Task management: tools

Step two in the task management series: figure out which tools are going to work for you. (Part 1: a summary of theories and approaches is a good place to start.)

Starting points:

There are so many things to consider when picking a tool. If you’re like most people, it may take a couple of rounds of trying different ones out, before you find the one that really clicks. Here’s some things you might think about.

Some people really want a satisfying user experience (whether that’s the scratch of a good pen on good paper, or a beautifully designed user interface for the program.) Some people want the bare bones: a plain piece of paper or the blank possibility of a text file. Likewise, some people have a strong preference for specific features or tools, and other people have no need for those same things. So, in this post, we’re going to look at some general questions you might want to think about, and then a couple of different tools, so you can see a range of differences.

There are a ton of free options out there, so if you have trouble figuring out what you like, you can play around with different tools and see which features matter to you, even if you settle on a paid option eventually.

What do you want your tool to do?

Work any time, anywhere? What does that mean for you? Someone who has a smartphone might make a different choice than someone who only sometimes has ‘Net access. Some people don’t mind relying on an external website, others want everything under their control.

All your stuff in one place, or work + home separate? I’ve been combining them in the same tool (and had been back to the beginning of the school year in 09-10), but what I do next job will depend a bit on the tools in the next job. I might go back to a web-based system for the work material, for example.

I have found that if you want everything in one place, you need a much more flexible tool than if you’re keeping them separate – otherwise it’s really easy for the number of separate lists/categories/tags to get out of hand.

Widely flexible, or structured?Some people like the equivalent of a blank page: the ability to extensively customise their task list. Other people really like having some structure – either chronologically, or through some sort of templating system.

Be physically satisfying to use? Paper is for some people, lovely user interace design does it for others. Whatever you pick, it should be a tool you enjoy using, or you won’t use it easily (and that defeats a lot of the point of this exercise.)

What does ‘easy’ mean to you, anyway? Do you like typing things in? How do you want to handle repeating tasks (and do you care?) Do you want to do everything from the keyboard, or do you not mind a bunch of mouse commands?

Widely flexible, or structured? Some people like the equivalent of a blank page: the ability to extensively customise their task list. Other people really like having some structure – either chronologically, or through some sort of templating system.

What about specific features? Some people care a lot about handling repeated tasks, or scheduling tasks for a particular day that’s separate from their due date. Other people don’t care at all, and handle those things in other ways. I love a feature in my tool of choice that lets me highlight something in my email and shift that to my task management program (I’ll talk about that more when we get to how I do things), and I know people who would never use it. Do you want to be able to link a file to a to-do? Or do you not care about that?

One big issue for technology solutions is whether you can sync tasks between different tools (your laptop and an iPhone, for example). Some people care a lot. Some people don’t.

Rearranging tasks: One place where people have some very specific preference is whether you can rearrange tasks on a list. I turn out to be a person who really prefer to be able to do so, but some tools won’t let you do it, or do it easily. (Paper, either you can’t do this, or you need something like the HipsterPDA, where each task might be its own card.)

Do you want to be able to group tasks in different ways? For digital tools, lists and tagging are the most common ways to do this. Having both allows you to manage tasks in two different ways. (For example, I use project lists to be able to review a particular group of tasks at once, and tags for different contexts. Other people do other things.) Sorting and searching are other related tools.

Cost, longevity, etc. Obviously, one more thing to think about is how much the tool will cost you (both now and in the future, such as through subscription costs). It’s also important to think about how long the tool might be viable for, and how you’d be able to get data out of the tool if you had to.

Paper or digital?

Some people have as strong preference one way or the other – other people don’t. Paper versions include both things like the FranklinCovey, DayTimer or other commercial products. There are higher end paper options, like the Moleskine notebooks, or some people go for the simple index card (especially the Hipster PDA approach.) Some people really like a method they don’t feel badly about scribbling on, other people love an elegant approach to their life. DIYPlanner has a bunch of great templates, if you want to print your own.

