Tackling Tasks

Tasks in motion

I have a terrible memory. I am aware of this flaw and rely heavily on a variety of systems to help me cope. The main things that help me remember to Get Shit Done is Google Calendar (should I be somewhere right now?) and a list of things I need to remember to do (what tasks should I be doing next?).

I don’t follow any methodolgy for how I manage my to do list, I’ve read books, articles, and follow various productivity related blogs as I’m always happy to tweak my system but it’s important to note one thing, dear reader, before you continue; This is my system. It works for me. It may not work for you.

Warning: I am totally geeking out on this. Read on at your own peril.

Short version: I use Todoist.

What is a task?

Stepping back a little, there is a simple and pretty basic part of managing my to do list that I should clarify, my approach to writing up the tasks themselves.

The act of writing a task and adding it to a to do list shouldn’t be a hard one, David Allen (of GTD fame) suggests each task should be an Action, and sometimes I follow that theory but other times it seems a little bit of an overkill to write three tasks, “1. Get bucket and sponge, 2. Fill bucket with hot soapy water, 3. Go outside and wash car” when one will suffice, “Wash Car”.

I am wary of the vaguely worded task though, so I do try and guard against that. Any task that I fear I won’t be able to understand when I revisit it a month later will be rewritten. It takes a pause to double check as I write the task but it’s worth it in the long run (did I mention my terrible memory?).

In addition to paying attention to how I write a task, because I tend to tackle the quick and easy things straight away a lot of my tasks are more complex or involved so will take more than a few minutes. I also add notes or a link to where I’ve written up my thoughts (in Evernote, for example) where applicable. That doesn’t mean that, when I pick up one of these more complex tasks I don’t end up breaking them down into more discrete and achievable tasks, usually on a Post-it note or scratchpad at the time of action, but that’s a judgement call at the time. Sometimes the task itself is to consider an idea with the knowledge that that process will drive more tasks.

The Tasks Flow

My task list is driven from two places:

  • Email – if I can’t deal with it straight away, I’ll create a task for it (and set a date)
  • Meetings/Calls – anything I can’t action immediately (or with little effort) is added to my task list.

The former is all electronic, either manually transcribed or sent via email to ToDoist.

For the latter, I have a notebook, kindly supplied by the company I work for, which I take into meetings to capture thoughts, meeting attendees, and any actions that I may have to tackle.

I use a simple symbol system when taking notes. Anything I should action is pre-pended with an empty checkbox (also known as a square and anything I should think about first (which then may or may not drive other actions) is prepended with a question mark.

Every Tuesday I scrub through the previous week of my notebook to double check I’ve actioned, or logged a task for, everything in my notebook.

I also keep Post-its and a ‘scratch’ notepad on my desk. The Post-its are used for a quick note between tasks (for example, a reference number from an email), or to create a mini task list to tackle for the day. The scratch notepad is used for when I’m working on one of my own deliverables and want a little more room than a Post-it would allow (I also have a whiteboard behind my desk if I really want to get my ‘thinking’ on).

Task lists

Whilst I could keep my task list purely on paper, what I gain by logging them in an application is simple. It removes any fear I have of missing (forgetting) a task. I’ve tried a purely paper-based system but never really lost the fear that I’d missed a task six pages back in my notebook.

So I log my tasks in an application, of which there are many. OH SO MANY!!

I’ve tried a lot of apps in the past to try and find one that hit my sweet spot; Remember the Milk lasted a long time, Wunderlist, Asana, Any.do, Evernote, Simplenote, Toodledo, Astrid, Due… it’s a long list.

So I took a step back and tried to figure out exactly what I needed from a task list app. I did this by looking at why I’d stopped using an app I’d tried, for example the only way to get a ‘desktop’ experience for Any.do is through a clunky Chrome extension, and soon had a reasonable list:

  • Must run on every device – so I’m not tied to a laptop
  • Desktop app preferred – as a lot of my data entry is done from a notebook and is easiest with a real keyboard
  • Recurring tasks – I don’t have many of these but this removes any fear I have of forgetting to add a reminder for a weekly/monthly task
  • Categories – I keep my list of categories small but I do need them
  • Saved Searches – so I can keep my most common searches (usually for reporting purposes)
  • UX – the look and feel of the app is important to me. If I baulk at that, it’s not likely I’ll last very long using it

I believe I’ve found an app that meets most (not all) of the above requirements. It’s called Todoist.

Why Todoist is the best app

(for me)

ToDoist runs on multiple devices. It has versions for Windows, Android, iOS, OSX and a pure web based app so I’m confident that no matter what device decisions I make in the future, ToDoist will be able to go with me.

It meets all the basic criteria that I need, recurring tasks, categories, easy entry including a ‘smart’ date entry system which I’m still learning (typing “ev 6” will set up a recurring task every 6th of the month, for example). It has the ability to setup advanced searches, but beyond the opening view you can’t save them, however as I only really use it for that opening view (all my tasks due Today and any that are outstanding) then it suits my needs just fine.

I only have four categories and as ToDoist also allows tags I’ve started playing with those (but just like the file system, it’s not really ‘sticking’ yet). One extra feature is “Karma’, whilst this might seem a bit twee, it’s a hint towards gamification and also allows you to get what amounts to a report of your closed tasks, handy when you are invoicing for hourly work on a monthly basis.

If you want reminders and notifications you have to pay but, as I’ve mentioned here before, I’m happy to pay for an application if I think it’s worth it and given that since switching to ToDoist I’ve not even considered using anything else, I think I’ve finally found a ‘home’ for my task list.

There are downsides, at present if I want to email a task to ToDoist I need to note down a specific and obscure email address for each project. ToDoist does have an inbox but that too has an obscure email address so offers little value to me. Ideally I could just email to [mycategoryname] but they’ve not implemented such a system. UPDATE: I use Cloudmagic email app which recently updated to add the ability to quickly add an email to ToDoist as a new task. For me, this completes my system wonderfully well!

Other than that, sync occasionally doesn’t fire but that’s not a blocker for my usage (I can suffer occasionally forcing a sync), and as with many other to do list apps, I can’t ‘turn off’ the Inbox which seems odd as I can bypass it so easily using category specific emails). There is also a priority ‘language’ to learn but it’s not massively complex and only took me a few days to get into.

Ultimately, the reason I know I’ll be sticking with ToDoist is because it’s good enough. I’ve tried many others, and the design (look and feel) of ToDoist I like the most and that’s an important reason for me.

There are many many other To Do/Task apps and services available. I’ve tried many and for me, ToDoist has the fewest number of compromises that I need to make.

Do not try this at home

As I said, the system I use works for me. It has failure points (largely me) but when I’m disciplined enough I reap the benefits. Not only does I Get Shit Done but I lower my own stress levels as I don’t have that nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten something.

My day job is all about context switching, juggling multiple tasks of varying size, complexity and importance, so without a reasonable system I’d fail. ToDoist is key to keeping me successful and, most importantly, sane!

Useful Reading:
* Simplifying GTD (Leo has a lot of other great tips, worth following)
* Five Best To Do List Managers (because options)
* Take Great Notes (where I got the checkbox and question mark idea from)

Update: ToDoist continues to improve, for a comprehensive overview and some good tips, check out this article by Fedrico Viticci –  Why I left iCloud Reminders for Todoist.


  1. For implementing GTD you can use this web-application:

    GTD Agenda.com

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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