How Todoist Can Support Your Work and Life

There are a myriad of productivity tools available.1 Each has its own distinctives and claims to being better than its peers.

Ultimately, all of them need some kind of method in their use to really be helpful. And you should choose whatever methods and tools work for you.

After all, you got into biblical studies because you were interested in the biblical text. You didn’t get into biblical studies because your key interest lay in productivity tools and methods.

Tools and methods are only means to an end, and you should treat them as such. But because they are means, they can support for your progress toward the goals you’re trying to reach.

For me for the past few years, this has largely involved Todoist used broadly according to David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology.2

You might already have a different system that works well for you. If so, that’s great. Keep it going!

As Stephen Covey puts it,

Your planning tool should be your servant, never your master. Since it has to work for you, it should be tailored to your style, your needs, your particular ways.3

So, if you don’t have a solid system or you’re tired of fighting with the one you have, there are 8 reasons Todoist might be the tool for you. In particular, Todoist has

  1. Enough flexibility and simplicity to handle work, school, and personal material,
  2. A feature-full free version,
  3. Labels,
  4. Filters,
  5. Flexible scheduling options for recurring tasks,
  6. Integrations with Gmail,
  7. Integrations with Google Calendar, and
  8. A cost-effective Pro version.

1. Enough flexibility and simplicity to handle work, school, and personal material

The more systems you have the more questions you have about where something might be. Then, the whole bundle of systems becomes more complex and time consuming. And it’s costs start to outweigh its benefits.

So when you’re deciding on how to manage your commitments, it helps to condense everything as simply as possible into as few places as possible.

You can probably think of a time when you forgot something like “Get bread at the grocery store.” Then you had to make a second trip. While on that second trip to the store, you lost time to use to “Write the literature review.”

Or maybe “Get bread” wasn’t it. Maybe it was “Rotate the tires.” You missed that repeatedly and then got to spend time replacing tires instead of preparing for class.

Or maybe you didn’t have a complete inventory of your school obligations. So you got “surprised” by a deadline you actually knew about much earlier.

You then had to cram it in last minute. As a result, you ended up being less present with your family or missing an opportunity to serve someone else.

Because we’re whole people, our personal and academic lives are deeply intertwined. What affects one affects the other.

So if you can remove clutter, complexity, and confusion in either sphere, you’ll be doing a favor for the other as well. Todoist can help you accomplish this.

2. A feature-full free version

Like many apps, Todoist is available on a “freemium” basis. You get certain features for free just by signing up. Other features you get when you become a “pro” subscriber.

The free version of Todoist allows however many installations you want on your different devices.4 It also allows up to 5 current projects, file attachments up to 5 megabytes, up to 3 saved searches (or “filters”), labels, wide flexibility in scheduling recurring tasks, Google Calendar integration, and some helpful Gmail integration (more on these last three below).

In the past, Todoist held certain features (e.g., labels) back to distinguish the free and paid plans. But the free plan now includes just about all the features the “Pro” plan does (reminders being the main exception).

This change puts the main difference between the free and Pro plans in terms of quantity. A key example may be how the Pro plan allows for up to 300 active projects, but the free plan only allows up to 5.

Though, on the free plan, you can still create 20 “sections” inside each project, which alone gives you up to 100 different buckets to sort your commitments into.5 And for a sense of scale, I have under 40 active projects and could probably even stand to condense them some.

All of this means that Todoist’s free version gives you a very wide range of features just for signing up. So, if you don’t already use Todoist, you should definitely dip your toe in with the free version to see first-hand how Todoist might work for you.

3. Labels

In Todoist, each task goes in exactly one project. But each task can have multiple labels.

So labels can be a good way of pulling together different kinds of similar work across their various projects.

For instance, I use a Todoist label as a way of keeping a “waiting for” list. These things I need to not forget but can’t act on again yet. I’m waiting for something from someone else (e.g., in an email reply) to be able to take a next action.6

So I have an “@Waiting_for” label in Todoist that I apply to these items. This allows me to review them regularly, see what has or hasn’t come in, and follow up where needed.

More importantly, this label helps me ensure I don’t drop the ball on something just because I forgot about that commitment while I was waiting for something I needed to continue working to complete it.

