Just about everyone keeps a task list of some sort, or has at some point. To the casual observer, task list management might seems like a simple problem that could be augmented with a little bit of automation for great effect. Fire up your nearest "app store" and I would bet money that you'll find a at least a few developers that have had the same thought.

For such a seemingly simple engineering problem there is an inordinate amount of really bad software. While this might tempt us to reassess the complexity of the task management problem, I don't think this is really true. What happens, I'm convinced, is that people (i.e. cyborgs) make lists of tasks to solve different problems in their realities, and these different lists often require different automation. So while there are 10-20 basic task management applications, the number of distinct usage profiles exceeds that by several times. That's the theory at any rate.


Allowing for large amount of diversity, there are still a few generally useful task list "archetypes" that we can use to characterize how people use task lists. I just want to enumerate them, here for now. I might move them out to another page, and you should feel free to edit the page (it's a wiki!) if you think I've missed anything!

  • Collaboration Facilitation: Teams need systems to keep track of and work on shared issue queues. These are "bug trackers," and are totally essential when items or "issues:" take a significant time to complete, require the effort/input/awareness of multiple people, and need to be created or added by a number of people.
  • Memory Enhancement: People create todo lists when they're working more things than they can comfortably remember at any one time. The lists tend to be ephemeral, the items can be quickly resolved, but we make these lists so we don't have to remember a long list of things while working. Think post-it notes.
  • Obligation Management: These lists bring us close to calendars, but we keep them to make sure we remember to do required tasks. Often these lists are helpful in helping people make sure that they're "caught up," so that they can enjoy and use free time without interruption or nagging.
  • Task Prioritization: When time is limited, a list of tasks is useful in organizing an order, and making use of available time, so that it's possible to keep track of all open tasks, while also being able to allocate effort and time to tasks in a smart way that accounts for available time, importance, and deadlines. The goal is to get the most crucial things done while also never wondering what one could be doing with a few free moments.
  • Progress Tracking: These lists are less to track things todo and more to track have done. When working on a number of long term and short term projects, a list of what's open, what's been finished, along with a status of where things are is useful to avoid loosing track of projects and tasks.

Based on this, I think we can distill a number of overriding qualities of task lists from these five archetypal use cases. That working list is:

  • item granularity,
  • project-level organization,
  • scheduling and deadlines, and
  • use of priority markers. ## Personal Case Studies

When I had an epic commute my issue was that while I had free time, it was all in 20 or 40 minute segments on trains. The challenge was to be organized and focused enough to really use this time. It was early and while I was awake enough to get work done, I wasn't always awake enough to figure out what needed my attention. And I didn't have enough routine minutia or enough other free time to be able to spend these blocks of time doing minutia. I needed a task list that told me what to do and when to do it. I needed Task prioritization with a little obligation management or something close to that. I chopped every task into the smallest actionable items, which is annoying in creative projects and often not very useful, and then scheduled items out so that I could do 6 or so things a day, and anytime I opened the laptop there was a list of things I could jump into. It worked, more or less.

Now, I have free time. I even have a few hours strung together. The issue is less that I need help filling in every little moment with something to do, and more that I have too much that I could be working on, and I need help figuring out what the status is of ongoing projects are and where I ought to things are and what needs my attention the most. Progress tracking, more or less with a little task prioritization but in a very different way than I'd been doing. it. I've got a lot of things, and I need to be able to see where projects, and what needs attention now. I've not figured out the best solution, but I think less scheduling and bigger conceptual task objects is more the way to go.

Does this way of thinking about things make sense to other people?