Like most people, I’ve been in and out of task management systems for many years. My most recent multi-year stint was with The Bullet Journal Method and while I continue to see value in an analogue system, I’m using TickTick as my task manager of choice.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about making a task manager work for the long term. My failures with task managers in the past have all been directly attributed to a failure in one of these areas.
Your task manager needs to be the first thing you look at all the time, or at least it needs to be the default thing you go to all the time if using a task management system is going to survive life.
Walking into your office to work, open your task manager. I take this seriously enough that with iPadOS 14 (yes I’m running the beta) I have an automation that opens TickTick every day at 0500 so that it’s the first thing I see when I open my iPad to get to work.
The biggest reason I’ve fallen off the task management bandwagon is that I open my email, or something else “urgent” gets in my face and I don’t stick with the plan I set out.
I’ve talked about my Ideal Timeblocking Task Manager because I think it’s pivotal to have your tasks on a calendar if you’re going to stay on track. The problem with tasks not on a calendar is that you regularly end up with 52 things that each take 2 hours to do on a single day. It’s far too easy to commit to too much if you don’t put your tasks on a calendar.
Also, if you don’t have the duration that a task will take on that calendar, you just built a wishlist, not a task list.
I schedule my email time in the day. If I get to an email for a client that’s going to take more than 5 minutes to deal with I put that email in TickTick and schedule it for the next work block with that client.
A few years back I started checking into my hours in light of my planning afternoon on Friday. I found that if I didn’t plan my week upfront then I’d drop around 1/3 of my productivity. Yes, it may take an hour to plan my week which costs between $100-150 USD, but to drop 1/3 of my hours of productivity in a week costs me close to $1000.
I’d rather give up $150 to a planning session than $1000 to being lazy on a Friday.
No plan survives the week. As soon as Monday starts things start to shift around. This week I was supposed to write for a client, but they had website issues and I couldn’t do the work. I had 3 hours planned for the work. Instead of attempting to struggle through it, I documented the problem and sent off a support request. Then I moved all the writing tasks 2 days later and took the tasks from Thursday and moved them into the now vacant time block.
I replan at the end of every day for about 15 minutes.
In your planning make sure you’re not building wishlists. A wishlist is a list of tasks that you hope to get done if everything goes according to plan, which it never does. I often plan a few work blocks for a single client and only put a single task in the first one and the last one, leaving the middle block unplanned.
Most times the work from block one ends up moving to block two. Then I finish that work and finally move onto block three’s work.
Each day should have at least 30% open time to accommodate your over-eager estimates on how productive you’re going to be.
Another big reason that task managers fail is that you put every single thing in them. Have a list of movies you want to watch, stick it in your task manager. Articles to read, task management FTW!
None of that crap goes in your task manager. Articles to read go into your read it later system (I like DEVONthink). Lists of things to possibly purchase in the future go in an Amazon wishlist. If your list is too big, split it up into different projects or categories.
The only time you put an article or purchase on your list is if it’s something you need to make time to do in the week or if it's a crucial step in a project.
Your task list is not a wishlist.
Finally, the specific tool you use barely matters. I use TickTick. Matt Birchler uses Things 3. The article he linked to talked about Trello.
Notion can work.
OmniFocus is fine.
Todoist looks good to you...then use it.
Don’t change tools because someone recommends something new. The cost of switching to the new system is rarely worth it. Most of the time you’re fooling yourself into thinking you’re being productive because you’re moving tasks around.
Most of the time you feel some big relief in your new task manager because you finally didn’t bother to move a bunch of tasks you were never going to do and should have deleted months ago. You would have got way more done if you simply deleted the tasks the third time you didn’t do them when you said you would.
At the same time, don’t be precious with your tools. Bullet Journal worked for me for years. Then I was getting stuff in my notebook, and stuff in Notion and I had client projects in Github. It was all too scattered.
TickTick let me centralize a bunch of my stuff in a single application.
Some future will probably have me using Things 3 or OmniFocus because how my life works at that time will best suit those tools.
I put together a short video to show you how to Archive Lists in TickTick because I had to search and figure it out.
I use both DEVONthink and Obsidian for my knowledge management. Watch this video to see how I use them both and where the line is that keeps them from fighting
Dang, that’s a bunch of videos, but there is one more.
Today as you read this I just released a full walkthrough of NotePlan 2 for macOS and iPadOS. NotePlan 2 is a cool application that is as close as I’ve seen to a digital Bullet Journal.