TaskPaper: To-Do Meets Plain Text

To-do software is somewhat akin to sports teams, in the sense that everyone has their favorite. Users develop strong allegiances, while apps like Omnifocus develop cult followings. Insult a popular to-do app and be ready to feel the wrath of angry power users. Thanks to apps like Clear, even the simplest to-do apps have diehard fans.

Despite vast differences, all to-do apps are rooted in the basic concept of lists, but most bury this basic idea in complicated databases and an abundance of chrome. TaskPaper by Hog Bay Software puts the “list” back into “to-do list” and saves all task lists as plain text files. TaskPaper doesn’t offer a full-fledged GTD experience per se, but it provides many of the key features without the unpleasant complexities.


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The Mind Dump

It’s time to dump all of those important projects, errands, and chores into TaskPaper. Tap the plus button to add a new item. The list item defaults to task, but tapping the return button toggles between task, note, and project. It’s also possible to nest items by tapping the space bar. Simply enter the item and tap return to create a new one, if the item is nested in a project, the new item will also be nested. This makes quick entry a snap, and the smart return key ensures that the user won’t create a blank item.

The TaskPaper interface takes advantage of the iPad's screen real-estate without cluttering the experience.

The TaskPaper interface takes advantage of the iPad's screen real-estate without cluttering the experience.

Tagging is dead simple, type an “@” followed by the name of a tag and TaskPaper will add the tag to the tag list if it doesn’t exist. The secondary keyboard toolbar provides all of the special symbols necessary for making tagging a breeze.

Users can customize the secondary keyboard keys, or turn the secondary keyboard off altogether.

Users can customize the secondary keyboard keys, or turn the secondary keyboard off altogether.

The mind dump was easy, but now it’s time to sort the mammoth list. Complete simple items by swiping to the right or delete, cut, or copy an item by swiping to the left. Completing an item strikes the item out and adds the “@done” tag. You can edit list items by double tapping the item, or move items by long pressing and dragging them to the desired location. Items can be moved to any location in the list, making it easy to move items to a separate project or simply indent them.

Moving a list item will also bring sub items along for the ride.

Editing single items is fine for small lists, but dealing with large chunks of tasks requires a bit more power. Fortunately, TaskPaper’s mass edit feature is superb. Hold down any of the items in the list menu and tap multiple list items to highlight them. Once the items are highlighted, move them with the simple long press action as before. Highlighted items can be group tagged, moved, or converted to a different item type. This is a powerful way of dealing with multiple list items and makes organizing a mind dump less daunting.

TaskPaper supports multiple documents and folders. Users can use multiple files to keep someday/maybe items separate from their main to-do list.

Tap the ellipsis symbol in the bottom toolbar to access additional group actions.

Tap the ellipsis symbol in the bottom toolbar to access additional group actions.

Finding Your To-Dos.

TaskPaper provides powerful search and filter options that keep tasks from disappearing amidst a sea of digital ink. Press the project or tag buttons in the list toolbar to filter by available projects or tags. These filters enter the appropriate search terms into the search field, using TaskPaper’s query language that I’ll cover a bit later. There are two search options in TaskPaper, list search and document search.

Use tag and project filters to show relevant context tasks or projects that you're ready to work on.

Use tag and project filters to show relevant context tasks or projects that you're ready to work on.

Review is a vital part of the GTD system, and TaskPaper makes review possible without complex alert systems. Since the entire TaskPaper “database” is a plain text file, review requires a simple overview of the file, which is easy to do in TaskPaper. All tasks, projects, and notes are out in the open.

Of course, the app isn’t going to tell the user to review his or her to-dos, so a bit of self-discipline is required.

Wishing for a bit of analog action? Task lists can be printed or emailed by tapping on the list title.

The Power of Search

So, simple searches and filters not enough for you? Feel that the app needs a bit more oomph? TaskPaper includes a fully functional query language that opens up a new realm of possibilities. Tags accept values in TaskPaper, simply add the value in parenthesis after the tag. Here are a few examples:

  • @waiting(Bill)
  • @due(3/20/12)
  • @priority(1)

These values allow users to pinpoint tags with specific values. If I want to see how many tasks require me to wait for Bill I can type “@waiting = Bill” in the search field. This brings up all of the tasks with “@waiting(Bill)” but excludes tasks simply tagged “@waiting”. This system can be used for things like due dates or priority and adds a flexible layer to TaskPaper, somewhat similar to perspectives in Omnifocus.

TaskPaper's query language is powerful yet intuitive.

TaskPaper's query language is powerful yet intuitive.

Typing long search queries can be a pain, and it would be great if TaskPaper included some sort of tool for making this easier. Oh wait, the app offers full TextExpander support. Turn long or constantly used search terms into snippets, add them to TextExpander, and remembering long queries is no longer a problem. TaskPaper includes a comprehensive help file that explains the complete search query syntax, and the system is relatively easy to grasp with a bit of experimentation.

Aside from these advanced options, TaskPaper also allows the user to customize font, font color, and background color.

Aside from these advanced options, TaskPaper also allows the user to customize font, font color, and background color.

Sync

It’s easy to choose the sync method for TaskPaper, because Dropbox is the only option available. Dropbox is excellent for this app, because it gives users easy access to TaskPaper task files, opening the door for AppleScript and other scripting shenanigans. Sync setup is simple, and the sync folder can be located anywhere within the dropbox folder.

Remember, altering TaskPaper files directly can be incredibly useful, but there’s no database backup if you accidentally erase your file data. Dropbox sync also creates conflicted copies if a document is saved from multiple locations at the same time, so it’s best to make changes on one device at a time.

Conclusion

Plain text devotees will find a firm friend in TaskPaper. The application is sturdy enough to trust with one’s data, and the simple storage system ensures that tasks will never be trapped in a database. There are no alerts or forecast views in TaskPaper, which may be a deal breaker for some but, given a bit of ingenuity, TaskPaper can be tweaked to do almost anything expected from a to-do app.

TaskPaper is an excellent app for those wanting to create anything from simple lists to detailed projects. The app is universal, syncs well across devices, and also comes in a separate version for Mac. TaskPaper is an excellent alternative for anyone wishing to rid themselves of bulky databases and complicated interfaces without sacrificing the power that comes with them.


Summary

TaskPaper is a surprisingly powerful to-do list that stores all information in simple text files. Users can create new tasks, separate them into projects, and add contexts to easily sort tasks. Dropbox support means that users can sync TaskPaper across all of their devices.

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