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Simple Task Management – Using Paper, Things or Microsoft Word

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To Do List

Managing our tasks lists (to-do lists) is one of those things that everyone knows they should do but seldom do. A lot of the time, this is because of the perceived complexity of task management – how to decide what should be due when, or what is more important in the given moment.

Here are three simple ways to manage your task list. These are all systems that I have personally used, and simple systems that I would recommend to anyone who doesn’t need a full-featured task manager like OmniFocus.

What is a Task

There are a number of ways to define tasks. Most simply, it is an actionable item that needs to be done in the present moment, or at a later date. By exclusion, a task is something that you have to do that doesn’t occupy a specific time slot on your schedule.

It is important to not confuse tasks and information. The act of filing information or organizing it is a task, but the information itself is not.

An interesting aside is that our ability to describe tasks has evolved quite significantly over the last decade or so. What used to be single-sentence descriptions in numerically ordered lists have become much more. Thanks to the influence (and popularity) of organizational systems such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done, we now have the ability to describe tasks in terms of the projects they belong to, the contexts they sit in, as well as the actions they encapsulate. This way of looking at tasks has allowed us to increase the amount of traceability in our to-do lists, and to see the relationship of individual actions to our different goals and parts of our lives.

Why Task Management

Task management is important. If for the simple reason that success in this world (however you wish to define it) seems to be the result of knowing what you want then directing action towards it. And without a clear list of tasks, there can be no directed action.

At the most basic level, tasks allow you to put down on paper the ideas and thoughts you have floating in your mind. We all have thoughts and ideas that in the moment we think are fantastic, and tell ourselves “I’ll remember that later”. Well, maybe you will, and maybe you won’t. Writing them down and turning them into actionable items guarantees that you will.

Having actionable items down on paper also allows us to utilize our organizational skills to decide what’s important and what isn’t. Is watching reruns of Lost more important, or is doing your laundry?

Actively managed tasks lists also create a certain degree of accountability in ourselves. It very clearly indicates where we have fallen short in terms of directed action, and is a good (if somewhat pressure-free) wakeup call to get more done.

A Simple Rule

From Getting Things Done:

“If it takes less than 2 minutes to do it, do it now.”

If you think of something to do and it takes less than 2 minutes to handle, do it now. Don’t put it on your task list.

Task Hierarchy

This is the most complex part of this guide. Most people have different ways of organizing the different parts of their lives, but the one that I have seen the most often and found the most useful is the division of life into:

  • Health
  • Wealth (including career)
  • Relationships (friends, family, significant other)
  • General Happiness (catchall for everything else)

It would therefore make sense for our tasks to fall into these categories too. Sure, there will be the everyday mundane that doesn’t really sit inside that hierarchy. Things like going to the bank, doing the laundry, doing the grocery shopping. For this reason, I also recommend a general “Everyday” category for such things.

Now for some people this is too structured. In which case I would recommend:

  • Projects: personal projects you have that you want to complete, like redecorating the living room, cleaning out the garage, or finishing a certain book.
  • Events: e.g., planning a dinner party, organizing a family trip out of town.
  • General Errands: same as the “Everyday” list above.
  • Things For Later: ideas that you want to revisit one day, just not at the moment.

Pen and Paper Task Management

Pen and paper is the simplest form of task management, and the one that most people use (to varying degrees). The biggest problem with pen and paper is actually that most people start to develop a great task management system, then they stop using it or maintaining it due to the busyness of their lives.

The benefits of paper are many. It is very simple – you don’t need any complicated or expensive equipment, and it’s something you could easily teach to your mom/dad/family or any non-technically-inclined friends.

That’s not to say there aren’t downsides compared to other task management systems, the biggest probably being that you have to copy tasks over to the next day every single day to maintain a functioning system.

With that out of the way, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Paper. Preferably in the form of a notebook (I recommend letter or A4 size).
  • Post-it notes.
  • At least 2 different colored pens – one for writing, one for highlighting.

