March 29, 2016

To-do Apps - Still on the hunt for a good one…

Hundreds of apps run the gamut from beautiful list-makers to an electronic nag that literally curses at you until you get your shit done. It’s remarkably fulfilling to spend so much time organising and planning instead of actually getting stuff done.

The startup iDoneThis once found that 41 percent of the tasks that users placed in its system were never completed. Maybe they should’ve called it iAin’tDoingThis, because it’s axiomatic that the longer your list, the less you accomplish.

Making and keeping a to-do list is almost as hard as completing the tasks on it. What’s most frustrating is it feels like we should have solved that by now. As work becomes increasingly gig-based, distributed, and complex, people increasingly need time- and task-management tools. For those people, there’s Wunderlist and Todoist and and Asana and Toodledo and Omnifocus and Things and Trello and Clear and Checkvist and Due and TeuxDeux—and those are just the apps on our phones. Tens of millions of people use them, and they’ve attracted hundreds of millions in funding. 

The first thing a to-do list needs is to-dos. If your list is incomplete or, worse, outdated, you simply aren’t going to do check it. This makes it imperative that developers make it really, really easy to create lists and add things to it. But technology isn’t especially good at this. If you have to turn on your phone, click here, click that little icon, go to there… Come on! Input and output is too hard. That’s one reason pen and paper remain so popular. Jotting things down is faster, easier, and better for cognition. A to-do list must be fast and flexible enough to keep up with your thoughts.

Remember the Milk cracked this in part about a decade ago. The app featured a concept called “Smart Add” that let you, say, type “Pay rent on last day of month” and have it land on the right list, the right date, whatever. Equally important, you could add tasks from anywhere: tweet them, email them, Skype them, even IM them. The app integrated into Gmail before doing so was cool and with Siri before Apple deigned to let it. It was everywhere you needed it, when you needed it, and faster than writing things down because you could pretty much use whatever box you happened to be typing into.

Such ubiquity is common now. And Siri and Cortana and Android Widgets are closing the gap even further. Until someone creates a telepathic smartphone interface, the problem of immediacy is pretty much solved. It’s still not enough to ditch the pen and pad once and for all.

Other apps use push notifications as the default hey-remember-me gesture for keeping you on task. These reminders will grow more powerful as your devices learn more about you. An app can use the time and your location to remind you of tasks not just at the right time, but in the right place. Wearables have access to vital signs and other data that could optimise your productivity. All of these things mean the to-do list is giving way to the task cloud that follows you everywhere, jolting you with a lightning bolt when you need to do something.

Google’s already well down this road with its productivity tools, which by design do not include a dedicated to-do list app. Instead, Google brings tasks to you. “Rather than building a standalone task-management place, we should give you light interactions in the places you already visit,” says Jacob Bank, who joined Google after the company bought his task-management app Timeful. In Google’s world, your tasks live in and interact with your email, your calendar, your phone.

Google is still honing that. But Bank’s real goal is to make that list for you. That, by the way, might explain why he went to Google: Millions of people email in Gmail, work in Drive, chat in Hangouts, take notes in Keep. Bank thinks Google can get smarter about mining that data to figure out what you actually need to do with it. It’s already doing this to some extent with Inbox, sorting your email by priority rather than time. “The 10-year vision,” Bank says, “is GPS for your life.” You give it the basics: I want to exercise more. I have a big project. I’m renovating the kitchen. “And it tells you the turn by turn.” Timeful’s big innovation was to automatically program your calendar, filling empty time with productive suggestions. With Google’s data in hand, he could go even further.