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How to Organize Your To Do List

How to Organize Your To Do List

Many of our executive productivity coaching clients come to us because they’ve postponed organizing their to do list for one day (& night!) too many. They decide getting by for one more quarter is not how they want to live. They empower themselves to work with us to make different choices. To live better. To operate from a place of greater daily control.

Task Management Coaching

The productivity coaching sessions typically unfold like this:

  • Gather to dos in one place, separating them from reference notes
  • Determine tool to store tasks
  • Shove tasks into system while defining rules of engagement
  • Practice
  • Reflect & refine
  • Outline daily & weekly review rituals to keep system current
  • Practice
  • Reflect & refine

This post will focus on the determine tool to store tasks piece.

Though the best task management tool or the best task management system isn’t the same for every person, there are basic features we think you should understand about the popular and the unfamiliar choices.

Online Task List Managers

The list of online task management software is long. We’ve chosen to focus on these four task list managers: Outlook Tasks, Wunderlist, Trello, & Things. You’ll find them all summarized and then separately described in greater detail.

Tool Platforms Integration Hierarchy Drop & Drag Distinguishing Quality Price
Outlook Mac & PC Outlook Calendar, Mail, & Contacts Hack sub tasks Yes for PC; no for Mac Seamless integration with Outlook email, calendar, & contacts Buy as part of Microsoft Suite
Wunderlist Web, Mac, iPhone & iPad, Adroid phones & tablets, Kindle Fire, Chromebook, Android, browser ext., Windows phone, & Windows 8 Google Calendar, Outlook Calendar, & iCal Sub tasks built in Yes Beauty & platform versatility Free; premium $4.99/user monthly
Trello Web, Android phones & tablets, iPhone & iPad, Kindle Fire, & Windows 8 email Sub tasks built in, yet not always visible Yes Feels tangible, yet is electronic Free; premium $5/user monthly or $45/user annually
Things Mac, iPhone, iPad, & iPod touch Safari, Messages, Pages, Finder Sub tasks built in Yes Robust functionality & customization; GTD methodology; clean design $49.99 Mac, $9.99 iPhone, $19.99 iPad


Because Microsoft doesn’t, in our opinion, market to us and train us on all the stupendous functionality hidden within their Tasks applications, they don’t have many users. We’re going to explain some of the special features so you can decide if you want to dig in more.

Outlook has different versions for Macs and PCs. Sadly, they’re more different than most of us would like. As frustrating as that can be, they’re both full of surprising functionality that makes minding tasks far easier with less effort. It has a syncing partner in the Reminders app on iPhones and iPads.

The most valuable feature and the reason people are drawn to Outlook’s Tasks is the integration among the different applications of Outlook. Depending on what platform you’re on, you can use an AppleScript or drag a Message to make it the basis for a new Task. You can do this with Appointments, and if you’re on a PC, this versatility extends into Contacts as well and goes in both directions so you can take a Task and use it to create an Appointment or Meeting.

online task list managers outlook

They application allows you not only to categorize things by name by color, but also to hide and unhide them from your view. It could give someone great focus to turn off all but one category. In the Mac version, you’ll also notice Smart Folders exist in the Tasks application. You can get pretty slick with exactly what aliases you send to these always-current windows. Notice the icons illustrating how most of these were created as Tasks, while one was created from a Message. You’ll also see a reminder icon. As well as on task with a recurrence pattern set. You can cleverly title your task as well as add lots of information and attachments into the notes field. You can assign due dates…or not. And this is just a sampling of what can be done.

online task list managers outlook 2

Another useful feature is My Day for Macs which allows you to see Outlook calendar appointments and tasks in one sliver of your screen—even if you don’t have Outlook open. PCs have a similar functionality via the To Do Bar–though Outlook has to be open for it to operate.

Though not as sexy as some of the solo task management applications, Outlook has myriad ways to customize how you see your tasks. You can assign & then view by categories, filter by due date so you only see what’s due today, & many other combinations.

And when you’re on a PC, you can drop and drag tasks into any order you wish. You can even drag from one date to another, and Outlook will automatically make the update for you.

For the last several years I’ve used Outlook Tasks to manage my own heap of responsibilities.

To get started using the tool you likely already have on your computer, consult Michael Linenberger’s book Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook.


online task list managers wunderlist

Wunderlist aggressively produces in across various platforms. It’s available via the web, Mac, iPhone and iPad, Adroid phones and tablets, Kindle Fire, Chromebook, Android, browser etc., Windows phone, and Windows 8, believe it or don’t.

