Productivity app proves counterproductive
I’ve deleted the Things app from my Mac and iPhone – for the second time. I know Things is very popular, and some people swear by it, but for me this productivity app seems counterproductive. Dear reader, I know this is potentially controversial, but in this article I’ll explore why Things doesn’t work for me, and the alternatives I’ve tried.
I bought both the Mac and iOS Things apps years ago. This was quite an investment. The current prices are $49.99 for the Mac app, $9.99 for iPhone and $19.99 iPad – I think I bought all three. To be honest, I’d forgotten there were three versions; that’s quite a hefty sum for the whole set. At the time I was leaning heavily into the Apple ecosystem and embracing the technology. The app was also getting great reviews and a lot of coverage, and I got swept along by that. While I used Things for a long time, it gradually became clear that there were some, well, things about Things that didn’t work for me.
I have a problem with apps that are a bit like Russian dolls, putting boxes inside boxes
For a while I returned to paper notebooks, but when I recently saw a YouTube video expounding the virtues of Things, and how this particular productivity powerhouse person simply could not live without this app, I thought I’d give it another go. I’d already paid up, after all, so all I needed to do was download it again. So that’s what I did, and imported my various bits of stuff from their various places.
But then I deleted Things again a few weeks later. Why? Several reasons.
Areas, for one. I can see the purpose of areas. It’s a logical concept. But I have a problem with apps that are a bit like Russian dolls, putting boxes inside boxes. I had Areas, within which there were projects, within which there were tasks. Some of the tasks had notes. You’ll see where I’m going with this — down something of a rabbit hole. I do have a tendency to over-compartmentalise, so much of the problem is mine, but Things tended to encourage this, and that’s the last thing I need.
Entries would just sit in the inbox like little lost lambs
I tried turning my Areas into projects. This looked much cleaner, and I felt much happier. Far fewer things! But I still had projects with notes, and todos, which also had notes. And if the text for a task is long, Things truncates it. This means you’ve got to click or hit return to see all of the text, and I’m really an at-a-glance kind of person.
Then there’s the inbox. This would contain stuff that should be in projects. Or maybe an area. Or sometimes both, or maybe neither. Entries would just sit in the inbox like little lost lambs. I’d feel quite sorry for them. I’d also make entries in Anytime and Someday, such as places to visit — Norway for the Northern Lights, the Maldives for the beaches (hey, we can all dream). But then I’d never look at Anytime or Someday. Yet although these weren’t something I wanted, there’s no option to remove them from the sidebar to clean things up. Maybe this is a feature that will be introduced someday. (You’ll see what I did there…)
for me […] Things somehow overcomplicates what should be uncomplicated
Sometimes I’d create a task and add a note, then forget there was a note, despite the little icon. I felt like I had to hunt stuff down. The search function — that’s for hunting stuff down, right? It works well, but I’d forget that was there too. I’m beginning to see a forgetful pattern emerging here. I could make a joke about this being something to do with my age. (I’m 53, if you’re interested. What’s that? I don’t look it? Well, thank you, you’re very kind.)
What this indicates is that for me as an individual, and with the way my mind seems to work, Things somehow overcomplicates what should be uncomplicated. Could it be that the app is developed by Young People who don’t forget things as easily as this mid-lifer? This all bugged me a bit. I’d paid a lot for these apps and wanted to use them!
I watched a couple more videos on YouTube. In a couple of these people said they used emojis in Things. This, they said, made their content easier to identify, and increased their productivity no end. That seemed like a good idea to me, so I tried emojis in both Things and Apple Notes.
Emojis made my apps look somehow comical, like colourful cartoons. When creating a new task in Things I’d spend more time trying to find a suitable emoji than actually adding the task. Sometimes I’d take so long emoji-hunting I’d forget what the task was (like I said, 53…). I tried limiting myself to just a few emojis, but because so much of my work involves writing, they were pretty much all the same, and what’s the point of that?
I tried to jot something down in a notebook while I was on a bumpy bus; it’s barely legible!
So I ditched Things, and for a while returned yet again to paper notebooks. I’m a big fan of paper notebooks. They’re important for my morning pages, the development of ideas, getting away from technology. But I also need reminders on my tech, and make notes on my phone when I’m out and about, when I haven’t got a paper notebook with me, or when pen and paper is just impractical. Last week I tried to jot something down in a notebook while I was on a bumpy bus; it’s barely legible! I also found I was duplicating everything, making nice little todo lists in my notebook, then recreating them digitally.
So I returned to Apple’s Reminders and Notes apps. These are baked in to macOS and iOS, and iCloud syncing is flawless. Yet even these aren’t perfect. While they feel like part of the same brand, there’s a lack of connection. For example, it’s possible to create a note and send it to Reminders, but you can’t set a Reminder then create a note relating to it. Until I’d got to grips with this I’d create a reminder only to realise I could really do with a note for that, so had to delete the reminder, create the note, then send that to Reminders. All a bit clunky.
I do like the fact that it’s possible to add notes to entries in Reminders, though. If there’s a Teams meeting, for example, I’ll paste the invitation URL into the notes section of the reminder; then all I have to do is click it to join the meeting, rather than having to hunt down the original email. I know a significant update to Notes is on the way, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens there. (“Tagging”, if you please!)
“Productivity” and “workflows” are personal, and anything that obstructs our natural way of thinking is counterproductive
I’m now using a combination of Reminders and Notion, the latter of which I became aware of only recently. Notion does seem to offer certain a lot of very useful functionality, and is certainly pulling me in as a far more versatile alternative to Things, but there are some aspects I’m wary of. I suspect Notion is a whole ‘nother post.
Things is undeniably a great app. But I guess the point of this article is to illustrate that not all great apps work for everyone. Particularly, it may be said, forgetful mid-lifers. We all have our own unique ways of working, preferences and circumstances. “Productivity” and “workflows” are personal, and anything that obstructs our natural way of thinking is counterproductive. I’m hoping that Notion and Reminders will work out, but it’s too early to be sure.
I’m always hesitant to suggest people follow me, but I will write a post on how I’m getting on with Notion when I’ve been using it a little longer; if you’d like to find out, you know what to do… In the meantime, if you agree or disagree with my comments on Things, let me know in the responses.
I’m a novelist and scriptwriter, Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow and Advisory Fellow, workshop lead and creative coach. Click here to get the lowdown on updates, insight into projects, and a look behind the scenes on creative stuff. You can also follow TFW on Twitter, or like the Facebook page.