4. Filters

In Todoist, a “filter” is essentially a saved search. Filters allow you to pull together custom lists of tasks with different criteria.

You can structure filters however you like. But as an example, I have an @Home label that I add to personal things I need to do when I’m away from the office.

With that label, I can then use the not operator (!) in the filter today & [email protected] to give me a comprehensive list of everything I need to do on a given day before I leave the office (i.e., when I’m not at home).

Todoist’s free plan limits you to 3 filters. But you can still search Todoist in more than three combinations (not unlike how you can add multiple sections inside each of the free plan’s maximum of 5 projects).7

For instance, if you have an @Home label that you use like I do, you can search Todoist with the query today & [email protected]. Once you run the search, you’ll see everything that’s due today and doesn’t have the @Home label.

You can then bookmark that page in your browser. Or you can copy and paste the URL (which should be something like https://todoist.com/app/search/today%20%26%20!%40Home) into a comment in Todoist.

The workflow’s not as smooth as using the built-in filter feature, but it can gets the job done.

5. Flexible scheduling options for recurring tasks

This one might be a bit geeky. But there are several things I want to do remind myself to do on a certain day of the week in a month.

It’s curiously hard, however, to find task managers that will give you the proper dates for things that occur on a specific day of the week but a different date in a given month.

For instance, you might want to

  • Check the car’s tire pressure every month on the second Saturday. Or
  • Every first Friday in November, communicate about my plans for the annual SBL meeting.

Besides Todoist, there are definitely other solutions that allow you to do this. But I’ve been surprised how few there are.

For me, it’s an important one to have to minimize the need to regularly reschedule things manually that come up on the wrong day.

6. Integrations with Gmail

Gmail includes a “snooze” feature that can be immensely helpful when you want to get a message out of your inbox for now but bring it back at a later time.8

Taking this functionality one level farther, Todoist integrates with Gmail in two ways.9 The first is a Gmail extension (Chrome, Edge) that allows you to add a Gmail message to any Todoist project. There’s also a Google Workspace Add-on that works in other browsers and mobile devices (except iPad).

Using either extension, Todoist can create a task that will link you directly back to the relevant Gmail conversation.

In addition, Todoist now also allows you to forward messages from any email client and have them attached to a particular Todoist task or project, even if you’re on the free plan.10

Each of these features can be a helpful way of stacking the deck so your email will return you the most benefit for the least amount of effort spent managing it.

7. Integrations with Google Calendar

Google of course has its own Tasks and Reminders features that integrate with Calendar. But these are pretty limited and so for me haven’t proven as useful as Todoist.

So it’s nice that Todoist also integrates with Google Calendar so that you can see your calendar and Todoist tasks all in one place.11 (Again, simpler and fewer places to look is better.)

For instance, Google Calendar integration makes it easier to see the time blocks I’m dedicating to certain specific tasks.

Having a time slot set aside for “research” is good. But it’s also easy to assign more to a time block like that than you can really accomplish.

Putting specific tasks on your calendar might help you see better where you’re inadvertently doing this.

Depending on how you set it up, the Google Calendar integration can also help you keep a running log of what you’ve done. That way, you can occasionally look back and see whether you invested too much or too little time in various activities.

8. A cost-effective Pro version

If you want the additional features behind Todoist’s subscription wall, current pricing for Todoist Pro is $36 per year, or $4 per month (US). This means Todoist Pro is quite cost effective by comparison with the subscription plans of similar tools.

For instance, reminders aren’t available on Todoist’s free plan. But I’ve started to find them increasingly helpful to surface things at particular times—even if those things don’t exactly need to be done at those times.12

If you decide to try Todoist Pro and sign up through this link, you’ll get a free two-month trial of Todoist premium.

Again, if a free or already-fully-paid-for solution works well for you, that’s great. But next to that, Todoist’s comparatively low annual subscription rate is definitely a plus.

Conclusion

However you manage your commitments, you need to use the tools and processes that work for you.

One of the standout features in the “Pro Tips” series is just how simple are the systems of some of the most productive biblical scholars.

You don’t need anything fancy. And you definitely don’t need something just because it’s a shiny app that has gotten great reviews.

