Todoist vs Trello vs Wunderlist for managing small tasks

Since moving from Outlook (Exchange) to eM Client (Google) a few weeks ago I have needed to find a suitable task management application to replace Outlook’s excellent task tool. I’ve found a really nice application in Todoist.

I used Outlook tasks a lot on both my desktop PC and my mobile phone (Windows Mobile then Android), so my requirements were:

  • Must be cloud based.
  • Must sync quickly between mobile and desktop.
  • Must have a native app for both Android and Windows 8.
  • Must be able to handle multiple contexts/projects.
  • Must be affordable.
  • Should have a usable Android widget to both add new tasks and view a particular context/project.

Wunderlist

Wunderlist interface has a brown, wood-effect background with two columns: contexts on the left, tasks on the right.
Wunderlist (Windows 8 modern UI app) is really pretty.

The first application that I consider was Wunderlist which I had trialled a few years ago before moving to Exchange. I thought it was time to give it another go.

I migrated my tasks into Wunderlist and used it for a few days.

I really love the aesthetics of Wunderlist. It looks uncluttered and simple, and I selected a rich wood-effect background to complement the dark grey wood wallpaper both my PC and smartphone.

Following the GTD methodology, I was able to create multiple contexts (e.g. computer, desk, finance, garden, home, shopping, etc.). Moving tasks from one context to another is as simple as dragging and dropping tasks. Further details can be added to individual tasks (due date, reminders, subtasks and notes).

I really liked the ability to star important or favourite items, and to view all tasks, grouped by context in the order shown on the left-hand sidebar.

Wunderlist was looking promising, and I probably would have continued to use it had it not been for two issues.

The first issue I had was more of a niggle: the Android widget it really fiddly to use. I love that you can scroll left and right between contexts but I found with my not-too-enormous fingers that I had to jab at the screen four or five times to hit the sweet spot before it moved.

The second is a known problem: there are sync issues between Wunderlist 2 and 3. The web interface and Android both use the newer version 3, the Windows 7 application uses version 2. When I used both in conjunction I discovered discrepancies in my data.

I didn’t want to use the Windows 8 modern UI app or have to access my lists through Chrome, and the niggle with the Android widget was enough to get me looking elsewhere.

Trello

Trello uses the model of cards pinned to lists.
Trello uses the model of cards pinned to lists.

I’ve long been a fan of Trello from Fog Creek Software. We use it extensively at work, and I use it to manage all my personal projects. So I quickly migrated my tasks from Wunderlist to Trello and used it for a few days.

As much as I love Trello for managing larger projects I didn’t really warm to it as a simply list/task application.

Contrary to my experience with Wunderlist, I was quite happy to use the web interface but then that’s how I have used it for the last few years. The Android app is great and improves with each release.

The Android widget didn’t give me the information that I needed, though: it isn’t granular enough for my requirements. All it offers is a list of cards assigned to me, optionally grouped by due date. The problem here is that it lists EVERY single card assigned to me, starting with those cards that are dated in the past. Right now that is 461 cards. All I wanted to see was all the cards within a particular board, or even better within a particular list on one particular board.

Todoist

Todoist interface has two columns: list of contexts or projects on the left, checkbox list of tasks within that project on the right.
Todoist has a very clean interface.

That was when I discovered Todoist which appears to be available for just about everything: web, Android, iOS, Windows, Mac OS, web, Outlook, Thunderbird, Gmail and Postbox. I’d love to see a plugin for eM Client—that would make my productivity life complete!

Todoist has a very minimalist and uncluttered look. On the left are your contexts, which Todoist calls Projects. It also offers labels and filters, but I don’t use either.

For the third time in a week I migrated all my tasks to yet another application. But this time they’ve stayed there… the ones that I’ve not checked off.

Todoist has met all my requirements. It is cloud-based, the Windows and Android apps work beautifully, I can add multiple contexts/projects, can easily drag and drop items from one list to another.

The Android widget does exactly what I need as doesn’t suffer from the same navigation issues that I experienced with Wunderlist. I’ve found that I use that a lot now, and the big plus (+) in the top-right corner of the widget allows me to add tasks quickly to any of my existing lists, and assign a due date too if I need.

