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 where you can search and fil­ter by plat­form. These are my top three task man­age­ment tools.


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 —


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 —


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 —

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.


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 —

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 —
ColdTurkey — Win only —

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.

About Chris


  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.