Finding the best digital task manager

After changing task managers yet again I wanted to know if others go through the same churn as I do when it comes to finding a tool that works for them. Out of curiousity I reached out to the Productivity Springboard group on Google Plus and posed the question: “Do you use a task manager and if so which one?” My hypothesis was the majority of people in the group would respond in the positive (it is a group based on productivity after all) and one or two task managers would take the landslide response in usage by the group. Well…one out of two isn’t bad.

As expected almost every person who responded indicated they use some form of digital task management tool. Is this required? Not at all. There’s a strong argument to be made on both sides of the digital / analog task management discussion. What caught me more off guard is the number of variants in what people are using to track and manage their tasks. This also focused for me a couple of the key issues people run into when trying to find the “right” tool for them and some significant thoughts around how others can choose the right task manager for them.

Here’s a list of some of the tools the group reported as using:

  • Todoist
  • Remember The Milk
  • Checkvist
  • Trello
  • Wunderlist
  • Workflowy

Now this came from a very small sample size so by no means is scientific. One of the things I found interesting is the number of people (myself included) who have transitioned from application to application in search of one best targeted to how they work. When thinking about selecting a digital task management tool there are a few strategies you can apply to help the process:

How do you capture tasks?

Understanding what YOU need to know to be able to successfully execute a task is a bit of introspection many people don’t do. We expect the application to ask the right question in the right way to work for us and get frustrated when it doesn’t quite work. I recently changed tools and started with “what do I need to know about a task to be able to execute?” I came up with:

  • What is the task?
  • When is this due?
  • When do I have to start this task to finish on time?
  • Who else is impacted?
  • Are there other tasks related to this one?

These seem to be pretty common pieces of information for any task but on closer review I found some more complex relationships and requirements:

  • I want to be able to capture tasks in as few steps as possible
  • I want to be reminded when tasks need to be completed
  • I want the experience to be equally as usable on the desktop, browser, and mobile (Android for me)
  • I want some reinforcement (positive and negative) about my completion of tasks to motivate me

It turns out the last one (reinforcement) is a bigger factor for me than I initially anticipated. So now I have a basic overview of what I need to know on each task, it’s time to scale up the thinking. How do the tasks relate to each other, other people, and between work and personal life?

When capturing my tasks in many cases they’re follow up items for other people and being able to not only see what I need to check on with a person as well as track those items is a significant aspect for me. This doesn’t apply to every task but it does apply to many of them. Finding a balance point between the two that doesn’t impact the first of the wants became a deciding factor between tools for me.

Based on what we’ve learned so far let’s realign the needs and wants:

  • Need to capture a task in as few steps as possible
  • Capture needs to include what to do, when to start, when to finish, and if there are other people or tasks involved
  • Needs to work on mobile and desktop equally well
  • Want to be informed when I am being productive and when I am not

With this summary in hand I could then start to assess task management applications based on their ability to meet these requirements. What I find most interesting about this is (and I’m just as guilty of this in the past) is most people work backwards through this process. We typically will take and application and look at the features and say, “That’s cool, I may be able to use that” or “Hmmm, that’s not going to work for me.” Working through the features we often miss applying how we work and try to adjust our natural tendencies to match how the tool works.

As with any solution strategy when it comes to productivity it is critical to understand your needs before you begin the process of evaluating tools. If you have taken the time to capture and refine your requirements a great deal of time and effort can be saved by determining if your identified needs are being met before you even begin working with the deeper functions of the tool.

What if you find more than one tool meeting your needs and wants? This happens more often than you would think. There are so many options for task management in the productivity space the odds are good you will find multiple ways to meet your needs. (For reference, the more general your definition of your needs and wants the more likely this is to happen.) If you’re in a situation where multiple tools are in play, I recommend looking at some additional criteria:

  • Usability and user experience
  • Scalability
  • Collaboration with others if needed
  • Interoperability with other services (files, images, etc.)

As you can see the deeper the comparison gets the harder it can become to determine what is the best fit. There is no magic solution nor clear winner to this contest but if you take time to figure out what you want, you have a much better chance of finding what you need.