Joseph Hallenbeck

In 2013, I was fresh on my switch from Windows to Linux as my full-time OS. I was reading books like David Allen’s Getting Things Done and looking for a good digital planning system. Enter Gina Trapani’s Todotxt script.

Todo.txt allowed for command line todo lists. Every was stored in a plaintext file, easily editable with any text editor or automated via the command line. I used it for roughly a year. At the time I both loved and hated using Todo.txt.

On the one hand, it was easily automated. I could set up daily and weekly tasks to be automatically populated to my list in the morning. I could easily bulk edit things in VIM.

But there was still some big pain points. My lists tended to get way too long – scrolled right off the top of my screen. There was no easy way for managing multiple todo files. There also wasn’t much for sorting. The result was that managing my lists and getting an overview of everything became increasingly difficult.

When my employer started using Trello for product management, I saw my solution. Trello does a great job of visualizing where all my tasks belong. Following GTD, I had a backlog column, next actions column, today column, in progress, and done. Moving cards between columns let me visually see the flow of work through the day. A big tickler board kept all my long-term ideas.

Now in 2016, I find myself re-installing Todo.txt and giving Trello the boot. Why if it was such an excellent system?

Goodbye Trello

There are a number of pain points that Trello simply cannot get over that Todo.txt solves easily:

Vendor Lock-in

A theme for a lot of my projects this first quarter of 2016 has been a move away from Vendor lock in. I got rid of my IDE and switched back to developing using VIM. This got me to thinking about how many other products I use that have vendor-lock-in. Evernote instead of just keeping plaintext files. Dropbox instead of using rsync. And Trello instead of Todo.txt.

With Trello, my done lists, my massive tickler list of project ideas, and my entire workflow is dependent upon the continued existence of Trello the company and it’s good graces to continue hosting all of this content for free.

Now Trello does have an export feature, but the result is a massive json blob. It might as well be binary for as much use as I will get out of it. I most certainly will be backing up all my trello boards. Yet, if I ever wanted to make use of this data, I will first need to write some kind of interpretor for it.

Todo.txt, as a plaintext file manager is to todo lists what Markdown is to Word Documents. It’s open, interchangeable, can be opened nearly any file system. It will follow me for year’s to come.

Difficult Automation

Switching back to VIM and working on the terminal all the time made me realize just how many computing tasks I have left un-automated.

In planning my daily todo tasks there are a number of recurring todos. A daily stand up starts my work day. A sprint planning meeting occurs every other week. Duolingo calls my daily French learning session. Monthly bills need to be paid.

On Trello entering these items into my board is a manual exercise. I keep a second board of “reoccurring” tasks that I copy over at the start of each sprint. It takes me thirty some minutes just to do this.

Now Trello does have an API, but I would need to learn it, probably create some kind of developer account, get API keys, compose some sizable application to interface with that API, make REST calls. It would take me probably a week’s worth of work to automate that entire process.

With Todo.txt, and a little BASH-fu and a cronjob, this all gets automated away. Every night my daily tasks get added to my todo, every sprint my per-sprint tasks get added to my todo. At the end of the month a note to pay my bills shows up on my todo. This gets offloaded so I no longer need to think about it.

Task Creation Friction

GUI’s add friction to any task.

Trello is no different in that regard. If I want to add a new task, I need to fire up a browser, navigate to Trello (assuming I even have an internet connection), create the card, name it, click a bunch of buttons to add a label. Sometimes, I just don’t want to do all of this, often times I find that I don’t sufficiently break a task down into small enough tasks purely out of a resistance to creating more cards.

Todo.sh, being on the command line means I need no internet connection, I can simply start typing to add my task, and there is little overhead in truly breaking any project down into atomic tasks that can be accomplished in a single Pomodoro.

Hello Todo.sh

After considering these options, I decided to revert to using Todo.sh. After a week of being back, I find that I love it. I am still working out my system for using Todo.sh. It truly is powerful. I’ve already discovered quite a few commands and options that I had no idea even existed before (I never realized there is a means of doing a logical or for terms or excluding terms via -TERM).

I could easily write up an entire second post about how to manage todos, how to install the script, get yourself running, useful aliases and methods for creating new add ons and automating things. Once I really get my daily system going, I could probably write a whole post on that as well.

Plaintext Planning

I would highly recommend a read through Michael Descy’s Plainttext Productivity website as the tips are quite above board. The biggest take away is priority management. Only use three or four priorities and use them to management where an task exists in the GTD workflow:

  • (A): Tasks that are in progress. Keep this down to three or four tasks at a time.
  • (B): Tasks that I will get to today
  • (C): Next actions that can be started now. (Descy uses this for “Next Actions this week”)
  • (D): On hold (Descy uses this for “Next Actions next week”)

Everything else is in the backlog which for me is items to be done this quarter. Anything further back goes on the tickler to be evaluated some day and added at my leisure.

Add-Ons & Set Up

A very brief overview of my current Todo.sh set up.

First, I have the todo.txt-cli script installed in my dotfiles repository which has it’s own script for installing all of my related configuration files on any system I touch. The todo lists themselves are in their own separate repository since I don’t manage todos on every system that I touch.

I follow the instructions for setting up auto completion. I also set up a number of aliases for different todo lists:

  • todo: for my daily, sprint, and quarterly task list
  • todot: for managing my tickler list
  • todos: for managing my shopping list

The aliases use the -a flag since I prefer to not auto archive by default.

Each alias has it’s own todo.cfg file which each sources a base.cfg file and only exports configurations that are unique to that command. As a base, I changed my priority colors to Blue, Green, Brown, and Red solarized values for the A-D priorities. Changed the project color to red and left the context a nice light gray.

As for the add ons, I added:

  • archive for archiving only selected items
  • edit for quickly opening the todo in VIM
  • sync and it’s requirements
  • commit,
  • pull and push for quick version control my todo lists.
  • projectview has some pretty formatting for project lists
  • recur for automating recuring tasks. I tried the ice_recur module but simply could not get it to work on my system.
  • xp another task visulation. This time for done tasks.
  • pri and rm (with a soft link for pri to p as a shortcut) for bulk editing priorities and deletions
  • lsgp/lsgc another project and context visualization.

Still Some Rough Spots

There are still some rough spots in Todo.sh land. First, sorting is still not quite perfect. Ideally, if I type todo lsp, I would like to have all my tasks listed by priority, then line number grouped by project. The best that I can do right now is by priority and then line number. Project grouping only occurs if I group the project lines together in VIM.

Secondly, the one big item that Trello had going for it was it’s phone app. This made adding tasks on the go quite easy and made looking things up easy as well.

Perhaps some of the various todo apps will have the functionality that I need, or perhaps I will need to compose my own app to meet my needs. The joy of the matter is though, I’m not locked in. I can easily develop that app if I so choose.

"Goodbye Trello, Hello Todo.txt" by Joseph Hallenbeck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Support this and future posts on