Life these days can be very complicated, and many of us — I’d guess that most of us — are constantly looking for the best method to keep our lives in order. What do you need on your grocery list? When is that work project due, and who is working on it with you? A friend wants to do a movie-watching session, but is that the same day you promised your parents to help clean the garage? Which bills are due, and can you afford to pay them all? Where is that article about which masks to wear? And on and on.
So we’ve asked the staff of The Verge what they use to keep track of all their appointments, tasks, projects, and workflows. And it turns out that they use a variety of different apps or some fairly old-fashioned paper-and-pen solutions — or both.
If you’re finding that this year is turning out to be a confusing one and you need a way to try to keep your life and your sanity in order, here are some methods that we use. We hope they are helpful.
Get a notebook. You do not need tech for this. In fact, keeping track of yourself is much easier if you aren’t using tech designed for someone else. Do you know why? Only you operate your brain. You are much more likely to design a system you will use than someone else is.
You will need a pencil or a pen. You can get wild and buy markers and a ruler. Personally, I like markers because I like color, but this is your notebook, so you should follow your heart. Now, you are going to experiment. Are you a monster who operates her life through jerry-rigged to-do lists? Great. Make some to-do lists. Do you want to track stuff using bullet journal layouts? Great. Do that. Do you just want to write down your feelings before you talk to someone about them? Brainstorm on a task? Whatever? Great news! There is a blank piece of paper, and it can be whatever you want it to be.
You do not need to buy an expensive notebook, though I like them because they make me feel fancy, and the paper is nice to touch. Still, my oldest notebooks are cheapo, nasty spiral-bound ruled paper I bought at the drugstore for under a dollar. The point is not the tools you are using. The point is that you are using something that works for your own brain. Glad we had this talk. — Elizabeth Lopatto, senior reporter
I’ve always had a not-so-great memory, and as a result, throughout most of my career, I’ve gone through I don’t know how many different apps for keeping track of what I have to do. I need something I can consult to track projects, remind myself of who owes me an article, which articles I promised to write or edit, what how-tos I swore I would take on next, etc.
As a result, while I appreciate (and sometimes use) simple note-taking apps such as Google Keep or reminders such as TickTick, I love experimenting with more complex task managers. (Remind me sometime to rant about Ecco Pro, a wonderfully flexible outliner / database back in the ’90s that was eventually acquired by another company and immediately abandoned, dammit.) Currently, my go-to for trying to maintain all of my various projects is Notion. I’m sure I haven’t learned 50 percent of the various ways one can use it. But it lets me nest pages inside pages inside pages; create outlines and to-do lists and on-the-fly notes; and, most importantly, add reminders and links so that I don’t let important things fall off my radar. — Barbara Krasnoff, reviews editor
Todoist — namely, the Chrome plug-in — has been my ride or die daily organizational app for years now. The free version that I use is very basic but does exactly what I need it to: it allows me to add items to my daily checklist and cross them off as I get things done. The “crossing things off when I’m done” is essential because I am an elder millennial, and I require affirmation that I’m doing things right. Favorite features in no particular order:
- Drag and drop tasks from one day to another
- The ability to add a website as a task for stuff I want to read later
- Priority flags that you can add to tasks and then ignore
- Move a task to tomorrow’s list with one click
It doesn’t do everything — I need a separate tool for long-term planning — but it is a lifesaver for daily priorities. And I swear it used to display a pleasant little sunset graphic when you emptied your checklist for the day, which was very gratifying. It doesn’t do that anymore, and I miss it. — Allison Johnson, reviewer
I use two apps to keep track of my to-dos: Apple’s Reminders app for personal tasks and TickTick for work tasks. I like Reminders because it integrates well across Apple’s device ecosystem (which I am in), and it allows my wife and me to easily make shared reminders if needed. I like TickTick for work because it’s easy to add tasks and because it sits unobtrusively in my menu bar. Keeping tasks across two different apps isn’t the most efficient process, but it helps me keep a better separation between personal and work stuff. — Jay Peters, news writer
I have to piggyback off Liz a little because I’ve tried digital solutions to organize myself, yet I often come back to pen and paper. I’m more focused when taking a moment to jot something down, whether it’s making a to-do list and outline in my notebook or creating an up-to-the-minute morning routine on an index card.
I channel my obsessively geeky tendencies into my choice of writing instrument. I got into fountain pens years ago, and I’ve picked up a bunch that I love using. They motivate me to take personal notes, get organized, and plan out my day — because I just like writing with these pens, even when it’s only a few words and a checkbox.
Find yourself something you like to write with, whether it be a fancy (or affordable) fountain pen, a quirky gel pen bought off AliExpress that looks like a cute bear (I have this, too), or a cheap ballpoint that just feels right to you. Fountain pens can be finicky, but they make everything very purposeful. Check out the Lamy Safari for a tried-and-true pen that is fairly inexpensive but undeniably good or the TWSBI Eco for a bit more money and get a cool bottle of colorful ink you can see slosh around in the translucent piston-filled barrel. You’ll feel like the coolest nerd around. — Antonio G. Di Benedetto, commerce writer
I’m usually not as organized as I would like to be. But outside of jotting essential to-dos and must-buy groceries on sticky notes, my other line of defense from getting overwhelmed by the flailing tentacles of life is an Android widget called Stuff. It’s a free to-do list app that lets you denote tasks for today, tomorrow, or sometime down the line.
I like it more than other to-do list apps that I’ve tried because it’s actually a widget, so it can live front and center on your screen if you want it to. Also, it doesn’t require an account and is ad-free.
