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, an enhanced Google Calendar, a WeDoist review, which is sort of a group version of the ToDoist to-do list manager. Then of course there’s the GQueues review – one of my latest favorites.
I’ve tried ToDoist, I’ve tried Wunderlist to-do manager, 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 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.