Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

The to-do list problem & the ‘Things’ solution

Posted on 01 May 2008 22 comments

Article illustration for The to-do list problem... and the 'Things' solution

I’ve been promising a post about to-do lists for a while now, and I’m so enamoured with the beautiful Mac app Things that I just can’t hold it in any longer.

Until very recently, I wasn’t a fan of to-list apps in general. I’m not sure why that was exactly; I think perhaps it was because I associated them with ‘work’ and always stuck with my good ol’ whiteboard for personal to-dos. And I guess I also just really loved the tactile nature of a whiteboard hung just above my desk – it was easy to see, and whacking a great big tick next to an item… well now, that’s satisfaction embodied.

But now that I’m working for myself and my to-do list has grown rapidly in size, it quickly became apparent that my trusty whiteboard just wouldn’t hack it, especially as I’m living out of a backpack from now until early July. I needed an app to look after this stuff for me.

When I was at Carsonified, we all used Remember The Milk, which is a pretty nice little web app. Prior to that we used Basecamp, which is quite full-on as far as task management is concerned. 37signals also have Ta Da List, but I fancied something with a little more OSX ‘sexiness’ (forget the to-do functionality built into iCal and Mail – they’re far too simple). Plus I decided an offline tool would be better, for when I’m without an internet connection. Things pretty much ticked all of the boxes, and as I’d already been trying it out as an early alpha tester, I’d got a taste for how nice it was to use.

So what makes Things so great? Well, for a start, it looks lovely, with all the charm you’d expect from Cultured Code. But its simplicity is what really sold it to me: the auto-completes, the ease of tag entry, the ‘magic’ filter-by-tag ability… and then you’ve got the Quick Entry semi-transparent pane that can sits above all other windows and is invoked by a simple key combination. A very nice touch. There are also more complex features like the ‘projects’ and ‘areas’ lists, although I must admit that I haven’t felt the need to use them yet.

One of the issues I’ve always had with to-do list apps is their generally poor calendar integration; due dates and time estimates would do well to be represented in the more visually appealing format used by apps like iCal and Google Calendar. Things also falls down in this department, but not for long: iCal integration is coming soon, and it looks very comprehensive. And that’s not all there is to get excited about: Scroll down the page on culturedcode.com/things and you’ll see that and iPhone version of the app is on its way in June.

Besides the ‘cool’ factor, this means big things in terms of having your to-do lists and calendars completely integrated and synced. Right now I use Spanning Sync to sync my iCal and Google Calendars, and then iCal is synced with the calendar on my iPhone. But as soon as the Things desktop and iPhone apps enter this mix, it’ll mean five-way syncing and more integration than you can shake a stick at.

You can download a free preview of Things now prior to its ‘actual’ release, and in case you hadn’t guessed by now, I’d highly recommend it.


  1. Amit Gupta

    Amit Gupta

    01 May 2008 @ 08:55PM #

    Right on, Elliot.

    I’ve been using Things for months after trying out OmniFocus, and it’s a breath of fresh air. Simpler and more beautiful than anything else I’ve used on the Mac.

    I can’t wait for the iPhone version.

  2. Leanda Ryan

    Leanda Ryan

    01 May 2008 @ 09:26PM #

    I’ve been using OmniFocus since last year, I wish there was an easy way to import my info in and out of Things so I could give it a try for a few weeks.

    Things looks slick and I like how it uses tags to filter energy and time required to complete tasks.

    I think the feature missing from most of the current to do list apps is a solid way to conduct a GTD weekly review. I need to be reminded to do it.

  3. Kyle Meyer

    Kyle Meyer

    01 May 2008 @ 09:33PM #

    I’ve been looking for a good to-do list app forever. I got so frustrated I went to pen and paper and emailing myself to dos and prefixing the titles so I could use mail filters to put them into an area and then archive when I had completed them.

    But now I’ll have to have to give Things a go. Thanks for the write up Elliot!

  4. kevadamson


    01 May 2008 @ 09:38PM #

    It looks very nice. I have been using an iGoogle add-on which does the job for me, but I’ve also rediscovered the joys of just some scrap paper (usually from junk post or forms that would usually just go straight into the recycling) and pen next to my machine. Good for the day to day tasks.

    I hadn’t realised how much I miss making marks on paper – even boring lists! – and also how much it has improved my organisational skills.

    The one thing that digital lists don’t offer is the ability to sketch a visual idea next to a list item.

  5. Dave


    01 May 2008 @ 09:57PM #

    I’ve been looking at using a moleskine for my uni to-do stuff for ages but i think once the iphone app comes out for things i will definitely be using this software.

  6. Julian Schrader

    Julian Schrader

    01 May 2008 @ 10:04PM #

    After trying way too many GTD and To-Do apps and using some of them (iGTD/Actiontastic) for several months, I think I finally stick to one of them — Things.

    Like Amit I’m using it for several months now and absolutely love it — and can’t wait for the iPhone version and a tighter integration into Mac OS X. It’ll be great! :-)

  7. Keith


    01 May 2008 @ 10:12PM #

    I’ve fallen on and off the Things bandwaggon, not because I don’t think it works well – it certainly does – but mainly because I think my own personal workflow doesn’t always need lists to fun smoothly.

