How To-Do is integrating with more and more of the Microsoft ecosystem

Can Microsoft finally create a single task management system that covers everywhere users create tasks? So far, To-Do works with Outlook, Cortana, Skype and anything you can connect through Flow.

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For years, Microsoft has had a plethora of task management tools, all of them separate. Outlook has tasks (which are marked as your To-Do List in Outlook 2019) and you can sync tasks from other tools like SharePoint, Project, Planner and OneNote with varying amounts of difficulty. But even once you get tasks into Outlook, not all email clients sync them (including mobile Outlook), so you can't easily use your Outlook tasks as a to-do list on your phone. That's one reason Microsoft is making its new To-Do app the focus for task management.

The plan is to have To-Do be the place where you can see and work with tasks and to-do items from across all the Microsoft services and applications. That ranges from the simplest connection -- buttons in the Windows 10 Calendar app and the mobile versions of Outlook open the To-Do app and tasks show up in the Microsoft Launcher on Android -- to some more sophisticated syncing options, including Outlook and Cortana.

To-Do is designed for both business and home users, and it can be managed through Intune. Unlike the popular to-do app Microsoft acquired in 2015 (which keeps all data on AWS in Ireland), To-Do uses Exchange Online to store and sync tasks -- whether you use a Microsoft personal account or Office 365 (Business Essentials or any higher licence) -- so it has the same data encryption, compliance and data residency as your Office 365 tenant. That also means it's not (yet) available with your own Exchange Server.

Getting tasks into Outlook

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To-Do tasks and lists sync with Outlook.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

Only a few of the To-Do integrations are already working: syncing tasks with Outlook is furthest along, and that doesn't support all the Outlook features (or all the To-Do features), so you may still need to bring tasks from other tools and services into Outlook as a first step.

If you use Wunderlist, you can see tasks you create there in Outlook by subscribing to the Wunderlist calendar feed (Outlook 2019 is smart enough to put those in the tasks view), and there's a useful Wunderlist add-in for Outlook that makes it easy to turn an email into a Wunderlist task. But those tasks won't sync into To-Do, and while you can import your Wunderlist tasks into To-Do (there's a link to the web tool that does this in Settings), it's a one-way sync and later changes won't show up, so you need to pick one tool. The main Wunderlist feature missing from To-Do at this point is the ability to assign a task to someone else -- so far, you can only share whole lists.

OneNote has a to-do tag that creates a checkbox you can tick off, but if you want a to-do to show up in Outlook, you have to choose Outlook Task instead and set the reminder (and that's one of the features that hasn't made it from OneNote 2016 to the OneNote Store app).

SharePoint Outlook integration is a little better; go to the List tab on the ribbon on a SharePoint team site and click Connect to Outlook, and tasks from the site will show up in their own tasks section in Outlook. If you want to see tasks from Project, you need Project Server or a third-party add-on like Power2Plan to work with those tasks in Outlook. You can sync Project tasks with SharePoint and get them into Outlook that way, but a project manager has to set it up. If you want to see tasks from Microsoft Planner (the Trello-style Office 365 service in Outlook), you have to publish an iCal feed and then open it in Outlook -- which puts them in the calendar rather than the tasks section.

The Windows 10 Sticky Notes app doesn't integrate with Outlook at all -- instead, it integrates with Cortana reminders; if you include a date or time when you type or scribble a note, the Add Reminder button appears and creates a Cortana reminder.

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To-Do integration is much simpler than these older ways of connecting tasks to Outlook. Sign in to both Outlook (or Outlook.com) and To-Do with the same account and tasks and the lists you organise them into will just sync between the two tools. (If it's a Microsoft account, it has to use outlook.com, not a Yahoo or Gmail email address.) You can create tasks and mark them as complete in either app, and drag tasks from one list to another in either app. Even the emoji you can use in list names to customise the To-Do icons appear in Outlook.

Under the covers, To-Do is rather like a specialised viewer for Outlook and Exchange tasks, although it doesn't support all the Outlook task features. You can only have one due date, rather than separate start and end dates; task statuses like in-progress or 25 percent complete, and details like mileage won't show up in To-Do; and you can't set task work hours, different priority levels or assign an Outlook category.