You just need a system that helps you keep up with your commitments and then gets out of your way.

If you’re still searching for what this may be for you, definitely consider giving Todoist a try. Sign up is free, as is the “Pro” feature set for the first two months.


  1. Header image provided by TechCrunch

  2. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 2015). 

  3. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 170. 

  4. Here and below, I’m primarily digesting the content of “Pricing,” Todoist, n.d. 

  5. What’s Included in the New Free Plan?,” Todoist, n.d. 

  6. For further discussion, see Allen, Getting Things Done, 153–54. 

  7. For details about searching Todoist, see “Introduction to: Filters,” Todoist, n.d. 

  8. Snooze Emails until Later,” Gmail Help, n.d. 

  9. Use Gmail with Todoist,” Todoist, n.d. 

  10. The New Free Plan.” At the time that I’m writing this, the main related help article still shows email forwarding as reserved for Pro and Business plan customers, “Forwarding Emails to Todoist,” Todoist, n.d. But that page will doubtless get updated in due course. 

  11. Use Google Calendar with Todoist,” Todoist, n.d. For information on Todoist’s more limited “feed” integration for Google and other calendar providers, see “Use Todoist with Your Calendar,” Todoist, n.d. 

  12. Though, as with much else, the free plan gives you what you need to assemble similar functions yourself. For instance, with reminders, you could use something like Google Calendar to prompt you about items in Todoist. 

What Do You Really Want to Accomplish in 2021?

What do you really want to accomplish this year?1

Without clear intentions, you’re liable to get to the end of it having done plenty of things except give enough attention to what you’d otherwise select as most important.

To avoid that, it’s important to take some time to identify what you want to work toward achieving.

How you do that will likely look a bit different from how someone else does it. But if you’re looking for a place to start, I’d like to suggest 5 steps to get you going:2

  1. Reflect on your experience.
  2. Brainstorm what you’d most like to accomplish this year.
  3. Turn your brainstorm results into goal statements.
  4. Assign each goal to a particular part of the year.
  5. Each week, ask what you can do to move toward one or more of your goals.

1. Reflect on your experience.

Before you start making plans for the year, it might be helpful for you to reflect on what you’ve learned from the last year.

At least for me, when I do this, I inevitably pull out some things that help me plan better for the future.

You’ll have your own lessons that you’ve learned, but let me share an example of my own to help get your wheels turning.

I’ve sometimes found myself with one or more goals that’s too large to accomplish in any one time period. (I structure my year into quarters. Semesters work great too, but more on that below.)

That meant those larger—but possibly more important—items could get lost in the shuffle. So, in response, I’ve tried to be more mindful about chunking down larger projects into smaller units that can fit into single quarters.

This naturally means a larger project will have more discrete goals that lead up to its completion. But that’s part of the point. Larger projects are larger and will take more to complete.

So, having any given quarterly goal will be pretty achievable within that quarter has been helpful.

It gives me a better sense of just how committed the year and its quarters already are. It also helps me see better throughout the year how I’m progressing on larger-scale projects.

This is true whether that larger project is professional or personal. For instance, if I have a goal to take a certain number of days out of the office with my family by the end of the year, it does some good just to plop that goal down into the fourth quarter.

But if that goal is going to require meaningful chunks of time in other quarters too, what’s still more helpful is again to segment that larger goal down into those major per-quarter chunks.

2. Brainstorm what you’d most like to accomplish this year.

You’ll certainly accomplish many more things this year than you can count. But what are the most important things for you to accomplish?

2.1. Make a list.

Make a list of what you think of. Be sure to think both personally and professionally.

It can be easy to think about professional goals and ignore personal ones. But biblical scholarship isn’t about being an academic automaton.

So, it’s important to have a mix of both personal and professional goals that you’re working toward.

Do you want to write an article? Spend more time focused on your family? Take a class? (As a hint, if you’re a student taking a class, completing that class successfully should be one of your goals. 🙂 )

It might take a few minutes for you to get going. But once you do, your list is liable to grow pretty quickly.

Keep brainstorming until you have at least 10 items on your list.

2.2. Subdivide your list.

Once you get to this point, carefully review your list. As you do so, you’re asking one question: What item(s) on your list needs to be subdivided?

