January 3, 2013 4:56 PM   Subscribe

I think I might be done with to-do lists. Or maybe you can help me?

At least, in the traditional sense. They seem more like a list of obligations than a collection of things you get to do (yay). To that end, I'm looking for a few things that may or may not exist in some sort of to-do/agenda/organizational/productivity application or applications.

Some of the things I'm looking for, in no particular order:
+ The ability to loosely schedule items (fuzzy scheduling?). "This needs to be done in the next few weeks" or even "long term/short term/immediate." Open-ended, too, which brings me to my next point...
+ What I call "chore hat/jar" functionality. These are some things you should probably do or even want to do, and when you have some downtime, you can pick one and just get it done. For some reason, this works better for my brain, because it's like, oh hey, here's this one thing I can do as a favor to future-me, rather than OH GOD LOOK AT THIS LONG LIST OF CHORES. One thing at a time, little steps, right?
+ Satisfaction. I have Astrid on my Android phone. And she(?) always gives such nice encouraging messages when I do something. I'm also into the idea of a "done" list, and occasionally make them to keep alongside my paper to-do lists. I am terrible at keeping track of my accomplishments; I'm always looking at the size of the "IN" pile. Again, I know I'm not alone in this.
+ Flexibility. Oh man do I have trouble rearranging/reorganizing/reprioritizing stuff once it's written down. Even digitally. Some kind of drag and drop functionality, or, even better, non-linear (task cloud?) organization.
+ Sub-tasks and dependencies. The former is more important than the latter. I mean, ideally, in a miracle world, the software would draw a chart for me: "A needs to be done before C, A and C need to be done before E, and E needs to be done by $date." What else is AskMe for if not asking for the moon and as many of the stars as you can hold before the whole mess passes its Schwarzschild radius?

I've used google/gmail tasks, outlook, Astrid, plain old .txt, and emacs org-mode. Of those, I think I actually liked org-mode the best, but oh man is that a time sink. I'm getting better at allowing myself time when I'm not "actually doing stuff" and am instead "planning (how/when/etc) to do stuff," but I don't want to spend too much time (if I can help it).

I'm not a great programmer (or even a good one?), but I'd be comfortable adding on to an existing program/using an API if necessary. As I'm learning to code, I'm also entertaining the idea of just building one myself if no such tool (or collection of tools) exists. That's not something I'd mind spending my time on, especially as it would be so much less time-intensive once it was done (stop laughing).
posted by Eideteker to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
If you build your own, you might want to look to Unfuck Your Habitat for a model. They have a pretty neat setup for cleaning up your environment, which is only one aspect of things you seem to be looking for. Unfortunately (for you?) they only have an iPhone app at the moment, though an android one is in the works. But if you can get your hands on the iPhone version, you can see their basic setup. I find it excellent to meet your chore-jar approach.
posted by Stewriffic at 5:11 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you tried Remember the Milk? It's pretty flexible about scheduling and rearranging, you can rearrange things easily, and you can have multiple lists for multiple projects. It's free and web-based. Here's the link to the start guide. Might work for you?
posted by itsamermaid at 5:22 PM on January 3, 2013

After trying and using a half-dozen to-do list apps over the years, I've given up and switched to just using a spreadsheet. And that would seem to handle your needs pretty well. Just define priority, status, category, and target date columns to your liking, add conditional formatting to color things automatically, and perhaps use a stacked bar chart to show task dependencies (or just give tasks an ID column with values you can sort on to see dependencies, e.g. 1, 1.1, 1.2, 2, etc.). I open separate worksheets for different projects, but you could do whatever.

Really, there are just too many options. You could write a macro to move successes to your satisfaction worksheet or use conditional formatting to just gray them out. You can sort by multiple criteria. You can add new fields to track secondary statuses, notes, and so on trivially. I happen not to care about mobile/cloud availability for the things I'm tracking, and I guess there could be usability problems with a spreadsheet if your phone were your main platform, but even then Numbers or whatever might do. The main thing from my POV is that spreadsheets become the to-do list you need for any kind of project. I don't know why I bothered with so many other apps. YMMV.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:34 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It might be worth it for you to try out Workflowy, especially the tutorial videos.
posted by 4ster at 6:43 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have used many, many, many tasking apps and productivity tools, from the old Franklin Planner to a Handspring Visor and on past TiddlyWiki, Omnifocus, Remember the Milk, Things.app, Reminders, and probably some dozen things I'm forgetting right now. The only thing that ever persistently works for me for task management, though, is to take it offline.

