How I use a to-do list (featuring Things 3)
The main tool for making progress in personal and work projects
What is that
A to-do list, or a task manager, is an application where I write down everything I need to do. To-dos can be anything from small everyday tasks like buying bread to big and ambitious projects like buying a house.
I use a few simple rules to make the whole system works.
Rule number one is to write down everything and preferably as soon as possible. Need to call someone, need to go somewhere? Write it down. Need to read something, buy something? Write it down. Need to think about something quietly when you have time? Write it down. Well, you get the idea. If it’s not on the to-do list, you don’t need it.
Rule number one is to write down everything. If something isn’t on the to-do list, then it’s not needed
The great thing about this approach is that it frees up your head. Once you’ve written it down, you can stop thinking about it and focus on something else. In general, it seems to me that the human head is not well suited to remembering many things; at least mine is for sure. And with this approach, it’s simply impossible to have a scenario where you forget something because the app remembers everything.
I also try to formulate the notes so that it is always clear what it’s about, even if I look at them a year later. It happens that you quickly add a to-do, and while you are in the context, everything is clear. And then you look at it a day later and think, “What did I mean by that?”.
For example, a to-do titled “Lord Of The Rings”. What is it? Read a book? Buy a book? To finish the book? Remind a friend to return the book? Watch a movie? What is there to do? It’s not clear.
To make it clear, I usually put a perfect verb at the beginning: read, buy, outline etc. But there’s a nuance here, too.
See, above I gave the example of the “remind a friend to return a book. But you can remind a friend, and he is like, ‘Oh, yes, yes, of course,’ and will be gone for another year. With this formulation, a to-do will be formally completed because you’ve reminded your friend, but at the same time, the book still remains with him. So in addition to making sure that the note begins with a verb, I also try to specify the ultimate goal. Finding out the goal is very easy – to answer the question ‘why?’.
In our case with the book, it wouldn’t be ‘remind to a friend’ (to remind – why?), but ‘take the book back.’ Or not ‘call a barber,’ but ‘make an appointment for a haircut. Or not ‘remind Tim about the prepayment,’ but ‘get prepaid for the project from Tim.’ Feel the difference? Such simple wording changes allow you to focus on the real purpose of a particular task.
Next, I’ll show you concrete examples of how it all looks and works, and I’ll also tell you about the application I use.
Over the years, I’ve used various programs: Apple Reminders, Things, Trello, Todoist, Monday, Wunderlist, and some others I can’t remember the names of. Right now I like Things the best.
May not be right for you.
The apps listed above are very similar in nature but very different in detail. For example, Todoist is paid with a subscription, Things is paid with a one-time fee, and Apple Reminders is free but for Apple users only. Wunderlist integrates with Microsoft’s office suite, while Things works only on Apple operating systems.
If you choose the app for yourself, be sure to consider different options because it’s not a fact that what I use will work for you. Here I am sharing a general approach and my experience with it, not advising a particular app.
So, Things. Here’s what the app usually looks like to me:
Priorities and deadlines
Look in the upper left corner, where the coloured icons are. There, Things automatically sorts out to-dos into tabs, from which the priorities and deadlines are built:
You can quickly switch between tabs by pressing ⌘+1—5
Projects and areas
The system I described above helps to determine priorities and deadlines: what to do and when to do it. But a logical structure also groups tasks into projects and areas.
Big tasks that cannot be done in one sitting. For example, you can’t just make a new podcast episode in one take; it’s hours of work, which requires mixing the set, recording the voice, exporting, converting, making cover artwork for different formats, making videos, rendering videos, sending them to radio stations, uploading to Soundcloud, posting on social networks, and so on. So I combine such tasks into projects. The projects have a round icon on the left that gets filled in as you complete the tasks in it.
Projects don’t live by themselves, they somehow relate to some topic that unites them, and in Things, this grouping of projects is called an area. For example, in my case, that’s finance, household, personal, projects, and work. This makes for a simple and logical nested structure.
I wrote above that some tasks get to my inbox automatically. One such example is the advice series.
It used to be that a person would fill out a Google Form with a blog question. I would get an email notification from Google saying, “Hey, you’ve got a new result on that form”. I got into the Google Dock and copied the question into my program. Of course, that kind of manual work sucks, not to mention that I occasionally forgot to do it.
So I decided to automate this process through the Zapier. If you don’t know, it’s an automation tool for almost any app: you can tell it, for example, “take data from this service, do something with it, and send it over there”. It has another known competitor, IFTTT, but I like Zapier more – I’ve been using it for a long time and for other apps too, so I highly recommend it.
Now with the advice series, it goes like this: a person fills out a Google form → Zapier sees a new line in the Google table and sends its contents to me in Things → I get a new, neatly designed to-do in the inbox. How good is that!
If you’re using to-dos too, tell me in the comments about your approach and the app of your choice, I’d love to read about your experience too.