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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?

Update:

  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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Dec 28, 2012
Toodledo.com:

1. How important is it? [Check]
2. How long to complete? [Check]
3. Where is it done? [Contexts -- Check]
4. What order do things have to be done? [MISSING]
5. Who else might have the same task? [Shared Todo Lists - Check]
6. Is it done by phone, Skype, email, text, in person, or manually? [Contexts -- Check]
7. What time of day do I prefer doing it? [MISSING]
8. Does it combine with other tasks at the same time? [MISSING]
9. Is it complicated or simple? [Based on #2? Also can do sub-todo lists]
10. Is it work-related or personal? [Contexts -- Check]
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 27, 2012
The features you propose sound very much like how Merlin Mann uses Onmifocus on his titular blog: http://www.43folders.com/about which is implementing the workflow put forth by David Allen in Getting Things Done (http://www.davidco.com/) The idea that tasks have "contexts", such as a task of "need to discuss life insurance" might have a context of "Wife" since she would be required to finish the task, is central to the GTD plan. Similarly, a task of "buy toilet paper" would have a context of "Grocery Store".
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 9, 2012
@BryanK2 and others

Ditto - a good PA is worth their weight in gold.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 5, 2012
Trello -- their concept is the "list of lists." Each item is a "card" (in a list you see only its name) and sometime all you need is the name and what list it's on. It's easy to drag things from list to list, or add glorious detail -- links, checklists, comments, due-date, color-coding. You can also do collaborative stuff where several people share lists, assign responsibility and so on.

It's free and there is no advertising. There are apps for iPhone and Android. It's a huge amount of fun to update your Trello boards on your computer, then next time you check the mobile version, watch it synch.

The team behind Stack Overflow built it. I think it also gets a lot of use as an agile-development tool but for me it's the perfect personal-productivity solution.
 
 
Dec 5, 2012
@RxF

[.... if you stopped gazing at your own navel for five minutes at a time, and rid yourself of the illusion that your daily actions are of any interest...]

Way to preach abstinence in a brothel!

All the proof Scott needs that his daily actions are of SOME interest to us is the fact that you, me and everyone else here comes back for more and even comments on blog posts like this. And don't forget, there are days when our choice is between this kind of blog post and no blog post at all. Given that choice I choose a daily action post.
 
 
Dec 5, 2012
Scott, I just noticed, your dream to-do list app doesn't have a common tasks feature. These would be the things you'd do relatively often enough you need it on a list, but not all the time stuff you don't have to list. For example you could have talk to lawyer as an item and when you click on it, all you need to add is a few quick items at most. Ideally it'd also look at your calendar and your lawyer's and auto schedule an appointment, but that'd be a reach feature.
 
 
Dec 5, 2012
Re: Update
Recent versions of Android have the 'unlock to any app' function built in. Nyah.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 5, 2012
>>This productivity app could also be made into a productivity game... The more tasks done, the more points accrued. People online can compete with their friends or other people with the same app.

Turn it into a game, make it secure, and I would buy a phone and this app for all my employees....
Not just points, but how about for cash. Tie it into a dashboard back-end for stats and you have a billion dollar app.

Was this Scott's secret sellable idea?
 
 
-12 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 5, 2012
Perhaps if you didn't commit yourself to writing 1380 superflous words about what is, after all, a pretty hundrum life, you might free up time to do some of the other tasks you mention, though they also sound pretty hundrum. what is more, if you stopped gazing at your own navel for five minutes at a time, and rid yourself of the illusion that your daily actions are of any interest, you would be in the happy position of being able to get on with your life without obsessing over whether to put the milk in your tea first, or whatever is your current problem.
 
 
Dec 5, 2012
i have a theory that you have recently marked "generate buzz through controversial blog posts" off your list of thing to do and are now working on "engage tech-nerds with thoughtful but pragmatic ideas"
i'm thinking about going through your posts and looking for a pattern using your warning as a marker...
 
 
Dec 4, 2012
This productivity app could also be made into a productivity game... The more tasks done, the more points accrued. People online can compete with their friends or other people with the same app.

And you can deter cheating on the game by requiring a photo of each task done.

 
 
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 4, 2012
The way I see it, you need a personal assistant.

You're certainly wealthy enough to have one and since half the celebrities - and since you're half-celebrity - already have one, two or three personal assistants, why not go down that route? It sure is easier than waiting for someone to develop an app or to develop it yourself.

I mean, think about it! You could be less stressed the day after tomorrow! And the best of all, you could arrange it that way so that your personal assistant pats you on the back and give you random praise much better that an app ever could. If you decide to go with that solution, you should probably hire a male assistant, so that you don't fall in love with "it" (as you sort of did with Siri). ;-)

Going through the comments, at least 3 people mentioned that to you already, so what is your problem with personal assistants? Or humans, for that matter?
 
 
Dec 4, 2012
I have a few sub-lists for things that are all in the same place. So I might have an item on my list marked "groceries" and then all the things I need to get at the grocery store nested below it. Or "pharmacy" or whatever. Sometimes they'll be listed as "downtown" or "phone calls" or "computer." Things that need to be done on specific dates are on my calendar instead of my general to-do list. I find that most of the time, it works fine.
 
 
Dec 4, 2012
@delius1967
Well, I think our point is that if you don't have time to maintain a list, then you probably don't have time to maintain a list with a ton of extra metadata. I mean... the root problem is that he can't keep track of what he needs to do, right?

