Gina and Adam P. told me when I first started at Lifehacker that their to-do lists were simple text files. "Crazy Amish reactionaries," I thought. Now I'm on Team Plain Text, and I won't go back. Here's why you might join, too.
When managing work, or just keeping track of the stuff I need to buy on the way home, I'm a victim of Productivity Pseudo-Perfectionism (P3). I found my match in our founding editor's new Todo.txt system, which you might call Advanced Plain Text. Let me explain.
Why Not Remember the Milk, or the 300 Other Systems You've Written About?
For a long while, I thought Remember the Milk was the perfect system. It was available in a browser and on smartphones. It had offline powers, multiple lists, saved searches, shared tasks — just a tweak-and-fiddle-type's dream. With such a powerful, agile, easily accessed task manager, how could I fail?
But when your task list is an app, it looks a lot like other apps. The apps you use to check in and tell your friends about great pizza. The apps in which you throw specialised birds at well-fortified pigs. So your task app starts to blend in among the other apps on your phone, your laptop's taskbar, and in the maze of tabs you keep open every day. And then, when your to-do app is open and you're facing it, there's that nagging feeling that it could somehow be better, tidier, more adaptive. So just click on Settings, and then ...
But what about notifications? Remember the Milk and other apps don't even have to be open, right? They can ping you at pre-set times ahead of when your tasks are due, yeah? Correct. Of course, setting up those notifications, and taking the time to figure out just how many minutes you might need ahead of that thing versus this thing is another way to get lost. What's more, you quickly get used to, and bored with, seeing a cow, a checkbox, or any other icon on your phone. It's the Important Task that Cried Wolf, and it takes effect in surprisingly short order.
Plain text, it seemed, was perfect for me and my to-do list. If I ignore it, or spend too much time arranging it, I've got only myself to blame. At first, I thought Simplenote was, as it was for Adam, a Holy Grail of Ubiquitous Capture. But I don't have any Apple device, it was a big lag-y on Android, and I'm not a huge fan of the web interface. And, as noted, Simplenote could become just another tab among many.
So, Fine — Why Todo.txt, then?
Todo.txt started as a spare-time project for our founding editor, Gina Trapani. It had, of course, existed before, and many alpha geeks love their simple text files. So, first off, Gina simply showed us the how and why of .txt-based organisation, then a helpful reader threw together a script-based manager. Like-minded .txt-lovers took up the project, and today the result is a command-line interface and Android app, all tied to a single text file that's easily backed up and always available.
Here's why I dig Todo.txt, and why you might, too:
Create a text file named todo.txt. Save it somewhere safe — in your backed-up Dropbox folder, inside a folder named "todo", is best. If you're using Todo.txt's Android app, it creates this file for you. You're done.
Now, to actually use it. Gina suggests using context tags and project names, but you don't have to if you like your list really simple. Or you can use tools like Quicksilver's text append and Unix text commands to sort, search and add to your text file.
If you're into command lines (and you're reading Lifehacker, so that's not a terrible bet), you might dig the command line interface that Todo.txt offers, shown here in a video demonstration by Gina:
It's Always There
Everywhere you have the web, mobile web or just a computer, actually, but that's most places these days. When you're on your Android phone, the Todo.txt Touch app reads your list and lets you manipulate it with one or two fingers. If you're an iPhone/iPad devotee, apps like Droptext, PlainText and Nebulous Notes can edit and save your file through Dropbox.
When you're at any computer where you've got Dropbox installed, you can manipulate the raw text file with your favourite text editing app. More than that, though, you can pin it to your Windows taskbar, or Mac OS X or Linux dock, so it's always just one click (or keyboard shortcut) away. For the Windows 7 pinning trick, you could use the Taskbar Items Pinner app, a Task Scheduler trick we demonstrated in video, or a simple shortcut hack. On a Mac, simply drag your Todo.txt file onto the right side of your Dock, next to your folder shortcuts, or get used to opening it with the Cmd+Space Spotlight search.
Quickness is Everything When I would use Remember the Milk's app, or a Simplenote client for Android, I'd find that waiting for the app to load, waiting for a quick sync or connection check, and tapping to get to the list I needed was just enough time for me to think of something else —"I wonder if anyone's replied to that tweet I just sent"—and lose my momentum right quick. Todo.txt snaps up instantly on Android, fairly quick on iOS/Dropbox apps, and, well, how much time does it take to open a text file on your system?
Dropbox and Backups
When you start using Dropbox, it's only a matter of time before it ingratiates itself into your digital life. It's saving the files you want constantly, and it's available on every computer or smartphone you could have, along with the web in general. I describe Dropbox as the house religion of Lifehacker — it's a common belief among everyone who works here.
Even better, Dropbox keeps a bunch of versions of your files, and can restore older copies — seemingly much older, when it comes to a tiny text file like your todo.txt. So if you wipe out your todos and hit Save accidentally, you're covered.
Beyond backing up the whole file, Gina's todo.txt system can be used as its own kind of backup. Setting a task as "Completed" doesn't wipe it from the file — doing that is up to you. Gina likes how she can look through and search everything she's done in the past. Me, I like a small, clean file with only the things I still have to do.
Disclaimers and Final Thoughts
Remember the Milk and other value-added task systems turn out not to work so hot for me, because I love to tweak settings and pretend that's actual work. You, however, are not like me, and you might just find that Toodledo, Things, OmniFocus, or any of the many task management programs we've covered work great for your needs.
And while Todo.txt's creator, Gina Trapani, is both the founding editor of Lifehacker and a friend of mine, that's just the reason I was exposed to plain text task management, not the reason I've come around to using it. The real reason is overdue payments, dinners ruined by forgetting that one crucial ingredient at the store, and important emails that sat without reply for far too long in my inbox.
Do you do the plain text thing for your tasks? Does your to-do list require a more robust tool? Tell us your take on tasks in the comments.