under the Focus section include all your projects (both active and someday) and those under Active Projects are the ones currently set as active.

I have both Active Projects and Areas closed in the screenshot (sorry I can’t show everything in them), but to give you an idea how I have things organized, a project might be site maintenance for a client and all the specific requests from a client will be tasks within. The project can be set as a recurring project if the tasks repeat each month. Another active project I currently have set is to work on a series of guest articles for another site that I’m sure you know.

The client who’s site I’m maintaining and the website for which the article is being written will both be Areas and each can have several projects at any given time. The site might have “write series X” and “write article Y” as projects The client might have projects to add a shopping cart or build a mailing list signup form.

Adding Items to Your Inbox

A keystroke combination will open a new window (see image below) where you can add any new item to the sytem. You have the option to select where the task goes (anything under Collect or Focus) and if it’s part of a project. You can also assign tags, notes, and a due date if necessary.

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I usually dump everything into my inbox for later processing, but soemtimes I’ll process items as I add them to the system.

Tagging Tasks to Add Filtering Criteria

You create and use tags in Things to add the different criteria (context, time, energy, priority). I don’t bother with priority since I don’t find it helpful, though I do have tags set up for it. You can see some exampes of tags I have set up for each criteria in the image to the right or listed below.

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  • Context ( @work, @home, @errands )
  • Time ( < 15 minutes, < 30 minutes, < 1 hour, +hour )
  • Type of work (mental energy) ( creative, analytic, busy work )

Instead of high, medium, low for mental energy, I prefer to use the type of work. I need a differnet energy for creative work and analytic work. Busy work is for those times when I have little mental energy of any kind. Again, one reason for choosing Things was so I could be more flexible with the system.

I have tags for different areas of focus so I can filter next actions based on the area. Since my areas of focus are mostly clients (me being one), it helps me quickly find what I need to do for a specific client. Other areas of focus are this site, my forum, this blog, and general home projects are all included under the me category.

You can nest tags as I’ve done with the time criteria. This way all tasks that will take less than 15 minutes will also be listed when I select less than 30 minutes or an hour. If they weren’t nested then tasks 15 minutes and under would only show under that specific tag.

I’ve experimented with tags for specific devices or apps. I tried being more specific about the type of work (design, development, writing, marketing, etc.) I have tags like email and phone that I sometimes use, but I don’t find these useful as I always have my phone and a way to email within reach.

Reviews are Important

I do a quick daily review to make sure I catch any time sensitive tasks. I find wrapping up the week with a review on Friday afternoons very helpful. How in-depth of a review I do depends on how I’m feeling that particular day. I make sure to review all tasks and active projects every week, but the bigger picture stuff is more when I have time and energy.

As I’m nearing the end of a project I start to spend more time with my inactive projects and decide which will become active. Part of my recent lack of focus is I have to get through a bunch of single tasks across a variety of projects so my active project list is larger than I like.

A Better Things

While I like the flexibility Things offers and while you can use it to set up a GTD workflow, there are a couple of features that would make it much easier to use.

The first is a greater abiity to nest projects. Nearly all of my projects involve subprojects. Right now the best you can do is elevate every subproject to project status and then group them inside an Area of Focus. It works to a degree, but more ability to nest projects would be better.

A way to set tasks in series or parallel would also be appreciated. Nothing special is needed for parallel tasks. For tasks that need to be perfomed in series there’s a hack to make it work.

Inside any project you can organize the tasks in any order you like. You can then set projects to show the next 1–9 tasks. Organizing tasks in the order they need to be performed and then showing only the next task is like seeing the next item in the series and not seeing more until the first one is completed.

Unfortunately it means for every set of tasks in series you need to create a new project in Things. Without the ability to nest projects it can get unmanageable in a hurry. You also set how many tasks to show for all projects and not per project so it’s either all series or all parallel. With better nesting this wouldn’t be an issue, but the ability to nest projects isn’t there.

While Things can use a few features to make it work better with GTD, I can also do a better job working with the app. I really should work off the Next view and use Today for tasks that are truly time sensitive. My system of tagging can probably be improved as well.

Closing Thoughts

Things isn’t the only tool you can use to manage tasks and projects in a GTD system. OmniFocus is probably the first app people reach for on the Mac and iOS side of things.

If you’re interesting in learning more about either, you can watch screencasts of the tools in action at Don McAllister’s Screencasts Online. Not every screencast is free to watch, but the ones about Things and OmniFocus are. If you search the site you can find more videos using each for iOS.

I don’t have recommendations beyond Things or OmniFocus. Things is the only app I’ve used in practice and I spent some time using OmniFocus when making my choice. If you search for GTD and your operating system of choice you can find others as well as some online only apps.

