5 Benefits of a Task Management System

By Lynn Truong on 12 January 2010 (Updated 1 March 2010) 7 comments
Photo: hanspw

This article is Wise Bread's contribution to Life Scoop, where ordinary people learn how to make surprising things happen with technology.

I'm trying yet another task management system and I think I've found a keeper. I've been on a search for quite some time, and while many people have strong opinions on their favorite apps, the best one for you will serve your particular needs and lifestyle. You may need to try a few before finding the right one for you — I've tried at least a dozen. I've settled on Toodledo for the five specific problems it solved for me.

Decision Making

When I used to look at my list of to-dos, I wanted to run and hide. I knew I needed to make a daily list of a few things to accomplish, since it would be impossible to do everything in one day. But I'm indecisive, and it's a long list. The decision making process was a huge task in itself, and to have to do that on a daily basis grated at my soul. So I ended up doing whatever I remembered to do, or whatever came my way, which meant things didn't get done because I had completely forgotten about them (but they were on the list somewhere).

What Toodledo does is assign the importance of a task for me, based on a number of factors like due date, priority, and whether I've starred it (another way to highlight a task). I don't need to choose. I just go down the list. This goes beyond typical sorting functions of other apps where you can only either sort by priority or due date. Toodledo calculates importance by due date, priority, and whether I've starred it. Sometimes it's more important to start on a something that's due further out because of its priority and how long it'll take.

Toodledo also has a scheduler, which allows Toodledo to just tell me what to do — this feature is only available for their Pro account ($14.95 per year). Say I have 2 hours free and I don't want to decide what tasks I should do in that time. Like figuring the importance scale, Toodledo analyzes all my tasks and picks from my list that will be the most effective use of that time. Each task has a field for estimated time the task will take, so this is taken into consideration when the tasks are scheduled based on your availablity.

Managing Distractions

Oftentimes I'm working on something when I get distracted — the phone rings, an instant message appears, I notice a new email — and then I completely forget that I was working on something. I'll get off the phone and decide to check email. Before long I'm off doing something else with the original task left hanging. Many people call this "multi-tasking" but most of us know that there are very few things we can really do at the same time. I can walk on the treadmill and read email at the same time, but I can't talk on the phone and write an article at the same time.

I'm not disciplined enough to follow strict rules of checking email only twice a day or turning off my phone. But I can always go back to Toodledo (after I'm no longer distracted) and see the task I was working on previously.

Their timer feature also helps me to stay on task when my mind starts to wander and I want to do something else. Click the timer button and it keeps the clock running for the time spent on that task. Knowing that before I switch tasks I have to stop the timer button actually gives me incentive to just finish what I'm doing. That one small barrier is enough to prevent the impulse to check email or facebook status until I've completed the task at hand.

 

 

Scheduling Time

Two features of Toodledo that helps me manage my time is the timer (which tells me exactly how long I've spent on a task) and the time estimation I can include for each task (to get a handle of what I can expect to accomplish in one day). Sometimes a day passes by and I wonder what I did all day. With the timer function, I can see exactly where all my hours went, and it does make me feel better to know that I actually didn't spend all day on Facebook. It also helps me see where I may be spending way too much of my time on...

Being able to see how long a task will take also helps me plan my day. If I'm just going down a list of items, I might think I can complete 10 things. But taking into consideration the time it'll take for each task will keep my expectations realistic. If there's a big project I need to slot most of the day to, I might only accomplish 3 things that day, but it still would have been a full day of working.

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Goal Setting

Toodledo allows me to set goals, and assign tasks to that goal. Setting specific tasks to goals ensures that I keep my eye on the ball. I can look at my next steps and see how far I've come. The Pro account offers a chain display that shows the number of tasks completed for each goal, as well as the goal's chain. The chain gets longer for each consecutive day that a completed task contributes to the goal. Make progress on a goal each day to get a long chain. Miss a day and that chain will get broken.

It's important to see beyond the task list at the bigger picture and know that checking off the tasks brings you another step closer to your goals.

