[This is a guest post by Nabeel Siddiqui, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at The College of William & Mary, where his research focuses on personal computers and the intersection of the public/private sphere. You can find him online here.--JBJ]

It’s safe to conclude the ProfHacker staff are fans of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. The book had a major influence on lifehacking , and a ton of software implements or uses its principles. Since starting graduate school, I have used Culture Code’s Things to keep up with my GTD todo list—ProfHacker’s Ryan Cordell has a great post on its features. It worked for a while, and I bought the iPad and iPhone apps after they were released so I had access to my todo list wherever I went.


Despite investing heavily into the Things ecosystem, I didn’t use its advanced features, and the app had hiccups. My greatest annoyance came when making my weekly todo list. The date picker, although pleasant to look at, took forever to use to schedule a week or two ahead. Plus, if I needed to adjust multiple tasks, I had to go through a convoluted GUI interface. Recently, I switched to VIM and plain text files for most of my writing and looked for a simpler todo solution.

Profhacker has written a lot about plain text files before, but to reiterate, plain text has a ton of advantages:


  • Portability-You can view plain text files on any device
  • Speed-You can make changes easily and quickly
  • Ease of Use-If you know how to type anything into a computer, you know how to work a plain text file.

Changing to plain text todos was a solution to my desire for simplicity. Don’t get bogged down by which format to use if you want to make the switch. There are two major .txt based todo manager formats. The first is Todo.txt and the other is TaskPaper. Todo.txt seems to work well for a lot of people, but I found that TaskPaper was better at organization. For most people, the official TaskPaper app, created by Jesse Grosjean of Hog Bay Software, should be enough to get started, but at $24.99, it’s a little expensive for a plain text todo manager.

Personally, I use Vim with the TaskPaper plugin to keep up with my files. Vim has a little bit of a learning curve, but allows you to edit text a lot quicker once you get the hang of it—if you are interested in learning Vim, I highly recommend this interactive tutorial. If neither of these solutions works for you, the TaskPaper website has a bunch of other options as well, which are free or available as plugins for other text editors.


To start a TaskPaper todo, you save your file with a .TaskPaper extension. From there, you have three actions:

  1. To add a task, you type a “-” with the name of the task.
  2. To create tags for contexts, etc., you use “@”
  3. To create a project, you add a “:” after the project name

Whenever you want to mark a task as done, you add a @done tag, and you can then archive the @done items as you see fit. In the official app, you can fold up items and view your projects on the left-hand side.


>My todo list has become a lot simpler after switching. I have three different projects at any given time ( which aren’t projects in the GTD sense): Weekly Schedule, Calendar, and Inbox. In my Inbox, I place tasks I need to file and determine when to do. To write my weekly schedule, I go through my inbox and calendar and place the items appropriately. I don’t follow the GTD philosophy for projects, but if you do, you can also look at those to place them in the appropriate days you want to accomplish your tasks. My one exception is on days I have a lot of work. On those days, along with my three projects, I also make a “Daily Schedule” that has what I need to do in thirty minute increments. I haven’t seen other GTD apps with this feature, but because TaskPaper uses bare bones plain text files its easy to add when I need it.


For mobile sync, there are a bunch of options available for iOS. I tend to use Editorial, because it allows you to open up other Markdown files easily as well. Another good option is Taskmator, but I find it has trouble with larger files containing a lot of archived tasks. You can conceivably use whichever plain text viewer you own on your phone though.


This new way of working with my todo list has allowed me to manipulate tasks fast. Although the GUI isn’t elaborate, I find stripping away the fancy elements allows me to see what I need to get accomplished quickly. Plus, by having sustainable todo lists, I know I’ll be able to view my TaskPaper file no matter what platform I use or switch to.

Do you use a plain text to-do list? What works for you? Please let us know in comments!!