Getting on Top of Your Task List
If you have too many tasks, then you need to focus first on having fewer of them. That’s what some systems (philosophies? Self-help psychologies? Emergency medical care?) are all about. Dave Allen's "Getting Things Done" has a lot of popularity in this department. If you haven’t read the book, check it out. Most people probably can’t fully live the GTD way. I personally grant permission to cherry pick from its choicest rules. Things like, if you can deal with something in less than two minutes, do it now. If you can’t, put it where you can find it so you don’t have to clutter your mind with it until you can deal with it. And on from there.
Too Much Mail
For many of us, even before we get to our task lists per se, we have to face our email inbox. My inbox is like a tide washing up new tasks every day. I’m not going to tell you exactly how big my inbox is right now. It’s embarrassing. I’m working on it.
I get a lot of help form using the GTDInbox for Firefox + Gmail. GTDInbox adds a life-saving layer of task buttons built on top of Gmail’s labeling. (GTDInbox is independent of Dave Allen, and just carries forward some of the methodology. ) If you use Outlook, the Dave Allen company (www.davidco.com) has a nifty full-featured add-on. And if you use Thunderbird or other mail, Dave A offers an inexpensive PDF guide to adapting GTD manually.
For me, for now, GTDInbox rules. You can find it as a standard free Firefox add-in, and you can learn more at GTDinbox.com. I’m sure a premium version is heading our way, and I suspect a lot of folks will jump for it.
Too Many Projects
After too many tasks, my second biggest problem is having too many projects. Collaborative software commonly used for project management software generally comes with ways of dividing up project tasks. In Basecamp (www.basecamphq.com), you have a simple structure of milestones that give you due-dates, and to-do lists that assign responsibilities for meeting those dates. As I mentioned here recently, the new Open Atrium for Drupal has projects and cases, also in a clear intuitive organization that favors collaborative discussion, blogging, and document management. Microsoft Sharepoint, Central Desktop, Zoho and others also have their equivalent.
These systems are definitely a great thing for getting a team already discussing project goals and needs to now focus in on discrete chunks of work. If you are blessed to not have too many projects, this can also work for your individual daily task management. I use and need these features. Yet for much of what I need to get on top of every day, I find myself getting bogged down in navigating down and up the hierarchy of client-project-milestone-tasks.
For Basecamp at least, there are cool Windows or Mac desktop integration add-ons that simplify the to-do process. See http://basecamphq.com/extras for ideas. Some are even free; some have costs that add up as you add users. I have sporadically used the Project Recon add-in.
Like many people, even if I end up duplicating PM entries, I need to quickly get in, order and prioritize all the things to do today, tomorrow, this week and beyond in one place. I need a task list tool, pure and simple. Sometimes I come back to the idea that the best task list tool is the same small notebooks I carry around all the time. Notes with pen and paper. If you have been at meetings with me, then you have likely seen me with one of those black moleskine notebooks. http://www.moleskines.com/klmb712.html. Compact, rugged, no batteries and low carbon footprint, visual, fun, well-engineered, works in weak wireless area all the rest.
Where the notebook falls short is getting those tasks on your calendar. There is definitely a virtue to coming back to my desk, looking through my notebook entries for the day, and reorganizing them into on-line memos, events and tasks. To be useful, those tasks have to wind up on or close to my calendar. That’s the biggest advantage of a software task list.
Too Many Tasks
Maybe you still use a paper pocket calendar. Maybe you can fit your tasks in the margins of the dates on the calendar, and don't have to share your task list with anyone else. I admire this and recognize that you live a different life than me. Fortunately for me and probably most readers here, there are some amazing good software choices for simple task lists. I’ll mention a three favorites, and hope you will help fill in the gaps with others.
Google tasks: If you use Google calendar, why not use its own task list? The task capability has been recently spruced up to include list categories and dates. For most purposes, will do the trick, and if you have mobile Gmail, you can see them there as well.
Remember the Milk (http://www.rememberthemilk.com/) adds some pretty nifty features. You primarily use it on its web site, which has a simple, uncluttered interface. And you can add your notes and stuff to a task as it comes into play. You can do more visual organizing of your tasks, with a tag cloud, location map and other options you may find soothing as you face a daunting list of things to do.
And lots of cool stuff being done through the RTM API to lets you see your tasks when and where you want. You can also integrate RTM (yes, its adherents have claimed its 3 letter acronym) with your google or Apple iCal calendar. It will send you reminders via email, SMS text, Twitter, or IM, iPhone app, or off-line Google gadget. And if all else fails, you can share your task list with trusted contacts, who will hopefully help you reduce the task load rather than add to them. RTM has enough going for it that I've read blog posts arguing for abandoning more complete project communication systems like Basecamp in favor of just sharing lists with contacts on RTM.
Last I’ll mention Evernote. Evernote has flexible task lists like the others. It is also a polished, modern desktop app that enables pretty slick note taking, both text and web/multimedia clips. If you use your laptop in a lot of meetings, take notes on phone calls, or are constantly clipping articles and multimedia for later reference and writing, evernote has a lot going for it. It syncs an installed Mac or Windows desktop application with an easy, secure web site. Unfortunately, the desktop app will not run on my trusted lightweight Ubuntu netbook, but the web interface is cool enough I might go back to it again.
All three of these are ideal where you do have to manage tons of tasks day in and day out, and your your immediate tasks don’t always line up with a small, tight, hierarchical list of projects. Try them all and see what supports you best.
And having finished this, I get to cross an item off of my task list! Even better, thinking through the choices and casually interviewing a few folks recently about their habits has been therapeutic. Still too many tasks, and yet more confident about the choices in managing them.