Life is busy. We have commitments to juggle, meetings to attend, and tasks to complete. Keeping track of everything can leave you feeling like your brain is about to explode. So write it all down! Or better still, install an app.
To-do lists have been around for hundreds of years. They help you manage your tasks, time, and sanity. Software task managers take things further by popping up reminders, drilling down to what’s important, and syncing to your smartphone.
Things and OmniFocus are two of the most powerful to-do managers for the Mac offering useful features in easy-to-use packages. They come at a cost but promise to repay you many times over in gained productivity.
These aren’t your only options. In fact, the Mac App Store is crowded with list managers and to-do list apps. Many of them aren’t worth the time it takes to download them. In this review, we’ll cover highly-rated apps that are worthy of your time and attention, and help you find one that suits you best.
Table of Contents
- Why Trust Me for This Guide?
- What You Need to Know about Task Management
- Who Should Get This?
- How We Tested and Picked These Apps
- Best To-Do List Apps for Mac: Our Top Picks
- The Competition and Comparisons
- Free Alternatives
Why Trust Me for This Guide?
My name is Adrian, and I have a lot of things to keep track of. That might be a good thing because I love playing with apps that help me manage it all. I used Above & Beyond throughout the 90s on my Windows laptops, and when I became a Linux geek turned to Task Coach and web apps like Todoist, Remember the Milk, and Toodledo.
After moving to the Mac, I fell in love with Cultured Code’s Things, and I’ve used it successfully for the last decade. But I do love to play, so I keep five or ten of these apps installed on my Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Some I use, and others I play with from time to time. I have a keen interest in OmniFocus and used it as my main task manager for a few years. I also use Apple Reminders and Wunderlist to share tasks with my family. I’ll share some of my experiences throughout the review.
What You Need to Know about Task Management
Before we look at the individual apps, here are a few things you should know first.
1. Just Installing a New App Won’t Make You More Productive
Apps are tools, and they will be of more use to you if you know how to use them effectively. Right now, there’s a lot of advice out there about how to become more productive and get more out of your apps. You can’t read it all, but some studies will yield a great return on your investment. Start by reading the material that comes with your task management software.
Many have found value in reading and practicing David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done”. In it, he covers a range of useful techniques, including capturing tasks and ideas as they occur to you, keeping project lists where you identify the next action to be done, considering higher horizons of focus like your vision and goals, and reviewing all of your lists each week. I recommend it.
2. There’s Room for Personal Preference
We’re not all alike. We have different tasks to manage, and different approaches to the way we organize them. There’s a lot of room for personal preference, and the app that best suits me might not suit you. Look for the app that works the way you do.
3. Lists Aren’t Just for To-Dos
Are you a list keeper? They’re helpful for a lot of things in life. Don’t just use your app to list your daily to-dos — you can use it to track so much more! Here are some ideas:
- Keep a list of the books you want to read and movies you want to see.
- Record the places you’d like to go and people you’d like to visit.
- Keep track of the bills that need to be paid and the dates they’re due.
- Create a bucket list of achievements you’d like to accomplish while you’re still breathing.
4. Other Types of Apps that Help with Task Management
In this review we’ll cover list managers, but keep in mind there are other types of apps that can help you to be productive, and supplement your to-do list:
- calendars to manage your time (Apple Calendar, BusyCal, Fantastical),
- timers and Pomodoro apps to keep you focused and accountable (Be Focused, Timing),
- project management apps (Merlin Project, OmniPlan, Pagico),
- notes apps to keep track of reference material (Apple Notes, Evernote, Google Keep, Microsoft OneNote, Bear),
- outliners to structure your life and information (OmniOutliner, Outlinely, Workflowy, Dynalist),
- Kanban boards to track your team’s progress (Trello, Any.Do, Freeter).
Who Should Get This?
Years ago my friend Daniel told me, “I thought only disorganized people used to do lists.” I disagreed, but that experience helped clarify to me that not everyone values using a to-do list. He’s certainly not the sort of person who’d spend $80 on an app! Perhaps you feel the same. I encourage you to give a task management app a serious try anyway.
At the time I was editing several blogs, managing a few dozen writers, and having to meet deadlines most days. I couldn’t have survived without getting the most out of the best task management software I could afford. If you’re the same, then you’re sold on the idea of using a to-do list, and just need to identify the right app for you.
