25 February 2007

#12. To Do: Find To-Do List Manager

Welcome back to Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill, where you can find a valuable new Windows utility or Web site twice a month– that is, if I can figure out what to write about and get myself organized enough to research and write it.

Sometimes I stare at my desk, close to desperation, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing now. What was I working on? What should I be working on? What’s my most important goal, and what’s most urgent? What action should I take right now to start moving forward? Piles of paper scraps and sticky notes only add to the confusion.

A computer should be an excellent to-do list manager, right? First I tried Microsoft Outlook’s Tasks module, even setting up a complex customized structure for tracking my projects’ progress. Outlook simply wasn’t up to the task. Then I used Microsoft Project, but it’s an excellent task manager like a shotgun is an excellent fly killer.

Perhaps, I thought, there are free or cheap to-do list managers on the Internet, so I went looking. I found many, but most disappointed me with limited functionality, oddball approaches to task management, primitive GUIs, or all of these. Then I came across an outstanding exemplar, and my search is over.


For a local PC-based to-do organizer, you can’t do better than ToDoList. It was designed to support the geeks’ latest rage, the much-hyped Getting Things Done (GTD) approach to time management and productivity. ToDoList has almost everything I really want from a task list manager:

  • Nesting of subtasks – Break a task down into subtasks, and break subtasks down still further. Expand and collapse the task list, and drag and drop tasks to change their positions in the hierarchy.
  • Priorities – Prioritize tasks from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest). Color-code tasks for any purpose.
  • Deadlines and milestones – Specify the starting date and due date of each task and subtask. Tasks can recur, too. Track the time you spend on a task and its progress toward completion. Tasks can be allocated to specific resources (that is, people).
  • Comments – Enter detailed comments about each task or subtask, with rich text formatting.
  • Sort and filter – Sort the task list by priority, deadline, completion, or any other attribute. Filter the task list by task status, deadline, priority, category, allocated resource, and other attributes.
  • Multiple projects – Set up separate projects, each containing its own task tree. Each project is managed in its own tabbed page. (However, I have not yet found a way to get a bird’s-eye view of all projects at once.)
  • Detailed data – Comprehensive information is presented clearly. Any detail field can be a column in the task table, which can be sorted on any column. Data are stored in XML format, and can be imported and exported in various other formats.
  • Configurable – Virtually every aspect of the GUI is configurable, making ToDoList very versatile.
  • Ease of use – I found ToDoList’s GUI to be intuitive and accessible. I figured out the basics in a few minutes, and was fairly proficient in under an hour, so you can probably learn it even less time.

Because ToDoList is an open source project, plug-ins for various needs are available. I have found plug-ins for encryption, spelling, pop-up reminders, and exporting projects in Gantt format.

ToDoList (current version: 5.1.1) is provided for free by AbstractSpoon Software at http://www.abstractspoon.com/, where you also can find links to plug-ins. The anonymous author does not solicit donations, but does bury a PayPal donation link the bottom of the Web page. As always, I urge you to support freeware that you intend to use regularly.

My thanks go to my esteemed colleague Elliott Anderson for recommending this great utility.

Web-Based Task Managers

If you need access to your to-do list from anywhere there’s an Internet connection, to share it with other people, or to integrate it with other Web functions, consider a Web-based task manager. These hosted managers lack the depth of functionality of ToDoList and its ilk; for example, they do not support subtask nesting and hierarchies (which is often vital, especially to GTD proponents), nor notes at the task level. But they do offer some cool additional capabilities in varying combinations, such as:

  • iCal compatibility for sharing calendar data
  • Integration with mapping, search, and other Web services
  • Support for multiple information formats (for example, adding graphics, photos, or sound files to the page)
  • Reminders by e-mail or SMS (generally only in the United States and Canada)
  • Social networking features, such as collaboration, tagging, sharing, and linking
  • Access from mobile phones and PDAs

Here are my quick impressions of the most significant features and differentiators in the best Web-based task managers I have seen.


This site claims to adhere to GTD principles, and appears aimed primarily at individual users. Each project can include task lists, formatted notes, and reminders. Drag and drop to sort lists. However, like all the other sites reviewed here, there is no provision for nesting subtasks, and notes can be attached only at the project level. The paid premium version integrates a calendar and email and SMS reminders. http://www.backpackit.com/


Another GTD claimant, this sophisticated site seems to cater more to work groups. It provides actions and contexts with projects. Drag and drop to organize lists. Tasks can recur. Notes are in a separate Reference tab attached to the project. The home screen “dashboard” gives a useful high-level view of pending items. Delegated tasks move to a Waiting list. Reminders can be sent by email and SMS. A separate version is formatted for mobile device screens. The paid premium version adds encryption, file attachments, a calendar, and more collaboration tools. http://www.vitalist.com/


Also espousing GTD, this site supports projects and contexts, deadlines and progress tracking, drag and drop to sort tasks, and file attachments. Tasks can be marked as the “next action.” http://www.nozbe.com/.

Remember the Milk

Geared toward personal use, this site supports deadlines, categories, task notes, time estimates, sharing with others, mapping, and e-mail reminders, but supplies only four priority levels and does not track progress. http://www.rememberthemilk.com/.


