Over the last few weeks a problem that has only gotten worse with time started to bug me more than ever before. I call it "information disarray" and it is the issue of all of the important organizational bits of your digital life being scattered throughout a variety of different apps and services. Your todos are in one app, articles ideas in another, things you want to buy in another, movies you want to watch in another, appointments in another, and lists in still another. Everything is everywhere and you have no idea where to look to find something.
There was a time when there was a single application you could go to and see everything you needed to worry about or take care of that day/week. Now things are spread out all over the place with highly specialized apps each claiming little bits of information for themselves. I can never find a specific item that I want, and I have, more than once, missed important information because I was not in the right app at the right time.
If you're reading this and have a solution, do let me know. I'm trying to figure all this stuff out. But if you're reading this and are thinking that you too face this issue, well, stick with me as I try to work it out. I don't have a solution, but I have a first step.
This whole information disarray issue made me re-think how I use my task manager, to see what other things I should/could be keeping within its system. Unlike so many these days, I still use and love Things. I've never really written about how I use it, though, and figured, considering I recently changed things up a bit, that now would be a perfect time. (And expect to see more Things tips and tricks and whatnot in the future.)
Things works quite differently than OmniFocus. It is simpler, prettier, and easier to use. But it is also inherently less powerful in certain senses. I like that, though. Unlike the contexts and folders of OmniFocus, Things uses Projects, Areas, and Tags.
I don't want to go too much into how Things actually works, as I'm going to assume that you already have a basic understanding of the app. And even if you don't use Things, stick around for, perhaps, some good organizational ideas, as well as more about that whole information disarray thing.
Areas and Tags
Areas are defined as specific aspects of your life that you would like to focus on. They are different from projects in that they are not ever completed. For instance, "BitQuill" is an Area of mine. So is "Home" and "Personal".
(Projects are a set of tasks to reach one ultimate goal, or, in other words, an ultimate goal that require two or more steps. Something like "Build a treehouse" would require tasks like "Buy nails" and "Buy wood" and would thus be a project.)
One of the things that I wanted to get out of a separate app was lists — specifically, shopping lists and errands. They are, after all, actionable items, and I never liked how any other app handled them. I wanted to be able to schedule certain errands for certain days, and see the things I had to do right alongside my other tasks for the day. Again, they are tasks after all.
The best way I found to work this into my system is by setting up a new Area called "Errands". It doesn't 100% fit the technical definition of an Area, but it works in the sense that it is, sort of an aspect of my life, and it certainly can never be completed. It also allows for easy filtering, because with just one click (or tap on iOS — ease of use on which also factored into many of my decisions) you can see all of your tasks that are errands, be them scheduled, inactive, or current.
Just having an Area for Errands though is not super helpful. I needed further refinement. That's where Tags come in. I have a top-level tag called Errands which I can further break down with sub-tags for, in my case, "Nearby", "Mall", and "Target". "Groceries" etc. are also appropriate sub-tags here. What is so great about this is that the next time you are, say, at the mall, you can pop open Things on your iPhone, go to the Errands Area and just sort by the "Mall" Tag to see everything you have to do at the mall. In just two or three taps you've got your tailored todo list for that moment.
Or take my BitQuill Area as another example. I use Tags to further break down tasks into "Article", "Tweak", or "Idea". I used to keep all my article ideas within iA Writer. Now I keep them in Things until I decide to actually write them. When I have some time to write an article, I just hop into Things, go to my BitQuill Area, and filter by "Article". I can then choose from my list of ideas.
Now, I'm not usually a fan of tags — and I don't use them in any other system — but Things makes it easy to add a filter by them, and it sort of requires them to narrow things down more in this manner. Usually, the problem with tags is that you either have too many tags because you have too many different things to tag, or you don't have a lot of tags, and then have way too many files associated with each tag. With Things, there are never tons of stuff in your database, and you shouldn't keep more than a couple tags. Because there are few items and few tags, tagging in Things works and works well.
So, in summary, I use Areas as the parts of my life and tags to further refine those Areas. You can use tags for time allotment, mental capacity, location, etc. Whatever works best for you.
The beat way to decide on Areas and Tags is to adapt and change things as you go for a week to see what you need. See what works and what doesn't work. Sit down for a bit and think about it, implement a system that you think will work, and then tweak things until you fall into a real good system that doesn't have any holes for the way that you work. This is how I got into using Things the way I do now. Of course, I don't expect you to do everything I do — chances are it won't work for you. Rather, you need to determine what works best for you using some of the practices and techniques outlined here. Experiment a bit, see what works, and then stick with something.
Don't over-think things, though, At first, I had some great ideal system outlined in my head for how to perfectly organize every single task. But that's not actually useful in practice. So what if I have every single task narrowed down to a precise tag within a precise area, but have dozens of unnecessary tags that I never actually filter by. Don't organize for the sake of organizing. Organize and categorize so that retrieval of information is easier. Do you actually ever filter your task list by a certain tag? No? Then get rid of it — you don't actually use it. Would you love to be able to, say, see everything you have to get done at Target? Then make a tag for that. Keep only the tags you use to filter by, to actually see and do specific tasks.
The Wish List
One of the things that I had never really found a good answer to is where to keep a wish list — or just a list of things I actually need to buy. I finally have found a good answer, though, by brining it back into Things. There are a few tricks to make this work well, though.
First, make a new Project entitled "Wish List" or "To Purchase". Then, drag it to Someday to make it inactive. Since you don't know when you're going to be buying these things, making them inactive makes sense. You won't see them in Next, nor anywhere else, until you specifically go to them in Someday. You now have a new "section" within Someday just for your Wish List items. Fill the "Wish List" project up with the things you want to buy — making the title of the todo the name of the item and including, perhaps, a link to the item in the Notes field — and tag them according to what they are. I have a "Clothing" tag, for instance, as well as a "Tech" and "Sundry" tag.
I also made a tag called "Watching" which is for specific items that I am waiting to go on a sale before I get. Every once in a while you can check in on your "Watched" items by filtering by the tag to see if there has been any price drops.
The '!' Tag
There is another tag that I use throughout my current Things system. The tag is a simple "!". It's not a priority tag, but rather just something that I deem more important than the other things within that list. For example, in my To Purchase list I have certain items that I need more than others. Some are really more just wishful items, while others I actually need to buy at some point. The ones that I need to buy, I'll tag with an "!" so I can easily filter to them and see what I need to buy.
(Why not make those more important items into an Errand tagged with the appropriate place of purchase? Because there is no single place to get them. They can be purchased at any number of places, and also aren't necessities — they're just less wishful than other things. So, for instance, the next time I am at the mall, I can filter to the things that I really want/need to buy within my To Purchase list. Things I know I need/want to buy but do not have a specific location go in my To Purchase list. Something like deodorant, that I know I buy at Target, would go as an Errand tagged with "Target".)
I also employ the "!" tag for BitQuill articles. I have many things tagged as potential article ideas, but I add the "!" tag to the ones I want to get done sooner, are more timely, or I am more interested in.
The "!" tag is pretty useful. You should try it.
I still feel at times like everything is too complicated. We have all these systems with Areas and Tags and Projects that we spend so much time maintaining. It all still feels confusing.
And indeed, I still have things spread out amongst numerous apps. Appointments are still in Calendar (although they either started as a task, or have a task associated with it), media I want to check out is still in Recall, bookmarks and some info is still in Pinboard, and notes and reference stuff is still in nvAlt.
Even though I have updated my approach to Things, it is still not a complete solution. This all does not solve the information disarray problem entirely, but it's a good first step. The trouble is that I'm not sure what the next step is.