There’s something I need to come clean about. I feel like I’ve been living a lie.
As someone who literally writes a bi-monthly column about getting things done, you’d think I would have all of my own productivity systems perfectly designed and executed.
I would be flattered if you pictured me as a productivity guru, typing fast and time-blocking my calendar and only responding to email at 11am and 4pm, because that’s what I tell you to do. But the truth is, I’m a mess.
For example: I’ve been trying to survive without a proper to-do list for months.
I’m currently working with a combination of loose post-it notes, scribblings on my hand, and three (three!) different phone apps. I don’t know how I got to this point. I just have never felt like any one system worked perfectly for my mind. But now, as a result, I’m living a very specific nightmare wherein I have a bunch of ideas and responsibilities and things to do swimming around in my head, and they either get stuck there, or they get jotted down on a random scrap of paper, or a hand that I accidentally wash. They might as well be lost forever regardless.
But I’m fed up. The to-do list is such a basic function in the organization of anyone’s life – it’s the starting point that everything funnels out of. And without it, it’s very easy to feel like you’re drowning in your own head.
So I set out to fix myself, starting with finding the right to-do list for me.
Finding a good to-do list app, though, is a deceptively tough task. Do a search on the app store for “to-do list” and you’ll likely be instantly overwhelmed.
So many apps with variations of a check mark as their icon. So many that have tried to fit the words “to” and “do” into their titles. Some look so dinky and cheap they must have not been updated since the iPhone 4. And some, inexplicably, are $29.99? For an app I use sometimes when I need to remember to buy milk? Crazy.
But among them are some real contenders for strong and helpful applications. You just have to do a little digging – with your personal specifications in mind.
On my wishlist:
- A dead simple and quick input system – Ideally a simple “swipe down and start typing” type of situation
- A capacity to dump countless tasks in within seconds – I like to “brain blast” and get it all out at once
- A secondary capacity to organize things lightly, at least into broad categories – ideally, sub categories
When I get overwhelmed with ideas and tasks and pie in the sky dreams swimming around in my head, I’m desperate to get them out of my head and somewhere I can work and shape with them.
In following with the expression, my instinct should be “get everything out on paper.” I still do that from time to time, but often times my pen wouldn’t move fast enough to keep up with my mind. I need a digital solution too.
One thing I knew for sure, going in, that I told myself: “not Todoist. Anything but Todoist.”
Todoist, the to-do list golden child that productivity advisers across the internet all swear by. Todoist, with its fancy features like natural language processing and instant calendar integration. I tried Todoist a million times – after Thomas Frank and Ali Abdaal and name-your-favorite-YouTuber all suggested it. But it just never ever felt right to me.
And sometimes, that’s all the reason you need. This is something you’ll be interfacing with countless times a day – you better hope to enjoy the experience as much as you can.
The shape of your brain
And there’s just some things that we, as the quite-sophisticated app and technology users we’ve all grown into, understand on a deeper level. Even if we might not be able to articulate it, we know what it feels like.
Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter and Medium, endorsed a popular list-making app called Workflowy with one of the most insightful quotes I’ve heard about our relationship to apps. He said “it fits the shape of my brain better than anything else I’ve tried.”
Doesn’t that just make sense?
Like, some of us enjoy kanban frameworks for productivity, and others can’t stand it. Some people just need to put a bunch of stuff on a list and bang through them in order. But Ev Williams wants to be able to add sub-categories to larger tasks, have things branch out like a spider, and see everything from both bird’s eye and a granular level. And the brilliant thing is that he recognized that within himself.
So, I set out looking for something that would fit the shape of my brain. Todoist, for example always had this habit of trying to instill a due date onto each task, and give me scary red overdue notices whenever that day would pass without the task being finished. That feature alone – that approach of tying everything to the calendar, and not just evoking a notepad with a list on it, was enough to turn me off.
Test them all out for a day
I’ll spare you the most boring details of my exhaustive search, but here are some highlights:
There’s a really fun app called Habitica that I’ve written about on this blog before – it’s a full-featured and fantastically imaginative habit tracker that features a to-do list among its list of features. It really is well designed for those other uses, and I thought it could wear multiple hats for me in that one package, but I realized that I actually was looking for a uni-tasker.