This site attempts to provide a very graphical interface, but its functionality is rather basic. It supports contexts, deadlines, progress tracking, and notes (which are not visible at the top level). However, even the limited hierarchy provided by division into projects is hard to distinguish in the task list. http://www.taskfreak.com/.

Did I overlook a great one? Please clue me in below. And I hope you’ll return on March 10 for another roundup of helpful software.

This column first appeared at http://www.elephant.org.il/jonathans_tool_bar_grill.


  1. I've been trying all kinds of GTD tools and at the moment I like Gubb the best (http://gubb.net). It is essentially a group of lists, very nicely put together. I have lists of contexts, projects, contacts, etc. You can have some lists hidden, if you like. Items may be starred, moved with your mouse, dated and commented on. I really like it.

  2. Thanks very much for your comment, rrod. I'll be eager to check Gubb out!

  3. I am very impressed by what I see in my first few minutes at Toodledo. One of the reasons is this very nice little comparison chart (http://www.toodledo.com/info/compare.php) that allows you to get a quick feel for the span of the application.

    There are things I have found that Toodledo doesn't do, that I would really like it to, like "reschedule this repeating task from checkoff"...

  4. Thank you for this useful comment, Mr. Peery. I'll be sure to check out Toodledo soon, and I'm hoping to do an updated roundup of Web-based task managers sometime soon. I appreciate your taking the time to comment, and I hope you'll be a regular visitor here!

  5. I'm also a great fan of TodoList, been using it for a couple of years to run iterative (Scrum) development projects in a small team. The output is a nice XML form for which I have written a few in-house tools to parse and collate to generate burndown graphs and html tasklists for iterations.

  6. Anttoeknee, thank you very much for your comment endorsing ToDoList. I use it for everything these days. I just wish I had your XML competence so I could create a more attractive, useful printout template for my to-do lists. That's TDL's main shortcoming, in my opinion.

    I hope you find my blog useful, and will return for new information every week.

  7. Hello,

    For implementing GTD you might try out this new application for time management and productivity,


    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.

    It also seem to support subtask nesting and hierarchies.

    Hope you like it.

  8. Thank you for pointing out GTDagenda.com, dangtd. I just had a quick look at the site and was impressed. I have bookmarked it for further exploration later, so don't be surprised if it turns up in a future blog post! Thanks for visiting, and I hope you will catch up on all my later posts and be a regular visitor here.

  9. Hi Jonathan:

    What a wonderful blog you have here! I found it through a comment you left over on LifeHacker in response to a post they had about SyncToy. After reading just 2 or 3 of your posts, I've already learned of some wonderful new apps I'd never heard of! :-) In fact, I'm in the process of setting up Allway Sync right now because SyncToy has been a pain in my patootie and hasn't been doing it's job properly.

    Anyway, I'm curious to know if you're still using ToDoList? I'm one of those people who is CONSTANTLY switching from one organizational tool to another. I can't seem to settle on anything... Digital, paper, back to digital, no - let's try paper again... ARGH!

    So far, I really like Todoist, and Toodledo as far as web-apps go. I've also tried to make Outlook (wh the the GTD add-on) work for me since I carry a blackberry for work and can sync to it.

    What do you do when you're "out and about" and don't have your computer handy? That's one of my biggest sticking points with all the computer-based ToDo list tools.


  10. Thank you very much for taking the trouble to write in, Dave. I hope you will be a regular visitor here. I do still use ToDoList, and in fact it's an indispensable part of my life. I have not yet had time to evaluate all the Web-based task management services that have been suggested, but I really should do that soon. As for when I'm out and about -- well, I'm not out and about very often. I'm usually either at work or at home researching and writing my blog. So my main concern is synchronizing the ToDoLists at work and home. I am still experimenting with various sync utilities, and have not found the perfect free one yet. However, there is a nice-looking shareware one on offer for free, today only, at www.giveawayoftheday.com.

  11. Hello,

    Somewhere on this page, you write:
    >> I have found plug-ins for encryption, spelling, pop-up reminders, and exporting projects in Gantt format (...) for ToDoList.

    It is a very interesting info, but can you update this post with a comment that would tell us "WHERE" to find such a plug-in ? (for producing Gantt schema from a ToDoList file)

    Thanks in advance !

  12. Mario, thank you for visiting my blog and for writing in. I mentioned in the blog that the ToDoList home page, http://www.abstractspoon.com/, has links to various plug-ins. That was correct when I wrote it. Now the plug-ins and other resources are linked on the ToDoList Resources Page, http://www.abstractspoon.com/tdl_resources.html (there is a link to it on the home page), and you also can find more resources at the CodeProject page for ToDoList, http://www.codeproject.com/KB/applications/todolist2.aspx. I hope this is helpful.

  13. Hey, Jonathan!

    Here's another to-do list, called CheckList. Before all, I should say that a disadvantage of that tool for international community is that it is completely in Russian. But its UI is easy to use, even if it would be in Chinese.
    It is simple, lightweight and blazing fast. It didn't updated since 2001, however maybe it is an advantage, so the application didn't overladen with excessive functionality.

    Its site - http://alt11.chat.ru/checklist.html - could be auto-translated by google's language tools.
    You can download installer from http://alt11.chat.ru/soft/cl2setup.exe

    Hope on your feedback on that kind of to-do tool.

    Best regards,
    Denis Stanishevskiy