Find the perfect to-do list app for you

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.

The search

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

phoneinhands

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.

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Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

39 comments

    1. And so the process begins again!!! Thank you so much for the awesome recommendation, Gaëtan! Looks like Workflowy on steroids…? Very exciting??? Diving in now!

    2. Seconded! I had similar frustrations with Workflowy and switched to Dynalist as well

    3. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one! And…I’m officially going to dive into Dynalist. Too many ringing endorsements 🙂

    4. Yeah I switched to Dynalist from Workflowy and found it much better. However I only use it as an outliner, it didn’t work as as to-do list for me. It’s too bloated with non-todo features to be a highly productive to-do list.

  1. Interesting. I too have spent much time moving between different todo apps.

    I’ve settled on using Apple tasks, which can be customised to the extent that it allows me to approximate a GTD system and works across devices etc.

    The one part of your article I am more circumspect about is the “brain dump” part. I used to put everything into my inbox, but that just left me with a list of tasks both useful and trivial. They all had to be processed, and the trivial or “useful but unimportant” ones just ended up cluttering my todo list and my mind.

    The hard part for me, in this context and just about every other, is finding the mental energy to focus on the immediate concern long enough to make a proper decision about what to do.

    1. I’m glad to hear this very specific experience resonated with you.

      Do you mean Apple Reminders? I use it only for Siri to bug me with a “call your sister on her birthday” type reminder. Haven’t even considered it for broader task managing!

      I too have the issue with an inbox crowded with “varying priority” items. The sorting, honestly, is the next step I haven’t figured out yet. I’m just satisfied with being able to get it out of my head in one place for once. You’re ahead of me!

      I’ll be thinking about honing that “mental energy” you describe. All too relatable.

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the insightful comment!!

  2. I’ve also done the rounds trying tons of todo apps, and, like James, ended up basically back at Apple Reminders. What annoys me is that pretty much every todo app is happy to import your todo list but very few are willing to export or play along with other apps.

    Whereas in the Calendar domain everyone lets you keep your Apple/Google/etc calendars and works with it rather than insisting you move to just using their app.

    I really liked both Sorted3 and Moleskine’s Actions but neither would play nice with other tools. I’ve recently started using GoodTask on iOS/macOS as it keeps everything in Apple Reminders, letting me have native stuff like easy Siri and shortcuts support and adding on extra features.

    1. Moleskine Actions always looked SO pretty to me but I had some constitutional aversion to anything that I had to pay for, haha.

      But I hear you on the calendar apps! It’s insane how nicely they play with each other – I have a fully GCal setup piped exclusively through Apple Calendars, and I love it. It’s the best of both worlds. You’d think more developers in other subgenres of productivity apps would take notice.

      Sorted3 looks very, very interesting – just from a glance it looks so clean and gorgeous. Everyone chiming in with their personal recommendations is so helpful and exciting! I think I’m definitely due for a second round of testing.

      Thanks so much for the lovely comment, and for reading and connecting!

  3. Great article! Everyone have a some kind of mess in their life 🙂 I’m using Any.do app for about 8 years, tried other apps and came back to Any.do again and again. Clean and fast UI, everything you expect from a ToDo app, no ads, cross-platform, good enough even without monthly subscription. The “killer feature” of this app is a daily planner. Having pending tasks in multiple lists was never a pain coz every morning I can plan my day with this feature. Just try it, I think you will be happy 🙂

    1. Oh my gosh! You’ve given me a brain blast! I used it all through high school and college – I think they made a calendar app too? So glad to hear they’re still operating and making good products. They might be worth a second look…

      And the idea of taking your tasks every day and fitting them in to a daily planner sort of arrangement has always been very compelling to me. Will have to try that.
      Thank you for reading and for the great insightful comment!

  4. And now my day is over! I’ll spend all day downloading and fussing with these suggestions only to end up back with Apple Reminders as others suggested. My brain needs color and customization. I also want it to integrate with Google Calendar so that I can plan when I will tackle these reminders. Google will let you add reminders to the calendar but no duration. Argh.
    I tried Dawn which had this function but the widget and fonts just weren’t working for me.
    2Do used to be my fave for years but it needs an overhaul.
    SkedPal I tried once but found it too intense and time consuming.
    Clear is super fun and colorful but doesn’t seem manageable for large, long term lists.
    Evernote still tends to be where I keep my larger lists and projects but reminders don’t work well and no calendar integration.
    FWIW, switching apps is just part of my process. It keeps my brain engaged in the list and offers a chance to clean and prioritize.
    Good luck hunting, everyone!

  5. I want a start date and due date so tasks show up on a list once they have started – but can still show a due date (when are they due, not when are they started). I currently use ticktick, but miss my old days with Outlook Task List that had this feature. In ticktick, the “due date” is the only way to query lists. You can set a duration of the task, but then you can not create lists by when the task “starts”. My task list is too long and cumbersome when I have to show all of the potentially active tasks, and if I have to put the “Due Date” as when I am starting it, then how am I really tracking “due date”. Maybe it’s time to go back to Outlook.