There’s one more topic to get to in this series. Next week I’ll look again at GTD and Things, specifically how I manage to include creative work into the system.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

16 comments

  1. A correction: it’s not true that David Allen recommends OmniFocus for GTD. He hasn’t officially recommended any specific app so far. He stated that OmniFocus “is a stellar product for the Mac” but also said positive things about other apps like Things. He even made a webinar about how to apply GTD with MS Outlook (yuck!), and he resists to disclose what app he uses for GTD if any (he has recently switched to the Mac and owns an iPad, but honestly I guess he still uses pen and paper).

    An updated version of his book “Getting Things Done” will come out on March 17th 2015.

    Well, about GTD-apps, here just to add my 2 cents… I was a OmniFocus “power user” for years and really happy with it. Then, a while ago, the OmniGroup’s sync server had too many problems in my area, so I had a look at Things. First I thought it was a joke, because no nested projects (sub-tasks) possible, no task dependencies, no time-specific actions. However, after giving it a fair chance I changed my approach at GTD and now I would never want to go back to OmniFocus.

    Steve Jobs once said about the organisation of his company (Apple): “The organization is clean and simple to understand, and very accountable. Everything just got simpler. That’s been one of my mantras–focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

    I noticed that I don’t really need nested projects: when a project gets stalled, I have to think “what’s the next action?” and then do it (or, if I am in the midst of your weekly review, move on to clarify that question for the next project). That question is one of the best things in GTD and it is great value to ask it often and again and again. Don’t ask yourself: “what are the next 40 actions and sub actions and now how can I make structured plan”. Everybody can make a plan, accomplishing tasks is the hard part. Usually, when you are in the midst of your work, “in the zone”, you know exactly what to do next.

    Well of course I am not at all against planing, but I think there is a misconception here: in GTD, a project is just a multiple-step action (and well, one folder and an entry on the project list…). That’s not exactly the same thing like what we usually call a “project” and this leads often to a lot of confusion. For the moment, let’s distinct between “GTD-projects” (multi-step actions) and “normal-projects” (like an order from a customer, etc.).

    The “normal-projects” I do not recommend to plan and manage in your task-software. Most of my work is formed in such “normal-projects”, so I need to lay out plans very often – but there is other software for that (like OmniOutliner). If you try to manage such projects in your task manager, there is the danger that it has a title that reads like “customer name x” and has an unspecified outcome and never gets done (well: it gets done, in the last moment, with lots of stress – when you finally drop your plan…). I try to keep my GTD-projects accomplishable within like one week, the title indicating the goal. So when I am planing my “normal-projects” in OmniOutliner I think: what’s the next action? And this action gets into Things. If it is a multiple-step action, it becomes a GTD-project in Things. For example, if I, for a “normal-project”, need to buy new tools first, I make a GTD-project like “get new tool x”, which includes things like research about tools, ordering the tool, implementing it, payment, etc. I really try to think about GTD-projects just as actions with a progress bar.

    Of course, if you suddenly have a great idea for the “normal-project” while doing some other work, just make an action in your inbox like “put x into project-plan y”. If you are scarred to lose oversight about your “normal-project” or to neglect it, you can make some repeating action that reads “review and manage project x”.

    I think the very difference in handling a “normal-project” vs. a “GTD-project” is that for a “normal-project”, you want to get as many ideas INTO the plan as possible (brainstorming, reference, structure, etc.), not missing a potential solution. In a GTD-project, your goal is to “get stuff OUT” as quickly as you can, either by checking it off completed or deleting it because you found a way around it. I think it’s potentially dangerous to do all that in the same app. For GTD you anyway need multiple apps, an app for keeping reference material (non-actionable), a calendar, a task-manager, a physical folder for paper-project-material. Planing projects is a task for itself, and there are apps for that.

    OmniFocus grew out of OmniOutliner, so the planing capabilities are still there, and also the ability to store reference material for actions/projects (in Things you only have links). That’s potentially dangerous and I hope that if at all, Things gets the ability for nested projects and task dependencies only as hidden features.

    • Thanks lemon-kun. I appreciate all the thought that went into your comment and I learned quite a few things.

      My bad if OmniFocus. I could have sworn I read that on Allen’s GTD site though. It wasn’t something I just made up. However, I certainly could have gotten something wrong.

      Good to know about the updated version too. About the only complain I have with the book is that it needs an update. I’ll be looking forward to the new edition.

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I do know that a project in GTD is is a series of tasks, but I admit to using Things as something of a project management tool as well as task management tool. I don’t think I use it in the traditional project management sense, but I do like grouping tasks into the projects I work on.

