On Wunderlist and Productivity

[Update, May 31, 2020: As you likely know, Wunderlist was bought by Microsoft and its functionality rolled into Microsoft To-Do. For those of you interested in Wunderlist, here’s a list of 11 alternatives, kindly provided by the folks at Chamber of Commerce. — James]

For a while now, I’ve been using Wunderlist to manage my projects and to-do lists at home and at work. And it’s working so well I thought I’d share a description of my setup with you, gentle readers. What follows is a fairly long-winded description of how I (currently) keep my personal and work ducks in a row.

I like to keep my home and work projects separate. I’ve tried mingling them, and it makes things harder for me to manage. While I don’t follow Getting Things Done as religiously1 as I did in the past, I still like the concept of the Inbox, a place where tasks go before you sort them into projects (or contexts). Having two task inboxes requires two Wunderlist accounts. Since Wunderlist accounts are tied to email addresses, I have two gmail accounts. The older of the two is tied to my home account. The other (which is my nickname + “atwork” + @gmail.com) is tied to my work account.2

Recent versions of Google Chrome, my web browser of choice at home and at work, have a “People” menu which you can use to quickly switch between accounts. This is handy at home, where my wife, Gina, my son, Haden, and I share a MacBook Pro. But it’s also handy for switching between my home and work profiles. When you select someone from the People menu in Chrome, it launches a new browser window. Each window is tied to an account (the name of which resides in the upper, right-hand corner). So I often have two Chrome windows running, one for my Wheat stuff and one for my WheatAtWork stuff. Each window will have seven or eight tabs open. And more than likely, each window will have a tab devoted to Wunderlist.3

The separation of home and work becomes especially handy when it comes to integrating Wunderlist with email accounts. The company where I work is a Microsoft shop. Everyone uses Outlook. I’ve known people who used Outlook’s Tasks feature to manage their todos, but I’ve always found it lacking. But it had the advantage of being integrated with Outlook. See an email with a task in it? Flag and move on. Using anything third-party meant copying and pasting, which is more trouble than it might seem.

In June 2015, Microsoft bought Wunderlist. This worried me, and I made preparations to jump ship. But, quite to my surprise, Wunderlist under its new corporate overlords has continued to evolve in a good direction. The boys in Redmond haven’t simply fleeced its intellectual property and shuttered it, as I had feared they would. One of the biggest perks of the acquisition, for end-users like me, is Wunderlist now has an excellent Outlook integration (there’s more about it at the Wunderlist Support Center). On Outlook for Mac (Office 365 subscription required), the add-in gives you two buttons. One turns your email into a to-do based on the subject line and gives you a chance to edit all the details. The other, Quick Add, button shoots the email to Wunderlist as is. It’s great for fast-paced days when you’re trying to make sure you capture everything, even if you have to spend some time later sorting it all out.

I’ve only been using Wunderlist for Outlook for a few weeks, but I love it. Most of the poor reviews of it are due to difficulties installing it or frustration that it isn’t available for certain editions of Outlook. To be fair, Microsoft has no one to blame but themselves for that. Their product offerings have always been needlessly complex.4

So, that shores up work. How about life at home? Wunderlist doesn’t yet offer an official integration for Gmail, but the folks at Zapier do, and it’s simple enough that you can use it on their free plan. Zapier is one of those platforms that lets you connect web services together without having to know what an API is, much less how to code. They call each of these little workflows a Zap. And the Zap I currently use is called Create Wunderlist tasks from starred emails in Gmail. It’s a dull name, but it accurately describes exactly what the workflow does. You star something in Gmail, and it goes to your Wunderlist Inbox (or wherever you choose when you configure it in Zapier). I’ve tried a few of these web-pipe-fitting tools before. The folks at Zapier have the best UX and a rather amazingly broad range of integrations. Honestly, it took about two minutes to set up and test the integration.

So, there you have it. If you decide to set up something similar for yourself, let me know how it goes. So far, having two Wunderlist accounts, two Gmail account, one Zapier account–all free, is helping me keep track of everything I need to track.

  1. I still refer to David Allen as “The David.”
  2. I don’t actually use the email portion of this account for anything other than things like this. I’m being cute about not spelling out the address because it is, so far, blissfully free of spam.
  3. Wunderlist runs as a web app but also has desktop and mobile clients. I tend to prefer the desktop version, but keeping it in a browser tab can also be handy. There’s even a cool Terminal-based version for the truly geeky, myself included.
  4. There are, for example, nine different versions of Windows 10: Home, Pro, Education, Pro Education, Enterprise, Enterprise LTSB, Mobile, Mobile Enterprise, and IoT.