The 5 Commandments for Choosing the Right To-Do App for Productivity

Ryan Dube 22-02-2014

If I gave you a collection of 100 coffee mugs and asked you to organize them, how would you do it? Would it be by color? By the image on the mug? By its size? Different people organize in different ways, so something like choosing a to-do app really depends on the kind of person you are.


I have a confession to make. I’m an obsessive to-do list tester. In the past five years I think I’ve tested approximately 20 productivity management tools, and I’ve yet to stick with a single one. Often times, I’ll discover one that I absolutely love, and I’ll even do a detailed write-up about it while I’m really excited about it. Then I drop it and move on to something else a few months later. A few examples included a Coolendar review Coolendar - A Cool Calendar & To-Do List In One I usually just stick to using Google Calendar for my scheduling needs, and Workflowy as my online to-do list. It takes a lot to impress me about any calendar/scheduling system. So I was a little... Read More , an enhanced Google Calendar, a WeDoist review Collaborate On Projects With Small Teams Using Wedoist Project Tracking WeDoist allows small teams to manage up to three projects for free. It helps you collaborate with your group on coming up with tasks associated with a project, and assigning those tasks to members of... Read More , which is sort of a group version of the ToDoist to-do list manager ToDoist: Simple ToDo List and Task Manager Read More . Then of course there’s the GQueues review Take Google Task Management And Scheduling To A Whole New Level With GQueues Google Tasks doesn't work if you want to move beyond the time management of today into the visionary planning of tomorrow. This is where GQueues steps up to the plate. Read More – one of my latest favorites.

I’ve tried ToDoist, I’ve tried Wunderlist to-do manager Wunderlist: Easy-To-Use, Versatile & Cross-Platform To-Do List Manager Read More , and countless other to-do list managers. I finally boiled it all down to a final decision, which I will show you in a few moments. This doesn’t mean that I only use one. In my various productivity travels, I’ve returned here once again to share the wisdom that I’ve gained from years of tramping the productivity roads. The bottom line is this – there are five commandments you must follow to choose the right to-do app(s) and keep your life productive and meaningful.

Commandment #1: Keep it Simple

So which is the best? Which to-do app will help you to transform your chaotic life into a sea of organization and tranquility? Which to-do productivity manager will simplify the madness of your life into a structured and ordered set of lists?

Here’s the secret: You need multiple tools for multiple purposes. Once you can get your head around that, you’ll be able to look at these to-do apps from a different perspective.

It isn’t a matter of simplifying every single thing you’re working on in your life into a single app. I’m here to tell you that as nice as that would be, it’s just not going to happen.


So let me share my final decision on a to-do list/calendar with you. Introducing, the best to-do list on the planet.


Yup. After playing with a few dozen to-do apps and productivity programs, I’ve come full circle to the good ol’ paper-based system. But here’s the catch — the paper-based system is only for my very simple daily tasks. It’s basically something that I carry with me so that I can open it up any time and just scribble in new items or cross off old ones, but the reality is that it isn’t the heart of my overall system. It is just a tool. The heart of the system is very much electronic, and incorporates several tools all working together.

Commandment #2: Start With Life Goals

The first step in any productivity plan has to be a focus of your time on the things that really matter, rather than spinning your wheels doing small tasks that ultimately don’t serve your larger goals in life. To that end, there is one fantastic goal planning web app Stop Treading Water and Make Progress in Life With the Big Picture I'm sure many of you have thought about whether you're doing the right things every day, whether you're getting anywhere, and whether you're headed in the right direction. To-Do lists and organizational apps will help... Read More that stuck with me ever since I reviewed it in 2013, and that’s The Big Picture.


It works wonderful for me, but it may not be the perfect goal planning app for you. My only advice is, regardless the app you choose, it’s best to choose one that is distinct from your other task planning and to-do list apps. The reason for this is that it keeps all of your bigger life goals separated from the madness of your daily life.


For me, The Big Picture is the place I go when I want to review those really high level goals. It might be a trip. It might be to build a business. Each circle is a goal that you size according to the priority that you give it, so you can visually see what’s most important. Then within these large goals you can break them down into smaller goals. They aren’t tasks that would go on a to-do list. They are high-level goals that once they are all completed, will signify success with the larger life goal.



So, you see you’re working from the top down, and at the very top you need a clean workplace to dream. To come up with powerful goals that are visionary and true to your life. Using a separate app for that gives you clean, chaos free space to do that.