But any tasks from other sources that sync into Outlook as tasks (using the OneNote tag, say) rather than calendar items will sync onto To-Do. You can't recover deleted tasks in the To-Do app if you change your mind, but you can get them back in Outlook. And once you've synced a task from To-Do you can set a reminder and then assign it to someone else as if it was a normal Outlook task. That gets around the problem that you can't assign tasks in To-Do, and that lists shared with you in To-Do don't appear in your Outlook tasks -- you see them in the To-Do app, but only tasks lists you create yourself sync across. You won't see when an assigned task is marked as complete by the person you send it to, so you'll have to tick it off on your own list, and assigning tasks one by one is much slower than sharing a list. But at least you can make sure the person who's supposed to be doing something knows about it.

The other problem is that if you sync a recurring task that was set up some time ago (say in Wunderlist) and hasn't been marked as complete each time, you will get all the overdue instances of it in To-Do, and as you tick each one off, the Outlook reminder for the next one opens and then disappears.

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You can use Flow to have flagged emails appear in To-Do, but it's complex to set reminders for them.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

The option to sync flagged emails, which appear in the list of Outlook tasks, to To-Do is still in private preview (Microsoft said the feature would start rolling out in December 2018). You can drag an email into the task pane in Outlook.com or create a Quick Step in desktop Outlook that will turn an email into a task as well as flagging it, and those will sync as tasks. You won't yet see any attachments from the email in the task, although that's planned for the future. You can also use Microsoft Flow to create tasks for flagged emails, but marking the task as complete in To-Do won't clear the flag in Outlook (which will happen with the official integration).

Beyond Outlook

Creating tasks from Skype is a little simpler: right-click on a chat message in Skype and choose Create a task. Click on the text of the message if you need to edit it, then choose the To-Do list to put it in at the bottom of the pane. You can also look through your tasks in Skype, in case you want to add a task by hand or check off something you've done, like passing on some information. The task list is rather hidden -- click the '+' button in the bottom right corner of a chat and choose Microsoft To-Do to open it.

Windows Insiders can also create To-Do tasks through Cortana (you need Windows 10 Insider Preview Build 18267 or later and Cortana and To-Do integration is only available in English and in Australia, India, US and UK regions; if you want to use it from elsewhere, you'll need to change your Cortana language and region). Open the Cortana notebook and under Manage Skills / Connected Services make sure that your Outlook account is connected (under Outlook or Office 365), then look in Organizer / Lists to make sure they show up. You can only sync to one To-Do account; with both Office 365 and Outlook connected and To-Do set up for both accounts, we found tasks only synced to the Outlook account and couldn't find a way to change that. If you can't get tasks to sync at all and you've used Cortana with Wunderlist before, disable the Wunderlist integration.

Once it's set up, you can create a task by telling Cortana what you want to add to a specific list, and Cortana reminders you set up for specific times will appear in the To-Do app as well. Or you can have Cortana read you one of your task lists -- but annoyingly, not the My Day list.

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If you'd rather use Siri than Cortana, choose Reminders / Default List on iOS and set your Outlook or Exchange account as the default (make sure Reminders is turned on for the account under Accounts & Passwords). When you say 'Siri, remind me to...', that creates a To-Do task (although it won't work if your device is managed with Intune. You can also send those reminders to To-Do as tasks through IFTTT for things like creating tasks from tweets that you send to IFTTT through the iOS Share menu.

Other integrations are a little further off. Integration with OneDrive (for attaching files and images to a task instead of just local content) is planned and integrating with Microsoft Teams and syncing with tasks created using the to-do tag in the Store version of OneNote are both on the backlog. Integration with Planner is in development, but in the meantime you can use Microsoft Flow to bring tasks from Planner or Teams to To-Do, although again, checking the tasks off in To-Do doesn't mark them as complete in Planner yet. You can also use Flow to create new tasks using triggers from Gmail, Google Calendar, HipChat and other services that work with Flow, but you currently have to be using To-Do with a work (or school) account, not a personal account. If you want to assign dates to To-Do tasks, you'll need to be familiar with using Flow as you need to use variables to calculate the date.

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