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A Unexpectedly Brilliant Tool for Organization


In previous posts, I’ve recommended the online task manager Todoist for Getting Things Done-style organization. All the key features are available for free (though I subscribe to get the advanced features, paying $29/year). In March 2013, they introduced a tool called “karma,” a sort of ongoing game or rating based on how well you do at tracking and completing tasks. At the time, I must have thought it sounded to hokey or decided that the idea of having a productivity “score” was lame, because I didn’t start using it until five or six months ago. Since then, I’ve been a little amazed that it actually seems to work: I’m more productive, more focused, and more diligent specifically because of Todoist karma.

How can what basically amounts to a simple counting game help get more work done? By setting reachable goals and inspiring involvement. (For a more thorough consideration of the connection between games and motivation, read A Surprising Source of Insight into Self-Motivation: Video Games.)

Let’s look at how that works. Here’s a screen shot of my karma as of today (click to zoom):

My Todoist karma


See the gray vertical lines, one for the last 7 days and one for the last 4 weeks? Those are my targets. I’m trying to complete at least that many tasks to keep on track, which is to say at least 5 per weekday and at least 25 per week. These are the default settings, which are actually great for me, but you can change them to whatever you want.

If I keep to these targets, my karma keeps going up, and my daily and weekly streaks (shown at the bottom) accumulate. (For more on motivation and winning streaks, see “Harnessing a Winning Streak.”)

As you can see from my streaks, I wasn’t able to keep on top of tasks in the same way as usual over the holidays, so I missed my targets several times up through the New Year, resetting the impressive streaks I had built up before Thanksgiving. Karma does have an important “vacation” feature (you just tell it that you’re on vacation, and it won’t expect you to get much done until you turn vacation back off). It also doesn’t expect you to get anything done on weekends (though you can change it so that you’re “on duty” any days of the week you like).

Todoist karma levels

The rewards to attending to karma are minimal: your graph keeps going up, you build up your streaks, your score improves, and every once in a long while you “level up” to a new karma category. This may not sound like much inducement to get things done, but if you think about it, it’s very similar to a video game, and video games are notoriously addictive: you have a score, levels, goals, specific challenges … it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible … in a word, you’re engaged.

Another thing I like about karma that initially seemed like a drawback is that it mainly just tracks the number of tasks you get done rather than trying to deal with priority or importance or size. This makes it simple to use–pretty much automatic, in fact–but it also rewards breaking big goals down into small tasks, which is an excellent motivational and organizational technique. If you enter “redo flooring in dining room” in as a task, it’s a good bet you’ll never get it done. On the other hand, if you start with tasks like “Find out what kind of wood flooring options are out there” and “Measure dining room and write down dimensions,” then you’ve got a great basis for accomplishing something.

The way karma helps me the most is in setting a number of things to get done. My task list is probably thousands of items long, set up in many different categories with different priorities. To be productive, I have to get at least a few of those things done each day. Often what happens is that I’ll get to evening and have completed, say, three tasks (this is outside of my work task list, which I maintain separately). Being conscious of my Todoist karma, I’m aware that I can do two more to maintain my streaks and increase my score, or give up for the day, lose points and get my streaks reset. It’s nearly always possible to get two small tasks done, however, and so I generally do them, and this keeps my attention on what I have to do and also encourages me to do just a bit more each day. That’s exactly the level of quiet, private encouragement I need.

In short, if you’re in need of an elegant, easy-to-use, effective, and free task management system, you’ll have a hard time doing better than Todoist–and if you use Todoist, you should consider using the karma feature to engage more enthusiastically with all the tasks in your life.

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Another ToDoist outage (now over) …


UPDATE 10:54 AM EST: ToDoist seems to be back up

Original post:

For ToDoist users, it appears the site is down again. Last night, Todoist tweeted “We had an 2h outage today, the service should be back up. We are still investigating why this happend, but we think it’s related to our host”; 12 hours later, unfortunately, more trouble. Under Chrome I get “504 Gateway Time-out nginx/0.7.13” and under Firefox, “An unknown error happend [sic] while loading data… We will try to reload Todoist.”

This is a great service, and considering I’m getting it for free at the moment, I can’t complain much, but I certainly am disappointed.

