Managing your tasks with todo.txt

[This was posted on my company’s internal intranet, hence the dry tone. But hey, content is content.]

I am always trying to find ways to manage my to-do list. I’ve tried various methods, including paper, Outlook, Google, and various phone apps, with varying amounts of success. Recently, I think I have found a method that seems to be working better than most. It uses a very simple but powerful tool called todo.txt.

Todo.txt was created by Lifehacker.com founder Gina Trapani, after realizing that many computer geeks were using a simple plain text file to manage their task list. She created a simple set of rules for formatting a plain text file (like what is produced by Windows Notepad) so that the information is structured in a predictable way.

The summarized rules are:

  • A single line in your todo.txt text file represents a single task
  • Priorities are always at the start of the line, in the form: (A), (B), (C) etc
  • Task contexts are represented like this: @Home, @Work, @Errands, @Phone etc
  • Projects (sets of related tasks) are represented like this: +DubaiMetro, +DohaMetro, +Renovations
  • Completed tasks start with an X (and a space)

There are some other rules including how to deal with creation dates, due dates, and completion dates. All the rules are here. There’s a lot more to it, including a dedicated Unix command-line tool, lots of powerful filters and so on, but the point is that it is very simple and powerful, with even more powerful features if you want them.

An example of a valid todo.txt file is:

2014-12-22 Submit application @Work +PM
2015-01-11 scan photos @Home +Blog
2015-01-12 @Work draw diagram +DubaiMetro
(A) Urgently buy milk @Errands
X This has been done @Home +Renovations
(A) Call Mom @Phone +Family
(A) Schedule annual checkup +Health
(B) Outline chapter 5 +Novel @Computer
(C) Add cover sheets @Office +TPSReports
Plan backyard herb garden @Home
Pick up milk @GroceryStore
Research self-publishing services +Novel @Computer
x Download Todo.txt mobile app @Phone

The smart things about todo.txt are:

  • You can edit the file using any text editor on any computer: Notepad, Sublime Text, gedit, vi, vim, emacs, the OSX default editor, you name it.
  • Because the formatting rules are fixed, apps can be created which use the format and provide a nice interface for managing your tasks. There are free apps available for Linux, OSX, Windows, Android and iOS.
  • Your todo.txt file can be in a cloud-based file storage service like DropBox. Mine is, and it means that I can view and edit it at work with one app (or directly in a text editor), in my phone with another app, and then again at home on Linux with whatever I want.
  • If you want paper, you can easily print the raw text file, or many of the apps provide a nicely formatted list with color highlights and checkboxes.
  • It’s future proof – it’s not locked in to any app or software, and can be moved around as much as I want.

It’s been working well for me. While it allows 26 levels of priority (A-Z), I only use 4 (A-D), and they mean this:

  1. The task I am working on right now
  2. The tasks I will do today
  3. Tasks that I plan to do this week.
  4. Tasks reserved for next week/future

The tool fits nicely with my attempts to keep control of my productivity and workflow, and I highly recommend it.