The Beginner’s Guide to Task Management

I have been making to-do lists since college. In terms of physical systems, I started with the Seven Star Diary, graduated to a Day-Timer, and then landed on the Franklin Planner. At the time, it was state of the art.

After reading David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, I decided to go digital. I did almost everything in Microsoft Outlook and then, after switching to a Mac, Microsoft Entourage. But ultimately, I switched to Nozbe, which I have been using since 2007.

As you probably know, there are hundreds if not thousands of task management apps on the market. I have tried many of the most popular including Asana, Basecamp, Daylite, Flow, Nirvana, Omni Focus, Remember the Milk, Things, Toodledo, Trello, Workflowy, Wunderlist, and ZenDone.

I even tried using Evernote for task management. And though I love it as a digital file cabinet, I don’t think it’s the right tool for the job. (Yes, I even tried The Secret Weapon.) I always come back to Nozbe, which, by the way, includes Evernote and Dropbox integration.

But in the end, I don’t think the tool is as important as the process. In fact, you can waste a ton of time experimenting with tools and not getting any work done. (Don’t ask me how I know this!)

Regardless of the tool you use, the process is pretty much the same. Whether you use a paper journal or the latest high-tech app, it pretty much boils down to mastering a set of five practices. Use these consistently, and you will become a task management ninja.

  1. Maintaining a set of master task lists. I set up one list for each project. I also have a list for my Daily Ritual and each of my goals. I even have a Miscellaneous list for items that don’t fit anywhere else.Most projects are private, but I can also share them as needed with my teammates. I used to use Basecamp for this, but Nozbe has recently enhanced this ability, so we are now migrating everything there.In Nozbe, I group projects that go together with Labels. This enables me to maintain a sort of hierarchy with the lists. That way I can, for example, view all my conference projects together.Nozbe Example 1
  2. Creating tasks as needed. I create tasks on the fly as I process email, sit through meetings, talk with my family and colleagues, and glean insights from various forms of media. With Nozbe, I can do this with a single, user-defined keystroke. (I use Shift-Control-Command-T.)I always start my task with a verb to insure that it is actionable. I then add a project tag, even if it’s just Miscellaneous, and a quick time estimate of how long I think the task will take. (More about why in a moment.)I occasionally add a context to batch similar tasks together (e.g., @Errands or @Home), but I don’t find these as useful as strict David Allen practitioners do. I also add a due date if it is a time-sensitive task that must be completed by a specific date.Nozbe Example 2
  3. Reviewing your lists on a regular basis. This is the key to successful task management. It’s great to get tasks out of your head and into a trusted collection system. But if you never review it, it’s useless.I have found that it works best to have a review system, so nothing falls through the cracks. I employ a pattern of weekly and daily reviews. I do the weekly review on Sunday nights and my daily review at the end of each day.In my weekly review, I identify the tasks I want to complete in the next week. I flag them with a “This Week” context tag. In my daily review, I identify the tasks I want to complete tomorrow. I flag those with a “Today” tag.Nozbe Example 3
  4. Creating a Today list for each day. Before I begin my day, I want a list of the tasks that need to be done. Usually, I have completed this the night before, so I simply review the list and add anything that didn’t occur to me then.As I look at this list, I add a “@MustDo” context tag to the one to three tasks that absolutely must be completed today. (I don’t include my Daily Ritual tasks, because I assume I will do those no matter what.)Once I have the list, I arrange it sequentially in the order I intend to tackle it. With Nozbe I can simply drag and drop the items. I always start with my Morning Ritual, then begin working on my most important task first, when my energy level is at its highest. When that is complete, I move to the next most important task.This is where the time estimate I assigned earlier comes in handy. Nozbe keeps a running total of the time it will take to complete all the tasks on a given list. I try never to schedule more than six hours worth of work a day. The reason for this is I consistently underestimate how long things take, and I want to allow some margin in my day.

    Nozbe Example 4

  5. Tracking tasks you delegate to others. In a perfect world with perfect people, you would delegate a task and forget about it. But, unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. Most people are overcommitted—even good people—and things occasionally fall through the cracks.When I want to delegate a task, I enter it into Nozbe just as I would any other task. Then I add a context with their name preceded by the caret symbol, so these tags sort together (e.g., ^James, ^Megan, or ^Raquel). This way, I can simply click on that context to see what I have delegated to that person.But Nozbe actually goes one step further. It provides the ability to share projects and tasks with others, even if the other person is not a Nozbe user (as of version 1.9). I am just beginning to explore this feature but intend to rollout it out to my team in the weeks ahead.Nozbe Example 5

People often try to make task management more complicated than necessary. Yes, you probably need a sophisticated project management system for building a nuclear submarine or renovating a house.

But short of that, you just need to become proficient at consistently using these five practices. It’s amazing how much you can get done if you master these.

Question: What task management practices do you need to implement?