Getting this system started is straightforward. Sit down, and take the time to write down everything on your mind. Write down all the things you have to do, all the random thoughts you have – everything. Grocery shopping for this week? Write it down. Doctor’s appointment in 2 weeks? Write it down. Call Jean back about that party next week? Write it down.

You should end up with a large list of unorganized thoughts and actions the first time you do this. Now you need to sort. In general, there will be three types of items you have listed: tasks, appointments and information.

You want to separate these out. Appointments will go in your schedule or calendar (we have a great piece about that here). Information should technically go into your personal wiki, but if we’re being simple here, transfer it to another notebook for the time being. Tasks are what you want to focus on for now.

Taking this list of tasks, start ordering them – start at 1, and go through to x, where x is the number of items on your list.

There’s no real need for categories with a paper system, it just tends to complicate things. You may find that certain tasks group together well around events or projects, and if they do you can list them that way.

Now that you have your initial list of tasks, it’s time to learn how to use the system effectively. You’ll have two lists: an “immediate action” list, and an “everything else” list.

At the start of every day, pick a new page in your workbook, put down today’s date, and list down all the “immediate action” items on your task list. These are tasks that are due today, or overdue, or will be completed in the next couple of days. Usually about 5 items is right for most people. All the other tasks, should sit in a separate notebook or in a page at the back of your notebook – we’ll come back to this second list later.

Now as you start your day, look at task number one, and start doing it until it’s done. Then onto task number two, and three and so on…

As you complete each task, tick it off or cross it out using a different colored pen. You can also reorganize the order of tasks on-the-fly if necessary.

At the end of every day, transfer everything left over to the next day. Now is also the time to take a look at that second “everything else” list, and see what needs to brought into your “immediate action” list for the next day.

If you have random thoughts or ideas during the day, grab a post-it and write it down. At the end of the day, the content of these post-its should either go into your “immediate action” list or “everything else” list – the post-its themselves should go in the bin.

As an example, here’s my own task list on pen and paper:

Paper Task List 11/09/2010

Paper Task List 11/09/2010

Paper Task List (everything else) 11/09/2010

Paper Task List (everything else) 11/09/2010

Notepad, Textedit or Microsoft Word Task Management

Digital text or what I like to call “Microsoft Word Task Management” is the next logical step towards more easily automating and managing your task list.

It is essentially the same as pen and paper task management, except everything is stored as files on your computer rather than in a notebook. This system is best used in an office environment, and where you don’t have the ability to mix your business and personal tasks together onto one list.

Starting to use the system is the same as with pen and paper – begin by typing out everything you have on your mind. Sort out the appointments and information, and the organize the remaining tasks into a hierarchical order.

You will likely want to use categories here, especially in a workplace where things are completed based on projects.

Using the system is a little different.

You will have one new document per each day. The filename should be something like tasklist-20101012.doc. This document will have both your task list (at the top), and at the bottom, it should have your “everything else” list – your items for later action.

At the beginning of each day, sort your tasks into relevant order (under projects if necessary) and begin working through them. At the end of each day, use the “save as” function to create a file with the next day’s date. As with pen and paper, move items into or out of the “everything else” section as necessary. Any random notes and ideas you accumulate throughout the day should go at the bottom in the “everything else” section.

While this system works best in the workplace, you can adopt it for personal use at home. Simply replace your work projects with a list of your personal projects, events and errands.

Here are some example text documents showing the progression of tasks over a few days, and how the system is used to manage them.

Word Task List 11/09/2010

Word Task List 11/10/2010

Word Task List 11/11/2010

Things (for Mac) Task Management

Of the three systems that have been outlined here, Things (for Mac only – if you’re on Windows, I recommend starting with the digital text system above, there are no equivalent programs on a Windows platform yet), is the most complex yet the most elegant. It’s also my recommended choice for learning how to use tasks to boost your personal productivity.

Things has a distinct hierarchy built into the software. There are:

  • Tasks.
  • Projects.
  • Areas of Responsibility.

