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Task Management 101 – Theories and Practice of To-Do Lists Plus Product Reviews

This is going to be a monster post. Great post to start a great year.

Let’s put an end to suspense: I am using Google Tasks today for To-Do lists. Here is the story of how I got there:

Different people have different needs in Task Management and To-Do Lists and an understanding of your needs is important in aligning expectations and picking appropriate tools to support your work. Quick example that illustrates the point: believed in Franklin Covey. They were bananas for Franklin Covey and it was fairly obvious why: They were an organization driven by delivery managers. Delivery managers at had incredibly transactional jobs: They would come in every morning, look at the 30 campaigns they were managing, and take away from it a list if 50 things that had to get done that day. They probably had a few meetings that day with product management or sales, but that was it. They had to get those 50 things done. And then they did it again tomorrow. Franklin Covey is fantastic for this kind of transactional environment. It focuses on daily to-do lists and the intra-day prioritization of those lists.

Franklin Covey typically doesn’t work well for engineering jobs. Engineering jobs daily to-do list typically looks like:


  • Code Feature X

A hard core Franklin Covey lover might say, “Decompose that”, but then it simply looks like:


  • Think About Feature X
  • Code Part X of Feature X
  • Code Part Y of Feature X

Bottom-line, these jobs are not heavily transactional so the intra-day prioritization of to-do’s loses importance.

I had used a nice leather binder and it had worked well previously, but I became a Franklin Covey guy at I used a Franklin Covey for three years, then I switched rather abruptly. When I took over New Product Development at AOL Advertising, I suddenly realized that Franklin Covey was no longer working: I was in so many meetings that I never sat still for 10 minutes. Also, I had transitioned from executing to leading. I have always found it hard to be both a leader and clipboard guy. Any project manager will tell you that leading a meeting and taking notes on the meeting is an exercise in folly, so I generally made sure that I had someone following me around with a clipboard as we went from place to place. Now they were taking the actions and following up on them and as long as I had a couple of those people to alternate meetings with me, stuff got done.

At this point, I went paperless and it worked incredibly well. I used Remember The Milk and any to-do that I had went into it. I chose RTM at the time because it appeared they had the best combination of iPhone and desktop platform (in their case, the web app) that I could find. I used RTM for two years to take relentless to-do’s in meetings and it was great.

Last year, I left AOL to start my own company. I quickly realized that I had to bring Covey back, but not for why you think: My job didn’t become transactional. I could have continued to use RTM, but I found that meeting with customers works better with paper. It annoys the crap out of clients if you are mucking with your phone while they talk to you. They assume you are playing brickbreaker. It is that simple. So for a year I was a Covey guy.

Now I am going digital again and I thought it was a good time to re-survey the market. Here were my requirements:

  • The ability to make multiple to-do lists
  • The ability to associate a note with a to-do
  • iPhone && (Mac Desktop || Web) && (optionally iPad)— Syncing + off-line iPhone
  • I wanted it to be free. I had used RTM Pro to get iPhone syncing, but they just made 1 sync per day free and I actually thought that was enough for me. And I knew RTM was good enough to meet my needs, so unless a product was mind-bogglingly over the top, no point paying.

I don’t need to schedule to-dos: I have always simply put those in my calendar and it works fine. I don’t need to prioritize to-dos. If I can rank order them that is fine. One of the things that always annoyed me about RTM was that I couldn’t drag and drop to-dos, I had to use priority to set the order I wanted. Okay, but a little annoying. Many of my to-do lists are not really to-do’s in a classic sense, but rather lists: A list of feature ideas for Application X, a list of ideas of new companies I could start, a list of potential gifts for my wife. Things I keep track of in to-do form, but I don’t need to schedule them, just prioritize them and maybe hide a note with them (requirements for the feature).

On to the showdown; I looked at a few products. Let me talk about some popular products I dismissed out of hand:


Evernote is a note-taking product. I am actually excited about using Evernote to fill the gap in my toolset for recording meeting notes electronically. Alas, they are not technically a to-do list and this is manifested in how the product works. They suggest that people that want a to-do list should make a note called to-do list and keep their list in it. A text file is not good enough for my to-do list.


Things looks awesome. It is a Mac desktop app with an iPhone app that looks great. It costs money both for the desktop app and the iPhone app (and the iPad app). Didn’t look great enough to justify shelling out for it. There you go.

Ta-Da Lists (from 37signals)

No offline support for iPhone, end of story.

Now let’s talk about the finalists:

THE WINNER: Google Tasks

Google Tasks started out as a to-do list that I saw whenever I was looking at my gmail. That worked surprisingly well for me as I started to use it. Then I wanted to take it to my iPhone. Google doesn’t have an official iPhone app for tasks, despite the friendly mobile web interface, but because it is Google there are APIs and many people have built iPhone apps. This allows you to take Google tasks offline, which is great. I tried about 4 different Google Tasks iPhone Apps and the one that was hands down the best was GoTasks. I am not going to rehash that process, just trust me on this one. Or don’t and go try yourself. Whatever.

