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Use apps to be more productive with your time

Your iPhone tends to be framed as a time-waster – a device you sink hours into, frittering your life away on the trivialities of social networking, videos and games. But with the right apps, your device can be a productivity powerhouse, helping you to manage tasks and get things done.

Apple provides basic tools to help you achieve this. Reminders is good for checklists, which can be shared with friends and family; and, as of iOS 15, the app gains smart list functionality. Notes goes beyond words with formatting, tables and basic checklists.

However, neither app is a task manager in a conventional sense, to which you’d trust organizing your life. The four apps in our round-up are, though, and each brings its own individual approach to helping you get things done.

Things ($10/£10)

Best for elegance, clarity, and focus

Things manages to simultaneously be about small details and the bigger picture. You start by stashing ideas in an inbox, and each can optionally have a hard deadline or a more abstract ‘intention’ regarding completion – be that today, tomorrow, or ‘someday’. Further organization comes from tags that link arbitrary tasks, projects that collate and structure larger goals, and ‘areas’ to separate different elements of your life.

From a visual and usability standpoint, Things is superb, with a friendly, almost playful interface. You’ll revel in the tiny pie charts in the main screen that denote how complete each project is, the integrated Quick Find feature that helps you rapidly access tasks, and how intention-based tasks roll over when incomplete – rather than the app stressing you out by adding them to an overdue list. There’s also great clarity in the app’s design, not least in the excellent Upcoming view.

There are drawbacks. This is solo fare – there are no collaboration features – and you cannot attach files nor location data to tasks. Custom views are limited to filter-based searches. The app isn’t cheap either: beyond the iPhone version, it costs $20/£20 on iPad and $50/£45 on Mac. That said, this is a one-time purchase, not a subscription, and the creators have to date provided four years of regular updates; beyond that, the app’s elegance and efficient nature set it apart from its contemporaries.

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Todoist (free + IAP)

Best for speed, efficiency and working with others

Todoist doesn’t muck about. Adding new tasks is swift, due to a responsive interface that enables you to quickly assign tags, priorities and deadlines, and file tasks accordingly. There’s natural language input, so you can type in the likes of “Lunch with John on Friday” or “Update weekly schedule every Monday at 10am #team” and let Todoist deal with the drudge work.

For the solo user, there are additional notable features: filters you save to the main screen that adjust your view based on user-defined criteria, and a ‘karma’ system for working up a streak of getting things done. But the app really excels when you collaborate with others, adding links and attachments, making comments, and digging into a task’s history.

What you don’t get is much ‘Appleness.’ The app feels comparatively basic and doesn’t pull in Calendar data. However, it is available across a range of platforms – including the web – which is ideal for collaboration. The free tier is generous too, and may be enough for a solo user. But if you feel restricted, you can opt to pay $36/£36 per year to up active projects from five to 30, increase collaborators from five to 25, attach larger files, use more filters (150 rather than just three), and set reminders for tasks.

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TickTick (free + IAP)

Best for combining tasks and wellbeing

Despite sporting a moniker that suggests a bomb’s about to go off, TickTick has a lot going for it. The main view resembles a basic task manager, where you add items with due dates, tags, and priority flags, and then dump them in the inbox (to later sort) or a list. What makes TickTick interesting is its range of built-in features designed to help you focus and reduce stress.

The Today view shows what’s going on today and has a button to trigger a focus mode that encourages you to deal with urgent tasks one at a time, swiping them away when they’re complete. Another tab features a Pomodoro timer, for distraction-free work sprints; you can optionally place your phone face down while the timer runs, like with Bear Focus Timer. TickTick also has a tab where you create and track habits, the app’s creator reasoning that they can often be more beneficial to you than dealing with timed goals and defined projects.

Generously, much of this functionality is free. However, there is a paid tier – $28/£26 per year – that unlocks alternate calendar views, filters, checkbox item reminders, themes, and white noise, along with the means to set task durations so tasks don’t clash. Either way, TickTick is a novel take on a task manager that successfully does something a bit different.

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Agenda (free + IAP)

Best for freeform tasks with context and history

All task managers afford you some flexibility, but Agenda is the most freeform around. It’s like someone greatly expanded on the basic organization elements in Apple’s Notes. So within Agenda, tasks can have any combination of text, headings, lists, tables, photos/scans, dividers, tags, and even freeform sketches.

Two sidebars can be pulled in from the screen edges: from the right, you get a calendar and links to recently edited and related notes; from the left, you can access notes you’ve placed in the ‘On the Agenda’ overview, today’s tasks, search, and projects.

Smartly, Agenda includes several sample projects, which show off how the app can be used for everything from planning to journals. Dig into them and you’ll grasp how useful context and the ability to scroll back through lists and text can be to task management. They also instantly show how Agenda is far more than a mere checklist – albeit overkill and overly complicated if your task needs are basic.

The app’s free to try, gating premium features – templates; subcategories; pinned notes and footnotes; annotations – behind a paywall. A one-off charge – $15/£13 for iPhone/iPad or $35/£30 for iPhone/iPad/Mac – permanently unlocks those premium features that were available when you paid and any that arrive over the following year. But whether you pay or not, Agenda’s worth a look for a unique, genuinely useful approach to task management.

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