The ultimate to do app

A personal productivity tool that integrates seamlessly with your way of working but gets out of the way when you need to get into the zone remains the Philosopher’s Stone of personal management. We aspire to that optimisation by adopting tools which aim to help us manage our multiple to do’s across our responsibilities. The intention of these tools is good, but do they work? Will using a to do tool help you become more productive? Will a to-do tool integrate into your work process, be ready to identify relevant to do’s but get out of the way to allow you to reach the ultimate zone of productivity … or will it distract you?

I’ve used a few of the to do apps that are available on the Apple platforms, be it MacOS or iOS. I remember starting my to do journey to ultimate productivity with OmniFocus. That application is – without a doubt – the Rolls Royce of Mac and iOS to do apps. It allows you to configure everything, which is great … unless you are me. Asperger with a light touch of ADHD. Because of you give me the ability to tweak, tweak I will. OmniFocus led, in my case, to a reduced output rather than to increased productivity.

I had no other option but to move back to my trusted Bullet Journal. I started writing my notes and my to do’s by hand again. What I love about the Bullet Journal is that I have all my information in one location, including those to do’s. The obvious drawbacks are the lack of search and the fact it remains a physical solution which I might lose. Not willing to compromise on that, I started looking for other options.

I know I was enamoured with Things from the first moment I saw it. There is something pleasing about an app that is both aesthetically pleasing and suggests what you could be doing. And yet, the app sat on top of the apps I was working in. It was yet another inbox in addition to my Inbox and OneNote where I kept my notes. However, for sheer design, Things is the app I would like to use. But my productivity did not increase.

I went back to my trusted Bullet Journal. Again.

I moved to Todoist when I first heard Federico Viticci, of MacStories, talk about it. The gamification which Todoist proposes with karma points and its natural language processing made it an interesting choice. It is cross-platform and my employers have always had a Windows computer preference. The app integrated with Outlook. But as many integrations go, the work to capture to do’s became work, and not part of a process which reduced the friction of capturing to do’s and qualifying them later. Todoist did not add to my productivity, but detracted from it, and had to go.

By now you know where I went next … back to my Bullet Journal. Again. But not for long.

When Office 365 added the Microsoft To Do integration, I was over the moon. This would be the ultimate solution, because everything talked to everything. I took notes in OneNote, and OneNote allowed me to turn notes into to do’s which would show up in Outlook. Microsoft To Do integrated these to do’s, all Planner to do’s (Planner is like Trello, but Microsoft Office 365 specific) and flagged emails. And it has a feature I loved when I was using Things … the app would suggest to do’s for a specific day. Sadly, Microsoft deprecated the ability to flag to do’s in OneNote notes and push them directly to Outlook, which synchronised with Microsoft To Do. And my Microsoft To Do became a graveyard of intentions, in the form of flagged emails or tasks assigned to me by others. I could not gate-keep my to do’s, distinguishing what I wanted to do and what I was asked to do from what I needed to do, because I had no direct control on what would become a to do. Rather than increasing my productivity I was no longer able to focus on what mattered.

But this time, I did not return to my Bullet Journal. BI had discovered Roam Research, a web service that allows me to take notes and make interconnections via back-links. As a tool, it is like OneNote but more free-form, supporting markdown. It allows you to identify the to do’s in your notes. It is a Bullet Journal but in an electronic form, living as a web app in the cloud.

The advantage of working with Roam Research is that my note taking and my to do management happens in one place. There is no tool switching, there is no app living next to another app without possibility to interact. It is one canvas. For me, it is almost perfect.

What is missing is an application on Mac, iOS and Windows which would allow me to interact with Roam everywhere and every-when I want. Currently, I depend on a good connection to the Internet to be able to use Roam. Yes, there is the possibility to work with local graphs (Roam databases) but that represents an additional complication I am not looking for.

Now, this is not an article to say how wonderful Roam Research is. My point was recently raised by Merlin Mann when interviewed in a podcast called Automators hosted by David Sparks and Rosemarie Orchard. Merlin Mann stated, and I am paraphrasing, that productivity tools represents a significant risk of diminishing productivity rather than increasing it because they pull you in to tinker. I identified immediately. Instead, a tool should focus you on doing the work and not get in your way. This is always the case with the Bullet Journal, although it remains a manual tool. For Merlin Mann, Taskpaper 3 is that tool that is just enough not to get in the way. Roam Research gives me the same flexibility while adding the advantages that it is searchable and in the cloud. I am waiting for an app that will allow me even more flexibility without being required to leave the app.

In the end, your solution needs to work for you, and should allow you to focus, rather than detract you into tinkering. If that is a paper solution, why not. It worked for me for a long time. If that is Taskpaper 3, go and be productive. If that is an integrated solution and you can stay focused, such as Office 365, knock yourself out. For me, what works is Roam Research. There are comparable tools out there, like Craft for Mac and iOS, or Obsidian, or Zettlr. You can check out what you want and stay with what works.

But the most important lesson is this … look for the simplest tool possible that provides you with what you need. Limit the tool switching if possible. And focus on what matters to you. Good luck.