Getting things done with Wunderlist

Wunderlist is a free-to-use task management tool.  Available on desktop, web browsers, smartphone and more recently the Apple Watch, it allows you to stay organized wherever you are.  Initially created in Germany it is one of my favorite productivity tools, and after it’s recent acquisition by Microsoft, it should be around for a while to come.  Here I explore how to use Wunderlist to keep yourself organised, and get things done.

Getting things done

5 years ago, I read David Allen‘s famous book Getting Things Done (GTD). GTD is a 5 step system for collecting, processing, organising, reviewing and doing your tasks and projects – either in your personal / professional life or both. Allen noted that our minds are overrun with thoughts: groceries i need to buy, a voicemail i need to return, an interview i need to prepare for, a blog post i need to write (and the list goes on). A constant stream of thoughts like these stops us from focusing and makes us unproductive, uncreative and stressed. However, if each time one of these thoughts pop into our head we were to put it into a task management system, and we got into the habit of spending a little bit of time each day keeping this system organised, we would spend less time worrying and more time doing things that matter to us. This in a nutshell was Allen’s proposal.

Why Wunderlist?

It is possible to implement GTD using a paper system, well worth considering for when the zombie apocalypse starts.  Until that day, it’s probably best to find a digital solution.  I experimented with different to-do list systems including Todoist, Google Tasks, Outlook Tasks and Remember the Milk, but ultimately I settled on Wunderlist for the following reasons:

  • You can access it anywhere – on your desktop/smartphone and via browser extensions
  • It has all the features I need (and not too many more) – due dates, checklists, starred tasks and smart lists.
  • It’s easy to use – some other task management tools are unneccessarily compex. Wunderlist is elegantly simple.
  • It looks good – if you are going to look at it every day, attractiveness helps
  • It’s free – some premium features available on Wunderlist Pro, but personally i have no need for them
  • There’s lots of users and an active community – it’s unlikely they’ll stop supporting it any time soon (even more so now Microsoft have acquired it)

Note that this post doesn’t describe a perfect implementation of GTD.  It has been adapted to fit my own style of working and the features available to me on Wunderlist.

WUNDERLIST STRUCTURE

The two main components of Wunderlist are lists and tasks. You create a list. You add tasks to it. You can add detail to tasks (descriptions, dates, etc) and move tasks between lists. When you’re finished with a task, you tick the tickbox to mark it is complete. Simple.

inbox

My inbox view.  I use folders to help give structure to my lists

Lists I use

  1. Inbox. This is the default list from Wunderlist.  It is where all new tasks go before they are processed.  Every time I have an idea worth remembering or am assigned a task, I add it in here.
  2. Smartlists. Predefined intelligent lists from the Wunderlist team.  These lists will scan all other lists and collate all tasks that are due today, due this week or starred.  So these are the lists that i check regularly throughout the day to see what tasks need to be done next.
  3. Life lists.  I have one life list for each major area of my life.  Example life lists include, “health & fitness”, “career” and “admin & security”.
  4. Project lists.  If I’m moving house, planning a holiday or building a website for a friend, I’ll usually create a project list for it.
  5. Shopping lists. I also have many shopping lists for things like groceries, music, films, books, etc.
  6. Waiting for.  If a task is waiting for an action from someone else, it goes in here (usually with a due date so that I know when to send a reminder).
  7. To work / To Evernote. These folders are for tasks that need to be moved into a different system.  I use Evernote for notes, and have a separate Wunderlist account for work.
  8. Archived lists.  I’m a hoarder.  I prefer to archive old lists rather than delete them. You never know when you might need it again.

Managing a list

  • Each list is treated like the product backlog tool used in agile project management (don’t worry if you don’t know what this is – all the parts that matter are explained below).
  • All tasks are in priority order, with the most important/urgent at the top.
  • Tasks near the top are small actionable items that can usually be done in under a few hours.A good example is “Do week 1 of Coursera web design course”.
  • Tasks near the bottom are more like epics. Big placeholder tasks that will need to be broken down if and when they become a priority for me.  A good example of an epic is “learn web design”.
  • The next actionable item(s) or high priority tasks in each list shoul be starred. This moves them to the top of the list. It also means they can be viewed in the “starred items” list, allowing me to see all next actions across every list.
  • It is important that the next actionable items are small enough to complete in a few hours.  This makes it easier to avoid procrastination and gives me a psychological boost – the act of marking multiple tasks as complete in a day gives me more of a sense of achievement than getting half way through a mammoth task.
  • If a task needs to be done by or needs my attention on a certain date, i’d give it a due date. GTD recommends giving due dates to all important tasks.  Personally, I avoid going wild with due dates to give myself the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances without feeling like I’ve missed a deadline.

