Task Management: The Target of All Our Hopes and Dreams

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In earlier times, people wished for jet packs and automated kitchens. Today, we are seeking a good to-do app.

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We're all used to hearing pundits decry the belief that "technology will solve all our problems." You hear it in the business world; you hear it -- a lot -- in education. And we have to admit that the pundits often have a point: plenty of people look to technology to provide fixes for problems they can't think of any other way to address. We could all cite examples.

In fact, I would suggest, everyone at some time or another, and for some purpose or another, dreams of a technological fix for some intractable problem. A lot can be learned from Matt Novak's fabulous Paleofuture site, but most of all we see the problems that our ancestors were especially eager to solve. To judge by the ongoing fascination with automated kitchens and jetpacks, half-a-century ago some of our deepest frustrations involved time wasted in commuting and cooking.

Americans have to some degree addressed the cooking problem by learning to eat out all the time -- or, for a few at one end of the socio-economic spectrum, rediscovering cooking as an art form for family and friends; commuting remains agonizing for many, but now instead of jetpacks we dream of Google-driven cars. In general, though, it seems to me, our hopes are now directed elsewhere.

So an interesting question for self-reflection might be: What do your technology dreams center on? I can tell you where mine go: towards task management. And I am hardly the only one: it seems that every time a new task-management app becomes available for iOS it shoots right to the top of the charts, as has just happened for Clear.

I think I have tried every major task-management offering out there, though I can give you an absolute guarantee that someone will show up in the comments or on Twitter to say that if I had just tried app XYZ I would find that it solved every problem. Whenever people do find a task-management app that works for them they get seriously evangelical about it -- but I would bet cash money that a good many of those people check out every new option that shows up, because we tasking-addicts always wonder whether the grass might not be just a teensy bit greener on the other side of the app-fence.

I have tried slick and feature-rich (e.g., Things and OmniFocus), simple and pared-down (e.g., TaskPaper), and hard-core geeky (e.g., todo.txt and even, briefly, nightmarishly, emacs org-mode). I have tried going back to pen and notebook.

I really wanted to make the geeky options work, but they all suggested or required that my chief location for task management would be my laptop, and increasingly I find that I'm using my phone to assign tasks, to check them, and to cross them off. (One reason for this, I believe, is that there's something satisfying about marking a task done with a swipe of the finger, as though waving it out of existence. It's more meaningful than using a mouse or trackpad to click a checkbox.)

So how do I manage my tasks right now? It doesn't matter: Ask me again in a month and it'll probably be something else.

Everyone who goes down this rabbit hole eventually learns that it's a pretty pointless enterprise, that nothing makes you unproductive like fiddling with productivity tools. (Merlin Mann could be Exhibit A here.) But once you start, it's almost impossible to stop. You're like the guy at the one-armed bandit, thinking: With the next pull I'll finally hit the jackpot.

Decades from now, when Matt Novak's granddaughter is running Paleofuture, she'll have posts on productivity porn in the early 21st century. People will laugh at us. But will they laugh because they have just moved along to other concerns? Or because they finally cracked it -- they finally found the perfect task-management solution? Oh how I wish I could know.




Image: Our New Age/Paleofuture.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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