Task management, big and small

The stereotypical academic is distracted and keeps forgetting practical, mundane things as brain power is instead directed towards developing those great ideas. That’s why it’s good to put it all in writing. Task management apps are good for sticking away those things you don’t want to forget, but won’t attend to immediately, and for organising your different projects and to do lists.

I use two apps for task management, OmniFocus and SmallTask. Both come in iPad (as well as iPhone) versions, and both sync easily.

OmniFocus is a fairly elaborate task manager, which is good for any project or on going work that isn’t completed in a couple of days and involves parallel processes or relative complexity. I use this to organise and keep track of research projects, writing processes, conference or workshop planning, research administration, and supervision and teaching.

In OmniFocus, the basic structure that helps you organise your tasks consists of folders, projects, and actions.

Folders contain your to do items connected to a particular work process. I have folders for specific research projects, for planning a conference, for organising a workshops, for teaching, and for supervision. I also have some ‘general’ folders related to administration or academic work where I stick things I need to do, but which don’t explicitly belong to any of my other folders in OmniFocus.

Within the folders, you can create projects which act like sub folders. For example, in my conference planning folder, I have separate projects for budgeting, marketing, logistics, review process, web development, and so on. In a research project folder, relevant projects might be literature review, field work, and data sorting and transcription. These are just some examples; exactly which levels you place folders and projects at will depend on how you work.

Within the projects, you then create the actual to-do-lists, called action lists. With each action (item) in the list, you can assign a start date and a due date. The actions display with a check box, so you can tick it off when it’s done. You can also assign the task a context. Contexts can link an action to specific people (create your own list of names), to particular ways of executing an action (’email’, ‘call’, ‘check online’), or to organisational units (‘research group’, ‘planning committee’). You can customise the contexts according to your needs. OmniFocus also has a ‘context mode view’, where your to do items are organised by context, rather than folder or project. In addition, you can sort your actions by due date, date added, name, flagged, duration, as well as other criteria.

In OmniFocus it is also easy to add documents or links that are relevant to your different projects and actions. For example, I might add a pdf file of a draft brochure that I need to get a printing quote for, a link to a web page with phone numbers that I need, a text file with meeting minutes, or a power point presentation or a draft article that have been circulated for comments.

The iPad version has a clean and easy to use interface, and a lot of the functionality and sorting mechanisms of its mac counterpart. The two sync easily; after the initial set up, all you need to do is to press the sync icon to make the two versions identical.

From my perspective, the key advantages of OmniFocus are the ability to create hierarchical and thematically organised to do lists, to easily associate them with particular people, files, or locations, the range of sorting criteria, and the convenient sync features with iPad. The main thing I’m missing is integration with iCal, which unfortunately is missing if you run Mountain Lion.

However, with all its elaborate features, OmniFocus can sometimes be a bit overkill. Then I switch to SmallTask.

SmallTask is a simple app with a clean and elegant user interface. This is where I typically stick things that I want to get off my mind at the end of the day, usually a brief list of the things I should be attending to the next day or more ‘random’ to-do items that are relatively quick to execute.

SmallTask doesn’t come with many features, but it’s the simplicity of the app that makes it attractive – it’s a sleek and simple to do list, with due dates as the only added feature. It syncs seamlessly via DropBox, and you can also set it up to sync with iCloud. This is what it looks like on a mac:

Screen shot of SmallTask for mac

Click the ‘add task’ button to add a task and assign it a due date, mark a task and press cmd + back space to delete it. That’s pretty much all there is to it. The iPad version has a very similar user interface.

I like task managers. They clear up my brain space, and they’re good for dumping and organising all the things I need to do. With these two being so easy to sync, I can add items on the go if I remember something I should take care of while I’m sitting on the underground or as I’m having my morning coffee. For my purposes, SmallTask and OmniFocus complement each other quite well.

Have any task managers to recommend for mac or iPad? Leave a message in the comments area!


About macademise

I am a researcher working in the intersection of anthropology, learning and cognition.
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4 Responses to Task management, big and small

  1. Alex says:

    You may also try using OmniFocus in conjunction with TaskPaper. TaskPaper has an advantage of being a plain text file. Check this article for more info http://blog.macademic.org/2012/09/08/when-there-is-no-time-for-omnifocus-taskpaper/

  2. Pingback: Academic workflows: when to use what, and how | Macademise

  3. Dan says:

    I would recommend checking out Gtdagenda for an online GTD manager.

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote, and also comes with mobile-web version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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