A Foundation for Capture and Review

Establishing a centralized place to consistently gather and review my intentions has been a key part of my recipe for achieving my goals and getting where I want to go. “To Do” lists aren’t a particularly glamorous thing, and — as I’ll get into in a future post — my end objective is emphatically not the mundane, mechanical fulfillment of endless lists of “To Dos”. But designating and maintaining a single place to collect and organize the next steps and perceived obligations in my head has provided a truly indispensable foundation for my higher-level pursuits.

I’ve used various methods and media over the years — from handwritten checklists in the annual planners where I kept track of assignments in college, to a Palm III and the Windows-based Palm Desktop app that aided my late-90s stint in the videogame industry, to my system of the past 15+ years: becoming an enthusiastic user of Things on all my devices. Whatever tools and process you use, having a consistent system for capture and review seems essential to focusing effort effectively and thereby reaching the life and work goals that matter most to you.

Having clearly thought-out objectives is essential to choosing a successful approach for any endeavor. My purposes for maintaining a “To Do” system are:

  • to fulfill the commitments I make
  • fo fulfill my own intentions
  • to be reminded of and achieve my most important long-term goals
  • to ensure I prioritize well and put each day’s time to good use
  • to unload my mind and thereby reduce needless worry, while clearing the deck for more useful applications of mental power

This last is a key feature of the process, whose benefits I’ve really come to reap and appreciate over the years. Having a place to unburden my restless mind has greatly reduced my levels of counterproductive worry. To some, this constant activity might look like stress-inducing obsession, but when I write things down as they come into my head, in a place where I know I’ll review them later, I enable myself to let go in a very beneficial way. Once I’ve entered a thought into my system, I no longer need to stress about whether I’ll remember whatever responsibility or action it entails later. I can relax, exhale, and direct my thinking to more immediately useful pursuits.

This process of “ubiquitous capture”, which I’ve been practicing for as long as I’ve used Things, has been a great boon to my work and personal organization, and Things nimbly facilitates it. Its “Quick Entry” panel on my Macs, and Siri integration and sharing extension on iOS, enable me to very quickly capture stray thoughts without interrupting my flow. One quick global hotkey combination on my Mac, from wherever I happen to be, makes entering a new thought easy and instantaneous, without disrupting my thought process or flow state. I can take the time to tag and file the item then, or simply let it fall into Things’ “Inbox” for later review in favor of maintaining my enclosing train of thought. Speech recognition on my Watch, iPhone, and iPad offers “Hey, Siri: Remind me to …” as another quick and easy way to capture thoughts in the middle of whatever I happen to be doing. The results of this approach end up in a designated list in the Reminders app, from which Things can quickly and easily import, and I’ve just learned in the course of writing this that there are even more direct avenues into Things that I can start taking advantage of.

The usefulness of all this capture would be greatly diminished if it just resulted in a huge, unorganized pile accumulated in my “Inbox”. Thankfully, Things makes tagging and filing so quick and easy that my Inbox is completely empty most of the time, and very rarely contains more than a few items. On the Mac and iPad in particular, Things’ ample keyboard shortcuts make very quick work of applying tags, assigning the item to a “project”, adding any desired notes or sub-items, scheduling the item for a particular day or some unspecified time in the future, and adding an optional deadline. This all sounds like a lot of activity, but once you’ve mastered the keyboard shortcuts it can all be done extremely quickly.

Tagging items has become a particularly key and worthwhile part of the process for me, due to Things’ spectacularly useful and globally accessible support for tag-filtered searches. I make sure that every item that leaves my inbox has at least one appropriate tag applied — a consistent practice that has made Things the single most organized place in my life. With a simple keystroke, autocompleted search, or click of a tag token (on macOS), I can instantly slice through my tasks to filter down to a particular focus area — be it work at large, a particular project, phone calls to make, errands to do while I’m out, tasks related to my children and their school work, bills to pay, etc. The lasting rewards I reap from this instant filtering and recall capability make the small amount of work I put into tagging things eminently worthwhile.

Accumulating this info would be less useful, of course, if I didn’t have access to it everywhere I go. Things‘ fast and reliable cloud sync and presence on my iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad, and Macs has done a superb job of ensuring that I have my latest info accessible and editable always.

Things’ elegantly focused simplicity is a key feature for me. Some may yearn for attachments, geotagging, or the ability to style text. To me, what is absent is as much a part of its judiciously elegant design as what is there. What I specifically don’t want are features that tempt me into unproductive fiddling with my content when I have other things to do. I find just the right balance in the ability to add plain-text notes and URLs to items. Being able to link to stuff is made particularly handy by the way Quick Entry can instantly capture links — to a Web page I want to revisit, to an email message I know I’ll need to refer to later, etc. Any app that supports “deep linking”, such as the bug tracking system I use daily, can have its content linked to from a Things item, making recall of the needed info instantaneous when I go to tackle that item later.

The ability to schedule recurring items with appropriate deadlines has been another key feature for me. It’s a money-saver (eliminates missed bill payments) and is handy for reminding me to keep in touch (I make sure to call my 92-year-old Dad daily), keep to my exercise/training goals, and take care of more mundane stuff (like weekly meal planning and grocery shopping, remembering to start the dishwasher before bed, and getting garbage and recycling to the curb on the right days).

To its credit, Things doesn’t enforce a rigid or dogmatic view of how you have to organize your stuff. It offers a variety of useful tools (tags, projects, and “areas”) that support you in being as organized as you choose to be, on your own terms. I’ve tried a variety of approaches over the years — making greater or less use of projects and areas, for example — and found Things to be readily adaptable to the ways I choose to work.

Whatever tools or process you embrace, instituting a practice for capture and review is, in my experience, an essential cornerstone for pursuing serious goals. If your mind works anything like mine, the creative flotsam that drifts about it can benefit from some basic de-cluttering. Once unburdened from having to track life’s distracting, shiny minutiae, your brain will be free to navigate with higher purpose and get you where you want to go.

In future posts, I’ll get into the details of my own usage and review process, and look at the upper layers of goal-setting and pursuit that a “To Do list” process exists to support. Along the way, I’ll share some advice that I’ve encountered and successfully employed to keep my focus on what matters most.