Like many well-organized people who are addicted to "life-hacking" and who are aficionados, though less-than-perfect practitioners, of David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology, I have spent hundreds of unnecessary hours over the years trying to perfect my system. I have tried nearly every to-do list on Windows, the Web, Android, and iOS, and a handful on Mac OS X and Ubuntu Linux, too. All of them failed for me for one reason or other.
What am I looking for?
My needs are pretty simple these days. I need my to-do list to be:
- Available (meaning both cross-platform and 100% uptime)
- Dependable (the software must be stable—no crashes!)
- Cross-platform (mainly for tablet/phone support, but not iOS/Android-only)
I also need it:
- To have good Windows support (I need this for work, where I am on a Windows machine all day with an out-of-date Internet Explorer I can't update, and intermittent periods without Internet connectivity, due to being out of the office)
- Not to force me into a certain workflow or philosophy
- Not to lock me to a certain vendor (companies go out of business or kill products all the time)
Why don't most to-do apps work for me (and a lot of people)?
I have tried nearly every to-do list out there, and have thrown everything out for various reasons. Usually with task list apps, poor syncing between devices (typically between my phone and my PC) drives me nuts (my experience with Wunderlist syncing, for example, has not been the best). Other times, an app feels perfect on the iPad, but doesn't have a Windows version or a website with offline support (I'm thinking of Things, here, and also Any.do). Sometimes, the company that supports the product gets acquired or goes out of business, and I have to switch to something else (remember Astrid?). Sometimes, I just get sick of the user experience, especially if it requires tons of clicking and mousing around.
After wasting my 100,000th hour looking through productivity systems to find the right one, I finally decided to throw in the towel, stop seeking out perfection, and instead turn toward what I wanted all the time: simplicity and control. What I found was Todo.txt.
Founding LifeHacker editor, programmer, and podcaster Gina Tripani created a free, open, text-based to-do list format—Todo.txt—and let it loose upon the world. She and a community of developers created command-line tools and graphical programs for a variety of platforms that let you use a single, pretty simple text file for a to-do list. The catch: using the command line for to-dos is very geeky, and the To-do.txt format is a little stranger looking than your average knowledge worker would want to edit by hand all the time. The good news is that there are some free or very inexpensive tools to work with that format that work across all major platforms and devices.
What does it look like?
See for yourself. It's not pretty, but it's very functional, and there are apps out there for dressing it up.
(A) do online research +ResearchProject (B) write outline +ResearchProject (B) write first draft +ResearchProject (C) discuss first draft with boss +ResearchProject revise draft +ResearchProject write introduction and summary +ResearchProject make notes for oral presentation +ResearchProject send final draft to client +ResearchProject due:2013-12-01 fill out timesheet +Admin return compliance form +ComplianceProject import dataset into ACL +DataWarehouseAudit x 2013-11-01 email availability to clients +Admin x 2013-11-02 call boss about +DataWarehouseAudit
Why use a plaintext to-do list?
Why is it good to use a text file for to-dos?
- It forces you to approach task management very simply. Approaching things simply means that the to-do software/experience gets out of your way, so you can focus on your tasks.
- You can edit your to-do list in any application you want, from the todo.sh command-line scripts at todotxt.com, to any text editor from vi to Sublime Text, to really great graphical programs, such as my favorite, Todotxt.net.
- You own your to-do list. You know where it is. You can back it up, version it, archive it, delete it, look at it ten years from now, etc.
- Working with small, plaintext files is really, really, really fast on any device.
- Plaintext files are laughably small by today's standards (a few kilobytes), compress down to almost nothing, and take up almost no space on your device.
- You can sync between devices yourself, with Dropbox, SugarSync, BitTorrent Sync, and so on; you are not tied to a to-do app maker's proprietary sync.
- It is supported by a great community who keep building apps and programming libraries that support it.
- Gina Tripani herself heads open-source application development for Android and iOS apps (which are not free to buy, but are very inexpensive).