We often get carried away with productivity systems and the promising features of to-do list apps. When this happens, task management becomes an excessive activity and an excuse to procrastinate some more.
For long-term task planning and scheduling, you need a robust system of tools to get a bird’s eye view of all your projects. But, on a day-to-day basis, a piece of paper works best as a catch-all for your most important tasks. It brings back your focus where it belongs: to your work.
Apps that insist on a similar basic approach work just as well. In this article, we’ll look at eight such minimalist tools for tracking your daily tasks.
1. Minimalist (Web)
Minimalist lives on the web. You don’t need to sign up for it to create a to-do list, but you can connect the app to your Google account.
Head to getminimalist.com and start creating your main to-do list. You’ll get a dedicated link for it that you can share with someone if you want to.
While Minimalist has no dedicated mobile app, it supports gestures like swiping and dragging on mobile devices.
2. Google Tasks (Web, Desktop, Mobile)
With so many to-do list apps flooding the market, you might have forgotten about the task management feature that sits in your Gmail inbox throughout the day. If you have, it’s time to reconsider it as a worthy candidate for handling your daily to-dos. It even allows you to turn emails into tasks.
To bring up Google Tasks, click on Gmail above the sidebar within your Gmail inbox and select Tasks from the dropdown menu. You’ll see a tiny panel pop up at the bottom right. This is where you can list your tasks for the day and check them off one by one. Minimize the Tasks panel to keep it out of sight and yet easy to access.
Google Tasks is especially handy if your work involves a lot of emailing back and forth and you find yourself glued to your Gmail inbox. You can also display tasks from your Google Calendar by clicking on Tasks under My calendars.
If you’d like to display Tasks in a tab of its own, follow this URL. Chrome users, how about keeping Tasks pinned to Chrome’s toolbar with the official Google Tasks Chrome extension? Android users, you can carry Google Tasks around in your pocket with Tasks.
Instead of using Google Tasks, you could list your to-dos in an email draft and star the draft for quick access. (Pin the draft to the inbox if you’re using Inbox by Gmail.) If you have enabled the Quick Links feature under Settings > Labs in Gmail, you can add a quick link to the to-do draft in the sidebar.
3. MinimaList (iOS)
MinimaList happens to be my favorite in this list. It’s gesture based, which means you can swipe, drag, and tap your way through it.
Creating, editing, and rearranging tasks is straightforward and intuitive. The default list that appears when you install the app lines up instructions on using MinimaList.
What I loved about MinimaList is its integration of a Pomodoro timer, for users who swear by the effectiveness of the Pomodoro technique. The timer setup itself is non-intrusive, which means it won’t bother you if you don’t use the Pomodoro technique to manage your time.
MinimaList is available in the App Store for free. iOS users, keep in mind that your device already has a stock app (Reminders) that’s great for maintaining to-do lists. It works offline as does MinimaList.
4. A Text File (Desktop, Web, Mobile)
A text file is probably the simplest, most basic unit for recording information on your computer, and it’s ideal if you’re craving simplicity in your workflow. You can track everything from ideas to bills in text files, so why not your to-do list?
If you already have a “todo.txt” file on your desktop, you’ll love Todo.txt, which brings the simplicity of plaintext to-do lists to your mobile device. It’s available on Android as well as iOS.
5. Slack (Desktop, Web, Mobile)
If you spend a huge chunk of your workday in Slack, that’s where your to-do list can go as well. Bring in an automated bot to track your task list for you.
At MakeUseOf on Slack we have a to-do list bot named, uh, To-do bot. I can command it to add tasks to my personal to-do list, among other things. Here’s a snapshot of some of the commands I can throw at it.
Integrating the To-do bot app requires admin privileges. After the app’s installation, everyone on the Slack team can make use of the /todo command.
If your team already uses a full-fledged project management app like Kyber.me, you can fall back on the to-do list feature that comes with it.