Things that need scheduling do go into iCal, which syncs with Google Calendars. This reminds me on my computer and phone to pick my kids up at school, what appointments I have, plus a few distant reminders to my future self like "Make a dentist appointment" and, just some weeks back, "Do not buy holiday wrapping paper, you have tons from last year."

For tasks, though, the only thing that works for me is to sit down with a notebook in the morning, decide what I'm going to do that day, write it down, and cross them off as I go along. I am not above adding in things I've already done to make myself feel better.

When I have wayyyyy more stuff than can be reasonably done in a day/week/month, I'll sometimes keep a master list of projects I have going, sometimes with some more small-scale stuff I'd like to accomplish. I'll cherry-pick my priority tasks from it each day. You can theoretically start fresh with a new master list, maybeonce a week -- but actually, most of the time I don't have to do this at all, only when I'm juggling a massive amount of projects and obligations. Basically the old Franklin Planner method, you know?

The thing is, digital methods require so much active management that you can't just skip a couple of days and then start fresh. Paper doesn't have the mental overhead of bringing the system up to date before you can forge ahead. You just start over on a blank page.

For your chore jar... why don't you make an actual chore jar, with slips of paper in it? Note that I like this idea SO MUCH that I just might try this my own self.
posted by Andrhia at 8:04 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've tried various methods, and I always seem to come back to paper and pen. Yes, an 8-1/2" x 11" piece of blank white paper with handwritten to-dos.
posted by Dansaman at 9:41 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get a fucking sweet fountain pen and notebook and use that instead. The system is you!
posted by oceanjesse at 10:38 PM on January 3, 2013

Best answer: Seconding what 4ster recommended in Workflowy. It works beautifully across desktop, iPhone, iPad, etc, because it's on the web, so I can write (for example) a shopping list at home on the desktop computer, then check off things while at the store as I put things in my cart, then delete it on my iPad after putting things away.

It's been fantastic and easy to use and I've gotten a lot done in the last ten days or so since I found out about it.

I don't use all the functionality, but there are tags and filters, it looks like, so definitely take a look!
posted by juliebug at 11:29 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you are looking for Kanban Flow. It is designed with all the stuff you say in mind. The only thing that is not a core part of it is the dependencies, but it lets you do those to (subtasks) - it just takes a bit of hunting to find it.
posted by lollusc at 11:35 PM on January 3, 2013

Well, this might be massive overkill for what you need but since you mentioned having worked as a programmer, have you considered something like the "kanban" systems? The good ones I have used are Pivotal Tracker and LeanKit Kanban. They're really for managing software projects, but I suppose you could apply the model to your own personal projects and chores, too. Pivotal lets you set things up as "chores" and do sub-tasks. Both give you a nice "DONE" pile so you can see your stuff getting finished and you can keep track of how many tasks you have in progress at a time. I don't know if there is a mobile interface, though, but I believe Pivotal gives you a decent JSON API if you wanted to write your own.
posted by deathpanels at 12:11 AM on January 4, 2013

Why not start with excel to see what sort of system works for you? Then, once you figure out what features are important, you can start looking at products.

I use an excel sheet with the following fields:
Action. Context/Project, Time Estimate (how long will this take), Date (the date I'd like to work on it), and Status.

The Status has a dropdown menu and the options are blank, complete!, deferred. I filter for blank so nothing else appears BUT when I want to see my DONE list, I filter for "complete."

I used to have some formulas to tell me the date I added the item, but found it wasn't useful for me.
posted by jander03 at 8:28 AM on January 4, 2013

Best answer: I've been very pleased with Trello.com.

You organize things how you want to, and adding/moving things between lists is very easy (you end up with a "done" list).
posted by contrarian at 1:00 PM on January 4, 2013

Response by poster: These are just my initial impressions.

