I have a complicated life, mostly by choice. I probably have a hundred items on my mental to-do list if you count all household, personal, and business tasks. There are so many tasks on my list that I literally don't have time to maintain the list itself.

On any given day I might have a dozen items that I need to remember to put on a shopping list, probably twenty minor home repairs that need attention, a dozen phone calls, several tax-related questions for my accountant, several questions for my attorney on the five projects he's working on, and about twenty-five files/piles on my desk that all relate to tasks I need to complete. And none of that counts my everyday tasks of writing blog posts, making comics, and approving licensed products. Nor does it count the holiday crush and the scheduled events I need to prepare for, and on and on.

I'm sure most of you have complicated lives too. So I wonder if anyone has created the ultimate to-do list system.

The biggest problem with a list, especially once it gets to a dozen items or more, is that a list is one-dimensional. Ideally, I want my list sometimes organized by priority, but other times by location. For example, my to-do list app should sense my speed and motion and sort to the top of the list any tasks that involve phone calls, under the theory that I'm probably driving my car and I can make some calls on the way.

Other times I want my to-do list sorted by location. If I'm driving past the store, the items I need from the store should sort to the top of the list automatically. That function already exists in at least one "notes" app I've seen.

At other times I want my list to have the simplest and quickest items on top because I might have a spare five minutes and want to knock off a few items.

Time-of-day matters too. For the first few hours of every day I don't want to focus on anything but creative work. After dinner, I'm more in a frame of mind to handle boring administrative stuff. I want my to-do app to know my personal preferences for managing my energy level.

I also want my app to give me some satisfying feedback for crossing off an item on the list. Crossing off items is strange fun.

At the very top of my wish list for a to-do app is speed. It's not unusual for me to think of five things to add to my list on the walk from the kitchen to the garage, but it would take nearly a minute to get my phone out and enter five items. I rarely pause for a full minute to do anything, so instead I just feel frustrated in the knowledge that I will forget two of the five items on the list.

I also want to attach long notes to any item on my to-do list. And I want my to-do list to tie into my calendar. And I want to share my to-do list with my wife in case our lists overlap or she is going to a store that has something on my list.

You can see the problem here. It would take so long to manage a list with so many features and options that the list itself would become impractical. For every item on my list I need to know. . .

1.      How important is it?
2.      How long to complete?
3.      Where is it done?
4.      What order do things have to be done?
5.      Who else might have the same task?
6.      Is it done by phone, Skype, email, text, in person, or manually?
7.      What time of day do I prefer doing it?
8.      Does it combine with other tasks at the same time?
9.      Is it complicated or simple?
10.  Is it work-related or personal?

I've tried several popular apps. None have risen to the level of a plain scrap of paper. So I'm wondering two things:

1.      How long is your typical to-do list?

2.      What is your system for managing it?


  After reading your comments and thinking about this a bit more, I have developed in my mind the to-do list interface I would like.

For starters, my to-do list has to live on a smartphone so it is always with me, and so it can sync to my other devices through the cloud. To-do lists on smartphones currently have two problems: 1) the time and hassle it takes to write down an item, and 2) sorting items into the right categories. My solution goes like this:

Imagine a Smartphone app that allows you to enter any spoken text string just by holding a button on the phone, similar to Siri, but without that annoying Siri delay. Just hold the button and say, "Paint the fence." The app would record your voice and convert to text without having to otherwise wake up the phone. But just in case that didn't work, it would also store your voice until you have time later to make sure the voice-to-text worked. Eventually the voice file will automatically delete, but only when you have moved your text to its proper list category sometime later, signifying that the text was accurate. (Otherwise you would have edited it before moving it to its category.)  
Now imagine all of your newest to-do items are first in a sort of limbo storage area waiting to be dragged to their proper lists at your leisure sometime later. When you do the dragging to, for example, your "Household Chores" list, that icon expands to have a grid before you release the dragged text. The grid is organized by priority from top to bottom. If you drop your text near the top, it gets tagged as important. If you drag to a box toward the top and the right, it means the item is important but not due immediately. You can edit items to further tweak them and set colors or size to indicate other dimensions later.  

