TaskPaper: More To-Do Nirvana

I spend a lot of time and money trying to find the perfect to-do system. Yes, a system. It’s not enough to just keep a list. That would probably work better and leave me with more time to actually get stuff done instead of messing with my system, but I want something geeky and electronic. If possible, I want something that involves complicated syncing and tagging as well. But then as soon as I get that all set up, I get tired of how complicated it is to put “do the laundry” on my list and quit using the system at hand.

If you are new to this game, try Remember the Milk, Toodledo, or, God forbid, Things or OmniFocus. After you’ve spent hours or days organizing your life perfectly—if you’re like me—you’ll be too tired to do anything except admire how organized you are.

My latest system is TaskPaper, which I tried years ago and discarded because there was no complicated syncing with my phone. The other day it came to my attention that there is a TaskPaper iPhone app. WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME?

This is the perfect marriage of convenience and complexity. TaskPaper is all about plain text, which I like because, well, what isn’t to like about plain text? It’s the electronic version of scribbling on a piece of paper, only when you move stuff around you don’t have eraser marks or cross-outs. TaskPaper is plain text with convenience built in, and it works the way my mind does, meaning I sometimes just want a list (groceries) and I sometimes want to plan complicated projects that include notes and to-do items. I want some method of tagging stuff so I can slice and dice my lists, but I don’t want to have to click boxes and deal with spinny date-pickers.

I have developed true affection for TaskPaper on my Mac because of its quick-entry box. As long as it’s running, you can use a keyboard shortcut, type in your task, pick a project, and type the keyboard shortcut again, and the task is there. In TaskPaper, you tag stuff by @tagging it. It’s slicker than snot if you’re the type who’s ever made up your own system of jumping around text files. There are shortcuts for sorting by project and tag, and you can open different tabbed views if you want.

It syncs with its iPhone counterpart through Dropbox. I’ve had a few versioning issues with the sync, which irritates me for a $10 iPhone app that works with plain text files, but I’m spoiled like everyone else with iOS app prices. The iOS app is universal and allows quick entry on the go, especially if you leave a bucket list open in the app. I have an “Inbox” list that I leave open when I close the app, so I can just tap the icon, add a task, and get back out. Later I can move stuff around on my Mac version, and because it’s a text file that just means cut and paste. Brilliant.

Stuff TaskPaper does not do:

  • Calendar syncing of any kind
  • Due dates (but see below)
  • Repeating tasks
  • Location awareness

Reasons I don’t care about that:

  • If I need something done on a specific date, I put it on the calendar
  • I put repeating tasks on the calendar (with a cute little Emoji checkbox because I like it)
  • Geofencing made me go oooo, ahhhh for like 5 minutes and then I realized it was just running my battery down and rarely helping me out
  • Other systems exist that do all that

Due dates

One does like to have some way of designating time frames in to-do lists. Tags like @today and @tomorrow largely fit my needs, because beyond that I’m probably going to change it anyway. For the situations when I have a project that I need to do probably by some vaguely specific point, I use a @due2012–06–01 as recommended by the TaskPaper documentation. Then a search for @due sorts them correctly. But again, TaskPaper is not a system for tracking when to do things. That is why God made iCal.


One reason I really like TaskPaper is that unlike many to-do systems it allows easy entry of tasks AND lists. I can whip out my phone and just start listing stuff I need at the store. Other apps require approximately 47 taps to do that. The app is particularly versatile with lists like grocery lists because with the iPhone version you can swipe right over an item to mark it done but leave it where it is (eg, for staples you’ll probably be adding again next week; swipe right again to undo the “done”) or you can swipe left and pick “delete” to obliterate it (eg, for exotic items you probably won’t need again soon).


TaskPaper is freaking awesome if you’re the type who knows what Emacs is or you’ve ever felt irritated that you can’t construct a complicated Boolean search to look for something simple. I’m not sure everyone would like it. But it’s worth a look if you’re not filled with glee over your current system, because it’s flexible enough that you can make it as simple or as complicated as you want. There are videos on the site showing how it works.