Commandment #3: Use A Separate Tool for Planning

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve tried all kinds of to-do list apps, and out of all of those the one that I finally settled on for this central stage of life/productivity planning is ToDoist. What I love about ToDoist is that it is organized along the left side with your “Projects”. Choose one project from each of your life goals that you’ve defined in your goal planner app, and create a project in ToDoist. Next, you simply break down that project into smaller goals with a clear timeline when you plan to accomplish each.


This helps you to start thinking about the real-world “stuff” that you need to do to accomplish those steps toward your life goals. Make the deadlines realistic here. And don’t overlap deadlines. If you have a lot of work to do on one task in one project, don’t think you’ll be able to get a huge task done in another project during the same time. Alternate deadlines.


Once you have all of your sub-goals broken down into more real-life actionable tasks (which might even be sub-projects all on their own), you’re ready to listing all of the nitty-gritty tasks required to get those sub-projects done.

For example. One of my goals is to own a media company. To do that, I want to write a collection of eBooks, so one of my sub-tasks involves writing an eBook. Well, writing an eBook has it’s own task breakdown, but this isn’t the place for that. You’ll just clutter this workspace.

Commandment#4: Automate and Schedule

The final stage of your to-do workflow is organizing your lists of small tasks that will accomplish the larger projects in ToDoist. To do this breakdown, I started using Google Calendar a few years ago, but more recently resorted to using the good-old paper planner. However, for many people the calendar and task list really does the job as well as anything.

The beauty of something like Google Calendar is that before you start adding in those small tasks that you want to work on to reach your goals, you first need to insert in the “automated” things that you know you have to accomplish every week. For example, I know my tasks as a Managing Editor at MUO involves meeting with fellow Managing Editor Justin for a weekly Monday chat. I also need to get work done on managing the publishing schedule. Then there are MUO articles to write, and other things that are predictable and I can insert into the schedule on a recurring basis.


Once you have those things filled in, you’ll see the days and hours you have left to accomplish all of the “extra” stuff that isn’t part of your regular schedule. Hopefully you do have time left to work toward your life goals, or else you’ve got a problem, and you may need to consider whether those weekly tasks align with your vision for success in your life.

Commandment #5: Keep Your Eyes on Your Dreams

Testing the waters with so many tools and apps over the years, I have learned that it doesn’t really matter which tools you use. You need to pick what makes you feel comfortable and works with how you think. But it is critical that you start at the top, create those big, important life dreams and goals, and then trickle down through each toolset until you’re down to your daily calendar with the small everyday tasks that make up the chaos of this thing we call life.

If you plan this way, then regardless of the complexity of your day, you can at least rest assured that you’re working on the things that really matter in the end, and by following the path you’ve planned out, you’ll accomplish those big life dreams that you’ve envisioned for yourself.

What are your favorite productivity tools? Which is the one you have settled on for your to-do list and your daily calendar? Share some of the productivity lessons you’ve learned with fellow readers in the comments section below.

Related topics: GTD, Planning Tool, To-Do List.

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  1. HeathNo0401
    November 20, 2015 at 12:49 am

    Yes, yes and more yes. In my life I found Wunderlist is supreme for TODAY's task lists for me and my kids, and TODOIST (which I now will NOT pay premium for) is really a pain for that and instead I use it as an excellent project planning tool.

  2. Anonymous
    June 30, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    Thanks for the helpful article. I am always busy and generally feel like I fluctuate between treading water and drowning much of the time, so here's what I've used and here's what I need:

    First of all, I'm a middle school/high school English/Social-Studies teacher (also teach SAT classes and tutor over the summer), writer (beginning blogger, memoirist, and novelist). I'm also a new wife. Depending on what my focus is, I use different systems.

    For teaching middle school, I use whatever grading system the school requires me to use SchoolLoop works well on a Mac or PC but is designed to be student and parent friendly so it's mobile app version works great for students and parents but is just TERRIBLE for teachers with limited functionality that only allows you to read parent and student messages but not actually do any grading and only very limited posting - so you basically get to hear questions and complaints and can't do much about it. I stopped using the mobile app version because it seemed designed to give teachers an anxiety attack. I am DYING for an app that allows me to email, grade, post assignments, and calendar both long term lesson plans and daily agendas and assignments on multiple platforms...if you know of one, I need it BADLY!
    --I've made due with a complex paper system involving a a binder with class rosters, a monthy calendar, and weekly teacher planner set up with space for multiple classes in a M-F view, though this doesn't help organize the neverending to do list that the teacher planner generates, so yeah, have yet to find an effective system for the school year, nevermind actually being able to view y teaching tasks with my other jobs, household needs, and yeah, planning a wedding (married in June). It was a planning nightmare and if someone could have given me a clean, simple easy to use portable app for this past year I would have given them my first born.

