Jonathan Wylie is a Digital Learning Consultant who has a passion for helping others get the best out of their technology.
Why Use Apple Reminders for GTD?
For years, Apple's Reminders app was a pretty basic to-do list app. It lacked many of the features that productivity focused people wanted in order to implement a proper system for getting things done. However, all of this changed in the Fall of 2019 when Apple released iOS 13, iPadOS, and MacOS Catalina.
It's still not a perfect GTD app, but it's a lot better than it used to be, and if you are already invested in the Apple ecosystem, it's well worth your time to see if you can make Reminders work for you; especially when you consider that Reminders can be used on an iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, HomePod and even on the web. Here's what you need to know to get started.
How to Make Lists for Apple Reminders
Every great GTD system starts with a list. Whether you are a strict adherent to the original philosophy, or you adapt it to meet your own needs like I do, you will want to start with creating some lists for your tasks. You can create lists on an iPhone, iPad or on a Mac. Here's how it works on iOS 13, iPadOS, or on MacOS Catalina and later.
- Open the Reminders app
- Tap Add List at the bottom of your screen
- Enter the name for your list, e.g. Projects
- Choose a color and an icon for your list, (Mac users need to double click their newly created list before they can select a color and an icon).
- Repeat for as many lists as you need
Lists can be reordered to meet your needs. On iOS, press and hold on a list and then drag it up or down to reorder your lists. On a Mac, all you need to do is click and drag to do the same thing. The order you set on one device will sync to your other Apple devices so long as you are signed in with the same Apple ID.
You can also choose a default list in Reminders. This is particularly useful when interfacing with Siri. On an iPhone or an iPad you go to Settings > Reminders to choose your default list. On a Mac you click Reminders > Preferences to choose your default list. I have a list called Inbox set as my default. It is used to capture ideas and things I need to remember. I will return to this list periodically to performs some triage and move tasks to a more curated list.
Collecting Tasks & Filling Up Your Inbox
Now that you have your lists set up, the next obvious step is that brain dump. You need to spend some time adding tasks to your lists so that your mind can relax, and you can get on with the rest of your day. One of the nice things about using Apple Reminders for getting things done, is that there are multiple different ways that you can add things to your list. I will cover some of these below.
- The Reminders App: An obvious place to start is the Reminders app on your mobile device or your Mac. Once you open the app, all you have to do is select the list you want to add a task to, and then tap or click New Reminder.
- Share Menus: If you are browsing the web, or using an app on your phone, you can quickly add something to your task list via the Share menu on your Apple device. On iOS, tap the Share arrow in the corner of the screen, and then select the Reminders app. From here you can choose the list you need. On a Mac, you can use File > Share while using Safari or Chrome to find the Reminders app. In Firefox, you can click the three buttons in the address bar to find the Share menu and then choose Reminders. You can also add to Reminders from Notes or Mail.
- Ask Siri: Apple's digital assistant is another great way to add tasks. I use it a lot while I am driving. I say things like, "Remind me to call Mike when I get home." Tasks are added to your default list, (see above), but you can specify the list you want to add a task to with a command like, "Add milk to my shopping list." Siri works on an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, HomePod and with CarPlay.
- Use iCloud.com: It's not ideal, but if you are using a Windows computer and you don't have access to any of your Apple devices, you can view and add tasks to Reminders by visiting iCloud.com and logging in with your Apple ID. The web version has a more limited feature set right now, but it works in a pinch and it's available on any desktop computer.
Task Details in Reminders
When adding a task in Reminders there are several options you may want to take advantage of to help you see the task at a specific time, or at a specific location. To find all the options that are available to you, tap or click the "i" next to a new reminder. The selections include:
- Remind me on a day: Turn this on to be reminded about a task on a specific day. You can choose the default time to be reminded on iOS in Settings > Reminders, or in Reminders > Preferences on a Mac. Drill deeper and you can add a custom time, and decide if you want this to be a task that repeats on a schedule.
- Remind me at a location: You can be reminded of tasks at specific geographic locations, or at locations your iPhone already knows like home or work. You can also add variables like getting in your car, or getting out of your car, because your iPhone knows when it is connected or disconnected to your car.