These should equivocate to:

  • Tasks – individual actions.
  • Projects – sets of tasks that have a finite limit. i.e., after a certain number of tasks, the project can be considered complete.
  • Areas of Responsibility – ongoing activities that are never complete.

If we look back on our task hierarchy, we see that Areas of Responsibility match up well to the areas of Health, Wealth, Relationships and General Happiness. They also serve well as a “Things for Later” list and an “Everyday” list.

If you use Things, it is highly recommended that you use this particular hierarchy. If you choose instead to go organize around personal projects and events, that is also possible. You will likely not use Areas of Responsibility in that case, except for your “Things for Later” and “Everyday” lists.

As with the prior two systems, begin by collecting all your thoughts and actionable items in one place. In Things, this is called the Inbox and can be found at the top of the sidebar.

Things Inbox View

Things Inbox View

The next step is to establish your task hierarchy. Everyone should create an “Everyday/Errands” Area of Responsibility. The “for later” area found in the prior two systems is replaced in Things by the “Someday” list.

If you choose to use structured categories, set them up too:

Things Sidebar

Things Sidebar

If not, then you will create appropriate projects as you sort the tasks now collected in your inbox, which is the next step.

Take each of the tasks in your Inbox, and put them into projects as necessary, and put those projects (or tasks) into the appropriate Areas of Responsibility.

One of the great benefits of a task manager like Things is that you can due dates to individual tasks (and projects) in a useable fashion. So, be sure to assign due dates, and appropriate notes and tags to each of tasks as necessary. As a general rule, it is best to have a due date for every task.

Using this system is as deceptively simple. Use the different views in Things to see your tasks through different perspectives and filters.

The Today view lets you see everything immediately due – similar to the “immediate actions” lists from the pen and paper and digital text systems.

Things Today View

Things Today View

The Next view lets you see the next available actions across each of your projects.

Things Next View

Things Next View

The Scheduled view lets you see items set to start at a later date.

Things Scheduled View

Things Scheduled View

The Someday view lets you see items that are actionable later.

Things Someday View

Things Someday View

I suggest starting with the Today or Next views at the beginning of the day, and switching back and forth as necessary. As you complete a task, simply check it off your list (you can always review what you’ve completed in the Logbook).

At the end of each day, review what you’ve done in the Logbook, then look at the Someday and Inbox views and move items into projects as necessary.

Any thoughts or ideas you collect during the day should go into the Things Inbox, for categorization at the end of each day.

The main benefit of using a dedicated task manager like Things is that there’s no need to create a new list for each day – the list is always active, and automatically carries onto the next day. The other big benefit is the ability to synchronize with your iPhone and have your task list on-the-go all the time.

In Closing

All these task management systems are easy to use and apply with a tiny bit of effort. They are all built on solid principles that should be in every task management system, namely:

  • Easy to maintain.
  • Sequential order of tasks.
  • Ability to capture new tasks.
  • Recognizing that not everything is immediately actionable.

You can start with these and make them as simple or complex as you like.

Next Actions

Pick a system and start using it. If you find it helpful, share it with your friends and family – everyone can be better organized!

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim February 24, 2011 at 4:35PM

Great article!!

Reply

AE Thanh February 25, 2011 at 5:25AM

Thanks for the love Jim!

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Zach Aletheia April 12, 2011 at 4:21AM

Any possibility on doing a web based task manager in addition to things for us non-mac people?

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AE Thanh April 12, 2011 at 2:56PM

Yes we do have at it in the planning, but not in the short future.

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Philippe Demoulin January 2, 2012 at 7:06AM

They are tons of Web based tasks managements: http://zenhabits.net/massive-gtd-resource-list/
Among them: RememberTheMilk, Todoist, Nozbe, Producteev
The great disavantage of apps is that you need your machine to process your tasks.
In my case, combining Web based Producteev and Evernote (as my brain repository) I can process my tasks whatever is the platform I’m currently on: my home Mac, my W7 office PC, my mobile iPad tool

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Niko Apostolidis September 30, 2011 at 12:11PM

I have worked with multiple offline and online task management software.  In the end I went with textpad++ for windows and gedit for Linux.  Text files that are opened in tabs.  Each tab is GTD based, I have a Next Actions tab, ordered by priority and then by date, a Waiting tab ordered the same way, a Someday tab and also I have a tab for each of my employees so I can keep track of their tasks as well.