» Remember the Milk: I was turned off at first by the opacity of their website. Thanks for the guide link. Looks a little bit too traditional. Meaning, I don't really see what it offers that I can't get from, say, gCal + tasks.

» Excel/spreadsheet: I have never been able to get into doing things this way. I prefer a .txt document open in Notepad++ (what I'm currently) using.

» Pen & paper: Also using this, more so for work than home. Technically, I use post-its; I start by reviewing yesterday's and re-evaluating/re-writing (this is how I get over the psychological hurdle of reordering!) on a new post-it. I also keep my "Done" list on another post-it, stuck next to wherever I've stuck the to-do (it's nice to move it around my workspace, depending on what I'm doing). I'll never abandon pen and paper, but it's harder to carry around or jot something down quickly if I'm "on the go," as the commercials put it.
(As for the chore jar: I need something more portable. ^_^)

» Kanban: This looks a little more work-project-y than I like my personal to-do list. I don't even want to think about tracking, Gantt charts, or "collaboration" on my own time. If I switch back to freelancing, or go back to school for a graduate degree, I'll give this a second look.

» Workflowy looks really good, at first glance. It looks basically like a to-do-enhanced notepad/.txt. I will definitely check this out.

» Trello also looks good. Particularly because the first demo I saw on their page is the "Today / This Month / All time / Hopes and Dreams" one. That's sort of the organization I have in mind. I'll probably play with some combination of Workflowy and Trello until I see what works for me.

'The Status has a dropdown menu and the options are blank, complete!, deferred. I filter for blank so nothing else appears BUT when I want to see my DONE list, I filter for "complete."'

I'm going to award you with a few points, because I'll probably use some version of this. Moving completed things to a "Complete" list/category is a very good idea/implementation. Thanks!

Thanks to everyone, in fact. I welcome any other suggestions or feedback, and I'll try to update this thread with my impressions after I've had some time to use the different systems I plan to try.
posted by Eideteker at 2:32 PM on January 4, 2013

Best answer: I just want to clarify, in case you didn't look at kanban flow specifically, but only at other kanban systems: kanban flow doesn't have tracking, gantt charts, and I don't use the collaboration feature at all. It's just a bunch of columns (to do sometime, to do soon, today, in progress, done - those are the categories on my personal one, but you can set any column names you like) and you create tasks and drag and drop them between columns as they change status. Mine include things like "phone Sarah" or "change sheets" or "drop off library books" as well as work-related tasks (I don't work as a programmer, btw), and it's nice to see them all accumulate in the "done" column as they get completed. Those features are the reason why I feel like it hits everything you are asking for.
posted by lollusc at 9:31 PM on January 4, 2013

Hmm... reminders on iOS for me is has turned out to be the best most straight forward trans-device, cloud based todo list, its far from perfect but is simple and works with extended functionality if needed (exchange integration, notifications etc). Its odd that someone hasn't nailed this one yet, evernote style.
posted by specialk420 at 10:54 PM on January 4, 2013

I've tried several applications, both online ad offline, and I've found this tool very useful for my todo-managing purposes:

KeyNote NF

It's free and open source.
It seems simple, and it is - but it's also very effective, and quite powerful too.

I want to write only one thing bold, because I've found it is very important for the todo-managing purposes, and that's true whatever is the software you'll end up using:

Make sure that while you're using your PC, you can *instantly* pop it up, and *instantly* put it away when done.
I mean, really: instantly!

That's the trick to let your mind get the habit to use it (given the intention): the more difficult/boring it is to access or leave your organizer, the less it is likely to stick in your mind as a resource worth using.

With KeyNote NF, you can do this here:

Tools -> Configuration Options... -> General Settings: here you will check that "Minimize to system tray" is selected, also "Allow only one instance", on Escape key "Minimize main window", also "Use activation Hotkey", and configure it with some unconflicting but easy combination, e.g. CTRL+SHIFT+F12.

Being open source, if you will make it even better for your purposes, that'll be useful for others who use it as a todo organizer (like me).
posted by lion at 8:58 AM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

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