task management

Digital vs. Analog: The Battle of Productivity Systems

A couple weeks ago I was honored to be mentioned on an episode of Mac Power Users about task management. Listening to David and Katie talk about task management systems got me thinking about how my system has evolved over time. One of the most common questions I hear from people who are interested in developing some sort of system to manage their work is whether they should go analog (paper, pencil, notebooks, folders, etc.) or digital (software, paperless, tablets, phones, etc.).

There's a certain concreteness, a solidity, to using an analog system. Shuffling papers, arranging notes, and actually manipulating physical material can be a great way to make your system feel more alive and personal. On the other hand, going digital means being able to handle more information more efficiently and being able to always have the entirety of your system close at hand. I used to agonize whether I'd be better off going full-digital or full-analog until I realized that was a stupid false dichotomy. I could, and should, do both.

The ultimate goal of any productivity or work management system should be tied to completing the work itself, not the details of how it's managed. Getting organized is a step on the path to doing meaningful work as well as living an overall more deliberate life. There are no style points to be won for sexy systems, no competitions for who can manage the most information, or who can have the cleanest all-digital or all-analog system. Liberating myself from the mindset that I had to choose one over the other allowed me to take the best from both worlds and craft a system that is intimately tied to the ways I like to think and work.

The Digital

My digital system allows me to capture information at will and with a minimum of effort or friction. It allows me to manage the influx of information that we all seem to have to deal with in a constantly connected world and a work life that never really seems to turn off. The digital components of my system include:

  • Capturing photos with my iPhone that are automatically sent to Evernote via IFTTT (receipts, reminders, paper notes, etc.).
  • Capturing thoughts, next actions, and ideas with the Things iOS app.
  • Using Evernote as a "digital filing cabinet" for storing all archived project materials as well as active reference material.
  • Using Gmail, archiving all emails, and trusting my ability to find anything I might need from my past with some simple searches.
  • Using Things to manage all my active and deferred projects, next actions, and someday/maybe ideas.
  • Using Fantastical to manage my calendar on my computer, iPhone, and iPad.
  • Using Dropbox to store active project documents (which are moved to Evernote once completed).

The digital component of my system allows me to be highly mobile and trust that I can do my work wherever I happen to be. The somewhat ephemeral nature of digital information also allows me to not worry about how much stuff I'm throwing at my system as it's easy to filter and search for what I need. If I were using a paper list to keep track of all my next actions I may be more hesitant to add something minor to it. By using Things I don't feel that hesitancy which allows me to be much more complete with the capture component of my organizational system.

The Analog

The characteristics that make my digital system awesome are also what makes it insufficient for a truly complete organizational system. Since it's so easy to throw a lot of information at it and store it in a simple way I have a ton of information in it. Having to look at my entire system every time I need to make a decision about what to do next would be an extremely draining system. That's one reason I've evolved the analog component of my system.

  • I create a daily index card that has my hard landscape responsibilities (primarily appointments and meetings with their requisite pre-work) written on it. At the start of the day I will also add 2-3 goals for what I want to accomplish today. This notecard is then clipped to the cover of the notebook I carry with me throughout the day.
  • I have a black notebook with perforated pages that I use to take notes throughout the day. At the end of the day I tear out the pages I used and throw them in my physical inbox for processing.
  • My physical inbox is the landing strip for all the physical pieces of information that come into my life. I'll empty the papers from my bag into it at the end of the day, snail mail, and any other physical items I need to process. The inbox gets processed every other day or so.
  • I have a black box with a handful of manila folders for storing my physical reference files. If I can I'll scan something and add it to Evernote but if it's something I feel like I should keep a physical copy of it goes in this box.
  • My whiteboard is attached to the wall next to my desk and it's where I keep some weekly, monthly, and longer term goals listed. I also use sticky tack to mount my pre-made daily index cards during my weekly review. I'll also use it for my first round of mind mapping when planning an article or other project (this article started as a mind map on my whiteboard).
  • I'm experimenting with keeping reusable paper checklists for daily, weekly, and monthly activities I know I want/need to complete. The monthly and weekly checklists are tacked to my whiteboard whereas the daily one usually just sits on my desk or is clipped to my notebook.

