Doing the To Do

I’m after a better task management system – organising my to-do lists, projects and activities and so on.

What I really want is something that:

  • Works well with more than simple, short lists, but doesn’t take too long to get my head around
  • Is available on the Mac, since that’s what I use most of the time
  • Is available online, for when I’m at a ‘strange’ computer
  • Ideally, is available on multiple platforms, but Mac-only will do if the web version is passable
  • Syncs seamlessly (and preferably automatically) between different instances on different machines (Ideally with the same model as Dropbox: automagically syncs when connected, but always has a local store available)
  • Has a good iPhone app that also works offline, so I can use it when away from keyboards, which syncs with zero effort
  • Lets me try it out properly beforehand if I need to shell out money
  • Preferably doesn’t require a paid subscription, particularly if not dirt-cheap, and particularly not MobileMe
  • Ideally has an email-in-to-inbox facility, for capturing ideas ad hoc as they come to me
My current system – a set of plain RTF files synced via Dropbox – sort-of works, and is wonderfully quick to start up, but doesn’t transfer easily to the iPhone (I have to remember to sync, and it doesn’t read well on the small screen). Fundamentally, it doesn’t help me organise, overview, and sort my tasks easily. Also, it doesn’t have a good way of getting stuff in to it.

Controlled detonation

Here’s what I’ve found, in note form. I’m very interested in any other views, recommendations, suggestions!

Main Contenders


Has a very shiny Mac client. Also shiny iPhone/iPad apps. The two can sync, but only over Bonjour (disabled on corporate networks, including OU). Cloud sync promised for Spring 2011 but don’t hold your breath, and likely to be buggy initially since they’re implementing it from scratch. Closed-beta invites expected to go out on May 2.

Costs real money – £44.95 for the Mac, plus $10 for the iPhone app. It has a time-limited free trial, but stupidly I installed it on a whim ages ago before trying it out properly, and the trials have expired.


Online mainly, plus iPhone app for £1.19. Bit clunky UI, but can specify which elements to show or not – much nicer once you’ve customised it. No desktop. Has mobile client (for iPhone), syncs to cloud nicely. But no desktop client, has to access web, so no good for laptop travel/mobile. Doesn’t work with Gears (sensible choice since discontinued by Google); offline still planned but not released.


Recommended by Dave Allen (of Getting Things Done fame)! Costs $80, $50 educational. Does have a 14-day free trial. Desktop for Mac. Has an iPhone app,
for another $20. Syncs via WebDAV (or MobileMe, £60/y subscription); doesn’t work directly with Dropbox, but sign up to DropDAV and it works. Maybe.

Comparison of OmniFocus to Things

Guide to using for GTD: (also includes GTD outline) may offer free WebDAV – but of course may disappear at short notice.

Omni have their own sync server – – it’s currently in (?closed/invite) beta, but has been for a year.

Midnight Inbox
v1.5 Mac is free, v2.0 $20 coming. $5 iPhone app coming, $10 iPad version live. Looks pretty/nice. Website achingly slow.

“Syncing with the Mac desktop version and with the iPhone version will be added when the desktop version 2.0 is available”, and “Sync to other iPads via Wi-fi, MobileMe iDisk, or any WebDAV server” – basically, same issue as OmniFocus but it’s not going to cost so much to try to make it work

Worth re-exploring when v2 desktop and iPhone apps are out.

Appigo To Do

$10 app for iPhone, iPad, etc. Syncs to ToodleDo in the cloud, or Outlook/iCal etc. But not anything I want to use on the desktop.

Remember The Milk

I find RTM very clunky to manage online for anything more than simple list. Syncs to all sorts of stuff (with Pro account, $25/yr) but not adesktop client other than Outlook. Possible offline using Gears (which is now discontinued by Google, so not a wise plan).

Less famous

The Hit List (Potion Factory) – has been in closed beta “for two months”; Mac and iPhone app; public preview available for more than two years. An update in Jan 2011 says it didn’t make the cut for the App Store.