Task overview

  • Each task has a brief title describing the action required.
  • Any further information or URLs go into the notes.
  • Any steps to complete get added as subtasks.
  • If the task is a repeated task (eg. a reminder to exercise), it can be set to reappear every day. Every day it will automatically create a new tasks with a new due date.
  • Wunderlist also has commenting, file upload and tagging functionality, but I don’t make use of these.
blurb

In each task you can add notes, subtasks, files, dates and comments.

THE PROCESS

Unfortunately, software alone will not help you realise the productivity/ creativity/ stress-busting benefits of GTD.  The most important part of implementing any task management system correctly is updating it regularly.  If a system is out of date then it cannot be relied upon, and if it cannot be relied upon, you cannot have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that ideas and tasks are not being forgotten.

To avoid wasting time on un-neccessarily planning or letting my system go out of date, I try to always:

  • Plan in detail for tomorrow today.  Keep plans rough for next week and beyond.
  • Do frequent small re-planning sessions rather than occasional bigger ones.

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

In this section I describe 5 activities that help me stay in control:

  1. Collecting new tasks
  2. Daily review
  3. Doing and completing
  4. Weekly review
  5. Monthly grooming
GTD STEPWHEN TO DORELEVANT LISTS
CollectAny timeInbox
Process, Organise & ReviewDaily review, weekly review & monthly groomingAll lists
DoAny timeToday & Week smartlists

1. Collecting new tasks

New tasks and ideas can come from anywhere: conversations, meetings, emails, Facebook messages or just as ideas that pop into my head. Wherever they come from, they all end up in the same place: the inbox.

I am constantly adding tasks to my inbox throughout the day. Most often, tasks are added via a widget on my phone, or the firefox/chrome extension. In both these cases there is an option to add to a specific folder, but I think it makes more sense to add tasks to the inbox first for two main reasons:

  1. Less clicks: if I add to the inbox there are only 2 clicks involved. However, if i have to change folder there are 4 clicks and a lag from my slow device.
  2. Both apps remember the previously selected folder added to: so if i select a folder other than inbox, i often accidentally put subsequent tasks in the wrong folder also.

You can also add tasks by email. Just forward a mail to me@wunderlist.com (using the email address that you have registered with Wunderlist) and the email will be added as a task in your inbox.

At the end of each day in my daily review, I review all items in the inbox and move them into their relevant folder.

Here's the Wunderlist Chrome extension in action.  It automatically populates the title and notes field with meta data and URL from the page being visited.

Here’s the Wunderlist Chrome extension in action. It automatically populates the title and notes field with meta data and URL from the page being visited.

2. Daily review

Every day, I find it useful to do a daily review.  This process usually takes no longer than 5-10 minutes, and I usually do it at the end of each day. Sometimes (usually on Friday or Saturday nights) I let the daily review slip to the next morning.  Really, it doesn’t matter too much when you do it, as long as it happens every 24-48 hours.  Most people find it best to do it at a regular time, mainly because it’s more likely to get done if you do it at the same time every day. The daily review usually includes the following actions:

  1. New items added to my inbox need to be sorted into their relevant folders.  I star them or give them a due date if they need to be done soon.
  2. Items that I will try to do next should be assigned a due date.  For a daily review, I will usually only consider tasks that are overdue or starred.  This saves lots of time as it means I don’t have to check all my lists every day.

3. Doing and completing

Throughout the day I can view all of the tasks i need to do in the “Today” and “Week” smartlists.

