Long-term review: Things 3

A few years ago I tried to track my tasks with notebooks. I wanted a quick-capture system that I could have with me anywhere, and the Bullet Journal system really appealed to me. But after buying up Field Notes notebooks, the Midori Traveller’s Notebook, and a Leuchtturm dotted grid notebook, I’ve surrendered. A digital task manager just matches the way I think and work across devices.

There are a lot of task managers out there, and I’ve tried most of them. I’ll try and recount them all for you in one breath:

  • Remember the Milk, one of the earliest task managers on the iPhone 
  • TeuxDeux, an ultra-simple calendar style task manager with no alarms
  • OmniFocus, a professional task manager with a focus on forecasting and reviewing that I never felt at home with
  • Todoist, a multi-platform subscription service with a lot of power, but lacking a “native” feel on any given platform
  • Clear, a simple list manager with alarms and slick animations
  • Taskpaper, a plain text task manager without any alerts or reminders
  • 2Do is a powerhouse app that theoretically should be my favourite , but which ultimately feels too busy

Then there’s Things 3 from Cultured Code. I reviewed v2 back when I was writing for iPad Insight, but (thankfully) Things 3 has enough changes that it warrants an entirely new review.

Basically, all of the things that I disliked about Things 2 have been fixed in Things 3…and the features I loved have gotten even better.

The Today list on Things for iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

I use it across my iPhone, iPad, and Mac, so the images in this review reflect what Things 3 looks like across each of those devices. There’s also a watchOS app, and even though Things 3 has a pretty good one, I don’t tend to use many watch apps. The sync can be a little too unreliable.

To-dos in Things 3

The core particle of Things 3 is the humble to-do: it has a name and it has a checkbox so that you can mark it as complete. Simple, right?

But the to-do is capable of so much more.

A to-do can have a note attached to it. 

If a to-do is something you have to do again, you can set it to repeat.

If there’s much ado about the to-do, you can embed a checklist within it. It’s a power matryoshka doll move, and it’s great for quickly generating grocery lists.

If the to-do starts to procreate and spawn an entire family, you can turn it into a project. This automatically converts any checklist items into to-dos for that project, and you can start to sub-divide projects even further with headings. This is handy when you realize the week-long task it work is actually a month-long project with multiple steps and checks.

Oh, and the to-dos in Things 3 supports reminders. Finally. I’ve literally been waiting years for push notifications in this app, and its absence was the major that I gave up using Things 2. The wait was worth it, though, and I love setting reminders with natural language parsing.

Natural language parsing on iPhone.

Lists in Things 3

You can group to-dos by tags and Areas (categories), but I spend most of my time in specialized lists.

The Today list is where I spend most of my time in Things 3. The top of the screen shows any calendar items from the current date, and to-dos live beneath. In most other task managers “today” just means the current date but in Things 3 it’s actually a special status (like a star or priority level). Assigning a to-do to Today will keep it on that list until it is completed.

This is a guilt-free approach to task management because items in Today may be several days old, or simply scheduled for Today — and there is no visual difference between them. I like this approach because it provides me with a rolling set of priorities and requires less busywork on my part for rescheduling old tasks.

If you want a sense of whether something is overdue, you can add deadlines. These let you know that a task’s due date is approaching, and also let you know when a task is overdue.

The Upcoming list in Things 3 for iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

Aside from Today, Things 3 has a few others special lists:

  • Inbox is great for dumping to-dos that you don’t want to schedule or organize yet. This is a classic Get Things Done (GTD) concept.
  • Upcoming is a list that functions like a daily agenda, showing you upcoming calendar events and scheduled to-dos
  • Anytime displays any to-dos without a scheduled date.
  • Someday is a view for bucket-list or long-term items that you just want to capture, but don’t need to see on a daily basis. I don’t use this view very often because it seems like a place where ambitions go to die.

Why I love Things <3

OK, now that I’ve explained the basics, let’s get to the heart of the matter.