      One thing I’ve discovered in working with both GTD and Things is how I set everything up changes at times. I’ve been wanting to give a really big review to everything I have set up. I want to get rid of tasks that I no longer need to do and reorganize many that I still need to to.

      I’ve been thinking it would be a good time to try the OmniFocus demo again and set everything up there and then bring it back to Things and compare both.

      I find that no only do you need to review your tasks regularly, you also need to review the whole GTD system at times. Each time I’ve read the book again, I come away with some new understanding.

      Thanks again for your comment. Don’t be surprised if a few things you said end up in a post here at some point, credited to your of course.

    • Lemon-kun, you hit upon a few of my biggest gripes with OmniFocus. I used to use OmniFocus, but got so tired of it “working” me. Even with the v2 update for the iPhone, it is a chore to do more than just enter the task title. And although it’s “powerful” (as a programmer, I’m bemused by this adjective, as it is missing a host of simple additions like multiple tags), it’s a lumbering giant, and I am positive that part of the reason the GTD community obsesses over it, is the shear amount of time they’ve individually had to spend filling it and maintaining it has led to them having to defend why they spent all of that effort.

      I’ve been using Appigo’s Todo (which never receives much attention) for about a year now, and have found it’s sync a little flaky (not as bad as Omnifocus was when I left – not to mention the monumentally stupid “database” of zip files Omni uses). However, I am testing out Things right now, because I recently came upon a good tip (based on research, and that I can anecdotally confirm) to keep the completed actions in view, as it allows you to see how much progress you’ve made which does spur on additional motivation. Neither OmniFocus nor Todo allow you to hold on to completed actions (in the same view) for more than a second.

      • Interesting Bob. I know when I was first deciding on a app I was looking at both OmniFocus and Things. Many of the other apps out now didn’t exist then.

        I could tell OF had a bigger learning curve and I could tell it was more work to use at first. It’s possible once you get through the learning curve it’s not that hard though.

        I’m thinking about testing OF again. I thought I could spend a day or two setting it up with my current tasks and projects in Things and see which ends up working better for me. I figure the worst case is I’ll have spent some time reorganizing my tasks and projects, which is something I want to do anyone.

        Thanks for the tip to keep completed tasks around. I usually get rid of them right away, but I can see the value in leaving them to get a sense of your progress.

        • Don’t get me wrong, I used OF on both my Mac and iPhone for over a year. I even made the transition to OF2. And I completely agree with the critics that say they spent too much effort on gloss/style, and not enough thinking about what it’s supposed to do – I recently tried it out again, and still feel that way.

          OF is a lot like Linux: it’s the perfect means to an end for people who want to geek out on everything, and accomplish so much less for the effort. But, like I said, there is a psychological tendency to defend what you spend time on, because you’re ego won’t let you admit you’d waste time on something. And for some people, that’s the perfect tool: one that that they can focus all their energy on, and as long as it spits back what they should be doing from time to time, they’ll get some shit done instead of going ADD on something else. 🙂

          • I hear you. I’m not suggesting that OF is better or that Things is better or that you need all the bells and whistles. I start from a system that I find works for me. The tool I currently use (Things) is pretty good, but there are a few things it doesn’t do that I wish it did

            From what I understand OF allows me to do those things, so it seems worth test. Besides I’ll end up with material for several posts so for me there isn’t a downside to giving OF a spin and seeing what it can do.

  2. +1 for reviewing the system (the GTD implementation, so to say) from time to time. I think one mistake that is often made (…I made) with evaluating software is that people don’t really want to try the solutions a new app offers them, they aren’t really open when trying but just looking for the few features they believe are crucial (because they needed it with the last app), even if new the app has a much more elegant solution at hand. And well of course, what is right for somebody can be entirely wrong for someone else, we all have different lives and different needs.

    For me, the single best feature of Things is the daily review and the Today list/focus – actually, just the very fact you can arrange the actions there with cmd+up/down. This feature alone changed my life. It is sort of a day planer, you can move the hardest actions of the day to the top, so you do them first in the morning, when you still have energy. I always wanted something like this in OmniFocus! While you can build all sorts of perspectives in OmniFocus, there is no way to simply drag or move actions (that don’t belong to the same project) into the order you’d like to accomplish them. Of course, you can set the time for each action to the minute, but this isn’t helpful, because it is not flexible enough in most cases. Anyway, I was so excited when I discovered this feature in Things, and well, I believe this really changed the game for me and brought something new to GTD.

    I too am looking forward to David Allen’s update to GTD. It is true, every time one reads the book, one finds something new. Maybe it would be an idea for me to make this a recurring action (repeat every six months): “read GTD again and evaluate your system!”

