How to Choose the Right To-Do List App
Why Use a To-Do List App and Not Pen and Paper?
There’s nothing wrong with a paper to-do list,
but going digital has many benefits. Paper is fine if you enjoy writing
by hand, crossing off tasks in ink or pencil, and drawing arrows all over the
place when deadlines and priorities change. A to-do list app lets you do all
that much more efficiently, dragging and dropping tasks to reorder them,
changing a priority or due date with one click, attaching a note to a task with
additional thoughts. In many ways, a good to-do app is the ultimate productivity app.
As many to-do list apps as there are, few
stand out as being much better than others. For example, there are dozens of
apps that are excellent for Android, but they do you no good when you’re working
away on a laptop and need to jot down a task without losing your place.
For this list, we looked for apps that you can access on both desktop and
mobile devices. We also looked at how these apps help you organize and stay on
top of your tasks. We consider collaboration tools, such as those that enable you to share a
to-do list with other people, a bonus, but not a requirement. We also looked for apps
that fit different user profiles, such as people who follow the Getting Things
Done (GTD) method of organization (OmniFocus 3 and Toodledo are good choices),
or those who prefer writing down tasks using a stream of consciousness
(Workflowy is the app that fits the bill there).
One of the most popular to-do list apps, Wunderlist, was acquired by
Microsoft in 2015 and taken out of commission five years later. Microsoft’s
stated ambition was to build a replacement app for Wunderlist from the ground
up, cloning all its best features in the process. The new app, Microsoft To Do, frankly took too
long to come to market and arrived half baked anyway. Although the app has
slowly improved since its debut, there are plenty of alternatives to
Wunderlist, many of which let you transfer your old to-do lists from Wunderlist into the new app.
What To Look for in a To-Do App
There are a few qualities to look for in a
to-do app. The top three are:
- tools for managing and organizing your tasks
- collaboration options
First, you have to like an app’s design and interface. Seriously. How are you going to get stuff done if you can’t stand
looking at your ugly app? If you enjoy looking at your list, you’re more likely to actually use it. It also helps if navigating the app feels intuitive to you. When a thought pops into your head about
something you must do, you want to be able to capture it quickly so that you
can forget about it and get back to what you were doing.
Second, every to-do list app comes with tools
and features for organizing your tasks and lists. These features need to match
up with the way you think. For example, if you are a highly visual person, you
might find that color-coding your lists or tasks that are high priority is
important. If you are a deadline-oriented person, you might want to make sure
that you can sort your tasks by due date or put them into a calendar view. If
you are a forgetful person, you might want an app that can send you a lot of
reminders on different devices.
Third, it’s always nice to have the option to
make lists collaborative. For home use, a collaborative to-do list means you
can assign chores to other people or track who has purchased items off a shared
grocery shopping list. In business settings, collaborative task-management
makes working together easier and more transparent.
The Best Free To-Do App
Several of the best to-do list apps have a robust free tier of service. Of them, our favorites are Asana and Todoist. Asana may be
too free-form for some people’s tastes. Todoist has more inherent structure.
Another very good free app is Remember the
Milk. It’s a little more old-school in some respects compared to the other apps
on this list, but it’s very capable and reliable. It’s also highly intuitive.
You can figure out all the ins and outs of this app in minutes.
Many of the other to-do apps on this list are excellent, but their free versions are quite limited compared with the power of their paid versions.
The Best To-Do App For Teams
It should come as no surprise that our top
picks for teams are also the Editors’ Choices: Todoist Premium (meaning the
paid version) and Asana.
Todoist works best among small groups
of people organizing relatively uncomplicated tasks, whereas Asana is better
for managing more in-depth teamwork, the kind of work that changes between many
hands and passes through a lot of phases before it’s complete.
To-Do Apps vs. Project Management
An ongoing challenge in the world of software
is deciding what gets classified as a project management app. We take the view
that project management apps fit a
traditional mold of being apps that a group of people uses to manage a project.
A project is a series of tasks that has a start date, end date, and
deliverable. Building a house is a project. Sending a rocketship to the moon is
a project. Answering support emails, however, is a series of ongoing tasks and
not a project.
Some work-related tasks do fit the
definition of a project but are so small they don’t warrant being tracked and
logged in a project management app. Work of that nature can be managed in a
collaborative to-do list app. Collaborative to-do list apps, as a category,
overlaps heavily with so-called work-management apps. Asana is an app that we
sometimes call a work-management app or even a workflow management app, but it
also classifies as a to-do app. These types of apps are ideal for managing
smaller projects or series of tasks that are ongoing work.