I’ll post updates if I hear anything.



ToDoist Is (Was) Down


FINAL  UPDATE: Todoist is back up: time to immediately save my data!

UPDATE: Todoist tweeted and posted about the problem at 1:35 EST: see . They say that their database became corrupted for unknown reasons and that they’re fixing the problem. They also apologized for the outage. I’m no longer worried about having to switch systems, but will take my own advice (below) and start backing up.

In my post “Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips” from a couple of years back I extol the virtues of Todoist, a free online task tracking system with a modestly upgraded, slightly less free version available as well. Today I’m not so much in an extolling mood. I can open Todoist, and each of the categories shows the proper number next to it showing how many tasks I have in that category, but clicking on the categories themselves opens up a screen with no tasks except for (bizarrely) the completed ones.

I have a work account and a personal account for Todoist, and I’ve tried them both, on different computers and browsers, with the same results, making me think it’s a universal problem. ToDoist Mobile on my smartphone is giving me even more flack, claiming I have no projects (categories) at all.

To my surprise, Google reports that no one has blogged about this, and there appear to be no news articles on the subject. If you’re experiencing this problem, though, I’m here to tell you it’s not just you.

Oh, and did I mention that their support site times out? I can’t even ask what’s going on.

I understand it’s a free service, but it’s still very damaging to have a large amount of critical information disappear on you and to not know whether or when you might ever get it back. Being able to access Todoist on my phone as well as on computers wherever I may be has been terrific, but going forward I may give that up just to get some peace of mind that I won’t lose it all. Losing my task list would set me back enormously and cause problems in many areas of my life.

The moral? Back up your data. In my case, it would have been smart to get into the habit of at least once a week (and preferably more often) entering “view all” in the search box on todoist and saving the resulting page, which lists all current tasks in all categories, but I’ve tended to think of backup as only applying to data on devices I own–bad mistake. If my data does reappear, I’ll certainly get in the habit of doing this. If you’re not in my position, may I please very strongly recommend regularly backing up your task list (and calendar, for that matter)?

And if you are on Todoist, like me, could you comment on whether you’re experiencing the same thing today (Thursday, July 28th) or not?

Update: I should have thought to check the Twitterverse; when I did, I found others experiencing the same problem. Not long ago, @JB66 reported “It’s still mostly down, but if you view Completed Tasks it shows your current tasks as well buried in there.”


Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule

Strategies and goals

I have a huge task list. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the list is well-organized and useful (see “Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips“), and a lot of the tasks on it are a handy but optional. I do my best to push items that are important and need to be done soon to categories and statuses that keep me focused on those (see “My Top 1 Task“), which seems to work pretty well for me.

Still, the sheer number of items sometimes gets to me. To clear up a lot of them at once, I apply a version of the 2-minute rule, learned from David Allen (see “Useful Book: Getting Things Done“). The two minute rule is If you can get something done in 2 minutes, don’t put it on your task list: instead, just do it.

Part of the logic behind this idea is that keeping an item on your task list requires time and attention from you: you need to review your task list periodically, keep items prioritized, and so on. With a good organizational sytem (like Allen’s), this isn’t difficult, but it becomes easier the fewer items you have to manage. So tasks that can be completed in 2 minutes tend to “pay for themselves” if you do them up front rather than spending the time writing them down maintaining them until some point in the future.

Two minutes doesn’t sound like much, but there are a lot of useful things that can be done in that time, including firing off a reminder e-mail, making a telephone call to check a single fact, finding an item or paper that isn’t too hard to locate, asking someone one question, and so on.

And it doesn’t have to be a 2 minute limit, as long as it’s a short period of time: it could be 5 minutes or even 15 minutes, though probably not longer than that.

To use the 2-minute rule on items that have already made their way onto your list (for instance, because you added them before you heard of the 2-minute rule, or because it wasn’t possible to do them at the times you first thought of them), you can either get in the habit of searching for 2-minute items whenever you have a few minutes free, or better yet, go through your task list and mark any 2-minute items you already have. In my case, I have two separate tags I use: “5 minutes or less” and “15 minutes or less.” You can then jump to a quick-to-do item whenever time allows, or block out an hour or two and mow down dozens of them.