- Remind me when messaging: This is a new option in iOS 13, iPadOS and MacOS Catalina. It lets you choose a contact that you want to tag in a task. So, if your task says, Ask Brian about the latest quote for materials, the next time you are messaging Brian, you will get a notification reminding you of that task.
- Priority Tasks: To mark your most important tasks, you can flag them. This adds a visual reminder to each task and automatically adds that task to a smart list, (see below). If you prefer, you can add a priority level. You can choose between low, medium and high priority. This adds one, two or three exclamation points before the task title, depending on the priority level you choose.
Organizing GTD Tasks in Apple Reminders
You can add as many tasks as you want to Apple Reminders, but your productivity won't increase unless you get those tasks organized. Here are some tips top help filter out the noise and get you focused on getting things done in Apple Reminders.
- Reorder tasks: To sort the tasks on your list, simply drag and drop them into the order that you need. Do this daily to organize your work.
- Smart lists: There are four smart lists, (or filters), you can use to view your tasks. Today shows tasks with today's date and any overdue tasks. Scheduled shows all tasks with a date, Flagged shows your flagged tasks, and All shows all the tasks from all your lists.
- Groups: Lists organize tasks, while Groups organize Lists. For instance, you could have a Group called Projects, and a separate list for each project could live inside that Group. You could do the same for Next Actions, and have a list for Work and a list for Home. To create a Group on iOS, tap Edit above the smart lists, and then tap Add Group. On MacOS, go to File > New Group. Once you have your group, drag and drop lists on to it so you can combine your lists.
- Subtasks: You can't implement a good GTD system without subtasks. You can turn a task into a subtask by dragging and dropping it on top of another task. iOS Users can tap the "i" next to a task, and then enter subtasks from the details menu, or swipe right on a task. On a Mac, you can create a subtask if you right-click on a task and choose the option to indent it.
- Move Tasks: There are several ways to move tasks from one list to another. On a Mac or an iPad, the easiest way is just to drag a task to the sidebar where you can drop it on to the list that you want to move it to. On an iPhone, tap the "i" on any task to enter the details screen where you can select a different list for that task to live. Tap Done to save the new location.
Apple Reminders on iPhone & iPad
Adding Contexts in Reminders
While contexts are an important part of many people's GTD system, I have to hold up my hands and say that they are not a big part of mine. As it happens, that's a good thing, because Apple Reminders is not an ideal app for contexts, at least as they are defined by the getting things done system. The missing piece, in my eyes, is tags. You can't tag tasks with labels like email or phone call. However, that's not to say you can't be a little creative with your contexts.
For instance, you could create a list called Phone Calls, and add tasks for people you need to call. You can schedule calls by date and time, or by location. Perhaps a better way of organizing this could be to create a Group called Contexts. Inside this Group you could have a list for Phone Calls, Email, At Home, and so forth, and that would be a more compact way of organizing contexts. The only downside, is that tasks in a context list can't also be on another list like Next Actions.
If you prefer the context tasks to live on different lists, consider emoji. You can add an emoji icon before a task to visually signify that it is a phone call or an email task. You won't be able to filter these tasks, but you could reorder them in a list so that they are all together for when you need them. Use the emoji keyboard on iOS, or press Ctrl + Cmd + Space on your Mac to summon the emoji keyboard on MacOS.
The search tool in Reminders is really good, but if you added your own custom tags like #phonecall or #email, and you search for those in the app, you will be presented with all tasks that have those "tags", whether they have been completed or not, and this is obviously not ideal. In short, Apple Reminders needs tags. There are tags in Finder and in the Files app on iOS, so it seems like it would be a natural fit for the next release for Reminders, should Apple be inclined to entertain that idea.
Apple Reminders + GTD
In terms of my own productivity plan, I have been a Todoist user for several years, and before that I used Wunderlist. I had never really considered using Reminders for getting things done, but the recent improvements that Apple has made have really made a big difference. I have been using it now for a couple of months, and I have to say that it works really well for what I need. It might not work for everyone, but it works for me and the devices that I use most, so I have no qualms recommending it to anyone else.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Jonathan Wylie