To Do: Make To-Do List

Trying to get organized with Web-based task managers.

The typical state of my home office is what a generous person might call untidy: wobbly stacks of books, supplies gone wild, the occasional dirty plate. Most of my mess, though, comes from the reminders I leave on Post-its, backs of envelopes, and pages torn from legal pads. This same organizational chaos extends into my digital world—I’m constantly sending myself nudging e-mails and voice mails, like, “Hey, it’s me, you really need to clean up your office …”

For years I’ve managed to make this clutter work for me. But this spring, I noticed that too many of my to-dos were not getting done. (Take this assignment, for example. Between its official due date and the day I actually filed it, two and a half shameful weeks passed.) With a book  to finish, a business  to manage, and a big move  to make, I decided that it was time to find and commit to a proper system of task management.

Since I’m naturally indisposed to file cabinets and day planners, I decided to focus on software programs. While there are plenty of downloadable desktop applications on the market, I use a Mac desktop, a PC laptop, and an iPhone, so I narrowed my search to Web-based applications that I could access anytime, anywhere, from any sort of device.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Albert Einstein, whose famously messy workspace has made him the patron saint of slobs everywhere, apparently said that, and it roughly sums up my approach. I wasn’t looking for the simplest task manager, but I wasn’t looking for the most complete one, either. I was looking for enough. Each task manager could score a possible 30 points, with up to 10 points assigned for the following categories:

Minimalism (10 points): The ideal task manager should require little fuss. Applications with a clean, user-friendly design get high scores; those with lots of extra features that I won’t use get demerits.

Completeness (10 points): The more of my (pretty basic) organizational needs an application satisfies, the more points it gets. I’ve also taken user fees into account. Free, obviously, is better.

Compatibility (10 points): It should be relatively painless to sync up a new organizational system with my existing e-mail account and/or calendar. And task managers should work with an iPhone or, better yet, have an iPhone app.  

The results, from not enough to just right:

Toodledo Toodledo is packed with so many features I didn’t really know where to begin. But the application helpfully got me started by assigning me a first task: modifying my account settings. Here I noticed that not only could I integrate the service with my Google calendar, but I could also receive e-mail reminders. Even though true productivity nerds insist that e-mail should be decoupled from task management (since it’s so distracting), it has been a crucial part of my jerry-rigged system for years—so I was glad to stumble upon this feature.

The coolest thing about Toodledo is something called the “scheduler.” Available only to Pro Users ($14.95/year or free if you refer a certain number of friends to the site), the scheduler is intended for those times when “you are feeling indecisive or don’t have the energy or motivation to be as productive as you could be.” When you click on the scheduler and type in how much time you have, it scans through all your tasks, checks the estimated length of time it will take to complete those tasks, and then gives you an assignment. I love this idea, but I don’t think I’d use it often, if ever.

Features aside, Toodledo’s interface is dreadful, with a default color setting rich in periwinkle and pale yellow. You can change the colors, but the other options aren’t much better. I was also frustrated by the fact that the to-do-list field extended beyond the right edge of my browser window so I had to scroll to see all my items.

Minimalism: 2
Completeness: 8
Compatibility: 6
Total: 16 (out of 30)

Ta-da List This is a dead simple manager created by 37signals, the influential Web application company. You create a list (say, “Move to Alabama”) and then you begin adding specific tasks (“Hire movers,” “Sell snow shovels,” etc.). Once you create a task, you can reorder it in the list or check it off as done. That’s pretty much it. Ta-da List is free, and it looks great, especially on the iPhone. That said, there’s no way to specify where (at home, at work, on the train) or how (on the phone, by e-mail, in person) a task needs to get done. Other negatives: You can’t set up an e-mail reminder or a task due date (unless you write it into the title of the task itself)—a serious flaw for a temporal relativist like me.

Minimalism: 10
Completeness: 2
Compatibility: 7
Total: 19 (out of 30)

Todoist Similar to Ta-da List but with more options—like setting deadlines, viewing your tasks by date or all at once. It also allows you to make sublists. So, for example, if you have a project called “Move to Alabama” and a task within it called “Hire movers,” you can add even more detailed information like, “Call Albert at Brownian Moving Company about the quote” and “Check to make sure 18-wheeler can get down the street.”

Todoist is smartly designed, with projects in a narrow column on the left side of the screen and tasks in the center. But there’s no iPhone app, and the mobile interface is so small that I kept having to expand the screen. And while the service integrates with Gmail—as e-mails come in, you can delegate them to a list on Todoist—if you want e-mail reminders, you have to shell out $3 a month. True, that’s not a whole lot of money, but it’s still $36 more a year than many other task managers expect you to pay.

Minimalism: 7
Completeness: 7
Compatibility: 6
Total: 20 (out of 30)

Vitalist With a darker palette and better page design, Vitalist amounts to an aesthetically superior version of Toodledo. As with Toodledo, Vitalist was both more and less than what I wanted. More, because I wasn’t planning to take advantage of its many features—collaboration tools, keyboard shortcuts, a built-in tickler file. Less, because I was going to have to pay $5 per month (or $50 per year) to start more than five lists.

Minimalism: 6
Completeness: 8
Compatibility: 7
Total: 21 (out of 30)

Remember the Milk Remember the Milk has two particularly inventive features: There’s an iPhone app that can pick up your location and suggest nearby chores, and there’s an option to display the RTM task box within your Gmail account.

But ultimately I found RTM more conducive to slacking off than to getting things done. With its acres of white space and intuitive flow from one action to the next (plus a charming cow logo), RTM made me long for more tasks just so I could enter more information into the system. I spent hours clicking around the application, setting up new lists and task tags. In reviews of RTM, I’d read about this pitfall of its clean and thoughtful design: It can (and, in my case, did) lead to a severe case of organization as procrastination.

Minimalism: 9
Completeness: 10
Compatibility: 10
Total: 29 (out of 30)

Gmail While I was adding RTM to Gmail, I discovered Google’s task manager—one of the more recent offerings from the experimental Gmail Labs. Like all things Google, its design is extremely simple: just a box in the right-hand corner of your browser.

Immediately I began creating different lists (“New Birmingham Accounts” and “Book PR”) and adding items. Switching between lists is an easy, two-click operation, and you can just drag-and-drop to move items around. You can also add short notes and due dates.

Best of all, whenever a new e-mail comes into your inbox, you can click “Add to Tasks,” and it will show up immediately as a new to-do item. While certain other apps offered a similar feature, Gmail Tasks is the only program that lets you see your lists in the same browser page as your e-mail. With all my information in one place, I was—to my great amazement—able to start weaning myself off those once-crucial reminder e-mails and clear out my inbox. Just this one improvement—a first step toward that Zen-like state called ”inbox zero“—has made me more productive (or at least feel that way). Chalk another one up for Google: Gmail Tasks is what works best for me.

Minimalism: 10
Completeness: 10
Compatibility: 10
Total: 30 (out of 30)