Because so many people got The Hit List as part of MacHeist, I’ll do a special series of posts on it. This was supposed to be one long post, but got over 5000 words. If you want to read the entire thing in all its glory, you can do so here. We now return you to your regularly scheduled post.
The Hit List. Not the most impressive of names, but quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the world of simple to-do lists almost through full-on project management. The simple design of the application, basically a computerized notebook pad, allows you to use it in nearly any way possible. A task can be as simple or as complex as needed.
For the purpose of this article, technical terms relating to THL are in bold.
Anatomy of a task
Tasks are the main unit of any GTD application. Standard things tasks can have include a title, date, tags, and notes. Here’s what a task in The Hit List can have.
- Title–The description of what you need to do, as if you were to write it down on a paper to-do list.
- List–A task can either reside in a list or the Inbox (covered later).
- Subtask(s)–If there are more than one actionable items required to complete a given task, it can be given subtasks. (The reason you’d want to do this, in a nutshell, is so you don’t have to think about anything when you sit down to work.)
- Priority–How important it is that this task be finished. In THL, higher priorities are more important. Useful for seeing which task to complete first if they’re all due Today.
- Tags–Do I really have to explain these? Tags are keywords you can apply to a task which you can sort or search by later. To add a tag, type a / either when the task is selected or when you’re editing the title. Then, as you type a list of suggested tags will appear, and you can either press return to accept the first one, keep typing to narrow it down or finish adding a new tag, or arrow down to the tag you want to add. To add a multiword tag, add another / at the end. (Instead of /The Hit List, use /The Hit List/.)
- Contexts–Similar to tags, but rather than being used for organization they are used to note what resources are needed to complete a task, usually like @Mac or @Phone. To add a multiword context, use /@The Hit List/, as a context is just a tag preceded by @ (Thanks to Andy Kim, the developer, for pointing it out, and John for reminding me to update the post). As you can see, there is a context field in the Information panel, indicating that the developer meant tasks to have one context only, however more can be added. The major advantage to these is that via the Search bar (again covered later), you can see what tasks you have the resources to do at the moment.
- Start date and Due date. These are independent of each other, and can have both, one, or neither set. The input field will take dates in human-readable formats. T expands to Today, Tom to tomorrow, 2d sets the date in two days, abbreviations for weekdays and months work, and even dates like “oct3 10″ correctly expand to “October 3, 2010″. You can also set the date by clicking on the day on the calendar that pops up when you click into one of these fields. See my post for the difference between the two dates.
- Estimated Time–One of the more interesting features of THL is the ability to track times. You can plan how long you think a task will take, and then time it using the built-in Timer. This field in the Information panel also shows what percentage of your estimated time you have been working on the task. You can edit it by typing it in, or using a lovely slider that pops up.
- Actual Time–One of the few fields in THL you cannot edit, although so many feature requests have been made for it that this may change. The actual time shows how long you have been timing the task. Not one of the more often used features, but nice to have for some. It is important to note that THL counts eight hours as one day.
- Completed–A task in THL can either be not completed, meaning you haven’t done it, completed, meaning you have done it, or canceled, meaning you’ve decided not to do it.
- Added and Modified dates–Similar to these properites for files in the Finder, this keeps track of when you added and last modified the task. Simple, but useful if you want to set up a Processed smart folder (covered later).
- Repeating (not shown)–Tasks can repeat at almost any given interval. The Repeating date is set using natural language, and you can then customize further whether you want a new task to show up only when you’ve checked off the last one, set how long after the tasks are created they become due, and have the repeat end after a certain number of times or after a date.
Quite a full-featured application, as you can already see. However, we’re still not done with tasks. There are several states a task can be in, even discounting Not Completed. These stages are denoted by changes in the checkbox icon, or the weight of the text in the case of Today.
- Today–A task with a start date or due date set to Today or earlier shows up in the Today list (covered later), and has the title and tags show up in bold print. These tasks are supposed to be worked on ASAP.
- Overdue–Tasks with a due date that is before today are overdue, and get a small yellow triangular warning sign in place of their checkbox icon. When you mouse over the icon, it changes back to the checkbox so you can mark it as completed.
