Individual task tracking system
March 17, 2017 10:22 AM   Subscribe

I really need some help finding or devising a light-weight, low-friction task tracking system for managing my work tasks. It doesn't need to be used by more than one person at once, but it should be clear enough so it could be handed off to someone else.

I work at an underfunded, understaffed non-profit organization, and I've generally got a thousand balls in the air at one time. It's not an ideal situation (in fact, I'm on my way out because of it); however, I'm doing my best to impose as much order on the chaos as I can.

I'm not really looking so much for project management software or to-do list systems to plan for next steps, but rather a task tracking system where I can record all the things I'm working on and the latest action items/current status of each. It often happens that I'm working on a project, task, or issue, for some concentrated time when things are urgent or "hot", but then either things go into a calm period, or I'm waiting on someone else to respond or complete an action, or something else more urgent comes up, or for whatever other reason, I have to lay aside what I'm currently working on for a while. Then what happens is I lose track of where I was on that project/task/issue, what I was waiting for, what I have to do next, etc. And when I go back to that task, I have to do a ton of backtracking to get myself back up to speed.

Years ago when paper day planners were a thing, I remember one system had something like contact tracking sheets, where you would keep track of all of your conversations with a contact by enter a date of your conversation and some details each time, and then that sheet became a record of all your conversations. It's something like this I've had in mind, but for tasks rather than contacts.

I tried using Trello for this purpose, and while I really like Trello, it's not really working for this, at least not how I have it set up. I created a board with each open issue/task as its own list, and recorded last actions/status on cards within the list. The drawback is that with the number of open tasks I have, it ends up in a board with a 2-mile horizontal scroll, and I can't easily jump to the task I want. Then I thought about going a little more "low-tech" and just creating a Word doc for each task where I record all this stuff, but then moving between tasks, or having multiple tasks (docs) open could easily become cumbersome. I thought about putting it all in one Word doc, and using sections and a table of contents to navigate, but my experience with Word sections and tables of contentes is that they can be really balky. A spreadsheet with tabs is anther option, but spreadsheets are a pain for writing text in beyond a few words per cell.

I would really love to hear suggestions from people on systems they use. If it's an online tool, that's cool. But my goal is ease of use, and if a Word or other -based system works, I'm good with that too. The ideal system I have imagined in my head includes some simple kind of index, where I could easily see all my open tasks, and then click to open a task to add details. Another reason for it to be simple is that at some point in the next few months, I'll be out the door, and I'd want to be able to hand this off to the next person(s) so they can more easily keep things moving forward.
posted by leticia to Work & Money (20 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I use OneNote at work for something similar. I have different sections for current/archived/waiting for stuff projects; each project has its own page that I can move to the different sections as necessary. And because it's an office product, it's easy to hand off to anyone who's familiar with Office, even if they haven't used OneNote before.
posted by okayokayigive at 10:30 AM on March 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

The guy next to me at work uses Bullet Journal, which is a low tech solution that can use any notebook. Here's an intro

I personally used outlook tasks, but they became too unwieldy. I then moved to Jira, which is great, but built for software development and requires some customization to get it right.

I'm really thinking about going with Bullet Journal.
posted by teabag at 10:33 AM on March 17, 2017

I use Todoist for this, and I really love how straightforward and well-designed it is, without any of the clutter of more powerful tools like Asana and other "corporate client-friendly" project management systems. The catch with Todoist is that it's fundamentally a fancy to-do list (with projects, tags, reminders, comments, etc) and thus is lousy for creating project hierarchies.
posted by tapir-whorf at 10:44 AM on March 17, 2017

This might be a bit esoteric, but I've used Google forms to do this. You can set up a simple form to collect input (dropdowns for structure) then put together a summary sheet on the target workbook. This is obviously a completely manual process, but the portability and timestamps are fantastic. Also free so yay.
posted by jmfitch at 10:52 AM on March 17, 2017

We use trello, and rather than putting each thing in its own list, we categorize and put things in lists like: in progress; to come; on hold; whateverelse. We also make pretty heavy use of labels - we label by who's in charge of a particular thing, and if it's ready for release, and you can sort by label.
posted by rtha at 10:55 AM on March 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

ToDoList by AbstractSpoon is called to do list but is really very flexible in showing what and how much you want to see. It can do to do lists, it does project planning but you only have to see and use the parts that you like.
I find it inccredibly useful for the kind of tas ktracking that you want to do and like that it runs on your desktop pc. It plays well with network shares.
posted by mmkhd at 10:58 AM on March 17, 2017

Best answer: Seconding OneNote - you have notebooks and inside each one you have tabs and then in each tab you have a list of pages. The pages are similar to individual Word documents and can be moved around between tabs and notebooks. At work, I have my own notebook with a tab inside for each of my large projects. Then each smaller project goes on a page in that tab. My team also has shared notebook where we keep reference materials and shared lists.

