Abandoning the quest for the ultimate task manager

Half a year ago I wrote about my quest to find a new task manager. This is an update that outlines my process of evaluation and where I have landed today.

I’ll start with my criteria and some observations on how possible or impossible they were to fulfill. I will list all the apps and software I have tried and of course finish off with what I decided to use in the end. If you only are interested in the conclusion, feel free to scroll down to the bottom.

To recap, my initial criteria was:

  • Offline support
  • Tags/labels/contexts
  • Client invitations
  • Cross-project overview
  • Zapier integration
  • Recurring tasks

Bonus points for start dates for tasks, subtasks, starring/flagging of tasks, project templates and issue/bug ticket management.

My testing method

I setup a test data suite with a couple of projects, one of them repeating weekly, with corresponding tasks and contexts. I then proceeded to sign up for free trials of all the SaaS apps that seemed to fit and entered my test data. I also used a second email address to sign up as a client so that I could see how the collaboration features would work from the “other” side.

While I tested the apps, I looked for how they fit my criteria. I sought answers to these questions:

  • Is it easy to enter data? Is the UI clean and easy to understand?
  • Is it possible to see tasks by projects as well as tasks by contexts?
  • Can I assign tasks to a person?
  • What integrations exists? Zapier, drop box, google drive etc?
  • Is there a mobile app?
  • What are the task features? Start date? Recurring? Subtasks?

Somewhere along the line I also started looking at issue tracking for development. Some of the solutions had specific integrations for github and/or bitbucket, and that was very attractive. The possibility for issue tracking quickly became another main criteria to look for and not just a nice bonus.

All the apps I tried

Here is my list of tried apps:

  • 5pm
  • active collab
  • asana
  • azendoo
  • bitrix24
  • breeze
  • doit.im
  • everlist
  • fogbugz
  • flow
  • freedcamp
  • insightly
  • jira
  • kanbantool
  • leankit
  • mavenlink
  • nozbe
  • pivotal tracker
  • planbox
  • planscope
  • podio
  • producteev
  • project bubble
  • projectplace
  • projectturf
  • proworkflow
  • redbooth
  • teamwork
  • todoist
  • trello
  • wedoist
  • wimi teamwork
  • wrike
  • zoho projects

I know. It’s a lot. And I’m sure I only scratched the surface. Do you know how many project management software exist out there? It’s a crazy jungle.

For the record, these are all the apps that I initially signed up to test. For a number of apps, I very quickly realized it wasn’t what I was looking for so I abandoned it very soon after entering my test data. Only a few were more extensively tested than others.

In some cases, the features I wanted was behind a pretty steep price tag. I am not a big enterprise and I cannot motivate huge spendings on project management software. I had no idea that my criteria would be enterprise level. I am not above paying for a product. But the price has to be reasonable in relation to the size and complexity of my projects.

My observations

Most of these apps did not work for me. It’s not that they are bad or anything. They all solve a specific problem for a specific niche. It’s just that they didn’t solve my particular problem.

Drawbacks with collaboration software

Many collaboration software focuses on discussion, chat, file sharing and notifications. Assigning tasks to users is a given. Inviting clients is easy and the whole point of the software. But it’s harder to manage the individual level of tasks. Recurring items or tickler file functionality with reminders are sometimes included, but not always.

And using collaboration software for personal GTD is hard. Contexts, for example, are personal to the user. My @waiting-for is another persons @desktop or @email. Labels in a collaborative environment are often shared between users and therefore not suitable for contexts. And you can seldom get all your tasks displayed and sorted by label/context.

Some collaboration software solutions work on the project level only. They expect fewer and larger projects and thus charge based on number of projects. As a GTD practitioner have A LOT of small projects so that system will not work for me. Sure some projects could be converted to super-tasks with subtasks but still.

Examples of collaboration software: Producteev, Wimi teamwork, Teamwork, Redbooth, Mavenlink, Freedcamp.

Drawbacks with personal task managers

In a personal task manager, the collaborative project management aspect is less thought out. Most personal task managers lack the concept of start dates for example.

Project management with client access is a situation where task managers like Todoist or Wunderlist falls short, even though they have opened up somewhat to collaboration. While they have the possibility to share lists and add comments on tasks, I find there’s a lack of big picture overview. Or maybe it’s just me that has a problem with condensing a whole project down to a single shared list.

Examples of personal task managers: Todoist, Doit.im, Wunderlist.

Drawbacks with extremely flexible systems

Some apps allow for huge flexibility in how you want to setup your stuff. They give you great power. But great power comes at an expense: the time and effort to setup your system.

If you know what you need, and have the time and money to get something tailor made exactly to those needs, it could be well worth your investment. Again, I am just one person wanting to collaborate with other people. I am not a real estate agent that need to manage sales reps, or a company with several departments that need to coordinate. The fiddling with setup doesn’t give a great ROI.