- Timing–When a task is being timed with the timer, the icon changes to a small stopwatch. Again, it reverts to a checkbox on mouseover.
- Completed–As you would expect, when a task is completed it has a check in the box. The title is also slightly greyed out.
- Archived–When a task is archived (which we’ll get to later), the checkbox and the title are greyed out.
There are two types of true containers in THL, and several other pseudo-containers. The difference is that items actually reside in containers, and are just shown in pseudo-containers. Think of containers like folders in the file system, and pseudo-containers like smart folders. Note that these terms aren’t actually used in THL to the best of my knowledge, I just made them up to allow you to better understand their uses.
The first kind of real container is a simple List. Lists contain tasks. These are ordered sequentially, and can be rearranged. (You can also choose to arrange lists by other criteria, which will be addressed later, but they remember their manual sort order when you return to that view.)
Folders, which are the next container, can only contain lists and smart folders (which we will address next), as well as other folders. They are used to organize your lists. I’ll get into what all these can be used for later. Additionally, if you view a folder you have an option to choose how many tasks from the lists it contains. It does not show the tasks in the smart folders, which is a design choice I believe the developer may be rethinking, or those in lists inside subfolders, which I’m pretty sure is a bug.
Smart Folders are a lot like lists, except for their behavior in folders, but cannot be sorted manually. They contain tasks automatically selected based on criteria you define. Because you can add sub-rules, smart folders can become quite complex. Criteria include every property of a task, including its list/folder, sub-task number, and created/modified dates.
Smart Folders can be as complex as this, or as simple as “Tag is @Mac”.
Tags and Contexts–At the top of the sidebar, next to the text “Lists”, are a pair of icons. The folder shows your lists, and the tag icon shows your (what else?) tags.
Now seems as good a time as any to describe tags to a fuller extent. They are designed to be used to narrow down the list of tasks you can work on at any given moment. If you are at work, and use THL for more than just your work tasks, you can use the Filter bar (again covered later) to narrow down the list of tasks you see to only ones tagged with /Work, for example. If the creative juices are flowing, you can narrow down to /Writing tasks, or /Blogging ones. Unfortunately, you can’t do both of the latter on the fly, as the Filter bar shows tasks with both tags if more than one is selected. You can create a temporary smart folder though.
Contexts are, as has been explained before, tags that denote what you need to have in order to do the task, like @Mac, @Phone, or @Errands. You can narrow down your list of tasks by what contexts you are in at that moment. If you frequently are either at work, home, or the library, you can set up Smart Folders for places you frequent and then view them when you are ready to Do. You can also just view all the tasks in @Errands if you’re planning a large shopping trip.
Tag structure can again be as complex as you make it. The three types in this pane are tags, contexts, and bundles.
Because tags are sorted alphanumerically, contexts naturally come to the top, unless you use other symbols preceding your tags. Their icon is a light pink color, to match their highlighting color, and tags’ are yellow.
Bundles are a new concept, unless they’re present in OmniFocus. They are the equivalent of folders for your tags. You can add tags and contexts to a bundle, but not assign it to a task. It can, however, be a criterion in a smart folder. Bundles can be used for organizing different types of tags, such as those for activities and those for areas of responsibility. I wish bundles could be assigned to tags, because in Things I had a tag for @Mac, with subtags for @Internet, @Blogging, @Scripting, and so forth. Then I could simply filter by @Mac in the filter bar and see all of them, or just see some. This may come in a future release, but I’m not holding my breath.
THL comes with some containers you can’t delete. These are nicely split up into containers and pseudo-containers by their headings.
The Inbox, under the heading Inbox, is the default list for every new task added either by the Quick Entry panel, dragging to the THL dock icon, or using the item THL puts in the Application > Services menu. (Quick tip: Using this and the Services Menu Module, you can add tasks to THL from Quicksilver, even if THL is closed.) Again, this is a List, so it is a container. This is also where tasks go if their list is deleted.
Under the Hit Lists heading, there are two pseudo-containers. The Today view is where you go when you are ready to Do.