GoTasks was the best for three reasons:

  1. Easy to add new tasks
  2. Easy to access notes associated with a task
  3. Easy to reorder tasks and check off completed tasks

GoTasks Screen

“But that web interface sucks!”, you say. There is a secret interface to Google Tasks that makes it much more awesome: The Canvas interface. Give it a try. I found it met my needs as well as Remember The Milks web interface.

Google Tasks Canvas Interface

Remember The Milk

One of the most popular task management systems, I felt like it had jumped the shark a bit for me.

As you can see from the web interface, they make it really easy to access the notes, which I like, and easy to add a new task, but it seemed like the focus in how they evolved the platform was scheduling to-dos. If I wanted to-dos scheduled, I wanted it integrated with my calendar. I lose a lot of screen real estate on the iPhone to the ability to view completed tasks (never used it, never will), and look at scheduled tasks (don’t have any). Also, they had focused on things like priorities and location-awareness and these features never helped me. My priorities are all relative: I like re-ordering, not re-prioritizing.

Also, I tried all the desktop widgets people had written for RTM and didn’t like any of them. FWIW.


Wunderlist is the new hotness right now, but I found the product quite 1.0. I liked that it was a Mac Desktop app and that it had a lot of sex appeal, but there were problems. The iPhone app made it really hard to re-organize lists. You had to go to a separate screen after you had made a task to re-order it. I might have been able to live with that, but the real crime was this: The app did not support notes, it just kept to-dos. Of course, 3 weeks later, it supports notes. So yay for them. I think this app is really evolving in the right direction.

Unfortunately, I decided that all the sexiness of this app was not a completely good thing. GoTasks UI is incredibly utilitarian. Screen space is utilized in a very iPhone way to help me read things more easily and interact with things quicker.

Wunderlist iPhone Screenshot

And I don’t want to hit “Edit” to re-order, don’t want to waste space on the stuff at the bottom.

I will definitely check back with Wunderlist in a year, but I felt like Google has a ton of room to grow in this area and they don’t care about the money. They will just invest crazy resources until they are the default to-do list manager for everyone. Seems like a no-brainer idea for them.

So there you go, the to-do list showdown of 2010 and how it all worked out.

9 Responses to “Task Management 101 – Theories and Practice of To-Do Lists Plus Product Reviews”

  1. Denis Says:

    Howdy! I’m the developer of GeeTasks, and since you looked at all Google Tasks apps, you probably looked at mine too. Are there any things you would like to see added or changed in GeeTasks? Anything stuck out like a sore thumb, or vice versa was a pleasant surprise?

  2. Aaron Says:

    Great post and feedback on today’s leading task management products. Would love to sign you up as a Beta tester for LazyMeter, a very new approach to task management. I like how you coin the phrase “intra-day prioritization” and think you’ll like how we’re getting rid of it.

  3. brent Says:

    Would love to try it, although it is hard to imagine, given my criteria, that game-playing metaphors to to-do lists work for me.

  4. brent Says:

    Frankly, GeeTasks failed my criteria right out of the gate. You give away GeeTasksLite, which lets you keep 10 items in 6 lists and is smothered in ads, GeeTasks, which people have to pay for, and GeeTasksPro, which integrates with Google Apps. GoTasks is like GeeTasksPro only better. Alas, I think your product is not great. I don’t want an app that hamstrings Google Tasks to extract a tax – that was part of my initial criteria.

  5. Denis Says:

    So you didn’t want to pay for the app? Ok, good to know. Thanks.

  6. brent Says:

    Let’s be clear: GoTasks actually seems to offer all the meaningful functionality that GeeTasks and GeeTasksPro charges for, plus other features, AND ITS FREE.

  7. Aaron Says:

    Brent – good feedback, we’ll need to work to make it clear that we’re focusing on data and not game mechanics. We think task management ultimately boils down to how users feel at the end of the day. Our goal is to provide users with a metric of productivity; at the end of the day, should you feel good/productive or lazy? The product will speak for itself – I’ll drop you a line when it’s ready.

  8. Robert Boeckmann Says:

    I can’t believe this just happened!
    I started using gotasks recently and had a nice set of lists going. They were synced between my iphone and the google.
    I was reading your post to learn more and compare to Evernote. I came to the part where you were describing the Canvas interface – I clicked on the image for a closer look. Now my lists online have been deleted! I tried to sync my iphone… problem not solved. Can you explain what happened and how I might fix this?

  9. Robert Boeckmann Says:

    OK – I figured it out. Apparently examining that graphic or following the Canvas link either established an account for me or activated one that was dormant and I’d forgotten about. Once I logged out of that and logged onto my gmail / google account my lists “appeared” again. The issue was I was not looking at my gotasks account that I had already set up.