While some still insist on sticking with pencil and paper to keep track of their daily tasks, many harried professionals are turning to productivity apps to help manage everything from huge projects and deadlines to the little things they need to get done.
Productivity apps are in huge demand; accordingly, people keep creating them. What’s more, the more popular apps can be pretty pricey. One of the top grossing iPhone apps, Omnifocus 2, sells for $39.99, allowing those who simultaneously work on multiple complex projects to track their tasks and deliverables.
You don’t have to spend $40 on an app to get things done. You just need to know what to look for. In a post published in The Observer, Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy, says the right productivity tool should help you “prioritize to dos, categorize them, allow for editing, and separate what you have to work on today from the to-dos you can safely ignore until tomorrow.” This is the bare minimum. Now, with features ranging from automatic recurring tasks to location-based reminders, to-do apps are becoming much more advanced.
Productivity apps are no longer just about function — form is just as important. According to app-ranking website The Sweet Setup, “the [to-do] lists should be beautiful to look at, easy to organize, and have an understandable hierarchy.” Furthermore, the animations need to be just right, so that “checking items off my list should be satisfying, if not delightful.” Other important factors for evaluating apps include speed, flexibility, alerts, and availability on multiple platforms.
Based on research and personal experience, I’ve narrowed the list of top productivity apps down to these three:
Platforms: Windows 8, Mac OS X, Android, iPhone, Android Tablet, iPad, Web, Apple Watch, Windows Phone, Windows 7, Chromebook
Cost: The basic app is free; Wunderlist Pro runs $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year. Additional features with Pro include assigning an unlimited number of tasks to others, attaching files of any size, and adding unlimited subtasks.
Last Tuesday, Microsoft acquired productivity app Wunderlist. In their blog, Microsoft explained, “The addition of Wunderlist to the Microsoft product portfolio fits squarely with our ambition to reinvent productivity for a mobile-first, cloud-first world.” Does Wunderlist meet the hype?
Available on almost every platform, Wunderlist allows users to access their to-do lists from almost anywhere. Beyond the basic features such as the ability to star important tasks, create multiple lists, sort by due date and priority, and add tasks via e-mail, Wunderlist is also considered “the prettiest to-do list app out there.” You can customize your background using their collection of images. One drawback, however, is that you can’t upload your own images — and to use Wunderlist’s most visually-appealing backgrounds, you have to upgrade to Pro.
When working in a group, Wunderlist is especially helpful. The basic version allows users to assign up to 25 to-do’s to collaborators, add notes to tasks that need explaining, share lists, sort lists into folders, attach 5 MB worth of photos and PDFs, and start conversations about tasks. Furthermore, its unique hashtag feature allows you to link tasks together, even if they are not on the same list.
Best of all, the app is very intuitive to use. According to The Verge, which rated Wunderlist as the best to-do list app, most of its key features are “never more than a tap or two away.” The app also works with Apple Watch. Its “Glance” feature shows a circle that measures your daily progress. As you complete your tasks, the circle will also complete, giving you a clean, satisfying visual of how far you’ve come.
While Wunderlist has great features, one drawback is that it’s difficult to get a comprehensive view of all of your tasks. For example, you can see your sub-tasks only if you individually select the tasks they fit under. Furthermore, you can only view one list at a time.
Platforms: Web, Android Phone, Android Tablet, iPhone, iPad, Windows, Mac OS, Chrome, Firefox, Outlook, Thunderbird, Gmail, Postbox
Cost: The basic app is free; Todoist Premium charges $29/year. Additional features with Premium include keyword search, color-coded labels, task notes and file uploads, push notifications, location-based reminders, adding tasks via email, productivity tracking, iCalendar synchronization, project templates, and automatic backups.
Last week, Todoist announced its new PowerApp integration with Evernote. This new platform allows users to sync tasks between Evernote and Todoist and convert Evernote files into Todoist projects and tasks. Todoist also integrates with Google Calendar and Github, and it’s available everywhere, from desktop apps for Windows and OSX to add-ons for Firefox and Chrome.
Among many competitive features, Todoist provides its users with real-time syncing, custom labels and filters for tasks, the option to set sub-tasks, templates for recurring projects, and location-based reminders (for example, it can ping you to pick up milk when you pass by a grocery store).
One of its most unique features is Todoist Karma, which helps users stay motivated by “gamifying” productivity. Users can accumulate points by meeting their goals and visualize their progress on beautiful, color-coded graphs. Similarly to Wunderlist, Todoist recently integrated with Apple Watch, which allows users to quickly dictate reminders and use a “Glance View” function to check how many tasks are left for the day.
However, the app has a major drawback — you have to pay $29/year to get basic features such as mobile and email reminders, task search, and iCalendar integration. Furthermore, the iPhone app is only available for iOS 8 and above, which excludes users with older iPhones.
Platforms: Web, Android, iPhone, Chrome, and Mac
Cost: The basic app is free; due to its special launch offer, Any.do premium is $2.99/month or $26.99/year. With premium, you get unlimited shared tasks, 100 MB per file of uploads, full access to Any.do moment, multiple themes, customized recurring tasks, location-based reminders, and premium support.
Ranked on Lifehacker as the best to-do app for iPhone, Any.do combines a simple interface with powerful features. It’s incredibly easy for users to add reminders and sync their to-do lists. For example, users can add new tasks from their e-mail by messaging firstname.lastname@example.org. Unlike its competitors, Any.do doesn’t overwhelm its users with dates and times. Instead, it simply sorts tasks into categories of “Today,” “Tomorrow,” “Upcoming,” and “Someday.” This task triage makes it easy for you to feel in control of your day, and it helps prevent future tasks from cluttering what you have to focus on today.
Any.do integrates smoothly with your phone. If you miss a call, the app will provide you with options to dismiss the alert, return the call immediately, or set a reminder to call back. Similarly, if you are too busy to answer a text message, Any.do can send automated messages such as “Can’t talk now. Call me later?” The app boasts strong language processing features. For example, if you set “Call Doctor” as a task, you can simply tap the task for your phone to automatically call the number you stored for your Doctor. It also has a fun voice — when you add a task, the screen will display “Nice! Now go make it happen.” If you complete a task, it will cheer you on: “Like a boss!” If you have no tasks for the day, the app will encourage you to call your mom.
Any.do’s most popular feature is “the moment,” which sends a push notification every morning to remind users, “Take a moment to plan your day.” It then shows a short list of the tasks needed to be completed, and users can push one of four buttons to mark whether they want to do it “today” or “later,” or even cross it off the list if it’s completed or no longer relevant. Unless you pay, however, you only get to use 5 moments a month.
The app is helpful for the every-day user — but if you are the type of person who wants to access your to-do list from everywhere you go, it probably isn’t for you. Although Any.do is available on iPhone, Android, Chrome, Web, and Desktop, it doesn’t match its competitors’ cross-platform support. As The Verge describes it, “Any.do is promising, but it feels half-baked.”
Which App is Right For You?
When it comes down to it, all three apps offer a clean, intuitive design, integration across multiple platforms, easy addition of tasks, and basic features you need for a task management system. To pick the app that works well for you, I suggest trying them all out to see which best accommodates your lifestyle.
Written by Maggie Zhang of Forbes.com