The unsexy plain text todo file

Sverrir Valgeirsson
3 min readJan 8, 2016

by Sverrir Valgeirsson

There are few things as sexy to write about as file formats. It’s in fact so sexy that Apple has mostly hidden the existence of files altogether from their iOS products to protect the public. But perhaps file formats shouldn’t always be something private. Perhaps there may be an idea to have a small discussion on the topic even if it may be a bit too much for some of us.

There are infinite applications available for all our devices that solve endless problems in plenty of different ways. Most of these are today cloud based, and store our data somewhere in the cloud in a format unknown to us. Others store the data in files on our hard-drives or on our Dropboxes or iClouds, but still using a format that is either proprietary or very complicated.

In many cases a complicated file format is a necessity, but one of the cases where it´s not, is the todo-list.

A todo-list in it’s simplest form can easily be scribbled down on any piece of paper. A todo-list in it’s most complex form, well, it can also be scribbled down on any piece of paper.

There have been many ways to transfer this piece of paper over to the digital world, many of which use special formats or cloud storage for your list, but there is a nice alternative.

Todo.txt by Gina Trapani is the a superbly simple and distraction free way of handling a todo-list. Basically it’s just a normal text file with one row for each todo-item and a few optional formatting rules (you can safely ignore them if you don’t need them). All stored in a file wherever you store files. Chances are that you already have one of these files on your desktop, just not using the formatting proposed.

By adding a few simple rules for how to indicate priority, context and projects the file becomes much more powerful and there is a lot of software available for you to try it out. I recommend reading the excellent tutorial by Zach LeBar on how to use the format.

But why does it matter really what format the file is stored in? There are a few benefits of using plain text files

  • Anyone you want to share the file with can read it — You can use special software for reading the file, but you don’t have to. Any text editor will do.
  • There is a selection of applications to alter the files
  • You decide where the file is stored — This is very important for work related tasks for example, keeping your company information inside the firewalls
  • You decide how the file is shared — You can easily censor out parts you don’t want to share.. Just make a copy and remove those lines. Then email the file, or put it in a shared dropbox folder. Or share it on github. Any system will work as it’s just a text file.
  • Backups are handled by your normal backup system.
  • Adding your way of handling a Todo-list is a matter of just doing it — You can do this however complex as you like. A special tag? A new tool? A script?
  • If you mess up your file nothing happens. No information is lost if you format wrongly

I did for example not find any desktop application that I was happy with for todo.txt files, so I made one. And so have many others.

I use todo.txt for my private tasks and I sync it in my Dropbox across all devices. On my desktops (Windows and Mac) I use Todour. On my mobile devices (iOS and Android) I use Todo.txt Touch. To access my private todo-list at work I use a Chrome extension that enables me to access the my Dropbox file without syncing my private Dropbox to the work computer.

At work I use Todour for my work Todo-list that is stored on an network drive behind the corporate firewall.

As you can see the possibilities of using a plain text file for your todo-list are close to endless. Try it! It’s simple and fast and very liberating.

Originally published at on January 8, 2016.