Welcome back to Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill, where you can find a valuable new Windows utility or Web site twice a month– that is, if I can figure out what to write about and get myself organized enough to research and write it.
Sometimes I stare at my desk, close to desperation, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing now. What was I working on? What should I be working on? What’s my most important goal, and what’s most urgent? What action should I take right now to start moving forward? Piles of paper scraps and sticky notes only add to the confusion.
A computer should be an excellent to-do list manager, right? First I tried Microsoft Outlook’s Tasks module, even setting up a complex customized structure for tracking my projects’ progress. Outlook simply wasn’t up to the task. Then I used Microsoft Project, but it’s an excellent task manager like a shotgun is an excellent fly killer.
Perhaps, I thought, there are free or cheap to-do list managers on the Internet, so I went looking. I found many, but most disappointed me with limited functionality, oddball approaches to task management, primitive GUIs, or all of these. Then I came across an outstanding exemplar, and my search is over.
For a local PC-based to-do organizer, you can’t do better than ToDoList. It was designed to support the geeks’ latest rage, the much-hyped Getting Things Done (GTD) approach to time management and productivity. ToDoList has almost everything I really want from a task list manager:
- Nesting of subtasks – Break a task down into subtasks, and break subtasks down still further. Expand and collapse the task list, and drag and drop tasks to change their positions in the hierarchy.
- Priorities – Prioritize tasks from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest). Color-code tasks for any purpose.
- Deadlines and milestones – Specify the starting date and due date of each task and subtask. Tasks can recur, too. Track the time you spend on a task and its progress toward completion. Tasks can be allocated to specific resources (that is, people).
- Comments – Enter detailed comments about each task or subtask, with rich text formatting.
- Sort and filter – Sort the task list by priority, deadline, completion, or any other attribute. Filter the task list by task status, deadline, priority, category, allocated resource, and other attributes.
- Multiple projects – Set up separate projects, each containing its own task tree. Each project is managed in its own tabbed page. (However, I have not yet found a way to get a bird’s-eye view of all projects at once.)
- Detailed data – Comprehensive information is presented clearly. Any detail field can be a column in the task table, which can be sorted on any column. Data are stored in XML format, and can be imported and exported in various other formats.
- Configurable – Virtually every aspect of the GUI is configurable, making ToDoList very versatile.
- Ease of use – I found ToDoList’s GUI to be intuitive and accessible. I figured out the basics in a few minutes, and was fairly proficient in under an hour, so you can probably learn it even less time.
Because ToDoList is an open source project, plug-ins for various needs are available. I have found plug-ins for encryption, spelling, pop-up reminders, and exporting projects in Gantt format.
ToDoList (current version: 5.1.1) is provided for free by AbstractSpoon Software at http://www.abstractspoon.com/, where you also can find links to plug-ins. The anonymous author does not solicit donations, but does bury a PayPal donation link the bottom of the Web page. As always, I urge you to support freeware that you intend to use regularly.
My thanks go to my esteemed colleague Elliott Anderson for recommending this great utility.
Web-Based Task Managers
If you need access to your to-do list from anywhere there’s an Internet connection, to share it with other people, or to integrate it with other Web functions, consider a Web-based task manager. These hosted managers lack the depth of functionality of ToDoList and its ilk; for example, they do not support subtask nesting and hierarchies (which is often vital, especially to GTD proponents), nor notes at the task level. But they do offer some cool additional capabilities in varying combinations, such as:
- iCal compatibility for sharing calendar data
- Integration with mapping, search, and other Web services
- Support for multiple information formats (for example, adding graphics, photos, or sound files to the page)
- Reminders by e-mail or SMS (generally only in the
and United States ) Canada
- Social networking features, such as collaboration, tagging, sharing, and linking
- Access from mobile phones and PDAs
Here are my quick impressions of the most significant features and differentiators in the best Web-based task managers I have seen.
This site claims to adhere to GTD principles, and appears aimed primarily at individual users. Each project can include task lists, formatted notes, and reminders. Drag and drop to sort lists. However, like all the other sites reviewed here, there is no provision for nesting subtasks, and notes can be attached only at the project level. The paid premium version integrates a calendar and email and SMS reminders. http://www.backpackit.com/
Another GTD claimant, this sophisticated site seems to cater more to work groups. It provides actions and contexts with projects. Drag and drop to organize lists. Tasks can recur. Notes are in a separate Reference tab attached to the project. The home screen “dashboard” gives a useful high-level view of pending items. Delegated tasks move to a Waiting list. Reminders can be sent by email and SMS. A separate version is formatted for mobile device screens. The paid premium version adds encryption, file attachments, a calendar, and more collaboration tools. http://www.vitalist.com/
Also espousing GTD, this site supports projects and contexts, deadlines and progress tracking, drag and drop to sort tasks, and file attachments. Tasks can be marked as the “next action.” http://www.nozbe.com/.
Remember the Milk
Geared toward personal use, this site supports deadlines, categories, task notes, time estimates, sharing with others, mapping, and e-mail reminders, but supplies only four priority levels and does not track progress. http://www.rememberthemilk.com/.
This site attempts to provide a very graphical interface, but its functionality is rather basic. It supports contexts, deadlines, progress tracking, and notes (which are not visible at the top level). However, even the limited hierarchy provided by division into projects is hard to distinguish in the task list. http://www.taskfreak.com/.
Did I overlook a great one? Please clue me in below. And I hope you’ll return on March 10 for another roundup of helpful software.
This column first appeared at http://www.elephant.org.il/jonathans_tool_bar_grill.