Don’t worry about making any of these subdivisions too detailed. All you’re trying to get a handle on are the major component pieces of any larger goals you’re considering putting on your plate.

As an example, you might have on your list “Write my dissertation.” That’s not something you’re going to finish all at one go. Nor is it something you’re going to be able to do all in one quarter or semester.

You’ll want to subdivide this project, and as you do, you’ll start to see your list better reflect the complexity of what writing your dissertation requires.

You might subdivide this project into

  • completing your prospectus,
  • completing each of the individual chapters, and finally
  • editing, proofreading, and submitting your project.

So, for instance, if you have five chapters, “Write my dissertation” immediately becomes seven discrete activities (one for each of the chapters, one for the prospectus, and one for final editing).

2.3. Focus your list.

Now, out of your subdivided list, you only get to pick 12 items at most to really work on. If you only have 10–12 items, that’s great.

What do you do if you find yourself with more than 12 items in your brainstormed list (like I have)?

It’s tempting to think you can do it all or fit everything in that you want in the scope of a year. But that’s rarely realistic, and if it is, that probably means your goals weren’t really stretching you to begin with.

The beauty of limiting yourself to no more than 12 major objectives over the coming 12 months is that it helps you feel at this planning stage the strain that these goals will put on your time, attention, and resources as the year moves along.

Anything that goes on this list ultimately means something else can’t be on it. So, to come down to your most important objectives for the coming year, you might need to reflect, write down, scratch out, reorder, and otherwise hash and rehash your list over a few days until you’re satisfied with it.

That’s okay. And whatever doesn’t make the cut for this year you can definitely save as ideas for another time.

The important thing is make space to think and intentionally commit to what will be most important to you this year.

3. Turn your brainstorm results into goal statements.

Once you have your main yearly objectives, take a few minutes to turn them into SMARTER goals that are

Doing so will help you crystalize for yourself exactly what you’re committing to accomplishing by when.

Specific

“Write an article” or “spend more time with my family” are too general. Aiming at them is much like trying to hit anywhere in a target rather than in the bullseye.

“Write an article about the land promise to Abraham” or “Be home by 5:30, and give my full attention to my family the rest of each weekday” are much more specific targets to try to hit.

Measurable

“Make progress on my dissertation” doesn’t cut it because “progress” is very vague.

What counts? In principle, one additional character in your dissertation file could count as “progress,” but at that rate, your project will likely outlive you and still not be finished.

“Draft my first dissertation chapter” is much better.

Actionable

To “be less distracted while reading” is a great idea, but what do you need to do in order to be this way?

Do you need to “Use Freedom to block online distractions during scheduled reading time”? That you can do as you cultivate the habit of deep work.

By clarifying exactly what action you need to take to achieve a given outcome, you’re that much more likely to make good forward progress in that area.

Realistically Risky

A good goal should be doable but stretch you. For instance, you might have been comfortably writing academic papers at 200 words per hour.

But how would things be different if you tried to stretch that to 300 words per hour? What kind of time would that free up? What steps would you need to take to get that much more focused during your writing time?

Time-keyed

By when do you want to have this goal complete? Or how often do you want to do it?

For example, do you want to “Spend two hours a day, five days a week writing my dissertation”? Or do you want to “Finish drafting my last dissertation chapter by 30 June”?

If you’re using a “due by” time key, you’ll naturally match that time key to the part of the year to which you assign that goal.

Exciting

Whether a goal is exciting can be related to how much it stretches you, or it might be something you just simply enjoy doing. So, this criterion has more to do with the topic of the goal than with how you frame it.

If you look over your goals list and you find something that makes you yawn, ask yourself why. As you do, consider removing it to concentrate on something more important. Or if it’s something you need to keep, try reframing it in a way that piques your interest.

Relevant

If you’re working full time in a non-faculty post outside Europe, have an active family life, and have ongoing commitments in your community, it still might be a lot of fun to “Spend the semester at INTF.”

But it might not be realistic to pull up stakes and start actively moving on this goal in your current circumstances. At the very least, you’d back off this goal to something more preparatory like “Plan a semester abroad at INTF.”

