Getting Things Done: Task Managers, Calendars & Focusing

Productivity can be hard, almost like murder. But there are ways of making things easier, various tools that are accessories to productivity. We have all been there, a ton of things to do, but no idea on where to start or in what order to do things. Plus all the little to-do lists on post-it notes are spread all over the monitor begging for you to do them. What do you do? Welcome back to our Monday series, and after the Friday post I hope you are feeling a little more organised. This post will go through some of the supporting tools for getting things done, specifically task managers, calendars and focusing tools.

Task Managers

whatsnextcatOne of the perennial issues of doing things is knowing what there is to be done. However we humans tend to be fairly rubbish at remembering arbitrary lists, and even when we can they certainly take up cognitive space. This is where the humble to-do list comes into  own, a simple list of tasks that can be ticked off as you go. It relieves cognitive load and helps you remember the groceries. But there are also significant disadvantages with the paper to-do list, while I know many people who still use folded sheets of paper, the tendency is to trend towards more and more sheets of paper. Nevertheless, the humble sheet of paper is an excellent place to start, as for some people it is a perfectly workable solution.

Personally I find having eleventy-billion-and-four pieces of paper jammed in various places a bit unwieldy so I prefer to use a task manager, and I suspect many of you will too. First though some task manger basics. Of course task mangers are only as good as the information you put in them, as with most if not all, pieces of software it is a case of garbage-in leads to garbage-out. Most of the time the best way to work is to put everything into a task manager, be they the little snippets of things you need to do, phone calls that you need to make etc, through to your big projects. However, one important caveat in this realm is that categorisation is king. If you have a bunch of tasks that go together, try to tie them into a single category rather than having them strewn throughout your task manager. Some productivity schemas (GTD I’m looking at you) recommend you put absolutely everything into an inbox and then file them as needed. But I think that logging every minute detail can lead to analysis paralysis, or list-mania, where the maintenance of the list actually takes longer than doing the tasks on it. There is a balance there between logging absolutely everything, and only logging the major things. You want your tasks to be fine grained enough that you don’t forget to call contractors, or get papers written, but not so fine grained that it clogs up with milk and bread. That balance is for you to find. Personally I err on the side of logging more items, but I can tend to be forgetful of minor tasks otherwise.

Onto the tools themselves then, and there are ton of them, both free and paid. Personally I use an app called Things by Cultured Code, but if you have to buy all the separate components of it (desktop, iPhone and iPad) it costs a motza. So there are some free ones as well. Note that this list is relatively heavily Mac focused, although alternatives can always be found. A good site for this is http://alternativeto.net where you can search and filter by platform. These are my top three task management tools.

Things-appThings

Things is my go-to task manager, and I have been using it for a while. I put 99% of my tasks in here, with some shared tasks going into Asana for church. It’s relatively simple and allows for a series of categories (called Projects) to be set up to filter out the tasks as needed. Tasks can be given deadlines, and shifted to the ‘Today’ area when they need to be done. Importantly Things is also a cloud sync-able app and so you can keep your tasks at hand no matter where you are. However, it comes with a hefty price tag, about AU$80 if you buy all three apps retail. It’s excellent at what it does, but the price tag makes me hesitate about recommending it widely. In addition it’s Mac only. If you really want it look for discount codes, and combine those with deals on Apple store gift cards.
Things – Mac only – http://culturedcode.com/things/

Wunderlist-iconWunderlist

The second app on my list is Wunderlist, a competitor to Things. Now Wunderlist was really in its infancy when I came across the super discount codes on Things, and so I went down that path. However, from friends who use Wunderlist regularly it seems to have matured significantly since I last used it, and is a real competitor now. In fact given the sharing capability and cross-platform nature of Wunderlist I would recommend it as a good and mature task manager. Oh did I mention it is free… yeah, thats right, it costs nada. If I had my time around again, and with the benefit of hindsight bias, I would likely have gone with Wunderlist.
Wunderlist – Multi-platform – https://www.wunderlist.com

asana-projectAsana

Asana is really the new kid on the block, but it’s rapidly gaining traction, and it uses a different methodology to the two apps above, being web based rather than in-app.  However, it is aimed squarely at small organisations rather than individuals, and this is where I use it regularly. At an organisational level it has the ability to encompass a wide range of tasking and meeting planning and is exceedingly useful in that capability. On the surface at an individual level it doesn’t offer much more than Things or Wunderlist, but in its delegation and project tracking it really shines. If your task management requirements tend more towards the small office or organisation, then look no further. It is also free for under 15 users in a group.
Asana – Cross-platform – http://asana.com

