I’ve spent years looking for a task management system that suits my way of working, but I have never found anything that I’ve really been happy with.
Over the years, I’ve tried everything. Text files, Outlook tasks, my own custom database and most of the new fancy web-based systems (Asana, Trello, Wunderlist, etc, etc.)
Nothing really worked perfectly though. I just wanted a list of everything outstanding that I needed to do, both at home and at work.
I had never really sat down and thought about why these systems didn’t work for me. I just spent the time faithfully entering my tasks, ticking them off when done, and trying to make the systems bend to my way of doing things. I was fickle and unfaithful, changing services whenever a newer, shinier one came along. My online accounts lie abandoned, full of half-done tasks. They will probably float around in the cloud for many years to come.
A few weeks ago I had an epiphany. I don’t have a single, discrete list of tasks to do. I have list of lists, and they come in many different forms and from many sources. I was spending too much time converting these items into the format required by whatever task management software I was using at the time.
Not only that, but I only really need task management for work. My home life is simple enough that a few occasional reminders are all I need.
Once I’d realised this, my first attempt at a new system was using Outlook (as I said, I’d tried it before, but mainly for assigning tasks to staff members.) My company is a Microsoft shop, and Outlook is the standard method of communication in the office. It’s also how I receive a lot of my tasks.
I dutifully categorised incoming emails, and flagged them as tasks. I used the Outlook task pane to check on what I needed to do, ticking each item off when complete.
After a week or so of doing this, something still wasn’t right. My task list was getting stale. Items were sitting around undone for far too long. It just wasn’t working.
So I thought I’d have a go at using Evernote. I use it for pretty much everything else (although Springpad has taken over some of its duties – see a future post for detail on that) and it seemed like it might work.
It does. I now have a system of managing my tasks that works for me. Here’s how I do it:
I’ve created an Evernote notebook called “todo”. Every time I get a new task (or list of tasks), I send it to this notebook. Mostly, this is by email. You can find details on emailing notes into Evernote here. I direct it to the correct notebook by appending @todo to the subject line. I also tag my tasks as I send them. This is done by appending #tagname to the subject line. Note that you cannot create new tags this way, they must already exist.
I use the following tags in my todo notebook: now, later and pending. These are pretty much self-explanatory. I will occasionally add tags related to a specific project too.
Mostly, I want to see what I need to do NOW. I achieve this with a saved search, as follows: “notebook: todo tag:now”. This shows me everything I need to do right now. If I’m working on a specific project, I will also add the project tag in there.
When a task is complete, I’ll remove the now, later or pending tag, and add a new one: “completed”. This has the effect of keeping a timeline of all the tasks I’ve finished, and when they were done.
And because it’s all in Evernote, I can access my tasks from any device at any time. Perfect!