Search for the best To Do list app

I was talking with our SEO Director, John Carcutt, about task management and To Do lists for the day. We both agreed that Outlook tasks were overkill to keep open all day, because everything you ever thought would be worthwhile is in there, alongside your VERY DISTRACTING EMAIL. So that doesn’t work for planning your day.

But what does? This started one of my famous quests to find the perfect solution, with “perfect” being defined as “works incredibly well with all my toys and in any environment, for my present needs”.

John and I both are using the tried and true paper notebook placed by the phone. It’s a catch-all for phone messages and drop-in visitor requests, as well as nagging thoughts that keep bothering you. On the 5 1/2″ by 8 1/2″ paper size, there is just enough room for about 10 tasks, with their details. This is perfect for a day of work with no meetings – for days with some meetings scheduled, maybe five items should be on the list.

John and I both are grads of the traditional paper Day-Timers, Day Runners and other types of planners that featured the day or week at a glance for appointments, plus a page or so for that daily To Do list.

The discipline was sound – you moved any uncompleted items to the next day’s To Do list and went from there. It kept the tasks top of mind. But paper got to be a drag (at least for those of us that love gadgets). Most of us at my work now use some form of electronic meeting and task management system. But the gadgets I have complicate my objective:

  • Windows laptop (work)
  • Mac laptop (home)
  • iPad
  • iPhone

I wanted to do a search for a fast-loading, simple, syncable To Do list that was available whenever I might need to consult it or add items. Typing would be better than the hand-written pad to reduce wrist fatigue and facilitate copying items to the next day.

For this exercise, I ruled out any of the more complex task management systems like Outlook tasks. For one thing, it’s not available on Mac OS and iOS devices (though you can sync Outlook tasks to some iOS apps). For another thing, on the Windows laptop, it’s right there next to email, and thus too distracting. I still intend to use the Outlook tasks, but I want a simpler, more limited list that’s in a separate place for daily planning.

I have actually downloaded to iPhone and iPad, and tested on the desktop, all of the apps in the chart below. Wunderlist appears to be the true victor, with features matching most of my wish list. However, I was surprised at how well two other apps did that I didn’t even think of as task managers at the start of this exercise: Trello (collaborative project management) and Carbonfin’s Outliner (simple outline tool with check boxes). All three work great on iOS devices.

List App
Desired Feature: Trello Wunderlist Outliner Remember the Milk Evernote Sticky Notes Reminders for iOS
info synced across windows PC, Mac PC, ipad and iPhone yes yes no yes yes no
apps available for Mac OS, Windows, iPhone and iPad no yes no no yes no
syncing service preferred – Evernote, Google Drive, Dropbox, or Box no no yes yes yes no
info synced almost instantly yes yes yes no no yes
accessible offline – not dependent on connection no yes yes yes no yes
fast to open and add/edit items (iOS) – new window does not have to open no yes yes yes no yes
always visible window opens on startup (Windows and Mac OS) no yes no no no no
drag and drop reordering of items yes yes yes no yes no
some color customization/skinning no yes no no yes no
nesting items (bonus) yes yes yes yes yes no