The analog component of my system allows me to focus in on a much smaller time frame. I'm able to see my daily goals and simply focus on those instead of having to constantly live inside my relatively massive digital system. It's kind of like going to the bank. I know I have more money than I actually need for the week or day in there so instead of carrying around my entire life savings I just withdraw what I need on a regular basis. My digital system is my bank with the entirety of my information living in it and I withdraw what I need into my analog system on a regular basis.

The linchpin to this system has always been my weekly review. With the weekly review installed into my routine I know that I can let go of my larger system and just focus on getting work done for seven days at a time. Regardless of what has changed in my life or the new information that has been thrown at me, I know I'll take a step back and reassess every week. This frees me up to not use mental cycles constantly thinking about the changes in my life or worrying about what I might be missing -- I know I'll take a look at the whole system soon enough.

If I had a straight analog system I'd worry that I wasn't keeping a truly complete collection of everything I have to do. If I had a straight digital system I'd be distracted by the sheer immensity of the information living in the system. By embracing both I've been able to create something that melds together the best of both.

Photos by Jens Schott Knudsen and Jenni C

How I Use "Things"

Sometimes I feel like one of the kids looking from the outside as all the cool kids play with their fancy new toy. In my nerdy internet circle it seems like OmniFocus is the weapon of choice for task management. People love to write about it, share their approaches to using it, and generally high five each other in cool OmniFocus-ish ways. But I don't use OmniFocus. I use Things -- and it's time it got some more love. 

This isn't going to be a blow-by-blow comparison between Things and OmniFocus as I've never really used OmniFocus. Instead, I want to share how I use Things every day and how it has become the backbone of the way I work. If you haven't jumped into using a specific piece of software for task management, maybe Things will become a little bit more alluring. 

The structure of this article is going to be something like this:  an overview of what Things actually does, a description of the basic structure of the software, how it fits my specific workflow, and a few tips and tricks.

Let's get to it.


Very simply, Things is a piece of software that helps me track my projects and to-do list items in an organized and logical way. It borrows heavily from David Allen's "Getting Things Done" personal productivity system but doesn't necessarily have to be an extension of that specific approach. It keeps track of Projects, Next Actions, Areas of Responsibility, and presents them to me in a way that allows me to manage all my work.

Basic Structure

The basic building block of Things is called a Next Action. Essentially, it's a to-do list item that can be placed within a specific Project, in an Area of Responsibility, or stand alone by itself. The starting point for a Next Action is the Inbox. With a simple keyboard shortcut you can bring up a window that lets you quickly add a Next Action and it gets placed in the top-most "container" of the program -- the Inbox. You can also add Next Actions directly to a Project or Area of Responsibility, but I'd say 80% of my Next Actions start in the Inbox.

After the Inbox the next most relevant list is Projects. Each Project holds Next Actions within it (kind of like a folder). I can have a project called "Write Paper for Class" and within it I can have as many discrete Next Actions as I want (such as, "Research Social Identity Theory," and "Look up APA formatting"). Projects are anything I've undertaken that's going to require more than one Next Action to complete it.

One level of abstraction above Projects is Areas of Responsibility. This can be thought of as the various domains of my life in which I have projects I'm responsible for. For example, some of my Areas of Responsibility are "Student," "Relationships," "SamSpurlin.com," etc. Each Area acts as a folder that contains Projects that are relevant to that area.

These three components (Inbox/Next Actions, Projects, Areas of Responsibility) represent the vast majority of the functionality of the program. There's also an area to place Projects or Next Actions that you aren't actively working on but might want to re-visit in the future (called the Someday list). With this basic structure the program allows me to very quickly get a snapshot of my overall work picture, figure out what to work on in the moment, and make sure I'm not letting anything fall through the cracks.

