What are the best to-do list, productivity, or time management tools?

Before we dive into answering this question, I had something that I wanted to share first…

I did a little desktop research on what apparently is a very hot topic – Dieting. After typing that single word and pressing enter – I got approximately 558 million results. 558 total would be too many to review, but 558 million? That’s ridiculous!

When you start with a more specific question, one like “How many diet plans are there in America?” – from the related results you learn all sorts of interesting things:

  • 52% of Americans are “on a diet” at any given time (guessing that the other 48% are either recovering from or planning one soon?)
  • When you click on the search results of “What are the 4 types of diets?” – you get a response with nine types – wait, there are 9 types not 4 (I only recognized 6 from the list – how many are you familiar with?).
  • The Paleo Diet
    • The Vegan Diet 
    • Low-Carb Diets 
    • The Dukan Diet
    • The Ultra-Low-Fat Diet
    • The Atkins Diet
    • The HCG Diet 
    • The Zone Diet
    • Intermittent Fasting

While 9 is more than the 4 advertised, I’m thinking that 9 is way too low – the real number is almost limitless based on so many variations that exist…

So, what does dieting have to do with productivity tools?

In many ways, productivity tools are a lot like diet plans / programs. There nearly as many tools as there are people on them.

The most successful diet plan? – the one that you’re committed to, that is driving results – one that actually works for you! If you end up enjoying 3-5 skip days a week because the diet plan is too stringent, too detailed, too hard, you’re probably not losing weight.

The best productivity tools? – ones that you’re committed to, that are driving results – ones that actually work for you! If the process is too hard, too time consuming, or too ______ (fill in the blank) for you, you’re not getting the value you desire or need.

Is that too simplistic? Think about it. It doesn’t matter how complete, how elegant, or how cutting edge the tool is – if you don’t use it, it doesn’t help!

Best search results

Below are a few links to search results seeking the “best” in to-do and productivity.

  • Todoist for balancing power and simplicity
  • TickTick for embedded calendars and timers
  • Microsoft To Do for Microsoft power users (and Wunderlist refugees)
  • Things for elegant design
  • OmniFocus for specific organizational systems
  • Habitica for making doing things fun
  • Google Tasks for Google power users
  • Any.do for people who forget to use to-do apps
  • Other options, including project management software, note-taking apps, and other tools that can do the job
  • Microsoft 365
  • Asana
  • Bitrix24
  • Trello
  • RescueTime
  • Beeminder
  • Clockify
  • Todoist
  • Toggl
  • Hive (project management)
  • Todoist (to-do list management)
  • Google docs (collaboration)
  • IFTTT (automating tasks)
  • Calendly (scheduling meetings)
  • Brain.fm (focusing with music)
  • Internxt (privacy & security)
  • ClickUp (agile project management)
  • Chanty (collaboration in video, audio, and chat)
  • Evernote (taking & organizing notes)

As you can see – it’s more a matter of personal choice or opinion than a clear cut “best” tool!

And we agree. The best tool for you is the best tool for you. And for many of us, it is not one tool, but a combination of tools used to deliver across a set of disciplines. Some tools we use daily (calendar, to-do list management, review / reflection), others we use weekly (weekly objectives-key results / KAI / KPI), and still others we may use on a monthly or quarterly basis.

We have found that it’s the disciplines that stay constant even though the tools for any given discipline may change over time. I have used DayTimer, DayRunner, FranklinCovey, and Microsoft Outlook

What is TimeGainer?

We do have a framework, TimeGainer, that takes what we believe are the core components or key items found in many of the tools found on the “best” lists and bring them together into a single consolidation point. TimeGainer is not a replacement for any of your favorite tools, but a central hub that brings the key components together for focus, reflection, and productivity.

Over my full career in business and across a broad set of corporate disciplines – IT, Accounting, Finance, Project Management, and Strategic Planning – I have read books, studied frameworks, used tools, and modified approaches proposed by others with target of improving my own effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity plus that of my teams.

