State of the tech: July 2017

For two years, I relied on Wunderlist to organize my life. Everyone’s mind works a little differently, so many task list apps exist; Wunderlist fit me very well, and it came as terrible news to learn recently that it was going away. Still, the timing was felicitous. Were I ever to transition to a new task system, that was a good moment, because I’d been in a new job for long enough to have gotten a feel for how tasks play out (and to have a degree of comfort with my daily routines around it) but not long enough for patterns to have congealed.

I loved many things about Wunderlist: The frictionless interface, easily-repeating tasks, easy subtasks and notes, web interface, and the ability to share lists with my wife and colleagues was very useful. Vitally, everything synchronized between multiple devices. I knew that Wunderlist was always there, always at the right end of the dock, always sync’d. Worth saying, though, is that an alarm-clock that works great 99 nights out of 100 is useless, no matter how well it works on the average night. That’s why IFTTT dropped out of my life: No matter how useful it was when it worked, if it couldn’t be relied upon to work every time, it was unreliable, period. That’s no way to live. To be sure: I have a Kurzweil K2000 which randomly resets, but who cares when I use it only very occasionally, in the studio? By contrast, systems on which we rely, especially those on which we rely when our brains are at a nadir (mornings, for me, but perhaps travel for you, for example) have to run dependably, flawlessly. Systems that can’t be backed-up easily and restored readily don’t encourage investment of time.

The feeling, then, that Wunderlist was no longer dependable, that on any given day I could wake up and it could be gone or not, was crazy-makingly ominous. I’d love to be able to say that I exhaustively considered all my alternatives, but in reality, with time nipping at my heels, I seriously considered only two options: Todoist, and 2Do. (A third, Omnifocus, dropped out of contention quite quickly because it seemed like overkill—I use my task list a lot, but I don’t feel that I’m a power-user in a way that would justify the cost and expense, including administrative overhead, of Omnifocus.) 

Todoist started strong but came up short. I appreciated their canny move of providing an “import from Wunderlist” feature, although I was unimpressed by the sloppy implementation. Still, I loved its flexibility in easily moving, structuring, and completing tasks, almost entirely arbitrarily, and at first blush, its daily email summary feature seemed neat. Web interface—check. Sync across multiple devices—check. But over a couple of weeks of testing, the web interface began to feel irritating, and the email summary… naggy? The death-blow was learning that Todoist doesn’t really understand repeating tasks. It claims to, but it seems to me that an app does not actually understand recurring tasks if, when the task repeats, the subtasks that were completed on last run remain completed rather than returning to pristine state. 

(Todoist also has some very cool Workflow integration. But Workflow—we learned in this same time-period—also has an uncertain future. While I continue to use Workflow, I feel disinclined to pour time into it, and I’d prefer to focus on other ways to work.)

That left 2Do, which does understand recurring tasks. Its pro version syncs across all devices, and it has a Mac client too, which I’ve confessedly not tried because of its offputting price-tag. It also has a number of features that I wanted in Wunderlist (e.g. hiding tasks that are scheduled but not yet relevant) and others that I hadn’t thought of using but which have proven useful (e.g. geotagging tasks, which can provide reminder notifications if you have location services enabled). The interface is quite clean and straightforward, although I do wish there were better gestures. I also don’t quite understand why they don’t take what seems to me the obvious step of differentiating projects from checklists (they’re indistinct) by saying one or the other automatically completes when all subtasks are checked off. Batch-editing takes a little time to get the hang of, but once it’s familiar, it’s very helpful. 

What it lacks is a web interface. But it does have an email capture function that has some appeal. I’m wary about adding too much automation; I don’t want repetitious stuff that seems important but becomes a distraction and ultimately devalues the task-list framework. But at the same time, I want to take advantage of useful automations. So, for example, when I borrow a physical book from the library and forget to take it back on-time, I get a standard-format email. It’s easy to write a rule that forwards those emails with a rewritten subject and so add a task. Experimenting with that will come next—for right now, I’m using Siri and Reminders, which is acceptable, but it adds another layer, another app to check during the day.

All this beings me to a place where my task-list system is still somewhat plastic, but has mostly settled down after the shock of Wunderlist’s terminal prognosis. I still have Wunderlist and ToDoist installed on my iPad, and use them in parallel while I run out some longer-term projects that were deeply-entangled in Wunderlist. Effectively, Todoist has become a “backup” of Wunderlist in case it completely goes away without warning before those projects have wound up. And I might continue using Wunderlist for some minor shared tasks with my wife, because 2Do doesn’t seem to handle shared tasks well. But overall, I’m done with Wunderlist, all in on 2Do, and minded to rate my current situation “acceptable.” 

(Since WWDC, 2Do has moved over one spot, to the center of the dock, but that is prep for some changes in my habits that iOS11 will force, rather than reflecting any changes in how I use task lists or preferences quoad 2Do versus Wunderlist.) 

Speaking of things that are acceptable, while I’m here, let’s talk about the Xiaomi MiBand, which reached its first anniversary with me last month. I continue to recommend it, and a year of wearing it hasn’t much changed my initial impression. It does some basic health-tracking (mainly steps, which it does well, and sleep, which it does adequately in tandem with Sleep Cycle), and it vibrates for a silent (ish) alarm and Incoming call notification. My alarm-call and wheels-up are before my wife needs to be awake, so the silent alarm is very helpful. So, too, is the notification for calls, and the ability to set a delay to screen wrong-numbers. Battery life is more like a Kindle (the e-paper ones, not the Fires) than a tablet—weeks between charges. Love it. The one thing that I’d really like as an improvement is to have it ankle-located, and I’ve yet to find a band that’s long enough to serve as an ersatz anklet, but that’s a small nitpick. 

What a year wearing the MiBand has proved, though, is that the Apple Watch isn’t for me—not right now, anyway. The MiBand’s selling-point is that it’s an entry-level wearable—it’s cheap, which means that my anxiety about the potential for it getting dinged or destroyed is nil. IT isn’t always white-collar work, and the MiBand has gotten dinged, dunked, dropped, covered in dust and gunk, and even lost a few times, but it’s still working fine, and were it to drop dead tonight, oh well, I’m out $20+S&H. No matter how robust the Apple Watch may actually be, the stress of having hundreds of dollars of computer on one’s wrist, unprotected, strikes me as something I don’t need in my life.  

I’ve toyed with upgrading to the MiBand2, also budget-priced and which has marginally-better notifications (or perhaps a Lenovo HW01, which is appealing). But I always choke on a very simple question: What additional app would I want to be notified about? The MiBand notifies for calls, including via Teams or Skype; do I really want a notification for texts? No. Social media? Gods, no. Email? Not really. So what, then? It’s possible to imagine a world in which the granularity of notifications becomes such that only, say, genuinely-concerning weather or genuinely-interesting news/text/email come through, but we aren’t there yet. The only thing that might be useful is notifications coming out of Calendar or, perhaps unsurprisingly, 2Do. But that’s for the future.