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There are a seemingly-endless variety of tools available for keeping track of tasks. From feature-clogged behemoths that will do everything (tracking time and generating Gantt charts) to the venerable pen and paper, it seems that no matter what feature I might want, someone has a product that will provide me with it.

So... What do I want? As someone interested in maximizing my personal productivity, both at work and in my home life, what should I be looking for as a core set of features in such a tool?

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Several factors impact the effectiveness of task-management tools for your circumstances.

The features that you need, and which of their qualities are of most importance to you, are heavily dependent on your circumstances and the tasks you're looking to manage with said software.

Issues related to your circumstances include:

  • Workgroup involvement Number of people involved (Even one-man shops deal with others)

  • Task Granularity The size, duration, hierarchy of tasks

  • Task Purpose The nature of the tasks, and the rationale for its accomplishment

  • Task Context The tasks' context, location, sequence

  • Platform The operating systems you need to run it on

Issues related to any task-management software under consideration:

  • Capturing details Does it help you gather the information you need?

  • Structuring data Does it adequately provide structure for accessing and tracking tasks? Is the structure flexible or does it impose a rigid workflow?

  • Reporting data Charts, graphs, tables and other ways to review task data
  • Monitoring tasks Does it highlight or notify on task states and the resources they require?
  • Contextual visibility Can it make pertinent info available in the tasks' contexts.
  • Reflects reality Can info be updated easily?
  • Sharing data Can info be shared with the necessary people in the necessary formats (pdfs, hand-outs, synced calendars, etc.)?
  • Privacy/Security Does it keep info away from prying eyes?
  • Data portability Can it import/export data to/from other software, whether for archiving, conversion, integration, etc.
  • Integration with other tools Does it support the use of the platform's integration tools so you can create tailored solutions? In other words, can it be part of a mashup?
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+1 some very interesting points here. I would add speed. If it slows you down, it's not worth it. – Assaf Lavie Jul 28 '11 at 4:39

An often overlooked aspect is that such software should be lightweight, simple and fast. If the software requires a lot of interactivity, it is going to distract you from your real work.

Simplicity helps.

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most productive "software" is a piece of paper that has only the tasks that you can manage during your sprint (a working day, hour, week) and you can always look at it without switching windows , clicking mouse or execute commands to get the todo list . Most useful aspect is that you can later throw it away – Anton S Jul 27 '11 at 11:38

What features you need for task management depends on how you want to manage your tasks.

Example of some ways you can manage tasks and related features you need are...

  1. FIFO (First In First Out) - just a linear list will do.
  2. By Context - you need a list with context field, or a general field that can be re-purposed to serve as context.
  3. By Priority - you need a list with priority field, or a general field that can be re-purposed to serve as priority.
  4. By Multiple Closed List - you need a feature to break your list into multiple closed list pages.
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  1. It should be simple to use. You shouldn't have to spend hours setting it up and configuring it.
  2. It should be accessible from anywhere: mobile, web, desktop
  3. It should allow you to print your tasks so you can view them offline
  4. Most importantly it should be easy to add new tasks. You shouldn't have to think too much when adding a new task

I have tried many and I think the best one by far is remember the milk.

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There are too many ways to go with this question. Like you said, there are features for everything and the core set of features depends on what YOU need. For me, an email client that has a calendar and is extremely fast is perfect, so Mozilla Thunderbird is perfect for me.

I'd say the core set you need is something that tracks events and can provide notifications, but that's too fundamental. Please edit your question for a more precise answer.

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Look at the following:

  • Hierarchical tasks. Complex tasks can be solved only by dividing into parts
  • Due dates with notifications (at least, e-mail)
  • SIMPLE, fast UI, with good keyboard shortcuts
  • Search/filtering
  • Tags for different types of tags
  • Integration with other tools. At least, you should be able to create tasks from a web page or from E-mail box, export/import your data
  • Sharing/collaboration, if you want to work collaboratively on your tasks

    There are tons of tools which provide such functionality. I'm a developer of Checkvist - you can use it for task management and for other tasks.

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  1. Simplicity. MS Project is too hard to learn to use; a bunch of stickies are easy.
  2. Integration. While integrating with others is a nice power feature, the most important feature is integration with your various digital devices: a version for your desktop, smartphone, etc., preferably that sync with each other easily. Also integration with your email, task list, and calendar.
  3. Entertainment. Yes, this may sound silly, but if the UI is boring, you won't use it.

My initial recommendation is BaseCamp from 37 Signals, although it is short on integration across applications.

Unfortunately, most people use their email inbox as their task manager, calendar, and project system, which is a real waste of time and effort. But it is simple, integrated, and entertaining!

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I don't get it. First you give three requirements, then you burn down the email inbox system which is simple, integrated, and entertaining! – Jan Doggen Sep 30 '15 at 7:10

No one here can tell you what features you should look for. The optimal blend of features is different for every person (as very nicely demonstrated by the range of answers to your question).

Go through the answers, pick out the items that you have the strongest positive reaction, and note those. If you have a negative reaction to any of them, note that, too. That is your requirement list. Find something that best matches it and use it for awhile. ("Awhile" is variable, but should be long enough to get out of the honeymoon period, if any.) Keep notes on what you like and dislike about it, anything you feel is missing, new requirements you've come across that you felt strongly about, etc.

When you feel ready to move on, take your updated requirements list and find a new system that matches it. Lather, rinse, repeat. Don't be surprised if what you end up with is very different than what you thought you wanted when you started.

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