That list includes many that I’m sure you’re familiar with:

  • David Allen – Getting Things Done
  • Marcus Buckingham – Go Put Your Strengths to Work
  • Oliver Burkeman – 4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • James Clear – Atomic Habits
  • Stephen R. Covey – 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
  • Patrick Lencioni – Five Dysfunctions of a Team
  • Sally McGhee – Take Back Your Life!
  • Brian Tracy – Eat That Frog!
  • Caroline Webb – How to Have a Good Day
  • Liz Wiseman – Multipliers
  • Plus, so many more!

My experience with going deep with any one of the numerous frameworks or applications is that I always really like some, even most of the tools, but either never loved all functionality or found a handful of things that were missing. What I wanted was a “Frankenstein” version of the toolsets – 3 things from application one, 2 things from application 2, and so on…

The silver bullet? that one application that will meet all my needs? It doesn’t exist. And that may be a good thing. Let me explain.

I have the ability to add to, take away from, swap out, and make numerous adjustments to my application stack, while keeping the framework basically intact. Additionally, I can utilize any combination of analog (pen & paper) and digital tools to deliver on my tasks, goals, to-do lists, and calendar.

My current stack includes:

  • Calendaring Tools
    • Calendar – default, meetings, tasks – MS Outlook
    • Annual / Quarterly OKRs – Quantive / gtmhub.com
    • Daily / Weekly goals – TimeGainer Weekly Planner
    • Review – TimeGainer Daily
  • Execution Management
    • Email – MS Outlook
    • 17-minute sprints – MS Office Suite
    • Top Items for the Day – TimeGainer Daily
    • Other tasks / Delegation – MS Outlook; Google Sheets (ext. team)
    • Goal management / OKRs – Quantive/gtmhub.com
  • Focus & Delivery
    • Task list management – MS Outlook
    • Delegation – MS Outlook
    • Prioritization – TimeGainer Weekly Planner
  • Review / Reflection / Gratitude
    • Affirmation statements
      • Short-term – TimeGainer Daily based on day’s activities
      • Long-term – MS Word, updated quarterly
    • Gratitude statement journaling – TimeGainer Daily
    • Daily Review / Reflection – TimeGainer Daily

As we built out the TimeGainer centralized framework, we utilized a practice that I had been using for years – using a combination of digital and paper-based processes. Using paper when it made logical sense and using technology where elimination of repetitive processes or electronic capture of data or information made the process smoother or easier.

Pulling items from other systems and summarizing on paper is not only quick and easy – writing down tasks, goals, and expectations not only reinforces the activity, but it also provides clarity and commitment from me for each item. That simple act – putting pen to paper – is a very powerful tool to setting and achieving goals / tasks.

The other dieting analogy

There is another key similarity between losing weight and gaining productivity. Both require change that involves doing less of some activities. Yes, to be more productive, you will have to do less!

Just like eating less overall or eating fewer “empty” calories, you will need to spend less time on those items in your life, on your calendar, or on your to-do list that don’t add value.

When you are adding something new to your routine, you need to quit something else. Saying “yes” to one thing implies “no” to something else.

You are already busy, your calendar is full, your to-do list is overflowing. Be strategic on what you quit; it shouldn’t be those things that are important to you – it should be something else:

  • an old habit that consumes lots of time with low results
  • an activity that is deceptive (urgent, but not important)
  • an escape activity (not urgent, not important)

It’s okay to quit – just be sure to be selective on what it is!

So, which tools would we call out as the best productivity tools? – ones that you’re committed to, that are driving results – ones that actually work for you! Stick with these!

If the process is too hard, too time consuming, or too ______ (fill in the blank) for you, you’re not getting the value you desire or need. Quit these!

Do you want more time?

Answer a few simple questions to determine how much time you could gain each week for more focus, flexibility and freedom.