Saturday, January 22, 2011

To-Do Task Managers: And then there was One Note

To-do lists are invaluable to coralle the many little actions and requests that invade your day. For years 3M benefitted from my obsession with filling my monitor borders with their sticky reminders. These days however my attention has shifted to the virtual variety. And more specifically to-do lists you can access and sync to any device, any time, on the bus, or in a meeting. Being device agnostic is the key here, you can't rely on being in front of your laptop when you need to add to your list.

This week Microsoft officially became an option to consider for iPhone users out there, offering their OneNote application free temporarily in the App Store. In this post I round up some of the best virtual To-Do task managers out there:

You probably already have OneNote hiding in your Office Suite and blissfully ignore it (I only just discovered a use for InfoPath). Well it's a surprisingly unheralded win for Microsoft, offering the ability to record to-dos in addition to collecting notes, clippings and images, in a central destination that can be synced to the cloud. It shares a lot of similarities to the popular Evernote (without the cool image-to-text features).

  • Desktop User Experience: add notes on the fly, tabbing to add more, in a scrapbook-style paradigm with some useful grouping and selection tools hidden in there.
  • Access on the move: Access from Windows 7, iPhone and via a web browser. No love for the Android users though.
  • Got Office? You're ready to go.
  • iPhone App: The first release is buggy, already a 2.5 star rating, with many experiencing login issues. There is talk of a patch coming soon.
  • iPhone App Limited Functionality: They've taken away some key features from the iPhone that I'd consider must-haves such as being able to color your to-do categories.
  • Features: Microsoft still apply what is a far too feature-bloated 2010 desktop toolbar 'ribbon' for OneNote. Far too many features to filter through to make this app workflow quick.
  • Too Slow: Note taking needs to be fast and simple. The load and sync times on the iPhone app are too long to make it useful.

Remember the Milk started as an Australian (!) startup back in 2004, and has since grown a loyal following for task management. Lifehacker awarded it the best to-do list manager back in '07, does it still have the chops today? Represented by a cow logo, but with a monkey as a mascot, you get that these guys take a somewhat more animated view to this category than most. And yet still manage to produce the most accessible and flexible to-do lists in the market.

  • Submit to-do's from almost anywhere: Covering iPhone and Android devices, you can submit your to-do's from almost anywhere with comprehensive 3rd party integration including Twitter, Gmail and IM.. even SMS. Neat.
  • Simple. The UI is stripped back to the bare necessities, creating a to-do is super quick and they also offer keyboard shortcuts.
  • Cheap: At only $25 for a pro account for a full year how can you resist?
  • Design. This app is due for an overhaul to bring it into 2011. Having a clipart cow on your desktop all day starts to grind up against the beauty of some of the newer players such as Wipee.
  • Free version. You won't get half the Pro's without the paid account, do yourself a favor and spend the 25 clams.

Action Method follows the productivity methods outlined on their blog The 99 Percent, and the book I've recommended here, Make Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky. Targeted toward the creative community, it rethinks the traditional to-do list approach, grouping to-do's into Action Steps, references or backburner items, with some neat filter options such as 'Focus' to bubble up those must-do items.

  • Design: Simple, minimal but well designed, it's a joy to use as you would expect from the Behance crew.
  • Access anywhere: While not as comprehensive in the device support, you can access your list from the web app, desktop app or iPhone app, with efficient syncing between them all.
  • Involve the team: Features are available to delegate tasks to different team members, a powerful option if you can convince the team to take part. And yes, even a tool to 'nag' if those tasks are being ignored.
  • Expensive: While there is a free version up to 50 tasks, you'll need to shell out $12 a month or $99 a year for the full version, which may be a little too expensive for those just entering the to-do list world.
  • Screen real estate: Some may love the big bold boxes that each to-do creates, similar to that of my old 3M post-it's, but others may find this takes up far too much room than a traditional list view on their monitor.
  • Backburner: This area feels underdeveloped, a dumping ground for ideas that don't fit the Action Steps, ideas seem to get lost all together in the long vertical grey list.
What else?

Well, to-do's aren't difficult to develop, so there are many options out there if you need a simple to-do for your desktop. Here's a few that are above the ordinary:
Ta-da : Free from the crew at 37signals

Jott : If you prefer to voice your to-do's this service offers a dial in number, that notates and integrates with service such as Remember the Milk.

And don't write off the traditional pen and paper, post-it's or a plain text file in Notepad, if it's what it takes to help you get things done! Outlook To-Do (and the desktop To-Do for Entourage on Mac) served me well for years. Good luck!