Getting Things Done With Google Tasks

blank post-it notes on a desk next to a computer keyboard
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I used to use Post-it notes a lot. They were on my desk, on my computer, stuck to the wall, and in my teacher manuals. However, they are not without their shortcomings. For instance, if I was not at my desk, I wouldn’t be able to recall that important piece of information from one of those important yellow Post-it notes. I needed something more universal, a way to take my tasks with me everywhere I went, as well as the ability to add to my task list at a moment’s notice. The answer was there all along. I needed a digital task manager.

Getting to Know Google Tasks

Tasks is Google’s version of a digital task manager. It is a little minimalist compared to some of the other offerings out there, but the upside of that is the ease of use. In fact, you can learn how to use Tasks in ten minutes or less with these quick tutorials from Google.

You can access Google Tasks on the web or via the mobile app for iOS and Android. However, unlike most Google apps, Tasks doesn’t have its own dedicated website. Instead, you access it via the sidebar next to Gmail, Drive, Calendar, and other Google apps, (see image below).

screenshot of where to find the google tasks app in the sidebar

The sidebar is convenient, but try the Full Screen for Google Tasks browser extension if you want more room. It gives you a full-screen version of Google Tasks so that you can use it in a new tab or even in a completely new window.

Setting Up GTD With Google Tasks

One of the central tenants of Getting Things Done (GTD) is the belief that your brain is designed for having ideas, not holding ideas. That means you need to get everything out of your head and into a system that you trust.

For the purpose of this series, we are going to use Google Tasks, but keep in mind that most digital task managers can be set up to work the same way. If you ever decide to switch to another app, this system will work there too.

To use GTD with Google Tasks, you need to create some lists. The lists will help you organize your work more efficiently. The five lists for GTD are as follows: Inbox, Projects, Next Actions, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe.

Here’s why you need those five lists.

Inbox

Think of the Inbox as your default list. This is where unsorted tasks start their life before being moved into one of the other lists. It’s a great place to quickly add an idea or task without worrying about where it fits in your system. Drop it in the Inbox while you remember, and you can deal with it later.

Projects

A project is a task that requires multiple steps before it can be considered complete. For example, if you added, “Plan the class field trip” to your to-do list, you already know that there are lots of moving parts to this. You need to talk to the principal, call the museum, reserve a school bus, pay a deposit, write a letter to parents, and do countless other small steps along the way.

To make this clear on your task manager, you would use subtasks. You can add subtasks to any task in Google Tasks by clicking the three-dot menu to the right of a task. Once you have added the subtasks you need, you can move it to Projects.

screenshot of how to add a subtask in Google Tasks
To add a subtask, click the three-dot menu next to any task

Next Actions

A task in your Next Action list is the opposite for a project. It’s a single-step task. It could be easy to complete, or it might take some time, but tasks like these are typically not very complex. For instance, you could have a task to talk to IT about a new bulb for your projector. You can’t do it right now, but you don’t want to forget about it, so you add it to Next Actions list.

Waiting For

If you add a due date to a task, you should move it to your Waiting For list. Think of this like snoozing an email. Your Waiting For list is where you defer tasks that don’t need your immediate attention. Tasks with a due date appear on your Google Calendar if you enable the Tasks calendar from the sidebar.

Screenshot of the Google Calendar sidebar showing the location of the Tasks calendar
Tasks appear on your Google Calendar if they have a date and time

Someday/Maybe

Your Someday/Maybe list is exactly what it sounds like. Add tasks here if they are not fully formed ideas, or if you don’t have time to explore right them now. You might get to these tasks one day, or you might review them in a couple of weeks and decide that they weren’t such a great idea after all. However, one of those tasks could be your million-dollar idea so you would kick yourself if you didn’t at least add it to your list!

Putting it All Together

For a system like this to work, you need to trust it implicitly. Here are five steps from the Getting Things Done methodology that will help you use Tasks efficiently.

  1. Capture – Collect all your outstanding tasks and add them to your Inbox list. The ideas in your head, on Post-It notes, or in notebooks all go into your Inbox.
  2. Clarify – Take a look at the tasks you have gathered and make sure you understand what is required of each one. Will this make sense if you read it two days from now?
  3. Organize – Get your tasks into the list where they belong. Use the list descriptions from this blog post to help you sort your tasks.
  4. Reflect – When you sit down to work on your tasks, consider the TEA framework. How much time, energy and attention do you have right now? Use that as your guide for what to prioritize and decide what to tackle first.
  5. Engage – Get to work! You can’t make those lists any shorter by just looking at them. You have to engage with them. Revit them regularly and start working on the tasks!

To help make this process a habit, most GTD practitioners do a weekly review. It’s a great way to make sure that all your tasks are on your lists and under control.

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