What to Look for in Your First Task Management App

There are so many task management applications you could add to your workflow in order to get a better handle on what you need, and want, to get done. In my experience, people that get into the task management space for the first time tend to dive in rather than test the waters first. That’s why they’ll spend money on something like OmniFocus or Things and abandon them because they seem to complicated or they’ll sign up for something like Asana or Evernote thinking that it can handle task management in a manner that is easy to set up and make happen (spoiler alert: it isn’t that easy).

Now I’m not knocking OmniFocus, Asana, or Evernote. It’s just that for the uninitiated — and there are even more of those at the beginning of the year — they appear to unwieldy at first glance. I’m not suggesting you don’t try them, but be prepared for a learning curve that can vary in steepness. Resources like OmniFocus Premium Posts by Asian Efficiency and Brett Kelly’s Evernote Essentials can definitely help with that, but if you want to spend more time working with your stuff and less time working on learning the tools, then you’ll probably want to start with something a little less daunting.

Here’s what you should look for in a task management app if you are adopting one for the first time.

  1. Simplicity. Ideally you want something wth as small a learning curve as possible. Simplicity is subjective, so what is simple to you might not be so simple to another. An easy-to-use user interface and simple to grasp user experience is ideal.
  2. Scalability. More importantly, and often overlooked, is the app’s ability to scale. You want one that can grow with you and your needs, meaning that things like adding contexts to tasks, creating projects, and features of that nature should be “baked in” where possible or the app should be allow you to add them yourself in less conventional ways. For example, putting a colon or dash after a task an adding a context is something you can do that will add value to the task – and the app in the process. At the very best, the app should be able to stand the test of time. At the very least, the app should prepare you for the move to an app that’s more layered in the future.

There are many apps out there, but not many will be very effective for beginners in terms of hitting both simplicity and scaleability. Clear (Mac, iPhone) would be an example of something that is simple, but it doesn’t scale terribly well unless you think outside of normal conventions. Gneo (iOS) is another one. Parts of it are simple but once you start to add the other components that it offers, which are impressive, they tend to confuse the novice to the point of abandonment. Even Wunderlist’s user interface can get in the way of its usefulness.

Below are three of the task management applications that I’ve looked at that I believe offer the best combination of simplicity and scaleability. (Note: Most of these are iOS apps, but at least one has an Android version as well. I’ve indicated what platforms the apps are available for in parentheses. If you feel I’ve missed an app that deserves mention, please let me know in the comments below.)

1. Begin

Ben Brooks introduced me to this app, and I have to say that the team at Applause Code have put together a great to-do list app that will seem very familiar to most newcomers to the space. Ben describes it best over at The Brooks Review, but the way I use it is I’ll do a bit of a brain dump on a specific area of responsibility into Begin and work to get those things done each day. Whatever doesn’t get done gets moved to tomorrow…by the app. The interface is simple and the user interface earns top marks for functionality and looks.

If you’ve got multiple projects on the go, then Begin may not work on its own. And that’s okay. I’ve got OmniFocus and Asana handling the heavier lifting, but Begin allows me to warm up accordingly and keep focused when I don’t want to see everything else I’ve got on the go. If you’ve got an iPhone and have been looking for a to-do list app that marries simplicity and functionality better than anything else on the market, then look no further than Begin. (iPhone)

2. DashPlus

To put it simply, this app is based on a system created by Patrick Rhone. Here’s how the developer’s site describes the app.

DashPlus is an innovative list and ToDo app that introduces actionable items. Simply swipe lines to the right to change their state, and unlock actions where needed. It is based on the eponym system devised by Patrick Rhone: any item of a todo list is actionable. Having used it for years with pen and paper, we are very excited to bring it finally to a digital implementation, on the iPhone.

The beauty of this app (and this system) is that works both digitally and in analog form, so you’ll have a trusted system whether you’ve got your iPhone with you or not. I’d liken this app to be more comprehensive than Begin, but it scales in a way that Begin just doesn’t. I’ll be spending more time with this app in 2014, and you may very well want to as well. (iOS, Paper-based)

3. Any.do

Craig Jarrow, the Time Management Ninja, pointed this app out to me last year at NMX (where I’m headed to this weekend) and while I didn’t find Any.do something i’d want to use over the long-term, I was struck by the gorgeous interface and simplicity of the app. Another feature this app has going for it is that it is more accessible than any of others I’ve mentioned here, with a web-based component and an Android and iPhone version. Any.do is also expanding its reach into the calendar space with Cal and looks to be entering the email arena with its forthcoming Mail app.

The idea that a whole suite of productivity apps is on the horizon and the beauty and simple interface of Any.do makes it an app that covers both requirements of a beginner’s task management app: simplicity and scaleability. That makes it worth looking at for the budding productivityist. (Web-based, iPhone, Android, Chrome Web Store)

If you’re more of a paper person then you might want to give my The Strikethrough System sheets a try (or stick with Patrick Rhone’s analog version of Dash Plus). They walk through the process of capturing, connecting, curating, completing, and even calibrating your tasks back to a more comprehensive system. The sheets walk you through the process of using them, and I find they offer more than a simple to-do list but aren’t as complex as Dave Seah’s Emergent Task Planner.

No matter which way you go (digital or paper-based) or what platform you use (Mac, Windows, Android, iOS), the important thing is to use a task management app of some sort…and for many of you there’s no better time to start doing that than when a new calendar year begins.1

Photo credit: kikashi via SXC.HU

1 That said, I’ve written a book on how you can start the year you want anytime you want in case you find that January isn’t the ideal time to start regularly using a task management app.