In “Getting Things Done”, David Allen explains that trying to remember all of the things you need to do just add stress to your life. Once you write them down and get them out of your head you can relax and focus on the task at hand, and become more productive.
Almost everyone will be better organized by using a to-do list app. Once you’ve listed everything you need to do you can become objective. You’ll find it easier to get an idea of how long it will all take, which tasks are most important, and which don’t need to be done at all. You can start to put what you need to do in some sort of order.
Remember the key to time management is really to make sure that you are spending as much time as you possibly can on your highest-value projects. It’s about effectiveness more than it is efficiency. If you’ve too much on your to-do list you’ll need to learn to delegate lower-value tasks effectively.
How We Tested and Picked These Apps
Comparing apps that can manage your to-do list is tricky. Each has its own strengths, and there’s a wide range of prices, features, and techniques. Here’s what we were looking for when evaluating.
How Easy Is It to Capture Tasks?
Once you’ve thought of something to do — or someone has asked you to do something — you need to get it into your to-do system as soon as possible, or you may forget it. Doing so should be as easy as possible. Many apps have an inbox, where you can enter multiple items quickly without having to organize them upfront. Integration with other apps is also helpful, so you can add a task from, say, an email directly into your app.
How Versatile is the App’s Organization?
We all have different roles and task categories, so you need an app that can organize things in a way that makes sense to you. You might want to separate work tasks from your personal ones and create a number of lists to match your responsibilities. Folders, tags, priorities, and flags are some of the ways an app will let you create structure.
Does the App Provide Different Ways to View Your Tasks?
When organizing tasks, it’s helpful to see the details of each project. When doing tasks, it’s helpful to group them in different ways. You might want to see a list of all the tasks that are due soon, quickly check all of the phone calls you need to make, or create a shortlist of the tasks you aim to accomplish today. Many apps allow you to view your tasks by context, filter by tag, or notify you of tasks due today. Some apps even allow you to create custom views.
How Does the App Handle Dates?
Some tasks are associated with a date — most often a deadline, like a homework assignment. It’s helpful to see a list of tasks due today (or in the next few days), and some tasks may deserve a pop-up notification to remind you. Some tasks are recurring and need to be done on a certain day each week, month, or year, for example, putting the garbage out. You may have some tasks that you can’t actually start yet. They shouldn’t be clogging up your list, so some apps will let you hide them from your list until a future date — a feature I find very helpful.
Is the App for an Individual or a Team?
Many of the apps we’ll cover in this review are for one person only. Others allow you to share lists and delegate tasks with others. Which do you need? Many people prefer to use two different apps, one for personal use (which other members of the team can’t mess up), and one for shared tasks and projects.
Can the App Sync to Mobile?
I find myself checking my to-do list on my phone and iPad more than my computer. I often review my tasks on the go and add new tasks as soon as I think of them. Mobile apps are helpful and should sync quickly and reliably with your Mac.
How Much does It Cost?
The best to-do list apps are not cheap, and in my opinion, that cost is justified. Not everyone will agree, so we’ve included apps right across the price range, all the way down to free. Here’s what the apps we cover cost, sorted from cheapest to most expensive:
- Apple Reminders – free
- WeDo – free
- GoodTask 3 – $19.99
- 2Do – $24.99
- TaskPaper – $24.99
- OmniFocus – $39.99
- Todoist – $44.99/year
- Things 3 – $49.99
- OmniFocus Pro – $79.99
Now let’s get to the winner’s list.
Best To-Do List Apps for Mac: Our Top Picks
Best Choice for Most People: Things 3
Cultured Code Things is a sleek, modern task manager, and has recently been rebuilt from the ground up. Tasks are logically organized by area of responsibility, project, and tag, and can be viewed in a number of ways — tasks to do today or in the near future, tasks that can be done at any time, and tasks you may get around to someday.
Things has been my main task manager since 2010 — almost as long as I’ve been using a Mac. It suits me well. Maybe it’s a good fit for you too.
Above is a screenshot of the tutorial project. The app looks clean, and there’s a sense of logic in the way it’s set out. The left pane contains a list of your areas of responsibility and projects, and above them, some shortcuts for smart folders that give you useful overviews of your tasks.
Areas of responsibility are the categories that sum up your major roles and interests. It could be as simple as “Work” and “Home”, but I find it useful to include additional areas like “Cycling”, “Tech” and “Finances”.
