Hands On With Todoist: Four Things It Does Well, Five Things It Could Do Better

Hands On With Todoist: Four Things It Does Well, Five Things It Could Do Better

It's 2016 and I still use a notepad for my to-do list. 

There's nothing wrong with paper, but I'm sure efficiency experts would roll their eyes at some of the limitations: Having to format each day's list; having to manually re-write items that don't get done from the day before; having to sift and sort different to-dos depending on which projects they might be associated with; having to look up information associated with different to-dos and write it down; having to write down recurring commitments day by day or week by week.

One of the strengths of an app: Being able to set up repeating tasks with ease, like the ones you see at the top.

Why not see whether an app could make the process of to-do list drafting -- and execution on those to-dos -- easier? 

I gave Todoist a spin for four weeks. Over that time, I used it to plan a family trip to Joshua Tree National Park and the Disneyland Resort, to track my daily work, to coordinate my family's weekend plans, to do tax prep for filing my taxes, and to schedule and execute on some podcasts and freelance articles. 

Here's what I loved about the app, and here's what I wish it did better.


GREAT FEATURE #1: I love how easily Todoist integrates with other cloud-based services.

A lot of the items on my to-do list rely on being able to access or edit a specific file. When using a paper to-do list, it's simple enough to find and open the file, sure. But I can easily upload or link files to specific to-do items in Todoist and just click to begin working, and I adore that little bit of streamlining in my workflow.

Todoist also plays well with If This Then That, as evidenced by the list of recipes they've published. What is interesting about their collection of recipes is how they're trying to move past workplace stuff into treating surfing and shopping as must-dos.

And I love being able to add to-dos via my email client. It is very handy if your emails are conveying information about an event above and beyond date and time.

Here's where you're able to add a task based on information in an email. The quick comment feature is also very helpful for adding even more necessary information.


GREAT FEATURE #2: I love how the desktop app and the mobile app complement one another.

It's very easy to call up, edit and complete tasks on the mobile phone app. If you've included any links or attached files in your notes for a task, you can handle those too. Speaking of ...


GREAT FEATURE #3: I like being able to include images, documents, URLs or notes with each to-do item.

You have to admit, one of the limitations of writing your to-do lists on paper is not being able to attach a lot of extra information to whatever you're writing, unless you're big into using sticky notes or paperclips.  If you pay up for the premium version of Todoist, you can attach notes to your to-dos. 

This an example of adding both an image and text; you can keep piling on the comments, one at a time, to expand on the to-do item.

I like being able to write notes that expand on to-do items, like including a phone number with an reminder to call someone or including a photo of something I'm going to buy. I find this feature especially gratifying when deploying it with a recurrent task -- no more repeatedly writing something down next to a to-do task I'm already writing down.


GREAT FEATURE #4: I like how there are multiple ways to sort and organize the things you have to do.

The prevailing metaphor for grouping tasks is by "project" and you can easily create new projects and start slamming out individual to-dos for each one. There's a little of trouble in trying to group together projects, but we'll get to that in a bit. The point is, it's easy to start new projects. Even better, you can assign different colors to them, so if you're the type of person who does well with color-coding as an organizational system, you're good here. And finally, you can add labels assigning urgency to tasks.

So there's a few things about this app that make it work better than your standard pad of paper. But here's what didn't work for me ...


WHAT I WISH WERE DIFFERENT #1: I want more control over the dates displayed on the app.

One of the best ways to manage items on your to-do list is to anticipate what's coming up so you know exactly how much slack you have in your day versus how much crunch time there will be in future days. Todoist lets you toggle between three views: Inbox, Today, and Next Seven Days. Putting aside my whole "I think an Inbox has the potential to be a black hole of nonspecific tasks, so I avoid it" approach ... your only choices in terms of a calendar are for today or the next week? 

I'd like to be able to see what I have two or three days out. I'd like a weekend view so I can see what to expect on weekends. Most importantly, however, I'd like to be able to set the time periods on the vertical bar so I can set as many views as I'd like.


WHAT I WISH WERE DIFFERENT #2: I want analytics.

A huge part of getting things done is managing your time well. A huge part of managing your time well is figuring out how you're using it. It would be wonderful if this app could offer analytics that help you see that your Wednesdays happen to be crazy-busy or that your Saturday to-do completion rate rarely rises above 40%. Being able to see where you're the busiest could help you figure out what you can change (moving some standing items from a really busy day to a less booked one) or how to schedule your to-dos around really busy days.

