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My Thoughts on Getting Started with Things for iPhone

When you first open Things for iPhone, it can be daunting. It’s a big step up from Clear or Wunderlist, and a giant leap from pen and paper.

Is the learning curve worth it?

I’m undecided, but here’s how I think about it: you’re learning a system to relieve your mind.

Whether or not you stick with Things forever, this is a system that could last a lifetime. It’s a system that’s effective for your work, your hobbies, your side-projects, and your personal life. This system needs to be able to handle variations and growth in your productivity—Things can do all of this. It would be weird to expect that a super-simple app has the ability to cater to all of these things, right? That’s why Things is a bit complex.

What we’re doing short-term is minimising the background processing you do on meaningless stuff, like reminding yourself every half hour to that you need to go shopping tonight. Not only is it inefficient, but it’s distracting. This means you’ll be more present in the moment and have more focus on the current task.

I’m really writing this little introduction to Things to help lessen that learning curve.

The basics

The first thing you’ll want to read is the Getting Started with Things guide. Don’t worry if you don’t totally get Things after reading it—I sure didn’t.

This setup might take twenty minutes, but it’ll be worth it.

An overview

Before I explain all of the terminology, it might be helpful to understand something. What does a day look like in Things?

Empty your inboxProcess the Next listTick stuff off the Today listAdd stuff to the Inbox

You start the night before by emptying out your Inbox.

During the day everything that pops into my mind goes into the Inbox. No filter. Every dumb idea or impossible goal goes into the Inbox. I write it down, then forget about it. At night, I go through my Inbox, putting everything there into its rightful Project (and thereby to the Next list). Or, if it’s just a one-off thing, I add it to the Next list uncategorised.

Then, when I wake up in the morning, I go through my Next list, which is sorted by project. I pick out a few choice items—stuff I think I’ll have time to do—and add them to the Today list.

During the day, I add stuff to the Inbox, and tick items off in the Today list.

By the end of the day, hopefully my Today list is empty and my Inbox is full of new ideas.

Good, old-fashioned terminology


This is where stuff starts. As you set Things up, spend five minutes adding everything you can think of to your inbox. Brainstorm. Everything from todos to reminders to goals should start in the inbox. Here’s the deal though: you shouldn’t do anything or think about what’s in your inbox it. Jot it down, then forget about it. We’ll get back to it.


Look back at the Inbox list you made above. If you had to, put each item into a category or a collection. Where does this thing fit in my life? I have a project for my blog, a project for work, a project for setting up my GTD system, and so on. Maybe write down each of these categories on a piece of paper as you flick through your Inbox.

Now you have a basic overview of what’s going on in your life, we need to actually set up areas for related things. This couldn’t be easier with Projects.

Go to the Projects list in Things, then tap the ‘+’ button. Create a project for each of the different categories you noted earlier.

Then, flip back to your Inbox. Hit the arrow in the toolbar at the bottom, then the arrow next to each item. You’ll see your list of Projects at the bottom. Choose where this todo belongs. (Note: this will also move the todo into the Next list—this is good.) Moving each item into its own project is probably the most tedious part of the process.


Head back to the main view in Things, and then go to the Next list. This is where you decide what stuff you want to do today. Tap the star in the bottom toolbar, then press the star next to each item that you’ll do today. That adds it to the Today list. Everything that you’re not doing today can stay in the Next list.


This is your main list. If you’re used to writing down your todo list with pen and paper, this is what you’re used to. If nothing else, you get the Today list. It’s just a normal todo list.


There are three big things you have to understand to get Things. In order,

  1. Everything goes into the Inbox. Big, small, dumb, brilliant. If it’s on your mind, it goes into the Inbox. Then you forget about it for the rest of the day.
  2. The stuff in Next is not on your todo list. Don’t feel bad that you haven’t gotten to it. Unless it’s the five or ten minute window where you decide what you’re going to do today, ignore Next.
  3. Get the stuff in Today done. That’s your benchmark for a good day. If Today is empty, you’ve met your goals.


There’s a tonne of great stuff in Things, like recurring tasks, the Someday list, tags, and areas. Those are all features that will be there when you need them—the app grows as you grow.

Unsure of something? Want to give feedback? Contact me on Twitter, @_matthewpalmer.

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