I’ve reviewed enough software to know over-hyped copy writing when I see it, so I was initially skeptical at the Things app’s claim to be “a delightful and easy to use task manager” (my italics).
But its aesthetic and usability really are pleasing and enjoyable. The layout is very simple and clean. It has almost a cartoonish (in a comforting way) feel to it. It looks like this:
Readers of this blog (especially patient ones) know that I’m a user of OmniFocus, but I’ve also been putting Things through its paces these last few months.
First, straight from the nearly perfect Things getting started guide, here’s the basic structure of the app:
Today is the list for to-dos that you want to start before the day ends. They’re your priorities.
Next is home for all of the to-dos you could start at any time. It’s a good place to look when putting together your Today list, or when you’ve finished everything there and you need more to do.
Scheduled is for to-dos that you’d like to start on a later date, either because there’s nothing you can do to start them yet, or you’d just rather be reminded of them on a specific day.
Someday is the place for to-dos that you might like to get to, but you’re not sure when. Regularly review what you’ve added here to decide if it’s time to act.
It all starts with the Inbox, where you can put items until you’re ready to decide when to do them. Things also allows you to organize by multi-step Projects and Areas of Responsibility, as well as make extensive use of Tags.
Things syncs instantaneously via its own cloud service across multiple devices. This makes using it on both a phone and a computer, for example, really easy—you never have to worry about an outdated notification showing up on your device. This is one of the few drawbacks of OmniFocus—if you don’t keep OF open and make sure it’s synced on all your devices, you’ll get a reminder on your iPhone to complete a task you already checked off on your computer. This is not an issue with Things, and it takes away an extra step in the task management process, so you can direct that energy to actually working through your task list.
Things is head and shoulders above other task management apps in this regard.
Things has a really nice tagging system. No GTD-style “contexts,” per se, though you could certainly use your tags as contexts if you wanted to. You can even assign sub-tags to your tags, a feature I really like. So I can tag a task under the category “Blog,” but also assign sub-tags such as “Future post” and “Learn apps.” I used this tagging system to track thank-you notes last Christmas—writing down presents (and who they were from) as we opened them, and then sorting by tag (giver) so that I knew what all I was thanking someone for when I came to their note! Handy, indeed.
The desktop app is feature-rich. As you might expect, in addition to seamless sync with the mobile apps, the desktop version of Things (pictured above) is fuller-bodied than the iOS apps. There is the Quick Entry feature, where a keyboard shortcut (no matter what app you’re using in the foreground, so long as Things is open somewhere) will let you enter a task before you forget. There is a really smooth way of accessing, displaying, and adjusting all your tags (where Things really shines). Editing a task is fast. And it looks good.
The iOS apps have a useful Today widget. Some Today widgets are better than others, and this one is good. You can view items due today, check them off (both without ever opening the app), and tap on New To-Do to be taken to the Things app to make a new entry.
Siri and Things work together (quite nicely). You can set up Things so that reminders you voice dictate to Siri go right into that app as tasks. So that you can use Things safely while driving. As OmniFocus is my task management app of choice, a comparison again is inevitable: to get Siri-generated reminders to show in OF, you have to actually open OF and let it sync. Not so in Things: the reminder goes to your Things Inbox for processing immediately.
There are some things that Things can’t do, which I had hoped it could.
There is no way (whether in iOS or OSX) to attach photos or files to an item. I find this a noteworthy lack. In OmniFocus and Evernote you can take a photo of something and immediately set it up with a to-do reminder. Sometimes life’s “inputs” come as visuals, and taking a picture and setting a due date is easiest. That’s not doable in Things. (You can link to actual files on a desktop, but that’s not the same as attaching the file itself, and the file doesn’t show up on an iPad.) There is a “Notes” field that attaches to your to-do, which is essential, though that field just accepts text entry.
The cosmos (or just your co-workers and bosses) also like to give to-do items via email. There’s no way to automate moving from an email into a task in Things. In OmniFocus you can just forward an email to your special OmniFocus email address, and it automatically becomes a task in your inbox. Todoist, like Outlook, can let you turn an email into a task in just a click, without even having to forward it anywhere. Evernote even lets you send an email as a Note to a specific Notebook with Tags, if you phrase your subject line right. Things may add this email-in-to-Inbox feature in the future, but for now, you have to take the extra step of copy-pasting an email into a new task yourself. Not as automated as I’d have liked.
You can get to a new task via the + button on the bottom right screen on iOS—so entering a new task right away is easy—but there is not the “Save +” option that other apps offer… so you have to add an extra tap when doing a rapid-fire brain dump. (This is not as much an issue on the desktop version of the app.)
You can set up repeating tasks, but not easily. This process was not as immediately intuitive as the rest of the app is. Things’s support page (which is awesome) details how you can do it from iOS and OSX. But, wow, did I spend a lot of time figuring out the very specific way in which this must be done in Things—and a couple of methods that you’d think would get you there… don’t.
So many reviews of task management apps affirm that there’s a personal element to what app works best for you. One user’s “intuitive” is another user’s, “Huh?” I’ve bought into the OmniFocus methodology and layout (mostly), which is intuitive enough but not easy out of the box. Things, on the other hand, is easy to figure out how to use right away without using a manual. The “Today” part of the app functions as a sort of daily review, though I prefer OmniFocus’s Forecast and actual Review perspectives. But you might be totally different on that!
In terms of complexity and capability, I’d put Things somewhere between Reminders and OmniFocus. It’s far more robust than Reminders, but not quite the souped-up to-do app some users might need. (Although one could just use the robust tagging system to customize Things for higher levels of complexity.)
Things is well-designed, looks great, and the seamless sync is a huge plus. Try it for yourself here (download link) with a free trial.