How I use Wunderlist

Last summer, I was drowning. I had far too much to do, I knew that I needed help—or at least guidance—but I wasn’t sure what or where to get it. I found it in a podcast called Cortex and a tasklist app called Wunderlist. I liked the latter so well that I made a video urging its virtues! A year later, Wunderlist remains essential to my life, and I want to share some observations about how I use it.

General principles.

Before we even get to Wunderlist per se, I will tell you that my “task-list paradigm,” so-to-speak, is built on two foundation:

  • First: Have one task-list. You might have many lists of various kinds in your task-list system, but have one list of tasks. (I’ll get more granular about that concept in a moment.)
  • Second: Everything that I think of (or that I’m asked to do) that needs done can and should be thought of in either of two categories—either I am doing it right now, or it’s going on the task-list. Leave no middle-ground. “I’m walking back to my office and I’ll do it in two minutes” is not a third category: It falls into the second category. 

These two paradigms apply to any task-list system; I use Wunderlist, but you might prefer paper or an app like Omnifocus, but these two foundational principles apply to any system.

The next thing to say is that I have Wunderlist everywhere. It’s is installed on all of my iOS devices; the app lives in the bottom-right of the dock:

But I have the app installed on neither my home nor office Mac. That’s because I have it open in Safari on those devices; there’s a reason why, and we’ll get to it shortly.

Lists other than the task-list.


Now let’s talk about lists. I have one task-list and many other lists in Wunderlist. It’s easier to explain if we start with the latter. I have, for example, a list titled “Books, movies, and music.” Whenever there’s a movie or TV show that I might want to watch, or a song I want to listen to or buy, it goes onto the BMM list. It isn’t itself a task-list, but I might have an item or items on my task-list that relate to the BMM list—I might put “movie night” as an item on the task-list, for example. Movie night comes around, and I just pull up the BMM list. In the same way, I have a shopping-list for Menards; that isn’t a task-list either, but I might put “go to Menards” on my task-list.

This inevitably brings up a question: Why not just use subtasks? Why not just have a task “Go to Menards” and build a shopping list of subtasks within that task?” And the answer is that I do—sometimes. I just checked-off a task “Kroger” that had a shopping list in the subtasks this afternoon. So when do I use subtasks versus separate lists? It’s mostly intuition, but thinking about it a little, the primary question is the closeness of the relationship between the list and the task. Here’s what I mean. The Menards list, for example, has a dehumidifier on it, but I have no intention of buying it the next time that I go to Menards; it’s just on my DRADIS for things that I’m interested in looking at sometime when I’m at Menards with a few minutes to spare. By contrast, I had a task “go to Kroger” precisely in order to pick up specific items. Similarly, the BMM list isn’t a list of things I want to read or watch right now, it’s just things I’m interested in at some point, so it can’t easily attach to attach it to a discrete event. (You could make an argument that some lists—the BMM list, my list of software that I want to check out, etc.—really belong in Notes rather than Wunderlist, and that would and will be true if and when the number of items gets out of hand. Right now, I find that it’s small enough that I can manage.)

I also have a separate list called “Templates,” which stores checklists that are used often but at irregular intervals. Packing lists for various permutations of “going out-of-town,” “going out-of-state,” and “going out-of-country” live in this list; so do many tasks that are multi-step and for which I might forget a step if I don’t use a checklist, or that have many steps, such that if I’m interrupted during the process, working through a checklist lets me know know exactly where I left off in the process when I come back to it. Confessedly, this is one of those things where Wunderlist’s limitations force a bit of a bodge. The iOS app doesn’t allow you to copy lists. But the web interface does—there are actually several things that you either can’t do in the app or that are just easier to do in the web interface, which is why I use the web interface on my Macs rather than having the app installed on them. When I carry out a task for which I have a template, I just pull up Safari, copy the relevant item from the Templates list to my task-list (called “Primary” in my system, although you can call it anything you like so long as there’s only one of them), then tailoring its name if necessary.

(I have a couple of shared lists, but these are rarely-used right now, so I don’t have much to say about them. But I will observe from past use that if you have a minion of some kind who uses Wunderlist already, shared lists in Wunderlist are a great way to manage minions—and, I hope to be managed: Each Gru is in turn someone’s minion.)

The task-list.

So, finally, we turn to the task-list itself. I generally use the iPhone app to add and check-off tasks, and then fine-tune through the web interface if needed. For example, some tasks have due-dates, or need to be split into subtasks. Sometimes a task will recur. Sometimes it will turn into a template on completion: For example, we had not been on vacation recently, and had to take an unplanned trip to Missouri; my packing list for that trip was, when completed, moved to templates and fine-tuned to account for the things that got forgotten or unnecessarily included.

Most tasks, however, are short, sweet, and simple one-shots. If it comes to my attention during the morning that I have an errand to run at lunchtime, I’ll just add the errand to my tasklist, and check it off when it’s done. When appropriate, that task will get marked as important. Sometimes, I will have a single task “lunch” marked as important with several subtasks: For example, where I want to eat, the errands that I have to run, and a reminder that the south bridge will be closed this afternoon so I’d better take the north route back to the office. I use both due-dates and recurrence as necessary; I have a daily-recurring task called “Meds” for example, which has a subtask for each of my meds; I check off the ones I actually take and invariably mark the task itself complete so that it pops back up the next day. Ditto on a weekly basis for “laundry,” and biweekly (except for winter) “mow lawn.”

(Another nice feature about the web app is that it shows you a progress bar on the background of each task on the list.)

Perhaps worth mentioning also is a conceptual divide between tasks and long-term projects. Things on my task-list are, generally, things that I will (or should) be doing sometime in the immediate (or at least foreseeable) future; I have a separate list for long-term projects that I may get around to some time. A good example of the distinction might be a double-neck guitar that I’ve been building at a snail’s pace for a couple of summers now. If there were to be a list for it, that list might live in long-term projects, because on any particular day or in any particular month, I probably won’t do anything with it, and a fundamental concept to the way I approach computers (more on this in the next post) is that you want to put things you need in easy reach and banish everything else from sight. By contrast, on my tasklist, I have a task to buy a particular widget for that project; I’m not in any hurry, but I could buy it any time and my intention is to buy it whenever I get around to it. Thus, there is a kind of immediacy to the “buy widget” task that earmarks it for the tasklist that doesn’t apply to the project to which it technically belongs. This is admittedly a “feel” thing rather than a hard rule, but I think you do develop a feel for these things.

Finally, a word on notes. Sometimes I add notes to tasks—but not generally. Notes are used for lists in my “Podcast” folder; I have a list of potential show ideas and a list titled “show notes” into which I move whatever the topics we plan to talk about while recording, and there are often notes attached to items on that list which contains all the shownotes for the episode that we are recording next. But I usually use Notes or sometimes GDocs for that sort of notekeeping.

In fine.

So that’s my system. I don’t claim that it’s a brilliant or insightful one, or that Wunderlist is the only or even the best tasklist app; it depends on the shape of your brain. But it’s a system that works well for me, and I commend it to your consideration.

Next post: How I use iOS.