Another app I’ve mentioned here is MinimaList – an aggressively, almost-to-a-fault minimal app that presents as a list of items and nothing more. There’s no app I love more for quick entry on mobile. It’s the ultimate “pull down, start typing” setup I pined for. But it was probably too minimal to even have a chance – no folders or grouping, and all the features are necessarily hidden underneath mountains of minimalist design – but it would have a much better one if their desktop app was at all usable.
Ev’s favorite Workflowy really is a special piece of software…but only on desktop. The mobile side of the equation just hasn’t quite been ironed out yet, and it’s a shame. Because on desktop I fly through it like butter. The shape of my brain seems to like it just fine. So I need a uni-tasker that works well across two platforms. I’ll check back in on the iOS app in six months.
Some, like a generic app simply titled “To Do List,” managed to feature advertisements and in-app purchases. Unacceptable.
To-do apps from Google and Microsoft were serviceable enough, but they made me feel very weirdly sequestered into an alternate ecosystem that I knew I wasn’t going to extend to the rest of my workflow. That alone made it feel like an imperfect fit.
I gave two analog options a try, for thoroughness’s sake: the trusty ole several pieces of paper, and the Bullet Journal.
You’ve no doubt heard of the massive movement behind the Bullet Journal, and for good reason. By all accounts it looks like a robust and flexible system that can take on the personality of its user in a beautiful way. But I didn’t have the bandwidth to give it the full-throated try it probably deserved. Maybe one day.
Plus, paper in general was already at a disadvantage in this fight.
Any physical form, for that matter, has the same issues: you have to carry it with you, you have to carry a pen, you can’t easily transfer things or go back or delete or reorganize things.
You could lose it, you have to set aside old entries and move to new pieces of paper whenever one gets filled up – I could go on.
The shape of my brain, I realized, at the very least, is digital. Not analog.
That left two. TickTick, and Todoist.
TickTick is a deeply functional, incredibly serviceable app. On paper, there’s no really anything I could even find at fault with TickTick.
But I just wasn’t feeling it. I didn’t like the logo that much. Too much yellow. And buttons like the “add new task” option were placed in the opposite corner of where I had been accustomed to them being in other app experiences.
By this point, as I was becoming more desperate, I was somehow also becoming more picky.
I was left with one option: give one more look to my old nemesis.
Todoist had gone through a bit of an upgrade since I last examined it. On the computer and on mobile, things were slicker, cleaner. It felt, like many of the nicest apps I tried during this process, a pleasure to use.
I discovered a nice little feature on desktop – a programmable keyboard shortcut that allows you to enter a new task from literally anywhere – I’ll be in another app and have a thought and “Command-E” and I’m typing it and pressing enter and going back to what I was doing.
I also realized what I had been doing wrong – there’s a way to set your default new tasks and default home screen to a standard “inbox” view instead of introducing due dates on every task. So I could arrange the app as I wanted – in a big unruly list, just as I liked.
And, bonus, you can change the color of the app icon.
It was the come from behind victory that no one could have expected. Todoist is my new to-do list app of choice. The last app I could have expected to fit my needs set managed to by doing all the simple things right and doing the least amount of things wrong. I’m very happy with my setup now – at the very least because I have all my tasks and thoughts in one place. They come into my head, and they go into Todoist. That’s it. Nowhere for them to fall away and be forgotten now.
Know yourself first
So – how does this very long article help you with your own productivity app stack? Just look at how annoying I was being the whole time. Specific. Uncompromising. This is an important of your arsenal, and it should be treated with respect. Whatever you use should be something that works for you. And that answer changes for each person.
Ask yourself: how does the traditional “task list” fit into your workflow? As something you simply refer back to twice a day? Or do you like incorporating it into your calendar?
And be honest with yourself – how much would your life be improved if every one of those thoughts you had ended up in one place, where you knew where they were, and where you could act on them. I know for me, it would change my life. See what it could do for you.