Why The Best To Do List Apps Don’t Do What You Need

(and Why We Made Bzzy)

July 21, 2017

We all have a million things to do. We also know that we’re capable of doing a lot. Every day we roll up our sleeves, tackle a mountain of tasks, and things somehow get done on time (uh, mostly), We feel good about having accomplished so much, and yet that sense of satisfaction is so fleeting. When you stop to think about it, it’s never the work that seems overwhelming; it’s the fact that—no matter how much you did—there is always million more things to do ahead of you.

The pervasiveness of this problem is evident in the countless number of to do list apps you’ll find online and in the app stores. Each one attempts to solve the age old problem of bringing order to the chaos of our busy lives, but if you’ve ever tried using them, you’d know most of these apps miss the mark and instead just add another layer of things to manage and keep track of. It’s a very frustrating problem.

When all's said and done, the best to do list apps need to help you do three main things:

  1. Be a place to put your tasks
  2. Help you organize your tasks
  3. Be the thing that tells you what you have to do

In theory, each of these is easy enough to do on its own. The reason most to do list apps fail, though, is because they weren’t really built for how busy people work and think. Most of us have a long, complex list of tasks that fit neatly into clean, easy-to-follow lists, and most task management apps don’t encourage good habits or facilitate the kind of behaviors that work well with how our clumsy, scattered human minds function.

OUT OF YOUR HEAD Where most to do list apps fail

Before you can even start to get a handle on your mountain of tasks, you have to get your tasks out of your head and into a list. This can happen deliberately, like when you’re planning out your day, or at a completely random time like when you’re on the bus or about to fall asleep.

Regardless of what the task is or whatever you are doing when you think of it, the key to successfully recording your tasks is that it is as quick and easy as possible to put it in your list. Every extra step that is required to make this happen is one more chance that you’ll forget something important, skip an important detail, or worse—get fed up and stop making to do lists.

This process can be complicated by the fact that most busy people have a lot of tasks to keep track of in a lot of areas of their lives (eg. multiple projects at work, chores around the house, family events, etc.). It’s easy to get distracted or lose track of things when you’ve got multiple places to put your tasks. You can filter and organize things later, so it’s important that you have a consistent place to put everything, without having to make too many decisions, and then worry about the details when you’re ready for them. The best to do list apps are built with simplicity in mind so as to not over complicate the process of recording new tasks.

With Bzzy, we made a conscious decision not to include any feature that would make the process of recording your tasks any slower than the time it takes you to physically type it out. In fact, you don’t even have to click anything to create a new task; if you have the app open, just start typing and the cursor will automatically move to the ‘new task’ text box. When you’re done, just hit Enter, and the app is ready for you to start typing your next task.

Your list will sync across all your devices, so you can put your tasks in no matter where you are, and it’s super fast and easy to move tasks from one column to another or from one project to another, so you never have to worry about having everything perfect the first time. If you’re the type to organize things as you go, you can add #hashtags, @teammates, and !dates to your tasks as you type and Bzzy will put your task where it needs to go.

DOING THE THINGS Using your to do list

Skipping to the end of the task-doing process, the final step in utilizing your to do list is actually doing your tasks. It might seem like this should be as easy going through your list of tasks one at a time, doing what the task says, and checking it off. Needless to say, it’s never that simple. And that’s because most people—and most to do list apps encourage you to—skip an important step: managing your tasks.

Deciding what to do and doing it are two distinct processes. If you are wondering about what you have to do next, you’re not focused on what you’re currently doing. Constantly changing your mind takes mental energy and momentum away from actually accomplishing things, and allowing yourself to go back into managing-mode at any given moment will prevent you from ever getting into the productive zone.

The best to do list app is one in which you can efficiently manage all of your tasks, arranged in the exact order you need to do them, and only showing you the tasks you need to think about right then.

To help keep the focus on what’s next, Bzzy has been built to make your Today list the most important and prominent part of the interface. In fact, with a click of a button, you can hide everything on the screen besides your Today list, making it especially easy to focus on the small handful of things you need to do right now (ideally your Today list is only a few, easily achievable items long). For those with irons in a lot of fires, Bzzy also includes Teams, which allows you to keep separate lists for different parts of your life, and to be able to delegate tasks to others and keep your list as clean as possible.

KEEPING IT STRAIGHT Organizing your to do list

To be truly useful, the best to do list app has to be both a giant bucket that can receive all your thoughts but also give you the ability to quickly organize and manage that bucket into actionable tasks that you can get started on right away.

Between recording your tasks and actually working on them is the part where you are supposed to manage your list of tasks.

It’s a common impulse when we work to want to skip the rough draft and instead try to make things perfect the first time. We try to construct everything in our brains before we put pen to paper. We start to edit before we’ve even started creating.

But our brains don’t work that way, and making lists is no different. There are too many things to keep straight in your head to make your list right on the first go (hence, the reason you’re making a to do list. duh.). Instead of editing your list while you’re making it, or re-arranging things while you’re in the middle of doing things, having a separate “organizing” step makes things a lot simpler and removes a lot of the complex decision-making that gets in the way of actual productivity. And keeping that organizing step as simple and effortless as possible will make it less of a chore to do regularly.

Of course, the tasks we’re responsible for are often complex and don’t fit cleanly into most to do list apps:

  • Managing tasks of your own personal tasks while keeping an eye on what your team is doing
  • Keeping track of dozens, hundreds or thousands of tasks
  • Having tasks for all of life’s contexts (eg. different projects at work, home, friends, etc.)
  • Needing to keep track of long-term tasks and having them be brought to your attention at the right time, but still keeping focused on what needs to be done right now

All of these things can make managing your tasks complicated. But the main thing to keep in mind is that, no matter how many other people are involved or how huge and complex your work is, you still just need a list of tasks that you can work through each day. Your to do list is simply a list of your priorities in the order you need to do them.

With Bzzy, the act of sorting your tasks is how you plan and manage your list. If something is more important or urgent, it can be moved up the list. If you need to put off doing something that seemed important before, you can move it to Soon or Later. Being able to drag and drop tasks means that you can quickly adjust if a deadline slips or your priorities change. The today/soon/later are simple and generic enough to give you structure without forcing you to spend a lot of time keeping up with due dates and lists of lists. With teams and hashtags, you can quickly find things when you need them, but the app works just fine if you don’t want to use them.

Of course, some things do need to be done by a specific time, even if that time is far in the future. Bzzy includes “reminder dates” that will automatically bring a task from the Later column to Soon, and from Soon to Today as that date approaches. Not every task is important enough to warrant your attention like this, but when one does, you can trust that Bzzy will make sure you don’t forget it when the time comes.

YOU'RE ONLY HUMAN The best to do list app works for you

Modern life is complicated, and it’s easy to get bogged down with all the things you have to do. Maybe you end up spending too much time trying to keep on top of your ever-growing list of tasks. Or maybe you find you’re beating yourself up all the time for not getting enough done. It’s not that you’re afraid of hard work; you’ve made hundreds of lists before. It just seems like managing your tasks shouldn’t be so hard.

The truth is: it’s not easy and it’s not your fault. Your brain isn’t built to keep track of so much stuff. The key to getting your tasks done is to find a process or tool that works for you and the way your brain works. The next time you find yourself being especially productive, take note of what’s going on. I bet you’ll find that you aren’t actually thinking about a million different things or obsessed about your to do list. When you have a clear idea of what you’re supposed to be doing, you’ll see how easy it really is to get shit done.

If you're ready to start getting shit done, check out our video to see what's up, or jump straight into using Bzzy by creating an account in our web app or mobile apps (iOS and Android).