    Having said that, Things is my favorite to-do app thus far and once they get some of the more advanced features (mostly related to delegation and sharing) I’m sure I’ll be all over it again.

  8. Shane


    01 May 2008 @ 10:39PM #

    “Remember the Milk” is new to me. An iPhone version certainly makes it appealing.

    TODO: check out Remember the Milk on iPhone.

  9. Stuart Maynard-Keene

    Stuart Maynard-Keene

    02 May 2008 @ 12:17AM #

    I’ve tried out Things but always seem to go back to using OmniFocus, I think once both of them release their iPhone app I’ll be able to make a decision as to which one I’ll stick with. Things does look the business though.

  10. Gavin


    02 May 2008 @ 12:40AM #

    Hey Elliot,

    Did you think about basecamp? Or did you decide against it because of it being fully online?

    We use basecamp quite heavily with it being such a good all-in-one package.

    Take Care


  11. Epic Alex

    Epic Alex

    02 May 2008 @ 01:12AM #

    Its a shame that things isn’t available on windows, it looks sexy!

  12. Josh Stodola

    Josh Stodola

    02 May 2008 @ 08:49AM #

    I just love how you say “its simplicity that really sold it to me”, directly after stating that “it looks lovely”. Almost as if you wholly realize (and assume your readers realize as well) that the forte of Mac users is to put value in looks before functionality. Quite humurous, because it’s real.

    I used a MacBook Air today at BestBuy. It was the worse computing experience of my life. I’ve wasted ~12 hours giving OSX a sincere chance to grow on me. But, ultimately, it is so far beneath me that I couldn’t imagine being remotely as productive as I am with Windows.

    Someday you’ll learn!

  13. Josh Stodola

    Josh Stodola

    02 May 2008 @ 08:51AM #

    While users report that Things is running very stable, we still encourage you to make regular backups of your data. If you don’t backup your entire home folder anyway, please make backups of your Things library.

    LMFAO! Even the creators expect it to fail.

  14. Simon Clayson

    Simon Clayson

    02 May 2008 @ 10:22AM #

    I’ve also been round the block with every list app/online app for the past couple of years. I moved to Things between Christmas and New Year and never left. I’m impressed by their development process and obsession to get it right.

  15. Hamish M

    Hamish M

    02 May 2008 @ 10:32AM #

    Great review Elliot, thanks for sharing. Now I just need to actually own a Mac to try this little gem out.

    Simplicity and looks are not mutually exclusive, nor is functionality. In fact it’s the harmony of these three principles that make most Mac applications fun and easy to use.

    And the “worst computing experience of your life” — what were you trying to do, use it as a Frisbee?

    Your last comment makes no sense at all. That’s a perfectly normal disclaimer for beta software. Every good programmer knows that applications will fail some time or another — especially earlier versions, so they might as well advise users on best practices.

    Honestly, if you don’t like Macs, that’s fine. But you don’t need to troll around like this to get your point across.

  16. James Mitchell

    James Mitchell

    02 May 2008 @ 07:20PM #

    Thanks Elliot for the review.

    Remember the Milk is what I’m currently using and I love the ability to use twitter to add, complete, and much more all tasks. I’d say that an online solution is good if you don’t have access to your computer through out a good portion of the day (e.g. at work).

    I’ve tried things, albeit extremely briefly. I’ll have to give it another go and see if the time is right for a RTM to Things switch is appropriate for me.

  17. Davin


    09 May 2008 @ 02:49AM #

    Just started using “remember the milk” and I’ve forgotten to maintain it. I like the web based app since I don’t have a laptop and regularly use 3-4 machines in the same day.

  18. Dan Rubin

    Dan Rubin

    11 May 2008 @ 01:42AM #

    I tried Things a few months ago and wasn’t able to get into it, for the same reason I can’t seem to use any desktop app for notes/reminders: I only have my MBP with me about 50% of the time.

    Capturing to-do items needs to happen all the time, and though I’ve tried writing by hand and then transferring when I get back to my desk, that’s too much extra work.

    That said, it’s pretty as hell, and with an iPhone version on the way, come June I might just be able to add myself to the list of Things fanatics :)

    I’m going to give RTM a try, it seems to be fairly popular with a lot of folks. Is the “offline” aspect the only reason you aren’t using it? I can’t remember if you have an iPhone or web-capable mobile :)

  19. Tim Norton

    Tim Norton

    12 May 2008 @ 07:00AM #

    Looks nice, I guess I have to think about getting a Mac finally, the lean years PC’s were the best economic choice but Mac time is coming … I have used PlanPlus by Franklin Covey, it’s not too bad.

  20. Dennis Coughlin

    Dennis Coughlin

    13 May 2008 @ 12:28AM #

    Very cool – thanks for the tip.

    I’ve always tried (and failed) to use a To-Do list. Maybe this will do the trick…

  21. Adam Kayce

    Adam Kayce

    15 May 2008 @ 12:27AM #

    I’m a recent Things user, too, and so far I’m loving it.

    As a solopreneur, lots of productivity apps have seemed too bloated, or over-complex. Things does the trick for me, so far.

  22. Monk


    25 July 2008 @ 05:58PM #

    I’ve been using Todoist for about 6 months now and it is by far a simpler and superior web-based todo app than Remember the Milk.

    Check it out. todoist.com

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