“What task management/to-do list app should I use?”
I get asked this question a lot. Here’s my answer, every time:
“I don’t know.”
There is no shortage of to-do list and task management apps to choose from, no matter the platform you’re using. But that’s not why I’ve never come out and said that any one particular application is the right one.
The reason I’ve always given the answer, “I don’t know” is because there are simply too many workflows that you have to take into account when figuring out what app is going to be the one that will support an individual best. I have no idea how your work style compares to someone else’s. That’s a much greater factor than the fact there are an extraordinary amount of apps out there that can handle to-dos and tasks.
When I get the look that seems to say, “But I thought you were a productivity specialist?” I follow up my standard answer with several more questions:
“What platforms are you using? Do you work primarily on your own or with teams? What have you been using up until now?”
These questions help me get to the root of what needs to be dealt with. The first question lets me narrow down the choices based on hardware limitations. The second question further hones in on whether or not I’d recommend a solution that is best for an individual or for collaborative use. Some handle personal tasks alone (OmniFocus would be a prime example of this in its basic form), some are better at team-based task management (Asana fits the bill here), and some do both well enough to get a recommendation (Todoist comes to mind).
The third question is the real kicker, though. It tells me more about their workflow than the other two questions because it gives me a glimpse of their habits. If they’re using email to manage their tasks, then I have a good idea not only what app to recommend that will pull them out of that habit, but also how they’ve been treating tasks and reference material to date. If they use their calendar to manage their tasks, then I can ease them into an app that has calendar views while also steering them into using their calendar more sparingly (as in, for date-specific agreements with others…or themselves). If they’ve been using a paper planner, then I can work on adjusting and adapting their use of paper so that it is still part of their approach but isn’t hampered by the limits of the medium (in these cases I’ll suggest they try out The Strikethrough System to help them head in that direction).
No matter what the answer to the third question is, I can usually help someone build a productivity path of their own, built on the foundation of the approach they take as opposed to the app they use.
The approach is everything. It’s what allows me to test out multiple apps and not skip a beat. It’s what will let you abandon an app to try something different or improved while lessening the friction during the move. It’s what keeps you on solid footing when your mind starts to wander.
Figuring out what approach works best for you and your workflow (both at the office and at home) is what fosters sustainable productivity. That’s the reason why GTD, Kanban, Agile, The Action Method, The Eisenhower Method, and The Pomodoro Technique have become so popular. Each of these approaches offers something that helps people build trustworthy systems and processes. Many who have been practicing any of these will also take the best traits from various models to create their own systematic approach.
It’s not about the app. It’s about the approach. The app is simply the tool. Much like a carpenter and his hammer, the artist and paintbrush, or the photographer and his camera, the tool will do much more in the hands of a craftsperson. The approach is like the craft. Develop your approach and you’ll be able to figure out which apps will support your needs and which ones won’t. And you won’t be nearly as hesitant to figure that out along the way.
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