Sunday, August 26, 2007

Todoist Review

Edit(2/5/08): Check out my latest post on using a notecard for the day along with Todoist!

So I renogiated my commitment to this thereaputic blog and called it quits after a short while to get other things done. This happend around April, but then you'll notice I posted once more in May to write a quick review of Dan Kennedy's No B.S. Time Management because I liked it. Once more, but this time after a many month break, I'm posting in order to review Todoist, the online GTD app. I wanted to be able to add my two cents in the off chance that someone was searching for reviews of Todoist or online GTD apps and searched far enough to actually find this.


I've been using Todoist for a few weeks now, maybe a month -- time flies when you're having fun you know. Before that I used Gmail to manage my next action lists and before that, Outlook. I switched from Outlook to Gmail because I loved Gmail and wanted to switch to that for email completely and didn't want Outlook running just for lists. In Gmail I used labels for context and project lists and emailed myself to put items into that list. I thought it was super wonderful since I could label one email with multiple contexts and projects. That worked fine for a while, but visually and operationally it wasn't as clean as I wanted. Visually, when I clicked on a label and saw all the emails (items/actions) in it, it wasn't clear what was done, what was next, and what could wait even though I tried with the read/unread and starred/unstarred options:

The operational weaknesses in using Gmail to manage my lists were the ultimate reasons I was tempted enough to try something else. Specifically, it was a pain in the ass to create a new project. When you have a label that represents a project or context, whenever you want to create an item in that label (context/project) you have to: email yourself; label the email in the inbox; then clear the email from the inbox. Yes, it's not hard like getting to the moon is hard, but it's not as quick and easy as creating a next action should be. So in order to avoid that, every time I created a label, I also created a filter which included keywords I would type in the body that would make that email automatically skip the in inbox and be labeled. That solved one problem but created another. Creating next actions was fast, but creating projects was slow: I had to create a label and create a filter for that label, both of which required multiple screens, mousing, typing, etc. It literally took over a minute each time. It sounds like I'm complaining, but that much resistance was enough for me to avoid creating projects for smaller open loops, whic was preventing my from properly using GTD. As David Allen says, any item with more than 2 next actions is a project. With this system of mine, it became every item with more than 15 next actions or something equally absurd. The net result is that I had many small projects in my mind that were unorganized and had little next actions strewn through context lists and were frankly eating away at my mind and distracting me. This had to be fixed.

Focus on doing, not on the system

I tried to be productive and a good boy and say that Gmail was sufficient and I wasn't going to switch again. I wanted to focus on doing my tasks, not tweaking systems. This is a very good philosophy, but I realized that with Gmail, I was forced to focus on the system. So I started to casually browse. I realized that online list management was fine for me because I had a job (grad student) that had me always near a wired computer. So I searched, and stumbled upon Todoist.


Visual Clarity

Todoist is not a GTD app in the sense that it's not centered around GTD. I like this because I find that other GTD-centric apps are way to elaborate and overstructured. David's system becomes this huge rigid pipeline that every brain fart you may have is forced to pass through. What context does this belong to? Should I do it or delegate it? Defer it? Is this a next action, or merely an action? So you have to click through tabs and stars and pages and bubbles just to create one small action. Ugghh! Please. What an over complication. Todoist is clean. It's a got a list of projects on the side and your list of items in the middle. To see items from a particular project, click on that project and they appear. All of them. Click the box next to an item and it turns grey and gets striked-out. There are no ads, no ugly colors, no obtrusive logos, just your list of items. For me, this allows for productivity.

Creating and reordering items

Creating items requires hitting the "a" key. That's right, from the keyboard. Todoist is pretty good at providing keyboard shortcuts. I say pretty good because it could be better but it also better than a lot of other programs. The caveat in using "a" to create an item is that you have to be in the project list you want to create the item under. But I find that often when I want to create items is when I'm checking off items in a current project list anyway. So for example if I'm managing a certain project and its actions, I could go through the following procedure in lightening speed: check-off, check-off, modify, hit enter, hit "a", type item, hit enter. And two items have been checked off, one modified, and one added. Literally under 30 seconds. Modifying can be done by just clicking anywhere in the item's text.

Reordering is super easy too. To reorder the items list hit "r" and drag them to whatever order you want. To reorder the projects list, hit "shift+r" and drag them. I find this important. Just because I created a certain item today it doesn't mean that should go at the top, or the bottom, or the middle, or in alphabetical order. I want to order them whichever way I please. Easily. I found the lack of this feature annoying in both Outlook and Gmail.