Now that you have your tasks sorted out it can still be somewhat overwhelming knowing what to do. The best way to start is to simply spend a few minutes at the start of a day looking through the tasks and deciding what is to be done that day. Most task manger allow for a ‘Today’ type function where you can mark them down as needing to be engaged with. Use this wisely, don’t overload yourself with a ton of tasks for the day, but also don’t set your goals too low. Again, the personal balance is up to you.

calendar2Calendars

While many of us keep a diary or calendar, it’s probably worth having a brief note on how important they are. If you don’t already keep track of meetings and other items in a diary or calendar, then I have only one things to say to you: DO IT. Again I know many people who keep this physical, including one good friend who carries a small wall calendar everywhere with him (respect, you know who you are). But if you want to do it digitally then again there are a host of options. Realistically it comes down to three architectures: iCal based, Google based, and Outlook based. Outlook is really only an option if you are already bought into the Microsoft environment, and if you are and it works for you, then use it. iCal (Calendar etc) is tied to the Apple ecosystem and so is restricted there, wheras Google is relatively cross-platform. Either way, use what works for you. The key here is to use it, put your deadlines in the calendar, put birthdays in, everything you need to remember that has a date attached.

Focusing Tools

Finally for this post, before it runs away for another thousand words or so: focusing tools. Now that we have set down the things that need to be done (DARE from last week) and enumerated them in our task manager, we need to do them. As per usual there are a ton of distractions and things that are competing for our time. Briefly though there are a couple of tools that can make the distractions a bit more manageable.

Pomodoro_timerPomodoro Technique (aka How Tomatoes Can Help You Work)

There is a stream of research that shows that many people are best served by working intensely for short periods with a subsequent break. 1 One technique based on this theory is known as the ‘Pomodoro Technique’, based upon working intensely for 25mins (called Pomodori) and interspersed with 5min breaks. Why it is named after the Italian for tomatoes is anyones guess, but the technique works pretty well. Just set a timer for 25mins and then take a 5min break at the end of that. There are few apps that are really useful for doing this, but the one I use regularly is called Eggscellent (more logically named after an egg timer). Again it’s a Mac only app, but there are plenty out there in PC land. Do try the Pomodoro technique, I find it invaluable and really like it.
Eggscellent – Mac only – http://www.eggscellentapp.com

logo-2Self Control (for those who don’t have it)

Finally however, sometimes the temptation of MyFaceSpace, SnapBookTweets and your favourite blog gets all too much. Well if your reserves of self control are running low, then there is a helpful app based solution for you. Essentially it’s canned Self-Control. Basically Self-Control will block certain websites completely and inexorably for as long as you want it to. It is able to be set on a timer, and so is useful in combination with a Pomodoro timer to assist in maintaining focus on the task at hand. It is exceedingly hard to disable in that time (it’s possible, but I won’t tell you how), and so can be valuable when the will is waning. If you are on Windows then Cold Turkey does a very similar job.
Self-Control – Mac only – http://selfcontrolapp.com
ColdTurkey – Win only – http://getcoldturkey.com

There we have it, the first tools in our toolkit. I would encourage you to pick out a favourite task manager and set about laying forth your tasks, start organising your calendar and thinking about the year to come. Perhaps even indulge the Pomodoro Technique as you do this, see how much of that you can get done in one pomodori.

How effective do you find these things? I am interested to know how you work with this part of the toolkit, weigh in below.

Chris

About Chris

Notes:

  1. Tambini, Arielle, Nicholas Ketz, and Lila Davachi. “Enhanced Brain Correlations during Rest Are Related to Memory for Recent Experiences.” Neuron 65, no. 2 (January 28, 2010): 280–90. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2010.01.001.
  • Chris Seglenieks

    I’m using Todoist as my task manager, it’s multi-platform and free for their basic version. It seems to do everything I need it to. It even sends a daily email with a list of tasks scheduled for the day, and a graph of the last week of completed tasks. In contrast to GTD which suggests avoiding scheduling tasks, I find that scheduling specific tasks can be helpful, to give concrete short-term goals, such as what I want to get done on my thesis tomorrow, or this week.

    Rather than using focusing tools, I give myself times when I am allowed to indulge in those distractions – like while I’m on my lunch break. If I know I can do it later, I feel less need to check facebook/read blogs now. I also find rewards help me stay focused longer – whether it be a chocolate bar, or opening a nice bottle of wine, giving myself something to look forward to, particularly when what I’m doing is chipping away at a much bigger task.

    • I haven’t used Todoist, but I’ll have a look at it now that you mention it. Sounds like another good alternative.

      I hear you on the focusing tools, a lot of their use comes down to personality and work styles. However, the more I’m reading about the cognitive processes underpinning the Pomodoro technique the more it makes sense. It isn’t just about focusing, but actually retention and effective integration of material happens better with shorter breaks interspersed through the work, rather than single larger breaks.