My current task management “system”

I’m just taking a moment here to reflect how I manage my to-dos these days. I’m not saying this is a great system. But currently it works for me. I work with three monitors on my desk. In the left monitor I have Firefox open with four tabs open all the time. I switch the monitor on and off, as needed. For times when I’m not at my desk, I have an iPod Touch and an iPad, which form part of the system.

The first open tab in Firefox has Google Calendar in Week view. The calendar contains all appointments, recurrent tasks (such as payments I need to make), and other important tasks that must be done at a particular day and time. It is not for managing small or detailed tasks or tasks that have not been allocated to a time coordinate. All Google Calendar tasks have an automatic alert set up to warn me 10 minutes before the task is due. These also go off on my iPod and my iPad. I can’t miss them.

In the second tab I have a Google Doc/Drive spreadsheet open called “Productivity.” Here I manually log how many Pomodoros I had done each day, how long they’d lasted, and what task I had accomplished (in one word, such as “writing,” “editing” etc.). At the end of the day I add up the Pomodoros to count how many “pure productive hours” (all work time excluding breaks) I had done. I know that I can do roughly 4 “pure hours” of writing a day, and so if I had done less, I push myself to try to achieve that goal. If I’m writing, I also record the word count I had done during each Pomodoro. To time my Pomodoros, I use an iPod app called Repeat Timer.

In the third tab I have WorkFlowy open. It has become an absolute life-saver for me. I was able to consolidate all my other to-do lists that I used to keep in a variety of iPod/web apps before. But WorkFlowy is more than just a to-do manager. It is also a project management tool for me, as it allows me to break down tasks ad infinitum (what’s called a “work breakdown structure” in project management). And it is also an outliner. As a PhD student, many of my tasks are writing-related, and so often a to-do is actually a writing task of some sort. WorkFlowy is an amazingly flexible tool for managing infinitely long lists and infinitely deep hierarchies. And it’s also a note-taking application for me, for taking very short notes. The iPod and iPad apps are particularly helpful for taking notes on the go, and they are synced automatically with the web version.

My fourth tab is a new experiment. I started a project plan in Gingko (which is a very funky horizontal outliner and more), using the month > week > day structure described here. This project plan is purely for planning and tracking the writing of my PhD, and I am planning and recording only the big chunky tasks that I want to accomplish each day. So it could be just one big task, or 3 or 4 smaller tasks, but never more. The point is to have a  bigger picture of my overall project and the bigger daily tasks. Most directly this Gingko “calendar/journal” has replaced Classic Calendar for me for this kind of day-to-day planning and tracking. Classic Calendar is great, but Gingko is somehow more fun to use, and its Markdown code allows me to create checkboxes and cross tasks off, which was not possible in Classic Calendar, and is something I find very satisfying for some reason.

The final piece of my task management jigsaw puzzle is iDoneThis. They send me an automatic email at the end of every day to ask me what I had done today, which gives me an opportunity to reflect on what happened today and take stock of my progress. The email gets converted to a task list on their web-based calendar, which can be downloaded in text form.

Looking at my “system” above, I have just noticed that I seem to be moving more and more towards minimalist, text-based solutions. Other than Google Calendar, all the services I use are black and white or grey, and the content can be exported in basic text form. That should help with archiving the data and making it sure that it remains easily readable for some time to come.

16 thoughts on “My current task management “system”

  1. Workflowy and Ginko seem ideal for any intellectual work, particularly research and writing. For those of us who are outside the USA, however, there is a problem: both are on the cloud, and cloud-based applications, being prey to NSA predations, present a serious, for many unacceptable, security threat, Offline versions would be nice, or perhaps similar applications based in countries that protect privacy (Switzerland? Finland? Germany?) for those fortunates whose traffic avoids US routing and US firms entirely..

    • From my understanding, off-line versions are planned for both WorkFlowy and Gingko. I personally never felt the need with WF, as it syncs each task individually and immediately, and I’ve never seem to have lost connection with the server to notice any problems. Also, the iOS versions do work offline and sync well when you get back online. But with Gingko I did lose a couple of lines once when I lost Internet connection, so offline version would be more pressing.

      As for the privacy issue, that is true for all cloud-based applications and any computer linked to the Internet, so I wouldn’t single out WF and Gingko for that. It’s clearly a trade-off between convenience and complete privacy (if such a thing is at all possible these days).

      • Hi Dr. Andus,

        Thanks for posting about how you’re using Gingko!
        I basically created it to plan & write my own PhD thesis, so I’m glad it’s helping you there as well :)

        I’m sorry you lost a few lines. We’re definitely working on an offline version, and in the meantime have added better notifications for when an edit hasn’t been synced, so you don’t lose it.

        I agree, complete privacy is hardly possible. This “NSA” business is shady, but in practice, why would the NSA care about your personal todo list?

        That said, we ourselves *never* have access to other people’s trees unless they grant it.

        Feel free to get in touch (“Contact Support” via the Gear menu in app), if you have any questions, comments, or specific requests.

        All the best, Dr. Andus,

        • Hi Adriano,

          What a pleasant surprise to hear from you! It’s very nice of you to stop by. I’ve only just began experimenting with Gingko but I’m very impressed with it so far. I plan to blog about it more, once I’ve spent more time with it.

          Actually I’m currently considering trying out your “staircase method,” about which you blogged a couple of days ago. My challenge is not how to write a lot, but how to keep my writing focused and within the bounds of the 10k-word thesis chapter. I was thinking of using Gingko to break the outline of the whole chapter down into parts, sections, and index cards for 500-word chunks (or even down to the paragraph level), and write it like that, to make sure I stay on message and do not write a 20k-word chapter with only half of the intended subject matter addressed…

          What do you think? I’d be interested in your experience and advice on how to use Gingko for planning and writing up the thesis (if you don’t mind responding here or say more about it on your blog).

