To-do list managers have become incredibly powerful, but they're still distinct from project management. Which type of tool is best for you?
It may not come as a surprise that there are thousands of apps and websites aimed at helping people tame their to-do lists and many of those do much more than simply managing lists.
Myriad task managers now allow you to clip and share documents, set up work chats, and set due dates, among other things.
Those team-friendly features extend the usefulness beyond individuals and make it possible for groups to collaborate.
With all those choices and features available, it can be hard to know which situations call for which kinds of online tools. With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of which tool, task manager or project manager, is best for different situations.
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When to Use a Task List Manager
For individual tasks
Whether you just need a list for your day or week, or you’re combining personal tasks with tasks from a project management tool, the to-do style task manager works well for the individual organization.
This can take the form of something as simple as the reminder apps that come standard with Android and iOS mobile devices, a simple task list like TickTick, or you can kick it up a notch and use “getting things done” type lists like OmniFocus.
The GTD method lets you add a little more detail to your lists, like sub-lists and due dates, so if you have a number of steps that go with each task like organizing meeting participants, your list can reflect those sub-steps.
For one-off projects with a group
If you’re pulling together a one-time event or project and need to work closely with a group of people, chances are you’ll want something that allows you to communicate and share information and tasks easily, but not something as detailed or feature-heavy as a project management tool.
This is where a task manager like Doit, 2Do, or Nozbe can come in handy. You can create a separate list in your to-do list and share it, and features like syncing via Dropbox, color coding project labels, and progress insight make it easy to organize and delegate.
For individual recurring projects
If you’re a sole proprietor or freelancer with recurring projects, for instance, a regular report, article, or website update that varies slightly with each iteration a task manager can be a good tool for keeping track of your progress with each work item.
Whether you create a list and duplicate it each time you restart the project or make separate project lists, tools like Todoist, RememberTheMilk and GoodTask let you keep tabs on your information with color coding.
To augment regular meetings
Say you’re working with a group that meets regularly to plan and execute something like a newsletter or social media strategy. A note app with built-in task management like Evernote can come in handy to trade relevant articles, ideas, and notes without having to exchange multiple emails that then get lost. Once you’re meeting face to face, it’s easy to pull up the app and the information you exchanged.
When to Use a Project Management Tool
For more complex or long-term projects
Sometimes you need to go beyond lists, chats, and reminders. If you’re working on an ongoing or multi-layered project with either an internal or external group, it might be time to step things up to a project management tool. Software like Asana lets project managers share projects with third party groups like clients, vendors, or contractors, as well as smaller groups within a team.
Another popular project manager is Basecamp, which lets you outline and assign tasks, use conversation threads as well as chats, upload and edit files, and set deadlines.
While tools like this would be overkill (and are more expensive) for simpler or short-term tasks, they can really cut down on the chaos that easily multiplies when groups are working on a project with a lot of moving parts, especially the bigger project involves a number of sub-projects.
For projects with multiple steps in a task
The size of your group shouldn’t be the only factor that dictates whether you choose a task manager or a project manager.
Sometimes a project manager is the best choice even for someone working solo or for as few as two people collaborating because the work at hand is made up of tasks that require some back and forth before they’re complete. This could be true of anything from copy to code that requires proofreading, testing, and dialogue before it’s finalized.
A tool like Freedcamp lets you choose how you lay out tasks choose from a list view, sticky note layout, or calendar view and its apps let you add features like a CRM system, more detailed task breakdown, or invoicing.
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If you’re a visual person
Kanban project management tools are a great blend of flexible note taking and detailed task lists that help you see tasks in a more graphic way. The word Kanban means “signboard” in Japanese, and it’s a method developed by an industrial engineer at Toyota to improve efficiency. Now it’s been adopted by several app developers most notably Trello, LeanKit, and KanbanFlow for project management.
These tools let you see your tasks laid out in multiple lists that you can customize (e.g. pending, doing, done). It’s easy to see and edit tasks as they move through the process, which gives these tools a little more punch than a list where a task is simply checked off.
Some Kanban project management tools let you add sub-columns, see your tasks in a calendar view, and use a timer to track your productivity. An event that you’re planning, for instance, can have as many specific lists and tasks as you need to break it into.