You can create hierarchies or subprojects faster than you can blink. Simply typing Ctrl+left arrow lets you indent a certain item over one tab so you can have one subproject name and a whole bunch of little actions associated with it that are tabbed over. This works for your list of items and for your list of projects as you notice in my screenshot above. Extremely handy little feature.


Typing an asterisk at the start of any line makes that line not have a checkbox, it's simply a little line of text. This is perfect for jotting down little notes, adding urls, etc. to a task or at the top for that project.


I'll be honest, contexts are not that important to me. Being a grad student, I find that most of next actions belong to a small group of contexts, and those contexts are often physically close to each other and accessible every day. Projects, on the other hand are vital since I'm always balancing a lot and on a given day have to make significant progress on any given project due to outside pressures (my advisor). In that regard, "cranking" through a given context list and getting something done in that context for a variety of projects is not a luxury I have. But, if I want to, I can in Todoist. Contexts are created as little unobtrusive but functional Gmail-style labels. And the best part is, when I'm creating an item, I don't have to take some elaborate number of steps to create the contexts either, I just append my item text with @home. That's it, the @ sign in the text creates contexts. Beautiful. If I do feel like seeing all of my @computer contexts, for example, at one time, I just type in @computer in the search box and there they are.

Gmail Integration

There is a great firefox plugin that, once installed, puts a little "Add to Todoist" link at the bottom of every Gmail conversation, which makes turning mail into action items a one click endeavor.

Premium Perks

As with basically all online GTD apps, there is a premium subscription ($3/month) that you can purchase and it comes with perks like reminders, sms reminders, etc. I haven't found it necessary so I haven't bothered. Putting a date on a task and having it show up on that date as all the tickling I need since I use Todoist every day.


I wish they had more keyboard shortcuts. Some things still require mousing and that seems unnecessary. Also, I wish the search bar let you search for terms, not just by date. I suppose I don't really need this since I don't have a million next actions, but sometimes it could be useful. I wish editing a project were bit easier. Why can't I double click and edit.

Overall Todoist is a very solid, highly recommended, online GTD app.


Qrystal said...

Thank you for writing this review... I am in the same boat, grad student, trying to hack my way through, getting overwhelmed with all the things to do ... and have been auditioning to-do-list apps for quite some time. Found one I liked, but eventually realized I really wanted online access, and tried to resist shopping around for more because I really should be being a good lil' grad student and DOING rather than tweaking...

Anyways, I hear ya. And I also think I'm gonna check out todoist. What sold me was your description of the unobtrusive contexts! So thanks muchly!

Bdizzy said...

No problem! I'm still on Todoist and see no signs of slowing down. It's really simple enough to let me do the fine balance between capturing as much as possible to get it out of my head while still DOING more than just playing with the system.

I'm actually even considering paying for premium...considering...

Filip said...

Great review. I've been using Todoist for a number of weeks now, both personally and professionaly and I find it extremely handy. Like you, I've been struggling with to-do lists for a long time, using Outlook, simple Notepad lists, a to-do gadget for my iGoogle page, ... I even worked with Microsoft OneNote for a while. But nothing I tried gets the job done as good as Todoist. It's simple, I like the keyboard shortcuts, it's online which means I can access it from everywhere (I now add tasks right from my Blackberry using the mobile version of Todoist), it's not cluttered with things I don't need...
One great advantage of using online GTD lists, in my opinion, is that I find myself much more "in touch" with the things I have to do. They're available to me, always and everywhere, which is great. Before, they were on my laptop (which I don't want to switch on just to view a GTD list), or on another PC, or - aaaargh - on a piece of paper.
Thanks for writing about it. It's because of reviews like yours that people hear about such things and I always find it reassuring that other people are using the same thing and are happy using it too :-)

robskils said...

I agree with pretty much all you have said. For me a task management application should be just that - nothing more, and nothing less. I have written a post on how I use Todoist myself (which is not exactly how it was designed to be used) here:

Kristian said...

You guys should try out

It's a super minimal, ajax powered, clean and simple online todo list.

Rather than micro-documenting every detail about every task, the interface is simplified for just the bare bones minimum. Get more done in less clicks.

- Kristian

Pieter said...

Thanks, good article!