How do you keep track of everything that you need to do? How to you communicate with your team? Do you even have a system? Are you still using post-its, and email? If so, you might be wasting a lot of time and effort. So, today I want to show you something that I think could be really useful to you, whether you’re an artist keeping track of your commissions or a CEO tracking product development. Today I’m going show you how to use a little app called Todoist.
Why Todoist? Well, other then the functionality (that I’ll explain in detail below), it’s because Todoist is what I use; it’s what I know how to use. Most of what it does can be found in other apps (there are some great ones), but for me Todoist has everything I need and has it put together in a way that makes sense to me.
But Todoist isn’t something that I got right away. I actually paid for the $30/year premium subscription, tried using it for a few days, felt like I made a mistake and then deleted it (choosing to choke on the wasted money.) But in the following weeks I began to see Todoist come up again and again online. People who’s opinions I respect like Steve Dotto, Francesco D’Alessio, and even the folks at The Verge & LifeHacker were giving it the nod of approval. So, I decided to look at it again.
What I discovered then was what I had missed the first time: Todoist is deceptive. It looks simple, but all the features are hidden away until needed. And more importantly, what I perceived as a lack of structure in design was actually a flexibility in that structure. In this way, Todoist is able to adapt to how you want to use it. With that said, what follows below is how to do Todoist.
Why am I writing an instructional post about a todo app? Firstly, because I’ve found myself in the situation of trying to explain it to several people recently and this is just a more thought-out and organized explanation than any demo I could do. Secondly, by understanding how Todoist works, I’ll then a have a base to show you in later posts, how I use use it. Which, ultimately I hope will inspire you to build your own system and to get your business organized like a professional. Maybe you’ll stumble across an idea or a structure that’s useful in another app. Or maybe you’ll like the look of Todoist and start seeing better ways of doing things than how I’ve done them. All are great things, because I can almost guaranteed that in the end you won’t to do anything exactly as I have. Yes, systems are good. They keep you keep from wasting time that could be better spent making millions, meeting attractive people or drinking bourbon. But they only work one way; they only work if you make them your own.
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be using the web version of Todoist as our example.
This is what the app looks like. Well, this is what my app looks like. The first section that you see on the left hand side is what I call the “home" section. The top section of “home" is pretty self-explanatory. Underneath you will find a tabbed section, the first section of which is “Projects.” This is where you start setting up your organization. As you can see I have mine divided in to aspects of my life. You can name each project whatever you like (even with the use of emojis) and pick colors for them. You can then nest projects underneath, which will allow you to cluster appropriate tasks without having to look through one really long list. You can nest projects pretty deep (infinitely I think), but don’t get too complex. You do want to be able to find this stuff and more importantly you want to have a structure that you can remember, otherwise when adding tasks you’ll have to look to see where to put everything.
Also worth noting, briefly, you may see the small grey text at the bottom of this section: “Archived Projects.” This is pretty handy for people who may need to reference completed projects in the future but don’t want them in the way of everything that’s currently active. This is one of those little details that won me over to Todoist. It’s not a feature I use (yet) but it shows a thoughtfulness in the user interface that I believe is rare.
The next tabbed section is “Labels” or as other apps call them “tags.” This section is really all about customization. Your tags are only gonna be things that make sense to you. The main point here is to pick things that will pull together a list that you’d want to reference later. For example I use “On_deck” for any project or task that I’m currently working on. If I ever need a quick reference to see all the things that I’ve begun but have yet to finish, I can look here. I also use “Waiting” for tasks that I’m waiting on another person to complete or waiting for a specific circumstance to occur. This gives me a quick list of what I need to check on. Some people go crazy with labels and create hundreds, but to me that renders your labels kinda useless. The wholepoint here is to save time & keep you on top of things
The final tabbed section is “Filters” and this section is where some real magic happens for me. Much like the labels, this is a way of pulling together lists to really kick your productivity in the guts. Filters is actually a deceptive title. This section is really saved searches. The filters work exactly like the quick search box at the top of the app. What does that mean? Well, lets say you want to see a list of every task that involves emailing—well, all you need to do is create a filter with “email” in the query field. Now, every single task with the word email will appear here. Pretty neat right? Well, there’s more.
See that little “?”, click that and it will take you to a webpage that shows you all the query commands you can use. Want to see a list of all your priority 1 tasks? Put “priority 1” or “p1” in the query. Want to see tasks for the next 4 days, put in “4 days”. You can pull up pretty much everything.