I like having tabs over one big document because I can quickly get to where I need.  For example on Monday I will go through my waiting list and ping everyone I am waiting on for a response

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Thanh Pham October 1, 2011 at 6:56AM

That’s a very creative solution for people who like to use text files. Thanks for sharing that Niko.

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Philippe Demoulin January 2, 2012 at 6:51AM

Great article, especially the us of text files. On the other hand, Word is not, I guess, a suitable light tool for doing this: like using a Hummer to go shopping downtown !

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AE Aaron January 2, 2012 at 11:39PM

I hear you Philippe. I used Word as my task manager when I was working in a restricted office environment – I couldn’t bring in my own software and it was pre-smartphone days. I used Word mainly because I could colour-code tasks and bold certain things. That being said, text is more than enough for most people!

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OuviDizerQue June 7, 2012 at 6:25AM

GREAT BLOG! Love it and its content!!!

Although a bit late from my side, but just to add another task list manager to the list, one that I quite enjoy to work with: Wunderlist…and if you want to go a step further (less simple), wunderkit.

Regards,
AC
twitter: @ouvidizerque

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Thanh Pham June 9, 2012 at 3:33AM

Thanks for sharing. We will have a look at those programs – we have heard a lot about them but never tried them out. We love Omnifocus though.

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Mahi May 5, 2013 at 6:05AM

I started using Wunderlist since version 2.0 came out earlier this year. It’s one of the most elegant pieces of software I’ve worked with so far. Highly recommended!

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Carmen June 25, 2012 at 7:38PM

I have enjoyed your posts and videos on email. I am wondering if Evernote is similar to Omnifocus and what you think of it? I have used it to list tasks and like the program but I do not think it interfaces automatically to add to do’s from email. Thanks for your content!

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Thanh Pham June 26, 2012 at 12:30AM

Hi Carmen,

We have written about using Evernote and Omnifocus together which you can find here:
http://www.asianefficiency.com/task-management/omnifocus-and-evernote/

The summary of it is that we like to use Omnifocus as our primary task manager and Evernote as a reference library. If you want to have tasks created out of emails, you can do that with Omnifocus. It does take some tweaking but it’s feasible.

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Robert Miles July 12, 2012 at 7:32AM

Sometimes there are moments when pen and paper are really irreplaceable. But more often I use special tools like Comindware tracker or task management software. Especially when it has great feature such as real time reporting or integration with MS Outlook.

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Simon October 10, 2012 at 4:05AM

Great article, thanks. I am trying to make a decision about whether to purchase OmniFocus or Things for use on my iPad. I see you use both, albeit on different devices, and wondered if you could share your thoughts on which is better?

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Thanh Pham October 10, 2012 at 9:20PM

Hi Simon,

We are power users of OmniFocus and find Things too simplistic. For some people simplicity is key whereas others want more control. I think that factor really determines which software you should use. Do you want to have a lot of control and are you willing to invest time in learning how to use a program? If so, OmniFocus. Otherwise, go for Things.

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Anna October 22, 2012 at 5:14AM

Hi, good article! I have been using Things for a long time, too. But then I switched to The Hit List, which I liked much better because of smart lists and better shortcuts.

Now I’m using ThunderTask at http://thundertask.com/ which is very cool, because I can access all my task from everywhere which was not possible with desktop based software.

Maybe you could make a post about web based task management tools? I’m sure a lot of people use these tools.

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Thanh Pham October 22, 2012 at 3:11PM

Great idea Anna! I’ve added it to our ideas list. Thank you!

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Robbie R. May 4, 2013 at 10:35AM

Great read! Thanks.

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S Hatcher September 23, 2013 at 5:52PM

Thank you for the article. I appreciate the concise style, and am happy to see the authour active in the comments as well. There are, however, some grammatical errors.

