Focused Writing in Things

I started using Things from Cultured Code in 2007 when the alpha version was released. For the past 15 years, I’ve used it nearly every day.1 (1 I wrote about Things a few years ago in anticipation of a new version: Check for Updates.) It’s my personal day-to-day to-do list, but so much more.

Here are just a few of the things I put in Things…

It’s my go-to app for many reasons including simple inertia—the more I use it, the more valuable it becomes. It also works wonderfully on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad, the search is fast, the keyboard shortcuts easy to master, and I've never lost data or run into a significant bug.

Writing in Things

My to-dos in Things are often prompts to think and write, such as a post, short story, or planning for a new year. That’s when I normally switch to iA Writer. But recently, I started to wonder why. The to-do in Things usually has notes, initial bullet points, or maybe a draft intro. I often find myself switching back and forth between them.

Plus, things has changed two things that makes it better for writing: notes now support Markdown and they can hold significantly more text, up to 7K words. So, I was curious, what makes me switch when it comes time to write?

First, to-dos and notes live within a project and by default, the left sidebar shows all of your other projects, which can be distracting. Thankfully, it’s easy to hide. With it hidden, it looks likes this.

A to-do list in Things with one to-do expanded
Viewing a project with the left sidebar hidden. Better, but still hard to focus on one thing.

Second, to-dos are always in a list alongside other to-dos as in the above image. So when you’re working on one, the others are right there to tempt you. There’s no view that focuses on a single to-do. I decided to create one.

I added a new Area (what Things calls a collection of projects) called Focus. When I’m ready to dedicate extended time to a single thing, I just move the to-do to Focus and then switch to fullscreen mode. This only works if Focus has a single to-do, which is precisely what you want when you focus.

A single expanded to-do in Things in full-screen mode
Creating a focus mode for a single to-do in Things.


At this point, I have a reasonable alternative to switching to another app to write. I can write in the same place where my notes, ideas, and to-dos are. The experience is barebones and missing some of Writer’s niceties, but I'm also less likely to be drawn into fiddling options.

There’s one delightful plus in Things favor, though. Because this note is technically a to-do, it supports checklists. Having a checklist in a separate section at the bottom while you write is kind of magical. You can collect thoughts and to-dos without switching context. I’ve used it for ideas I might want to include, reminders to expand or trim something, and to capture the steps in the process when the writing is just one of many.

A single, expanded to-do in Things with content and a partially complete checklist
Writing in Things with a checklist to keep you on track.

Two final conveniences. First, creating another draft is as quick as ⌘-D, which  duplicates the to-do.

Second, I can create a to-do to use as a document template (such as the default sections) and the process template, capturing the typical steps in the checklist. Just duplicate the template, move it to Focus, and dive in.

I've found that there is an ebb and flow to how I use different tools. Sometimes, I want to consolidate to as few as possible, other times I love having one that specializes in each piece of the puzzle, like an outliner. For now, I'm enjoying going to Things for what's next, then staying there to actually work on it.