    For the past month, on the other hand, I've been using ToDoist because it is portable and simple and I mainly use it on my phone (I have a giant Note4 by Samsung, which is a beast to carry around but it feels like a notepad, functions like a tablet, and feels intuitive to write on) I can just put things in my inbox when they come up and organize them later. This system works relatively well just to get the daily chaos in my brain somewhere manageable so I'm not worrying about it all the time. For long term planning and scheduling, I use Google Calendar with multiple calendars personal, for various jobs, with my husband, and my wedding party for post wedding events. It works relatively well, but I need to figure out how to link it to ToDoist and integrate notes taken on GoogleDocs, which is my go everywhere default place to write anything because it automatically saves, is easily accessible and can be collaborative.

    It's summer and my tasks are a bit more flexible (planning trips, working part-time, running errands, starting my blog, revising my novel... but in high pressure multi-deadline situations (teaching and wedding planning) I don't know how robust it will be.

    In writing, it varies. When I was working on my MFA thesis and first draft of my novel, I tried to use google tasks and found it just became a dumping ground for my brain and didn't help much in terms of getting me to actually accomplish or organize anything.

    Writing a bunch of detailed nested lists and charts on paper and in word and google docs worked a more of a brainstorming exercise. Writing the first draft I really didn't have an effective productivity tool besides puttn on some headphones, drinking a ton of coffee, and setting a timer and just sitting down to write, attacking what was most prevalent in my mind or starting ever writing session with a to do list of sorts. It was a very creative process and if I sat down and got into the zone I could write anywhere from 2-10 hours.

    Completing the thesis and working on the structuring and revision began with a simple typed to do list and completely blockingall other distractions. Not multi-tasking actually helped me stay productive and focusing each writing session on a single goal gave me the momentum to get so much done. I could revise 50-100 pages in one sitting.
    However, that kind of unbroken focused time seems like a luxury I no longer have, especially since I have multiple writing projects now. so when I revise this summer I may try ToDoist, but if you can suggest productivity apps useful for writers, I may just give you my first born. I'm currently working on launching my blog, drafting a memoir, and revising my multi-perspective beast of a novel (I edited 600 pages down to about 200 pages for the thesis but it still needs a major overhaul).

    Additionally, any advice on integrating productivity systems with a partner? I just got married a month ago and besides integrating our finances, integrating our daily lives of shared and individual social plans, work schedules, trip planning, to do lists, errands, and shopping lists is a big concern.

    He swears by Wunderlist but I like ToDoist and think using both will be more work than its worth and recommendations on which is better (I'm willing to switch if Wunderlist is markedly better, but migrating my ToDoist stuff is a pain n the ass, but i'd rather do it now then later after I add more. If ToDoist is better, I will just make him change. I let him choose our bank, he could at least use my app. I also continue to use Google Calendar which automatically syncs to my chrome account and my phone for scheduling and have yet to find anything so easy. We also text each other like10 times a day.

    So in conclusion, Google Calendar is my go to for basic scheduling, paper is getting me by in teaching, ToDoist is my everyday organizer, and nothing beats Google Docs ubiquity for taking down and searching for notes later, but I am open to suggestions for teaching productivity and writing productivity apps as well as the best way to sync my life with my new husband (there is an app for that right? )

  3. Gabriela
    February 27, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    Great recommendations!
    You should also check out UpYourTime ( It's a really awesome time management tool because it has all the features you need. And it's really easy to use and customize and it's also sort of fun to play around with.

  4. Channa
    February 25, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    Thank you, Ryan an d the others in their comments. My work exists in basic of all kind of small tasks and I want to plan them in a schedule. I hope the combination of the app's mentioned: Goggle calendar, Evernote an RTM will help me.

  5. Frank
    February 24, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    Hi Ryan,

    I totally agree with these commandments, specially with the ones related to the big picture, goals and dreams.