OneNote has tags, highlighting and a grid you can turn on and off to keep things in place. It also has a great screen cap function that will do some OCR if you need it.
posted by soelo at 10:59 AM on March 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Seconding ToDoList by AbstractSpoon, it's slick, free and just nice.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:02 AM on March 17, 2017

I don't know if you guys have macs but if it helps this sounds a lot like how the native Mac Notes app works. You have a list of notes on the left (you could do one note for each project) and then you can click on a note to add some text or detail. I use it for a similar purpose so I can just brain dump into various topics as they come up. I don't know if there are any windows apps that work like that though. Maybe Evernote?
posted by bleep at 11:03 AM on March 17, 2017

You might also want to look into ticketing systems.
posted by bleep at 11:05 AM on March 17, 2017

We use Asana for our team at work (there's just a couple of us) and each task has the ability to enter notes on it. It's free for a certain number of users, so you could try it out and see what you thought.
posted by needlegrrl at 11:10 AM on March 17, 2017

Best answer: Thirding OneNote. If you're in an Office-based office, it integrates really nicely. You can send emails to OneNote, specifying the notebook and particular page you want the email to go to. You can insert various documents (I have a page with all the supporting documents I need in one place, so I don't have to go hunting them down on my computer if I need them). You can set up checklists. Text gets typed into automatically created boxes, so if you want things on a page to be re-organizable, you can just type your stuff into different boxes then move them around the page at will. Etc. Super flexible, super handy.
posted by current resident at 11:53 AM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've used Asana and Trello for this. Of the two, I prefer Asana.
posted by smich at 11:54 AM on March 17, 2017

Another thought that occurs is that PowerPoint presentations have this format you want of an index on the left and a place to dump information on the right. If you just put a heading and a big text box on each slide. If you just want something you can just get going right away that you probably already have that you can easily hand over.
posted by bleep at 11:57 AM on March 17, 2017

Best answer: n-thing OneNote - I was skeptical at first, but if you're in a Windows-based environment, it really does work well and is easy to share. It also has a very easy learning curve if you need to hand things off to someone else.
posted by peacheater at 12:42 PM on March 17, 2017

I would recommend using Trello, but not the way you do. Lists should be broad workflow categories, like "to do/doing/done". Each task should be a card, like "print mailer". I add comments a card whenever there's action on that task that I need to record.

If you've got a certain kind of task with a routine set of sub-tasks associated with it, you can set up a checklist in a card that you use as a template, and copy that checklist into new cards as needed. I've got a "set up new board member" card as a template with a checklist of about 20 items; when there's a new board member, I create a card titled "set up Larry as board member" and copy the checklist in from "set up new board member."
posted by adamrice at 12:58 PM on March 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

The way you're using Trello is interesting and creative, but as you've found, it's sort of fighting the way that Trello was designed to be used. Trello at it's heart is designed to be used with a system called Kanban. Kanban can become baroquely complex in its various implementations, but the basic idea is very simple:

1) Cards represent tasks that need to be done
2) Columns represent the status of the task
3) Cards move from left to right as they get closer to being done

At its simplest, this can be a three-column system (To-do, Doing, Done). Further refinements would be breaking up To-do (into Ready and Backlog) or adding a limit to how many cards can be in a given column at one time (are you really actively working on 16 tasks right now? or should some of those get moved back to Ready?)
posted by firechicago at 1:42 PM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

At work, I use a simple spreadsheet with the following columns:
* Task: Short task description
* Priority: 1-5
* Status: Not Started, In Progress, Waiting, On Hold, Complete
* Task Date
* Due Date
* Responsible Party:
* Notes: Each new note is dated in descending order on a new line.

The Priority and Status columns are lookups from another sheet so I can select or type them. Sort and autofilter are my friends here. I sort by Priority and filter Completed items by default. It falls down if I have extensive notes, but I try to avoid that.

At home, I use Wunderlist with hashtags for priority, like #P1, #P2, etc. Clicking the hashtag filters only that priority level.
posted by cnc at 1:50 PM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hmm... Lots of good suggestions here. I do use Todoist and I'm pretty happy with it as a to-do list manager (oddly enough ;) ) but it's not what I'm looking for for this purpose. I'm in a Mac environment, but everyone else I work with is in Windows, so it really sounds like OneNote is worth a try. If it's really an easy learning curve, that would be good for future handoff purposes.

I hadn't heard of ToDoList by AbstractSpoon -- will definitely check it out.

I really do like Trello, and some of the suggestions here will have me taking a look at other ways I could organize stuff for this purpose. I do have a board for managing fundraising projects that works - presumably because (as a couple of you have suggested) I've organized that one more like a traditional Kanban board, with statuses left to right (Application pending, submitted, successful, etc...) But my hesitation with task tracking on it is that there are just too many tasks with varying levels of urgency, and perhaps too many different possible statuses even. Still, I'm happy to hear more suggestions.

Asana I think is just one level of complexity higher, and while I've used it, I think it would terrify a couple of my coworkers, seriously limiting it's usefulness beyond my tenure.
posted by leticia at 6:00 PM on March 17, 2017

I know this is old, but I'm nth-ing the idea of using an issue tracker. Jira is the gold standard, but personally I hate it and think it's wildly overcomplicated. That said, it's very customizable and corporate-friendly.
posted by amohield at 6:00 AM on June 30, 2017

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