Furthermore, I would like my to-do list to praise my fine work whenever I remove an item by completing it. I'd like the item to blow up in a satisfying spray of bit debris while a message tells me how awesome and productive I am. I would add some randomness to the praise to keep it feeling fresh. I might even want a sound option so I get the pleasing audio feedback that is so addicting in slot machines, for example. At the end of the day, I might even want it to send me an email showing all the items I completed and further praising me.

If it's impractical for phone manufacturers to add a physical button similar to Siri, I could also imagine the app being as accessible as the camera icon on the iPhone 5. The camera icon is now next to the slider bar that unlocks you phone, so you can just slide the camera icon and open to the camera instantly. Instead of the slider bar to unlock the phone, imagine several app icons on the left side of your phone, including the to-do list. You could unlock the phone by sliding any of the apps, thus opening to your chosen app instantly. I'm guessing Apple has that patent.

The main thing you want to avoid with a to-do app is all of the tedious data entry to set reminders, click priority, tag, and whatnot. If you can't do all of that with simple dragging and a few taps, people will stop using the app.

For example, I'd like to tap my to-do entry once to highlight it, then tap icons that tell me if this is a phone call, administrative desk work, or something outside the house, etc. Perhaps I can customize those choices in the settings.

If I tap a map icon, the map expands to let me drop a pin where the item must be completed. That way I can plan my route if I am out and doing errands.

Someone please make this app.

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+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 4, 2012
ever considered having a PA? she could make you coffee too ;-)
Dec 4, 2012
I have written a small program in MS Excel that basically displays all the tasks due on a particular day. I enter a task and due date and it will automatically display the task on that date. It also displays tasks that are due tomorrow, so I can plan my next day. To postpone or follow-up on a task, I simply enter the date it needs to be postponed to or the number of days after which it should show once more.

You can make a important task bold to display it prominently, but that it about all the prioritising it does.

If you enter a task that starts with the word 'phone' and ends in a number, it will automatically save the name and number of the person on another sheet.

Once a task is done, you can enter it in a diary (which is on another sheet) simply by typing 'd' - so you can have a record of all that you have done as well.

What it does not do is give alerts at a specific time etc. You have to open the file to view the list but that is quite convenient if you are mostly sitting in front of a computer and make a shortcut on the desktop.

I find it immensely useful. If anybody desires to have it, I can e-mail it or put it up somewhere on the net to download.
Dec 4, 2012
Personally I do as DilgalLives (#5): separate written lists for various purposes. As far as software/apps, as Scott and others indicate the problem is mainly the interface, getting stuff from your brain to right list with all of the associated tags. The simplest solution (if not the most comfortable) is for the app to be wired directly into the brain, so that it knows what you are thinking (often before you actually think it) and then dispatches its sub-bots to complete all the tasks before you wake up so that you rarely have to leave your bed, lounge chair or hot tub. Although this would offer considerable convenience, life would get boring quickly and you'd just make it even more complicated to fill the void.

And please pardon the plug but enjoyers of this blog might not hate this blogpost, which may be considered vaguely 'in the Scott Adams style', in which it is proposed that citizens be permitted to sell their votes in exchange for debt relief: http://proverbialbejesus.blogspot.tw/2012/12/debt-vote-buyback.html
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 4, 2012
Dec 4, 2012
I use hand-written lists on scrap paper, which gives me satisfaction when I cross stuff off.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 3, 2012
I'm not sure why but I find the idea of having an app trying to remind me to swing past a store or make a call when I'm driving somewhere to be a real turn off.

I usually have a paper list with about 25 things on it at any one time, mostly work related. i don't need a list to remind me to buy milk, if I go to the fridge and find an empty container i go buy more.

Sorting by priorities is the easiest way, whatever is most important gets done, the rest get put off until they become important. To do that I don't use an App, I use my brain.
Dec 3, 2012
I dont find this topic interesting in the least.