4. Assign each goal to a particular part of the year.

Academic life typically revolves around quarters or semesters. And that natural structure is something to consider when you think about how to segment your year—whether into 3 or 4 major parts.

Either should work. I’ve found the slightly shorter and more regular quarters to be more helpful.

But they do sometimes overlap in odd ways with academic semesters. So, choose whatever approach seems most natural and least likely to create friction for you.

In either case, the point is to avoid letting goals slide in either planning or execution. The more of your important objectives get lumped into the very end of the year, the more likely they’ll be still incomplete at the start of next year.

Instead, from your list of no more than 12 SMARTER goals for the year, assign

  • No more than 4 to each semester (fall, spring, summer) or
  • No more than 3 to each quarter.3

Just like limiting yourself to 12 annual goals, limiting yourself to 3 per quarter or 4 per semester helps you feel the constraints of that time in your planning process.

Reckoning with those constraints ahead of time can be key to helping you avoid larger-scale scheduling crises.

5. Each week, ask what you can do to move toward one or more of your goals.

If you only have 12–16 weeks to complete 3–4 major goals, you need to be intentional about what you do each week.

So, however works for you, schedule time each week to review your goals for that quarter or semester.

Then, ask yourself: “What do I need to do this week toward completing the goals I’ve set?”

You might not be able to work on everything for that quarter or semester in a given week. That’s fine.

The point is to make regular progress, even if its on a small handful of meaningful tasks. Overtime, those small handfuls add up to much larger results.

If you want some ideas about how to structure your time, and your goals in it, see my free guide, How to Budget Your Time: A Guide for Regular, Irregular, and Mixed Schedules.

Conclusion

By the time December rolls around, the year will be too far spent to change much of what it involves. So, don’t wait.

Instead, “begin with the end in mind” of what you’d like to have done this year once it is at an end.4

Then, you’ll be ready to start taking deliberate, well-defined steps toward that end.


  1. Header image provided by Annie Spratt

  2. In this post, I’m much indebted to the advice in Michael S. Hyatt, Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018). I’ve found this guidance hugely helpful for myself. And I’ve tried to supplement and apply it here in a way that addresses some of the specifics of life in biblical studies. 

  3. A possible exception is if you’re running a habit goal throughout the year like “Bike for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.” In that case, you might need to have that habit goal in each quarter or semester. And you can decide whether the time commitment for that goal is small enough for it not to occupy one of these 3 quarterly or 4 semesterly slots. 

  4. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 102–53. 

A Perspective on Adaptability and Productivity

Adaptability is a keystone of productivity.

You can find all manner of helpful advice about how to be more effective and productive. But not all of this advice is equally good for everyone at all times.

Force-fitting some guru’s advice into your situation may not be the best idea or give you the best results.

For you to work better requires you to be adaptable in your individual situation.

A Personal Example

What Normally Works

Normally, I time block my schedule so I can batch similar kinds of activities together.

Those activities might be research. They might be grading. They might be email.

For me in a “normal” week, that kind of discrete batching works well. I focus on one particular kind of activity for a while. And as needed, I use Freedom to help avoid “quick checks” distractions that dilute that focus.

When Circumstances Require Adaptability

But not all weeks are “normal,” let alone all days or months.

This is patently obvious amid recent efforts across the globe to address COVID-19. But I’d like to share a different story.

The Circumstances

Not long ago, my wife, Carrie, had an x-ray that showed she had a broken collar bone.

That meant she couldn’t lift anything with either arm, including our 18-month-old. And when you have an 18-month-old, you do a lot of lifting.

You might not think you do. But when you suddenly have restrictions on lifting, it’s surprising how many things you notice require lifting. 😉

All of this meant I was going to be home with Carrie and the kids rather than at the office.

It would have been best to have enough margin in my schedule so I didn’t have to worry about working while I was home with them. But that wasn’t the case.

There were still deadlines that had to be met and projects that had to get done. But what was normally an 8–9 hour continuous workday instantly became 2–4 hours very much spread out into comparatively small slices through the day.

And time blocking is pretty useless as a productivity strategy if

  1. you don’t know when you can schedule those time blocks or
  2. how long you can schedule them to run.

