Tag Archives: things

Things 2.0

Just a quick post to note that Cultured Code has released a major update for Things, my to-do manager of choice. I took a break from Things last spring because of the lack of syncing to multiple devices, but was then granted access to the beta testing version of the cloud syncing service. One of the conditions of beta testing was that I couldn’t write about the application, but now that the update has been released, I’m back to using the official app.

I don’t have anything new to say about the functionality of the application–I still think it’s the ideal combination of robust, customizable, and relatively user-friendly. I’m also quite fond of the aesthetics. The design is clean and appealing without seeming over the top (one of my complaints about Wunderkit).

The iPhone and iPad software is as fully-featured as the desktop version, and, most importantly, the syncing works beautifully. As long as I have an internet connection, I have access to the most updated version of the day’s task list. Given the number of different devices I use in the course of the day (evidence that I may have a bit of a problem, but that’s a different issue), I need my to do list to be accessible on all my different gadgets to make actually completing those tasks as hassle-free as possible.

As nearly every review of Things notes, it ain’t cheap. $50 for the desktop version, $20 for the iPad, and $10 for the iPod. And it took a long time for Cultured Code to release the updated version–long enough that a lot of folks, me included, went searching for a replacement. But as syncing was the only major feature Things was lacking, the speed of future updates isn’t as much of a problem anymore. If you’re looking to transition to Post-it note to do lists to online ones, Things is probably overkill, but if you’re looking for a robust, customizable task manager that’s compatible with Getting Things Done or other productivity systems and syncs across all your iDevices, Things has a lot to offer.

GTD and the weekly review

I claimed previously that Getting Things Done (GTD) was a bit more organizational system than I needed or was willing to commit to, but I’ve since found myself gradually revising that statement. There are still a lot of elements of the system that I don’t use, particularly the “tickler” file, and some of the tips that make more sense for management types than academics, but I’ve been adding more and more GTD principles to my workflow lately.

(For a quick GTD primer, see the Wikipedia entry, and Merlin Mann’s extremely helpful blog post on getting started with GTD.)

Most recently, I’ve embraced the idea of the weekly review. Lifehacker has quite a few posts on the weekly review, but this recent one is a good starting place. A weekly review used to seem a bit excessive for my academic workflow—so many of my projects and deadlines are long-term that I thought there wouldn’t be enough to review each week, particularly this semester when I wasn’t teaching. And it’s true that I don’t rely on the weekly review to keep me from being overwhelmed with tasks and appointments that I’ll forget—I’ve got that stuff pretty well under control.

What the weekly review does for me is give me a chance to assess my progress on whatever I’m working on—which right now is a chapter revision and a conference paper—and adjust, correct, and tweak my priorities and motivation. It encourages me to reflect and be more deliberate about the way I use my time, and it gives me an opportunity every week to re-direct my focus and start with a clean slate.

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Ducks in a row

In addition to setting some goals, the beginning of the semester also seemed like an opportune time to re-assess and re-configure some of the tools I rely on to make those goals happen. I started things off in the most indulgent way possible–by buying a new computer.

My MacBook just hit three years, and is starting to show its age. Rather than drive it to exhaustion and then replace it whenever it finally gave up the ghost (a decent, if inhumane, strategy that’s seen me through the last three laptops), I decided to switch to a desktop for most of my work, prolonging (I hope) the life of the laptop and giving me a beautifully expansive screen to write on.

That means I now have (and this is sort of embarrassing, but bear with me) an iMac, a MacBook, and an iPod touch. Assuming my laptop continues to chug along, I’m planning on using it for on-campus work once I’m back to teaching next semester. This means I need to keep my desktop and my laptop synced up so I’ll always have the most recent version of whatever I’m working on.

I’d been using Spideroak to back up my important files to the cloud, but their file management application freaked out when I moved my data onto the new computer, and after several unsuccessful attempts to unfreeze the program, I threw up my hands and went hunting for something else. In the process, I tested out nearly every cloud backup service out there (at least, every one with a free plan). There are a lot of good options. I’ve used Dropbox in the past, but I don’t like having to move files into the Dropbox folder. I have a fairly meticulous (or compulsive, depending on who you ask) file architecture, and I don’t want to have to mess with it by constantly moving things into and out of the Dropbox folder.

Syncplicity looked promising, since it lets you select folders to sync, rather than making you move files somewhere else, but the folder selection option was all or nothing–that is, I could sync my entire dissertation folder, but I couldn’t unselect the subfolders that I don’t want to keep synced (several of the research subforlders have some pretty enormous pdfs that will quickly exceed the 5 gb limit).