What intrigues me is how soon Scott will propose the almighty state starts to develop its own methodology for your errands. micromanagement power explosion!

its fun devising heuristics to efficiently complete your errands! Cant wait for superstate to mandate their own prioritizing in place of your own wishes and whims over your private domain.

like WW2 food rationing, the common suffering of being micromanaged is for the common good. we'll learn to live with it as a personal sacrifice to the unholy rockstars obama-palin-whatever evil phoenix rises from romneys corpse.

Yay for collectivism and dominating private lives with our current best attempts at harnessing knowledge. Current best attempts that use coersion are well intentioned!!! Hurrah!
Dec 3, 2012
I use Google Tasks. It's a sidebar on my email, or a separate tab in my browser. It comes with me on my Android phone in the form of GTasks. I assume there's a voice to app program that would work with it, but I'm fine with keyboards.

I keep about 5 different lists within Tasks:
1) Mobile (stuff that I always want to see, most immediate)
2) Work - job related
3) Home - home repair stuff mostly
4) Software & Books - books to read or software to try out some day
5) Television - we don't have cable or satellite, so I keep track of shows to Netflix or torrent
Dec 3, 2012
I use Google Tasks. It's a sidebar on my email, or a separate tab in my browser. It comes with me on my Android phone in the form of GTasks. I assume there's a voice to app program that would work with it, but I'm fine with keyboards.

I keep about 5 different lists within Tasks:
1) Mobile (stuff that I always want to see, most immediate)
2) Work - job related
3) Home - home repair stuff mostly
4) Software & Books - books to read or software to try out some day
5) Television - we don't have cable or satellite, so I keep track of shows to Netflix or torrent
Dec 3, 2012
Frustrated by the tyranny of the to-do list, I've been experimenting with Personal Kanban.

Instead of focusing on the work I haven't done yet to the detriment of my motivation, it attempts to refocus on the flow of work from "ready" to "complete". The guiding principles are to visualise your work and to limit the amount of work in progress.

A three-column chart with the headings "Backlog", "Work In Progress" and "Done" is about the minimum sufficient. You write your tasks on sticky notes and add them to the backlog. Work In Progress consists of 3-5 boxes - depending on your capacity - to which you add a task from the backlog whenever you have space. When you complete a task you move it across to Done and pull another one from Backlog.

The system is flexible, so you can tailor it to your specific context, adding columns or increasing WIP according to your needs. It's a useful way for teams to collaborate on complex activities while giving some transparency to their workload and process.

I prefer tactile artefacts, so I use paper and pen, but there is an on-line tool called Trello which approximates the system (there may be others).
Dec 3, 2012
hopefully, you've just described the future of Siri--
"Siri, what can I do on my list while I'm driving to Sheboygan?"
Siri knows you are driving, eliminates everything on your list that you can't do by talking in your car, know what kind of stuff you like to do during what time of day, decides on phone calls, checks the average amount of time you talk to the people you have on your list, and says,
"call your mom, dil-hole."
Dec 3, 2012
Of all the methods I've ever tried, the best method ever was the "Franklin Method" using a Franklin Planner. I so miss it. Most of us gave it up because it is paper based and no one wants dead tree bulk in a world of PDA's and smart phones.

The problem is, no app comes close to the effectiveness of the Franklin Planner. When it does, we'll have the next killer app.
Dec 3, 2012
Ack! zomg! You are reading my mind again. I have fantasized about the perfect Todo list application for a long long long time now. I'm currently working on one for Android phones only because none of the available ones will do what I want.

Yes, you should get some sort of applause or crowd cheers with explosions and fireworks if you accomplish a todo list task and check the box. I'm a believer in positive feedback. Also, the time and date you checked the box should go into your calendar. This will enable me to see how long it took me from the time I thought of the original idea to the time it took me to actually complete it. On that note, I want to see if my overall ability to follow through on tasks improves over time if I am watching it in this way. In other words: Charts, histograms, etc showing my progress.