  • Today” sorts everything by list. This can be frustrating if like me, you have many lists! It’s important to make sure that the most important lists are on the top if you use this view, which is why I keep my life and project lists at the top. It is easy to change the order of lists on Wunderlist – just drag and drop to rearrange.
  • Week” sorts everything by day, allowing to to manually change the order of each task. I’m a big fan of this feature, and I use the “week” view often for this reason, as it gives you granular control over the order in which things are done. Before discovering this, I would often move today’s tasks into a new list or even write the tasks down on paper so the order could be more easily controlled.
The "week" smartlist.  This is my favourite view, because you can reorder all the items due for today.

The “week” smartlist. This is my favourite view, because you can reorder all the items due for today.

4. Weekly review

Every week or so, I try to spend around 30 minutes thinking about what I want to achieve in the next week.  My process here is:

  1. go through each list starring priority items that i might want to do this week, decomposing larger tasks into smaller actionable items as I go
  2. review the starred list, and add due dates where possible

By the end of my weekly review, I can see all my planned tasks for the coming week in my week smartlist.  I also have all high priority tasks highlighted in my starred smartlist.

5. Monthly grooming

Every month or so – or more often than not, when I’m meant to be doing something really important but procrastinating instead – I take some time to review and groom my lists.  My aim here is to find any tasks that are languishing near the bottom that I might want to make a priority.

  • Maybe it’s time to start planning a holiday to that destination on my travel list, or to start reading that book I bought last month?
  • Maybe there’s irrelevant items on my list that can be deleted?
  • Maybe there’s an important task that I moved into the wrong list by mistake?

List grooming is the time to reassess priorities for the coming months, and helps to remind me of the little things I want to do that might otherwise be forgotten.

TIPS

Separating work and play

I keep separate accounts for my personal and professional life. Why? When I’m at home, I don’t want to have work tasks constantly popping into my consciousness and disturbing my peace. Instead, I keep one shared folder in each account that allows me to easily move tasks between accounts. So if I remember something about work when at home, I can add it to this folder and forget about it until I’m in the office.

Calendar integrations

Wunderlist’s integration with third party calendar’s is particularly useful, especially the Sunrise calendar. Sunrise has been designed with integrations in mind.  For Wunderlist, this means all your Wunderlist tasks are displayed above your other calendar events, and you see when they’ve been completed.

Shared lists

I have a shared groceries list with my girlfriend. A great idea in theory.  In practice, it just means that I buy all the groceries!

A FINAL WORD

  • Wunderlist is a pleasure to use. The user experience is excellent and it has an attractive minimal design.
  • The task management system I describe may look daunting at first, but it’s actually very simple.
  • The key to making this work is doing regular small updates rather than occasional big ones.
  • Make detailed plans for the next day. Less detail for next week. And less still for next month.

Congratulations on reaching the end of my first blog post!

Got any questions?  Ask away in the comments.  And feel free to share this if you’ve found it useful.

5 replies
  1. Lindsay says:

    It doesn’t look like this blog went very far, but I will leave a comment anyway. I’m a Wunderlist + GTD user, too. I love it! I’m not so sure about WL sticking around since the Microsoft acquisition (especially since Sunrise is now kaput), but I love the flexibility. I do daily and monthly reviews, too! Our workflows are very similar.

    Reply
    • Alan Wright says:

      Hi Lindsay

      Apologies for the delayed response. Up until now all of my comment notifications have been going into spam!

      Shame about Sunrise, but Google Calendar is working well enough for me. Very much hope that Wunderlist does stick around!

      Reply
  2. Yann says:

    Just stumbled on your blog. Interesting post!

    I recently started using Wunderlist with GTD. Tried many other apps. I love the simplicity and clean design of this tool.
    Curious to know how you tackle your work projects using WL. You mentioned you keep a separate WL account for work? What’s your approach when it comes to handling the “Projects” section of your system? Can you expand a bit on that?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Alan Wright says:

      Hi Yann

      I don’t actually use Wunderlist for work anymore – I’ve moved to a personal Kanban system using Trello, with Evernote for day-to-day note taking. That’ll probably be my next blog post, if I ever get round to it…

      The folder structure described in this article (life, project and shopping lists) doesn’t translate so well to my line of work. From memory, I used to use one or more list for each workstream (often there were multiple workstreams per project), and there’d be some lists for ongoing activities such as HR requests, learning, people I line-manage, etc.

      Cheers

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *