You’re reading Wonder Tools, a weekly newsletter. I write about tools I find useful on my journey to work a bit more creatively and efficiently. Past posts here. Having two young daughters motivates me to save time to spend with them. I’m Jeremy Caplan, a journalist and director of teaching at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.
Illustration above by Karthik Srinivas (images below: screenshots from Slash, Sorted, Streaks & Apple Reminders)
In years past I switched to-do apps about as often as toothbrushes🦷. I was dazzled by new tricks — Swipes! Auto categorization! Nested folders!🎉
When the shine wore off on these apps I realized I needed neither magic nor complexity. Just a quick way to enter and view tasks.✔ And just two lists.㆓ One for stuff I have to do soon. And another for stuff I might do later.
My current solution? A combination of paper and minimalist apps.
I like putting tasks on paper, bullet-journal style, to avoid online distractions. Bullet journaling is enjoyable in part because of the tangibility of paper and the eye-relief of something non-screen. And experience has taught me that I’m less likely to get sidetracked when working on paper.
Photo by Matt Ragland on Unsplash
But the newest generation of to-do apps offers a simplicity that’s led me to add a couple of new apps to my wfh toolkit.
One I like is called Slash. It’s a simple Mac and Windows app that keeps me focused on one task at a time. After typing in the stuff I need to do, I hit the work button. One by one, my tasks appear in a box on screen, along with a little timer keeping track of how long I’m spending. 👇
When I finish a task, I click a done button. The next task in my queue pops up and a new timer begins. I can pause or skip a task when necessary. At the end of the day, or week, or whenever, I can see which tasks I spent the most time on.
But more than the stats, what I like about Slash is that it keeps me focused on one task at a time by keeping a little box on screen reminding me of what I’m supposed to be focused on. If I’m tempted to divert my focus to some crazy new political development, I’m pulled back by a visual reminder — along with a ticking timer — nudging me silently back to the task at hand.
Slash has a simple companion mobile app that syncs with the desktop one. It can sync tasks with Trello or Todoist. There are a few other bells and whistles, like an Eisenhower Matrix mode I like. It helps me prioritize my tasks at the beginning of the day by asking me task by task if something is important and urgent or some combination of the two. That encourages me to schedule, postpone, delete or delegate a task.
Once I’ve ordered the tasks, I just click go. I prioritize tasks in the morning when my mind is still focused. Then I just instruct my lizard brain — that dumb part of my mind that gets tired and distracted later in the day — to just follow the task list and do whatever task is next. When I don’t have to decide what to do, there’s less room for procrastination or waffling or what to do next. I just follow the task order my morning brain has determined.
One caveat: Slash gives you 50 tasks for free, but then there’s a subscription fee of $3.75/month. For some, that might be a deal-killer, given how many subscriptions we already bear. Another view: anything that improves productivity is worth the price of a cup of coffee/bubble tea, and developers need to sustain their craft somehow.
Sorted is another similar task app I like for those unpredictable days when planning ahead is tricky. Sorted is based on the insight that fitting tasks into a schedule is as important as writing them down. If you assume you can complete 15 complex tasks but have only a few open hours, you may end up frustrated at how much is left undone. That’s a scenario I’m all too familiar with as an overly-optimistic estimator.
To help combat those missteps, Sorted has you estimate task lengths and plot out the time you have that day to create a more manageable task list. If something takes longer than expected, Sorted lets you quickly bump everything down on the schedule so you don’t have to remake your whole schedule. It’s got a one-time $14.99 fee, and you can try it for two weeks free to see if it works for you. There’s a desktop version in the works.
The third to-do app I like is Streaks. It’s not really a tasks app— it’s more of remembering the daily/weekly habits I want to maintain. Like spending at least a few daily minutes stretching, exercising, meditating, journaling, reading, thanking, and reflecting. These little routines help me maintain peace of mind even in a period when I’m worrying more than usual.
The app simply tracks streaks in an elegant interface that encourages me to be consistent. In the past I’ve used a bullet journal to track streaks on paper. But one nice thing about Streaks is that it syncs with the health app, so you don’t have to manually update it. And it can offer reminders at times you designate.
I also like the basic Apple Reminders app, which is simple, easy, free and fast. I like using it with my voice, just telling Siri to remind me to do something and knowing that it’s now on my list.
In my view, the particular to-do app you use matters much less than the way in which you use it. Tasks should be brief, verb-first and broken down into the smallest possible pieces so they’re clear and specific. And the apps that house them should get out of the way, making it as friction-less as possible to add tasks and scan through them.
If you’re a fan of new apps, try one of these out and let me know what you think. If you’re a skeptic, go with the simplest task app you can find, or try a bullet journal if you’re a paper person.
My abandoned to-do lists —strewn across various old tools— are useful reminders to me that whatever task app I’m using may gradually wear out its welcome. When that happens, my good old paper journal is always ready for my return.