I’ve had my go around with multiple task managers. No setup is ideal, but if you can crack some of the methodology behind the tool, you can more easily leverage its strengths.
I landed on using Todoist last year, mainly because it’s the most fully featured productivity tool I can use on both Windows and Mac. I’m stuck on Windows at work for now, and I need a tool I can engage with in the context in which I’m working. I tried OmniFocus on my iPad and the context switching was just too difficult to deal with day to day. And, let’s be frank - sometimes you just need a mouse.
In the last few months, I’ve learned some of Todoist’s paradigms, so I want to share them with you.
Todoist prides itself in its integrations. Being a web app first, it has a lot more possibilities than other non-web softwares like OmniFocus and Things 3.
Major integration players include:
- IFTTT, Microsoft Flow, and Zapier, which opens a whole world of options to capture tasks in a variety of platforms,
- Google GSuite, enabling ease of capture from email and calendar integration
- Slack, allowing entering tasks right from the chat window
Most all integrations involve creating tasks based upon inputs from any source you can hook up to it. We will get into some fun uses of this in a later post.
One of the key design choices that both serves and hinders Todoist’s usability is the ambiguity of design.
Todoist doesn’t have a set structure. All of the elements of any task manager are there (tasks, projects, due dates, tags, filters, etc.), but Doist has taken a less opinionated approach to their use.
As a result, you can implement just about any methodology of task management in the software, from GTD to Agile Results and beyond. It’s the most flexible system I’ve worked with yet.
However there are drawbacks to this ambiguity. For example, the Scheduled date functionality serves as both due date and scheduled date. Most productivity folks would tell you never set a due date unless it’s due, and I’m with them. Yet it’s difficult to differentiate a scheduled task from a due task in Todoist. You can’t schedule a task for tomorrow at 2pm to work on it and maintain a due date of April 29th.
In a way, then, this leaves users with a choice — use a due date, or scheduled date? And can you remember what you did on which task?
In my opinion this would be easily remediated by using a start date or keeping a scheduled date and add an optional due date field.
Todoist heavily relies on search. So much so that filters are basically saved searches that use search operators. This will come naturally if you can leverage advanced search in Gmail, Outlook, or any other major productivity app.
Search can thus easily surface tasks with a certain set of tags, or dates, or even from all subprojects. If you can have the patience to structure complex search queries, you can slice and dice your lists in nearly any way.
The main crux of the Todoist task metaphor is nested lists. Projects can contain parent tasks that contain multiple levels of child tasks. If you need to break out your projects and tasks into very granular detail, the app handles this pretty well. Sub tasks collapse nicely under the parent.
But Todoist currently has some goofy behavior with these nested lists. For example, if you set a due date on a parent task and its child task for today, both will show up as level 1 tasks on your Today view. Expanding the parent task will also cause the child task to show up twice on the list. If this happens multiple times, it can get confusing. The workaround is to put a scheduled date only on the parent task. Doing so allows you to see all child tasks, at the risk of lowering the clarity of the exact task due.
Additionally, Todoist doesn’t handle recurring nested task lists well. When completing a recurring parent task with nested child tasks, child tasks don’t un-check on the new instance. The workaround is to duplicate the parent task and archive the old one as not to affect your Karma score.
Speaking of Karma, Karma is Todoist’s unique way of gamifyijng the task management process. Every task completion and feature use nets you Karma points, as well as hitting daily goals.
I’ve found this feature helpful, as my brain doesn’t like to lose any points! The subtle knowledge of if I don’t do something I lose points causes me to be more aware of the current state of my task list.
The current state of projects in Todoist falls similarly into the ambiguity discussion. Projects can easily be used GTD-style in the software, but, frankly, it doesn’t always feel right.
Instead, projects more easily as buckets for tasks to reside in, utilizing tags and search to surface the needed tasks at the right time. This extra metadata can be extra work, but if you buy into the bucket model, it works.
However, in my experience, the bucket model breaks down when you hit a certain numerical threshold of tasks. To combat this, I’ve either needed to break out pieces into projects or parent/child tasks (organize), or reduce the total number of tasks (eliminate).
Even though the design choices often add to ambiguity and complexity in the app, they lend to Todoist’s flexibility. You can literally throw just about any approach of managing tasks at it, and it will do just fine. You just have to work within the constraints. But the constraints are much broader than, say, OmniFocus 2. I’m a believer in opinionated software if it makes life easier. Usually, strong opinions in productivity software are great to start, but can hamper iteration and efficiency later if you discover you don’t work well with that mode.
Todoist is what I’d consider “lightly opinionated” software. They have a general framework, but the feature capability is broad enough to accommodate many styles of use.
OmniFocus 3 may rival Todoist’s flexibility with the addition of tags and nagging reminders. However, one area OmniFocus will be lagging behind is cross-platform support. Unless you’re willing to work with a limited web browser version or manage tasks off an iPad, Todoist is basically the best option out there if you need to use Windows or Linux.
Next week we’ll take a look at projects within Todoist and how I use them.