Things and My Workflow

At least 15 or 20 times a day I hit CTRL+OPT+SPACE to bring up the Quick Entry window that lets me enter whatever text I want that then gets saved to the Inbox. I use it to capture any ideas unrelated to what I'm currently working on as well as anything I remember I need to do at any time. If it makes it into the Inbox, I know I will see it and make a decision about what to do with the piece of information. At a very basic level, this is quite possibly the most important habit I've developed that makes Things useful. Once something makes it into the program via the Inbox I know I'll have to interact with it again and make some sort of decision about what to do next. This allows me to trust my system and focus my cognitive power on what matters -- actually doing the work.

Sometimes an item in my Inbox represents a new Project. If it's going to require more than one step to complete I'll go ahead and create a new Project. A lot of the time an item in my Inbox is a Next Action for a Project I've already created. In that case, I simply drag and drop it onto the proper Project. In some cases, the Next Action doesn't belong to an active Project, isn't a Project itself, but is still going to take longer than a couple minutes to finish. In that case I'll just drop it into the Area of Responsibility to which it corresponds. For example, my "Do Weekly Review" Next Action isn't a Project in itself, doesn't belong to an active Project already, but I need to make sure I see it at the proper time so I drop it into my Personal Administration Area of Responsibility.

Another cool feature of Things is that it allows you to tag Next Actions. I use it to denote the context in which the Next Action has to be completed. This allows me to sort my Next Actions by my current context. For example, sometimes I want to see anything I can do at my computer but don't have to be on the internet to complete. In that case, I'll search for all tasks I've tagged with "@computer" (as opposed to "@online"). Another way I use the tagging feature is to tag extremely easy tasks that I can do when my brain is fried as "@easy." That way I can very quickly get a list of tasks to do when I'm not feeling my best.

Things also helps me actually do my work and not just create and organize reminders of the work I have to do. Every morning I'll look at my active Projects and Next Actions to figure out what I should work on today. I can drag these items (or use a keyboard shortcut) into a Today view that only shows those tasks and projects I've selected for the day. Anything I've tagged with a specific due date will also show up in the Today list when it comes time to actually complete it. This helps me filter through the insane amount of information that's actually being tracked within the program to focus on what actually needs to get done (while I can also trust that everything else I need to complete in the future will still be there for review later on).

Things is the central hub that my Weekly Review revolves around. Once a week (usually Sunday morning) I go through all my Projects and make sure they have at least one Next Action. I make sure all my Areas of Responsibility have at least one active Project. I make sure my Inbox is cleared out and all Next Actions are in the proper Project or Area of Responsibility. This lets me go into each week knowing that everything I've committed to doing is safely in Things and is just waiting for me to sit down and do the work.

Finally, there is an iOS version of Things that syncs with what I have on my computer. This allows me to quickly capture Next Actions when I'm away from the computer. After a day away from my computer I'll usually have a handful of items sitting in my Inbox waiting for me because I used my phone to capture ideas during the day.

Tips and Tricks

One of my favorite features of Things is using the Scheduled feature to hide a project or task until a specific day. During my Weekly Review I'll often determine that certain projects aren't going to get worked on in the upcoming week. Instead of having them sit in my active list making me feel bad all week, I'll schedule them to re-appear next Sunday (during my next Weekly Review) at which time I can make a decision about whether I'll work on them in the coming week. I also like using this feature for activities or events that I might want to do but aren't sure about at the moment. For example, if there's a concert a couple months away that I want to reconsider going to once it gets closer, I'll have a Next Action that says "Look into going to XYZ concert," pop up a few weeks in advance. That way I don't have to think about it until I can actually do something about it.

One of the best uses of a task management system is to schedule infrequent recurring tasks. I don't put things I do every day, like brush my teeth, into Things but I do put things I do every month, every 3 months, every 6 months, and even every year into it. I have a reminder to conduct a Monthly Review on the first Sunday of every month, I have a reminder to revisit my goals and vision every year between Christmas and New Year's Eve. I have a reminder to "start thinking about Christmas shopping" in the middle of October. I can use the power of the program to help me make sure I'm moving my attention to where it needs to be at different times throughout the year.

