Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

How to Effectively Use Google Tasks

One of the cornerstones of most systems for organization and productivity is the to-do list. Whether it’s digital or paper, a to-do list helps keeps many of us on track and on top of what we need to get done.

There are any number of to-do list applications for the desktop, for mobile, and on the web. If you use Gmail and are looking for a simple to-do list then you’ll want to take a look at Tasks.

While Tasks is hardly an original or pithy name, I know, it’s an effective and (as I just mentioned) a simple tool. What’s its connection with Gmail? Tasks isn’t a separate application (although it could and should be). It’s part of Gmail, Google’s email service.

I don’t know why, either …

Getting Started

To start using Tasks, log into Gmail. From there, click the label Gmail in the top-left portion of the Gmail window and then click Tasks. The Tasks window pops open.

Example of a task list in Google Tasks

Tasks has no fancy features, no bells, no whistles. It doesn’t sound or even look exciting. But it doesn’t need to be. When it comes to software and Web applications, I prefer functional to sexy.

To get going, click in the Tasks window and start typing. Yes, it’s that simple.

Here’s what you can do with the task list:

  • Describe the task – The clearer the description the better. This eliminates any confusion.
  • Set a due date – This is important if you really do plan to get things done.
  • Attach short notes to the task – This is useful if you want to add a few more details to the task – like, for example, the name and phone number or email address of a person you need to contact to complete the task.
  • Sort tasks by their due dates – This gives you a better idea of what’s due and when.
  • Maintain multiple lists – More on this in a moment.
  • Email your lists – Send a copy of your task list either to yourself or someone you’re working with.
  • Print your lists – If you’re not into saving trees, you can get a nice hard copy of your task lists.

Working with Task Lists

The problem with most to-do lists is that they tend to get long. Too long. People put everything on their lists – what they need to do, what they think they should do, and what they want to do. Sadly, they end up with a bunch of tasks that they never get around to. I talk more about that in this post.

A to-do list should only contain what you need to do within a specific frame of time. I approach tasks from two angles:

  1. Tasks that I need to carry out today.
  2. Tasks that I need to carry out within the next 2 to 3 days.

Taking that approach, in theory, helps keep my to-do list manageable. It’s:

  • Shorter.
  • A source of less stress.
  • More focused. I’m forced to deal with the tangible, not those someday/maybe tasks (which turn into what someone termed someday/never tasks).

Using Multiple Lists

Even if you have a focused set of tasks, your list can still get long. Far longer than they should be or need to be.

You can make your list of tasks even more digestible by using more than one list. That’s where the concept of multiple lists that I mentioned earlier comes in. Using multiple lists, you can segregate your tasks and focus on each area of your life.

Create a task list by clicking the bullet list icon in the bottom-right corner of the Tasks window. Then, click New List.

In the small window that opens, type a name for the list and then click OK. Any time you want to switch between task lists, just click the bullet list icon and then click the name of the task list that you want to use.

How does using multiple task lists work? I’ll use my own lists as an example. I’ve created the following lists:

  • Blogging – For posts that I need to write for the three blogs that I maintain.
  • Writing – For articles and posts for paid blogging gigs.
  • Presentations – For presentations or talks that I’m working on.
  • Daily – The tasks that I need to take care of today. More about this in a moment.

A set of task lists in Google Tasks

Having multiple lists seems to add to the complexity of using Tasks. But using multiple lists actually streamlines things. It’s all a matter of focus. By concentrating on a single list, I can focus on the tasks associated with a particular part of my fragmented life. I can deal with those tasks, then move on to another list.

Another way in which you can focus is to use a daily list of tasks. The daily task list contains the tasks that you absolutely must complete or, at the very least, start today. Using the daily task list, you can focus on those tasks. Try to keep that list down to as few tasks as possible – two, or three at the most. That way you don’t get overwhelmed.

Going Mobile

What good is a to-do list if you can’t take it with you? Interestingly enough, the Gmail app (regardless of the mobile platform you’re using) doesn’t include a way to view your tasks. And there’s no official Tasks app from Google.

Luckily, there’s a decent number of third-party Google Tasks apps available for Android. I’ve used Tasks and GTasks and found both to be easy to use and effective.

There are also a number of apps for iOS devices. You’ll have to search the iTunes store for them.

Getting Your To-Do List Out of Google Tasks

Let’s say you’ve used Google Tasks for a while, but have decided that it’s not for you. But you still have a number of items on your to-do list and want to take them elsewhere. What do you do?

Use the Google Tasks Backup service. It allows you to export your tasks in a number of formats, including:

  • Plain text
  • A format the Microsoft Outlook can read
  • A calendar file
  • A file you can import into a spreadsheet
  • A format that you can pull into the popular web-based task management tool called Remember the Milk

Final Thoughts

Google Tasks won’t appeal to those who want everything (including multilingual alerts and a death ray) from their to-do list tools. But if you use Gmail and are looking for a simple but effective way to managing your tasks, then give Google Tasks a close look. It might be the tool you’re looking for.

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