Efficient Task Management

Efficient task management is an essential component of community workflow management, all the more as standardized organizational structures and procedures for coordinating activities are often lacking in collaborative communities. Before starting with group task management, first the task management for individuals (“to do lists”) needs to be taken care of. Countless task management tools, planner web sites, Personal Information Managers etc. are available. However, task management tool support is not enough. Efficient task management requires some form of task management methodology.

Having tried many approaches, I finally chose David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. It offers the right mix of comprehensive, yet flexible procedures for collecting, processing, organizing, reviewing, and using to do-items.

As to the tools that best support this methodology, I have settled down on the following two, MonkeyGTD and Remember The Milk.

MonkeyGTD

MonkeyGTD is a tool specifically tailored to the GTD methodology. The second version (MonkeyGTD2.1 alpha) is much more powerful than version 1, yet robust enough to be actually used in daily practice. MonkeyGTD itself is built on top of TiddlyWiki, which is characterized as a “reusable non-linear personal web notebook”. One powerful feature of MonkeyGTD (TiddlyWiki) is that it is just a simple html-file which can be read with a Firefox browser. No other software is needed. Another, very useful characteristic is that it is based on the principle of “tiddlers” which can be very easily cross-referenced and searched. Some disadvantages are that it can only be read by Firefox, the file can become very big over time and does not allow for easy separation of data and code (cumbersome with upgrades or reorganization of data), and that it is not a server-based solution, so that file management and synchronization can become tricky.

Remember The Milk

Recently, I have switched back to Remember The Milk, as it deals with many of the disadvantages of MonkeyGTD. It now also has an offline version, which is automatically synced when back online. Furthermore, it allows for very powerful searches based on combinations of tag properties, which can be saved as lists, which are automatically updated from then on (so-called “smart lists”). However, a disadvantage of Remember The Milk, compared to MonkeyGTD, is that it is not dedicated to the GTD methodology. To this purpose, the user has to define and implement a procedure herself. This is not a trivial task, and many different ways of implementing GTD have been proposed, see for example this discussion.

Here is my own procedure, which seems to work and scale fine for me:

  • I use the following 7 listsInbox, Actions, Projects, Someday, Tickler, Waiting, and Sent
    • Inbox contains all my unprocessed to do-s.
    • Actions contains all processed, incomplete to do-s which do not have a due date. With processed, I mean that the items (from the Inbox) have been tagged.
    • Projects contains a list of all project labels. I distinguish between: “neverending” projects, preceded by a ‘_’ (e.g. _admin, _friends, _home, _software);small projects, preceded by p<sequence number> (e.g. p0005: do taxes, p0016: arrange trip); large projects, preceded by p_<project name> (e.g. p_sts: edit STS handbook, p_joci: edit special issue JoCI). Furthermore, I have separate categories for regularly recurring classes of projects, e.g. a_<publication name> for articles I write.
    • Someday contains a list of unprocessed “wild ideas” for future projects.
    • Tickler contains a list of processed, incomplete to do-s which do have a due date. RTM automatically sorts these on date due, and visually indicates when a task is due (bold) or overdue (underline). Furthermore, it can send automatic e-mail or SMS reminders.
    • Waiting contains a list of items requiring action from somebody else before you can proceed working on them.
    • Sent contains a list of to do-s sent to collaborators. I don’t use this list yet, but it is a standard feature of RTM, and is the key to changing RTM from an individual into a group task management solution. I will explore the role of this feature sometime in the future.
  • Each action gets three tags. Two of these identify GTD contexts, one the project to which the action is assigned (using one of the labels from the Projects-list). NB although this latter tag should be sufficient to identify the action, I also precede each action by the same project-label. This automatically sorts, for instance, the Actions-list, so that all actions belonging to the same project are grouped together.
    • The first action tag is one of three: @@low, @@med, @@high, indicating the amount of (mental/physical) energy needed to execute the action. Note that these tags are preceded by two ‘@@’, so that they are always at the top of the tag cloud.
    • The second action tag indicates the physical/work type context: @calls, @online, @home etc.
    • The third action tag describes the project to which the action is assigned: _admin, p_0005, p_sts etc.

This tool plus procedure is the (tentative) result of a many-year personal quest for the holy grail of task management support. It will not be the best solution for everybody (probably not even for myself), but these tips should at least give you some ideas on which to build.

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