Of all the apps, I spent the most time with Asana. I went so far as to import all my project data and try to use it exclusively for a couple of weeks. But it was hard for me to get a big picture overview of all the things. I couldn’t find a good balance between multiple workspaces and the different roles or “areas of responsibility” I have. I have two email domains, and they both get separate workspaces in asana. The lack of cross-workspace overview of tasks made my weekly reviews time consuming and confusing.

Examples of flexible applications: Asana, Wrike, Podio

Drawbacks with issue trackers

Since issue tracking is part of the development process, I wanted to see if it’s possible to track projects with them as well. But some of the task managers, like Planbox, were very tightly tailored to the scrum/agile development process and thus impossible to use for general project management.

But this lead me to explore the kanban method of issue tracking, which I think is well suited to general project management as well. And this is were I started to find myself on a good path.

Examples of issue trackers: Jira, Pivotal Tracker, Planbox.

Getting closer to my target

So of all the different apps, those with a kanban board layout suited me the best. I am a visual person, and the overview makes it very clear what is going on.

I think one of the most well known kanbantool around is Trello. Trello has a ton of flexibility and you can fall in the trap of tinkering too much with your setup if you’re not careful. But Trello is also powerful with lots of integrations. And thankfully you can see all cards assigned to you from all different boards in one view.

I tried other kanban apps as well, some of which had features that Trello were lacking. Such as swimlanes (rows that go across the columns) and work in progress (WIP) limits. Trello also lacks a way to list tasks by contexts/labels, and subtasks are hidden on the back of the cards. It’s hard to find your Next Action in GTD speak.

This made me think that even if I settle with Trello, it’s definitely not the be-all end-all perfect solution.

Other kanban apps: Leankit, Projectplace, Kanbantool.

Giving up the quest

I am giving up the quest to find the one task manager to manage them all. From all the solutions I have tried and tested, the focus is either on managing collaboration between teams or managing personal tasks. And after this extensive testing I don’t think it’s possible to create a holy grail that will manage both.

After all this, you would think that giving up is a sign of defeat. But actually it’s not. My solution to the collaboration vs personal GTD dilemma is simply this:

Keep the worlds separate and use API to glue them together

My current setup

My personal task manager: Keep OmniFocus

My spouse and I share some lists in Wunderlist. For client collaborations, I first settled on Trello. Through the magic of Zapier, I can send any relevant items to OmniFocus which will be the place where everything on my plate end up.

My weekly review happens in OmniFocus. The review feature of OmniFocus really makes it stand out from the crowd. I can add contexts and prioritize in OmniFocus. OmniFocus has a great inbox feature to capture ideas while I’m working in other programs. And it works offline since it’s a native app.

I am still looking to replace OmniFocus in the future. Especially since it contributes to my vendor lock-in with the fruit company. I would like to find a solution that is platform independent. But I didn’t find it this time. Le sigh.

My collaboration app of choice: Breeze

I was this close to going with Trello. I had already setup many boards and started using it for myself. But thanks to a tweet from Justin Sainton I went to check out Breeze. And I am so happy that I did.

Breeze is Trello on steroids. I will probably make a separate review post later, but it’s enough to say that it has the main features that I was missing from Trello. Native swimlanes. Start dates (with a companion Gantt Chart service). And native integration with github as well as gitlab and bitbucket. This is a deal breaker since I’m using bitbucket for my client projects.

Let’s look at my criteria and see which Breeze fulfills:

  • Offline support – nope. It’s considered for the mobile app though.
  • Tags/labels/contexts – yes
  • Client invitations – yes
  • Cross-project overview – yes
  • Zapier integration – yes
  • Recurring tasks – no – Yes! See note below
  • Start dates for tasks – yes
  • Subtasks – yes
  • Starring/flagging of tasks – no but I don’t need it in breeze
  • Project templates – yes, easy copying of both boards and individual cards
  • Issue/bug ticket management – bitbucket, gitlab and github

The only things missing are offline support and recurring tasks. I let OmniFocus handle that. UPDATE June 2 2017 – Support for recurring tasks was added in December 2016. Breeze just keeps on getting better.

During my trial, I sent an email to the developer requesting some missing features for the Zapier integration. He responded and said he had put them on the todo list. I thought I would check back in a couple of months to see how things were going. I told myself that if/when the zapier integration gets fleshed out, I’ll consider paying for it.

Imagine my surprise when it only took a couple of weeks before the zapier integration got updated! This active and responsive developer just earned himself a happy customer. Thanks to this Zapier integration update, I can plan the projects separately in Breeze and whenever I get assigned a task it gets sent to my OmniFocus inbox.

So OmniFocus is where my Next Actions live, and I can use it’s perspectives feature to slice and dice my tasks view as I see fit. Some projects will also live there, such as personal smaller ones and the recurring routine tasks. But my bigger projects and client projects will now go into Breeze. Thanks to Zapier, I can use the best of both worlds and let each tool do what it does best.

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