You add tasks under each of these areas, or you can add projects for jobs that require multiple tasks. For example, under “Family” I have a project that lists the places we’d like to visit while living inter-state for the next year, and under “Work” I have a project related to writing this review.
The smart folders at the top list tasks according to the level of commitment you have toward them:
- Today contains the tasks you should finish today. That includes the tasks that are due today and the ones you’ve flagged as wanting to work on today. You can also list separately tasks to do in the evening.
- Upcoming tasks have start dates or due dates that are coming up. These are listed by date along with events from your calendar.
- Anytime contains important tasks you can work on now, but don’t have a deadline.
- Someday is a list of tasks you haven’t committed to doing yet. They could be wish list items or tasks you don’t have time for right now.
Other folders include the Inbox where you can rapidly enter new tasks, the Logbook which contains all of your done tasks, and the Trash.
Things offers two additional methods of organization. The first is headings. A big project can become cumbersome, and headings allow you to split it into smaller sections. That’s clearer than having one big jumbled list and simpler than creating two different projects.
Things also allows you to categorize your tasks by tags. One task can be assigned multiple tags, and these can be used for a variety of our purposes. Here are some examples:
- Context, for example, home, work, phone.
- People, so you can quickly look up tasks you need to talk to someone about, or tasks that relate to a certain client.
- Priority, so you can focus on just your most important tasks.
- Energy required, so you can choose easy or challenging tasks depending on how much energy you have.
- Time required, like 15m, 30m, 1h, so if you have limited time, you can still find something to do.
Once you have set up some tags, you can filter any list to show just the items tagged a certain way. For example, here are the tasks I can do anytime that are tagged “Phone”.
Things also supports checklists, which is helpful for tasks with multiple steps that aren’t significant enough to be set up as a project.
Things offers three date features:
- When (start date). Some tasks can’t be started yet, so shouldn’t be cluttering your to-do list. The “When” setting will hide the task until you can actually start to work on it, though you’ll always be able to track it down in the Upcoming section.
- Deadline (due date). Some tasks have a deadline, and there may be consequences if you miss it!
- Reminder (notification). For those tasks you can’t afford to forget about, you can set a reminder alarm at a specific time on the day it’s due.
Things is designed for individuals and doesn’t allow you to share or assign tasks. There are mobile versions of the app for iPhone and iPad, and sync is reliable.
At $49.99 Things is not cheap, and if you need the iPhone and iPad versions, it’s even more expensive. I find it worth every cent. You can read more from my full Things app review.
Best Choice for Power Users: OmniFocus
OmniGroup’s OmniFocus is a power user’s tool for getting things done. Unique features like outlines and perspectives allow you to optimize your workflow, and the review feature allows you to periodically check up on your projects.
Power users will want the Pro versions of both the Mac and iOS apps, which comes to an eye-watering $139.98. If you put a high value on productivity, you might find that a bargain.
$39.99 from the Mac App Store or the developer’s website. A 14-day trial version is available from the developer’s website. OmniFocus Pro is available for $79.99 from the developer’s website, or you can upgrade through an in-app purchase. Also available for iOS.
OmniFocus can do everything Things can do, and more. It’s a powerful and flexible tool that can adapt to your way of doing things. For best results, you’ll need to purchase and carefully configure the Pro version. So it will cost you more and require more effort to set up.
You can view your OmniFocus tasks by project or by context. Project View allows you to organize what you need to do in detail. You’re able to create as many folders and subfolders as you need to give categories to place your tasks and projects in.
Projects can be parallel or sequential. A parallel project has tasks that can be completed in any order, where the tasks of a sequential project must be done in the sequence they are listed. You can use the outline feature to create a hierarchy of subtasks. I love the idea, but find the interface a little fiddly, and wish it worked more like OmniOutliner.
Context View is often the best way to work on your tasks. You could pull up your “Phone” context if you’re in the mood to chat, or the “Errands” context when shopping. All relevant tasks from across your projects will be there. However, while Things allows you to apply an unlimited number of tags, each OmniFocus task can be associated with one and only one context.
Regular reviews are important. In OmniFocus, you can define how often each project should be reviewed. The Review view shows you all projects that are due.
But the real power of OmniFocus Pro is its Perspectives, where you can create as many custom views as you need. You could create a perspective to imitate Things’ Today view that lists all tasks that are flagged or due today.
