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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+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 3, 2012
I used to like Teux Deux, and in the office I use a paper checklist (writing = muscle memory = good processing time). As a recovering to-do list addict, I've recently decided that if I need a to-do list to keep track of things, I'm doing too many things. My ability to remember things seems contingent on my psychological health, which is contingent on my level of busyness. Too lazy and I forget things. Too busy and I forget things. Just right, and I remember. Call me Goldilocks.

This has helped a lot -- I find my capacity for psychological health grows when I'm working on striking that balance more often, instead of overloading or underloading it too often (reactionary, burnout). It's not a perfect system, obviously, so many times I place objects in unavoidable locations as reminders. Actually putting things in my literal way forces me to deal with them; they become real obstacles instead of theoretical ones, which also helps keep a mind-body balance. This also helps me take care of things right away: if I'm going to go to the trouble of writing a sticky-note that tells me to take out the trash in the morning, for example, I might as well just go take out the trash right now tonight.
Dec 3, 2012
Oh, lordee. The censored word was "q u a n t i t i e s." Probably censored because the word contains "t i t" in it. How I HATE that stupid censor program!!!!
Dec 3, 2012
There's a good book out there that I suggest you read: "How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life" by Alan Laekin. It was written way back in 1989, but it's still applicable to today's world. Using the ideas in that book is how I manage my to-do list.

Along the line of your wanting a to-do list that automatically knows what you want to be a priority at any given time or situation, it reminds me of a sales call I once made while representing a manufacturing control software system.

We were talking about a concept called backflushing, where rather than issue materials in certain !$%*!$%*!$ to the line and then have them consumed, you wait until the finished product comes off the end of the line, count how many of them you made, and then deduct the proper quantites of the materials used to make them from your raw materials inventory. Sounds simple, right?

Well, not quite. There's something called scrap. If a raw material item is broken or fails inspection, you have to report it as scrap or your inventory will ultimately run out while the system still says you have some in inventory. So this one guy asked me, "What happens if you don't report scrap?" I replied, "Then your inventory is incorrect." "Well," he went on, "Isn't there a way for the system to know that?"

This is one of those moments when you want to point out to an induhvidual (I miss the DNRC newsletter, by the way) how completely idiotic what they just said is. But in a sales situation that is conterproductive. So I just said, "You know, we're working on that in our development group, and as soon as we develop a system with ESP, we're going to rule the world!" Everyone laughed; even the guy who made the idiotic comment.

Along the same lines, what you're asking for is a to-do list with ESP. If you're able to invent one, you are going to rule the world.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 3, 2012
"Reminders" from Apple.

I've never been in love with a to-do list - until this came out. It's SIMPLE and SMART.

I write "Sunday brunch with family" - and it throws it on Sunday, at 11:00 am.

I can have it remind me to Buy Milk when I'm at the grocery store.

And best of all - it's the same on my phone as it is on my desktop. This is key for me. And has greatly helped me keep my busy life in order.

I have a list for my personal stuff. I have a list for work stuff. I have a list for... whatever.

I use the calendar part to remember birthdays and anniversaries, and I use the other lists to manage just about everything else going on.

The lists are easy to make, and tasks can be dragged up and down in priority - or thrown from place to place.

In short, this is the ultimate 'To-Do' list. I wish someone had come out with it sooner!
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 3, 2012
I have a two-stage todo list. I use my phone's voice memo when I think of tasks and later on I put them into a spreadsheet where I manage prioritizations and what's achievable for each day. At the end of the day, I delete rows in the spreadsheet. I have a few columns that I can filter/sort by. I use Importance and Urgency as the two main drivers and I treat them as per Covey's Seven habits. I use the extra columns at the end for notes.

My list ranges from about 40 to 50 lines and combines work and personal; about 90% are work-related so I am not too bothered by the fact that the spreadsheet is harder to read when I'm away from my desk.

It's not nearly as cool as the ideal system you describe, but it works reasonably well and saves me from dropping things, which is half the battle.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 3, 2012
I've got a regular job so I do the things I like and I do them when I like them.
As for your automatic secretary, I'd do a two stage idea entering process. Does Siri have an api?
What about a two stage process of entering ideas:
1) "Siri, I've got Idea x" With any information you have right then, like "today". This will create an incomplete to do entry.
2) Whenever your phone figures out that you've got a bit of time, it offers those items for complete classification (morning, location based etc.) This takes priority over many of your already classified tasks, except perhaps the location based ones or those whose due time approaches.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 3, 2012
I use ListPro. Not fast as a piece of paper, but good for sorting and archiving.
+20 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 3, 2012
You need a personal assistant. You know, a human.
Dec 3, 2012
I have a surprisingly effective prioritization & memorization system. It keeps me on my toes, always knows what I should be working on next, and doesn't let me slack off for a second.

