With so many task management applications available, selecting and settling on one can be both time-consuming and expensive. Before giving an app serious consideration, I find it helpful to get clear about what I absolutely must have in an application. Here are my five “nonnegotiables” for task management apps.

1. Does it allow for quick and easy capture of new tasks on the fly?
If you are at all familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done model of stress-free productivity, then you know that quickly capturing everything that has your attention, and getting it into a trusted system is critical for success. The more you try to remember something, the more likely you are to forget it. The ability to quickly capture to-do items and hold them for later review and prioritization is key to capturing everything with minimal disruption to your workflow.

2. Does it allow for viewing a single task in multiple contexts using smart lists?
This is a big one. I want to enter a task once, but be able to see it in different smart lists relative to the needs of the moment. For example, take the task “get bread.” I am going to be out of bread in two days, and I need to be reminded to buy more. I want to see this task in at least two different smart lists. I want to see it on my “today” list on the day when I really need to make the purchase, but I also want to see it on my “out and about” list so that if I am out running errands I can see it and stop by the store along the way. Even better, if “get bread” is part of a multi-step project such as hosting a dinner party, I would also want it to appear in the list of all the tasks associated with that project. If one task can appear in multiple contexts, then I can see it when it is relevant to where I am or what I am focusing on at any given moment.

3. Does it allow for easy prioritization and deferment of tasks?
This might seem like a no-brainer, and virtually all task management apps offer this feature, but it bears mentioning. If I have 15 tasks to complete on a given day, I want some way to flag those that, if I do not complete them that day, then the sky will start falling. The rest I can easily defer to another day if needed, but I want the mission critical items to stand out.

4. Does it allow for synchronization across multiple devices in the cloud?
The days of plugging a mobile device into one’s computer, launching synchronization software, and manually updating the information are over. If an app does not have a version for my Mac, my iPhone, and my iPad all with the ability to synchronize automatically in the cloud, then I will not even consider using it. I want to enter the information once, walk away, and view it anywhere or anytime I want.

5. Does it allow archiving of completed tasks?
This might seem counterintuitive, but the ability to archive completed tasks and even restore them to incomplete status can be invaluable. Recurring checklists are an obvious use of this feature, but also recurring projects. For example, every year we host a dinner for major donors. It is a different dinner each year, but many of the tasks to set it up remain the same. If I can recycle this task list each year, and modify it when needed, that is a huge time saver.

I have deliberately avoided mentioning specific apps in this post, as I will have more to say on that topic in the future. Of course, many of the task management apps available today come equipped with other features that are highly useful, but the above are the ones that I rely on constantly, and their absence would defeat the purpose of investing in the software in the first place.

Question: What are some features you consider nonnegotiable in a task management app and why?


Posted by Mark Zobel PhD, CFRE

I help nonprofits accomplish their missions and achieve their visions for a better world through donor-centered fundraising and comprehensive development work.

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