If you use the Quick Entry with Selection keyboard shortcut within Gmail, Things will create a new Next Action with a link back to that specific email in the Notes field. Since I try to keep my email inbox as empty as possible, I'll frequently create a Next Action that is connected to a specific email. By using Quick Entry with Selection I can then have a Next Action that allows me to click back to the specific email I'm replying to. A huge time saver that also lets me keep my email inbox under control

Other Software

Part of what makes Things so useful to me is making sure I'm not asking it to do too much. Things is *only* a task manager for me. It keeps track of Projects and Next Actions. That's it. It's not a calendar (although I do attach due dates to Projects and Next Actions when it makes sense). For my calendar needs, I use Fantastical. It doesn't really matter what you use as long as you're crystal clear about the information that does and does not go into it.

Likewise, Things is not for holding any kind of reference material. For that, I use Evernote. Evernote is my "digital file cabinet" and very often I'll have a note attached to something in Things that says, "Relevant notes are in Evernote." By making sure I don't put calendar items or reference items where they don't belong I can make sure Things stays optimally useful to me.

Things is an incredibly important part of the way I work and my successful use of it allows me to be more productive and less-stressed than I otherwise would be. I'm not an evangelist for this piece of software or this company -- but I am an evangelist for people having *some* kind of way to keep track of their ongoing projects and tasks. Having a clear view of everything you've committed to not only makes you a better team member, coworker, employee, or family member but it allows you to keep implicit contracts with yourself. You'll know that you can trust yourself to do what you say you're going to do. You'll stop letting things (ha) slide through the cracks and the coolest result of it all is that really cool opportunities will start to find you. I firmly believe that without knowing the precise state of your working life most of us subconsciously keep opportunities from appearing. We know we're too busy to tackle anything else so why would you have your feelers out for something new and exciting. Using a program like Things has allowed me to have a crystal clear vision of what I've committed to which means I know what else I can safely take on and what I have to let pass me by. In the past, I wouldn't be scanning the horizon for cool opportunities because I was barely keeping track of what I already had going on. This is huge -- and not something I expected when I first started using this program.

I'm probably missing vast swaths of information that would be helpful to you. What questions can I answer for you about Things and task management more generally?

"Getting Things Done" and Empowerment

I recently had the pretty incredible opportunity to participate in a workshop that David Allen is piloting. I was fortunate enough to meet David when I invited him to speak at a conference I organized. Luckily, I happen to be located a mere two hour drive from the David Co. headquarters so I was within range when he invited me to the workshop. Anybody who knows me in real life or has followed my writing knows I'm unabashedly a huge Getting Things Done fan. I think David's contribution to how we think about work in the age of the knowledge economy is incredibly important. As I was sitting in the conference room last week watching David present this information I realized that GTD is about much more than keeping track of lists, label makers, or notebooks. I've always worried that to an outside observer who doesn't "get it", it all looks like obsession over the minutiae of being organized. However, I think GTD is so great because it's really about empowerment.

The Tyranny of the Big Project

GTD empowers you as an individual on two important planes. First, if you "get" GTD and have implemented it into your life in at least a semi-complete fashion then you have the tools to pick apart any project. Literally, any project. I'm talking about world changing, paradigm shifting, my-life's-work kind of projects. Everything from getting your oil changed to ending world hunger has some concrete next action that will take you one step closer to your vision. Every time I find myself getting mired in the sheer vastness of something I'm trying to accomplish I realize I've lost sight of really the only thing that matters -- the next concrete step I can take. Visions and mission statements are great but the lowly next action -- brainstorm for 10 minutes, call John, Google X, talk to Emily about Y -- is what creates change in the world. GTD's bottom up approach, from the tactical day-to-day concerns to the overarching strategic plan, shows an appreciation and respect for action.

Getting Above the Fray

Somewhat paradoxically, the other major empowering contribution of GTD is that it helps you get above the fray and analyze your work and life from a new perspective. Think of the difference between a foot soldier and a general. A foot soldier's overwhelming concern is with staying alive moment to moment. Dodge that axe, duck over there, run over here (evidently my conception of warfare is about two centuries behind). These actions are what keeps the foot soldier alive and they don't have the time or energy to stand back and think about the larger strategy of the battle or war. On the other hand, the commander is above the fray (figuratively and literally). His job is to coordinate the larger strategy of the battle. He needs to monitor what every unit is doing, what the enemy is doing, and make changes as necessary.

