TODO apps are meant for robots

In my lifetime I’ve tried a dozen todo apps. In the beginning they all seem different, novel and special. Slick UI, shortcuts, tags, subtasks, the list goes on and on.

But all our stories were the same: I start using the new app, then after awhile I stop using it.

Up until the last week I thought the problem was in myself (you probably think so too). After all, David Allen seems to have figured this shit out. Also there are people leaving long 5 star reviews on every major todo list app, they discuss them on forums, recommend them to friends.

But then I read Andy Matuschak’s notes, and it really resonated with me. What if I’m a left-handed person in the world of right-handed tools? All popular todo apps out there have the same problems:

  1. Willpower needed to make decisions is a limited resource. And most TODO apps are lazy and don’t consider the impact on your willpower. You want to postpone a task? Please enter the exact date to postpone this to. Which project to add this to? Tags? Subtasks? The amount of things one can customize is really large, but making all this decisions has a cost.

  2. Long lists are overwhelming. TODO apps are all about lists. And these lists tend to get large when the tasks inflow exceeds the tasks outflow (i.e. every modern knowledge worker’s queue). Looking at the ever-growing list of things that need to get done is not inspiring to say the least. As the lists get longer, there’s less and less chance that anything from it will get done, which also decreases the motivation to look into these lists. Removing stuff without getting it done is also painful, it requires a complex emotional and rational decision to be made (see the point about the willpower above).

  3. Sense of accomplishment is important but rare in the digital world. When you mark a task as done in your TODO app, it just hides it. That’s it, no reward, no sense of accomplishment (unless you make your own). I think that’s why some people like Trello or pen-and-paper TODO list: when you get something done, you can see a card moved or a text crossed out. An artifact that proves there was a task here, and now it’s done. Now you are one step closer to your goal.

  4. We need to trust our systems. GTD works only when you follow the rules. If you let your inbox grow unbound, the whole point about GTD gets lost and you also start losing trust in GTD. Another negative feedback loop. I’ve never seen a TODO app that lets you recover from this downward spiral.

  5. Tasks are not the same. Get milk, write an essay, plan a vacation, reconnect with a friend. These are things of different magnitude, different emotional connection, different context and time commitment. Some tasks aren’t even tasks, e.g. simply items to keep track of or be reminded of. But TODO apps treat them the same. They get the similar looking rows neatly organized in a unified interface.

  6. Sometimes humans need help. A little nudge here and there can make a huge difference. It’s also very personal: different things work for different types of people. I’ve made a list of strategies to help me get things done, and ended up with 13 items (things like “extract the next smallest step as a separate task” or “work on it for just 2 minutes”). Thirteen! Guess how many nudges all my TODO apps have? Zero (except the deadline push notification reminder which just adds anxiety).

  7. Context is important. We are tired in the evening and have less willpower. Getting a small task done first thing in the morning can boost our confidence and energy levels. Work tasks are better be hidden during the weekend. Sophisticated TODO apps have the flexibility to do this, but they require a lot of investment in configuration

I now see all TODO apps as a shallow copy-pasta of the same rigid, inhuman, anxiety-inducing template.

But there’s hope!

In fact the advanced solution technology lies in the hands of productivity enemies: social media apps and games. Instagram, TikTok and Candy Crush have figured all this out. They know how to make you do something with very little willpower. They know how to present information in a way that’s not overwhelming. They give you rewards for doing things. Hints, nudges, suggestions.

I think there’s plenty of room for TODO innovations.

As for me – I’m not registering a domain name for a new pet project. Not yet :)

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I write about programming, software design and side projects Subscribe