This is split up into about six or seven categories, and organized in the order THL thinks you should complete them. First off are your overdue tasks, which shouldn’t be so hard to figure out. Then are tasks that have the due date of Today. After this I remember a section for Due in the Next 3 Days, but this issue (I think of it as an issue because that’s not the way I work) may have been changed in one of the two recent updates. Still Working On refers to tasks added to Today, either by moving them to the list or their start date passing, before today, that don’t fall into an above category. Start Today tasks have been added to the list today or have a start date of today, and the rest categorizes the tasks you have completed. If you’re astute you will notice that the task under “Completed today” is merely marked as completed, while the one under “Completed yesterday” has been archived. Of course, if there are no tasks to fit a category it disappears.
Upcoming looks like Today, but displays different categories.
Tasks with a start date in the future are shown in the Upcoming list. The increments are Tomorrow, Next 3 days, Next 7 days, possibly Next 14 days, Next 30 days, and so on.
Working with GTD
There are several ways to input tasks into THL. The most prevalent is simply to hit the return key in almost any THL view. If you have no task selected, it will appear at the end of the list you’re viewing, and if you have one selected it will appear right under it. It also keeps the level of indentation, so if you have a subtask selected it will add a sibling to that child. To add a subtask of the task you have selected, either hit tab before typing the title of the subtask or hold the shift key while you’re pressing return.
Any task you add while viewing anything other than the Inbox inherit the properties of whatever you’re viewing. The Today view is one exception—tasks there act as if they were added in the Inbox. However, tasks in a list go into that list, while viewing a tag or context they inherit that, and when you’re filtering the new tasks gets the filtered tags. You cannot, however, add a new task while inside a Smart folder, and can only add tasks inside a folder if you have a task selected, so THL knows which list to put it in.
The Quick Entry panel works almost a bit of the Inbox torn off and floating at you, but not quite. To activate it, use the key combination you can set in the Shortcuts tab of the Preferences. Entering a task here works the same as anywhere else, except the Return key dismisses the window and sends your task to the selected list, and the f key to file the task doesn’t work. To add a subtask, use shift-return, and to add another task use command-return. ^-0 through ^-9 sets priority, and as always command-’ lets you edit the note. To see these handy shortcuts, click the ? button in the corner. You can also choose which list to add the task(s) to, although you have to use the mouse and not the keyboard for this. It’s important to remember that this stays set even after you dismiss and recall the Quick Entry panel, so unless you want your next entry to disappear into your filing system, it’s helpful to bring the panel back up to set the list to Inbox again.
Another way of adding a task is to drag anything onto THL’s icon. If it is text, that becomes the task title. For a link, the title is set to “Look at” and the URL, and the clickable link is put into the Notes field. For files, it places a link to them in the notes field, and shows an attachment icon when the notes are collapsed and the file icon when they are expanded. The title of the task is set to “Look at” and the name of the file.
Once all your tasks are in the Inbox, THL makes it really easy to add everything you need to them using keyboard shortcuts. Rather than list them all here, I’ll point you to the user-made list on Google Groups that’s infinitely more likely to be updated along with the application. Some of my most-used are command-1 through command-4, space, tab, X, T, B, F, G, /, and @.
To add due dates and start dates, as has been said before, is a matter of Select > Tab > Tab > Type start date in natural language > Type due date in natural language. The one shortcut I have heard requested is one for cycling through lists, rather than going directly to one using G.
THL has a very neat view we haven’t even touched on yet. It’s called Card View, and sounds like what it is.
To show the card view, either click its icon above the notepad or use keyboard shortcut command-2. In card view, all sensible keyboard shortcuts still work, and you can edit notes more easily. This could be useful for outlining or writing small things like an email, so you don’t have to go hunting for it when you want to keep working on something you’ve left off. You can also drag links and files into the notes field here. This is useful for just doing what you need to do, because you can concentrate on it instead of seeing all your other tasks around it. Once you check off your task, it is moved to the back of the pile, with the same nice animation the arrow buttons or keys show, and you can focus on the next thing. (If you want to you can turn the animation off in the General section of the Preferences.)
