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Getting Things Done

After some time of getting things done with the friendly help of OmniFocus I suddenly got back into using Things for my task management.

There is no real compelling reason for me to switch, it started literally as an experiment to see how well the sync between devices works. The sync is stunning, it just works like a charm and is super-fast. In other words, the experiment went well.

So, that’s me, back at using Things but still struggling with some aspects that are not sufficiently explained in the more or less non-existent documentation.

For one thing, Things is making heavy use of so-called Focus Areas (Today, Next, Scheduled, Someday, and Projects - in the order of appearance) that shall be taken as some sort of bucket to put tasks into with different motivations. But how is this supposed to work?

Sometimes I feel like I can clearly define the meaning of any of these Focus Areas and then it slips away and I’m kinda lost again.

That’s where I started to draw a picture to get a better overview. Yes, I know, I’m terrible at creating graphics1. Anyway, this is what I came up with:

The picture tries to separate four of the five2 main Focus Areas and associate them loosely with criteria on the x and y axis. For the sake of clarity, I took the freedom to use Icons from Things (© Cultured Code) for my little diagram.

Today

The Today area is for tasks that are supposed to be done today-ish. This does not necessarily have to be today in the literal meaning but still there is

  • an understanding of a deadline nearby in terms of the number of days until completion
  • and also of more than a hint of urgency.

In addition to urgent tasks near their deadline, the Today area also contains a review section of tasks that are due for review.

This may seem like conceptual blur (is the meaning of the review that it is urgent and near its deadline like the rest of the Today area?), but I don’t want to be overly critical at this point.

The review has to be done, anyway, and it is a good and (for me) important feature that Things supports reviews. Just relax and let them put the review section into the Today area.

Next

This is where it is - at least for me - hard to get my head around. As can be seen from looking at the diagram, I tried to make sense of the Next area by concluding that Next is supposed to contain tasks that have a certain kind of urgency but which do not have a fixed or even describable due date.

Is this plausible? Is there anything like an urgent tasks that does not have a deadline at the same time. Yes, I think so. Abstractly speaking, let’s say you’re using a resource of limited supply that needs to be replaced when the supply is dwindling3.

You may not know exactly when the resource is no longer available but you understand that the urgency increases as the supply decreases. Thus, the task to replace the resource may initially be placed in Someday, then moves to Next, and eventually, as you decide to take action, makes it into Today (where it then implicitly gets a deadline: today-ish).

According to this understanding I should not put tasks into Next that are associated with a fixed date and I try to avoid this until my understanding changes.

Someday

Slam-dunk, right? Someday is for all stuff that is by definition not urgent and for which no clear deadline can or need to be identified. Hence the position in my little diagram.

Here’s where (us) procrastinators bloom. It’s safe to add tasks because, well, there is no need to sort it out right now. It’s just as well safe to assume that some of the tasks in Someday never make it into any of the other Focus Areas.

In addition, some of those tasks will never be resolved and, at some point in time, probably deleted because maybe the related problem took care of itself.

Scheduled

Of course, a scheduled task is closely coupled with the existence of a due date. This axis does not make any trouble. But what about urgency? Are scheduled tasks urgent in any single case? Not really.

I, for example, have some tasks scheduled for autumn next year and that can hardly be called urgent at this point in time. Why didn’ I put this task into Someday? Well it has a deadline after all, even if it is far in the future.

How does Scheduled fit into the diagram? And what is the difference between Scheduled and Today since both Focus Areas seem to be associated with a due date? My personal understanding is that Today is just a special subset of Scheduled. Scheduled and Today complement rather than compete with each other.

This explanation is supported by Things’ ability to automatically move a task with a approaching due date (which should initially exist in Scheduled according to this concept) from Scheduled to Today. There is no other automatic move of tasks to Today unless the task has a due date.

Conclusion

This how the Focus Areas make sense to me. You may disagree and that’s fine. In the absence of a clearly defined semantics from the creator of the software everyone’s fine to make her or his own sense of what’s available.

Personally, I’m using Things since the day I switched back according to this understanding of the Focus Areas and I’m quite satisfied with the results so far.

  1. You know, the whole nine yards about how software developers suck as designers.

  2. In my understanding the fifth Focus Area, Projects, is conceptually orthogonal to the other four because tasks in a project can also be shown in one of the other four Focus Areas. But a specific task that is shown in any of the other four Focus Areas does only appear in one of these.

  3. Like, say, cat names for OS X releases.

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