Goodbye Wunderlist, hello Todoist

I’ve been pretty happy with Wunderlist over the past year or so, but visible signs of development have been few and far between since they were acquired by Microsoft in 2015. Today, they dropped a bombshell:

Wunderlist and Wunderlist Pro will eventually be retired … There won’t be any new features brought to Wunderlist and Wunderlist Pro.

Bummer. The Wunderlist team has been working on Microsoft To-Do instead. It maintains elements of the distinctively attractive Wunderlist UI, but it doesn’t have a macOS app yet and it doesn’t have sub-tasks yet, which is a pretty big backwards step. (Especially for me, seeing as improvements to the sub-task handling in Wunderlist were one of the main reasons I was anxiously watching them for signs of progress.)

I signed up for the To-Do preview, ran the Wunderlist importer, watched it churn for about 15 minutes before failing with an informationless error message, and decided it was time to evaluate my other options.

I opened up 2Do again, the app I’d used a couple years back before switching to Wunderlist. It is still the same, immensely powerful but quirky app that it was then. It still has polished macOS and iOS apps, and it still has that subtly un-Apple UI and UX that made me give up on it back then. It has a very complicated mental model involving groups, projects, lists and tasks. Even as I type that, I’m not sure I’ve got the names right, and I sure as hell couldn’t explain the difference between them.

This was what drove me to Wunderlist in the first place — the not-quite-right UX/UI and the complex model — even though it meant going to something less powerful, and also forgoing the sync with Apple’s built in iCloud/Reminders functionality (in its place, handing my data over to yet another private cloud). So, I knew I couldn’t go back to 2Do.

I looked at the OmniFocus website and knew that that was out of the running too. I had played with it a couple years back but found it to be too complicated and opinionated. After the simplicity of Wunderlist, OmniFocus was always going to be too heavyweight.

That brings me to Todoist. It’s free to try, so I ran the Wunderlist importer (which worked flawlessly) and took it for a spin. Unlike Wunderlist, which offered most of its functionality for free, or 2Do, which had a one-time license fee, Todoist has most of the interesting features behind an (admittedly low) subscription paywall. Things like labels, reminders and so on, which are pretty much essential for all but the most trifling use cases.

It has a lot of integrations with other services and is available on every platform you’re likely to care about. The iOS app is a bit ugly for my tastes, but it probably serves well enough for capturing todos on the go and getting notifications; all real editing is likely to be done on the desktop or web. I don’t know what the tech is, but the desktop app feels like a webview, so does lack some polish, but it is pretty serviceable. There’s a pretty useful Chrome extension, by the looks of things.

Unlike 2Do, the model is simple and unconstrained. You have projects and tasks and that’s it. You can arbitrarily nest projects inside other projects, and likewise you can nest tasks within tasks. With this simple set of primitives you can put together pretty much any organizational structure because you additionally have a couple of tools for looking at different views of your todos: "labels" are effectively tags that you can apply to any task to create arbitrary collections, and "filters" are basically saved searches that allow you to query for things based on keywords, project membership, creation date and so on. There is a lot of power here, but it’s not in your face like it is in 2Do, and there’s also a pleasing absence of arbitrary restrictions.

There are some delightful little features, like natural language metadata processing (you can type #foo to target a project, @bar to target a label, p1/p2 etc to assign a priority level, as well as natural language date specifications like "every friday start apr 28" and so on), well-integrated emoji support, styled text capability, some handy keyboard shortcuts and a fast, minimal, globally available quick-task-creation window.

There are also some annoying limitations and oddities, but I haven’t found any yet that I’d call deal-breakers. Examples include the lack of Vim-like keybindings for movement, the way clicking and dragging on todo text will cause a displaced edit field to appear and end up selecting the wrong text, a small drag target area for moving todos, no ability to disclose collapsed subprojects while dragging, a clunky UI for operating on multiple selected items, some inconvenient overloading of standard text-editing motions (which instead of making the cursor jump a word or move to the start or end may indent/dedent an item or do nothing at all), and some unseemly pauses when you access parts of the app — such as the settings screen — and there is a lengthy delay while it (apparently) loads something like a webview. But like I said, none of these bad enough to be considered deal-breakers, so I am going to give it a shot for a while.

My only doubt now is how to actually organize my work. For a start, I’ve mostly kept things organized into projects and subprojects that correspond to the groupings that I had in Wunderlist. Todoist provides an "Inbox", and I’ve got everything else grouped under "Work", "Shopping", "Travel" and so on. I additionally created a "Next" project into which I am dragging stuff that I want to work on today (there is a "Today" folder provided by the app too, but the intention of the "Next" project is that it be a hand-curated list of stuff that I explicitly want to make a priority in the short term). Still not sure if this is the right™ thing to do, but we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve also created a couple of labels, "someday" (for low-priority "wish list" items) and "easy" (simple/short filler tasks that I can grab when I need a break), and will wait to see if any more useful ones emerge organically in the coming days. I have some filters too, but I’m not sure how often I’ll use them. Probably the most interesting ones are "Newish" an "Oldish", which show me tasks created less and more than 30 days ago, respectively. Finally, I’ve set a custom default view that shows "Next" tasks, high-priority (p1, p2, p3) tasks, and "Inbox" tasks, in that order. We’ll see how that goes too.

Let’s hope that this solution works out and can provide me with some utility for at least a few months/years. I think if I have to migrate away from another task list, I might just bite the bullet and start keeping my own todo lists in text files on a computer. I’m not an Emacs user, so I don’t have a good org mode, but at some point I’m just going to have to give up and forgo the fancy web UIs, the slick iOS and macOS apps, and the seamless (proprietary) cloud sync, and just stick it all in a plain-text file that I edit using Vim.

Discuss: Twitter