But now comes that part that I was calling magic: combining queries. For example I want to see all my priority 1 (p1) tasks but only the ones related to work (P:work), well I can make my query “p1 & p:work.” Now, that’s useful! But I got even crazier and I really played around with the query commands to get what I wanted. I wanted to see all my priority 1 tasks related to work, but I didn’t want to see the tasks I was waiting on, so I discovered this query “p:work & p1 & -@waiting”. (@Waiting is one of my labels. Labels are used with the @ in front of them.) You can even have the filter pull together separate lists together. (This is where things get really crazy and advanced. Don’t worry about having to learn this. It’s only for crazy people like me.) I wanted a list of all my top priority tasks 1, 2 & 3., but once again I didn’t want to see tasks that I was waiting on. Here’s what I can up with: “P1 & -@waiting, P2 & -@waiting, P3 & -@waiting.” This will bring up exactly what I’m looking for and it even separates the three different queries into separate lists for me.
Now, lets get down to the nitty-gritty: adding tasks. That happens by pressing the plus button at the top of the web app. This will give you the quick add box. Here you can name your task, add a date, select a project, add labels, set a reminder, assign a priority and add notes. Wow, that’s a mouthful.
First lets talk about dates. There’s essential four ways to do this. So, once you learn, go with the way that you prefer. The ways are as follows:
- Type into the “Schedule” field
- Select one of the quick add icons above the calendar that appears when you click into the “Schedule” field (Today, Tomorrow, Next Week, In One Month, or should you change your mind: No Due Date)
- Select the day from the calendar you see
- Type your due date right into the title of your task.
A little note about #1 & #4, Todoist has a really robust natural language parsing. What does that mean? Well, it means if you type in October 31, it knows what you mean. It also means it will understand if you type in Oct 31, tomorrow, tom, today, tod, next friday, every third friday, every friday and tuesday, or even Halloween. Want the words to stay and not be parsed into a date? Then just click the highlighted text and it will go back to being normal text.
Adding a project is pretty easy to understand. You click the box that currently says “inbox" and then you’ll see a list of all your projects and nested sub-projects drop down. You can scroll to the one you want or just start typing it into the box provided.
Adding a label requires a simple click of the little @ symbol at the bottom of the quick add box or typing the @ in the task box. Either way you’ll be given a scrollable list to select a label from or you can just type the whole label out yourself, if that’s faster for you.
The next option is adding reminders. These are different than dues dates as a due date tells you when something is due while a reminder can be set before the due date so that you remember to do the task before it’s actually due. For example maybe you’ve got to remember something important like “Make reservations for February Conference,” well you’re probably gonna set your due date for the date of the conference, but that’s not the first time you want to think about it. You need reminders before (ticklers) to get you thinking about where you want to stay. So you can set a reminder for one week before, two weeks before and one month before…or however works best for you.
You add a reminder by clicking the little alarm clock and typing in the date using the same natural language parsing described above. Then, if you click the little cell phone icon you get several options:
- Push — which will send notifications to your phone or desktop app
- Reminder settings
You’ll also notice on the left hand side of the box, there is a clock icon. Well, if you click on this you’ll see options for Date & Time (which we’ve cover) and location. Location reminders are a neat feature. Need eggs? Set a reminder at your local grocery store. Just start typing in the location search (which uses google) and find the grocery store on the list. Unfortunately this feature doesn’t work as well on the desktop as it does on the phone, but this isn’t really Todoist's fault. My computer doesn’t have GPS so it has not idea where it is. When you search for “safeway” on a GPS enabled device it will bring up the locations closest to you as opposed to whatever just happens to comes up. Over all it’s easiest just to have the exact address and type it in. Then you get a neat little map and the choice to be notified when you’re arriving at said location or when you’re leaving.
You can assign priorities to tasks by selecting a flag color. This is useful for getting really specific with your filters, i.e. Priority one Work tasks. The flags can mean whatever you want but to me the the yellow, orange, red theme insinuates hot, hotter, hottest (ignoring of course that white hot would be the hottest—it’s best to see the white flag as a blank flag.) I associate my flag colors with a modified priority ranking that I learned from an Asian Efficiency post.
- Red = task I must do
- Orange = tasks I should do
- Yellow = tasks I could do soon
- Blank = tasks with no priority
- I don’t use flags to identify tasks that I’ve assigned to others, because in Todoist I can just assign them and see all of that in a filter.
The last feature we have when adding a task is the ability to add notes. This is a recently added feature. (Previously you had to create a task before you could add any note. The ability to do both in one action saves an incredible amount of time.) So for example if your task is “Redesign logo” it would probably be useful to add notes like “Red instead of white. Less rounded.”
Oh, and I almost forgot: if you add times to your tasks as well as dates, then Todoist will organize your day for you (effectively negating much of the need to go to your calendar.) It ranks your tasks chronologically which gives you a daily agenda. And when the time for a task comes due, the time turns red.
