Free Software for Task Management

I am perpetually trying out online task management tools. My never-ending quest is to tame the massive sea of things I should be doing at any given moment, both making sure that important tasks don’t get lost in the mix, and to extract a reduction more closely approximating “the most important thing to accomplish right now”. My two favorites at the moment are Thymer and Rypple, but neither is perfect.

I like Thymer’s simple task creation, twitter-like tagging of tasks, and the smooth drag-and-drop motion for prioritization. But, at the end of the day, it’s just a massive web page of “things I should be doing” and gives me no assistance in taming the beast. I have to manually prioritize each task, and if I want the priorities assigned to tasks to be at all relevant, I have to go on manually gardening them every day. And, while task creation is as easy as tweeting, task editing is a clunky collection of buttons and drop-down menus. The tags are handy in small numbers (and projects really are just tags with a slightly different display), but any more than about 10 unique tags/projects across my whole data set becomes a jumble at the top of the screen and not at all helpful in finding anything. Thymer offers some reporting features, but I never found them particularly useful.

I like Rypple’s social features, it’s got a good take on sharing thanks and feedback, and the 1:1 pages (a collection of tasks you share with another person) are incredibly useful for weekly meetings with co-workers. I like the organization of tasks by goal rather than by project, it encourages grouping tasks into larger sequences toward an overall purpose. But, I found that I still needed some goals that were really just projects or a collection of semi-related tasks, so the construct was a little artificial. Rypple offers a tagging feature, but tag links don’t do anything useful (like take you to a page listing tasks with the same tag), and a task can’t live in more than one goal at the same time, so there isn’t really any good way to pull up a group of cross-cutting tasks. And, Rypple also gives me little help in managing the mass, though it has drag-and-drop priority setting similar to Thymer.

The worst thing about both of them is that they’re neither open source nor open data. Philosophical considerations aside, this is an immediate practical problem, since my access to Rypple was only a free trial which is now ending.  I started with the best intentions of only putting in a few things to try it out, but it quickly became an integrated part of my working life, and I now have well over a hundred little individual blobs of data (tasks) that I’m tracking there. Because it’s not open source, I can’t fire up my own instance of it. And because it’s not open data, I can’t get a dump of my tasks. So, I’ll have to manually copy every bit to some other task management system. Which means I’m in the market for a new task management tool, with a very immediate enlightened self-interest in picking something that’s both open source and open data.

Yesterday, I tried out Todo.txt. The biggest appeal is the simple open data format, so simple that it would work just fine as a manually edited plain text file. But, it offers a GPL licensed command-line client for easier task creation, searching, sorting, grouping by project, priority, or “context” (a notion from “Getting Things Done“). It also offers a GPL licensed Android client, which is in the process of being ported to the iPhone. On the downside, it doesn’t offer any collaborative features, so I can manage my own tasks, but can’t share tasks with others, or even provide visibility to others on a subset of my tasks or projects. And while creating tasks on the command-line is clean and simple, actually viewing/managing my 100+ tasks on the command-line (or Android client) feels a bit like viewing an elephant through a pinhole. It doesn’t have a desktop GUI client, though the wiki offers some suggestions on ways to integrate the simple plain text format into other desktop tools like Conky. The results weren’t thrilling (not really any better than the command-line), but they did give me an idea: how about a Unity Todo Lens?

I spent a few hours hacking on that, parsing the Todo.txt format in Vala and displaying the results in a Unity Lens with a general search box and filters for Project, Priority, and Context. I’m pleased with the result for a short experiment, but there are some drawbacks. The Lens really wanted my filters to be statically compiled in advance, while I wanted to create the filter sets on-the-fly from the Todo.txt file (i.e. let me filter by Projects that are in my tasks, not for some list of projects determined in advance). I may be able to hack around that with more time or a Python Lens instead of Vala. Also, a Unity Lens is a great interface for searching tasks, but not great for managing tasks. There’s only one “action hook” for a task, when you click on the icon/title. You can make that one action do anything you want, but it’s still only one action. I could make that one action mark a task as done (that seems most logical), but I’d still have to go back to the command-line to add new tasks, and edit task descriptions, priorities, projects, contexts, etc… Which takes me back to the original problem that the command-line isn’t a great interface for those tasks. What I really want is a slick, simple GUI client that the Lens could launch whenever a task is clicked in the search interface. Possibly a project for another weekend.

That’s all the time I have to work on the idea right now. While I leave it sitting for a bit, any suggestions on free software+open data task management tools you love? Or hate?

7 thoughts on “Free Software for Task Management

  1. I know what you mean – I’m endlessly trying out various web-based task managers – from doitomorrow to basecamp. Thymer is new to me though :)

    At the moment I’m using HappyTodos (http://www.happytodos.com), and I have to admit it’s got almost everything that I need (disclaimer – I work with them). The UI is getting a much needed facelift soon, but from the technical aspect, it’s pretty much spot on.

    It isn’t open source, but it IS free. (Really free, not a ‘free 30 day trial’ free :))

    Check it out if you get the chance.

    • It looks cool, but I don’t want to depend on yet-another-website that may disappear whenever the developers get bored (or decide they can’t make money by giving away data hosting). I really want an app that’s completely and totally free (libre and gratis), integrated with my desktop, and where I’m not tied into any one tool.

      • @Allison – In that case, your best bet is probably notepad (or the Mac equivalent) or pencil and paper :) (and no, I’m not trying to be cynical or anything). In almost any other case you have put some sort of trust into the tool you start using to not disappear in a few months, or, in the case of open source, stop being supported or developed. I find that as long as the tool appears to have some sort of maturity, and it’s been around for at least 6 months (which is like 6 years in Internet time :)), then I can take it for a serious spin.

        • @Avi, Curiously, text files and paper are exactly what I keep falling back to, even when I’m actively using some task manager app. Which tells me that there’s something about the simplicity of those tools that makes them more useful than the special-purpose tools, even though they’re not designed for the purpose. Still, they do have their own annoyances. Paper has nice visual scan-ability, but isn’t searchable, quickly gets cluttered with crossed-off tasks, and my lists have a bad habit of getting lost, especially when I travel. Text files are more portable (can be saved to some personal cloud like Ubuntu One or Dropbox), also have that nice quick scan effect, and are searchable, but they have a poor interface for search results, and editing or sorting for priority is a painfully manual process.

          And sure, lots of websites will try to lock your personal data in. It’s to their advantage if you can’t easily migrate to another site. But, it’s so easy to provide a simple “export” feature, and users will trust the site more if they know it respects their rights to their own personal data.

          It’s true that open source apps have the same potential for losing their maintainers, but they have one advantage over proprietary websites: I can take over maintenance of an app if the original authors ever disappear. Or, I could just start by developing it myself (http://allisonrandal.com/2011/12/31/tody-task-manager/).

          • The real problem with pencil and paper (and I’m writing this with my task list for today written down in my notebook in front of me of course), other than what you mentioned, is that it’s bloody hard to manage more than simple tasks – at least, that’s what I’ve found. I can easily manage my tasks for the day, but when I need to manage 3-4 people, or a project that extends for more than 2 days, I find that I get very.. er.. focused on the specific tasks I’ve written down, and I sometimes lost sight of the bigger picture, or in this case, the entire project. And that’s if I’m just running the one project, with tasks that I add in a linear fashion. For more complicated matters, I think that you can’t escape using some sort of project management tool.

            Now to take a look at what you’re working on :)

  2. Tody Task Manager « Allison Randal

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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