Are subtasks useful?


Many of the task management applications available today offer the feature of subtasks: tasks that are embedded or tracked under a parent task.  For example, if you have a task called “grocery shopping” the subtasks may be all the items you need to pick up at the store.  In this case, the subtasks are functional and useful, but is this always the case?

One of the challenges I’ve run into is in many applications the subtasks are hidden within a task and are difficult to access from the master list of tasks.  This creates a couple of problems.  First, things can be easily missed because they are not visible.  Second,  and this is my larger issue with them, is they can create a false sense of the amount of work ahead.  If you have a task that has two subtasks, a task with 20 subtasks, and a task with no subtasks, at the task level they all look equal.  It’s that misleading sizing that causes the issue. A good tool will show you not only the task, the presence of subtasks, but also the number of subtasks.

Let’s have a look at how you can handle subtasks in some popular productivity tools.  Some of these are not dedicated to task management but are popular enough to be used for it frequently.

Todoist

Todoist is an example of an application that does subtasks right.  Not only can you create subtasks on any task, but when  you view the task itself the application tells you that you have subtasks, how many, and how many are incomplete.  Can’t ask for much more than that.

Any.Do

The Any.Do mobile application tells you a task has subtasks but not how many.  The Windows application shows the number of subtasks as well as the number remaining completion.  This is where I struggle with platforms…this inconsistency between their mobile and desktop applications.

Workflowy

While not a dedicated task management application, tasks can be tracked to completion through the interface.  This doesn’t support subtasks in the same manner as the other applications as they are indented tasks in an outline format with no roll up to their parent task.  This accomplishes the same goals for the most part, but there is no tracking of subtask quantity or degree of completion.

OneNote

OneNote works in a similar manner to Workflowy with no real subtask functionality available.  It can be challenging to manage tasks within OneNote but it’s flexibility in an outline structure can mitigate the difficulties.

While there is no way to avoid having subtasks within task lists in some form, keeping them visible and under control makes all the difference working them into a task management solution. If you are going to introduce subtasks into your lists I recommend trying them on just a couple of tasks first before diving into the deep end with them.