It would probably also be insulted to be referred to as "it", but I can fix that with flowers and jewelry.
Dec 3, 2012
I drop stuff. Evidence suggests I'm not alone.

Lists are only slightly helpful. The helpful part is making the lists - which helps me remember stuff later. I inevitably lose the list itself - so that is not so useful. I tried Workflowly online to keep track of work projects - but I have to login to check it. Not useful. My outlook calendar is the most reliable way for me to track things -but there is only room to display a couple of items. I used the post it note app for other stuff I need to keep track off. Otherwise, I need visual reminders lying around.

Most of my work is trackable through e-mail - so I can review stuff there.

The only solution I can envision that would make significant difference for me is a smarter calendar. I'd like to be able to explode a view of a single day, easily share tasks/updates with other people (not just at work) and add detailed notes directly to the calendar entry. I'd also like to be able to link files or e-mail chains to the entry -so that everything I need is referenced from that one place.

When the kids were little - and most of my activities revolved around their complicated schedules, I dreamed of a large interactive wall calendar - that functioned like an enterprise calendar application - but worked with parents of my kids friends, coaches, teachers, etc.

I can only reliably track one thing. The calendar won a long time ago.

-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 3, 2012
I don't use any lists, I schedule appointments, especially if the task to be accomplished has particulars (location, time, and/or participants). Or, if the task does not have constraints, I email instructions to myself. Prioritize, perform, repeat or delete. I notice that long term projects sit in my inbox and trigger that itchy feeling to get them done.
Dec 3, 2012
GTD guru, David Allen, has expressed the same issue, which is why they haven't, to date, backed any software. That is, from what I read, going to change as they are partnering to actually develop software that helps make Getting Things Done work better, with the massive influx of information that we all need to shuffle and sort.
It is not available yet, but the people behind it are credible, so one can hope.
Dec 3, 2012
Currently I just keep multiple lists on paper:
- At work there is a project list with a status, and a separate list of personal calls that need to be made during the day, like setting up doctor's appointments
- At home I have one list for shopping, a separate list for standard household chores, and another for bigger fix-it items that require more time or money

To move to an electronic version, I need something that let me set up my own personalized tabs, like work-projects, and enter items by voice command. I agree it should have something to commemorate knocking an item off the list. Maybe drag a little bomb onto the item and watch it blow up.
Dec 3, 2012
My life is relatively uncomplicated.

1. No idea. Usually I put things in my do to list so I can forget about them. Sadly there are things I want to work on too that languish there as well. Oh well, at least it's fair.
2. Chaos management theory. IE I pull out of my butt the next thing on it I'm going to tackle. It's very inefficient but frankly I don't see order working because you'll never optimize the order of things to do consistently. Improving chaos is easier and looks like more of an accomplishment. Plus chaos is flexible. If your house catches on fire, it's really easy to break with your schedule and the to do list so you can call 9-1-1 or get out the hotdogs. Or if I'm not getting traction in one area, I can switch over to something else.

IMO even at its best, a to-do list is more of a WIP or a guideline because life is always willing to muck around with it.
Dec 3, 2012
I don't have a good solution, but I think it's a mistake to complicate and want all the features in one package, just have an app that makes it easy to write down tasks (possible with voice input) and make sure it's accessible from more places (computer, phone, iPad, etc)
Dec 3, 2012
I don't like my life to be too complicated, which is one reason I've made lifestyle choices that have made my life very, very simple. It is rare for me to need a list to remember everything I need to do. So, to answer your questions, my typical to-do list is short to none, so memory has proven an acceptable system for managing it.
Dec 3, 2012
You need a good Siri tied to an expert system that will learn your preferences over time. All I can say is they're working on it.

I keep my to-do list short by promptly forgetting about all the little things that continually crop up. If it's important, I'll think of it again. This is a surprisingly low-stress way to live, because I don't bother to try to remember.
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