There's a huge wealth of task management apps on the App Store, so it's easy to overlook the Reminders app that Apple has built into every iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Apple's Reminders app is deceptively simple on the surface, and we'll grant that it's not going to be enough for anybody who has serious project management needs, but like Apple's Notes app that we looked at last week, there's a lot of cool and useful stuff hidden in here that might just make you see Apple's little to-do list app in an entirely new light.
To be clear, I'm something of a productivity junkie when it comes to these kinds of apps. I spent many years as a project manager in a former life, and I've been trying almost everything on the App Store since it debuted in 2008. I currently own full licenses to two of the biggest players in the game: OmniFocus and Things, and have used both extensively over the years; both are absolutely fantastic apps, and I highly recommend either one of them for anybody with more complex task management needs, but these apps also carry a danger in encouraging people with personalities like mine to over-plan and under-execute. In short, it becomes too easy to spend more time tweaking and planning things than actually doing them.
Apple's Reminders, on the other hand, boasts an elegant simplicity. There are no tags, or contexts, or hierarchical project lists. Everything is in flat lists. You can assign priorities if you want, and add notes, but otherwise the only feature is the ability to optionally set reminders for when or where a given task needs to be done. If you occasionally feel lost when looking at more sophisticated task management apps, Reminders is a breath of fresh air.
Of course, every tool has its purpose. I still use OmniFocus and Things for more complex, multi-stage work projects that require that kind of detailed planning, but Reminders is my tool of choice for everything else — the vast majority of the little things that easily fit into simple lists. Read on for a few of the reasons why I like the Reminders app and why you might just find it worth another look too.
Persistent Lock Screen Notifications
One neat trick up Reminders' sleeve is something that we've never seen another app able to do: keep notifications on the lock screen, even after you've unlocked your iPhone. It's clear that Apple is using another home court advantage here by taking advantage of an iOS feature that's not available to other developers.
What this means in practical terms is that once you get notified of a reminder — either by time or location — it will stay on your iPhone lock screen until you explicitly acknowledge it, even after you unlock your iPhone and start using it. Push the sleep button again to turn your iPhone screen off, and the next time you pick it up, that reminder banner will still be sitting there, waiting for you to do something with it. Of course, you can still dismiss it manually, but you have to specifically do that — it won't just disappear by itself.
This is a really small thing, but it's actually one of my favourite features of the Reminders app as it makes it basically impossible to miss or forget an important reminder, and also — thanks to Apple's enhanced notifications — makes it easy to snooze it or mark it done once you're actually ready to deal with it; since it's right there on the lock screen, you can simply tap-and-hold to get more options, saving you from having to visit the Reminders app or Today screen to actually check it off.
Tell Siri to "Remember This"
Reminders has the unique ability to use deep links into many other apps — in fact, almost any app that supports Apple's Handoff feature can be linked into Reminders, even those that don't support expose shareable links in any other way. While some apps, like Safari, offer Reminders on the standard iOS Share Sheet, the most universal way to access this is to simply tell Siri to "Remember this" when looking at an item.
For example, when viewing an e-mail, saying "Hey Siri, Remember This" will create a task with the subject line of the email message and a link right back to that specific message. Ask Siri to remember a book you're reading and you'll get a link back to that specific book so you can quickly open it again. This also works with Notes, Safari, News, Maps, Messages, Calendar, Wallet, and with a whole range of third-party apps like Pocket, YouVersion's Bible app, Pixelmator, PCalc, Quora, and Evernote, just to name a few.
Further, in addition to a linked icon beside the reminder itself, when you're notified with an alert for the reminder, you'll be given an additional notification action to open the linked app. For example, a reminder to read a book will include an "Open Books" action in addition to the usual options for completing, snoozing, or dismissing the reminder.
Linking to Notes
One particularly helpful use for the "Remember This" feature is to link an individual reminder to a note in the Apple Notes app. For example, you could have a reminder to work on a specific project, or even something more generic like "Do Household Chores" and then use a more detailed note to store a list of what specifically needs to be done. This helps keep the Reminders app from getting too cluttered while still allowing for more detailed checklists.
Using "Remember This" you can even tell Siri to link to another list in Reminders, which can be useful if you want to create a task to remind you to check a specific list, like a grocery list.
Reminders on Your Wrist
Although lots of task management apps also offer Apple Watch versions, Apple's Reminders app is the best one we've seen for integrating with the Siri Watch Face. Each scheduled reminder will appear as a card in time-appropriate slots, giving you a calendar-like overview of what you have to do next. This works best if you keep your actual timed reminders to the few critically important things you have to do each day; don't put alerts on anything that doesn't have a deadline, and make use of the Notes app for longer lists of less important items.
The Reminders watchOS app doesn't do much, but it does have an elegant simplicity to it compared to many of the other ones we've looked at. You can easily access every one of your lists and check any of your items off, which covers the important stuff on the Apple Watch, and of course you can simply use Siri if you want to add new items.
Reminders On The Web
Since Reminders is part of Apple's iCloud family, everything you put in reminders is also accessible from the web. This can be especially useful if you're stuck with a Windows PC at work, or even a Mac that's not signed into the same iCloud account as your iPhone.
Not only can you access your reminders on the web, and create new ones, but as long as you've got iCloud.com open, you'll get timed reminder alerts in your browser as well.
Sync is Lightning Fast
Reminders is available on your iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch, as well as on iCloud.com, and everything syncs between devices really fast. You can actually watch changes made on your Mac appear on your iPhone almost instantaneously.
Further, notifications also sync up between devices very quickly. Dismiss a reminder notification on your Mac, and it will almost instantly vanish from your iPhone screen as well. Snooze a reminder on your iPhone, and it gets snoozed everywhere else too.