The only thing that I miss from Wunderlist is the ability to view all tasks in one long list, [see correction below] but something that I found myself using much more than I ever did with Wunderlist is scheduling tasks. This is probably because Todoist offers two new views: ‘Today‘ and ‘Next 7 days’. (A perfect example of how user interfaces can affect user behaviour.)

CORRECTION: I’ve discovered a “View all” option listed under Filters. This lists all tasks by project. I wish there was a shortcut for this at the top of the application.

What is quite fun too is that Todoist shows your productivity trend and gives you points (which it calls ‘Todoist Karma‘), which I guess is there to help motivate you.

Graph and bar chart showing my productivity trend for the last seven days.
My productivity trend for the last seven days.

When you tick off items your points go up, when you don’t your points down.

I’ll definitely be sticking with Todoist for the foreseeable future, and I may even buy the upgrade to Todoist Premium which is a snip at GBP £18.00 per year, which gives you more project and label colours, task notes and file uploads, reminders, iCalendar feeds, etc.

I’ve just completed a task 2490 years early

It’s no secret that the default Outlook Tasks application in Windows Mobile 6 isn’t great, and given that I use tasks almost as much as the calendar—perhaps even more so—I’m always on the look-out for a dedicated application that will handle them better.

pTasks

I was therefore delighted when I discovered pTasks, which describes itself as “a replacement for the default Windows Mobile task manager” with a “finger-friendly user interface”.

Perfect!

It costs £2.69 from the Windows Phone app store.

Rather than paying for something that I don’t know if I wanted to keep I went in search of a free, early beta release. I found version 0.5f (the current, paid-for version is 1.5) and gave it a test drive.

An important note is that it requires the .NET 3.5 framework installed first.

Imagine my surprise when I added a new task, “Blog about pTasks”, and reviewed the details:

20110316-pTasks

How efficient am I! I’ve just completed a task nearly 2490 years early.

WordPress upgrade: filling in the missing pieces

Missing piece

Well, where to start?

I’ve been meaning to blog about life for ages but since Reuben and Joshua were born in November 2008 other things took more of a priority.  Things like attending to twin boys, eating, getting enough sleep, and generally trying to muddle through the days.  I’ll likely write more about that in the future.

Simplifying life

Over the last few months I’ve been working at simplifying life as much as possible, and being a good Getting Things Done / Take Back Your Life disciple and disengaging from projects and tasks that I knew I wouldn’t/couldn’t complete or which were no longer priorities.  It’s felt good.

That’s given me more of a focus on the things that I do want to do.  Sorting out my web server was one of those things.

Server upgrade

I suspect that I would have blogged more about it at the time (and I now wish that I had) but I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t blog again until I’d upgraded my server.  Of course, that took a good few months longer than I had anticipated (doesn’t everything these days?).

In February I moved from Webfusion to Heart Internet, after an abortive attempt to simply upgrade to a better hosting package at Webfusion.  The killer feature that was missing from the Webfusion package was subdomains; I didn’t want to lose my www.garethjmsaunders.co.uk URL that I’d just had printed onto a custom-made laptop skin.

So far my experience of Heart Internet has been excellent.

Upgrade WordPress

The most pressing reason for moving to a better server was to enable me to upgrade WordPress, the software that manages my blog.  My old host had a bunch of really out-of-date features (MySQL 3.2 and PHP4) which just wasn’t enough to run the latest versions of WordPress.  What a relief to be able to upgrade from WordPress version 2.0.11 to the latest version 2.9.

And wow! there have been quite a few changes to WordPress in the interim: the addition of widgets and tags, as well as critical changes to the main API, a much nicer UI, etc.  So many changes in fact that my old theme broke.  So that had to be fixed.

The upgrade was pretty pain-free thanks to WordPress’s infamous 5-minute install and upgrade script.  (I tested it out first, of course, on my localhost machine using XAMPP.)  The only thing that I missed was matching the database character set encoding.  It was set to ISO-8859-1 (Latin-1) rather than UTF-8 (Unicode) so there are still a few odd character combinations on the blog that I need to track down.

Batch categories

WordPress now has tags.  Back it the day it only supported categories so I, like many other WordPress users, created tens of categories to organise what I was writing about.  I had 88 categories.