Better Organization

At first glance Toodledo's interface is not very appealing. But dig a little deeper and their layout is pretty brilliant. It is super easy to navigate and customize. They have more fields for tasks than I've ever encountered, but if there are fields you don't ever use, they don't show up. Another important (yet simple) feature they offer is various ways to organize your tasks — folders, context, goals, stars — that allow easy access to any task.

I'm a stickler for organization, and the problem with some of the other apps I've tried was how inadequate I found their flexibility to be. Having multiple labels on each task and being able to view them according to any of those labels help a great deal in organizing my entire list of tasks (about 200 at this point).

 

 

Meeting Your Needs

A regular spiral notepad worked for me for a long time. But when I saw how much of my time was spent organizing and reorganizing and then selecting tasks, I knew I had to get help. Among the dozen or so task management systems I tried, a few stood out even though they weren't perfect for me. If you're looking for some places to start, here are some other popular options.

Gmail Tasks — Integrated into your Gmail and Gmail Calendar, it's clean, simple, and takes up little room. Before I switched to Toodledo, I was using this for time sensitive tasks. I always had my Gmail Calendar open and I could enter tasks directly from there. These were tasks I knew I couldn't just write on my notepad because who knew when would be the next time I looked it over.

Ubernote — This is more note-taking than task management, although they do have a task feature. Other features include a variety of tools that integrate your web surfing (submit notes via email, bookmarking, web clipping).

Remember the milk — Easy to use and hugely popular, it is accessible via iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Google Calendar, and even Twitter.

Zoho — Zoho is a treasure trove of productivity and collaboration apps. If you work in a team and have use for all their various apps, this is a great system to use.

5pm — We use this for Dealista production and I really like it for projects that involve multiple steps and people. It's not ideal for a long list of tasks, but it works well for project management.

Wrike — Another useful app for project management among a team, but not ideal for personal task management. Greg wrote a great review of Wrike.

Additional photo credits: patrickheagney , TommL
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Guest's picture
Hugh

Good review. I've been resisting a "task system" for quite some time now. I just keep a notebook and it works fine, but I know I can be more efficient with one of the digi versions. I'll check out some of these. Thanks!

Guest's picture

Great article. There are so many apps out there and I've spent a small fortune trying most of them. I'm awful about writing things down. I travel a lot so much of time is in transit or it simply isn't convienient for me to stop what I'm doing to type or write a "to do". I use Jott - it's programmed in my phone and I call a number, say what I need (task, appointment in outlook, email draft, etc) and it transcribes the voice to the specifed form. I then get a text message confirmation. It works with outlook, also. This has changed my life - really - my clients love that I don't forget so many things now! ;-)

Guest's picture

Right now I'm digging Evernote for it's unstructured ways and ubiquitous inputs (email, iphone app, desktop app, webpage, etc). My biggest problem is jotting everything down. My second biggest problem is looking at what I've written down and crossing it off the list.

I've loved and rejected other task management systems in the past because after a few days, I always get tired of being forced into their structure. Evernote is the closest thing I've found to being a "virtual stack of post-it notes". It may not automagically organize my tasks into priorities and due dates, but it's unstructured format is actually a good thing and gives it a good shot of having a long-term relationship with my messy brain.

Guest's picture

Lately I've been trying out TeuxDeux. It's very simple which is its main advantage to competitors. If you are looking for simple this would be worth checking out. http://teuxdeux.com

Guest's picture

I found Teux Deux too simplistic. Then I tried Remember the Milk. It was not as user-friendly.

Thanks for writing about Toodledo. I've already signed up to give it a trial.

Guest's picture
Laura

Thanks for the post and for all the great links and ideas... I'm always trying to find a good way to control my to do list and always end back with paper and pen. I have a nice top 10 to do list system that works pretty well.

Guest's picture
Caerol

A lot to choose from. I, too, deal with the same distractions everyday. Time management is one of the skills I've been trying to develop; there are times I'm a victor, but often a failure.

To help me accomplish more based on the schedule, I installed ClocX, a simple and free alarm software.

One could add sound or open a program once the set time is over. But more than the application, commitment would helps me more.

Great post! And a time well spent.