One of the biggest reasons I love Things 3 is how clean it feels to use. Each to-do can contain a wealth of information, but the visual design is just so delightfully clean. I’ve used Things 3 for over a year at this point and it’s still a pleasure to use.

The Things date picker is still the best one in the biz. It doesn’t use the default date picker in iOS, but rather a custom monthly calendar view so you can instantly tell what day “June 17” falls on. It’s difficult to plan events in the future with the default iOS picker, and Things 3 makes it a complete non-issue.

The date picker on the Mac.

Swiping down from the date picker reveals a search bar. It supports natural language parsing, so I can type “tom 9pm” as I’m scheduling a to-do, and Things 3 understands that the start date is tomorrow, and it should send me a reminder at 9pm.

Beautifully animated gestures on iPad.

There are so many whimsical animations in the app, like the way that you can drag tasks between lists, or how to-dos respond when you swipe right to reschedule them. They lend a sense of physicality to the pixels that just isn’t present in other apps. The sense of movement isn’t purely about whimsy either. The “Magic Plus button” in the iOS version takes great advantage of the touchscreens on my iPhone and iPad. With a quick tap and drag, I can generate a new to-do right in the middle of a list, or throw something into the inbox. I don’t want to think about how many hours were spent refining these animations to get them to feel just right, but I’m very grateful to Cultured Code for them. The only visual change I’d like is an option for dark mode (and it looks like that’s coming to macOS this fall).

I’m also really impressed with how powerful each of the apps is. The Mac, iPhone, and iPad apps all feel like first class citizens in the Republic of Things. They can all set repeat reminders, they can all batch move or batch reschedule to-dos, and they all feel like they have their strengths. The iPhone gets the most use for quickly adding tasks. The Mac app is always open while I’m at work for keeping my priorities straight. The iPad app doesn’t get quite as much use on my 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but I think that might change if I go for a smaller iPad Pro this fall.

Cultured Code does get major kudos for implementing all of their keyboard shortcuts on the iPad. It’s simply the best implementation of keyboard controls on the iPad, and it’s clear that it came from people who enjoy using the iPad as much as I do for productivity.

What I’d still love to see

There are really only two changes I can think of that would improve the current Things 3 experience for me.

The lack of picture support is a bit jarring to me. Most other task managers have this, and it really is a useful feature for keeping all the context of a task in one place.

The other area for improvement is the current implementation of tag filtering. You can quickly filter a list based on a specific set of tags, but these filters are reset the moment that you leave that view. I’d love an option to keep the filters on, until I specifically clear them. This would let me keep the Today view of Things 3 just for work tasks while I’m at work, and then clear the filter after hours.

These are on my wishlist, but neither of these are dealbreakers, even if they’re never addressed. I’m still getting a lot done in Things 3 as is, and I still get a lot of pleasure out of using the app on a daily basis.

Cultured Code at its best

Things 2 had a lot of promise back when I reviewed it, but it was a stubborn design. It lacked online sync for quite a while because they really wanted to perfect it before launch, the iOS apps felt underpowered, and it never received the reminder feature that people were clamouring for.

Things 3 feels like a huge step forward, not just because of the glorious new look and feel, but because the devs at Cultured Code included some of the most requested features from over the years. They’re listening to user feedback and implementing it in a very palpable way.

They’re also releasing features at a faster rate. In the year since its release, Things 3 has added:

  • repeating tasks within projects
  • mail to Things
  • full iPad keyboard support
  • Siri and x-callback support 
  • iPhone X support

So if it isn’t obvious already, I highly (highly) recommend Things 3 as a task manager. It’s consistently delightful, clever and useful, and it makes it a joy to get things done. 

All of the apps work together, but each of them is sold separately. The Mac app is $50 USD, the iPhone/Watch app is $10 USD, and the iPad app is $20 USD. The whole combo costs $80 USD all together, which is definitely a pretty penny (but still a steal compared to OmniFocus’ $80 Mac app).

If you’re on the fence about Things, the iPhone version is a good way to get your feet wet. But if you’re anything like me, it won’t be long until you spring for the iPad and Mac apps as well.