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 communication tool because it captures so much information about the work at hand.
So the task manager plays an essential role in how teams coordinate and ultimately produce results.
We therefore consider the task manager and the team chat core tools.
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 a kind of protocol. That is why this guide is mainly concerned with a 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 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 send chat 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 or process oriented 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.
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, are connected to projects and maybe milestones, and there can be 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 types are based on production steps (Kanban) where a task item can be moved through defined stages (i.e. outline, draft, revision, final version, publication).
Setting a Task Title
Ideally, a task should be formulated as an instruction or assignment:
A task must contain a verb.
Compare the task titles “Monthly report” and “Create monthly traffic report from guest posts”. The latter is more specific and contains a verb. The inlcusion of a verb also helps to more immediately identify what needs to be done, the activity of that particular task. This proves to be useful when you are looking at a longer list of tasks.
Task Description or Notes
The task description or notes contain additional information about the task. Continuing with the example from above, the description to this task could read:
- use data from Google Analytics
- exclude all traffic from techcrunch.com
- refer to attached doc ‘Meeting notes 2018-06-11’ 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 or notes.
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 useful to attach and link to all information that is neeeded to get the work done right from the task itself.
All task-related documents have to be linked to / attached from the task.
Always assign a task to a teammate the moment you create it.
In case you are not sure (yet) who is going to be responsible for the task, assign it to yourself for now, then communicate, coordiante and assign the responsibility accordingly.
Some task management software provides a functionality to add subtasks, smaller steps, to an existing (main) task.
Use subtasks to break up tasks into smaller bits. This is especially useful when 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, assignee, project, etc.
Organizing Your Individual 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.
- Include time buffers. We tend to underestimate the time it takes to accomplish something. You might get interrupted or unexpected problems will come up.
- Regularly go through the tasks on your backlog list and see what you can updated or clean out.
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. ↩