Carl Barenbrug

Product design, creative direction

Seeing Beauty in Basic To-Do Lists

I like making lists. A lot of people do. And this is reflected in the abundance of to-do apps available today. There's a silly amount of them. Designed to augment and organise our lives, they end up being far more complex and clunky than they need to be. The rise of the overwhelming to-do app (web and native) has probably driven a bunch of people back to pen and paper and I don't blame them. It's basic. It's boring. But it works. But it's also pretty wasteful. Especially if you're writing daily tasks. I prefer digital, but I don't need filters, labels, colour coding, theming, reminders, calendars, timers, prioritisation, or integrations. I just want a simple and accessible task list in a clean environment that's easy to use. Remember, this is just for my essential needs. I can totally appreciate that others might need some advanced features.

I've used quite a few different to-do apps to organise personal and work tasks. Some of them worked well but would have an ugly UI, some would be over-engineered resulting in a compromised UX, and others would find the right balance of form and function, but weren't particularly well supported or maintained. So recently I've been experimenting with some options after discussing the topic with Manu. Looking into apps that are not specifically engineered to manage task lists. And I might just have found a tool that works well for me: iA Writer.

If you're not familiar with iA Writer, it's a focused text editor with a simple interface that uses a formatting language called Markdown. It has evolved incredibly well over the years and in my opinion, offers a wonderful and unmatched user experience. From the typewriter-like environment, to the minimal and uncluttered UI design, to the clarity of the typography. I use it to write personal blog posts, feature articles, web copy, business plans, invoices, random notes, and now... to-do lists. I don't need another tool. This one works beautifully albeit a little imperfectly, but I'm fine with that.

My approach is like this:

  • I only use the Mac version of iA Writer.
  • I have the app always open.
  • I have just one file titled to-do.txt.
  • The app is always set to full screen so I can tab or 3-finger drag to view it whenever I want.
  • I have a subheading called Today for my daily tasks.
  • Under that, I'll create a simple task list, which in editor mode, I can mark as complete as I move through my tasks.
  • If need be, I'll create more subheadings related to other topics. These are typically geared towards unscheduled tasks that I'll eventually get to.
  • At the end of the day, I wipe my task list and start a new one using the same file the next day.
  • Rinse, repeat.
Task list in iA Writer Pro
Task list in iA Writer Pro

As I said, this is still experimental. Give it a try too if you want to change things up. But if not, here's several alternative apps that might take your fancy:

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