Falling to the Level of Your Systems

I just read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and I found it to be one of the best productivity books I’ve ever read. The book was able to put into words a lot of ideas that I’ve had, but never knew how to verbalize appropriately. Seeing them laid out so clearly in this book was a gift.

Here’s the line that stood out to me the most:

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

Followed closely by:

Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best of making progress.

This past week I wrote about my task management system and this is how I described my method:

I find this frees up space in my brain to not think about what I have to do at any given time, I can just refer to my system and do what it says.

I put everything in my task manager (my system) because it allows me to turn off my brain more often, especially when things get hard. If I ever get frazzled and don’t know what I should be working on, I simply look at my task manager and see what I should do. By taking a little effort in logging what I need to do, I save myself greater effort in figuring out when I ought to do the thing.

We all have systems, whether we document them or not, and hard work/motivation can only take you so far. “Work smarter, not harder,” is a cliche, but it’s also completely true. Don’t rely on yourself always being motivated and having the will power to push through the hard stuff. You can do this sometimes, sure, but it’s not a reliable way to move forward.

If you are struggling to get the things done you want to get done, or you look at your New Year’s resolutions from January and they look like they’re a distant memory, consider what simple systems you could put in place to make these easier to do.

How I Use Things 3 to Keep Track of Christmas Shopping

How I Use Things 3 to Keep Track of Christmas Shopping

One of the things I struggle with year after year is keeping track of Christmas gift lists. I never know what to ask other people to get me, and I have never been good about keeping track of what I think other people would like. The latter part is especially frustrating because I have plenty of moments of “they would love this!” throughout the months leading up to Christmas, but when it comes time to actually buy gifts, I can never remember.

Sometimes these ideas go into Apple Notes, or Drafts, or worst of all, my memory. If GTD has taught me anything, it’s that my head is not a good place to keep track of lists of things I need to remember: I need a system to offload my brain.

My revitalized integration of GTD throughout my life this year has given me a new idea this year and it’s working out incredibly well for me. This might sound less magical to some people, but buying Christmas gifts is really just a project and the gift ideas are tasks in that project, so putting them into a GTD system makes a ton of sense.

Introducing Things 3

You could do this with any app or paper-based task management system, but I think Things 3 has tools that make this a really nice experience. Step 1 is creating a project called Christmas Gifts. If you want to have some fun, throw a 🎄 or 🎁 in the project name too.

Headers Make Sense of Large Lists

From there, you want to use Things’ headings feature which you can access by tapping on the three dots icon at the top right of the project view. I used these to create sections inside the project for different people. I have ones for:

  • Me
  • My wife
  • My immediate family
  • My wife’s immediate family
  • General gift ideas

As I come across things that I think certain people would like, I add them as tasks in this project and drag them to whatever section they belong in.

And because Things lets you add notes and tags to tasks, I make sure to add a link to the item and tag it with the specific person I had in mind for it. Things will not automatically sort this project page based on your tags, so you still need to manually sort stuff, but unless you’re buying for a ton of people, I don’t think it’s too much of a hassle.

Sharing Things I Want

Things very kindly lets you copy a task from the app and paste it into anything else as plain text. It brings over the task name (product name), the notes (link to the product), and tags (who it’s for). So when my dad, for example, asked me for a list of gift ideas, I just selected the half dozen tasks in my “Me” section, hit CMD+C on the iPad keyboard, and pasted them into an email.

I removed the tags because that wasn’t really important for him, but the information was all there and it was very little work to format it nicely in my email app.

Marking Stuff Complete

Collecting the information is easy enough, and organizing it is pretty simple, but here’s where it gets really nice for me. Since these are tasks, you can treat them like action items in your existing task management system. I tend to buy gifts over the course of a few months and the monthly budget only allows for some things to be purchased at once.

So to stagger my purchases throughout the season, I start assigning due dates to items on the list. This lets me stick to a budget and get everything on my lists for other people without breaking the budget.

Also, because these are tasks and Things does a good job of showing you what you have previously completed, I can easily look at my previously completed tasks to see what I’ve bought already.

