Microsoft Outlook still reigns supreme for to do list management in the corporate office. It’s favored by IT departments, integrates with company email, sports awesome calendar sharing, and has a ton of other features that most of us will never use.
But cloud-based task managers are becoming more compelling and practical every day. It’s not uncommon for employees to spend their professional and personal time between three computers: a laptop, work desktop and home desktop. Throw an iPhone or Blackberry into the mix, and synchronization across all of these devices becomes an unwieldy engineering project. There has to be a better way.
Handwritten to do lists are quick to create, but lack some of key advantages of digital list managers:
- Copy/pasting information from email and web pages into note attachments to list items, such as driving directions, confirmation codes, product specifications, and other details that would be too tedious to jot down longhand.
- Managing and organizing multiple lists by category headings and tags.
- Editing the sequence and hierarchy of list items by priority or other criteria
Still, nothing beats paper for speed of entry when capturing raw data. I usually distinguish between capturing things to do and organizing them. When I jot a quick note, it’s often a sentence fragment that makes sense in the moment, but would rather not decode later, when I’m removed from the situation that made “desk lamp” shorthand for putting “Ikea: look for new desk lamp” on my Errands list. Paper’s informality gives me permission to write down whatever comes to mind in its initial form, knowing that I’ll clarify everything I capture into physical next action listings at least once a day.
Optional and Essential Task List Features
Not everyone needs the same things out of an online to do list manager. Some users just want a lean alternative to Outlook, while others want device synchronization and calender integration. Here are some features to consider with any online to do list manager that you test drive:
A simple user interface. A simple UI isn’t just desirable for minimizing the learning curve. The fewer options you have to process, the easier it is to focus on the content of the list.
Categories. Segmenting your lists into separate categories has several applications. You can keep a list of projects separate from the individual tasks that move those projects forward. For instance, you can have “Optimize landing page” as an item on your project list, and “iStockphoto: browse pictures for landing page” on your @Computer task list. That way, when you’ve checked off the task, you’ll have the project listing to remind you to define the next action.
Categories also help keep your to do lists short. If you’re at home, and you want to see what you can do there, it’s much easier to scan through an @Home list than to try to sort a single to do list with many times more items.
Hierarchies. Instead of having multiple flat lists, you might prefer to organize your work into a list of projects, then have their component tasks indented beneath them in an outline format.
Priority settings. Assigning priority codes to sort some items higher in the list than others can be immensely helpful when you’d want to glance at your list rather than scan through it more methodically. I actually don’t prioritize my task list, but I do use two priority codes to corral my writing projects into one contiguous block within my project list. Whatever you do for a living, you might want to create two priority assignments to block vocational and personal tasks into separate visual blocks within the same list.
Note fields. A field for writing or pasting notes into a task entry attachment has a ton of uses. You can write out your shopping list inside of the “Pick up groceries” entry on your to do list. You can write an agenda of discussion items in your entry for “Talk to boss,” so that you can address multiple topics in a single visit. You can draft a checklist of considerations within a task entry, or a checklist of milestones with a project entry.
Due dates. You may prefer to use your calendar for storing due dates, but having them in both places can never hurt, and it certainly help for prioritizing tasks
Hotkeys. Web 2.0 list managers are increasingly supporting keyboard shortcuts for adding and editing entries — like Ctrl-N for creating a new task. If you’re a fluent typist, you’re already aware of how reaching for the mouse can break your momentum, and probably realize by now that the streamlining of data entry is well worth the short learning curve of memorizing a few new keystrokes.
Device sync. This may be optional for some, but for me, the need to synchronize my online task lists with my phone was non-negotiable. If you’re going to carry a phone ubiquitously anyway, you might as a well turn it into your portable list and contact manager, and free yourself from toting a bulky day planner.
10 Popular Online To Do List Manager Apps
An actionable list is a short list, so I’m filtering out the two dozen other online task list manager products that have come across my attention. Here are the 10 that keep resurfacing in my years of using and reading about productivity apps.
