Paying bills. Organizing the house. Emailing that resume. Completing that term paper. The mountain of things that need to be done for work, school, or play can be overwhelming. In the days before computers, you might have used a pen and paper, a braille writer, or sticky notes to keep track of things that needed to be done. And while those are still all perfectly valid ways of organizing the things you need to do in your life, modern technology and smartphones have opened up a plethora of new options for managing your tasks and responsibilities.
At its core, a task management app lets you create and manage a list of things that need to be done. You can add, edit, delete, and mark as completed the tasks on the list. It sounds simple, but moving from sticky notes to an app can really help to boost your productivity. There are literally hundreds of these apps and they come in all shapes and sizes, from simple programs that only let you add and delete notes to complex feature-loaded systems that offer a lot of features and power but may be harder to learn.
This article reviews three popular apps that all satisfied three key metrics: they needed to work on computers and mobile devices, be available for free, and, of course, have a good amount of support for access technology. Microsoft To Do, Google Tasks, and Trello are each available for iOS and Android devices and also can be accessed using a web interface.
Microsoft To Do
Microsoft To Do is the successor to a popular task manager called Wunderlist, an app they purchased in 2015. In September, the app was refreshed and the latest versions now include well-thought-out accessibility support. In addition to mobile, To Do is also available from the Microsoft Store as a free Windows 10 app as well as on the Mac. You'll need a free Microsoft account, which you may have already set up when installing Windows. If you use Skype, Outlook, or Office 365, then you can use the same account information for this app.
To Do groups your tasks into lists, including a few "smart lists," which are automatically generated (more on that in a minute). Start by using the New List button to create a new list, such as "Bills to Pay." Then, you can add an item simply by selecting the New Task button and typing in your entry. If you are using the Windows 10 app, you can press Ctrl + N to create a new task. Keyboard shortcuts are available for other commonly used commands.
Several features allow you to do more with the tasks you have added. You can set a due date for a task either by choosing a preset such as tomorrow or next week, or by selecting a date from a calendar. You can mark a task as important, which will place the task in your Important Tasks smart list. If you have a file that should be associated with a task, such as an article you need to edit, you can attach it to the task.
Some chores require a bit more than one line of text to convey. You may want to break up a complex task into multiple steps. For instance, if you had a task of "Clean the House,” you may want to include notes about doing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, or organizing the closets. To Do lets you add steps to tasks so you can track a larger project. You can mark each step as complete at the appropriate time and gain a quick view of your progress and what still needs to be done.
You can also share a list with a family member or coworker. Using the house-cleaning chore above, imagine several family members who are at home at various times. If everyone had access to this list, then they could mark their part of the task as complete when they have finished. You can also assign tasks to specific people, though it is not possible to assign a specific step from a task to a person.
To Do also integrates seamlessly with some of Microsoft's other apps. You can view your tasks from Microsoft Outlook, ask for information from the Cortana assistant, or pin tasks to your Start Menu using Live Tiles. Users with low vision may appreciate the support of dark mode, a contrast feature that many say is easier on the eyes. And I'm happy to say that To Do is one of the most accessible Microsoft Store apps for Windows 10, proving that creating accessible apps for Windows 10 is now entirely possible. The iOS app makes extensive use of VoiceOver's custom actions feature, which allows you to swipe down with one finger on a task and quickly mark it as completed or perform other actions. The Android app is well-labeled and easy to use as well, though I wish that support for TalkBack's custom actions was included.
To be honest, I had forgotten about the existence of Google Tasks until it came up in a recent app search. Google's task management apps have gone through several iterations, but it seems that they are now putting some effort into creating a very simple and convenient task management system.
Google Tasks is the simplest of the three apps reviewed here, but that can work to your benefit. You can access tasks through dedicated mobile apps for Android and iOS, or through tabs on the Google Calendar and modern Gmail web interfaces. This tight integration may make Tasks appealing for some. To start Tasks, download one of the mobile apps or go to Google Calendar on the web and log in with your Google account. If you have ever used Gmail or other Google services, then you already have one of these accounts.
Google will put all of your tasks in a single list by default, though you can create new lists if you would like. Each task includes a title and an optional description, and can also include a date. You can create subtasks under a task to split up larger projects, similar to the steps feature in Microsoft To Do. Google Tasks currently does not offer sharing or file attachment features. Google's aim appears to be a no-frills app that just works and meets most basic needs.
Where Google Tasks excels is in its integration with other Google products, especially Gmail. If you are reading an email message, you can select an option to create a task directly from the email. This will create the task with a link to the original message. Tasks also integrates tightly with Google Calendar, making it simple to sync tasks with deadlines to your calendar simply by adding a date to the task.
Tasks supports accessibility features on smartphones and the Web. If you are looking for a clutter-free experience, the mobile apps will put your tasks front and center. Since Tasks on the Web is a part of Calendar and Gmail, some might find this a bit more confusing to navigate. Still, Google has included a variety of keyboard shortcuts in its Web apps, making them easier to use.
Trello is a much more advanced task management system than the others listed above, but we include it largely because it is one of the most popular task management systems used by businesses. While it is typically used by teams to manage projects, personal users may benefit as well. Trello's learning curve comes from its flexibility, though in reality it offers many of the same features as other task apps. You can get started by creating a free account on their website.
Trello organizes tasks into what they call boards. If you are just starting out, you can use one board for all of your tasks. Each board can include any number of lists. Each individual task in Trello is called a card, and can be added to one of your lists.
Each card includes a title as well as a description field with plenty of room to write as many details as needed. You can add a due date to a card so you know when the task needs to be completed.
Trello is designed for collaboration, allowing you to assign cards to other members of your team for tasks they need to complete. Each card comes with a comments area where you can talk to others, tag team members, or ask questions.
Trello also integrates with other apps such as Google Calendar, Slack, or Dropbox with what they call Power-Ups. For instance, you can have all of your tasks posted to a Slack channel so others can stay up-to-date or follow comments. Or integrate files from a Google Drive into your task. The free Trello plan allows for one Power-Up, while paid plans unlock more.
Trello works best on its mobile apps, though the screen can sometimes become a bit busy with lots of lists and cards being displayed. Elements are labeled, and once you get the hang of it, it is easy to track and manage tasks. The Web interface, while not perfect, allows for management of most items. A few small things, such as marking checklist items as completed, do not appear to work on the Website version.
Whether you are just looking for a simple way to keep track of the grocery list or a complex solution to manage a team of employees, one of these task management systems may be just what the doctor ordered. Using a task manager can boost productivity and make life easier to manage, whether you're in school, working fulltime, or controlling chaos around the house.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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