Read more from our #LISTS primer here.
There are a couple of reasons to consider using a to-do list app rather than scrawling your tasks, or even typing them, on a sheet of paper. The obvious one being that a piece of paper can get lost, or obliterated by a coffee spill. Another, which we admit we hadn’t thought of until we read this amusing twitter post by some Australian cops, is that your paper list could fall into the wrong hands. Case in point: While executing a search warrant, the Aussie police found this hand-written to-do list by their pot-smoking suspect and posted it with the comment: “Are ur Saturdays hectic like this?” The list included the following:
1. get up and get ready
3. go to bus stop
9. go home & get a stick
10. chop up & get stoned
Even if your to-do list contains a few slightly more pressing (and legal) tasks, there are other reasons that apps can have an edge. Some research shows that once you’ve written out your list, it’s easy to forget about the things you have to do. Essentially, the act of creating a list quiets your brain from nagging you about unfinished tasks. You know, that “incessant way uncompleted tasks buzz around your mind.”
Some people have been known to put “make list” at the top of their list. When that’s crossed off they’re done for the day. Apps can actively remind you that making a list wasn’t your only task during those last 12 hours; they can set deadlines as specific (date and time) or as vague (someday) as you need them to be.
If your to-do list includes “get as many free things as possible” (and even if it doesn’t), the good news is four of these apps fit the bill. Here are nine great to-to list apps for busy people.
Best For: Those who appreciate visual elegance.
A “darling child of the app world” praised for its beautiful design and the intuitive way it works, Wunderlist is often a top pick on sites like Forbes and the Verge. Adding to-do items is as simple as typing and pressing enter. And it’s just as easy to include due dates, sub-tasks, notes, and reminders. Acquired by Microsoft last year, Wunderlist, which is free, is accessible on all major devices—including iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and the Apple Watch—and has wide-ranging functions that allow users to assign tasks on collaborative projects, create notes, prioritize by tag, copy and reuse lists as templates, plus recover deleted lists. Wunderlist Pro ($4.99 per month; $49.99 per year) lets you access additional features such as unlimited sub-tasks and the ability to add files of any size.
Best For: Busy people who want to connect their favorite apps.
Todoist often goes head-to-head with Wunderlist for the top spot in the free to-do list category. Recently, though, AppAdvice gave Todoist the edge because its free version offers a little bit more (task and storage space) and, at $28.99 per year, its paid option costs a bit less. AppAdvice also applauds Todoist’s integration with If This Then That (a workflow app connector that facilitates everything from posting daily reminders to Slack to reminding you to bring an umbrella on rainy days). Todoist lets you add sub-tasks, project collaborations, recurring actions, and (with the premium version) location-based reminders (buy milk when you’re near the grocery store). Its good Karma feature keeps you on track by having you set daily or weekly tasks to complete. You’ll earn points as you achieve those goals, evolving from Beginner to an Enlightened being as you become more productive.
Best For: Those looking for a simple to-do list—and a daily taskmaster.
Rounding out the top three free apps is Any.do, available for iOs, Android, Mac and Google Chrome and ranked as the best to-do app for iPhone by Lifehacker in 2013. Any.do emphasizes its ability to sync tasks and lists across multiple devices and to facilitate communication between members of a team—whether it’s your SO reminding you to pick up the dry cleaning or a colleague checking in on a project. What really sets the app apart is its Moment feature: Users set up a daily alert, which brings up the day’s tasks one by one, with the option to set a deadline/alert, delete the item, check it off as completed or push it to later. The tone is conversational, with categories broken down into today, tomorrow, upcoming, and someday and includes words of encouragement (“Go get ’em, tiger!”) when setting or completing tasks. A premium account is $2.99 per month, $26.99 per year.
Best For: Professional power-taskers.
OmniFocus is often called the “Ferrari of to-do list apps,” and its got a price tag to match ($39.99 for Mac with a 14-day free trial, $79.99 for Pro; iOs $39.99, Pro $59.98). Though AppAdvice called it the “best project management application for iOS”, it’s probably more app than you need if you’re just looking to create a few simple lists. Learning to navigate the system and all its features is an investment of time, which might be better spent elsewhere. But just so you know, it’s what the pros use and it works particularly well if you’re a fan of productivity guru David Allen’s Getting Things Done system of tackling any task. Available only for Mac and iOS (with versions for the iPad and Apple Watch).
Best For: Multiple project management, and location-based reminders.
For those who want to follow the Getting Things Done protocol but cannot get behind the OmniFocus price tag, there’s Appigo’s ToDo for iOS ($4.99) and Mac ($14.99), which uses the GTD approach to workflow and productivity. The app’s many features allow you to create sub-tasks, start and due dates, recurring tasks, and task alerts. It also has search and print options. ToDo also has location-based features, like the context function that shows tasks when they’re relevant—for instance showing work tasks only when you’re at work—and the ability to geotag tasks, so you can receive location-based reminders, like “drop off dry-cleaning” when you’re near the dry cleaners.
Best For: Design enthusiasts who despise clutter.
Clear for Mac ($4.99) and iOS ($1.99) bills itself as simple and clutter-free, with a gesture-based design, meaning a lot of pulling, pinching and swiping. The lists, which sync across devices through iCloud, can also be color-coded; one theme available is reminiscent of a reverse sunset, with the most urgent items at the top in red, fading to orange and yellow for tasks that are less timely. Clear was named “the best simple list-making app for iPhone, iPad, and Mac” by Sweet Setup in December 2015; called most beautiful by the Verge; and listed as one of the best productivity apps by Mashable.
Best For: Inquisitive types looking for insight about their productivity (or cocktail party conversation).
Zippy has the same features as many other to-do list apps, with a very intuitive way to add a task, tag it for organization (“work” or “important”), then select a reminder date (“later today,” “the weekend,” etc.) and deadline. However, this iOS app ($1.99) also provides stats on your productivity, offering insight into how long it takes you to complete tasks, which items you tend to avoid, and what time of day you tend to create and complete your tasks. All this information is useful for streamlining your productivity—or just making dinner party conversation.
Best For: Planners with big projects (and secrets).
Available for Mac ($24.99), iOS ($7.99) and Android ($3.80), 2Do is great for both simple and multilayered projects. In addition to task management, 2Do also has a calendar function that makes planning and scheduling easy, according to Lifehacker. Among 2Do’s many features are the Smart List function that allows for easy search by keyword, an advanced search function, automatic alerts (for instance, if there’s an errand that can be done nearby) and the ability to batch edit tasks. Users can also lock individual lists or the entire app so no one can tap into your plans for world domination.
Best For: Those looking for big personality, and motivational kittens.
CARROT, available for iOS ($2.99), probably isn’t the best choice for the C-Suite, but users report that they get stuff done and have a lot of fun doing it. Calling itself “a to-do list with a personality,” CARROT is a super basic part to-do list/part game, offering virtual rewards—even a Tamagotchi-like kitten—when you step up to the plate and get shit done. When you slack off, however, CARROT throws you some shade: “Hello, lazy human!” is how “she” will greet you. It can get worse: “It’s been 18 hours since you did anything useful,” she lets you know if you’ve been off doing other things.
When you’re not productive it really stings, and occasionally she will get downright nasty: “My hatred for you already burns with the passion of 10,000 suns. I literally cannot hate you anymore. So I guess we’ll call it a draw.” If that doesn’t make you settle down to work after closing her dialog box, probably nothing will.