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Kicking procrastination in the roots with Things

A while ago I started using Things as my primary task manager. Things is a peculiar beast – in the age when everything is web-based and free, it’s a decidedly opinionated native Mac, iPhone and iPad application that costs a decent bundle. It also does not allow for collaboration, but rather focuses on managing personal tasks.

I found it to be an amazing tool for a manager. Managers, whether running a team, a project or a company, often need to juggle multiple small and big tasks, issues, questions or ideas. Even when the bulk of the work is delegated to the team, there must be kickoffs, follow-ups, reminders and so on.

Things excels at that. Tasks are quick to enter, trivial to schedule and easy to postpone. In this post I’d like to talk a little more about my philosophy of getting Things done.

Keep it focused and short-term

The first rule of using Things is keep the Today list as small as possible. Today does not have to be all today, I use it more like a priority task list. What’s crucial is that it has to be small. My rule of thumb is to keep it down to maximum 10 items, ideally around 5. Anything larger than that appears too long and becomes demotivating.

How do you do that? Aggressive rescheduling. Every morning and sometimes during the day I will throw all the tasks that I don’t see myself completing into the future. I see this not as procrastination, but as proactive planning to avoid frustration. It really helps me to keep productive and focus on getting done the small and tangible list of things.

An Anti-Todo List

Marc Andreessen is a very smart fella. One of the things he made popular was the Anti-Todo list. It’s a very simple, yet very important idea. When you are a manager, you do a lot of small things during the day that may seem unimportant on their own. It is easy to finish the day without any tangible progress and feel demotivated as a result. His antidote was simple — write down everything you’ve done, no matter how small, and review it at the end of the day (or just if you feel down).

Luckily, you got that out of the box with Things. Just scroll through your Logbook and marvel at all the things you done! Just remember to mark down things even if you didn’t plan it – e.g. talked to X about Y, got Z going, wrote a lengthy email to Mr. Thing. The level of detail that’s reasonable is hard to define, but generally anything longer than half an hour should go in.

The Only Notifier

I wrote before about my disdain for interrupting notifications and inbox counters. I ended up disabling absolutely everything, including email, most of Skype and having my phone on DnD most of the time. There is also nothing that frustrates me during the day with a red floating icon. Except Things.

Things is the only thing on my Mac and iPhone Dock that constantly reminds me that I have things to do today. There is nothing else that distracts me except for reminders from my calendar.

Mac & iPhone

I started by saying that Things runs on iPad, Mac and iPhone. The latter two form a great symbiotic relationship. iPhone is always in my pocket. Things is one click away on the Dock. Every time I open the iPhone, I’m reminded of things I need to do today. Every time I have an idea or remember something, I will write it down right away in Things’ Inbox.

Mac is great for actually managing tasks. Mouse and keyboard is still better than touch when you need to process a lot of entities quickly. I move tasks between categories, assemble projects and reschedule, reschedule, reschedule. Using just one of those will only expose you to half the experience.

Things & Calendar

Calendar is the other half of the time management equation. Calendar is great for managing events, meetings and other time-boxed occurrences. I found that to be productive it is essential to block of time on the calendar for doing tasks. This forces meetings to group together and gives you a time to burn down that task list. Meeting-free days are by far the biggest booster to productivity if you can swing it.

Personal Velocity

To taper off on a positive note I’d like to share a recent experience. A while ago I felt like I wasn’t getting anything done. Sure, every day I did complete something or other small, but it just didn’t feel like there’s a lot of overall progress. So I did a little experiment to boost my mood. I took Thing’ trusty Logbook and added up the tasks I did each week. Then, I looked through my calendar and counted the meetings I did in the same timeframe. Altogether it was a neat picture:

It seems weird to add tasks and meetings together, but I think they provide a decent measurement of how much did you manage to get done. Obviously this assumes that the meetings are productive, but I try hard not to have the other kind. So if you’re looking for a pick-me-up on a rainy day and are as much of a “chart fan” as I am, just throw something like it together and you’ll feel shiny.

Things won’t solve all your problems, but it’s a good start and a fresh way to get perspective over your tasks and how they are solved with your day. You have to find personal, selfish reasons to fully embrace this tool, like any new technology, so keep that in mind.

If you have any hints or tips that I didn’t cover, please leave them in the comments sections below!

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