Todoist: Massively Helpful Executive Function App

This is to bring attention to and complement Nattily’s great review of the Executive Function App Todoist. Todoist categorises itself as an online task management app and todo list, and I believe the nickname Executive Function App is coined by Nattily. Anyway, that is a beautifully accurate name for the job the app does, so I’ll keep that.

I’ll write this post partly by converting and rewriting my comments on Nattily’s post.

I decided to give the app a try last week after I read Nattily’s review, because I have long been looking for a system that can help me to get things done and make/keep order in my life.

I often feel like I am drowning in tasks I ought to do without being certain what they are, how many they are, and if it is even humanely possible to get a grip of the massive myriad of duties a normal, responsible adult life requires.

I need something which integrates all the different types of big and small tasks I need to do into my life in a meaningful, steady, ongoing manner. Not just a one-off cleaning frenzy, or brushing my teeth 5 days in a row. Not like this:


but an all-in-one-system. An everyday executive function manager that is so easy and hassle free so I’ll use it every day.

And this app works. It took me a while to set it all up, but I can say now, having used it for a bit over a week, that it has already massively improved my everyday productivity and sense of being in control of my life. So this is a warm recommendation.

Before I write more I’ll quickly mention that, like Nattily, I’m using the Premium upgrade. The free version is fully viable and fine too, but it does not have all the nifty features I am about to mention, like notes and labels. The Premium version costs $29 per year. I think that it is very much worth the money if it helps (and in my case, it does).

How it works

Todoist is a “to-do” task management system, where tasks are organised and coded in a folder structure of categories and subcategories and subsubcategories and so on in a flexible matrix-like manner where the tasks can be swiftly listed be in various ways: for example according to their colour category, label, date, priority level, or just open search (filter).

Key lists are “Today” and “7 days”, which is the agenda for “today” and “this week”, respectively.

Each task always displays its colour category, name of the folder it is in, labels, priority level, comments if any, notifications if any, and of course the time, weekday and date, which is coloured according to how soon the task is due. The lists look neat and minimalist despite all these useful bits of information.

It may sound complex, but it is easy to use. Please see Nattily’s review for more information about the features.

How I use Todoist

So, I now start my days by checking what’s on for “Today” in Todoist, and while I have my morning coffee I see if the list has a realistic balance of work compared to what is urgent and how much I am up to. If it looks overwhelming or patchy, then I’ll postpone or reschedule tasks (with a few clicks) or add tasks.

But basically, I know what to do all day and don’t have to speculate about priorities and feel confused and have an invisible cumulonimbus cloud of options in my head, because I only need to do what is on the list, and when the tasks are completed then I am free to do what I want.

I can print out the agenda and take it with me. However, my Nexus tablet has an Android version of the app that syncs automatically with the web version. The interface is not nearly as neat on the tablet, but it works fine as a supplement. And it is almost fun to do the jobs and then tick them off on the list (almost). It is a bit like a game.

The point is… the day is doable. And I am being productive.

My categories

My biggest problem is with work time management – paid work and housework and home admin and so on… and that I get sidetracked and absorbed into interesting stuff instead of getting the serious tasks done.

ADLs can be an issue too… Not that I avoid doing them, but I easily forget some. Failure to maintain relationships with persons who are not present here in my house, such as my parents, siblings, broader family and friends, is also a problem.

So therefore, my 4 top-level categories of tasks are: Work (paid), Home, Creative/Hobby, and Social/Communication.

Print screen: 4 top level folders. Todoist anno September 2013

Black: Work (paid)

The work folder has a subfolder with my employer’s name and one for freelance projects. The one with my employer has 3 subsubfolders:
–> Employed job 1
–> Employed job 2
–> Meetings

inside –> Employed job 1 (which is my main part time job) are the project folders:
—> Assignment 1
—> Assignment 2
—> Assignment 3
…… and so on, except they have names not numbers.

Inside each assignment folder is a standard sequence of tasks; the exact same procedure for all assignments, apart from the dates. Each task has a priority level marked with a colour (red, dark blue, dust blue or white), and tasks can be filtered according to priority level.

Each task also has a colour code that shows its category: all employed-work tasks are black, and freelance tasks are dark blue. More about colour coding later.

I have exported the task sequence as a template, so for new assignments I just import the template with the series of tasks with labels, priority levels et.c. all in order.