I found a tremendous plugin called Batch Categories which let me quickly (by which I mean over the course of two days, rather than weeks if I had to edit each post individually) move groups of posts from one category to another, and also add tags to groups of posts.

So I took the easy route of replacing most of the categories I had with tags and rationalising my categories down to nine:

  1. Books
  2. Computer
  3. Family
  4. General
  5. God Project
  6. Mah Jong
  7. Music
  8. Psion
  9. Web

Next …

I’m really keen to redesign my blog theme but I’m going to hang off on that for the time being.  I’ve got a couple of other things that I want to complete first.

CSS framework

The first thing is to complete work on what started as a plugin for the Blueprint CSS framework and which is now turning out to be a combination of different parts of my favourite CSS frameworks.

Website redesign

Once that’s done I’m going to work on a complete reworking of my main website www.garethjmsaunders.co.uk.  The last time I did any serious work on it was, I think, probably around 2003.  The code has a very serious dose of ‘classitis‘.

One of my biggest drivers is the number of emails and telephone calls that I still get for information about and software for the Psion range of PDAs.  I want to create some space for myself by putting a lot more of that information on my site, in a way that it can be found more easily.

How I took back my life

Filing

On the whole, over the years I’ve managed to keep myself pretty well organized. As a child growing up I was always reorganizing my room: rearranging the order of books, folders, stationery, … everything! If it wasn’t nailed down I moved it. It’s probably inevitable that I should get a job working as an information architect!

A few friends have been urging me for months to blog about how my organizational method works for me, so here it is. But before I get onto that, here’s a little of the journey that led me to where I am.

A short history of organization

I always knew there was room for improvement. I’d adapt and improve my methods for filing documents, managing tasks, keeping a diary. At Selkirk High School I had my trusty school diary — when it wasn’t being stolen and scribbled on by Phil Graham — which recorded what I should be doing and when.

In 1989 I moved to St Andrews and I bought myself a cheapish Filofax clone, which I loved and cherished and packed full of useless stuff that probably made me less productive. But it did have tabs, and a lot of coloured paper — that’s got to count for something, surely.

In 1996 I bought my first Psion, a Siena 512KB. It was a life-saver: now I could keep everything in it, neatly organized. No more scribbling out entries, no more running out of contact sheets because everyone listed under “S” had moved and moved again.

My Psion became central to how I organized my life. And then I discovered that I could synchronize it with Schedule+, and then Microsoft Outlook 2000. The joys!

Crisis

Fast forward to 2003 and you’ll find that Jane and I have just moved from Inverness to Edinburgh. I’m now working with two parishes and I’m beginning to panic. The organizational methods and techniques that I’ve evolved are now being stretched to the limit and I’m beginning to panic.

Really beginning to panic. I just couldn’t keep on top of everything that I needed to do. I remember one morning where I was sitting at my desk in the study and my head was spinning. I had so much to do, but really didn’t know where to start.

I needed assistance, and I need it immediately.

Take Back Your Life

I found it in a book called Take Back Your Life by Sally McGhee, as documented on my blog entry of 25 January 2005.

Take Back Your Life book cover

It’s a really fantastic book, that draws on David Allen’s Getting Things Done techniques but instead of notebooks and diaries and baskets McGhee advocates the use of Microsoft Outlook and a PDA. Works for me!

So this is what I do:

1. Collection points

From my blog post of 2005:

One of the first steps, McGhee says, is to work out how many collection points we use. That is, how many locations do you collect information and tasks from? I was amazed to discover that I had 28 different locations. I’ve now reduced this to eight, which is far more manageable.

Three years later and I now have four (give or take):

  1. In-tray
  2. Mobile phone/PDA
  3. Telephone/answering machine
  4. Email

In tray

My in-tray at home

Pretty much everything goes into my in-tray at home:

  • all mail
  • books
  • CDs
  • contents of my bag
  • documents
  • magazines
  • scribbled notes
  • telephone messages

Really, whatever I need to deal with or sort or tidy away. It all gets dumped into my in-tray. It’s reassuring to know that anything that I’ve not processed yet goes into my in-tray, into the one location that is my main collection point.

At one point in Edinburgh I had no fewer than eight in-trays in my study. It was totally unmanageable.

