The other day I was talking to a friend and he confided in me that he is finding it hard to keep track of all the different threads going on in his life. It was especially tough switching between different types of tasks and not wasting time working out what to do next. He ended it by saying that he probably needed to get one of these task management tools to keep track of all the things he needs to do. The only problem was that he didn’t know which to pick.
After all, there are hundreds out there, many with very similar features, some with utterly unique items and many built around a specific methodology that may dramatically impact your adoption or not.
This makes it hard to pick one tool, which is why we put this roundup together. Unfortunately, that is also why it is hard to recommend just one option. As such, we’ve split the review into several different categories which include different tools which are recommended for different functions. At the same time, we do have one particular recommendation at the end which is probably a good starting point for most people.
With that in mind, this is going to be the layout for the rest of the review:
- Criteria for review
- Suggested analog tools
- Suggested cross-platform
- Suggested Apple only tools
- Suggested GTD tools
- Suggested team tools
- Suggested Kanban tool
- Suggested “unusual” tools
- The Round-up
So let’s get started!
Review Criteria and Features You May Be Looking For
Before considering different applications, I’m going to set some ground rules and criteria for our review. This is so that you know why I rank certain applications higher than others and identify where your system, or preference, may differ from my own. As such, I am using the core components of the GTD system for our criteria. They are as follows:
- Capture (recording your ideas quickly and easily)
- Processing (getting your ideas to the right place)
- Review (reflecting on your tasks, eliminating unnecessary ones, adding extra tasks etc)
- Organizing tasks
- Do (there’s very little a task manager can help you here but some tools will add in some form of automation for simple tasks)
And a couple of extra aspects which are also important for a good task management system such as:
- Monitoring your productivity (how many tasks have you completed over a period of time)
- Prompting (tools such as notifications to encourage you to do actions at the right time)
Aspects such as user interface, design, features and so on will be viewed in light of these criteria. After all it doesn’t matter if your to-do app can sing and dance if that doesn’t actually help you get through your tasks. At the same time, if the user interface makes it harder to complete your tasks, then it is a failure.
Suggested Analog Tools
For some people, plain old paper is more than good enough for them to get and stay organized. The original GTD system was based around paper and there are plenty of other markup systems to help you organize your thoughts and ideas such as the bullet journal, the dash plus system or Mike Rohde’s daily plan bar.
That’s one of the great advantages of paper, you can switch system, cut parts out, grab a new book, and draw all over it. Of course, sometimes freedom is a barrier for some people and you miss out on some of the great digital features like permanency, syncing, reminders based on time, location and so on. If those don’t matter to you, then paper will see you right.
Funnily enough, this year I started using paper a lot more to stay organized myself. For some reason, I found that the process of detailing my day the night before on a piece of paper was really useful. It helped me really take in the time-specific commitments I have coming up and the projects I wanted to do. Best of all, I can make a roadmap for the day that fits all on one page with the information I want there.
A couple of suggested tools for paper include:
- Moleskine journals
- Field notes book
- Rite in the Rain
- The Bullet Journal (a Leuchttrum journal which includes a guide to the bullet journal system)
- Flashcards with a paperclip (or the Hipster PDA)
Of course, you can just use any old slip of paper for this system.
- Easy and cheap to replace
- Not limited to text (great for visual thinkers)
- No expensive phone/computer needed
- Easy to start again
- Regular replacement costs
- Doesn’t sync
- Easy to lose data
- No notifications or reminders
- No integration with files or documents
A final comment worth noting is that you can always use paper AND digital tools. Perhaps you want to map out a project on paper, then take photos of parts of those paper and add them to an Evernote note or similar. This can help you get the benefit of the physical process, with a syncing digital backup with reminders and so on.
Suggested Cross-Platform Applications
The next section I’m looking at is cross-platform applications. To some degree, these are apps which aren’t limited to Apple (of which there are a lot of major applications). The other advantages are that these can be used on a computer at your work if that runs a different operating system to your regular one.
I am a big Todoist fan, So bear that in mind as this review will be biased. Todoist is very clever as it is adaptable. You can use it as a very simple set of different lists OR you can dive deep and add custom perspectives, priorities, recurring tasks, hierarchical projects, and so on.
It is also on almost every platform including having a web interface, a Windows mobile (yup, Windows mobile) interface. You can even use Alexa in an Amazon Echo to add tasks.