To a big extent, personal technology is the poor man's work-around for secretaries, and assistants, and other people to do things for you. We dress it up as a status symbol, but technology largely "empowers" us to do the crap we don't really want to do, but can't afford to dump on someone else. And play video games.
 
 
Dec 4, 2012
I think the people suggesting that Scott get a PA are missing the point of his point. It isn't that he is trying to offload work. He WANTS to have a busy and complicated life. It's the first sentence in the post: "I have a complicated life, mostly by choice." Having a PA would probably make him feel nervous and guilty. On the other hand, having an ultimately cool solution to the "to-do list" problem would probably give him warm squigglies in his brain.

I can relate to that -- there are any number of things which aggravate me, not because they are inherently aggravating, but because the solution I have to them is so bad. It's almost insulting that whoever implemented the solution did such a poor job of it. I think, Man, if I did that, I would certainly do it 10 times better.

Which leads me to my suggestion: Scott, why don't you just write the app you are looking for? I don't know offhand what level of technical skill you had or have now, but programming for smartphones isn't difficult. The best part about creating your own app is that you don't have to solve anyone's problems but your own. Almost every app I use has some feature of it that makes me go, "What the...?" That doesn't happen with the ones I create.

Writing your own app gives you total control over the features, the display, the everything, and whether it is building a wall behind your house, or writing the app in your pocket, nothing beats the warm satisfied glow of knowing you did something yourself. (Or, if you don't have the time or skills to do this, hire a college intern to do it for you. Heck, you could probably trade on your quasi-celebrity status and find someone to do it for free, just for the thrill of having THE SCOTT ADAMS owe him a debt of gratitude. Someone you might not even think about at first. Someone, I don't know, maybe right in front of you.)
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 4, 2012

Holy Crap I'm not alone. I need help with my lists.

I've got lists to try to keep track of my lists.

Lists for each facility, lists for prep tasks before a task can be started, lists for materials or information needed before a prep task can be started, One task on one list such as "Put siding on the new garage" entails it's own secondary level of lists... "Double sales next year" involves a web of interrelated lists. Prepare for winter, Write a play for the local high school... it quickly gets out of hand. Renewing a patent requires longer timeframes, critical dates and deadlines too.

Work lists (of which there are several "works"), each client, product line, employee..., volunteer lists, running the property lists, household lists, fun lists, someday lists, building a house lists, dream lists, read this lists, order that lists, long term, short term, do today, do tomorrow, do someday,... if it's not done today, move to tomorrow or dumped....

Some lists/tasks need photos tied in, some data, some contact info, some notes connected with a task.

I love DVR programming. It will remember I want to record Mythbusters when the new season starts, whenever the heck that is. I want my lists to do that.

And as I get older it becomes that much more important to remember all this crap. (I think all the pills elderly people are taking are just an effort to keep their minds functioning, due to all the sorting, counting and remembering to take the blue pill with dinner and the yellow one at bedtime. It's not medicine, it's mental exercise.)

Say, 3 yellow tablet pages or hundred tasks per list, maybe 30 lists, and currently my lists are spread out over emails, spreadsheets, text files, yellow tablets, small scratch paper, large scratch paper, post-its, file folders, printed articles or data, calendars, laptop, desktop, phone, work computer, home computer, google docs, the office server, I'm a mess. I'm in up to my eyeballs, please help me.

Maybe I'll quit my job and move to the country. Darn, that didn't work.

Sorting is a nightmare too. A file put in a folder that makes sense one day, is lost the next day. Does "Get a business valuation for retirement planning" get sorted into retirement, financial, goals, personal, business, today or a long term folder?


Not to mention the secret, ever changing, never ending list my wife keeps for me. Good luck writing an app for that.



 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 4, 2012
I just use the Reminders app that comes built in to the iPhone. It is really pretty basic and useless. But then I haven't got the time to research which app would work better for me, 'cos I'm so busy with all the other tasks on my to-do list...
 
 
Dec 4, 2012
I have found, that besides a scrap of paper.. If I need something done on a certain day, A calander is sometimes all it takes to remind me of an appointment. I try to use my memory for more mundane stuff like, what to buy at the grocery store, what tools I need, etc... the task of remembering such things gives it something to do, to keep itself somewhat sharper. If, something falls by the wayside more than once, and I notice it. I will force myself to rectify my mistake ASAP.

I also do other excersizes for keeping my mental focus fairly sharp. The only thing I would realy like to do, is orginzie my things better so I can find some of my not-so-oft' used things, and to have better track over a few very frequently used things, though I am not loosing those as often as I sometimes have been.

To utilize an old Maxim, the mind is a muscle, and it must be used, to be excersized propperly.
 
 
Dec 4, 2012
I have found, that besides a scrap of paper.. If I need something done on a certain day, A calander is sometimes all it takes to remind me of an appointment. I try to use my memory for more mundane stuff like, what to buy at the grocery store, what tools I need, etc... the task of remembering such things gives it something to do, to keep itself somewhat sharper. If, something falls by the wayside more than once, and I notice it. I will force myself to rectify my mistake ASAP.

I also do other excersizes for keeping my mental focus fairly sharp. The only thing I would realy like to do, is orginzie my things better so I can find some of my not-so-oft' used things, and to have better track over a few very frequently used things, though I am not loosing those as often as I sometimes have been.

To utilize an old Maxim, the mind is a muscle, and it must be used, to be excersized propperly.
 
 
Dec 4, 2012
I'm still with scraps of paper.
 
 
 
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