How I use Todoist

I love Todoist, even though I have plans to create my own task list eventually.

One of the mixed blessings of Todoist is that it is extremely flexible. This is great because it can conform to your specific needs. It's not so great because sometimes you don't know what your specific needs really are, and a little guidance would be more helpful.

Well, I think I've finally come to terms with what works best for me, so I'll share it for posterity.


Before I start, though, I need to explain that I'm also an avid believer in the principles and guidance given by David Allen in his two books, Getting Things Done and Making It All Work. David recommends that you learn to distinguish between projects and actions. Projects are defined as anything that needs more than one action performed in order to be complete. You'll have many individual actions you'll want to do which aren't projects, and you'll have many projects that you've been thinking of as actions. The skill is to separate them, and then just do the actions. David explains exactly how to do this in ways that I'm not going to summarize here.

{Projects} and [Roles]

I have a simple way to distinguish between projects and actions. It's true that Todoist has great support for indentation to indicate that a task has been broken down into subtasks. I suppose I could have just decided that any task that had no child tasks was automatically a "next action," while any task with child tasks was automatically a "project." The problem I have with this approach is that I sometimes can't tell when I have a project that I merely haven't thought about enough to decide what the next action will be, versus when I have just a next action. And I really don't want to have to scrutinize every item every time I'm merely scanning the lists for actions I could knock out.

I chose to be a little more explicit. Each project is enclosed with curly braces. "{File 2011 taxes}" is a project because it's not an actual action I can take. To do it, I need to complete the next actions "Collect my tax documents," and "Select an online tax filing service," and so on. Those next actions have no curly braces, so when I scan my lists for next actions, I know immediately that these are things I could just physically do.

I used to use square brackets to denote roles and responsibilities. I find it useful to organize by roles and responsibilities because I get overwhelmed when I try to think about everything from just one point of view. Considering my plans from a particular point of view helps me keep priorities straight; the [Dad] role is a lot more important than the [Good Neighbor] role I have. I don't use square brackets on Todoist now, because I've organized everything in a way that makes the square brackets a little redundant.

There are two main parts of Todoist. There's a project list on the left. Each project can contain subprojects, up to a limit (about four deep, I think). There's a task list on the right. Tasks can contain subtasks, and I don't know what the limit is, but its deeper than four.

In my project list, I have these projects:

  • IN
  • Shopping
    • Short term
    • Medium term
    • Long term
  • Daily
  • *This week
    • Self-improvement
    • Household
    • Finances
    • Family/Friends
    • Community
    • Fun
    • Expression
    • Technical skills
    • Networking
  • *Someday
  • Work
    • [Someday]
    • {Subproject 1}
    • {Subproject 2}
  • *Completed Work

The This week, Someday, and Completed Work projects are container projects only, meaning that I can't assign tasks to those projects directly at the top level, but only to subprojects below it. You can enforce this with Todoist by prefacing the name of the project with an asterisk (*).

IN, Shopping, and Daily

My IN folder is just for holding commitment-related notes temporarily until I can review it later and put it where it should go. It's helpful when I'm on the phone or in a hurry. I make a point of emptying it before I do anything else on or with my lists. Sometimes, I have already done the thing I put into this folder before I start reviewing my lists.

My Shopping folder is just what it sounds like. The top level folder holds items that I need to buy right away, like milk or printer cartridges. Short term means I want to buy it in the next month or two, Medium term means the next four to six months, and Long term means anything longer than that.

My Daily folder is very short and small. When I am building a new habit, or have a new responsibility that I must do every day, it goes in this folder. These are never projects; they're just actions that must be done every day.

This week and Someday

The This week folder, as I said, can't have any tasks (actions) assigned directly to it. Instead, I have subfolders named with responsibilities and/or roles. This is not what David suggests, but I find that it helps me in my weekly review to have projects or actions that are related by my roles and responsibilities. Otherwise, I tend to duplicate things, or have a hard time finding them when I need to mark an action completed or add a new action.

The list of items under the This week folder that you see here is not my actual list. My actual list is based on principles I have adopted in my life after taking classes from Landmark Education. I have five domains which express what I'm up to in my life. They're color coded. Within each domain I have some roles and characteristics I want to maintain. It's not a good place to start from if you haven't been doing this for a while, which is why I shortened the list to something a little more manageable. You should adjust this list to whatever suits you, but I would recommend that you begin with a list that has at least five and not more than nine items.

The Someday folder is structured identically to the This week folder, only I didn't show it above. It has exactly the same set of subprojects in it, named exactly the same.

I try to make sure that I keep the projects and actions in the This week folder limited to just those things that I reasonably think I could do this week. Each week, I'll look for projects that I could move back or forth between This week and Someday. I don't have a This month or This year folder, because I always look at the Someday folder every week, and it's more helpful to review each project or action to determine whether I'm still committed to it, and by when, than to put them into special buckets based on an arbitrary deadline.

I do not put any more subprojects inside the subfolders of the This week or Someday folders. What I've shown is as deep as the hierarchy gets. All projects and actions are kept in the task list (the right side) that is associated with each folder (role or responsibility) on the left. I enforce this by using an asterisk in front of the names of these folders.