Digital options are even more varied. You have your choice from everything from a text file, to a wiki. There are web-based tools, and computer-software tools. With the rise of portable devices, there are dozens of apps for pretty much every operating system out there. The downside is that you actually need to have the device with you – and if it’s web-based, need to have internet access and a reliable site.

I started out using a paper system, but the combination of having one more thing to carry around, and the fact that there are things that tech tools can do that pen and paper can’t led me to a computer-based system.  (So we’re going to be talking mostly about digital options here, but you can apply the concepts to any tool.) I refer to my iPod as the equivalent of a pack of index cards in my pocket, only it does a lot more than just take notes. (I have a calculator, a metronome, a stitch counter for knitting, and much more, besides the more amusing things like an ebook reader and games for when I’ve got some downtime with nothing specific to get done.)

A quick accessibility note:

I’m going to be focusing for the rest of this series on tools that do require a graphic interface: they’re not a good choice for people who use screenreaders or other technology, and many of them can be difficult to navigate for people with mobility limits that make clicking in relatively small areas difficult.

This post has some screenshots of different tools. However, the next post (Things, which is the tool I use, and my set-up) and the final post (different ways to sort and manage information and an overview of my entire task process) will both have information that I hope will be helpful no matter what tool you use. (Especially the last post.)

A brief sampling of tools:

I’m going to come back to these in later posts, but I thought you might like to see a couple of choices.

Plain text files: This is not one I use, but various people make it work for them. To make this really work better than a list on paper, using some find and search tools in the list can be very helpful (or keeping separate lists for different contexts, for example.) It does have the advantage of being hugely portable, and of being somthing you can adapt (if you wish) to your own visual choices, as much as you can any text document.

Remember the Milk is a classic, widely used web-based tool, available for free at http://rememberthemilk.com. (A yearly subscription gets you access to some mobile apps options and some other benefits.) One of the things I like about it is that you can create search strings to create all sorts of interesting lists. (I’ll be coming back to this in later posts.)

Image of interface for Remember the Milk task management system

As you can see in the illustration above, I have a number of different lists (which I use mostly for contexts) on the left side (I’ll talk more about those in my next post). On the right side, there’s a window that lets me control settings for the task – giving it a due date, setting details for repeating tasks, adding a URL related to the task, etc.

However, you can’t move tasks around within lists (except by assigning a due date or priority to them.)

Wunderlist (found at http://wunderlist.com) is a more recent addition to the task management tool list – it’s been getting rave reviews for the simple interface, and the fact it gives you a decent range of graphic choices  (12 options for the background – what’s slate blue in the image below.)

A screenshot of the interface for the Wunderlist online task management tool

I’ve shrunk the browser window here, so you can see the line of tools at the bottom, such as the ability to sort by date something is due by, or by started or completed tasks. The left hand side lists tasks, the right side lists projects or groups of tasks.

Wunderlist is free to use, and there are downloadable clients for most operating systems.

Things (http://culturedcode.com/things) is my current tool of choice, because it’s extremely flexible. I’m going to talk about it in a lot more detail in my next post, so you don’t get details here yet. Things is a somewhat older tool, and a lot of people right now are frustrated at how it handles (or doesn’t handle) syncing. The developers are working on a new backend to do that.

However, for me, syncing is something I can work around, and the other tools (being able to link in an email or document, being able to rearrange tasks on the fly, the scheduled tasks and repeating tools options, etc.) are extremely useful to me. It is, however, very much not free ($50 for the desktop application, and $10 for the iPhone/iPod version, for example.) However, it pays me back for that on a regular basis, by being able to track things better.

This kind of thing is why there are dozens and dozens of tools out there. (This set of round-up posts can give you an idea of the variety of Mac apps, and a sister site has a roundup of some web apps. Additional roundups can be found here, here (a few years old, but with some other useful info), and I’m sure you can use your search engine of choice. Terms I’d try include “task management”, “GTD”, “productivity apps”, and so on.

(I am obviously not trying to be completist about including every possible app, because I’d be here for days not finishing this post. Just enough to give you some ideas of what’s out there.)


  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter

1 comment to Task management: tools

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

More about my job and a day in the life

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner