Tracking Everything with Remember the Milk

Remember the Milk screenshot

I was never a big to-do list guy. I used Google Calendar to keep track of everything and it worked very well for a decade.
However, early last year, a number of things changed for me.
I signed a book contract and took on more responsibilities at work.

Using my calendar to track things quickly became a burden.
I couldn’t see what my day looked like because all of the untimed projects at the top took up all of my screen real estate.
My calendar was just a blocky mess.
So I decided to delve into the world to to-do lists.

I wound up using Remember the Milk and it’s been fantastic.
Full disclosure: I was always fairly efficient, so I don’t know that Remember the Milk has changed me, but it has certainly made it much easier to keep track of what needs to be done and what isn’t getting done.
This isn’t a Linux-specific post, but as you’ll see, a lot of the features of Remember the Milk will appeal to Linux users.

The Bake Off

I’m the kind of person who likes testing and choosing tools (as you might have guessed…), so I was actually excited about wading into the world of to-do list software.
And luckily for me, there are trillions of to-do list apps and sites. Like, by the time you get to the end of this sentence, three more will have launched.
I focused on the big ones: ToDoist; Wunderlist;; TickTick; and ToodleDo. I also saw some recommendations for Emacs and Org mode, which can be configured to work with mobile devices, but it seemed like overkill. I looked at Trello briefly but it didn’t feel quite right for me (Scott Nesbitt just posted a great piece on how he uses it, though). When I started this journey, I wasn’t sure of the to-do list features that mattered to me, since I’d never really used an electronic to-do list before. Using the various tools helped me see which features I needed.

  • Wunderlist didn’t have keyboard shortcuts, which I quickly realized was important to me.
  • I never understood the interface. I wanted a simple interface.
  • ToodleDo also felt very complicated to me, although it came highly recommended.
  • I used TickTick for a while, but there was a weird, temporary glitch and I lost a few hours of data. It was hardly catastrophic but annoying enough that I felt I couldn’t trust the product anymore.
  • I also came to realize I wanted a tool I could pay for, so there was some accountability with it.

I wound up using ToDoist for a few months, because it had great keyboard shortcuts, a sparse interface, and a paid tier. The sorting concepts were sometimes confusing, the mobile app felt pretty limited (like I couldn’t change the sort), and there were oddities, like subtasks showing up twice in certain views, but for the most part it worked very well.

ToDoist also has a karma option, where you accrue points for knocking stuff off your list. Sadly, it made me happy to watch my karma go up, even though it was meaningless.

I committed to ToDoist, using it to handle all of my projects, and as a I said, it worked great, but I still had a nagging feeling something even better might be out there. I saw recommendations for Remember the Milk, but it hadn’t updated its interface since I first looked at it in the mid-2000s. But I saw they were working on a new interface that users could beta test, but only if they were paid users. I couldn’t find any screenshots of the new interface but on a whim, I decided to spend the $25 to become a pro user and join the beta. Mostly just to see what the new interface looked like.

I fell in love with Remember the Milk almost instantly. The interface was simple, the sorting made sense, and the shortcuts are amazing.

The Winner

I wound up switching off of ToDoist and to Remember the Milk around two weeks later (I used both in parallel for two weeks, which was kind of harrowing) and I’ve been using it ever since.

There are two ways to organize items:

  • Lists, which are basically projects. I use the major parts of my life: work, personal, blog and book.

  • Tags, which I’ve recently gotten into in terms of getting different perspectives on what needs to be done. Like anything where I need to follow-up is tagged with followup. Anything I’m waiting on is tagged waiting (perhaps ironically, I got the idea from the ToDoist blog which is wonderfully helpful to anyone trying to stay organized). I have tags for the different parts of my life, like buy, read, article ideas, and even cleaning. All of these tags allow me to quickly see what needs to be done. Like if I want to see everything I’m waiting on, I just click on the tag and I can see it across all of my lists.

Remember the Milk tags
Tags are a great way to organize your tasks.

Remember the Milk also has a smart list concept which is a more complicated way to search across your lists and create lists based upon that search. So one of my smart lists is for things I need to give to other people, which grabs everything tagged with for-, which is how I consistently tag things for other people. I also have an action smart list that excludes anything I’m waiting on. That kind of flexibility helps me to make decisions in terms of what I should be doing in any given moment.

The shortcuts are also great: You can

  • add tags and lists using the # sign, in both the web and the mobile client
  • assign priority with an !
  • postpone something one day with shift-p
  • change the due date with d.

There’s a shortcut for pretty much everything which lets you just type without having to click on menus and options. Remember the Milk can even parse natural language, so you can set a task to every other week, just by using that phrase in the task.

Remember the Milk syntax (on mobile)
Remember the Milk has its own syntax for quickly adding tasks—even on mobile.

For some reason, if you change the date of a task, it doesn’t impact the subtasks. That seems common across to-do lists and I’m not sure why that is.

Remember the Milk has been amazing for me. I have a lot of balls in the air and I feel like I’m pretty on top of all of them. The new interface is beautiful but the price is now up to $39 a year (there’s still a functional free tier, though). On the one hand, it’s high, especially considering the number of free and freemium products out there. But I also like the fact that there’s a revenue model around the product. I like that it’s a business. That makes me feel like it’s less likely a tool I love and depend upon will disappear because the people behind it need to get real jobs.

Another interesting side effect of moving to Remember the Milk is I’m no longer dependent upon Google Calendar. I’ve been trying to reduce my dependence upon Google tools but because I was such a heavy Calendar user, I never saw a way off of it. And I looked! However, now that I’m tracking all of my projects through Remember the Milk, my calendar has been reduced to birthdays and appointments, making it very easy to leave. I still use Google Calendar, but mostly as a web interface to display my work calendar (which is Outlook). I could easily leave Google Calendar with a few days’ notice. And knowing I can leave any time is enough to keep me in Google Calendar. For now.

I’m not a strict Getting Things Done adherent, but I do believe in getting stuff out of your head and into some kind of system that’s going to remind you what you need to do. I don’t think the tool matters that much as long as you commit to it, as long as it works for you, and as long as it makes sense to you. Remember the Milk is that tool for me and I suspect it’s that tool for a lot of other people. It’s simple and flexible and feels a lot like the command line. Remember the Milk has been around for a long time, but sadly, they didn’t update their look until earlier this year. I suspect a lot of people have looked at it over the years and decided not to use it because it looked so dated. I’m hoping the update will get users to give it a second (or third, depending upon your age) look.

Like any tool, it’s not going to change who you are or how you work. But it has allowed me to work more efficiently, capturing tasks and making them easy to track and complete. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, which for me is a bell and a whistle. The Pro price is steep, but good products are worth paying for. And it gives me confidence that Remember the Milk will be around for a while.

If you’re thinking about a to-do list or are unhappy with your current one, give Remember the Milk two weeks and see how it works for you.

Remember The Milk
What works: Simplicity and command-line syntax
What doesn’t work: Price for Pro level
Who should work with it: Anyone looking to keep track of projects and deadlines, but especially anyone looking to get ideas on and off their list very quickly.