    I use FacileThings as a to-do list, which integrates fine with Evernote and Google Calendar and is 100% GTD-ish (having this methodology built-in is important to me). The good thing about FacileThings is that it includes the big picture approach (purpose, vision, goals, areas of focus,...).

    As Sam, my Moleskine is the perfect complement to collect new stuff and sketch out ideas when I'm offline.

  6. Troy
    February 24, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    Thanks for this post as having some guidelines is key. This market has definitely not settled down yet. New useful features seem to get added frequently (e.g. Google Now integration) and then there is consistency across all platforms to be considered.

    As founder of TaskClone, I've had to test all of them to check integration with Evernote. I too have not found the perfect answer. I'm big on integration though, so Google Apps and Evernote Integration is important either directly or through Zapier, IFTTT or TaskClone. Wrote a post about Evernote integration -

    In my testing, I've even gone upmarket to project managers like basecamp and Insightly. Insighly's integration with GApps is worth a look.

    The commandments are a great idea as is being really specific about what you want a task list to do. I see many of my own users struggle between simple vs. powerful. Only a good review of their needs seems to be any help. Most people just seem to know they are not organized enough and haven't given much thought to organization structure (e.g. subtasks, projects, start dates vs. due dates).

    Let's hope we all spend more time on our goals and less time testing systems (unless of course it is part of reaching your goals ;-)

  7. Sam
    February 24, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    Phew! I thought I was the only App junkie. I'm using Google Calendar, Todoist and Evernote. Pen and paper with a simple, lined, Moleskine notebook.
    I used the BigPicture a couple of years ago to mind map some things for work. I just logged in and if you click on "about", it says it is no longer under active development. Not to say that it doesn't work as is...
    Good thoughts you bring up in your article. You are basically reverse engineering career/personal goals. Makes perfect sense!

  8. Saikat B
    February 23, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    I keep coming back to pen and paper, and throw in a few Post-it notes. There's something about writing it all down with your own hand. But I agree, for the really long term goals, an application aided birds-eye view helps. Great article Ryan.

  9. Roger
    February 23, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    Great article. But it's very frustrating that several of you links don't work. The links for the big picture and todoist send you to long in pages. I can't even find the big picture app in the App Store.

    Very frustrating!


    • Aibek E
      February 24, 2014 at 7:36 am

      Hey Roger,

      Just checked both of the links and both took me to the respective sites.

      As for the app store, the Big Picture might be a US only app and not available in your local app store. Are you trying to download it from a US app store?


  10. Charles
    February 23, 2014 at 12:49 am

    Nice article thanks

  11. Peter
    February 22, 2014 at 7:51 pm

    Interesting article Ryan. Over many years I too have tried so many different To Do apps and task managers and had never fully settled on one, until now. At least I think I have!

    I was also looking for an app that would accomplish all the things I wanted to do and organize but had never been able to find one that would do everything well. I had hopes that Springpad would fulfill that wish as it seemed to come closest to achieving that than any other app i had tried. However, they seem to have lost the plot in many ways and do not seem to be listening to well to user feedback.

    So at the moment I have settled on Google Calendar, Evernote and Remember The Milk. RTM was the one app I kept coming back to time and again. There were others I also came back too less often, like Producteev, Toodledo,, Todoist, but RTM always seemed to provide the greatest functionality and flexibility.

    I am one of those people who like to have apps work just the way I want them to or at least give me a great degree of flexibility in setting them up how I want, but so many apps I have tried did not provide that flexibility.

    Whilst I would like RTM's interface to perhaps have more the layout of Todoist, the degree of flexibility RTM provides in being able to slice and dice data and have it sorted in any number of smart lists you want is unmatched. RTM integrates well into Google Calendar and now Evernote as well.

    I still use Springpad for some things but primarily, all the data and information I want to save is stored in Evernote. In my opinion nothing comes close to Evernote in that regard.

    I don't use a separate goal planner as such but RTM can readily be adapted to handle that too. It is not perfect but the flexibility and options it provides far exceeds anything else I have tried.

    I would rate Todoist as second to RTM on the basis that RTM provides more in the free version than Todoist and more flexibility in handling data.

    In addition to the above 3 apps I have started to use the IFTTT web service which helps me automate a lot of functions that I previously had to do manually.

    I guess I rambled on a bit more than I intended here!