The Karma feature in Todoist will show you your rates of task completion over the last seven days and the last four weeks. However, that only shows you what you got done; it doesn't track whether there are trends in how many to-dos there are on a specific day of the week or whether you're hitting or missing those to-dos on busy days.


WHAT I WISH WERE DIFFERENT #3: I want desktop notifications.

Here is what you see when you try to customize notifications. They're not exactly useful if you're not using Todoist as part of a team.

As you can see from the screenshot, there are workflow notifications keeping you apprised of other people's goings-on -- but that's it. If you want a heads-up as to your own pending deadlines, you have few options. You can get a text message to your phone, or you can get an email with the daily list of to-dos. But you don't get any sort of alert on the one place you're very likely to be working -- your computer desktop.

One thing I like and appreciate about Microsoft Outlook are the desktop alerts -- those handy little nags remind me I have 15 minutes until a meeting or a phone call, and interrupt my flow just enough for me to transition from one task to another. They help me stay on top of what I'm doing.

It should not be too much for an app designed to help you do things to also alert you to what you have to do that day. Even if you don't assign a specific time to your individual items in Todoist, why not have an alert that pops up every few hours to remind you of the pending items on your to-do list?


WHAT I WISH WERE DIFFERENT #4: I want a smoother experience in setting up repeating tasks or organizing projects.

The app doesn't standardize how it displays times or dates, and figuring out what syntax leads to recurring tasks is tricky.

It took some experimenting to figure out how to successfully set both a due date and a time for different to-dos (hint: don't ever use the word "now" in your task name if you don't want the item due that day), and it still drives me crazy that writing out "2 p.m. editor check-in, Thursdays" gets me a to-do item heading off with the time, while writing "11 a.m. Pitch meeting @ Slack, every Thursday" gets me a one-time to-do item. I want consistency in both format and function. It shouldn't be hard to program the app to recognize the key pieces of information in either line I typed -- the time, the day of the week, the recurrence linked to the day of the week, the title of the task -- then format the task consistently.

I was similarly frustrated by trying to organize projects. The way the interface on the left nav bar is set up, adding a new project under an existing group can really screw up how your projects are organized. You'll see in the "FAMILY FUN" section how I tried to add a new project under "FAMILY FUN." The first screen shows how I clicked the arrow to the left of "FAMILY FUN" to show the sub-projects, then opened the menu to add a new project below.

This starts off promising ...

The second shows how the new project I added, "Summer of Fun 2016," somehow became the organizing uber-project instead of "FAMILY FUN."

... And now, it all goes horribly wrong because the projects once nested under FAMILY FUN are under Summer of Fun, and not easily moved back.

This placement seems a tad counterintuitive: Why wouldn't the newest project you add to a group be appended to the end? Why does it suddenly co-opt two projects.

The fact that I considered this counterintuitive demonstrates a key weakness in most productivity apps: That they're designed for someone else's specific idea of how to work. So either you need to figure out what the designers were thinking and modify your own work accordingly, or you don't get a tool that amplifies the ways you work. 


WHAT I WISH WERE DIFFERENT #5: I want to be able to drag-and-drop tasks in the app.

Why can't I select a task then drag-and-drop it from one due date to another? Why do I have to go through three separate clicks to change a due date? Tasks are discrete bundles of information; you should be able to move them around a grid of days with no problem at all. If you have a desktop app, take advantage of an operating system's abilities to click, drop and drag things.


THE FINAL VERDICT: IS THIS A KEEPER?

Where Todoist excels is as an infinite notepad -- you can just get all those nagging must-dos out of your head and into a space where they're easily organized and sorted by project and due date. Grouping all your to-do lists in one place is useful for seeing exactly what you have to do in a given day.

Todoist is also an excellent multistep project planner, but the inability to easily nest and reorganize clusters of tasks might be a deal-breaker for me. The convenience of having all my to-do lists in one app is outweighed by the inconvenience of trying to discern exactly how I should place a project or a task so as to maintain the groupings and hierarchies I want.

Like all apps, using it becomes easier over time, and internalizing all the rules regarding how other people think I should organize my to-dos will make this tool even more effective. 

So if you're feeling largely disorganized and you're looking for an app that will help impose some sense of order on an overwhelming quantity of must-do tasks, this could be the app for you; not only will it help get all those to-dos in one place, it'll also help organize them for you. If you're someone who has very definite ideas as to how your projects and their tasks are organized, this app might be helpful, but you'll be bumping up against your own ideas as to how it should work. 

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