And interestingly, marking quick tasks in your task list, if it’s done in an efficient task management system (like ToDoist or a paper system)  only takes a few minutes.

Photo by Јerry

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You Can’t Do All That Stuff at Once! (And Neither Can I)

Strategies and goals

I love organization. Seriously. Not in an OCD, “wait, wait, that doesn’t go there!” kind of way (I think my girlfriend is laughing at this point, but let’s please disregard that), but in a “wow, now I don’t have to spend time worrying about all that crap because I’m taking care of it!” kind of way. I love looking at an empty inbox: see “How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty“–more than a year later, this is still working as originally planned. I love to check Todoist, my preferred freebie task management system, and realizing that I’ve actually done everything necessary to keep the world from exploding for the next little while.

Yet organization gets away from me, and my problem is simply losing confidence in my system.

How to undermine an organizational system
For instance, I’ll look at my inbox, and there will be several things I would like to respond to soon. Sometimes I succumb to temptation and leave those things in my inbox, since “surely I’ll get to them soon.” Sometimes I even do get to some of them soon, and off they go into my “already read” folder or the trash bin. Other times, though–many, many other times–I won’t get to them soon, and they will linger in my inbox until I get real, actually take the steps, and put them where it really goes (often in my “Reply/Act” folder, while other times an item may need to be briefly read and then added to my Todoist task list).

Similarly, sometimes in Todoist I’ll let several things pile up in my Top 1 category, and before I know it I’ll have a list that stretches off the page–and “Top 1” is the place I’m supposed to be able to look to know exactly what I need to do next!

Confidence making confidence possible
The problem with “yeah, but”ing my organizational systems isn’t just that it holds up dealing with the items I’m not handling properly: it’s that it chokes up the whole system. If I’m preoccupied with trying to decide on which, if any, of the dozen e-mails in my inbox to respond to, then that means I’m not paying proper attention to my “Reply/Act” folder or periodically reviewing my Pending folder, and at that point the whole thing falls down. Only when everything gets sorted into its rightful place does the system really work again.

To put it another way, if I don’t continually show complete confidence in my organizational systems by following them even if I’m worried about one particular item or another, this will tend to undermine the whole system and make it fail. It’s natural to worry about individual things getting lost in an organizational system, since we focus on one thing at a time and tend to minimize the importance of other things while we’re doing it, and since most of us have a lot of experience with failed organization systems in the past, even if our present systems are working beautifully. Yet there’s still no reason to jump ship and land back in the Sea of Chaos.

Taking the steps
None of the complications of not sticking to an organizational system should surprise me. After all, in my post “Why Task Lists Fail,” I specifically point out how not prioritizing (that is, not sticking with a clear and effective organizational system) is the kiss of death to a task list.

In asking myself “Are you taking the steps?” recently I was immediately forced to confront this situation. I did a little triage on my task list and the one inbox (out of two) that wasn’t already cleared out, and literally within a few minutes, I was back on track. This doesn’t mean that I was caught up on everything I needed to do, only that I had my ducks in a row after that so that I would know what that next thing was. If I don’t know what specific thing to do next, how can I get that thing done?

Photo by iBjorn

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My Top 1 Task

Strategies and goals

Merlin Mann on his 43 Folders site (currently posting only occasionally as he works on his book) quotes Frank Chimero asking and answering this question:

Q: How do you maintain focus (on work, dreams, goals, life)?
A: You do one thing at a time.

While I think there’s more to know, I also think Frank has hit the nail on the head. As I mention in my post “How to Multitask, and When Not To,” our brains are rigged to only really focus on one thing at a time. This is one reason task lists fail sometimes: we get the whole list of everything in there, but then we look at it and say “Aah! I can’t do all that stuff! That’s overwhelming!” Then we run and hide, or perhaps waste three and a half hours surfing the Net to find out what happened to our favorite childhood TV stars.

Even when we bravely face our task lists instead of running away, it’s still difficult to get up motivation to do something when you’re simultaneously staring at three dozen other things you need to do. My solution to this was to create a separate “At the Moment” list in the task list system I use and to put just a few items at a time in that list, the ones that I’m pretty confident I’m going to get done in the next little while, or at latest by the end of the day.

