I Want a To-Do App

Someone on Reddit asked a question: “what self-hosted tool/app do you wish you had?” One of the most upvoted answer was, surprisingly (or not): “To-do app”.

The irony is that there are hundreds to-do apps. So you try one, then another one and another one… You can’t decide which one you like most, they are all so similar and yet so different at the same time.

I was there, jumping to-do apps every week or month because there is no perfect fit or because of hope for a productivity boost. It’s a real thing and a lot of people do that. Org-mode, TaskWarrior, Todoist, OneNote, CalDav, todo.txt, tasks.org, the list grows indefinitely. Once you change your to-do app, you “optimize” your process of managing the task list itself. You add categories, split it to several lists, add inbox, try GTD, try kanban, move some of your tasks to the calendar and then back from it… When done, you do the same for your notes. Repeat the whole cycle next month. You fool yourself for being productive this way, but you’re not. It’s a waste of time and you could be doing something valuable instead. Or just slacking off, which is probably healthier.

Why exactly do we keep to-do lists at all? Think about it for a moment: what’s the primary reason behind them? They exist to relieve our brains from a burden of remembering what we have to do. We keep them because there are things which we must, or want to do, but don’t have time or means to do them right away. Or because we’re lazy, that’s a valid reason too.

It means that successful to-do list is the one which which helps us doing these things. It’s the one which we trust and use. When you look at it, you know what you have to do. Sometimes you don’t even need to look, bucause the mere act of writing something down makes you remember it.

For some people even the simple bullet list on the fridge gets job done, while others need Personal Information Management suites. I recommend starting with the simplest things though, like pen and paper or simple text file, and only upgrade when they stop serving their purpose: helping us doing things. Don’t change your methods because of every new fad. Learn them, trust them, even befriend with them. Do it for a long period of time (year or more). When it clicks, it becomes your second nature and start using your list without thinking about it. Your fingers remember the moves and eyes know where to look. Muscle memory, just like using Vim for a decade. It beats imaginary productivity gains all day long.

“But this one stores its data in FooBar format, which is super-nice, future-proof and open source!” Yeah, text files are super-nice, future-proof and open source as well. “Oh, this one synchronizes with my laptop, phone and my grandma’s terminal from 1972”. Thanks, my notebook fits in the pocket and doesn’t need synchronization at all. “This one has really nice priority system which helps me decide which tasks should be done first!” So does placing an exclamation mark in front of the task. “I can share this one with my co-workers”. Sticky notes on a whiteboard were a thing before COVID-19 broke everything. “This one has auto-repeating tasks, alarms, notifications written with Comic Sans, and plays We are the champions when I finish a task”. OK, I don’t have a good response for this, I’m sold. Thanks, Freddie.

I’m not saying that everyone should use barebones text files or Leuchtturm1917 notebooks1 like it’s actually 1917. If you need a kanban board, Jira, to-do app integrated with your e-mail or the whole power of underlying Lisp machine2, then by all means, go for it. But then stick with it. Stop looking for an alternative all the time. Don’t revolutionize your workflow every week or so. Instead, improve it with small incremental changes when you know what works for you and what doesn’t.

Again, the primary function of to-do lists is to help us do things. How many finished and pending tasks do you have? If the former list is long and the latter is short, it means that both you and your to-do app are doing a great job.

P.S. This is my first post in 2021 and I didn’t write anything in December, so please accept my late Happy New Year!


  1. Even though they are really, REALLY nice notebooks. I love them! (This post was not sponsored by Leuchtturm1917) ↩︎

  2. You know what I’m talking about. ↩︎