To find out what’s the best task manager and what the must-have features are, first I would briefly refer to David Allen and his definition of a project:
A project is any of your desired outcomes that will require more than one action steps to complete.
It follows that your life is full of projects. You would see projects everywhere: in your office, in your garden, at home, at school. Some with deadlines. Some with uncertain outcomes. Some with fun. And sum with tears.
This project definition brings us to the second definition: actionable vs. non-actionable items.
You should populate your task manager with actionable items only. Everything that’s not actionable goes to a separate bucket like Evernote.
Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of a task manager, let me ask a question: are you willing to pay for the service? Most task managers offer a 30-day trial or some basic functionality, but these would hardly satisfy your needs. That’s why you need to commit yourself to pay for the service. A monthly fee of some 5-10 euros is worth the price: consider it as a lifetime investment.
Are you ready? Let’s see the essential features of the best task manager.
1. Project support
Your task manager must store information at different levels. The project thinking assumes that you create projects for all of your tasks that take more than two steps to complete. Some apps support sub-tasks, some not. Sub-tasks can further structure your data but can be your enemy as well, and hinder that you get things done quickly.
You can further structure your tasks by assigning them to different categories or tags. This helps to batch similar tasks. For example, you could group all your tasks from different projects that need a phone call. When your lunch time is over and you feel tired to jump into deep work, just filter your tasks that need a phone call and get them done.
You can batch your tasks by time (10-minute tasks, deep work), place (home, office, and errands), resources (phone, computer), people (boss, mom, and clients), etc. One of my trickiest categories is the “free-time-do-this-now” label, which I borrowed from Jeff Sanders, author of the book The Free-Time Formula. When I have a little free time, I just consult my list and pick up the item I want.
3. Emailing notes
This is one of the most handsome features that best task managers support. Along with your brand new account, you get a unique email address. All you need to do is to forward your emails to your address to get them pulled into your task manager. That’s the way how (actionable!) emails are turned into tasks.
My advice is that you experiment with the emailing service because some apps won’t support multiple email addresses or some file formats (e.g. ZIP files). I was shocked when I experimented with one of the leading apps―I won’t put the name here―that failed to support emailing some files.
4. Quick add menu
My favorite function of all time. Check out whether your task manager supports quick adds. A quick add menu is a lifesaver when you’re bombarded with tasks and ideas throughout the day.
The most powerful function that I ever happened to experience is Nozbe’s quick add menu: you’re working on an email and an idea just pops into your head. You just press a keyboard shortcut, enter your task into a pop-up window, and continue your work. But it’s not the whole story: right here, you can assign a due date, a project, and a category to your task.
Cloud-based systems give you enormous administrative power. Just imagine that you’re commuting and your mind starts racing: enter your thoughts into your mobile app and empty your head. Your task will await you in your office when you switch on your PC.
There’s a way to connect your task manager with your favorite calendar app, with Evernote, and with your cloud service (OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud). This is when synergy happens: you assign a due date to your task right in your task manager and it appears in your calendar.
7. Offline functionalities
There’re times when you’re offline either intentionally or because you have no other option. It’s worth experimenting with the offline functionalities of your task manager. Most apps support offline work and get your tasks synced when you hit back the online world.
8. Trusted developer
One of the most important aspects of choosing the best task manager is a trusted developer and service. You should look for apps that have been on the market for some time, maybe at least over the last 5+ years.
There’re at least four aspects of a trusted service:
(i) Data protection
It’s a must to get your privacy protected. You’ll fill your system with lots of information from customers to your diet goals.
(ii) Backup service
There’s always a chance that the company running your task manager goes bankrupt or gets integrated into a giant corporation and you have to back up your data. Check out whether there is an option to export your data.
(iii) Reliable customer service
Fully dedicated customer service is a real plus. You can test the loyalty by sending an email request―well, with a real problem―and looking for the answer. The best customer service I’ve ever enjoyed is delivered by Nozbe. Each time I approached the support team with a question, they would contact me with a personal reply within hours, even when they haven’t yet found the answer to the question addressed.
(iv) Added value
Finding the right app takes time and experimentation. But don’t overdo it! It’s so easy to fall into the trap of downloading a new app every single day, then bouncing back to the previous one with mixed feelings―I’ve been there.
Follow your instinct and choose whatever app you want to choose, it really doesn’t matter that much. What matters is that you feel comfortable with your choice and use your task manager to get things done, not for managing things.
Simply put, there’re apps that offer sub-sub-tasks, colorful charts, and reports. On the other end of the spectrum, there’re apps with very simple functionality. You really don’t want to complicate your life and go down the rabbit hole. A mere shopping list won’t suffice, either. It’s best to go with an app that lies in somewhere the middle of the spectrum.
Again, it all depends on whether you want to make your app central to your life. Well, it’s not the app that matters, but the things you’ll get done to transform your life.
Final thoughts on the best task manager
Once you’ve found the best task manager, just stick to it and have it in your pocket wherever you go. A good way to confirm your choice is to pay a one-year fee just to ensure that you won’t quit.
Don’t seek perfection. You can restructure your projects and categories, turn tasks into projects, turn projects into checklists, etc. You’ll likely change gears over the coming months and years.
I suggest that you learn keyboard shortcuts at the very beginning. By using the shortcuts, you’ll be the master and not the slave to your tasks. Shortcuts could have been listed on the must-have function list as well.
At this point, you’re certainly eager to get a list of the apps I suggest: that’s not my goal here, but I made a detailed review on Asana and Nozbe.
Your one takeaway: lay down your own rules as to how many tools you want to experiment with and then stick to it.