Unnecessarily violent metaphor aside, this is similar to how we work. It's very easy to get sucked into the moment by moment actions that keep you alive in a work-sense. Responding to emails, dealing with interruptions, fixing projects that have gone into emergency mode -- these are the actions that keep you afloat but also never let you take a step back. Having a good GTD system in place helps you elevate to the level of a commander from time to time. You can step away from the gritty day to day details and take stock of where your forces are, what's coming on the horizon, and make plans to meet upcoming challenges. Once the plans have been laid and adjustments made you can dive back into the foray content in the knowledge that you're on the right path and you're ready for the unexpected.

Beyond Organization

Without GTD large projects can seem like immovable boulders. Without GTD you can get locked into the small battles that may never coalesce into work you actually care about. Across these two planes of focus GTD empowers you to have greater impact and actually accomplish what you care about. To the outsider, GTD may look like nothing more than obsession over lists and organization for the sake of organization. It can be easy to fall into that trap if you're not careful (i.e. productivity porn) but the potential reward for understanding and carrying out your own GTD system is too great to ignore.

Have a thought you'd care to share? Find me on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of emdot

The Simplest Task Management System Ever

An entire industry has been built around the concept of personal management and productivity. The best known of these experts is probably David Allen and his Getting Things Done system. David's books and system have been very helpful in my own life and I always try to recommend his work to anyone who seems to be drowning in their own commitments and responsibilities. There are countless other gurus out there who do the same thing as David Allen-- helping people organize and manage their work and daily lives in the most effective way possible. These individuals are doing beneficial work and I applaud them, but, I think that sometimes the whole process is over-complicated.

At the very core, a personal management system is supposed to help you decide what to do and when to do it. In Getting Things Done the workflow is centered around project lists that each have discrete next action steps that keep them moving toward completion. Each next action has a context assigned to it that should help you decide what to work on based upon where you are located. For example, you can look at your @office list while you are at work and not be distracted by those things you can only do at home or at the grocery store. Additionally, there are weekly reviews and a whole GTD workflow that must be memorized and executed. While extremely effective if done correctly, it can also be very complicated. Some, such as Leo Babauta, have tried to simplify the entire process. Leo took the GTD system and created his own take on it called Zen to Done. I highly recommend this ebook as I think it does a great job taking the core principles out of GTD and stripping away all the ancillary fluff.

However, I think all task management systems can be broken down into one sentence. Are you ready?

Do what is weighing on you most, most of the time.

That's it. We all know at some level what is causing us the most psychological discomfort in terms of our work. Whatever that is nagging at the back of your mind when you are sitting in front of your computer or walk into your office is quite often the thing that you need to get done most urgently. For me, writing these articles is what is usually gnawing at my subconscious. It's the very core activity to keeping this blog going and when I have finished a writing session I feel a burden lifted off my shoulders. It's not because this is a particularly onerous task-- in fact, I quite like writing these articles. It's not even that these are the most urgent in terms of deadline. I'm scheduled several weeks in advance so my blog will not shutdown if I don't write this article today. It's just that I know this is what I'm supposed to be doing. This is what drives my blog forward and this is what drives my own intellectual curiosity and sense of accomplishment forward. The more I write the better I feel.

If you aren't sure what you need to do and are drowning in your work, take a second to be still. Close your eyes and decide what would feel the best to have completed. When you've decided what that project is, make the next thing you work on be something to make that your reality. You might not finish it, but even taking small steps toward it's completion can lift that mental weight a little bit. Chances are the reason an activity is causing you stress is because you know that it's important and that you have to get it done.

Just remember, at the end of the day after you've made all your to-do lists and project lists and mind maps and brainstorms and outlines and meetings and conference calls you still need to actually DO something.

Do what is weighing on you most, most of the time. It doesn't get much simpler than that.