That didn’t really bother me. Being there for Carrie and the girls was an infinitely higher priority than anything else I had on tap for school.

But there were still things that had to get done for school.

The Adaptability

It took me a couple days. But I soon realized the best approach for me in those particular circumstances would be to rank my Todoist tasks for the day strictly in terms of priority—highest to lowest.

Whenever I had some time to work, I’d start at the top of the list and work down for however long until I needed to stop.

Whatever didn’t get done by the end of that day had to get rolled forward to a future day. But working from highest to lowest priority helped ensure that the things that didn’t get done were the things that weren’t as important anyhow.

This story’s twist is that about a week after the x-ray that showed Carrie had a broken collar bone, an MRI showed her collar bone was fine.

Instead, the problem was an inflamed shoulder joint. And she could start moving her shoulder and lifting again as much as she felt like until her shoulder got back to normal.

Two Lessons

From this story, I’d like to draw a couple lessons on the importance of adaptability to productivity.

1. Be Creatively Adaptable

First, productivity requires adaptability. You have to look for what works for you in your particular circumstances.

For instance, if you find yourself working from home while also taking care of kids, put it to yourself as an open question how you can creatively combine the two. Don’t assume they’re in conflict.

Sure, you can only put your attention on one thing at a time. But you’ll be more productive (not to mention, in this example, a better parent) if you take this situation as a challenge for your personal creativity to rise to rather than as an opportunity to bemoan how one obligation doesn’t allow you to focus fully on another.

2. Be a Whole Person

Second, recognize that you’re a whole person and need to live life as such.

You’re a spouse, a parent, a student, a teacher, a ministry leader in your church, and more.

Your life is complex. And because it’s complex, you might well be able to envision how your contributions in one area (e.g., school, church) could be better than you’re able to make them given everything else that’s also in your life.

It’s always good to prune lesser responsibilities that pull you away from those that are more important.

But once you’ve done that, you’ll still have a multi-faceted and complex life.—And that’s a good thing.

Give yourself grace to strive to do the best you can with the responsibilities in your life as a whole. And this may mean that one or some responsibilities don’t get everything you could imagine giving them in other circumstances.

But if you’ve pruned down to what’s really essential, “other circumstances” by definition means cutting or shirking something you consider essential. And long term, that’s a great recipe for regret.

Conclusion

So know what’s essential for you, and prune what isn’t.

And amid the complexities of what’s essential and the surprises life brings your way, stay adaptable and open.

Ask yourself the question “What’s best now?” And keep asking that question and being open to adjusting your answer to what your circumstances require.

What story do you have about how adaptability has proven key to your productivity?

Header image provided by Joshua Oluwagbemiga

Daily Gleanings: Finishing (23 December 2019)

In episode 14 of the Focus on This podcast, Courtney Baker and Blake Stratton discuss “how to finish goals that drag on forever.”

Using a quarter-by-quarter framework Courtney and Blake particularly define “dragging on” as a goal rolling from one quarter to another without completion.

In the episode, they primarily discuss different kinds of time keys (e.g., due dates, frequencies) and how clarity about these keys might help with completion.

It wasn’t so much discussed here, but another cause for the dragging on of goals (or the projects they represent) might be simply that the project is too big for the time frame allotted.

In that case, a given goal or project might need to be broken down into several and these several spread throughout the year.

Of course, doing this will use up a yearly goal budget faster. But that’s really just an admission of what it means to have the larger project on your plate in the first place—there’s less room on that plate for something else.

Daily Gleanings: Benchmarking (20 December 2019)

Scott Young discusses the importance of benchmarking in skill development.

Instead of simply focusing on skill development, Young suggests that “benchmark projects” will tend to be more effective.

He comments,

Benchmark projects are also about improving skills. However, instead of picking a skill and just trying to get better at it, you first pick a clear benchmark accomplishment that defines success.

Some examples of benchmarking might include getting favorable feedback from the discussion after a conference paper, having a journal article accepted and cited multiple times, or committing to write a certain number of words per day.

The aim is to have some metric by which you can judge your progress as you develop whatever skill you choose to work on.

For Young’s full discussion, see his original guest post on Cal Newport’s blog.