(I am not showing the folders inside the Work (paid) folder here, because then I would have to change my employer’s name and the names of the jobs and all the assignments for confidentiality reasons)

Green: Home

The Home category is for domestic chores: Admin is for paying bills and plan documentation and purchases. Housework is all cleaning and tidying tasks inside and outdoor. ADLs is self-care, and Pet care is taking care of the dogs: Vet, Activities. There are also subcategories Car, Laundry and Shopping.

Here is the inside of the Home -> Housework –> Indoor folder:

Print screen: indoor levels, a folder per room. Todoist anno September 2013

The chores can be set up in different ways: as a one-off, recurring with specific intervals, and recurring after certain intervals (read more in Nattily’s review). The housework category is not fully developed yet.

Yellow: Creative

The yellow folder contains all the things I would like to work on… writing projects (including this blog), reading, visual play, systematising “for fun”… learning and creating. These projects are vital for my quality of life and sense of meaning; especially creative output.

In the same time, these kinds of activities are huge time thieves. If I’m not careful, I’ll spend 1568% of my time absorbed in projects of interest to me, and then I and those around me may suffer from the consequences of neglect which can be anything from dirty dishes and being late with work, to an emotionally starved relationship.


Print screen: creative folders. Todoist anno September 2013

I use the creative projects to reward myself, because these are what I would do all day long if I had infinite time. I set up the projects I want to do without a deadline to get them off my mind, and when I have done enough of the “have to” tasks then I reward myself by picking a favourite project and putting it on my official agenda with a deadline.

Apart from that I try to not spend too much time setting up creative tasks, because I already have way too many I would like to do… more than I have time. So the task category is wilfully underdeveloped, focusing on the most immediate backlog of projects.

Blue: Social

The “Social” category has huge life changing potential. One of the folders is “keep in touch”, where I set up tasks like “invite dad for a coffee on Skype” (all my family live on the other side of the planet…) with a due date or as a recurring task.


Print screen: social folders. Todoist anno September 2013

I have already remembered to invite both of my parents to each a “coffee” (via Skype) and talked with my brother a few days ago. For the first time in years!

The context of keeping in contact with family is that I e.g. don’t talk with my mother on the phone every year, and probably less than every 3 years if that much. I talk with my dad a few times per year and less with my siblings. I have never tried to maintain the contact; contact was more like a random variable. So taking control of keeping in touch is a big change, even if it is small.

I don’t actually really like to talk on the phone, and tend to feel quite awkward about family catch-up attempts. However, recent Skype conversations with my cousin, dad and brother worked well. Maybe because I was on my Nexus, so I could find inspiration and links on the Internet to provide variety and dampen the attention a bit (it is always good to give people something to focus on). I could also guide around in the house using the Nexus’s camera to provide live footage like I did recently for my cousin.

Anyway, keeping in touch can be in writing. I intend to set up regular tasks to keep in contact (even if infrequent) with certain persons who are my friends in principle and who I would like to keep knowing, but where the contact is extremely rare.

Search, labels and Bolean operators

Each task can be assigned a pretty much infinite* number of labels. The labels are great for searching & listing tasks across categories; they are a matrix-like search feature.

Print screen: search options. Todoist anno September 2013
So for example, if I enter: 7 days @payments then I will get a list off all payments (all tasks labelled @payments) that are due in the next 7 days.

Bolean operators can be used:

Print screen: list of bolean operators. Todoist anno September 2013

So if I want a list of all work tasks whether they are for my employer or freelance, then I can go: @work | @freelance to get a list of all tasks tagged either @work or @freelance or both.

If I want a list of all blog-post drafts that are almost done (so I can chose one to finish now), then I can go: @blog-post @completion to get a list of tasks that tagged both @blog-post and @completion.

Or: @housework & !@cleaning to get a list of housework tasks that are not cleaning tasks (for example, because I forgot to buy soap for cleaning anyway).

And so on.

Labels can also be used by just clicking on a label on a task. So if “Buy dog food” comes up on my agenda for today, then I click on its @pet-shop label, so I get a list of all the items we buy regularly in the pet-store: treats, allwormer, heart wormer and anti-flea product, so I can rationalise the shopping. I can print the list and take it with me as a shopping list if I like.

There is also an open search function (full text search can be done by typing q:).