Other Apps

There is no reason you could not do this in Todoist, OmniFocus, or any other task manager out there, but Things is what I use right now and I think it has the best UI for sorting out tasks for something like this. I’d love to hear if you are doing anything like this, and if you are using another app like Todoist, I’d be really interested to see your setup.

My OmniFocus Setup

After years of bouncing between task managers, I always end up coming back to OmniFocus. In 2019, after finally reading Getting Things Done and having it really click with me, I don't see how I could use anything else in the near future; OmniFocus is just so damn amazing.

Today I want to take you on a quick tour of how I use OmniFocus to get my life in order.


I use OmniFocus for personal and work items, and the app has a few tools that make it much better at doing this than any other GTD app I've used (skip to "Perspectives" for details on this). I also really like that the app gives me the ability to customize the look and feel to design the sort of task manager that I want, and hide most of the stuff I don't care about.

I'm also in love with how you can tell The Omni Group cares deeply about building top-notch iOS and macOS apps as each version of the app works extremely well.

This all adds up to an app that has enough control to let me structure my tasks well without adding friction which could discourage me from dumping all of my "stuff" into it.

Tags and Projects

I could be more detailed here, but for me I really only use tags and ignore projects almost entirely. Tags, as I use them, are simply used to separate my work into the different parts of my life. I have the following tags set up:

  • work
  • personal
  • birchtree
  • freelance
  • shopping
  • reading

These 6 tags let me quickly filter my stuff into the major parts of my life. The first 4 are pretty normal, while "shopping" is my shopping list and "reading" is my reading list, something I've addressed at length already.


These tags are the main tool I use for my custom perspectives, and these perspectives are what really make OmniFocus work for me.

My usage: I only want to see my work tasks when I'm at work and my personal tasks when I'm at home. OmniFocus lets me do this with perspectives.

Without getting too into the details, perspectives let you set filters for what tasks you want to see in a view. You can save as many of these as you want, with the idea being that you can view similar tasks together. For me this means a "Work" perspective that only shows me things I can do at work. When I get home, I no longer care about work, so I have a "Home" perspective that only shows things I care about in my personal life. If I'm looking to work on this website, then I jump in the "BirchTree" perspective and look at blog post and podcast ideas.

And because OmniFocus has lots of customization options, you get very deep control over how these perspectives display. You can have them in 3 different task layouts and have them sorted and filtered however you want. Here's what I have going on with my "Work" perspective, for example:

And here's what I have for "No Due Date" which is a perspective I use to look at items that have moved beyond my inbox but don't have a due date yet. I find tasks like this have a tendency to get lost, so reviewing this perspective every now and again is very useful.


One of the key tenants of GTD is having an inbox that you can easily add things to and then triage at a later time. OmniFocus is very good at getting things into your inbox, whether it be on iOS or macOS. On iOS it simply has a share sheet item that can save pretty much anything from a file to a website. It's a little less universal on the Mac, but there is a Chrome extension, as well as a system share extension for Safari and other native Mac apps.

The Mac also has the benefit of being able to set up a keyboard shortcut (I use Cmd + Ctrl + Opt + Space) to bring up a quick task entry pop up from anywhere. I use this all the time for adding quick things that come up through the day, and this also makes it easy to tab through things like projects, tags, notes, and due dates to set all of that right away. You can see this in action here.

I think Todoist does a better job at letting you add tasks with more info (their natural language parsing is great) but OmniFocus more than gets the job done for me.

The Forecast View

In addition to the custom views allowed by perspectives, I really like the Forecast view in OmniFocus. This view simply shows you what's next. Forecast only cares about due dates, so this mixes projects and tags, but often this is a good view for me.

I really like that if I decide I am not going to get a task done today, I can just drag the task to another date on the calendar and it's immediately changed to that day. No other task manager I've used has made it so easy and tactile to move tasks around. And of course this works on iOS and macOS.


This is by no means a complete explainer on how to use OmniFocus (for that the MacSparky Field Guide is a great resource), but I hope I've given you an idea of how I use OmniFocus.