One of the best parts is also that since it's all built into iCloud sync services, you don't need to worry about opening the Reminders app on your devices to ensure everything is in sync. It's not uncommon in other task management apps to get reminded on your iPhone of a task you've already marked completed on your Mac. This basically never happens with Apple's Reminders app — once a reminder is marked done, it's marked done everywhere within seconds.
Siri Works Really Well With Reminders — Especially on HomePod
It's nothing new that Apple's own first-party apps get special placement within the iOS ecosystem, and Reminders is one of the most obvious examples of this. While Apple added SiriKit a few years ago to allow other apps to receive Siri commands, there's no way to make another app your default reminders app, requiring you to always add "using" or "in" to your Siri commands.
In other words, if you call out to Siri asking it to "Remember" something or "Add reminder," that's going to go into the Reminders app by default. On the other hand, if you want to add a task to Things, you have to add "Using Things" to either the front or end of your request. This gets tiresome pretty quickly, to the point where I found that I use Siri far less to add reminders to other apps. Even when I was using Things or OmniFocus as my primary task managers, I'd channel all of my Siri-created reminders through the Reminders app and let the third-party apps import them from there.
But with Apple's own Reminders app, the Siri integration goes even deeper. You can add reminders to specific lists, set location-based reminders, have Siri read off your reminders in various ways, mark them as completed, or even delete them. Here are just a few of the things you can tell Siri to do with your reminders:
- "Hey Siri, remind me to take out the trash today at 6 p.m."
- "Hey Siri, remind me to turn off the sprinkler when I get home."
- "Hey Siri, add milk to my Grocery List"
- "Hey Siri, what do I have to do today?"
- "Hey Siri, what's on my personal list?"
- "Hey Siri, what's my personal list look like for today?"
- "Hey Siri, mark laundry as complete."
- "Hey Siri, delete chocolate from my grocery list."
Best of all, these all work great from HomePod as well, allowing you to quickly add things you need to buy while you're actually standing in your kitchen staring into an empty refrigerator, or simply have Siri give you a morning briefing of your daily task list.
One thing that's oddly missing from a lot of third-party task management apps is collaboration — the ability to share lists with others. Reminders, however, nails this feature, letting you share any given reminder list with another iPhone user — or anybody with an iCloud account — as easily as you can share a calendar. To share a list of reminders:
- Open the list you want to share
- Tap the "Edit" button in the top right corner
- Tap "Sharing"
- Tap "Add person..."
- Type in the name of the person you want to share the list with, or select it from your contacts.
- Tap "Done"
The user will receive an invite notification on their iPhone, iPad, or Mac, along with an email. Note that you can even share reminders lists with non-iOS users — they'll still need an iCloud account, but they can sign up for one on the web and access the list from there.
This can be a great way to share lists of household chores, event plans, and grocery lists. Of course, you can also do this in the Notes app, but Reminders is a much better place if you prefer to use more structured lists, and of course also lets you set time or location alerts for each item, although these won't be shared with other users.
There are relatively few apps that even try to tackle location-based alerts, and even fewer do it nearly as well as Apple's own Reminders. For example, Things doesn't support the feature at all, while OmniFocus adds a layer of abstraction by assigning locations to tags, and then assigning those tags to individual tasks. On the other hand, both 2Do and Todoist offer more flexible per-task implementations, but they can still be a bit cumbersome to setup.
Reminders, on the other hand, lets you easily assign a location reminder to individual tasks, and it's one of the very few apps that let you actually specify the radius (on a map) for how far away you want to be when the alert goes off.
As a bonus you can also make it even easier by using Siri, even from an Apple Watch or HomePod. You can say things like:
- Remind me to buy bread when I'm near the grocery store
- Add a reminder to bring in the garbage bins when I get home
- Remind me to refill the wiper fluid when I get in the car
This last one is another portion of Reminders' secret sauce. Using a Bluetooth or CarPlay connection, your iPhone knows when you're getting into your car, or out of your car, and can trigger reminders on the basis of that alone.
Reminders In Your Car
In addition to setting reminder alerts for when you get in and out of your car, Apple's Reminders app also integrates tightly with CarPlay. If a reminder alert goes off while your iPhone is connected to your CarPlay system, you'll actually get a banner at the top of whatever screen is active. This means you won't miss any important reminders while you're on the road.
Plus, the CarPlay reminder notifications are actionable in the same way that they are on the iPhone screen — you can mark them as completed, snooze them, or simply ignore the notification.
Remembering to Return Calls
Another hidden trick that Reminders has up its sleeve is the ability to create interactive reminders to call people back. Tell Siri to "Remind me to Call Dad tomorrow morning" and it will not only create a reminder for this purpose, but link it to the Phone app so you can tap on an icon beside the reminder to actually place the call — or select the "Call" option when the notification alert comes up.
Siri and Reminders are also clever enough to use the family affiliations from your "Me" card, so if you've set that up properly, you can use phrases like "dad" or "mom" or "my girlfriend" to target reminders at the appropriate folks.
This doesn't work only for traditional cellular calls either; tell Siri to "Call ... using FaceTime" for a standard FaceTime video call, or "...using FaceTime audio" if you prefer to make an audio call via FaceTime.
Lastly, these call reminders can also be quickly created before declining an incoming call. If you're busy to answer, but don't want to forget to call the person back, tap the "Remind Me" button to quickly set a reminder; you'll be able to choose to set an alert either in one hour or when you leave your current location, but of course if you prefer something different you can simply go into the Reminders app and adjust it accordingly later.