The field of Mac "Getting Things Done" task managers is becoming crowded with quality applications. The public beta of OmniFocus is finally available and folks are generally pleased with what the experienced developers at OmniGroup have done. iGTD continues development and is unquestionably the best free alternative. Others flood the search results for "gtd" at places like MacUpdate. Into this competitive and passionate market, Cultured Code, the makers of the terrific Xylescope web development program, present Things. While still in private alpha, the application does something all the others have failed to accomplish: it manages tasks with supremely Mac-like elegance.
Another one, though? Really? Do we need Things when those others work just fine? I hope to show why the answer is a clear yes, but first I need to say something about the troublesome task of trying out task managers. The switching costs for a GTD app are particularly high. Many users have hundreds of tasks and projects and importing those into a new system, just to test the novel waters, is a loathsome process--especially because few of the applications support importing or exporting and there is no common and open file format. Because of this, the choice of which application to use is not one to toss off lightly and giving a new one a chance can consume valuable time that might be better used actually getting things done. But Things is worth it. Even in its alpha state, with features missing, Things is a thing of beauty.
At the very broad level, Things does what everyone else is already doing: it manages your tasks, allowing you to easily collect and process all those things you need to get done. But what sets Things apart, what makes it worth paying attention to, is its elegance. The application window opens with elements familiar to Mail and iTunes: a set of selectable views and areas on the left and a place to actually do stuff on the right. There's an inbox for dropping tasks you don't yet know what to do with, a bucket for tasks and project that you might want to get to someday, and a spot to stick things that you can't deal with now but will need to on a specified date. Then there are projects and areas (this latter is one of the application's less fleshed out features, but it's safe to think of them for now as projects without end points, like housework). A logbook for completed items and a trash can complete the selection of where tasks can live. Two more views are available, however: Today and Next. Today lets you see everything you've stared as needing to finish immediately, while Next lists all the actions you could be doing right now if you'd just stop procrastinating. To get an idea of what all this looks like in practice, take a look at Ian Beck's terrific screencast.
That's all well and good, sure, but what makes Things special? Ideally, a GTD manager should be simple. After all, the idea is to see what tasks need to be done, filtered by location, time, resource, etc., and then start plowing through them. For this to work smoothly, however, the application should vanish into the background. If you're spending your time sorting columns, flipping through views, assigning projects and contexts, then you're not checking tasks off your list. Things is the first GTD app I've used that does this. Tasks are a simple line with a check box. All other data is optional and, if you don't use it, you won't even know it's not there. If you do, though, if you decide to give your tasks due dates and contexts, assign them to projects and type extensive notes on each, Things quickly and cleanly accommodates. As part of this design philosophy, Things does away with the contexts, priorities, effort levels, and other task meta data of most GTD applications. Instead, it uses a robust and nestable tagging system. If you want to keep Things simple, you might have only a few tags, like "Home," "Work," and "Errands." In any view that shows tasks, all the tags currently assigned to the displayed tasks run in a small bar across the top. Click on one and it filters by that tag. This means that you'll never again have to look at long lists of empty contexts. Tags you aren't using just aren't there.
Further, tags can be nested. Let's say you want a tag for stuff to read. Reading can mean magazine articles, books, and websites, though, and it makes little sense to look at a list of this last if you're at a place without net access. Of course, you can just create tags for each of those, but then they'd be jumbled in with more traditional contexts like "Home" and result in an overwhelming list across that tag bar. Things gives a quick and elegant way around this. Create a tag called "To Read" and then sub-tags for articles or websites. In the tag bar, Things will only show "To Read" until you click on it, at which point those sub-tags will appear nicely grouped together.
Describing Things is, unfortunately, not up to the task of demonstrating just how cool it is in practice. That's the curse of such terrific user interface design; it has to be played with in order to be genuinely understood--but understanding comes almost immediately upon those first few minutes of play.
Testing for Things is quickly opening to people who've signed up. If you'd like to give it a try, you can get on the list at the Things preview page. Drop your email in the box and sign up. Things is worth the look, even if it means typing all your tasks tasks in all over again. It's just that good.