Get the app and then get things done
The best to-do list app will always be whatever works for you. One reason for the enduring popularity of pen-and-paper-based methods is that they can map perfectly to your individual needs. Bullet journals, which have surged in popularity in recent years, encourage you to pepper them with your own idiosyncrasies: widgets to track various goals, say, or lists of books to read, nestled alongside your daily chores. You impose your own point of view on a paper to-do list, for better and for worse.
Software, on the other hand, imposes its viewpoint on you. It asks you to bend your way of working to the only one it knows, in ways that can be suffocating. So, for you to trust your personal productivity with software, it has to go far beyond what pen and paper can do. Properly used, it should feel like a superpower in your pocket. You should get more things done, more easily than you would without it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Many to-do list apps are free — or built into your phone — and there’s no harm in trying out a handful. Given the large overlap in features between these apps, you’re likely to make your decision in large part on how you feel about their designs. But I encourage you to resist the trap I have fallen into consistently now for a decade: assuming that what I need at any given moment is a new to-do app, rather than the willpower necessary to get things done.
Once you’re ready to be more productive in earnest, one app stands above the rest.
The best to-do list app right now: Todoist
Todoist, which is available on virtually any platform you can think of, is clean, fast, and easy to use. Its natural language processing makes entering new tasks lightning-fast. Power users will appreciate advanced features including custom labels and filters, location-based reminders, and templates for recurring projects. You can also use it to collaborate with co-workers. But even if your needs are less robust, you’ll likely still appreciate Todoist for its straightforward approach to getting things done.
Todoist was the runner-up the last time we surveyed to-do apps, in September 2014. In the time since, the app on Android and iOS has received a simple but attractive redesign. It organizes your tasks into three useful tabs: Inbox, for stuff you haven’t yet processed; Today, for things due today; and Next 7 Days, for the week ahead. Most weeks, that’s all I need to stay on top of my tasks. I’ll tap out something like “finish review for Dan Tuesday,” and Todoist will put a task labeled “finish review for Dan” and remind me about it before my deadline. It takes all of one second, and the reminders are way more effective for me than relying on pen and paper.
But to-do apps can also be places to dream big, too. That’s why I appreciate Todoist’s simple but effective project view, for organizing anything that involves multiple tasks. When I’m planning something more complicated, I’ll pull up Todoist’s app for Mac — there’s one for Windows, too — and think through my project on the larger screen. It’s also a good place to add comments or file attachments to individual tasks, or to set custom reminders for each step.
Other features added in the past few years should have wide appeal. If you have an Echo device in your home, you can now add tasks with your voice via Alexa. Or you can add tasks from Slack. This year, Todoist also introduced a powerful integration with Google Calendar, allowing you to sync tasks to your calendar and back in real time. And if you get overwhelmed, a feature named Smart Schedule will offer to find time on your calendar for you to complete overdue tasks.
Todoist’s basic plan is free, and it gets you access to apps for every major platform, where you can add up to 80 active projects. A $29 annual fee gets you a lot more: up to 200 active projects, task comments, reminders, and project templates, to name a few. But you may find that the free tier is good enough.
Todoist won’t actually do any of your tasks for you. But in my experience, it will make it easier to get started — and follow through on the most important stuff on the list.
There are a lot of other to-do list apps to choose from, and depending on your needs, they may suit you better than Todoist does. Here are a few of the more popular ones we’ve tested: