Kolja Sam Pluemer

Only The Doing Matters - What To Do Apps Get Wrong

Lessons Learned from building And testing many To-Do apps — Why the "doing" of tasks is the most important factor when choosing a personal productivity app.


I’ve seen many to do apps in my life, often in a context of seriously attempting to use them. Some I built myself - not surprising, to do apps are the tutorial for everything frontend development.

Looking back these experience, I have a quick realization to note down:

Most apps focus on organizing, creating, rewarding, sorting, ordering and designing to dos. That makes sense and is important but misses one important thing: The doing of a certain to do. If you think about it, it is very obviously the only thing that matters: Did you do what you wanted to do or not?

Of course, this part happens mostly or entirely outside the to do app (or to do system - I am including paper lists here), so it is hard to design for. Post-hoc statistics or a well animated re-order functions for the whole list are easier to design. Yet I found my success with to do systems strangely independent of all those extra features - sure, gamifications and smooth UIs are fun. I have written about to do lists, their problems and chances extensively and I still believe that to do lists as a concept can be improved, saved and used. After all, I am still working on , a productivity system aiming (amongst other goals) for exactly this, making to do lists work. But more and more, I think that their very core, the to do you are trying to get done, is almost all that matters.

So how to focus on that, either when building your own system or even an app or product? Hard question. There are certainly powerful ideas: Eisenhower Matrix, SMART goals and many more. And they work, in my experience. As in, they improve the rate of to dos completed and life satisifaction gained. But those methods are no panacea either. Sometimes silly, incredibly broad to dos scribbled down on a random paper motivate me to really get stuff done, and sometimes, a tiny, perfectly defined, readily laid out to do item can’t get me to move a milimeter. I am sure that this phenomenon follows rules, I just haven’t found them yet.

What I can say: When building a systems to get to do to have done, focus on the doing and nothing else. It might just work.