Ethan Banks On productivity.

The Pros & Cons Of Task Managers

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Task managers are tools that allow you to maintain organized lists of the things you need to do. Over the last couple of months, I have shifted my workflow to revolve around a task manager. That means that what I do each day is driven by the tasks that are on my list.

If the task is on my list, I perform that task until it’s completed or at least moved as far as I can move it. If something pops up that must be dealt with immediately but is not my task list, I create a task, complete it, and cross it off.

My goal is to not simply to get things done. I want to get things done, in the right order, on time, and without forgetting any of my commitments. My workflow tends to have many small details as well as unexpected disruptions each day I must react to. My task manager helps me control all of these things.

Control is an important keyword, because control of your day is what a well-utilized task list can provide. Nonetheless, there are both pros and cons to the task-driven life.

Pros.

  1. Maintain focus. In my world, tasks must get done, or they back up. Yet, my job in media, social media particularly, means that I am exposed to potential distractions all day long. My task list is my center. When I find myself drifting off, I look at my task list to get back on target.
  2. Keep track of small tasks. In my workday, there are many big tasks. For example, I am one of the folks that monitors the production schedule of podcasts for my company, making sure the content pipeline is full. Mostly, I don’t forget that task, but even so, I use my task list to make very sure the shows I’m producing are on schedule. Now, there are also small tasks that pop up. For example, a friend who was a guest on a Datanauts episode wants a raw copy of the audio before the show airs. That’s the sort of thing I’ll forget, because it’s outside of my normal workflow. Therefore, it’s on my task list with a due date of tomorrow.
  3. Prioritize. Some tasks are more important than others, and I like to be able to sequence my task list accordingly.
  4. Categorize. I like to put related tasks together. This makes sense to my brain. As I think about a project, specific tasks will occur to me related to that project. Grouping related tasks together works well for me, helping to ensure that I’m not forgetting something required to bring a project to completion.
  5. Proper replacement for inbox-as-task-manager. I have been guilty in the past of using my inbox as a task manager. However, an inbox is not an especially effective task manager. An inbox is primarily a way to send and receive messages, spam, malware, and phishing attacks. Some of those messages might result in tasks, but they are not themselves tasks. Using my inbox as a task manager has been a mistake for me.
  6. Sync across devices. Each day, I shift among any of an iMac, MacBook, iPad, and iPhone. At any given time, I need to access my task list. A good task manager app will work well on all your screens. If your workflow becomes driven by a task list, you’ll find yourself frustrated when looking at a screen where your task list is not available.
  7. Single source of truth. Before committing exclusively to a task manager, my day was driven by my inbox, calendar, task list, happenstance, and fleeting memories. Now, all items, including calendar items, end up on my task list. This means I have some redundancy, as my calendar appointments are also on my task list. But that approach offers a huge advantage–I have only to look at my task list to know what my day holds.
  8. Set due dates that define each day. I use my task manager to determine what I need to get done in a given day by setting specific due dates for each current task. Then I look at the “Today” view to see what I need to focus on in a given work day. By “current task,” I mean that some tasks I want to track have no immediate due date, but will once they’ve been elevated to a work in progress, at which time I assign a due date.
  9. Reschedule as needed. Sometimes, tasks don’t get completed on their due date. There are lots of valid reasons for this. In those cases, I will re-schedule those tasks to a more appropriate date.
  10. Add comments to keep task status current. As tasks progress, I will often leave a comment attached to the task to remind me of how far along I got. That is helpful if a task takes multiple days to complete due to circumstances beyond my control.
  11. Share task list with others. While I haven’t had much use for task sharing yet, there are task manager apps that make it possible to share tasks among a team. However, I find that my task list is driven by my individual requirements. I don’t use my task manager as a tool to send tasks to or receive tasks from others. Even so, I can see how this could be a desirable feature to some.

Cons.

  1. False sense that work is done. Having become accustomed to using a task manager, I have found that completing the day’s due tasks makes me feel like I’m all done! However, that’s a false sense of accomplishment, at least for me. Realistically, I have to look ahead and see what else is coming up. In other words, a day where all due tasks are completed means I have an opportunity to get ahead. I shouldn’t waste the balance of the day reveling in “task list zero.” I’ve never come close to completing all the tasks in my long-term task list. I have dozens of tasks, many of which are aspirational. Task list zero means I have time to work on those aspirations.
  2. Coordination with calendar required. As mentioned in the pros section, I use my task manager as the single source of truth that drives my day. For that to work, I put calendar items onto my task manger as tasks to be done. That is, at the moment, a manual process. I haven’t yet done the homework required to automate placing tasks from my calendar onto my task manager. In theory, it’s possible with IFTTT or Zapier.

Tools.

I’m using Todoist as my task manager. I used to use Wunderlist, but Wunderlist was bought and will eventually be killed off by Microsoft in favor of an inconsequential replacement called To-Do. If you use Office, you might like To-Do, apparently. I found To-Do lackluster.

Todoist is my personal choice. I find Todoist to be powerful and capable without being overwhelming to use. My only complaint about Todoist is that setting due dates, especially recurring dates, can be confusing until you get used to it. Most everything else is intuitive. Features are well-documented. Syncing across devices is almost instantaneous most days.

I use the native Todoist app on MacOS and iOS, and paid for the premium individual plan. There are also Windows and Android versions of Todoist, as well as a browser version that renders like the app.

I don’t mean for this to be a full review of Todoist, as such reviews are all over the web. I’m simply encouraging you to give Todoist a try if you’re interested in a task manager. Todoist is a good place to start.

By Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks On productivity.

You probably know Ethan Banks because he writes & podcasts about IT. For example, he co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

This site is Ethan on productivity--not tech so much.

Find out more on his about page.