Your ideas about locality are great, I hadn't thought of those. But I want the program to tell me when I'm best at completing things of a certain nature.

Definitely there should be speech to text so you don't have to stop and peck out the words on the little onscreen keyboard.

In addition, I want a sort of Kitten War style interface that lets me rank my todo list items in order of which ones I want to do at some time when I have a few moments. Then I want it to give me the current rankings of items to let me see what it is I truly want to do most. Yes, I can figure that out myself, but I still think it would be a fun feature anyway.

I tend to love an idea most as soon as I have it, and there is a window of enthusiasm there of varying lengths. I can sometimes ride the wave of new-idea motivons and actually do the thing, but it usually occurs to me at a time when actually doing it would be inconvenient. Once the idea is recorded, it sort of becomes old news and interest fades over the course of a day or so. But if I haven't thought about the idea in a while and it occurs to me again, I get a renewed wave of interest in doing it. I guess I'm something of a newness /novelty appreciator.
Dec 3, 2012
Outsource to a personal assistant (based overseas) -- I think that's what the "4-hour Work Week" guy would say.
Dec 3, 2012
So, you don't have enough time to maintain a list, but you have time to do data-entry on all kinds of metadata (location, duration, how interesting, type of task, etc...). Hire a personal assistant. Not only will he/she maintain your list, but can probably do some of that work for you.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 3, 2012
I have the same struggles. I've got piles of lists - some very old - that attest to their limited efficacy. I've tried digital lists; I think it works for groceries, holiday gifts, etc, that are longer-term lists, but they seem terribly inconvenient for daily tasks. I've tried a spreadsheet as rambis described and think this has potential, at least for work, but haven't quite pulled it off effectively. I still like paper.

The most effective thing so far is a form I've created in Excel that I print off, and fill in by hand. I put To Do's in the blank column on the right, then prioritize them and determine how much time to block for each. Then I write them into the left column where I've broken the day into 15-minute increments. It's not great, but the days I do it are much more productive than the days I don't.

I miss my Franklin Planner. Calendar, to-do lists, priorities - all on paper, and all in a binder so they never got lost. I might have to try it again.
Dec 3, 2012
[my to-do list app should sense my speed and motion and sort to the top of the list any tasks that involve phone calls, under the theory that I'm probably driving my car and I can make some calls on the way. ]

More auto wrecks? There's an app for that!
Dec 3, 2012
I'm sorry, the below comment was for a previous blog. I had to reset my screen and forgot to move to the previous page. Plase ignore. Thanks
Dec 3, 2012
A couple of quick comments about the rank and file serviceman/woman. I'm a VietNam era vet, so I enlisted in the USAF to avoid the draft (did not want to be shot at, thank you). The average age in my basic flight (50 airmen) was about 20-21, most had some college, a few had degrees, most wanted to serve and get out. So, we followed orders, even though we were older and more mature and better educated than many of today's enlistees. About following orders - the assumption is and always will be that the orders you are given are lawful. As an E-1,E-2, E-3, you do not question the lawfulness of an order given by an E-4 or higher or any of the O-* ranks. USMJ says any person in your chain of command. 'A Few Good Men' gives a perfect example - the two marines would have been confined (punished) for not following an obviously unlawful order, they were dishonorably discharged for following it. Sure, they could have gone to the brig, endured forced labor for several months, got a marginally effective lawyer and gone up against their superiors who would have had access to better representation, and maybe, just maybe been given served time. No, you follow orders or get sent to detention. Some will follow. That's the way it is. Some because of the above, some because of camraderie. Is a military takeover possible? I supppose, but I doubt it will follow any of the possibilities offered here. We're just too naive about the whole thing, both pro and anti-military alike, if you ask me.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 3, 2012
My list is reasonably long. But in reality, only the first item on the list is important.

1. Buy flowers for my girlfriend when she takes care of all the items on the list that I have forgotten.

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