Mobility

The quest for the perfect to-do list

There are numerous options out there for electronic task management. Read about one system administrator's search for the ultimate solution.

 
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Photo: iStock
  

As an IT guy, writer, husband, father and homeowner I easily have three dozen or more tasks or projects afoot at any given time – and their priorities change at a moment's notice. Keeping track of these can be a full-time job, so I have made electronic task management one of my high-level obsessions for some time.

I don't really do written lists since my handwriting is terrible and reordering priority tasks is a challenge (unless you enjoy working an eraser). Plus, written lists are horrible for planning out next week and the week after that. Printed calendars don't provide enough space for sufficient detail; ultimately I'm opposed to the use of paper for anything other than as a temporary note-taking solution to help reinforce details mentally. Similarly, having a big whiteboard to keep track of what's going on seems silly and counter-productive. If I am away from the whiteboard and need to reference it or change information then this puts me at a disadvantage. Last but not least, when you keep your to-do list electronically you can always go back later and review when you did what (assuming you save completed items somewhere).

So, for detailed tasks/projects I use Excel as a kind of "base camp." I realize Excel is more intended for calculations and formulas, but it works fine as a personal task manager so long as I put the time in by entering my work and categorizing it by project type and status. I can file away completed tasks in another worksheet just by cutting and pasting them. I can estimate the hours involved with each task and chart them by date using vertical columns:

 

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(the blue cells represent due dates)
 

There are just two problems with this arrangement, however:

  1. Excel is really only easily available on my home and work PCs.  Sure, I CAN pull up this spreadsheet on a mobile device, but it's kludgy, having to scroll back and forth or up and down on a smaller screen. Opening a spreadsheet, updating it then saving it is a productivity killer.
  2. Entering tiny little items ("Call Bob" or "Go to ATM") can be more trouble than they're worth. I don't want to avoid tasks simply because they're a pain to document.

So, I also use a separate "right now" to-do list to keep track of what I'm doing today and tomorrow and to enter ad-hoc items in as they come up (which can happen just by taking a walk around my company); stuff which doesn't really need to be charted out in Excel but which I need to make sure I do.

For a long time I was keeping my to-do list in a single task in Outlook, which synchronizes to my Blackberry. I could open it up, add/update/delete items, and these would be updated in either direction between Blackberry and my work PC. I could cut and paste and include notes on steps involved.  Not bad, not great, but OK for daily use.

Why a Blackberry?

As I wrote last summer, I carry both a Blackberry and an Android. I realize many will think it is silly and limiting for me to review tasks on a Blackberry (which currently has a market share in the US of… wait for it…. 0 percent. Yes, that is "zero."), but it's helpful to me for three reasons:

  1. I am the administrator for the Blackberry server at my organization (which I'll admit barely contains a double-digit number of active devices, but if the server is malfunctioning I'd prefer to know about it before my users).
  2. I write about mobility topics so therefore keep all manner of devices on hand including iPads, Androids, Kindles and more to try out techniques or answer user questions.
  3. The Blackberry is not bad as a secondary device and is easy to use one-handed.  The MP3 player works well. The 3G coverage is often more reliable than that of my Android; in my situations I have internet connectivity on the Blackberry which the Droid lacks. It has the Office communicator client installed so I can IM contacts at the office. Yes, Android has a similar client too but you need to get on the VPN or open ports to the server to gain access, and our IM is inside-only.
So, my system worked – somewhat – until the tasks on my Blackberry stopped synchronizing with Outlook. There are numerous tips to solve this such as deleting the "Desktop [SYNC]" Service book from the Blackberry device and then resending it from the Blackberry server, but after trying this twice without achieving a permanent fix I realized I needed a better solution for handling my "right now" tasks.