    I’m wondering what he’ll have to say about the GTD-implementation software-wise. Recently, I saw an interview with him on YouTube, there he said he feels that with the smart phone or a GTD-app you run danger to just ignore your app/task-lists – “the phone becomes just a black hole”. I feel that is right in a way, if you get overwhelmed by the huge digital lists you simply don’t open the app anymore, or you have projects you just look through without really touching them at the weekly review. This is why Allen recommended tiny bits of paper for capture, because these stick into your eyes, nagging you until you have processed it. While I can’t imagine ever going back to pen and paper, I find the “digital black hole” scenario does really happen from time to time…

    • Sorry I’m late in replying.

      I reevaluate my system all the time and make little tweaks. Once a year I try to take a much deeper look at the whole system and make larger changes into how I use GTD and how I use the tools I use.

      There’s a lot I like about Things, but I know the main reason I chose it over OmniFocus was I liked the design better. I found OF a little confusing to use initially. Since they updated to a major new version last year, I thought O was worth revisiting.

      It’ll give me a chance to review my entire system and all my current tasks and projects when I move everything over to OF. That alone was worth a look to me. Some might be missing features, but it’s a lot more too.

      I’ve read the book, three times I think and I guess I’ll be reading it a fourth in March or April. I do learn something new every time I read it.

      Interesting about phones. To me they’re just something I always have with me when an idea comes to mind. I think of it as one part of my collection process. I’ll add a task to Things on my iPhone, be leave it in the inbox for my next weekly review.

  3. Thanks Steven for this article, and to those who have commented so far. I’ve learned quite a bit about Things, the app that I already owned, and how to apply it in a more productive way. I look forward to seeing how it improves my daily work.

    • Glad I could help. Oddly enough I recently switched to using OmniFocus. I didn’t make the change because anything was wrong with Things, but I wasn’t doing a great job maintaining things and I thought a new application would force me to work at it more.

      Plus I wanted to compare the two applications for something I want to write in the future.

      I think the main thing with any of these apps and any system, is actively working at it and learning how to use the system better. It took me a couple of years to use GTD and Things well enough. It was a struggle at first, but I kept reading and learning from others until I figured out how to make myself more productive.

  4. I too would appreciate the nesting of projects. Or even the ability to at least link projects that fall together in some form that makes sense.

    I love things and have been using it for a while.

    I would say that if you truly do mental capturing into the inbox it can become quite cumbersome fast.

  5. Per the “tags” screenshot, I see that most of your tags start with a symbol. I can see the “@” on my keyboard, but where did the others come from?

    • I don’t remember, but I think I copied and pasted them from the character map in OSX. I couldn’t find the character map now, but I found this article about how to show it in the menu bar. When you have it added to the menu bar, open the Emoji and Symbols option and there are lots of different characters and symbols. Click on one twice and it’ll appear wherever your cursor was in the application. I don’t know if the exact symbols I’m using are in there, but there are more than enough to choose from.

  6. I am new to things, just getting into it, but I have heard that Things 3 is in internal Beta. I wonder what it will bring, and if it will be worth the two year wait?

  7. Hello – Great post. Can you share how you are using the shortcuts for tags? My experience with Things is that you can only have 1 character be a shortcut for each tag. I notice you have several characters (<60, <30, etc.) How are you able to use those? When I try it, nothing happens. Have you stumbled onto some kind of new functionality within Things that I have been missing?
    Thanks.

    • Thanks Lynn. My apologies for taking so long to respond. If you look at the image in the post where I show my tags, there’s the symbol at the top of the hierarchy of the different times.I think it’s supposed to be a clock face. It was the default character that Things had for time tags. The 1h+ and the <60min, etc. are names I gave to the tags. I wanted to separate work that could be done in less than an hour with what will take longer.

      Under <60min, I nested tags for shorter durations. This way if I filter tasks by 60 minutes or less, all the nested times show up. The wouldn't if the tags weren't nested.

      To the right in the image you see <60, <30, and <15. Those are keyboard shortcuts to help add the tag quicker to a task. They aren't named very well since the < characters calls them all up and I ended up choosing the tag I want from a drop down. Things let me use more than one character in those shortcuts. As far as I know you aren't limited to a single character. The clock(?) symbol is what shows in the bar at the top. It appears with an ellipses after it to indicate there are tags inside the group. If I click the symbol, it expands to show the 1h+ and the <60min tags. The latter has another ellipses and I can click it to dig further down to <30min and <50min. I hoep somewhere in there I answered your question. If not, let me know and I'll try again.

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