Task Angel Windows app, syncs to Toodledo!

“for web coming soon to a browser near you” Has iPhone, Mac, PC versions. Looks very basic, but worth an explore. Free. Only has lists, due dates, priority flag. Create task by email too. German, Open Source – github!

Plain text file, but p:projectname @context1 @context2 at the start of
each line; perhaps prepend with (A) and (B) etc for prioritising –
then grep | sort to extract and priorities.
Use text editors, Dropbox (sync, versioning) and Droptext or similar on iPhone.!166299/geek-to-live-list-your-life-in-txt

Mac, iPhone, iPad. Costs $50. Does syncing “over local WiFi networks”, almost certainly means Bonjour, i.e. won’t work at OU. “working on cloud syncing service” Haven’t looked properly at features.

iGTD Discontinued, moved to Things


  • Basecamp – project management – $49/month to start! More collaborative software than personal. Milestone/deliverable based.
  • Ta Da list – Free, but very very simple.
  • Backpack – more organisation tool. $24/month basic.

Mac/iPad app. Project management – like MS Project but shinier. Does do tasks though. Bit heavyweight Project Management stuff for my needs, I think. No iPhone app. EUR 38.12 (!)

Not quite task management software

Pomodoro – 45-minute focus things – has an app

Toggl Time tracking. Free trial.

RescueTime Need paid version $72/y to do what I wanted (gives alert “you have spent longer on application X than your self-imposed target”), which seems an awful lot of money for not much of a feature. Tracks what apps you spend time in. Not ideal for my multiple-machine life, though.

Still to look at


This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
No further permission needed to reuse or remix (with attribution), but it’s nice to be notified if you do use it.

Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

10 thoughts on “Doing the To Do”

  1. I used OmniFocus for a long time. You can sync it across multiple computers by just putting it’s directory under your dropbox folder. No web access, but maybe iphone is good enough for you?

    When I moved back to Linux on the desktop and Android I moved to Toodledoo. It’s not as nice a UI, but it does what I need. I just use the free version.

    If you are happy with a desktop app, I’d go with OmniFocus. Surely you can get work to pay for it?

    1. I like the look of OmniFocus, I must say.

      “No web access, but maybe iphone is good enough for you?”

      Yes, but setting that up isn’t easy. The iPhone sync is designed to work with Bonjour, which is blocked at work, so I can’t sync at work. It’s apparently possible with WebDav (basically to share the directory), but I worry about that not working. Probably worth a serious investigate, though.

      Desktop is the main way I’d use it. So long as I can easily get stuff in, and glance at what’s there, while I’m away from my main machines, that’s fine. Web is nice to have not must.

      Toodledo doesn’t work for me at the moment, I don’t think – offline capability is a must-have that I hadn’t properly included in my list above.

      “Surely you can get work to pay for it?”

      Haha! It might be possible (especially this financial year before the Doom Times properly kick in) but the amount of money doesn’t seem near enough to justify the effort it’d take to make it happen. Also the delay between deciding ‘I want this’ and having it.

  2. Hi Doug – FYI Appigo To Do have a mac client in beta at the moment – I love the ipad / iphone app and use Toodledo behind the scenes and as a web app.

    Great thing I like about the Toodledo service is the ability to send an email and convert it into a task – I think others do this – but it is so set into my workflow now.

    1. Hi Al

      That’s worth knowing, thanks – will keep an eye on Appigo To Do.

      Email in to task does sound like a great bit of workflow that I think I could really get in to.

  3. If you’d like a tool for managing your time and projects, you can use this web-application inspired by David Allen’s GTD:

    You can use it to manage and prioritize your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote, and also comes with mobile-web, Android and iPhone apps.

    1. Hello!

      I already use Evernote for keep track of things-to-remember, rather than as a task management system. Worth a mention, though.

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