There is a premium option to access all the features. The premium option is also really cheap (a couple of bucks a month) so it won’t break your bank if you do upgrade, but the free option may be enough for you anyway. The premium version adds some extra fine-tune controls with greatly customized filters, location alerts, greater notes and the ability to track your productivity over time as well.
- Minimal interface
- Multiple labels (categories?)
- Can share tasks and lists
- Cross-platform support
- Pro version requires subscription charging
- The interface may be too “minimal” for some.
Remember the Milk
Remember the Milk is a legacy app that has been around for ages. It also supports a variety of platforms and, like wanderlust and Todoist, it has free and premium versions. The premium version adds mobile reminders (pretty important) unlimited syncing, syncing with outlook and cost $25.
With RTM you can also tie in with other services like Evernote, Google tasks, and Google calendar.
- Free and premium
- Syncs with other services
- Simple interface
- Free service misses important features
- Lacks some advanced features
Suggested Apple-Only Tools
Apple has a great indie developer scene and this means that there are some great applications which are only made for iOS devices and Macs. Task management tools are no exception. With that in mind here are some great tools which are only on Apple
Reminders is a great simple solution for people who are all in on Apple. If you have an apple device with you all the time, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t use an Apple only solution. Furthermore, because it is made by Apple, you get some nice handy little benefits such as support for Siri input of tasks.
- Time and location-specific reminders
- Built in already to Apple devices
- Too simple for some
- Only for Mac and iOS
Things 3 is a task management and to-do app that has been around for a while with a focus on a GTD methodology (this is present in the built-in assigning tasks including someday and the distinction between assigned dates and due dates). It was one of the first of these such apps to offer a sync service which works incredibly well. It has also been recently updated to include all the latest IOS 11 features like Siri input and drag and drop. It’s also an incredibly beautiful task management app with a delightful user interface that makes it quick and simple to enter tasks.
If you want something that has a bit clearer organization than reminders and has a more powerful organization, then Things 3 may well be for you.
- Beautiful clean interface
- Supports iOS 11 features like drag and drop and Siri input
- Easy to create a new task, project or area
- Supports GTD methodology but can be adapted to a different system
- One time fee (until the next version?)
- Only on Mac and iOS with no external input (for example using IFTTT)
- Have to buy separately for each device…including iPad and iPhone
2Do gained a lot of popularity recently due to a few of its fancy features and getting picked up within the Apple nerd-sphere by Federico Viticci. However, it seems to have died down in popularity recently.
Some of the really clever features are the search function which can be used to create perspective and then saved for later or used only once. This makes it really easy to have a simple interface and set up, but get more complex when you need it too.
It also has a good “nagging” mode, where it will keep asking if you have done something till you either mark it done or delay it for later. Finally, 2do can add an “action” to a task. This lets you do some basic actions such as calling a person, opening a google map to a location, sending a message, sending an email, or opening a URL.
That’s a pretty unique take compared to most task managers which only mark what you have done.
- Simple but can scale as and when you need it to
- Can launch actions
- Nagging reminders
- One-time fee
- The upfront cost is higher than some.
- Limited to Apple devices (and now Android)
Suggested GTD Tools
GTD is a popular productivity system and for good reason. It includes many aspects which can really help people get unstuck, even if they are a little confusing when you first hear about them (what the heck is a context, and how is it different from a project?) with that in mind, here are a few powerful GTD tools.
OmniFocus has a gorgeous, clean and simple interface. OmniFocus encourages users to enter in data for projects and contexts as a hardened GTD practitioner would. The forecast view is a popular way to see the upcoming tasks for the day, week and calendar appointments too.
The addition of flagged tasks, location-based reminders, Siri integration and support for Taskpaper and workflow automation make it a great choice for iOS and Mac GTD enthusiasts.
- Beautiful interface
- Make the most of iOS features like Siri
- Forecast view
- Can be adapted to not quite GTD
- Easy to add tasks
- The high price of each app
- Not as adaptable as some tools
- iOS and Mac only
Nozbe was developed to be a GTD tool and has many of its principles build straight in. What makes Nozbe a great GTD choice is its integrations with other tools (such as Google Drive, Evernote, etc) and it’s team collaboration aspect. Something that is rare among GTD specific apps. Plus it’s Michael Hyatt’s weapon of choice.
