I have used Cultured Code’s todo-application Things a long time, since the end of 2008. I attended a presentation then where Cultured Code explained how they translated their intentions and values into the design of the app, and used their software ever since. It is a beautiful software tool and it has been very useful to me for almost 12 years. And then, since the end of August, I have not used it at all. Before 2008 and Things, I used my employer’s tools (Outlook mostly) and privately used text files. Back in the late 1980’s and in the 1990s I only used text files to keep track of tasks. And that is what I’m doing now again, using Obsidian to create markdown text files.
Important elements to me in using text files for tasks effectively are:
- being able to link between text files both directly and through tags
- being able to quickly switch between the task list and the resources needed for a task
- having the task lists as part of my overall system, not an island
Things is good at using tags for tasks (allowing me to e.g. filter tasks on context or needed amount of focus through tasks). I was also able do some linking between Things tasks and e.g. Evernote notes, links that I manually copied between the two, and copied into Tinderbox which I use as a dashboard map for various things. I also used a script at the start of project to create the right first tasks, and corresponding notes in those applications. That way there is consistency between how areas, projects and project tags are used across those applications. It worked but it meant a lot of switching between applications during the day. In my set-up of Things/Evernote and now in Obsidian, I roughly follow the Getting Things Done method (areas, projects, inbox, and marking things as someday or waiting etc.)
As a side note: I do not use my mobile to look at or add tasks, or mark them completed. I basically always work laptop-first. This means that the availability of my tasks lists on mobile, and the capability to edit them there, is not important to me. In fact, Things is an Apple-only product, and I use an Android phone, so I never have been able to use Things on mobile (I did have Things on my 1st gen iPad back in 2010, but tablets are another thing that never really found a niche in my workflow). In that sense using text files are an improvement: I can read them and edit them, because I synchronise my Obsidian notes to my Nextcloud instance, which my mobile can access (there’s no mobile Obsidian app, and there’s no need for it either, any plain text editor will do after all.)
As I mentioned in earlier posts, going back to text files feels very comfortable to me. Obsidians features make it rather frictionless even, with transclusion, tagging and with linking.
The task management set-up
As described in my previous post on my use of Obsidian, I have a hierarchical folder structure of areas of activity, with project folders within them.
Each project folder contains a file titled ‘0 [project name] things to do’, where I keep the list of actions currently relevant for that project. If there are sub projects, then each of those has a similar own list of tasks, which are transcluded into the general project list.
In the 1GTD12WY folder, where I keep the general material w.r.t. future goals and my 3 month planning cycle, I also have two general tasklists. One is the root of all tasklists (called ‘0 root list things to do’), the other is a list of general tasks for the current month (‘0 this month things to do’). The leading zero ensures that tasklist are always the first file in a (project) folder.
The root and month task list in the general ‘getting things done’ folder.
The ‘this month’ list is filled at the start of each month, from whatever is in the ticklerfile for that month (it might be quarterly recurrent things like, ‘file VAT returns by the 30th’, or ‘check out the book that is scheduled to be published the 21st [link]’), and from general things not tied to any particular project that came up while making my month map (see previous posting).
The root list contains all the areas of activity, and for each project within an area the project’s task lists is transcluded. Every project task list links to the root list, so even when I forget to add it to the root list, it will show up as a backlink. As projects in turn may have sub projects with their own tasklist, you get multilevel transclusion. Obsidian allows you to go 5 layers deep so that is more than enough for my set-up. This way a task is only ever in one single list.
I use tags like #waiting and #urgent to mark task status.
My root task list with the month list and a project list embedded through transclusion
At the start of each project I run a script that creates all the necessities for a project. This includes automatically making the task list for a new project, adding a handful of common tasks to it, and adding the link to the root list.
Task management process
On a daily basis I work with the task lists, in multiple ways.
I browse through the task root list at the start of the day, and specifically the projects I will be spending time on that day. I look at what is marked #urgent. Both the root task list and the #urgent search filter I have pinned as starred searches, so I can directly go to them from the Obsidian interface. I do not add existing daily habits onto my task list, I might add them for habits I’m trying to develop.
Above: a project task list, in a project folder. Below: the starred searches to quickly switch between e.g. the root list, the month list, the monthly map and urgent tasks
Whenever I am in a meeting on a project, I have the existing corresponding task list in front of me, right next to the notes I am making during the meeting. After, or during a meeting I update the tasklist, through adding, splitting, deleting or rephrasing.
When I add a task to a list, I also add links to notes that are relevant to it, e.g. the meeting notes where the task originates, or the note that contains the rough notes and current status of a task. I link/mention the things I need for the task. This lowers the threshold to start doing a task.
While adding a task I may add tags that help me select which ones are fitting for the current context (e.g. level of energy/focus likely needed, or specific context in which to do them). As I’m only working from home due to the pandemic I currently don’t use contextual tasks yet (in Things I’d tag things with #train e.g. if it something I can well do while commuting to a client’s office).
When a task is done, I copy and delete it from the task list, and paste it into the day log (see previous post). That way the day log contains all the things I’ve completed that day, plus anything else that came along and wasn’t on the task lists. (I use the day log for time sheets and the weekly review).
During my weekly review, for each ongoing project I remove no longer relevant or finished tasks, add things I realise will be needed in the coming week(s), and scan the horizon for anything that will become #urgent in the next 3 weeks to mark them as such. I also review the #waiting things to see if anything has slipped my mind.
Each month I check if any new projects need to be added, or which ones to close down and remove from the root list. While making my month map I add the resulting tasks to the relevant project list, and I add the tasks resulting from things in next month’s tickler file to the task list for this month.