  6. This was a great reminder to be re-evaluating such an important modern day ritual! The app I’ve been using for years is so dead simple… it’s actually called Simplenote. Pretty flawless in how it syncs between all versions of the app on mobile/computer (not sure if it’s mac only?) and also a universal web-app. They even have a little checkbox you can add to items like a regular list. There are no big organizational tools for it, just a title and a note. But I LOVE IT. It works how my brain works and I can keep literally almost anything in it.

    1. One of my number one apps is TextEdit! Sometimes the simplest and complication-averse approaches are far and away the best!

  7. We looked at various apps as well. I put reminders like people’s birthdays in my Outlook program, and I use anything important that I want popping up in that list.
    Then I use Click Up, mostly the calendar mode to put in things that need a deadline. By putting the item to do on the date in the calendar, you don’t have to assign a date, it goes in automatically. ClickUp is pretty robust too. It helps you to break down tasks into smaller tasks. They have goal trackers and groups that you can assign tasks to other coworkers and see what your team is working on. It does like to ask you about what category to assign this task to, but you could make your categories pretty broad.
    As far as organizing the tasks for a later time, another productivity person I follow is April Perry, and she has a few “folders” like Current projects (pick 3-8 for the month), Someday list (set of projects to pull from for another month), and a Next actions list (subtasks on your current projects to move them forward).

    You are right. The To do list is a such a basic function that everyone should have. Getting this right will help in organization and keep your head space less cluttered for better productivity.

    1. See, I just can’t get my head around the $9.99 price tag! But I see all these wonderfully beautiful ads for it, award-winning, loved by everyone…maybe there’s a reason it’s worth the investment.

  8. Robin a few more tidbits for fun.

    You mention the popularity of Kanban for people. For personal work I just don’t see it. Kanban grew up in the world of software development teams attempting to improve the flow of work. I struggle to see how ToDo/Doing/Done is going to help most people improve their own personal workflow. FWIW This came up recently at MacPower Users: https://talk.macpowerusers.com/t/kanban-boards-how-do-they-help/28888/12?u=mlevison my comments and the reactions are spread over a few threads.

    Another challenge that you didn’t mention. Many of us are spread over two (or more workgroups). My business with several people working towards a common goal uses a Kanban board (LeanKit) for the daily work and StoryMap (Miro) for the big picture. This works well to organize the work of small is consulting company.

    My personal life exists in a different task manager – MyLifeOrganized: https://www.mylifeorganized.net – it is incredibly powerful. My personal challenge, the business side gets lots of focus, time, love and energy. Personal to do list, gets less attention.

    1. If someone is a die-hard GTD user i wholeheartedly recommend FacileThings. It’s fairly expensive and mobile app is just a companion (but that’s changing), hi everyone it brilliantly combines vertical (big picture) and horizontal (daily grind) tasks and goals.

    2. I’ve never even heard of this one! Sounds extremely compelling. The vertical and horizontal combination especially sounds like just the thing I need to keep those two silos of my life intact! Thanks for the rec – will try it out (free trial hopefully!) and follow-up.

  9. Incredible, I’ve just re-switched to Todoist last weekend, so this article resonates so much (I never write comments on web blogs).

    Things I’ve used for the past 20 years:

    – Microsoft Outlook (but it’s lacking the flexibility of complex workflows)
    – an android app called DGT GTD (and its successor, DGT Soda) which was the best of all apps, but it was abandoned, and never got to the point where it had a web app
    – RememberTheMilk (powerful, but looks like it’s from the 90’s, has not been updated for a long time either)
    – Todoist (doesn’t implement repeating subtasks so I eventually gave up)
    – OmniFocus (I have a macbook but no iphone though, and some very basic functionality was missing)

    …and I’ve tried probably EVERY application/web app invented by man that I could find on the internet, but didn’t like them for various reasons (TickTick, Things3, Monday, and dozens of others).

    Finally came back to Todoist because it’s multiplatform, probably the most actively developed one, it’s decently powerful and I found out about vcrecur.com, which is a web service that connects to your Todoist account and adds the “recurrent subtasks” functionality I was mostly missing.

    Let’s just say I’m becoming an expert in migrating my dozens of projects/tasks from one app to another by now.

    1. So happy this article made enough of an impression that you broke your no-commenting streak! Haha 🙂

      And welcome to another new Todoist adopter – let’s see how we both do with it!

      I remember RememberTheMilk from like…the early days of the iPhone, right? Crazy that it’s still around and a shame it maybe hasn’t been helped dev-wise.

