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Todoist, Again

For better or for worse, I’m a busy person1. I’ve got stuff to do. Lots of. Contrary to many others, I’m not very good at juggling all those bits and pieces in my mind, I rely on some external help.

In other words, I enjoy2 the fact that I can off-load all the little and not-so-little tasks that I have to take care of into an app that allows me to organize, review, check-off these tasks and, if need be, remind me of deadlines that I have to take into account.

In other words, the GTD principle really resonates with me. That’s why I’ tend to have both an open mind and a weak spot for the figurative “fresh air” that comes with new apps and services in this domain. Of course, not every single one of them. But in some cases I just can’t help kicking a few tires here and there.

After all, fresh air brings new perspectives and that is hardly a bad thing. There is always room for improvement, as they say.

In this spirit, I have spontaneously replaced my app of choice by Todoist for the time period between beginning of June and mid of August. From the beginning, it was meant to be an experiment, to find out whether the strengths of Todoist would work for me.

The strengths, in particular, that I was interested in boil down to the following list of topics:

Without further ado, the experiment is over, and I have more or less unceremoniously stopped using Todoist. This is what comes out of it3:

  • The biggest obstacle in using Todoist is the software quality. In many cases I had to force-quit the iOS app to stop it from butchering the list of tasks to the point where specific actions were only halfway visible. The “native” app on OS X is (as much I regret to say this) still a joke. And then there are design decisions that are really hard to understand. A GTD-app, in my opinion, should never put anything between you and the ability to dump tasks into it. In Todoist’s iOS app, there views where it is positively impossible to add a new item.
  • The ability to use a Web Browser to work on the list of tasks is a nice thing to have, but I ended up using it not nearly as much as I expected it to use.
  • The integration with e.g. my calendar works pretty well, but after a couple of days I stopped using it. It is hard to explain, but the appearance of tasks in the calendar seemed bloated. Maybe that is because I usually have way more open tasks than calendar entries. Consequently, it seems more natural to have it the other way round: display my calendar entries inside your GTD app4
  • I like the simplicity in the design of Todoist, but the simplicity is also what made me more and more unhappy. I ended up wanting more.
  • The natural language input works in a lot of cases5, but there are also cases where it was positively standing in my way. For example, if the task description makes a reference to an event at a certain date it happens that the natural language parser gets confused and doesn’t know what to do. To be fair, this also happens in Fantasical, which runs one of the best natural language parsers around. I found myself regularly reviewing the help pages that give hints for formulating the natural language queries. The necessity to memorize certain “trigger phrases” in order to productively use NLP reduces its benefits, by a lot.
  • The custom filters seemed like a good concept at first. The ability to define arbitrary views on the collection of actions got me intrigued. However, in part because the query language also takes some memorization and/or lookup in the help pages I eventually I never really used a custom filter. I heavily used the built-in filters, on the other hand.
  • Attaching stuff to actions grew on me. I realize that it should be taken lightly in order to keep syncing under control, but in some cases it is really a game-changer.
  • Interestingly, the integrations with third-party services didn’t take off for me. I’m just not a heavy user of all the services Todoist intergrates with. I played around with some of them, but not in the “productive” sense.

There are a lot of good ideas in Todoist, and I can see folks with a bit more emphasis on integration with third-party services happily use Todoist. But the balance between feature and problems doesn’t work for me.

On the other hand, I realized in reviewing my own conclusion that I had indeed gained new perspectives into the general issue of managing my poor brain:

  • As mentioned before, the idea of a “unified timeline” of to-dos and calendar entries has some appeal to me, if served insight a GTD app.
  • The other conclusion is that different views on the list of actions, as implemented by the the filters offered by Todoist, still seem like a good idea. I want to use this or a similar approach in the future.
  • I just don’t want to go without attachments any longer.

What can I say, all these conclusions consequentially made me switch to OmniFocus.

  1. A consequence of which is that I don’t have the time to write as much as I’d want to.

  2. In some cases, literally.

  3. This list mentions some terminology (e.g. “filter”) that is specific to Todoist. I take the freedom to not explain every such aspect, more more details please have a look a the respective product pages.

  4. Unfortunately, Todoist provides no option to implement this view. To my knowledge, the only GTD app that supports this option is OmniFocus.

  5. And it is a big improvement that Todoist changes the background color of all words that it has identified as part of a date input.

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