Review of Task Management Tools

For the last six months, my procrastination method of choice has been to try out different task management tools (closely followed by data visualization techniques – but that’ll have to wait till another day).

So while this post isn’t related to LaTeX, I thought it might be useful for those of you managing a long-term project like a PhD.

Software Requirements

In searching for task/time/project management tools, my criteria were:

  • no fees/open source
  • ability to schedule tasks and milestones with due dates and priority levels
  • tags or categories for tasks
  • clear visual interface
  • compatibility with Google Calendar

I have tried a lot of different packages that do a lot of different things – from Basecamp to Open Workbench, from Manymoon to Zen. But at the beginning of October, I finally found something that works really well: it’s called Intervals.

Task and Time Management with Intervals

I have used Intervals daily for the past two months and it has really helped me to plan my work and get more done.

On the company’s website, it is described as ‘web-based project management software that marries time tracking and task management in a collaborative online space with powerful reporting.’

In comparison with the other software I have tried, the most useful features of Intervals for my project are:

  • time tracking and reports
  • ease of adding tasks to a milestone
  • clear and intuitive project dashboard
  • ability to categorize project phases (called ‘modules’ in Intervals) and work types
  • daily email showing my tasks for the week

Time tracking and reporting

Before I came across Intervals, I didn’t think I needed a time tracking or reporting feature. But now I have changed my mind – for three reasons:

  • No more procrastinating. Once I sit down to do a task, I start the timer for it. This helps me to focus on that task alone – no checking emails, no unnecessary internet browsing. And if I get a phone call or am interrupted, I pause the timer.
  • Now I know where my time goes. The reporting feature allows me to view the time I have spent on tasks that day, month, quarter, etc. I can view this by project module (e.g. literature review or writing-up), or by work type (e.g. translation, reading/note-taking, correspondence).
  • I am better at estimating how long different tasks take. Once I’ve completed a task, I can review how many hours I spent on it and compare that with how long I estimated it would take when I first created the task. This then helps me plan future phases of my project.

Project Dashboard and Tasks Email

The dashboard (‘home’) is clearly structured and shows me:

  • A weekly or monthly calendar view with milestones and tasks displayed. Colour-coding indicates high, medium and low priority tasks, and overdue items.
  • A graph of how many hours I have worked in the current week. This is updated whenever I add time to a task, so I can see if my day’s on track, or if I haven’t spent as much time working as I planned to that day.
  • Navigation short-cuts to add a new task or to add time to a task.

The daily email includes a copy of the weekly view of my calendar, so I can see what I have to do today and for the rest of the week.

Unused or Unsupported Features

Intervals does not support task dependencies or auto-scheduling – there is no Gantt Chart-like feature. But for my straightforward PhD project, I haven’t found that to be a problem.

As the software is designed for small businesses, there are a lot of features I don’t use, such as: invoicing, file storage and allocating tasks to other people on a team.

Intervals is also a bit heavy for managing lots of little tasks. For this kind of thing and for displaying external deadlines on my main calendar, I tend to use Remember The Milk.

To-Do Lists with Remember The Milk

This is a nice little online tool for managing multiple to-do lists. The best feature is that it’s compatible with Google Calendar, and according to their website it also works with Twitter and Blackberry.

I tend to use Remember The Milk for funding or conference call deadlines, to-do lists for calling or emailing people, or keeping track of meetings or seminars.

Getting Started

Intervals and Remember The Milk are pretty easy to set up once you’ve registered with them. I was able to get the hang of both within a week. They also have good customer support and help forums.

Note: both these tools are web-based, so they cannot be used offline.

Useful Links

11 thoughts on “Review of Task Management Tools”

    1. Thanks a lot for the link – I hadn’t come across Org-Mode before. I just had a look at a Google Tech Talk Carsten Dominik gave about Org-mode in July 2008 ( which is a good introduction to the software.

      I like the fact that it runs on plain text files and that it is designed for a more natural work-flow (i.e. integrating note-taking and defining tasks). And being able to embed LaTeX code in Org-mode files is definitely a plus. I will definitely try this out.

  1. Thanks for the writeup on Intervals. Glad to see you found Intervals to be a good fit for your needs.

    Intervals does now have a new report called the Periscope report that offers Gantt-like views of projects. We’ll soon be adding milestones and tasks to the report.

    1. Dear Alessandro,

      Thanks for your comment. In addition to their services with a monthly fee, Intervals offers a free plan (with fewer features) that allows you to have 1 project and up to 4 users. This is the one I am using.

      You’ll find details halfway down this page (‘The Free Plan’):

  2. It seems I started almost the same procrastination activity (just a year later). I really hope it doesn’t take 6 months…

    What I am looking for though is a little different though. What I have come to realize is that most of my tasks are associated with documents (downloading, reading, annotating, managing notes, editing or writing from scratch). Many also involve emails (status updates, assignments, revisions from other people, etc.). What I would like is something that combines PIM, with project management and document management (incl. LaTeX of course). Basically a dashboard where I can check what needs to be done (tasks for each project), what has been done in the past (revisions, timeline) and read/annotate/write documents and manage references that are linked to the specific project/task. Not having to manage individual files and directories would be also great.

    I have found tools that do the one or the other, but it is difficult to combine in a good workflow. There are things like that for software project management, e.g. trac, but haven’t found anything more general.

    Is anyone aware of anything that might fit the bill? I am trying to get to know org-mode better in hopes that I can at least get some of what I need.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s