Todoist allows you to associate dates with tasks (which sometimes mean projects for me, as I explained earlier). Why don't I just combine them, and use the dates to separate the tasks for this from the someday tasks? Because I get distracted easily, is why. It's just a little harder to move a task on the right into a new project than it is to give it a new date. If everything—things that need doing now and things that could wait a few weeks—was all in one place, I'd be reprioritizing and rescheduling too frequently. I'd rather not see the tasks that can wait until later until I am in the right mindset, during my weekly review.

Work and Completed

Then I have the next two folders that contradict David's recommendations, but just by a little. David recommends using contextual folder to separate lists of actions. You might use an "At home" context, or "At work", "On the phone", "Errands", and so on. I find that when I'm at work, I really need to stay focused on work. Reviewing my "On the phone" list and finding "Call my friend Gale and ask how she's doing after her trip" will probably distract me from getting my work done, even if I could call her from work. I guess I could put that in my "At home" context, but I think I have a better way. Before I get to that, though, I'll explain the Work and Completed Work folders.

The Work folder is just what it sounds like. The top level folder holds immediate next actions I need to do. Underneath this folder is a [Someday] folder, which works about the same as the Someday folder I described earlier. Also under the Work folder are subproject folders. I know they are subproject folders because I use curly braces around the project name.

A very large number of the things I do at work qualify for David's description of project. The specific area of focus or role or responsibility that I'm engaged in at work varies significantly from year to year, and sometimes from month to month. I've found that any time I've delineated my roles and responsibilities at work, within a few months that organization is no longer practical, in that I have many tasks assigned to me that seem unrelated to those roles and responsibilities.

I don't really need to judge whether I'm doing the job that my original job description suggested I'd be doing. So, I just track the projects. I try to avoid going more than one level deep in subprojects; I'm much more likely to create a subproject called "{Deliver New Widget System}" and another called "{Publish design plans for new widget system}" next to it, not inside it, even though creating the design plans are part of delivering the whole system. But, I will sometimes do that (put it inside the parent project) for very large projects that will last for several months or more.

For the top level Work folder, I avoid putting any kind of project into the task list on the right. Instead, I put just next actions, and I try to limit those actions to things that I will do today or, at worst, tomorrow (if I'm out of time today). Any other next actions that need doing later than today or tomorrow will get put into the [Someday] folder.

So, the Work folder usually has quite a few subprojects. Once I've completed a subproject (a subfolder under the Work folder), I move it to the Work Completed folder so that I can remember what I did when completing my employee performance evaluation.

Contexts and Labels

Earlier, I mentioned that David recommends using contexts to group next actions. "Meeting with Mike" could be a context, as could "Email" or "Web", and so on. The idea is that when you are in a specific place, have a specific mindset, or have access to something specific, you can quickly select an appropriate next action for that context. The way I do this is by using the @ label feature of Todoist. I have a labels for @home, @phone, @blog, @online, @out, and, at work, @meeting-(name or purpose) for meetings, and @(application) for the particular tool I'll need to complete an action, if it's a tool I use only occasionally. Coming up with labels is just a matter of practice until you find what works.

The goal is to find the names for contexts that you will remember to associate with actions and then check when you are actually in that context. The name of the context should be tied in some way to one or more of these factors: a physical location, a mindset (buying, reading, meeting, waiting in line, flying, etc.), or having access to a necessary tool (phone, email, computer, special purpose application, etc.).

The context should be distinctive. A context like "being alert" is not that helpful, because that's probably the mindset you will try to always have, but a context like "brain dead" might be helpful if you have a number of things to do that don't require concentration and focus.

It's important to note that Todoist limits functionality with labels, so that more features are enabled for premium (paying) users. Specifically, searching for key words as well as labels is a premium feature; you can't get around it by filtering tasks on something like $context or #context. I find the cost of Todoist's service to be absolutely worth it, so I am happy to be a premium customer.

What else

I haven't really talked about colors, but I do use them. My IN and Shopping folders are all gray because they are not that interesting to me. Similarly, the Work Completed folder is gray. My Daily folder is gold because it addresses my interest in self-improvement, and that's the color I chose for that domain. Inside the This week folder, I have five colors, each representing a domain. This isn't really an organizational tool as much as it just helps me preserve some balance and perspective. The colors show up when I do a context filter view, or view tasks for "today, overdue, and the next 7 days" to help me make sure I'm not spending all my time just on one area of my life, or neglecting an area that I need to spend more time in.

As I said earlier, I'm writing this largely for posterity. That is, I want to be able to come back and remember why I set things up the way I did, and decide whether I can improve on it. If you find this helpful, that's great, and I'm glad. If it's not helpful, then I still recommend that you try reading David's books, play around with Todoist a little, and invent your own way to be effective and successful. I doubt that there's exactly one way that is right for everybody, and there may not even be one way that's right for most people. The main thing is to keeping growing, keep learning, keep making mistakes, and share what you've discovered.

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