Just Doist It

Like a lot of people, I’m reluctantly coming to the conclusion that how I manage to-do items is more of a perpetual journey than an achievable goal. I have yet to come across the perfect task manager, and despite some intermittent progress, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that I ever will. So, periodically, I find myself possessed with an urge to overhaul my system — because of inherent shortcomings in my existing methods that have scaled to intolerable inconveniences, because of changes in my working style or my life, or because newly introduced productivity tools promise to make the ongoing search more interesting.

So in this spirit, I’ve been playing with a few new task managers lately. I’ve had mixed success, but one thing I can say: this new round of candidates has definitely confirmed my previously stated opinion that most thinking in the “Getting Things Done” school of productivity is far too elaborate for me.

For over a year, my daily to-do list has more or less been managed in an entirely manual fashion; every morning I create a new list and copy over incomplete items from the previous day’s list. It’s an approach that’s not completely at odds with GTD, but neither does it adhere particularly closely to David Allen’s principles. But one of the to-do applications I’ve flirted with (currently in pre-release state, so I won’t talk about it in too much depth) is so thoroughly committed to the GTD way that it’s more of a hindrance than a help for me. After the initial delight of getting my hands on a fairly powerful task management machine, I’ve become weary of its apparent and frequently unavoidable complexity.

Designing for Beginnermediates

Below: ’Ist bin ein task-manager! The Todoist interface, elegant and capable.

On the other hand, I’m enjoying Todoist quite a bit. As a relatively new product it’s far from perfect and it’s missing a few key features, to be sure. At the same time though, it’s a sparingly designed, lightweight online application that takes literally moments to understand and master. And its interface is not only pleasingly minimal but the design also smartly eschews the ‘Web 2.0 look.’


Actually, though you might be tempted to describe Todoist as simple you’d be wrong, because it only takes a little bit of digging to uncover a fairly complex set of keyboard shortcuts and a fairly arcane data query syntax tucked neatly away — but brought forward very easily. This, actually, is what makes it so enjoyable; as I grow more and more comfortable with Todoist, its more robust capabilities are easily uncovered and learned. Rather than forcing me into its way of working, it allows me to grow into it naturally.

Todoist’s designers didn’t lose sight of a fundamental truth about forging the application’s user interface: most features are built for experts, but most users are intermediates. They didn’t make the mistake of penalizing the initial, formative experience for beginners by confronting those newcomers with unintuitive power-user options. That’s a strategy that allows beginners to quickly become intermediates with a minimum of pain. By my count, it’s also a very good example of what makes for elegant interaction design, and it’s the reason why I’m still using it and having fun with it — while I’ve relegated the other, more capable but less comprehensible program to the dustbin.

  1. Could not agree more- I go through to do list programs and sites like ice cream. I don’t really dig the GTD thing and always come back to Remember The Milk. I actually thought about creating my own to do web app but figured I had better things to do (pun intended).

    I’ll give ToDoist a try- but I have settled in with RTM enough to quit overdoing it, and came up with this:
    – all tasks are in one list. i do add tags but I don’t break them out by project.
    – for any given tag (project), only 1 task gets a priority 1
    – same as above for priority 2
    – there are no due dates- everything is due immediately in my world
    – I have smart lists to show only priority 1 tasks and priority 2 tasks
    – I only add tasks on the tasks tab
    – I only perform tasks on the priority 1 tab, nothing else matters
    – When something gets completed, I move the the P2 tab and promote the P2 task for that project to P1, then go to the Tasks tab and decide what, for that project, get to be next in line for the new P2 for that project.

    This keeps my P1 list lean and keeps me focused. I think typing it out makes it look long, but its very fast to use.

  2. “… I’m still using it and having fun with it — while I’ve relegated the other, more capable but less comprehensible program to the dustbin.”

    Agreed, I’ve had the same experience, but now I’m on TaskPaper and it’s great.

  3. I’ve been using iGTD for the past few months; it’s not perfect, but it works pretty well. My favorite feature is the ability to add a task from anywhere at anytime; which is good for catching those fleeting “oh yeah” thoughts.

    The biggest failing of any system I’ve tried is me. It really takes effort to stick with something… and I always gravitate back to pen and paper. Not nearly as organized, but it’s so darn easy.

  4. A plain text document on the desktop works for me. Anything else just isn’t flexible enough for my world. I open ‘todo.txt’ via the lovely TextMate, and everything I need is right there.

    GTD can turn in to a hobby, and the people that have reached their perfect GTD state are probably those that are now making money out of promoting GTD. I realised this when I was putting more time into reading about GTD than I was completing the tasks that would help me reach my goals. I immediately dropped the books and got back to the stuff I instinctively knew I needed to do.

