Forget the Milk: Where Productivity Apps Go Wrong

To make better productivity apps, designers need to think outside the (check) box.



Most productivity apps aren’t great at what they’re supposed to do. Don’t get me wrong, they do what they say they’ll do. They let you enter tasks, set due dates, and get reminded later. Some of them are really good at it. But I think we’re looking for something more when we download a To-Do list app.


We’re not just looking for a way to get notifications or remember things. The default reminders and notes apps are fine if we only want to write things down and get reminded later. But we’re all looking for an app that will take the weight off our shoulders. We want technology to help us stop procrastinating and get things done. And we want to do it without feeling like getting things done is a chore.


That’s why we use apps that have features like location-based reminders or calendar-syncing. We’re hoping that if we get reminded to run an errand we’ve been procrastinating when we’re at the store anyway, we’ll finally get it done. These features are a step in the right direction but they never feel like enough. I have a to-do list app with all these features and I ignore the notifications.

Here’s the problem:


When I drive by Safeway and my phone reminds me to buy milk, I don’t stop to buy milk. Unless I intended to head to the grocery store anyway, the location-based reminder won’t change my behavior. I face the same problem with a date-based reminder. Unless I want to go to the grocery store on Saturday the 5th at 9:37 a.m. anyway, my phone’s notification to remember the milk won’t help.


A bunch of due dates and notifications aren’t the answer. Reminders and lists are helpful, but effective To-Do list apps need to do a whole lot more. At the very least, a good To-Do list app or system should do the following:


To Do List Requirements

  1. Give you some mental breathing room. Get your To-Dos out of your head and into the app as efficiently as possible.

  2. Prevent you from forgetting the things you can’t afford to forget.

  3. Prioritize your tasks. You need to know what is the most worthwhile thing you should plan to do next. What can you leave to next month? When is the right time to get around to that project you’ve been putting off?

  4. Reduce overwhelm. You should have as much on your plate as you can handle, and no more.

  5. Make your tasks work with your life and schedule. It’s not useful to get a reminder to buy milk when you’re in the middle of a business meeting.

  6. Find a way to get those “someday” tasks into the mix. Push you to pursue those goals you’d like to get done, but haven’t set a due date for.


Most productivity apps on the market fail most of these criteria. In my opinion, one of the best productivity apps is Todoist. It does #1 well. You can get tasks out of your head quickly. It’s OK at #2 as well. As long as I check it frequently and set due dates for everything, I won’t forget important tasks. But, after that, Todoist ain't great.


Todoist doesn’t do much to let me know what’s the best thing to work on next. It doesn’t help me get around to projects I’ve been putting off. Instead, tasks accumulate, and I end up ignoring them.


Building a To-Do list app has highlighted how hard it is to make an app that does these things well. It’s no surprise that despite technology advances, many To-Do list apps seem disappointing. We all suffer from overwhelm and procrastination.


When we built Strongweek, we decided to think outside the box. Our goal is to give To-Do list requirements 3-6 as much attention as requirements 1 and 2. That’s one of the reasons we launched Strongweek. You shouldn’t have to choose an arbitrary date for every task. You should be able to pick up your phone and see what you should be working on today. What are your priorities this month? What should you focus on this year?


Believe it or not, I wasn’t able to find a single app like Strongweek in the entire IOS store. Strongweek is the first weekly to-do list app. Nearly every other productivity app in the app store is built around due dates, rather than priorities. It’s time we change that.


Strongweek isn’t perfect. We have a lot more plans for features that will make it a lot more effective. This is just the beginning.

There are many ways to make productivity apps. Strongweek is only one approach. But there’s no reason to tie ourselves to date-, location-, and time- based reminders. The future of To-Do list apps is far more dynamic. The winners will be those that focus less on reminding us to do things and more on helping us get the right things done.