The application allows you to share & collaborate including conversations in their newest free version. You get several pretty backgrounds with their free version. When you upgrade, you get a larger selection of inspiring backgrounds.

online task list managers wunderlist 2

It operates with a real-time sync and excitedly began recently to sync with several calendar programs.

You can create a free account. If you decide you like it & want more flexibility, then you can upgrade to the professional subscription for $4.99/month. They also have a team version with similar per person pricing with centralized billing.

We have a few clients who are loyal Wunderlist users.

To get started, visit their support page.


online task list managers trello

Using one card per task, Trello organizes projects into boards. Borrowed from the programming world, the goal is give you in one glance the knowledge of what’s being worked on, who’s working on what, and where something is in a process.

Trello works on the web, Android phones and tablets, iPhone and iPad, Kindle Fire, and Windows 8.

online task list managers trello 2

Open a card and you can add comments, upload file attachments, create checklists, add labels and due dates, and lots more. You can also invite people to your board.

It’s got sophisticated search, so you’ll never lose a card. It also allows you to create cards and comments via email.

One good thing about it—its basic platform is & will always be free. If you upgrade to their premium service, then it’s $45 annually. For that you get more storage, “power ups” including voting, card aging and calendar, more graphic options, and more.

We have a few clients who are enthusiastic users including the one who introduced us to the tool.

To get started, visit their help page.


online task list managers things

Things is a tool several of my techy/GTD clients use. If you’re a GTDer, you’ll notice David Allen language inherent in this tool.

It has a version for the Mac desktop, the iPod touch, iPads, and iPhones. (Boo hiss say the PCers of the world!)

It’s fairly intuitive, with a Today, Next, Scheduled, Someday, and Projects view built in. Entry is quick, so it encourages you to store everything here & to get it off your mind.

It has integration with email for quicker entry and links back to the original content. There’s a daily review feature built in which could be a key feature for people who struggle with establishing a daily review routine.

online task list managers things 2

With the recent release of Yosemite, Things has a feature similar to My Day in Outlook—only the tasks are smartly on top and more prominent than are the calendar entries. They pack a lot of information in by way of icons & different fonts, yet they keep it clean and tidy.

Things is robust and customizable as all get out, so you can really make it yours.

One of the gripes about it is that you have to pay for it across all your devices. When you consider it’s less than $100 total, I think the functionality and the peace of mind completely outweigh the cost. And you might even be able to get your company to sponsor the purchase.

Our clients who use Things do so with such conviction, it’s contagious.

To get started, visit their support page.

Paper Task Management Systems

From plastic to paper. The list of paper solutions is also long. We’re going to highlight paper systems lesser known than things like  Franklin Planners or Day-At-A-Glance calendars.

Tool Distinguishing Qualities
Hipster PDA Simplicity & ability to prioritize
Systematized Stickies Enhancing current habits & playful
Funnel System Addresses big/little pictures & promotes focus
External Brain Simplicity & ease of use

Hipster PDA

paper task management systems hipster pda

If you Google hipster PDA, you’ll find Merlin Mann, the man behind the phrase. It’s brilliantly simple. Use one half-size index card to record each task. Shuffle the deck into priority order. Strike the card once completed. If you were drawn to Trello, but electronic is not real enough for you, then the hipster PDA might be the fix. Add due dates, time estimates. Assign different colored cards or pens to different meanings. Keep different stacks of cards for different timeframes. For instance, every Friday you could pick out the stack you’ll keep on your desk the following week and then drop the others into a drawer until the following Friday. There’s all sorts of functionality you can build in as a user.

Systematized Stickies

paper task management system desktop reference

Calling all sticky kings and queens. Why not dignify your fondness for stickies with a desktop reference tool like the one pictured? Similar to the hispter pda, use one sticky per task. Organize them into categories that make sense to you. For instance, stage to dos by day of the week. And then discard the stickies as you accomplish things. Better yet, create a giant wall of accomplishments to bask in on a daily basis. (We’ve profiled another sticky system in a past post.)

Funnel System

paper task management systems funnel

A client introduced me to the funnel system. Downloaded from the Pretty Pink Ponies blog, this paper funnel guides you through a weekly big to little picture process to get your priorities straight. The form takes you from the 10K’ weekly to the granular hourly level all on one page. Of course you could build this to be an electronic tool if you were so inclined.

External Brain

paper task management system external brain

The external brain is a system that operates likes your mind on paper. There’s space to list your to dos, a time estimate, a target date, and a space to indicate completion. You’ll likely need a master version–where items you won’t address this week are listed, and a weekly and/or daily version(s). Here’s a to do list sample you can download.

While not comprehensive, we’re hopeful this task management software review and paper task list management roundup is helpful in moving you to a decision to start organizing your to do list today and every day.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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