Stuff is fairly limited in terms of customization, but you can pay $2 as an in-app purchase for more features, like the ability to rename the categories (I happen to like the default ones) or change the color of the bullet points that appear next to each line item as well as more under-the-hood details of the widget itself. You can round its corners, change its background color, and more.
I still find myself bouncing off using it (more of a “me” problem than an issue with this widget), but when I’m trying to get focused, I turn to Stuff. — Cameron Faulkner, reviewer
I use a combination of things, but like a few other people on this list, this simple $4.79 Five Star notebook is my favorite tool. Although I don’t adhere to it religiously, I like the bullet journal approach, so I manually number each page and add a separate index sheet in one of the notebook’s folders to easily find what I need by categories I’m constantly creating. I like color, so I use a few markers and pens but nothing too fancy.
For me, the simpler and cheaper the notebook is, the better because I find I feel less guilty about using it not just to write out my to-do list but also to plan, brainstorm, quickly jot down notes, journal, add my grocery shopping lists, and more. I find I just can’t do all of that when I have a high-end or exceptionally beautiful notebook. Don’t get me wrong — I have a collection of stunning journals that look like art, but I rarely use them because I know it’ll be expensive to buy another. When I do actually use them, I almost feel this kind of pressure to make my entries as organized, attractive, and as Pinterest-worthy as possible — while never actually getting anything done (true story). — Sheena Vasani, commerce writer
I basically run my life out of OmniFocus. Work tasks, home tasks — they all go into the same app, laden with tags and metadata like a defer (read: “don’t bug me about this until”) date, due date, and project. The app lets me change views if I only want to see personal tasks or work tasks, or it’ll let me get the big-picture view of everything I’ve got coming up and everything I’ve been putting off from the Forecast view. It can be a bit fiddly with managing projects and folders, but now that I’ve got a system set up, it feels like I can do almost anything when it comes to organizing and displaying my tasks.
I mean, I don’t. I pretty much explained everything I do in the first two sentences. But the point is that I could — and yes, I realize that my use of OmniFocus is like someone insisting they need an F-650 box truck to move a plastic table made for children. (Seriously, I’m getting jealous of my co-workers who are happy with $5 notebooks or free apps, especially since I’ll probably be dropping anywhere from $50 to $100 to upgrade to OmniFocus 4 when it comes out.) But none of the other apps I’ve tried have mapped so perfectly onto how my brain categorizes tasks, and I love using it so much that it (and Overcast) are basically what made me switch from Android to iOS. I’ve got no plans to change task management systems anytime soon. — Mitchell Clark, news writer
Apps and notebooks
Like many of my colleagues, I use a hybrid of apps and notebooks. However, there’s a clear line between work and personal tasks. Work tasks get apps; personal tasks are analog.
For personal stuff, I’ve been a Leuchtturm1917 fan for many years, but recently, I’m trying out one of these cute bullet journals from Notebook Therapy. Don’t get me started on how much I’ve spent on Japanese and Korean pens, markers, and highlighters. Basically, if it’s at JetPens or MochiThings, I have probably spent too much of my money on it. (Can you tell I was the dork with color-coded notes in school?) It’s just a soothing way to process all the big picture things going on in my life and break them down into more digestible pieces.
But, as a tech reviewer, my entire working life is digital, and I need to be able to switch between my phone and laptop. That’s why I also like Todoist. It’s got a mobile app, Chrome extension, integrates with my email client — the works. I also use Day One as a scratchpad for drafts I’m struggling with and 3AM shower thoughts alike. Otter is essential for recording briefings. On days I really can’t focus, I like to use Be Focused, which is basically a Pomodoro timer. — Victoria Song, reviewer
I have been using Apple’s macOS Stickies app on my work computers for as long as I can remember. This is the primary way I organize my thoughts throughout the workday, and I use the app for just about everything. I make lists of assignments and ongoing stories, ordered by deadline or urgency; I transcribe specific times at which I want to revisit a quote during interviews and live events; I write myself reminders for things that I know I’ll later forget; and I keep tabs on specific threads I want to follow up on when time allows. This very blurb was drafted in Stickies.
To be clear, this isn’t the only way I organize my life. I use Asana for long-term projects, physical notebooks and a day planner for note-taking and personal planning, and tools like the Slack reminders feature (which I use exhaustively). But Stickies are tremendously useful for day-to-day list-making and scrawling down stray thoughts. And the Notes app simply won’t do — that’s for things like groceries and errands!
I’m sure there’s a better way to hack your productivity, but this one’s worked for me for years. If you don’t mind your desktop image being obscured by a rainbow of translucent windows packed with lists and blocks of text, I recommend this (admittedly chaotic) method of workflow management. — Catie Keck, former Verger
Don’t @ me. It’s just so easy! Right there at my fingertips on my laptop and my phone! Apple’s built-in Notes app has delightfully few features. Really the only one that I use is the checklist feature that allows you to make lists with empty bubbles next to them, and nothing is more satisfying than clicking to check off one of those bad boys once you’ve finished your task. Notes allows you to bold and italicize, too, which I do every once in a while if I’m feeling wild. Plus, you can search your Notes. You can’t Command-F an analog notebook! Notes syncs across all of your iOS devices if you want it to, but I don’t. Mine are kept separate. My laptop notes are for work, my phone notes are for personal tasks, and my iPad notes are for random musings and journaling in times when my analog diary is out of reach.
Taylor Swift uses the Notes app to jot down lyrics whenever inspiration strikes, and since she’s one of the most prolific creators on this earth, that should be all the convincing you need. — Jackie McDermott, associate producer, Decoder
Update August 3rd, 2022, 9:20AM ET: This article was originally published on January 17th, 2022, and has been updated to account for changes in the products mentioned.