You’ll notice that there are two in-tray stacks — the one on the left is mine, the one of the right is Jane’s. My in-tray has three levels:

  1. In
  2. Post out
  3. Waiting for

PDA/Outlook

Anything that doesn’t go into my in-tray goes directly into my PDA (O2 Xda Orbit running Windows Mobile 6) or into Outlook Tasks or Calendar — and since my PDA synchronizes with Outlook at both home and work everything ends up in Outlook.

So when I sit down to work out what I need to do I really have to look in only two locations:

  1. My in-tray
  2. Outlook

2. Processing my in-tray

In-tray contents moved to my desk

The next thing I do is begin to process my in-tray. I know from experience that even if the tray is stacked 12 inches high I will still get through it in under an hour. It doesn’t intimidate me how much stuff is in the tray. In fact, quite the opposite, I’m reassured that everything I need to deal with will be processed in one sitting.

I move the contents of my in-tray onto my desk, and starting at the top work through it piece by piece making a decision on every item. There are four options:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

A lot of stuff I can do in less than 5 minutes. Some things just need reading, or throwing into the recycling, or filing away in my filing cabinet:

Filing cabinet

Anything that needs to be deferred for later I add to my Outlook Tasks. Sometimes I’ll add it to Outlook and file the documentation in the filing cabinet (because at least I’ll know where it is when I need to find it later).

3. Processing Outlook Tasks

Usually within 30 minutes I have a clear desk, a few items in my Post Out tray and it’s time to move onto my Outlook Tasks. This is to deal with tasks that I’ve promised to do when I’m out and about, or at work, or have entered into Outlook while processing my in-tray.

Screenshot of Outlook Tasks 2003

Outlook allows you to categorize your tasks, there is also one, default uncategorized group into which any new item is automatically added. Following the guidelines in Sally McGhee’s book I have categories such as:

  • Home Projects
  • Work Projects
  • Blog
  • Computer
  • Desk
  • Home
  • Phone
  • Shopping
  • Waiting for
  • Someday Oneday

Download your head

Before I go any further I often start by ‘downloading my head’: getting out of my head those things that I said I’d do but haven’t recorded anywhere else. This is a great opportunity to stop relying on my memory — that’s why I used to get so stressed.

The first time I tried this exercise I ‘downloaded’ over 85 items … and then was amazed at how relaxed and calm I felt. But it stood to reason that since I was no longer relying on my memory to hold everything it freed my brain to do what it does best: think and plan.

Process

Using similar criteria for dealing with my in-tray I’ll start at the top and work my way through the list, making a decision on each item:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

Some items I do immediately, then delete from the list. Other items get deleted immediately, usually because I’ve decided that it’s no longer a priority. Further items may get delegated to someone else so I’ll either write to them or email them.

If I defer an item in my task list I’ll usually do one of two things:

  • Categorize it within Tasks — these I think David Allen calls “contexts”: where do I need to carry this out? At home, at my desk, on my computer, when I’m shopping? Or …
  • I’ll schedule a time for it by moving it from my task list into my calendar

4. My calendar

This last step was one of the most significant when I moved to this method. Now I have everything in one place: in Outlook (and synchronized on my phone/PDA), I know what I’ve said I’d do (my tasks) and in many case when I’ll do them (my calendar).

Further improvements

I’ve been using this method now for about 3.5 years and I keep refining it, tweaking it to make it a little better and more effective, particularly as my responsibilities change and as I respond to the different tasks and projects that I take on, both at work and at home.

I know when I need to go back to my task list and calendar and start planning again because it’s at those moments that I begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed. It’s during those moments that I realise: I’m not managing my tasks, they’re managing me. Then half-an-hour later once I’ve processed my in-tray and Outlook tasks and scheduled things I feel relaxed and in control once again.

That’s about it in a nutshell. The only really significant thing that I’ve missed out is how I manage my projects within Outlook, but perhaps that could be a post for another day.

Inbox zero at Google Tech Talk

I started watching this a few months back, but have just discovered it again: “Inbox Zero” Google Tech Talk at 43Folders.com.

Follows the Getting Things Done (GTD) / Take Back Your Life (TBYL) method, the video is just short of 60 minutes, but it’s great.

UPDATE: for some reason the short bit between the last two commas went missing when I published. Browser troubles, perhaps — I was using Opera. That will explain David’s comment below.