Some of the best and most useful features of Todoist are found when modifying a task that already exists. Often times we forget that the most important of our tasks change, adapt and grow over time and it’s useful to have a way to deal with that in the same place that the task lives.
Sometimes, a task needs to be moved to another project, or rescheduled, or it’s priority needs to be changed. This can all be accomplished by left clicking on a task or by clicking the three grey dots that appear when you hover over the far right of the task. This can also be accomplished by holding the command key and clicking the task.
What’s extra useful about command clicking is that it allows you to select multiple tasks and apply the same change to all of them. This comes in handy when you’ve dumped a bunch of ideas in your inbox and want to organize them into your system.
When you hover over the name of the task you will see a grey comment bubble appear next to the task name. This is, hands down, one of my favorite features. This give you the ability to comment on a task. If you’re like me, it’s a great place to track progress for yourself (as each entry is time and date stamped). If your tasks are shared, this is a place for you to communicate with a team member about the task. You won’t need to search through emails and texts to find any pertinent information because it will be attached to the task itself.
You can share files from dropbox, google drive & your computer and they’ll sync across all devices. No more file hunting. To do this, just click the paperclip icon.
You can even share urls & the url feature allows you to format it into a tidy clickable link instead to a messy long web address. Simply copy the url in (make sure you include http://) & follow it by the link title the you want placed between parenthesis, like this:
And you will end up with a neat clickable link like this:
Oh, and this URL trick, it works for note tiles as well!
Another nifty feature of the comment section is the ability to add voice memos. Got some quick comments that you don’t feel like typing out? Click the microphone icon and then click Start Recording when you’re ready. Unfortunately, at this time, the audio recording feature only works in the Chrome web app, on the iPhone, on Windows and on Android due to limitations of the Safari browser. Hopefully that will change, as this is a pretty handy feature.
I bet that’s not a word you were expecting to see in an app tutorial. Well to be honest, Todoist’s Karma feature was something that I found silly when I first started using Todoist, but over time I’ve found that somehow it actually motivates me to get stuff done. What is the Karma feature? Karma is that little number at the top of the app. Karma tracks your progress of using the app and it awards you points for competing tasks on time, using advanced features and meeting your daily goals.
You set your daily goals by clicking the link at the bottom of the Karma menu.
Here you can set your goals. For example if you want to accomplish at least four tasks a day and 20 tasks for the entire week, and you only want to count Mon-Fri, your settings will look like they do above. You can also set the app to vacation mode, so that your Karma doesn’t drop while you’re off relaxing on a tropical beach (yes, you are penalized for being lazy), or you can turn off Karma all-together. Not advised.
Karma is surprisingly useful, particularly if you have color-coded your projects. In the Karma menu you will see a colored chart of your past week's completed tasks. So, at a glance you can see what projects you been focusing on and which you've been ignoring. In mine there’s a lot of purple, orange & red and no blue or green. To me, this means that I’ve been completing a lot of Habits, Personal Tasks & Work but I’ve been ignoring Art & Writing. That gives me an idea of how I’m spending my time and helps me to find a better balance. And if I really need a more granulated view I can click "View All" next to completed tasks and I’ll see a list of every task I’ve ever completed, all ordered by date.
Lastly, if you click on Karma Updates you can learn more about the point system. You can find out how many points it takes to reach each level, see where you are, and see some of the points that you’ve been awarded. At the bottom they even suggest ways to achieve points.
And before we finish this section, let’s go back to my first comment about Karma. I know that this gamification of tasks may seem silly. I certainly thought so. But it is really, really effective — shockingly so. Something about it grabs a hold of you and you find yourself watching that Karma score for changes every day. And this motivates you not only to complete tasks but it motivates you to do something far more important: to actually put tasks into Todoist (because you get points for adding things and of course for completing them). It motivates you to track and organize your business and your life. It’s actually quite incredible.
Ok. We are getting down to the bottom of the barrel here, but it should not be ignored that there are many, many options within the settings that allow you to tweak things to your liking.
This first menu is pretty much a navigation for information & resources, like their blog and keyboard shortcuts (which I always forget about). But in here there’s a pretty simple yet useful feature: Print Current Page. Why? Because sometimes you need a piece of paper folded up in your pocket. Sometimes you need to give a copy to someone who isn’t on Todoist, or even crazier: someone who still uses paper for task management. Gasp.
Ok. Let’s click " Todoist Settings."
As you can see there is a lot hidden in this menu. Our first tab is General. Our options are:
- Premium Status: Do you have Premium? When does it renew? How can you renew it now?
- Theme: change the color of the app, because red is not for everyone. As you can see, I’m enjoying Blueberry right now. Whatever color you choose instantly changes across all your devices. Everything always matches.
- Start page: When you open the app, what do you want to see first? Some people want to see Today. Some want to see the menu. Some want to see a certain label or a certain project. Oh, and this change is also reflected everywhere like the theme color.