          Best wishes, and all the best with the Gingko project!

          Dr. Andus

          • Hi Again, Dr. Andus,

            What I did for my thesis, was to determine how long each section needed to be, in terms of percentages. So my intro was 8%, one of my core results 20%, etc. Then I used staircase to build up the sections.

            The reason staircase helps is because the constraints force you to focus. So you need to write the 1st level of the staircase *as if* that’s all the space you had. So if it’s a 5k chapter section, and your staircase is 313, 1250, 5000, you need to write the 313 section as if that’s all the space you had. The rest of the work is just expanding and adding more detail to that 1/16th scale model of your thesis.

            For my physics paper ( I also determined the target counts for each section, but instead of “staircase” is used a checklist (trying to make *assertive statements* such as “Temperature weakens effect therefore ground-state effect” instead of placeholders like “Temperature result”).

            This kind of thing will get easier once we are able to support greater than three levels of depth. (It’s this restriction that requires a little planning ahead in how we organize our work).

            You can see a short video I made a little while ago where describe some of these ideas:

            Let me know if I can help you with anything,

            • Adriano,

              Thank you very much for the detailed explanation. This is exactly the kind of advice I was after. Also thanks for sharing that physics paper.

              The 3-levels limitation is an interesting issue. The first time I encountered Gingko I also thought it would be nice to have unlimited levels. But having just started drafting my thesis structure in Gingko, I actually like the discipline that the 3-level constraint imposes. I almost think an additional 4th level would be more helpful to me personally than unlimited levels, as I could have “abstract > chapters > sections > paragraphs” all on one page. But I’m sure there would be plenty of other users who would disagree with me.

              The other issue with 4+ levels is that I imagine one would still only see 4 or 5 columns at a time in a 22in monitor, so one would need to scroll left or right to see the rest (although I do use 3 monitors, so what am I so worried about? :)

              Anyway, thanks again, and best of luck with this very worthwhile venture!

              Dr. Andus

              • Glad I answered your Q.

                Some of our users seem to be hesitant re: more levels, but I am adamant that the true power of Gingko will only be apparent once we have more (and can, say, share subtrees with others, or “transclude” them onto your tree).

                Yes, the number of columns will be a function of the screensize, though we will need to set a maximum to limit cognitive load (after all, it’s the human mind that gives us our constraints, not the number of available pixels). For use cases like “Gingko for functional programming” many thinner columns might be useful (

                Anyway, I look forward to being surprised with the use cases people come up with :)

                Good luck on your thesis, and thank you for sharing your workflow. It’s always helpful to get a detailed glimpse into other people’s systems.


  2. idoneThis sounds like a good way of logging what you have done that day. I’m assuming it has a search function as I have never used it. But one thing I would say. Unless the person using it is very committed to filling it out. There may be days when the email reminder just gets ignored or perhaps after a while the user completely stops using it. It would be interesting to hear any further thoughts on this software?


    • Yes, you can search it. Regarding commitment, probably different systems or tools work for different people, but for some reason iDoneThis is the only one that has worked for me in compelling me to be disciplined (and no, I have never missed a single entry for a couple of years now). The reason it works for me because it is an email that I receive at 10pm, and all I need to do is hit “reply” and type up a quick list. Before I go to sleep, I check my iPad, I see there is a new email, and I spend 5 min. filling it out. If I’m too tired, I do it the next morning. If I don’t have access to the Internet, it has now disciplined me to take a text note in another iOS app, and I email it to myself, to copy and paste it into the iDoneThis email later on. Also, I’ve set up a separate email account just for iDoneThis, so I can always see that there is one unread email in there. You can also enter or amend tasks on the iDoneThis website, and download the whole archive as a .CSV file.

      • Thanks for the quick and detailed response! This tool does sound of interest and I will give it a try. If you haven’t tried it that is a tool called kanbanflow that I have found really useful for keeping a to do list.

  3. Pingback: Going gung-ho with Gingko, the horizontal outlining app | Dr Andus's toolbox

  4. I would recommend checking out for an online task manager.

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote, and also comes with mobile-web version, and Android and iPhone apps.

    • Hi. My system has changed a bit since then. While I still love Ginkgo and use it for writing and outlining, it turned out to be redundant for this particular system, as I could use WorkFlowy for those tasks, plus I started using Classic Calendar again for additional project tracking on the side.

      I did play around with Gantt charts (MindSystems Amode V2, which is no longer around, and RationalPlan), but I didn’t find they helped me much. Between Google Calendar, WorkFlowy, Classic Calendar and ConnectedText, my project management needs are covered.

      I also stopped using iDoneThis and now I just use a plain text editor (Caret in Chrome OS, saving to Google Drive) to write my diary. But I owe iDoneThis for instilling the discipline in me to write a daily journal.

      I have tried Scrivener but it didn’t click with me. I prefer to write in WriteMonkey and keep my data in ConnectedText and use WorkFlowy, Gingko and others for outlining. I have 3 monitors, so I don’t need everything in one tool.

      • Thank you so much for your update on your system! Yes, I maintain a log on what I do each day, and that’s very helpful in maintaining my perspective and motivation when working on long and complex projects.

        I’m especially interested in checking out ConnectedText and WriteMonkey. I’ve been using Workflowy and am really enjoying that for getting into the “flow” state of my writing. Frank D’s book on Workflowy also includes hacks for how to write in Markdown in Workflowy and make the writing space distraction-free, so I wonder if that’s comparable to what WriteMonkey does. Thanks again!

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