Getting Things Done (aka GTD) is both a book by David Allen, and the workflow ideas introduced in that book. It has a strong almost cult-like following. I read the book a few years ago and was converted. It was really a life-changing book.
Here’s the super simple explanation of GTD:
Your life is filled with “open loops,” which are things you have to do, delegate, defer, or drop. GTD is a system for collecting those open loops, breaking bigger loops (“projects”) into discrete actionable tasks, assigning a context to each task based on what resource you need or situation you must be in to accomplish it (i.e. phone, internet, grocery store, home, office), and figuring out a “next action” for each project (which is the next task you could do to move that project forward). That’s it, in a nutshell. You gather and process like that, and when you’re ready to get some things done, you work based on context. So if you’re on the train, and you have access to your phone and an Internet connection, you can do any of your next actions that have an “Internet” or “phone” context. Things that have a “home” context don’t concern you, because you’re not at home. Things that are “phone” context but aren’t next actions don’t concern you because you have to do something else before you get to that. The idea is that you get these open loops out of your head, where they rob you of your focus, and into a system you trust. Once they’re in a system you trust, these things magically stop bothering you. They’re in a system, and the system worries about keeping track of them, not you. Seriously, go buy the book — it’ll blow your mind how much sense it makes.
In the last couple years, “GTD apps” — software applications that keep track of your open loops, and show you your next actions for a given project or context — have exploded onto the scene. The most notable is probably OmniFocus, an OS X application (with an iPhone component). Merlin Mann, a well-known GTD advocate and a productivity visionary in his own right, was hired to consult during the development of OmniFocus. I use OmniFocus. It’s certainly capable — but its UI is too complicated, and it is held back by the same quirky UI used by its creator for their other applications (where that UI makes a little more sense). It almost feels like they copy/pasted large portions of their other software together to make OmniFocus. At times, using OmniFocus feels like its own set of open loops! There are all these buttons and menus and views and stuff that you’re not using, but you have to think about every time you open the app. There is definitely room for a simpler, yet fully GTD-workflow-capable OS X application.
“Things” by Cultured Code… is not that application. At least not yet.
It’s genuinely heartbreaking to me that “Things” can’t fully do a GTD workflow, because it’s really a well-built application. I want so much to like it and be able to use it. Gone is the cluttered, legacy interface of OmniFocus, and it is replaced with a gorgeously designed, deliciously simple interface. It just screams “use me, then move on.” It invites you to dive in and start using it, but it doesn’t have so many bells and whistles that you’ll get distracted and lost in a never-ending quest for “the perfect configuration.”
Even though the application is not promoted by Cultured Code as a GTD app (I haven’t found a single instance on their site of them saying that it is a GTD app), countless reviews and articles have claimed that to be the case. They’re wrong.
The flaw seems small, but it absolutely kills a critical part of the GTD workflow. “Things” assumes that tasks can be completed in any order, and thus destroys the concept of next actions. “Tags” can be used as contexts, but it is impossible to get a usable GTD context view. For example, consider two hypothetical projects (the “@” is just a generic context prefix):
Project: Get engaged
- Call future mother-in-law and find out girlfriend’s ring size @phone
- Go to store and buy a ring @errands
- Call a fancy restaurant and make a reservation @phone
Project: Install new fence
- Buy post hole digger and fencing @errands
- Dig holes and install fence posts @home
- Install fencing @home
In both cases, #1 is my next action. According to GTD, if you found yourself out and about at this point, you’d have #1 from the fence project available. If you found yourself near a phone, you’d have #1 from the engagement project available. Here’s what you’d see in “Things” if you chose the “Errands” context tag:
What the heck? Buy the ring!? I can’t do that yet. I haven’t called my future mother-in-law and learned my girlfriend’s ring size. There is no way to tell that “Buy post hole digger and fencing” is actionable while “Go to store and buy ring” is not. They both show up on my “Next → Errands” screen. How about my “Home” context? Well that’s just going to tell me that I need to dig holes with the post hole digger I don’t have yet! Argh! In Internet parlance: GTD FAIL.
So what should the talented, sexy, and graciously obliging developers at Cultured Code do to remedy this? Simple: add a small toggle button for projects that switches between “parallel” and “sequential” — or maybe just a checkbox that says “must be completed in order.” Some projects’ tasks can be completed in any order… they just need to add the ability to have projects with sequential tasks. Additionally, instead of just choosing how many actions to show from each project when viewing in tag (i.e. context) mode, there should be options for showing only “available” items, where “available” means “is a next action for a sequential project, or is any action from a parallel project.” Do that, and I’ll praise “Things” at the top of my voice as a fully functional GTD application.