One more thing you should try is dragging a task from this view. Grab a bit of the card above the title, and begin a drag. You’ll likely never use this, but it’s so nicely put together it’s worth seeing.
Once you Do (and check off) your tasks, you can archive them with the button at the left of the Hints bar (covered later), or with the ` key, right above tab. To see your archived tasks, click the Show archived checkbox on the top left of the notepad (or card, although it doesn’t do much of note in card view).
This seems as good a time as any to mention a large easter egg in the app. ‘Tis the season, as well. Create a task with the word “Mario” in it, complete it, and archive it. Do the same with “Star wars”. Now you’ll see why those are the only two tasks allowed to stay in the archive of my Inbox, for those times I need a motivator and don’t have any chocolate around. Speaking of which, excuse me for a second…
All right, I’m back. That is some good chocolate. Now on to the final stage of GTD.
There’s not much an application can add to the reviewing process. The only thing I can say for THL is that there is a Date Modified criterion for smart folders, which could be used to see what tasks need to be reviewed.
Look at the top of your THL window. Most likely, if you’re reading this, you have one tab-shaped thing sticking out of the top of your notepad area. THL supports tabs, just like your web browser (hopefully) does. Double click in an empty area of the tab bar or press command-T to create a new one. As you can see, the colors vary through Lists including Inbox (white), Today (green), Smart lists including Upcoming and Tags/Contexts (purple), and Folders (blue). You can choose in Preferences > Shortcuts to have command-W or command-shift-W close a tab (the opposite closes the whole window).
My tab structure is organized in order of what should be cleared first.
As you can see, first I move everything out of my Inbox, then work on the items in Today (which normally fills all my time). If I finish that I move on to Upcoming, and on the unlikely event I finish that I go in order of Pending (smart folder for everything I can work on at the moment, then my Someday list (which is different from Eventually), and finally a smart folder for absolutely everything that’s not completed.
The Three Bars
As you can see, there are three buttons across the bottom of the notepad area. (If you haven’t noticed, I’m using that to refer to the area your tasks are displayed in, which looks like a notebook.) The first works a bit differently than the others. This is what is called up by the G key. You can type letters, and THL will show you lists, folders, and smart folders you have that contain those letters in that order, no matter what letters may be in between them. You can then use the arrow keys to move between matches, and enter/return to to to that list.
It should be noted that while this works in a similar way to the file (F) command, it won’t create a new list if you type something that doesn’t match any list/folder/smart folder.
The second Bar is the Hints bar, and it’s useful to keep open for new users. It gives you easy buttons to press to do the things you’d normally use keyboard shortcuts for if you could remember them, while teaching you the shortcuts. There’s also a search field, which only searches the current container and doesn’t search notes. This is also where the Archive button, which I referred to earlier, is located.
The final Bar is the oft-mentioned Filter bar. It shows you all your tags and contexts applied to tasks in the current container, and if you click one the filter turns on and only tasks with that tag are shown. If you select more than one, using command or Shift, only tasks with both are shown. To click on tags that are hidden, click the double arrow next to the search field. This and the Archive button are the same as in the Hints bar.
I say the Go To bar is different because it appears to come up in front of the other two, while they just switch. Also, it’s white.
To see the sort options for THL, either go to View > Sort By or right-click the colored strip between the notepad area and the tab area. Manual sort is replaced by Today in the Today list, and you can’t sort by list inside a list, but otherwise they’re all the same even if some are greyed out. They’re pretty self-explanatory, although you may find you need to mentally add the word “Date” after Added, Completed, Due, Modified, and Start.
Sequential vs Parallel tasks
So far, we can organize our tasks by list or by tag, so how do we know which one to use? My personal system is to have a list for everything that happens sequentially and a tag for that which doesn’t need to. That way I can use Smart Folders to replicate the lists made out of tags. This is my current system as it stands today.
And on that note. I’ll finish up this mammoth of a post. I have out done myself, this totaled about 3905 words. I hope you all liked it, and will stay tuned for more along these lines.