6. A Spreadsheet (Desktop, Web, Mobile)
A spreadsheet is a no-nonsense way to track any kind of data including your daily tasks. It might look complex at first glance, but it can be as simple as you want it to be. Only two columns will do: one for the name of the task and another for its status.
Even if you add columns for project names, priorities, deadlines, and so on a spreadsheet doesn’t seem as complicated as a dedicated app. That might be because you can see all your data at a glance, without having to jump from screen to screen.
7. Paper and Pen
It’s more satisfying to mark things “done” on paper than on a screen, isn’t it? That’s why I still maintain a paper list for my daily tasks. I don’t check things off this list, because that doesn’t tell me much about my progress on the task. Instead, I use the Circle system, which I will outline below.
You start with a hollow circle next to each task on your list. At the end of the day, you fill in the circle based on the progress you have made on the task. For example, if you have finished a task, darken the circle next to it. If a task stands cancelled, put an “X” mark through the circle next to the task. For a task that you have delegated, darken the corresponding circle and add a right arrow next to it.
Are you interested in learning more about the Circle system? Read this blogpost by the person who came up with the system (Sigurdur Armannsson) for a detailed explanation of it. Feel free to tweak the system and add your own actions/emphases for convenience.
To me, the Circle system feels effortless, unlike the Bullet Journal (BuJo) method. The latter is effective, but also feels like a lot of work. Keep in mind that we’re focusing on daily to-do lists here. For note taking and regular tracking of your work and life, keeping a Bullet Journal is well worth the effort it involves.
I also use the Circle system for tracking bill payments that I can’t automate. It’s easy to forget which bills you have paid and which ones you haven’t when they pop up at random all during the month. With this system, I don’t have that problem anymore.
8. Mobile Versions of Outlining and Note-Taking Apps
Of course you can create your daily to-do list in your usual note-taking app or outliner app.
If you’re working on a handful of different projects, listing their tasks in a single list can get confusing. This is where it helps if you use an outliner or note-taking app to write your list and arrange your tasks into logical sections.
The problem is that it’s easy to get side-tracked by various notes and features from the note-taking app. These act as visual reminders of the hundred and one things you still have to take care of. One way to get past this “attention hijack” is to use the mobile version of the app. Since mobile apps get designed for small screens, they often hide sidebars and other distracting elements by default. This helps keep your to-do list at the forefront of your day.
Is Your To-Do System Set Up to Fail?
If you always find your daily to-do list to be overwhelming and unmanageable, consider that it could be for two main reasons given below.
1. You have unrealistic expectations of what you can do in 24 hours.
It’s very deceptive. Twenty-four hours sounds like a lot of time, and so it feels as though we should be able to fit into the day all the things we think we have to do as well as all the things we want to do. But the fact is if you work eight hours a day and sleep eight hours a night, that leaves only eight hours for everything else.
— Elaine St. James, Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More
2. Your to-do list also functions as a bucket list, grocery list, notebook, idea list, and so on.
If you have a propensity to fall into either or both of these traps, staying aware of it can help you prioritize what goes on your to-do list and keep it both realistic and “finishable”.
Where Is Workflowy?
I have chosen to leave out apps like Workflowy, Todoist, Toodledo, and Remember the Milk from this list. They’re all excellent apps, but for this article I decided to focus on tools that are best suited for creating a basic to-do list. You know, the kind of list that you’re likely to stick on the door of your refrigerator or on the lid of your laptop.
It’s Time to Focus!
If you have a choice between signing up for a new app and making do with one you already use a lot, I’d suggest going with the latter. This will not only save you time, but also prevent a case of fragmented focus, which frequent app switching often causes.
Whenever I’m about to succumb to “fancy/shiny to-do-list app madness”, one quick look at my colleague Dave Parrack’s impressive workflow pulls me back from the brink. It reminds me that self discipline is the best productivity aid there is.
What does your daily to-do list look like? Is it a complex beast full of notes and subnotes or a basic list of your most important tasks for the day? Where do you write it down?