I finally settled on SugarSync, and so far I’ve been really happy with it. SugarSync starts you out with 5 gb of free storage, which is pretty standard right now. They’ve got an iPhone/iPad app, as well as an Android one, if you’re into that kind of thing, and a fairly user-friendly desktop management application. You choose which folders you want to sync from each machine you add, and you can unselect subfolders that you don’t want to have synced. There are features for sharing folders, although that’s not something I tend to need. I understand SugarSync lacks some more advanced features that Dropbox offers (more on that here), but all I really want is something that will keep the files I’m working on current on both machines, and SugarSync seems to fit the bill.

Having three devices that I use on a regular basis has also forced me to finally abandon my beloved, but limited, Things (more on why I love(d) Things here). As many of its fans have bemoaned for quite a while now, Things has no cloud support. This wasn’t much of a problem when I only had the one computer and the iPod–I just synced the devices via wifi whenever I needed to. But syncing three devices to each other is considerably more complicated, and borders on a pain in the ass. I wanted something that would do that for me.

Enter Wunderlist. Does almost everything Things does (the biggest shortcomings: no repeating tasks, and no sublists), looks good, has iPhone and desktop apps, syncs to the cloud, and, amazingly, is free. Things has been promising cloud support for well over a year, and when (if) that finally comes through, I’ll consider switching back, but right now I’ve found Wunderlist a strong substitute. And on top of that, the folks at 6Wunderkinder are getting ready to release an even more robust task-management platform called Wunderkit that looks like it’ll support all those things I’ve been missing (along with a bunch of social networking stuff I don’t need, but I’m reserving judgement until I see it).

I’m still in the honeymoon phase with the new computer, but so far the extra screen real estate has been something of a revelation, as has the improved ergonomics of a desktop. Being able to look up and ahead at what I’m writing, rather than down toward my hands makes a significant difference. I’d also forgotten how nice it can be to use a mouse. If only this thing could do the writing for me…

On organization

There’s not a lot I can say about organization software and methods that hasn’t been said many times over around the web, but in establishing and tweaking my own organization system one of the things I found most helpful was reading a number of different accounts of people’s organization systems, how they worked, and why the worked well for them. In that vein, here’s how I try to keep track of things.

I know a lot of people swear by David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach, and I’ve periodically considered giving it a try, but its always seemed a little more intense than I was really willing to commit to. At the same time, my Google tasks list was not cutting it. There was not good system for assigning priority, or for breaking down large tasks into smaller ones. “Write prospectus” is not a useful entry to have on my to-do list, but the million small tasks that make up that large one would overwhelm both the list and me.

There are several popular GTD software options (Lifehacker has a run-down here), particularly OmniFocus, but I found them either not customizable enough or, in the case of OmniFocus, too expensive and too daunting. I finally settled on Things, in large part because of this ProfHacker review. The review has a lot of great tips that I won’t repeat, except to say that I adopted the method for hacking conferences and CFP’s whole cloth and have found it exceptionally helpful.

Things lets you organize your to-do lists into areas (for me these include Teaching, Dissertation, Conferences, Home, etc.), and then organize those areas into subdivided projects (I set up a different project for each class I teach, for my prospectus and each chapter of my dissertation, for my writing group, and so on). You can select a due date and priority for each item in your to-do list, as well as assign it tags and include extended notes. You can also set up recurring tasks, a feature I use to remind myself to pick up the CSA box each week, as well as to respond to student comments every MWF morning. All of your tasks get organized into an easily-navigable inbox:

You can view tasks that are due today, or see upcoming tasks organized either by project or by due date. You can also view all the tasks in any given project or area. In addition, Cultured Code also sells a Things app for iPod/iPhone. This is key for me, because it lets me add tasks whenever I think of them. On the bus this morning, I remembered that I absolutely have to do laundry this weekend or else I will be teaching class on Monday in either a bridesmaid’s dress from two years ago or a pair of jeans that I’ve had since high school and a John Deere t-shirt. I pulled out my iPod and added laundry to my task list, significantly reducing the chance that I will forget about washing clothes until Sunday night.

Externalizing every single tiny thing I need to do helps keep my anxiety level down and lets me focus on whatever I’m working on at the minute, because I don’t have the constant nagging feeling that there’s something else I need to be doing. If it’s not on the list, I don’t need to worry about it. This is, I think, the major innovation of the GTD approach, and for certain personality types, it makes all the difference. The downside, of course, is that if I forget to add a task to the list, there’s a very strong chance it won’t get done. I’ve forgotten to take the trash to the curb two weeks in a row. But the slight decrease in short-term retention, which was never all that great in my case anyway, is well worth the peace of mind that comes with systematic externalization.

I’ve found that, like writing, an organization system is most productive when it’s habitual. It took some time to find a system that worked and integrate it into my daily workflow, but once I’d done that, I felt more comfortable committing to more responsibilities and was willing to step up and organize various groups and meetings without the worry that I’d fall behind or forget something important. In other words, I’m more confident in my ability to actually behave as a professional in a professional setting.