Let’s use the example of publishing a news
story. Multiple people work on this so-called project, such as a reporter,
fact-checker, editor, and production editor. From start to finish, the work
isn’t so cumbersome, however, as to require weekly reports or being put into a
Gantt chart to keep it on track. To publish a news story, each person involved
only needs to know the order in which the tasks should get done and when each
person finishes their tasks so that the work can move to the next person in a
So we can see how a project management app and
collaborative to-do app serve the same function but at a different scale. They
both keep track of what needs to get done, when, and by whom. They help us
manage time more efficiently and regulate how many tasks are on our plate at
once. To-do apps are simpler and cheaper than project management software. For
many types of work, they’re a better fit.
Use Your To-Do List to Get
Having a great to-do list app can help you get
organized and get more done, whether you want to manage personal tasks, or
those of a family or small team.
A to-do app is only as useful as the
information you put into it, so in addition to picking the right app, you might
also want to peruse these tips for creating better to-do lists.
Pros: Flexible, fast, and modern design.
Capable free version.
New Timeline view makes it easier to manage dependencies.
Cons: Not ideal for graphics-intensive work.
Can’t switch between Task and Kanban project views after creation.
Bottom Line: Asana is a top-notch collaboration tool that helps teams manage all kinds of tasks. Although it may be confusing at first, its flexibility and vast capabilities are well worth the initial effort it takes to get started.
Pros: Available on many platforms.
Clean, simple interface.
Neat productivity charts with Premium account.
Good task classification tools.
Cons: A few important features not available to free users.
Bottom Line: With a clean and simple UI and support for plenty of platforms, Todoist is one of the most feature-rich task management apps on the market.
Users of its free tier of service will find some essential features missing, however.
Pros: Designed for GTD.
Can add a lot of detail to tasks.
Cons: No collaboration.
Not available for Windows or Android.
Bottom Line: Now in version 3, OmniFocus is a powerful, albeit pricey, to-do app for Mac and iOS, and a good option as long as you’re working solo.
It’s well suited for people who follow GTD, too.
Rich with features.
Supports wide range of platforms.
Includes features useful for GTD.
Cons: Unusual restrictions on both free and paid accounts.
No free trial.
Some features don’t work as expected.
Bottom Line: The feature-rich TickTick is a good to-do app with some neat features that will appeal to GTD adherents.
The free version has tight restrictions, so be prepared to pay for the premium upgrade.
Pros: Strong feature set.
Includes some features for GTD followers.
Treats notes, habits, lists, and outlines as separate from tasks.
Cons: Paid tiers of service have many limitations.
Collaboration only possible among paying members.
Bottom Line: There’s no denying Toodledo’s power, or its long list of features.
But it takes a lot of customization and learning to get the app to work the way you want.
Pros: Slick and simple list-making app.
Excellent implementation of nested lists.
Cons: No due dates, deadlines or calendar integration.
No offline capabilities (yet).
Requires Pro account for Dropbox backup and password protection.
Bottom Line: Workflowy, a lovely and quick little Web-based app for making nested lists, embraces both simplicity and interactive design.
Its possible uses are infinite, and while a few nit-picky annoyances persist, the app is poised to be great quite soon.
Pros: Syncs with Outlook Tasks.
Includes intelligent rescheduling suggestions.
Cons: No recurring tasks, collaboration, type-ahead suggestions, tags.
Poor selection of themes.
Confusing to know whether you can get it.
Bottom Line: Microsoft To-Do, the company’s homegrown replacement for Wunderlist, pales in comparison.
There are better alternatives.
Any.DO (for Chrome)
Pros: Simple, synchronized to-do list app.
Single account works across browser plug-in and mobile apps.
Cons: At simplicity’s cost is a lack of anything to write home about.
Not as interesting as the mobile app for Android and iPhone.
Can’t resize app when popped out of Chrome.
No calendar display.
Bottom Line: Any.DO’s Chrome extension gets your to-do list on more screens than just your Android phone and iPhone.
Although well designed and easy to use, this browser plug-in is nothing to write home about.
Remember the Milk
Pros: Collaboration supported.
Can manage location-based reminders from Web app.
Cons: Interfaces look a little behind the times.
Design of mobile app hinders speed of use.
Sharing features only available on Web, not in mobile apps.
Bottom Line: Remember the Milk is an adequate to-do app that lets you share tasks and lists with others, but more capable and elegant apps cost the same price.
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