Managing Your To-Do Lists

Remember the Milk is an online task managing system.

Last week I posted with suggestions and resources for managing your email inbox.  Today’s post is also about productivity — it’s about to-do list applications.  More to-do list and task manager applications exist than you can shake a well-organized fist at.  Instead of giving you a long list of possible applications that you could try out, I’m going to suggest some features that are useful when trying to select a task manager.

Why a To-Do List Application?

Why might you want to look into a task manager application? Using an application for to-dos helps you keep track of what you need to get done and, perhaps more importantly, helps assuage anxiety over the amount of stuff you have to do.  Writing down all the things that I have to do minimizes the anxiety I feel over the list — your mileage may vary, but for me, a long list is still a finite list, and therefore manageable.

Even if you already use a calendar application to keep track of appointments, you may still want to think about looking into a separate to-do list application — a calendar program is good at what it’s designed for, which is keeping track of appointments.  It’s not necessarily good for managing projects and tasks associated with those projects. Having a separate application for your to-do items helps you prioritize and figure out how to use the time you spend working more efficiently.

David Allen, the productivity master behind Getting Things Done (or GTD, as the initiated call it) has some of the most useful suggestions and methods for to-do lists that I know.  Allen suggests that one of the main priorities of to-do lists is getting those tasks out of your head and into something else (be it on a paper list or in a task managing application).  Getting tasks out of your head helps you focus on the tasks that you subsequently choose to accomplish, rather than worrying about all of the tasks at once. Keeping a system of lists for all of your items also allows you to more easily assess what it is you need to get done, and prioritize based on the time you have to get things done.  For example, if you only have ten minutes before you have to go to a meeting, you can get out your list and find one or more things that take only a short amount of time — like sending off a quick email reply — and do those things in that ten minutes.

Some Suggested Methods and Applications

Although everyone has different needs and expectations for a to-do list applications, I’ve put together a list of suggestions of things you might want to keep in mind when trying out an application:

  • Due dates — A task manager that has the ability to keep track of due dates that you enter is a nice feature.  This feature is doubly nice if it can filter your to-dos by the date.  If you have an automatic “due today” list, then it’s even easier to get those tasks in your list and forget about them until you need to do them. This means that if you have something you need to do, say, a month from today, you can put the due date on it and it will show up on your “today” to-do list on that day a month from now.
  • Syncing with mobile devices — if you think of something that you need to do, or something comes up that you’ll need to do, it’s imperative that you have some way of getting that item onto your to-do list as soon as you think of it.  If you have to jot it down on a scrap of paper or a margin, then transfer it to your to-do list, that’s an extra step that adds up during the day or that can make you accidentally miss an item.
  • Organizing tasks by project — being able to organize tasks by a larger project and having a “nested” system can be really handy.  When I teach I like to have my tasks organized per course I’m teaching, another for research (i.e. right now my dissertation), and for those of you doing more administration work, you could have lists for various service commitments.
  • Tags for tasks — A task manager that uses tags is also something that I find helpful in keeping organized.  Say you have an “email” tag — if you’re trying to get on top of your emailing by only answering email once or twice per day, it would be nice to be able to see all of your tasks marked with “email” .
  • Linking with email applications — Some task managers can be linked up to your email application, which can be really convenient.  It makes it easier to get items out of your email inbox and into your to-do list system, which is one of the big plusses of using a task manager in the first place.  If replying to someone’s email is in your to-do list, it doesn’t have to be in your inbox, and you’re one email closer to achieving “Inbox Zero.

The most important aspect of a to-do list system for me is that it needs to be something that I’m going to be using regularly, and remember to (or care to) access at least twice a day.  I need to be able to have it on me during the day, or at least be able to check it periodically in order to use it in the way that’s most helpful (i.e. consulting it when figuring out what task to work on next).  If I don’t use it at least every day, then there’s really no point in having it. And, of course, the opposite may occur, and managing to-do lists can lead to its own kind of unproductive procrastination downward spiral, so do keep that in mind.

Below are some suggestions of various to-do list tools.  Like I said, there are dozens of applications that serve this function, so this is just a list to get you started.

  • Remember the Milk is a free online task manager.  You can create different projects that appear as tabs in the main window, and make tasks for those projects.  Tasks can have due dates, and you can also link it to your Google account to more easily integrate emails with your to-dos.
  • Apple Reminders is an application that comes with OS X Mountain Lion.  It lets you make to-do lists, and it uses Mountain Lion’s notification system to give you reminders of those due dates at the appropriate time.
  • Google Tasks is Google’s task manager.  It links up with Gmail and Google Calendar, so that’s convenient.
  • The Hipster PDA is a different take on the digital to-do list.  Instead of using a computer applications, the Hipster PDA method uses actual notecards and binder clips to keep your to-do list.  It’s simple and a non-digital method that has worked well for a lot of people.
  • Lifehacker frequently has posts about task managers.  Here’s a list of five you may want to check out.

What kind of things do you do to manage your to-do lists? Is there an application or method that you are particularly fond of?  Share with us in the comments below!

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.