    The GTD thing holds many parallels with Ruby On Rails.

  5. I think I’ve tried pretty much everything over the years but I’m yet to find anything with the portability, accessibility, battery life, flexibility or price of a notepad.

  6. Great article!… you forgot to mention that Todoist is available as a Netvibes module too. For those who use Netvibes this could be useful.

  7. I really enjoyed the post by Elliot about web 2.0 design you had linked to. Very good points, and something I was actually thinking about recently too. Thanks for the mention, otherwise I wouldn’t have known about it.

  8. Something you wrote reminded me why I always come back to a pen-and-paper system, and that’s that fact that any unfinished tasks from the previous day must be copied onto a new sheet of paper.

    Whenever I try to use an electronic to-do system, there are tasks that end up languishing and never get done because I only type them once, then forget about it. Quickly the to-do list becomes cluttered, then useless.

    But I tire quite quickly of re-writing the same task day after day, and that’s enough motivation for me to just get it done.

  9. The hardest thing for me isn’t “creating” the To do list – it’s doing it. A to do list, by definition, isn’t very much of a motivation; especially if you have a lot of things to do.

    As a freelancer (in addition to my day job), I’ve found a to do list that’s self-motivating by design. It’s called the online CEO and is based on the printable CEO series.

    The point system is what motivates me to get stuff done – some weird thing about “getting points” for stuff just does the trick for me.

  10. Leopard has a neat new feature in Mail: turn email into to-dos.

    Works like this:
    Select the part of your mail that describes best what needs to be done (the selection can even contain an image!), and hit create to-do (or command + option + Y). Mail then adds an to-do with a link back to the mail in the folder on the left as well as in iCal.

    It’s super helpful in preventing important info vanishing in the abyss of mass storage.

  11. There is one problem with all of these, lack of ubiquitous presence. I keep doing different methods, but I always end up coming back to a small flexi-notebook with a daily, carryover to-do list and a couple pages in the back for long-term stuff…

    Why? Because I can write in it on the subway or wherever. An advantage that no computer method really seems to have except for my blackberry which syncs up when it can, but I hate to have personal to-dos on my work system.

  12. I’ve been using Todoist for many months now and agree completely. I wonder why something this elegant and simple has not been here long before. The truth is there is no other todo list I know of that is so much fun to use. The two things I’m missing? Thorough iPhone support and shared projects.

  13. have you tried gootodo.com? quite simple, and the email linkange is brilliant (not familiar with todoist, maybe it has the same.) now i can just forward an email in my inbox to “tomorrow@gootodo.com” and it’s automatically added to my list. the subject line becomes the list item, the email body gets tucked away as a “detail”.

  14. I’m a compulsive list maker and I have been since I was about 14 years old. I’ve tried using so many different softwares, web apps, etc for list making, but I always end up breaking up with each new program in favor of going back to my old pen and notebook.

    Just like you, I start my morning by copying over the old items from the day before, adding the new items, etc. But it’s not just about the ritual of physically writing things down. It’s about the ritual of systematically executing tasks and then crossing out the task from the list. Somehow checking a box with my mouse is not nearly so gratifying….

  15. I’ve been using Backpack (http://www.backpackit.com/) for two years and it’s all I have ever needed.

    I like keeping complexity as far away from my to-do list manager as possible. It’s just a list. How and When I do them is something I juggle day to day. The secret is in how often you check and review your lists. Try do it at least once a day.

  16. More often than not it’s not the tool but the one using it that makes the ‘to do’ list difficult to manage.
    After using several tools, I’m sticking to pen and paper. It’s easy and fast and no synch problems (!). Old fashioned perhaps, but it does the job.

  17. I find it depends…

    After months using Kinkless and then the OmniFocus beta for the production of a feature, I was very happy that it matched what I needed. It saved my ass more than once. But once I had any time on my hands to think, which happened as post progressed… it was a disaster. I started to finesse rather than do…

    I’ve switched to the futz-free TaskPaper for my general work since the wind down of the film. It’s closer to a straight list but still has the ability to tag tasks with contexts or whatever you want to tag them with..

  18. One of the profound questions of our time, Khoi

    I have two tools that I use for this.
    1] Each year I make a calendar in Freehand [yo! old school] and print it out three months at a time. Taped or pinned to a wall within reach, Very handy for project estimating sessions, it makes the idea of time concrete.
    2] Post-its. I have tried to replace them in a hundred ways, but they just reappear. Like Helvetica on a NY subway, or bookstore receipts in my wallet.

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