From To-do List to Task Management Software
Everbody knows how to write a personal to-do list. But the key feature of modern (online) task managers is this: they allow everyone on the team to see, add, edit, and comment on tasks.
This is crucial for collaboration, no matter if your team is in one place or distributed in remote locations and various time zones. It also makes the task manager a primary team communication tool because it captures so much information about the work at hand.
So the task manager plays a vital role in how teams produce results.
We therefore consider the task manager and the team chat the essentials.
A side note on tools: It’s not so much the tool but the way your team makes use of it and adheres to certain conventions, or even a kind of protocol. That is why this guide is mainly concerned with one level of abstraction above using the specific tool of choice.
If it’s something that can be done …
Let’s start with the most important rule (or convention) here.
If it is something that can be done (aka a task), add it to the to-do list (task manager).
A task (something that can be done) should not be communicated via any other medium:
- Don’t email tasks to people.
- Don’t use instant messages to assign tasks to your teammates.
Always make sure that (mentioned) tasks go on the to-do list. It’s important.
When on a call, in a meeting, or during a video conference, always listen for task that are mentioned in passing. Note them down and add them to the task manager. Never simply hope that someone will pick them up and complete them. It will rarely happen. See our article After the Meeting.
Now let’s look at how to use any task manager or to-do list.
Task Management and Project Management
I would argue that in any creative/building work that is done collaboratively the task manager is one of the top three channels you are using. It is the central place to keep track of what needs to be done, by whom, and when.
The task manager is for tasks. Tasks are things that can be done.
- The task manager is not for sending information your teammates.
- The task manager is not for asking questions and gathering information – unless regarding a specific task (what is called "comments" in Asana).
The Functions of a Task Manager
- The task manager captures all tasks in one place 1 .
- The assignee is automatically informed of (new/incoming) tasks. This happens via an inbox and/or notifications.
- Tasks have a description of some kind and the user can attach or reference other information, e.g. URLs, files, images.
- Comments and questions regarding the task can be handled directly within the task manager. This keeps the conversation right where everything else about that task is found. 2
- Tasks have due dates and/or an assigned priority.
How to Use Your Task Manager or To-do List
Any task manager has certain elements, no matter what "model". In its most simplified form it is a list of things to do, usually in the order or priority they need to be done. Other models are based on production steps (Kanban) where a task can move through those stages (i.e. outline, draft, revision, final version).
Ideally, a task should be formulated as an instruction or assignment:
A task must contain a verb.
Compare the task title “Monthly report” with “Create monthly traffic report from guest posts”.
The latter is more specific and contains a verb.
Task Description or Notes
The task description or notes contain additional information about the task. Continuing with the above example, the description to our example task from above could read:
- use data from Google Analytics
- exclude all traffic from techcrunch.com
- refer to attached doc ‘Meeting notes 12.06.2014' and answer all questions listed there for each report created
In case there is more reference material related to the task, like specific documents, relevant websites (URLs), and so on, add links to these resources in the description/notes.
If your team is using Google Drive or Dropbox, most taks management applications will allow you to attach or link to documents directly.
After the above mentioned recommendation to keep all tasks in one place (and one place only), it‘s also really helpful to attach and link to all information that is neeeded to get the task done right from the task itself. This makes it so much easier to get started and have all related material handy.
All task-related documents have to be linked to / attached from the task.
Screenshots are a kind of attachment that often won’t be worth keeping and therefore be temporarily uploaded to cloud services.
Always assign a task to a teammate the moment you set it up.
In case you are not sure (yet) who is going to be responsible for the task, assign it to yourself for now.
Some task management software provides a functionality to add subtasks to an existing (main) task.
Use subtasks to break up tasks into smaller chunks. This is especially useful for creating a kind of checklist or to assign different parts of the task to different teammates.
Use tags to:
- categorize tasks (“marketing”, "css", "conversion"), or
- label a status ("waiting on").
The task management software will often allow you to search or sort tasks by tags.
Organizing Your Tasks or To-Do List
Going through your list of tasks to prioritize and in order to coordinate your team’s efforts is an important part of project management.
Some Tips on how to prioritze your tasks:
- Focus on not more than 3 to 5 items per day. In Asana, mark them for Today.
- Include time buffers. We always seem to underestimate the time it takes to do something. You might get interrupted or unexpected problems will come up.
- Regularly go through the tasks on your backlog list (e.g. upcoming and later) and move them up to the top.
It’s hugely important to have all tasks in one place. Therefore, we also recommend to habitually transfer tasks from email and other channel to the task manager. ↩
Sometimes it’s enough to add the result of a discussion that took place in team chat as a comment to the respective task. The main thing is: If you access the task via the task manager all the relevant information should be there, so you can get the work done. ↩