      Sounds like you’ve gone on a similar journey to me. So funny that this kind of due diligence is required in the app landscape we’re working with these days.

  10. I’m enjoying using Hive – was recommended to me my the amazing VA in our office – if our VA loves it and tells me it will help me, I’m in! It’s so much more than a to-do list, but can also be kept as simple as you want it to be. You can keep it on a free option, or if you need to work with a team, there are other paid options.

    1. All these apps I’ve never heard of! I love it!

      But taking a look at their landing page, I’m getting a good idea of the place they occupy in the ecosystem. Very slick. And you nailed it – if a powerful app can be “kept as simple as you want it to be,” I’m in!!

  11. Thanks for this post. I attended a conference by Marco Heimeshoff (https://twitter.com/heimeshoff) who presented how he used notion to program his own way to handle tasks. A no-code system like notion could be a good option to build our own task management system.

    1. I’ve tried Notion a few times, and I’ve watched more than my fair share of those walkthrough videos by YouTubers. It’s so vast and powerful, I think it deserves its own article! If I ever get around to learning it inside and out…

      But I very much believe in it and its potential! Thanks for the comment 🙂

  12. Sorry to hear that app icon made you choose Todoist instead of TickTick. I personally switched between them a few years ago and now I can’t imagine moving back to Todoist. It’s flexible and easy, and it doesn’t force you to plan your todos in a way that developers feel right.
    Btw, you can move the ‘Add new task’ button on TickTick from the right corner to the left one by a single swipe. 😉

    1. You have seen me for what I am – a shallow and impatient man. Hahaha. I’ll have to give it another try! And I mean that sincerely! Thank you for taking the time to read and endorse your app of choice 🙂

    2. As a vivid user of Todoist, I was tempted before to start using TickTick.
      However after some research, it looks like it’s a China owned company, which also stores it user-data in China.
      Just something to keep in mind if your care about your data or like me use the program for literally everything in your life (thus very personal things as well).

  13. Seems like we all struggle with the same issues of trying to combine different approaches in one thing and avoiding monsters like Things/Todoist. For me the best one is timestripe.com
    I like that I can see my goals in life spans and also use it as notetaker to set those notes as a goals or just keep in themed boards.

    I was so biased that I even joined developers team voluntarily to help building this tool! If you’re interested I can provide you a promocode

    1. Your first sentence here truly summed up the entire collective experience so beautifully – props for that!

      Timestripe not only sounds great but your joining the dev team is the most ringing endorsement I’ve heard for a product! I might have to take you up on that…! 👀

  14. Have you tried SunSama? I enjoy the ability to categorise tasks according to projects ie personal or a specific project . Also there is a calendar function and a useful archiving function that moves the task to the archive so you don’t see numerous tasks that you depressingly didn’t get to but its not forgotten…

    1. I don’t know why I always associated SunSama with enterprise-level teams and the like. Looking at it now, it doesn’t seem exclusionary in that way at all! It actually looks quite nice, haha. Categorizing tasks, once you have your categories set up and looking nice, sounds like a dream. I need to sort my life out to the point that I get to that level next, haha!

  15. Interesting article and intrigued to hear of all these apps I haven’t tried. But the thing that surprises me most is that no-one (other than me) is using Trello.

    I like the simple amount of structure it has, the ability to share tasks and the way I can quickly send tasks to it while I’m round the house (using Alexa and IFTTT) or from email. This means I can keep all my tasks in a central place by having them land in a Trello inbox list. Once they’re in the Trello inbox my partner and I have separate lists plus our ‘joint list’ we have to do together so it’s easy to drag tasks around according to who’s gonna to do them. I can order and reorder with ease.

    App is great, desktop version is also really good and none of it costs anything. Hard to see how it could be better really, but maybe I’m missing something?

    1. You’re a real one for using IFTTT!

      I always had an allergy to Kanban – that might be a lot of peoples’ problem with Trello. But your use case with your partner makes it sound super flexible. And the biggest issue I’ve ever had is finding truly painless task generation – using Alexa and even email (!) would go a long way towards making that easier.

      Good looking out!

  16. Like you, I bounced between several apps before finding my favorite option in the form of Notion’s databases used as a To-do list. It’s not minimalist by any means, but has a decent mobile and desktop experience. But it’s greatest strength is the ability to customize it to your workflow.

    For example, I don’t need several folders folders, I just need two separate views: one for work items, one for personal items. Easy to set up. I then set each view to filter out items not updated in the last 7 days to automatically remove stale items from the list, add the ability to set deadlines, and that’s the perfect workflow for me.

    1. I’m always looking for more Notion users (and people who can effectively explain Notion to me!) It seems so crazy powerful. And I have this feeling that if I port my life completely over to the platform it will transform my life in all sorts of positive ways.

      Is it doing the job for you in terms of the mobile experience? Even just inputting and checking off items?

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