My “At the Moment” list has proven very helpful, but it hasn’t entirely solved the problem. Nor has it solved the problem of sometimes picking whichever item from the “At the Moment” list is easiest or most fun, letting myself forget that others are more important or more pressing.

So I created yet another category: my Top 1 list. I’ve mentioned before the importance of knowing the next thing you’re going to be focusing on so that as soon as you get a chance to focus on it, you can start right in instead of having to regroup. The Top 1 list just takes this idea and makes it into a practice: whatever the next thing I’m going to do is, it goes on the Top 1 list. Then as soon as I’m done whatever I’ve been doing and am free to move on to the next thing, I look at the Top 1 list–the contents of which I usually already know–and there is the thing I need to tackle. Even if that one thing is unappealing, just spending a very short time–say, 30 seconds–thinking about getting that done is usually enough to get me in gear and ready to tackle it. Having that much focus on that one item alone makes it much more likely I’ll get it done.

Of course I put a new item on there as soon as the Top 1 task is under way, feeding from my At the Moment list, which is short enough to make this process fairly painless. And choosing a task to do next is usually a little easier than choosing a task to do now, since you don’t yet have to face the task when you’re just choosing it to do a little later.

All this process does is shove a few obstacles temporarily out of the way, but often just this little advantage can make a big difference; it certainly has for me.

Photo by Koshyk

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Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips

Habits, Strategies and goals

Do you have to have an organizational system in order to motivate yourself? No. Does it help? Hell, yes.

In order to motivate ourselves toward specific goals, we can identify a set of factors that we either need or at least benefit a lot by. Among these are a few important ones that organization helps with in spades, specifically:

1. Setting and prioritizing goals
2. Understanding what needs to be done, and
3. Getting regular, meaningful feedback (in the form of checking things off)


If I’m pursuing a big goal (whether it’s completing a book proposal, renovating a house, or learning to speak Bantu), in many cases the most productive thing for me to do is to break that big task into steps, and the steps into smaller tasks, until I get down to the level of tasks that can be done in one pass. This is less important with goals that are more repetitive (for instance, speaking Bantu: if I set up regular lessons and study times, I should be fine) than with goals that are made up of a wide variety of little things (like cutting window glass, taking down cabinets, and painting for that house renovation) that may be hard to keep track of. If I’m doing one big task of the second kind, organization becomes important. If I’m doing several big tasks like that, or lots and lots of little tasks, organization becomes the difference between being productive and being driven profoundly, dramatically nutty. Anyone who forgets to do important things, does low-priority things when they would rather have been doing high-priority things, feels scattered or overwhelmed, or doesn’t know where to start on the mound of things ahead can probably benefit from better organization.

It’s important to realize that organization itself requires self-motivation to be trained into a habit. Since we’re motivated to do things that we feel happy about and tend to avoid things that we feel anxious about, it’s very helpful to consciously associate the organization you do with the relief it brings, whether that’s at the “Well, at least now I know everything I have in front of me” level or at the “Hooray, I’m finished!” level of achievement. If you find yourself avoiding your organizational system, try taking a step back and thinking of the benefits of your system, of anything it has helped you do in the past, or of people whose organizational skills you admire. Thinking positively about organization makes doing organization much more appealing.

Which organizational system you choose will also make a lot of difference. A paper system can work if you don’t have a lot of tasks or if you don’t mind writing and rewriting things a lot, but electronic systems make things much easier by helping group and prioritize tasks, dropping completed tasks from your list, and so on. Many electronic organization systems also allow you to keep different categories of tasks, which is important: ideally, you want to categorize your tasks so that at any given time, you’re only looking at the things you could conceivably get done right then. It can be anxiety-producing to look at a monumental list of tasks, 90% of which you can’t do now because you’re in the wrong place, have only a limited amount of time, etc.

Because of this, I tend to break out my own task lists in four ways: first, by where I do them, in that I use a completely different organizational tool for work compared to home, since it’s rare that I’ll have the choice of doing either of those things at the same time. Second, by theme: I have one task list of things to do with my son, another of strictly writing-related tasks, another of financial tasks, etc. Third, by task length: I tend to keep a separate list of very quick tasks that I can get done when I just have a few spare minutes. And fourth, by importance: I find it helpful to keep a list of top tasks so that they don’t get ignored in favor of easier but much less important ones.