Karma graphs

The Karma graphs visualise recently undertaken tasks according to their colour categories; so it visualises the balance of types of tasks (roughly).

So for example here: Black is paid work. Purple is ADLs. Green is housework. Grey is bills. Rouge red is pet care. Yellow is my own projects. Dust-blue is keep-in-touch activities.


Print screen: karma trend lines. Todoist anno September 2013

My Karma graphs show that I did quite many paid work tasks on Wednesday, and fewer but still some on Thursday. Sunday I had the flue (did almost nothing), and I was also sick Monday and Tuesday, but had to do a few work-related phone calls, which show up as short black areas.

I love the Karma graphs! They are like a reward for doing the work: the work doesn’t just disappear, it leaves a pretty, colourful trail that remind me what I have done so far. Evidence of achievement.

Mind feedback

However, I think one of best effects of using the app is mind feedback, which I forgot to mention when I wrote this post Yesterday:

My mind is adapting to the task architecture I have set up. So now, when a new task emerges – rather than have it roaming around my head like something I keep holding because I don’t know where to put it down – I now automatically mentally categorise the new task into my task hierarchy. I know where it belongs (approximately).

So I can mentally file new tasks away straight away and focus on whatever my current task is. I know I don’t need to think about tasks that I am not doing right now, because they are all taken care of. Once a task is scheduled in the system, then it will come up by itself in due course and until then, there is no need to worry about it.


Updated evening 21 September 2013

* I have not tested that theory


16 thoughts on “Todoist: Massively Helpful Executive Function App

  1. What a great app!

    What I would really love as a feature is something that allowed you to estimate the time for tasks, so that it would be possible for the app to tell you, “Today is full now. You can’t squeeze in anything more.” I could do that myself by hand, but it would take so very long. An app would let me do it once for each task–because much of what I do is the same from week to week–and then add it for me. That would be bliss…


    1. That is a good idea. And it sounds like a realistic feature (says the non-programmer;-) I mean, if you set a time estimate for each task once as you say, and then there is a setting where you can set your desirable work hours per day (e.g. 7 hours), then the app. could give a warning if the total estimated time of all the tasks in a day’s agenda exceeds the desired number of daily work hours.

      Even cooler, then a later development could be the “Karma” productivity report reporting the balance of time spent on types of tasks, rather than as now, just the balance of the number of types of tasks as if all tasks were equal.

      Do you mind if I convert your comment to a feature suggestion and submit it to
      Todoist’s feature suggestion Votebox?

      Unless you want to do it yourself…


  2. I clicked in to visit and saw your cool graphics in colors. Today I managed to do a bunch of chores I’d been putting off, so it was timely to visit you! I am on my way to check this out. thank you for sharing! Wooooo!


  3. Yes. The social category is a big one for me. Because I have cousins, siblings, etc that I love to talk to. I just never think about it. And so I have them all set up on my todoist now and I communicate relatively frequnelt. With them now and it’s awesome.


    1. That is so lovely to hear!

      Something similar has happened for me. I have set up my dad for Skype calls “after 1 month”, currently adjusted to “after 2 weeks” (maybe that is too much, let’s see) and have talked with him more in the last few months than I have in many years. Same with some other family members – communication frequency has gone up significantly from near zero to every few months. It has helped a lot to approach communication as scheduled regular tasks; and once a routine was established the communication became much easier and less awkward, with those family members suddenly being much more part of my life again.


    1. Thank you:-) I am not sure I understand your question.

      – If you mean how to sequence tasks so they depend on each other, so for example: completion of task A automatically schedules task B relative to the completion date of A, completion of task B automatically schedules task C, et.c – as far as I know, that is not possible in Todoist.

      – However, if you mean how to set-up and preserve a specific sequence of tasks for a project assignment: since all my assignments have the same structure and sequence (only the deadlines differ), I set up it up once (in its own folder) and exported it to my desktop as a template. So for each assignment I import the template, and thereby the assignment task sequence including structure with sub task-levels, importance etc is set up automatically. Then I schedule the deadlines.

      I don’t know if this is what you meant – otherwise please rephrase your question to be more specific:-)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Mados, the latter. If I understand your reply, the sequence is simply showing in the physical order you have the tasks listed in the template and in the subsequent actual project. They are not numbered or otherwise tagged to indicate the order. Thanks! Lee

        Liked by 1 person

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