Why Traditional To Do Apps Fail

Posted 01/07/15 by James and filed under:

Most list manager apps work pretty much the same. Badly. At least for everyday productivity.  You create a long list of to do task you need to do and then when you are ready to do them, you are shown the entire list of items to choose from.  It’s too many tasks to really comprehend.  The confused mind usually opts to do nothing.  They are fine as special purpose lists, but not great for using as your every day productivity tool.

Sure, you can filter the list by arbitrary things such as priority or due date, but many times those are false dates, not real deadlines and as such don’t really compel you do complete the task on that date.

Filtering your list by priority is also a problem, as priorities can and should change based on circumstances that change rapidly throughout the day.  So you at 4:30 pm in the afternoon when you look at your task list and see priority 1 is to write a report for your boss and you only have 30 minutes left in the day, you tend to beat yourself up and maybe shut down your task list all together.  Just because the priority 1 task wasn’t what you had the time or energy left to do right then!

This in my mind is why people tend to fail when using a traditional to do list application.

So What Does Work?

Based on GTD principles, the way GTDNext handles tasks is a little different from most list managers and to do apps.  The difference is small but incredibly powerful and important. 

Here is how it works.  When you create a task list in GTDNext you are encouraged to break down large tasks into each physical step.  These collections of steps are called a project.  In GTD any task that has more than one step is called a project.  So instead of writing down the task of “Build Fence” you turn that into a project and break it  down into the logical steps or tasks it takes to build a fence.  “Build a Fence” is really the outcome you are looking for.  You can’t “Build a Fence” as a single task, so you break it down into steps.  Zenhabits has a good blog post on the concept of Next Action  and why it is so important, if you want to read further on the topic.

To properly break down a task like build a fence could take 10 or 20 tasks.  It’s impossible to do all 20 tasks at once. You can really only do one task at a time.  So when it comes time to actually do your work you don’t really want to see all twenty fence building task.  You only want to see the one or maybe two tasks that you can do right now.  That’s the power of GTD and GTDNext.  We only show you the next task you can do right now.  Once you complete that task, we automatically promote the next task on your task list to be a “next action” and add it to the next action list.

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As you increase your projects from one, to ten, twenty or thirty or more the power of handling next actions in this manner becomes more and more obvious.  Instead of having 300 or more actions on your list you only have one action per project.  This drastically reduces the scanning your eyes and brain need to do when choosing a task and is what makes GTD such a powerful concept.  Very few online task managers handle tasks this way.  This is what normally causes a traditionally to do list to fail.  Visual overload.   GTDNext is one of the few, and one of the only online task manager applications that handles next actions for you automatically.

  • Folke

    I agree with all the important things you are pointing out, except that I think your solution (a good solution!) largely solves a different problem than the one you initially describe.

    I agree that long next actions lists (and other lists) can be daunting and confusing. I agree that artificial due dates and start dates are no good. I agree that situational priorities (i.e to have determined in advance what will be your best choice right now) are impossible and meaningless to try to predict or hard-code. And I agree that typical real-life projects have a beginning an an end, and that usually only a few actions are possible at any given stage.

    So, I think it is brilliant of GTDNext to have attempted to address task dependency in projects and give users a way to hide subsequent yet-impossible actions from the current GTD lists (Next, Waiting etc). This could to some extent reduce the original “overwhelm” problem described, but mainly for those users who like to think far ahead and who can find no other workaround for hiding the future, yet-impossible tasks. But it is a very good and useful feature. It allows users to think ahead while having the convenient out-of-the-box means to hide these future tasks.

    But the next actions lists can still be long and daunting and confusing, because we typically have many projects, with at least one or a few current actions in each. What means will you offer to reduce that overwhelm? As you say, most apps fail.

    I think there are a few simple additional features you could consider. One is to allow hard-coding of the GENERAL (not the situational) “priority” (importance/urgency/attention). For example, if your little baby is vomiting, your SITUATIONAL priority will probably be to deal with that, and this could not have been predicted and hard-coded, but if you have an important customer whom you have proposed to send a proposal, and you still have not done so and it is getting critical, then this “priority” is not particularly fickle and could easily be hard-coded. Showing such “priorities” in color is very ueful 8some apps have it) and they usually remain perfectly true even if you need to prioritize your baby’s vomiting.

    Another feature that no todo apps have as far as I know (but I think Workflowy does) is elimination filtering (NOT filtering). This would be a very safe and convenient way to prune your next actions list of everything that is temporarily impossible, for example exclude errands if it is raining and tasks requiring John’s assistance if John is sick etc etc. Elimination filtering will also reduce the total amount of tagging required as you can often leave the most normal alternative untagged. For example, if you find it useful to distinguish between Indoors and Outdoors tasks, you could get away with just tagging the (few?) Outdoors ones and then get to the Indoors ones by filtering for NOT Outdoors.

    Another valuable feature is group headings within in the next list. It looks so depressing to see a looong list of actions helter-skelter. And it can be annoying to always have to filter the list down. It is so much more tasteful to have the list presented in a nice way the moment you step in. Manual adjustment is still a very useful feature, and an “ungrouped” mode is useful, but being able to automatically group by context, by project, by deadline etc is definitely a big plus. It makes the list easier to digest.

    • Great reply, thanks Folke. I agree that we could (and will) go farther into the area of prioritizing and filtering based on NOT is also a great idea. We have a few thoughts about how we would do this, but just haven’t had the time yet to implement it.

      Grouping is another useful feature that we have discussed. It could be added to lists like the next list and the focus list. It wouldn’t really be useful in the Projects and Actions view as it would break the hierarchy, so I’d prefer to keep it to the Next and Focus list. Again, useful, we want to do it, but just haven’t had time. Thanks for the very useful discussion!

  • davidgoggin

    I love this little YouTube video that vividly demonstrates your point about how really looooonnnggg lists just cause our minds to shut down.

    Hope it gives you a chuckle. I should think this supports your point very well.

    • Ha, that’s funny. Yes that is a good demonstration of what happens when trying to process or act on a long list!

  • Rob Salzberg

    I love what you’ve done with the your app so far but I just cannot and will not commit to it unless or until you have a mobile app as well. Are there plans for a mobile app? Any time horizon? I just discovered the GTD process and want to find an app to commit to (and stick with it) and yours comes closest but with out mobile access I just can’t use it.

    At the moment, I’m using evernote, which I will still be able and will use for information gathering and storing of documents because that’s what is is great at but as you point out the next actions process is handled manually and that is inefficient.

    I wish you the best with the further development of GTDNEXT.

    • Thanks Rob! Yup, we are working on mobile now. No time horizon, but it’s in process. Thanks!

  • Darwin_CSIWindowscom

    Also I would like to see the top 1-3 (let me configure) “non-sequential” tasks. Many times there are more than one possible “Next task” and while I don’t need to see all 50 subtasks – the next three that don’t have sequential dependencies would help. Especially when the main project thread is in a wait state.

    Kind of like if I could gantt chart the subtasks, I would like to see non-critical path ones when the critical path has a “waiting for” state.

    • Hi Darwin, thanks so much for the comment!

      We can’t do that automatically, but you can click on the grey “N” icon and force any action to be on the next action list. That way you can choose 3 of your 50 actions to be on the list, or whatever makes sense for that particular project. Hope that helps. Thanks!