Of course, this results in a lot of lists, but then, I don’t categorize every single task in all four ways. For instance, my most important tasks just go in the “top” list regardless of other concerns, and my “quick win” short task list contains both important and unimportant tasks (although it’s prioritized within that).

The goal of all this separation of tasks (which is probably overkill in that form for most people, as I tend to have a lot of complex things going on at any given time) is to have a set of task lists that I can choose from whenever I’m ready to do something productive. If I’ve blocked out time for writing, I look at the writing list. If I have a few spare minutes, I look at the “quick win” list. If I’m going out to run errands, I look at my errands list. And so on.

With any luck, your list of things to do is much shorter than mine, and you would need at most only a few categories.

Any task management system needs to be one you can access conveniently and often. A computer-based one is no good if you’re rarely at the computer, for instance. And any system that makes it hard to figure out what you should be doing (like a paper system where you have to sift through a pile of notes) or that takes too long for you to access (like a computerized system that takes a long time to start up) or that makes it hard to read or enter tasks (like a task list on your cell phone when you don’t have an alphanumeric keypad on your phone) is probably the wrong one.

In terms of my favorite tools, here’s what I’m using at the moment.

First and foremost, I use Todoist, a completely free, online system that offers one of the easiest, most natural, and most convenient user interfaces I’ve ever seen anywhere. While it does offer ways to prioritize and schedule due dates, generally speaking the main thing I care about is typing the task in as part of the right category. To do this takes me one double-click (to open the shortcut to the Todoist site on my desktop), one single click (to select the project I want), and one keystroke (“a” to staring adding a new task). Once I have the task in, it’s easy to edit, schedule, prioritize, move between projects, or move to a different place on the list with drag-and-drop.

Of course, fully using Todoist means I need to be at the computer, but when I’m not I print out my tasks if I need to consult the list, and write down a list of any that I need to add–which it’s then essential that I add as soon as possible, so that everything stays up to date. On top of that, though, since I have Web access on my phone, I can get to the mobile version of Todoist through that, which is very limited in terms of functionality, but where I can easily view my tasks and add new ones.

In terms of my calendar, to my own surprise this year I’ve adopted a simple, paper-based planner booklet. I find it much easier to see what I’ll be doing at a particular time by flipping to a page rather than by having to look something up on the computer, and writing things in a schedule doesn’t have the drawbacks of keeping tasks on paper, because old events are just ignored as you flip to the new page. One major limitation of this system, it should be noted, is that you don’t get reminders, but I address that by checking my planner often to keep myself aware of my schedule. If I really, really needed a reminder, I could enter alarms into my cell phone.


A good alternative for both of these systems is a PDA (personal digital assistant), like a Palm Pilot or a Blackberry. Older Palm Pilots that are still completely functional can often be gotten on eBay for $30 or less. The main reason I’ve stopped using my PDA in favor of these other systems is the niggling details of convenience. Since it’s much easier for me to enter tasks into Todoist or events into my planner than to enter either into my Palm Pilot, I find I’m more reliable about keeping information up to date when I use these methods. The benefits of “convenient” for things that we sometimes don’t feel like doing are hard to overstate.

Finally, a note about overcommitment, an issue I struggle with: if you have chosen to do more things in your life than you’re willing or able to find the time for, not only will you never feel caught up, but you’ll fail to do things you had wanted or promised to do. That is, if you choose to do more than you can realistically get done, you really won’t get it all done, and what you don’t get done will be chosen by circumstance instead of by you. The only completely sane solution to this is to take a hard look at your commitments and decide what you can do less of. The temptation is to promise yourself you’ll do less of the recreational stuff, and often this can be a good way to go for at least part of the problem–but it can also be hard, because every time we sit down to watch a television show or kill some time randomly surfing the Web, we’re acting not only on habit but in response to some internal desire, need, or gap. Tackling these kinds of issues takes mindfulness, self-examination, and willpower, and fortunately this blog is designed to help in all of those departments.

Of course, there are uncountable organizational systems, tools, programs, practices, and paraphernalia, and what works best depends a lot on the individual person. Do you have something that works very well for you? I’d love to hear more about it in comments.

“Drowning” photograph by Quinn.Anya.


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