You could set up “Home” and “Work” perspectives, have one for tasks that are due soon and another for tasks that are on hold. This feature is only in the Pro version and really allows you to personalize the app.
The Competition and Comparisons
There are plenty of alternatives. Here are a few highly rated apps you may like to consider.
2Do is recommended in many reviews and highly rated on the App Store. It has many of the features of our winners and costs the same as Things.
The app offers tags and notifications, lists and projects, mobile apps and sync. Although it looks quite simple, there is plenty of power under the hood, including smart lists, which are similar to OmniFocus’ perspectives. They are configurable saved searches that can pull tasks from all of your lists, for example, all tasks due in the next three days that are tagged “bill”.
GoodTask 3 is based on the standard Mac Reminders and Calendars app and adds functionality. That makes it a good choice if you’re already using Apple’s productivity apps, but wish they were more capable.
Like 2Do, GoodTask features smart lists, which search for tasks from certain lists, or that include (or exclude) certain tags. This feature isn’t as powerful as OmniFocus’ perspectives, but it’s helpful all the same. Other features include subtasks, repeating tasks, manual sort, and quick actions.
Todoist started as a web app, but now has apps for most platforms, including Mac. I used it long-term over a decade ago, and it’s come a long way since then.
The free version includes everything you need to get started but doesn’t include all of the features of our winners. It allows you to capture and organize tasks, remember deadlines, and review the week ahead. You can map out your tasks with projects and goals, and highlight tasks that are important with color-coded priority levels, and even visualize your progress with attractive charts and graphs.
There are some limits to the free version. You can have a maximum of 80 projects, and up to five people can access a project. Yes, it’s a multi-user app. A premium subscription will increase these numbers to 200 and 50, and unlock even more features, like templates, labels, themes and custom views.
Download Todoist from the Mac App Store. It’s free for a basic plan and $44.99/year for premium.
TaskPaper 3 is quite different to the other apps we’ve listed. It’s a plain text app and very minimalistic. It’s also quite smart, offering a very different way of working with your tasks. You organize your projects, tasks, and subtasks in an outline, and I find it more intuitive than OmniFocus’ outlining features. You can use tags on each item, and quickly filter your whole list by a specific tag.
When my daughter’s family moved in with us a few years ago, rearranging the house was a huge task. So I used a TaskPaper file in Editorial on my iPad to organize and track our progress. I just attempted to open that file in TaskPaper for the Mac for the first time, and it worked perfectly.
Here are some ways to manage your to-do list without spending any money.
Use Pen and Paper
You don’t absolutely need to use an app to manage your to-do list. There’s something satisfying about crossing completed tasks off a paper list. You could scribble on the back of an envelope with a pencil, or purchase a stylish Moleskine or Daytimer, it’s totally up to you.
There is a certain amount of redundancy and duplication when using pen and paper. You may find that frustrating, or you may find it a good way to review your tasks each day. Paper productivity systems seem to be taking off again, and new methodologies like the Bullet Journal are being developed.
Free To-Do List Apps for Mac
Apple Reminders is already installed on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad, and allows you to create tasks with reminders, and shared lists. Some time ago I moved our family shopping list from Wunderlist to Reminders, and it works well. My wife and I can add items to the list, and they’re updated automatically on both of our phones. It works well.
Siri integration is very helpful. You wouldn’t believe how many times I say to Siri, “Remind me to check the washing machine in 90 minutes.” It creates a Reminders task for me and notifies me 90 minutes later without fail.
Free To-Do List Web Services
Instead of using a Mac app, there are quite a few web apps that will manage your to-do list. You’ll be able to access your tasks from any device without installing a thing.
Toodledo isn’t the most attractive web app out there, but it’s free and includes all the features you’ll ever want. Mobile apps are available.
Google Tasks is simple and doesn’t have many features, but if you use other Google apps like Gmail or Google Calendar, it is well-integrated and may come in handy.
Asana is a great way to share and assign tasks with your team and is free for up to 15 team members. A Pro plan is available for $9.99/month which allows more members and includes more features.
The basic plan for Remember the Milk is free and includes plenty of features. If you want more, you can upgrade to the Pro plan for $39.99/year.
GQueues Lite includes all the basic features you need for free. Upgrade and gain additional features for $25/year.
Trello‘s boards, list, and cards allow you and your team to organize and prioritize your projects. The basic version is free, and if you need additional features, Business Class costs $9.99/user/month.