- Very GTD focused
- Supports a wide range of platforms
- Team support
- More pricey than some
- Too complex for some people
Suggested Team Tools
Asana is the app we currently use to organize ChurchMag Press publications with editors, writers, and promotion of materials. It allows you to not only assign tasks but also communicate about those tasks and attach files and photos to help either transfer materials to the relevant parties or provide proof of work.
You have granular notification settings so that you won’t be buzzed all hours of the day, but still get the most important notifications over critical tasks AND you can keep your personal tasks separate from group tasks (so if you need to break the tasks down into smaller steps or just need to run a personal errand, you can keep that private).
Asana underwent a refresh in September 2015 to make it even more awesome. It has a really fresh and cool interface with nice animations and graphics. Plus they’ve improved their combination of conversations and actions to make it a more easy experience for beginners new to asana.
- Communication as well as tasks
- Separation of team tasks from personal tasks
- Can upload and share files
- Project boards
- Integrations with a variety of tools
- Free for most small teams
- Communication and actions can get confusing
- More complex than some
Azendoo has a similar mentality to Asana in that it has tasks as well as conversation built in. It also features integrations with different service to help you share files and assets. This makes it a great choice for team collaboration beyond simply assigning tasks or discussing tasks (and Minecraft) in a Slack or similar channel.
- Combines communication and tasks
- Easily share files
- Integrates with a wide variety of tools
- More limited functionality when not paying (only one workspace)
- Similar issues to asana
Suggest Kanban Tools
Trello is like a digital cork board and cards. However, being digital, this allows for some rich data cards that you couldn’t get with traditional paper tools. We’ve been using Trello for a couple of projects at ChurchMag and I find it great for keeping track of the photos we’re putting out on ChurchMag Press. We can come up with an idea, make a checklist for the set, then move it along a process of being shot, being edited, sent out to the ChurchMag newsletter, put up on ChurchMag press and so on.
If you are managing a project with many different people and it’s useful to see what is progress and where things are bottlenecking, then Trello and the Kanban method are for you.
One of the new upgrades to Asana has been projecting boards. These allow you to have a similar Kanban set up which can be for yourself or with a team. This is great if you have various different rolls and projects, some of which are recurring and require a traditional task manager, and others are more project based and so favor a kanban system.
Suggested Unusual Tools
Gneo (priority matrix)
The Eisenhower/Stephen Covey priority matrix is a classic task management tool and one that I sometimes use on a piece of paper. In essence, you put tasks along two factors. How urgent they are, and how important they are.
So a task like saving your child from a burning building is both urgent and important (if you don’t do it quickly, they will die) whereas something like surfing the web for nothing, in particular, is neither urgent nor important.
Gneo helps you organize your tasks along these lines and so tackle the most important and urgent things first. Currently, this is only an iOS app and there is no Mac app, but you can sync with Evernote tasks to manage your tasks there.
Taskpaper is to task management, what markdown is to writing. It is a writing syntax that you can use in any plain text document (.txt) to create task lists and take action on them. By using plain text formats and a writing syntax, it is highly flexible. You can have notes in with your tasks, create projects and add tags all by just typing a character.
There are a variety of task paper apps mostly found on iOS and Macs (though there are some windows apps too) for managing task paper files.
Evernote was not designed to be a task management tool but after adding checklists and reminders to its functionality, many people worked out ways to use it as a task management system and a getting-things-done-system. There are even books on the topic of how you can convert Evernote into this type of system.
Personally, the fact that you might need a book to tell you how to use this app to do this function puts me off a bit. But if you use Evernote a lot, or like the idea of using an application that can contain a wide variety of information forever as your task manager, then this is the tool for you.
TaskClone works with either Evernote or OneNote to turn the notes you make, into tasks, calendar appointment, and reminders. This is great if you often find yourself taking notes in meetings and then pouring over them later to find the actionable points. Instead, TaskClone does that hard work for you.
There are a wide range of task management tools out there and every year the list keeps growing. What is right for me might not be right for you based on your needs. The great news is I’m sure there is a good tool out there for you but before you go changing your app, make sure your approach isn’t the problem and that you have investigated all the features of your tool.
If I had to recommend a tool to someone, I’d suggest Todoist or Remember the Milk, it’s flexible, can be free and works on a wide range of platforms. It can’t do everything, but for the average person, I’m sure it will be good enough.