I was a bit confused when I came upon the ‘Things’ tutorial. I was confused by the endorsement of the ‘due date’ feature. One of the earlier points – one which resonated with me in trying to create a system of organization – was the lack of time associated with tasks. In your article describing the use of calendars alongside task lists you emphasized that tasks should be time-neutral, and those things that have a ‘due date’ really do belong on a dedicated calendar. This seems to benefit both the calendar and the task list in the end.

For my purposes, I am going to adhere strictly to the ‘no-due-date’ idea in a task list. Once a task attains a due date, it will be promptly taken to the calendar, which is a beast I take far more seriously.

I really appreciate your website’s content. Thanks.

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Munro Murdock October 24, 2013 at 4:11PM

Great article. I have used Things for years, but recently switched over to Asana, which seems to offer a lot of versatility and seamless integration between mobile and computer applications. It is also free and works for teams up to 15 people I believe.

My biggest challenge with task management has been effectively organizing all the tasks in such a way that I can be productive in getting them done. More often than not I find that I’m adding endless tasks that I would like to complete, but not getting as much done at the end of the day as I would like to. This is a work in progress, as I know it is with everyone.

I’ll test your methods of organizing tasks to see if that helps me to focus in better, rather than having a larger number of categories and projects.

I would be curious if anyone has used Things and then tried out Asana and, if so, what insights you might be able to share as to some best methods for utilizing the application most efficiently. Some programs have so many features that it can be easy to get caught up in the ‘creation of tasks’ more so than the ‘completion of tasks’.

Aloha!

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Aaron Lynn November 1, 2013 at 12:33AM

Asana is great. We are currently using it for AE and love it.

Things is also a great application. We’re pretty hardcore about productivity and task management so we personally prefer OmniFocus, but most friends who are getting their feet wet with task management I recommend starting off on Things.

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Tim February 3, 2014 at 9:02AM

great article for starters. i’m not sure how long i use a task management system, but for me it was always like the more complex the system was the more inner resistance built up. now i look always for a simple solution.

in my case the system did change (evolve) with me. everyone has his life structured differently and this structure can change over time. that’s why i think the system has to be flexible.

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CFM March 2, 2014 at 6:43PM

“Things” has grown up well over the years I have been using it. I tend to over-complicate things (and Things) tho. I’ve been following your omnifocus articles to see get a better sense of how tags can be used to advantage rather than obsessiveness. If anyone has any ideas about this to share, I am interested. I would say I tend to use them as contexts. But golly, who is going to sort by 30 tags! I tag by client and type of work, where, what, and sometimes by urgency or importance. I was reading that AE recommended about 8(?) contents. I use projects but have a lot of tasks that are one-up that come in during the day. I use due dates. I do not like “next” because the next morning I get all my todos to review. Every. Day. it’s a minefield! As a reader of zen habits too, and now this agile system, I like to keep the top three lists. Can I be saved from over-complicating my days by tuning up my organizational strategy. (graphic design and publishing work)

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Aaron Lynn March 5, 2014 at 11:56PM

Agree with Things – it’s what I usually recommend to friends when they first get into task management (though most of them end up switching to OmniFocus within 6ish months).

If you have a preset list of tags that could work. But you *have* to limit the number of tags or else it’s going to spiral out of control.

Sounds like there are a lot of layers to your strategy – if you give me something specific I’ll help where I can :)

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Mal March 31, 2014 at 1:04PM

Just recently found you guys, love your site, and you’ve been bookmarked! I’ve also saved this article. Everything is explained so very clearly and confirms for me that I’m on the right track.

When you finally decide to get your life in order, it can be so confusing. But what’s that old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” And that’s what having a system has allowed me to do. I love tech so I tried tons of schtuff before I figured out what worked for me. Right now I use IQTell. So now, when something enters my brain-parts, I can IMMEDIATELY dump it in my system, and use my brain, for, you know, brain stuff. :)

Thanks again for the post. Awesome info-

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