I came up with a list of criteria for my task management needs:
  1. Free.
  2. Accessible on all my mobile devices and PCs.
  3. Able to synchronize reliably.
  4. Able to tell at a glance what I need to do today both professionally and personally.
  5. Simple to use, without a lot of time spent entering, editing and clearing tasks (I've found a complicated "system" to manage what you need to do invariably takes up more time than the actual tasks).
  6. Able to access offline, since I travel to remote areas, basements and server rooms with spotty Wi-Fi/3G/4G coverage.

I want to clarify #1: I'm not opposed to paying for services and apps. Being a minimalist, however, I try to work with whatever is publicly available when I can. Also, setting up paid products on new or rebuilt devices can be a pain and I frequently reinstall operating systems or revert devices back to factory defaults since I'm a chronic tinkerer.

Evaluating the possibilities

Right out of the starting gate I thought I could rule out some options based upon my above list of six above. I looked at Tasks in Gmail, which can easily sync to my Android using the GTasks app, but are not so easy to sync to the Blackberry.

While I could use the Blackberry browser (don't laugh) to access Gmail Tasks at https://mail.google.com/tasks/ig - any browser can access Gmail tasks directly this way - that would defeat the purpose of rule #5 above. There is an app called "ggTasks Lite" for the Blackberry, but the free version is "Read only" so changes on the fly aren't possible unless you buy it.  Another app called GMTaskSync purports to do the same thing, but based on the horrible reviews I elected to pursue other avenues.  The simple fact is that finding cutting-edge stuff for an obsolete platform is always going to be a challenge.

"Remember the Milk" and Wunderlist seem promising and Tim Maurer of Forbes wrote an excellent article on Task Management last November in which he recommended an intriguing free product called Trello:

 

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Photo: Google Play
 

None of these have Blackberry apps, but all of these task management products work offline in their Android versions so they definitely seem worth a closer look by people with needs less stringent than mine.

I have Evernote and Dropbox installed on my computers and devices, so I took at closer look at Evernote.  I hadn't done much with it besides installing it, and while Evernote seems to be a great way to keep track of notes, webpages, emails, pictures and more, even Evernote's CEO admits that "Evernote isn't particularly great for to-dos yet. Yet."

Evernote offers reminders which can be linked to "Remember the Milk" but that's a bit less simple than I'd hoped for at present.

I thought about using a simple text file in Evernote to keep track of my daily to-do stuff, but the free version doesn't permit offline access. Therefore, I decided to classify Evernote as "Must learn to use for organization of my work, but not quite able to help me prioritize said work."

And then I figured "Well, I have Dropbox on all my devices, so a text file I can edit and update on any of them should do the trick there." I went ahead and built one:

 

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This solution fits my six criteria; it's free, accessible from all my systems, synchronizes flawlessly (one of Dropbox's strengths), easy to work with and use, and offers offline access. Just opening the text file on the Blackberry stores a copy off-line, and marking it as a Favorite on an Android does the same.

To mark a file in Dropbox as a Favorite on an Android, find the file in the Dropbox list, tap the down arrow to the right of the file, then tap the star (on an iPhone/iPad, swipe from left to right over the name of the file then tap the star).

This impromptu task list is not exactly the use a text file is intended for, but as with my Excel project spreadsheet I like to work against the grain. Text files can be opened with numerous editors so there's no proprietary lock-in.

The jury's still out

I'm not calling this solution permanent just yet, since there may be more options out there.

I'll freely admit that the weak link here is the Blackberry, but for now I still pull it out several times a day to quickly add or change a task.  Once the Blackberry has fallen by the wayside, Gmail Tasks should work just fine for every scenario.  Kannon Yamada of www.makeuseof.com wrote an inspiring piece called "Five Killer Ways to Use Google Tasks."  A free Chrome add-on called "Google Tasks Offline" will help also you access your tasks on devices running Chrome when you don't have internet access.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on task management.  How do you keep track of what you need to do? Is it cumbersome or easy?  Can you update your priorities dynamically, and most importantly: do you spend more time working on tasks as opposed to planning and recording them?

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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