- Date Format: well, not everybody is American, they don’t all want to see the date as month/day/year. Some people prefer the more logical order of shorter to longer: day/month/year
- Time Format: some people like military time (maybe the military?)
- Time zone: pretty basic but utterly essential if you plan on getting stuff done at the right time
- Start day: Some people have different schedules. Maybe they have Sundays and Mondays off, so their week starts on Tuesday.
- Next Week: this kind of goes hand in hand with the above setting. When you postpone something by saying “Next Week” what day do you want it to default to?
- iCalendar feed: yup, you can subscribe to your task feed with your calendar app of choice. Some people live in the calendar.
- Inline date parsing: remember that nifty feature of just typing in the due date and Todoist pulling that out and scheduling the task from it? Well, if you hate that for some odd reason, you can turn it off here.
Next is the Account tab (which I’m not going to show you because it has some of my personal information on it). This is pretty basic stuff that anyone who has used the internet for more than a week should get. Change your email address, picture, name & password, sign up for their newsletter, get emails about tips & tricks, connect your account with Google so that you can sign in with your Google credentials or delete your account.
Two others that I skipped over:
- Daily digest email: maybe you don’t live in your calendar. Maybe you live in your email. Well you can ask Todoist every morning to send you a list of all your tasks for that day.
- API token: maybe you’ve got some crazy app that will integrate with Todoist and it requires and API key, well here’s where you would find. (I don’t think I’ve used this yet.)
Next tab: Reminders. What kind of reminders do you want? Push notifications on your phone? SMS? Email? How much warning to you want on a due task? 30 mins? 0 mins?
Notification tab: options for Phone, web or neither for every kind of notification on shared tasks.
Backups is the next tab. Which you’ll never have to really look at until you or your computer screws something up. I’ve got my last 8 backups and that makes me feel pretty darn secure.
Lastly: Authorizations. You should be familiar with this from Facebook (way to familiar with it). What other apps are using or accessing your Todoist?
There are a lot of ways to connect other applications into Todoist from Outlook to IFTTT to Dropbox. When you’re ready to step things up, these are all worth investigating. And while there are far too many for me to cover here, there is one that I want to touch on briefly before we finish and that is the Todoist Chrome extension.
First let me say this, I don’t use Chrome. I prefer Safari. But the Chrome extension works so well with Gmail, that I’ve started using Chrome as an email app. Why? Well, it’s hard to beat the ability to quickly make an email into a task and have it automatically link back to that email (or email thread) even if you move it or archive it.
Here’s how it works. Once you install the extension, it lives up in your browser bar. Tiny and compact.
When you click on the icon you actually have the full Todoist app available right there (which is pretty neat, especially if Chrome is your regular browser already.)
Now, let’s quickly process an email.
As you can see I’ve sent myself an email regarding an important task.
In the email there’s a lot of information that I will need to complete the task. And damn it, I don’t want to re-type all that information. I don’t even want to copy and paste that information somewhere else. Every second is important. So, while viewing the email, I click can the Todoist icon. From there, I can navigate to the project that this task belongs to, or if I’m in a hurry, I can go to the inbox (which we will do now).
Notice that next to the normal “Add task” there is now a “add email as task” option. Pretty amazing. Todoist knows you’re looking at an email. So, we’re gonna click that option.
Todoist will automatically parse out the title of the email as your task name, but you have the option to name it whatever you want. You can now add all the details that you would add to any other task like due date, labels, priority, even quick notes. And when you add that task something cool happens.
See that little grey envelope, that’s a reminder that this task comes from an email. And if you hover over the name of the task you’ll find that it’s a clickable link. Clicking this link will open the corresponding email in the browser whenever you need it. Great, right?
Unfortunately, the way that Google deals will email links messes with this clickability on the iPhone app where clicking the link takes you to your inbox in Safari and not the exact email. But I suspect with Google's very recent choice to pull up results from your iPhone apps in their mobile Google searches, they may soon begin playing nice with Apple’s new deep linking—which in a dream world would not only open that email on your phone but open it in the email app of your choice. Oh, to dream...
Well, those ares the basics of Todoist. I know it’s a lot to absorb (and I’m sure I missed a lot) but that’s why I chose to do this as one really long blog. It’s something that you can refer back to and use as a resource. And if you’re using Todoist on your iPhone, Android or on Windows, the basic mechanics of using the app are pretty universal. There are minor tweaks to help the app to work better on mobile, but for the most part it’s the same app and I’m sure you can figure out how to do it. You’re smart people. You’re business owners and dreamers.
Next time, I’ll break down how I use Todoist myself. We’ll take a look at the system that I use and you can start building your own.