Remember the Milk (Free. Pro version $25). This is one of the most full-featured list managers, handling tasks and contacts. Tasks can be assigned dates, tags, categories, time estimates, and even geolocation. RTM supports Google Gears for offline use, has a mobile web version and syncs with Google Calendar. The $25 Pro version offers sync clients for the iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Mobile and Android devices. The only missing sync option is Outlook — which is the case with most online list managers.
Google Tasks. (Free) Google Tasks naturally integrates with other Google services (though sometimes as a “Labs” features) like Gmail, Google Calendar and iGoogle. Tasks supports categories, hierarchies and notes. Unfortunately, while Google Apps Sync for Outlook supports Google’s Gmail, Contacts and Calendar, the Tasks app has no API yet to sync with anything except Google’s own Android platform. But there is a mobile web version of Tasks.
GooSync ($35 a year. $70 lifetime). Like RTM, GooSync supports synchronization with iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Android, but also supports Palm and Nokia devices. GooSync syncs with Google Calendar and Contacts, or you can use GooSync’s own calendar and contact apps. I use GooSync’s own task list manager, since Google hasn’t enabled third-party syncing with Tasks at this time.
Ta-da List (Free). Features, schmeatures! When it comes to simplified to do lists, 37Signals’ Ta-da List is as spartan as they come. With Ta-da List, you can (1) create a list, (2) give it a name, (3) check items off and (4) optionally share the list. That’s it. No categories, priorities, due dates, hierarchies, or anything else remotely resembling feature creep. You may find that less is more.
Gtdagenda (Free. Basic version $39.45 a year. Premium version 69.95 a year). One of the many online to do list managers in the last few years that attempts to organize tasks and projects according to David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, though in a less canonical fashion. In addition to a Calendar (in Basic and Premium versions), Gtdagenda supports lists for Goals, Projects, Tasks, Next Actions, Checklists and “Schedules.” Schedules are templates for recurring daily or weekly time allocations — what are sometimes called “time maps.” Gtdagenda also features a mobile web version, but no device syncing.
Checkvist (Free. Pro version $30 a year). Checkvist (sic) lets you create lists or outlines, which you can share or export. Though I use GooSync for tasks, I’m a huge fan of Checkvist for brainstorming and project planning. Checkvist is surprisingly lean and fast for a web app, and the hotkey support is excellent. A Chrome extension is also available for viewing and editing lists directly from the toolbar, and a mobile web version is also available.
Todoist (Free. Premium version $3 a month).While Checkvist is an application-agnostic outliner that isn’t designed specifically for task management, Todoist is an outliner designed for creating hierarchies of projects and tasks. Todoist has a calendar, integration with Gmail, an iGoogle widget, a Firefox extension and a mobile web version.
Toodledo (Basic version free. Pro version $14.95 a year. Pro Plus version $29.95 a year). A very complete online to do list manager. The only thing missing is syncing for multiple devices (though Toodledo does have an iPhone app). Toodledo handles hierarchies (Pro version), folders, tags, notes, priorities, goals, time estimates, timers, contexts, and importing of several popular PIM databases: Outlook, iCal, Palm OS and even Remember the Milk.
Nutshell (Free. Donation suggested). This one makes a great browser home page. Nutshell’s dashboard features three text entry fields: one for search, one for adding notes, and another for adding items to a list selected from a dropdown menu. The search field defaults to Google, but Nutshell supports keywords that redirects queries to other search engines: imdb [keyword] will do an IMDb search, az [keyword] searches Amazon, and so on. The actual list management portion is on the simple side, supporting descriptions (notes), a checkbox to flag an item as “high priority,” and that’s about it.
Tedium ($19.95 a year). Another task list manager that falls on the simpler side of feature sets. Tedium lets you tag list items, assign due date and notes. You can customize views to show panels of list filtered by assigned criteria. For instance, you can have a sidebar that shows all of you tasks that are due by today, or due by this week, or assigned a certain tag. Tedium also makes a standalone version available.
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