Don’t Fear The To-Do List: A Guide To Microsoft Task Management Tools

Keeping track of your progress and organizing your tasks can be a challenge in itself! Today’s article will save you some trouble and help you find the right task management tool. Read on to find out what is the best way to stay on top of your assignments and work better with your teams!

Recently I was asked by a customer about what to use to track personal and team tasks’ status. One may think that there is an easy solution when you use Office 365, but actually, the answer to this question is different every time. It’s mainly due to technical limitations and a great number of features available.

That is why I decided to write this article – I hope you will find it helpful. I must, however, include a disclaimer before you read any further! There are a lot of my opinions in this article, and with some of them, you might disagree 😊

 

What are the options for task management?

Today, there are a number of places where you can find a Tasks feature in the Microsoft landscape:

  • Outlook/Exchange
  • SharePoint lists
  • OneNote
  • Planner
  • Wunderlist
  • Microsoft To-Do
  • Project and Project Server

I can imagine you asking – what the hell! What should I use, can’t they just create one, good application?

I’ve always had the impression that there is no single vision for tasks at Microsoft. There was never a good, complete scenario, but let’s see what value we can get from what we have now.

 

Outlook

Outlook is a starter scenario for many users. Most of Information Workers’ tasks come from e-mails. You can simply flag them to convert to tasks (well – this is not really true – flagging an email is different than creating a task. Ping me if you want to know more!). There are some standard task fields such as title, priority, status, etc. You can even set reminders, recurring tasks, or even assign them to another person!

Perfect scenario. Not 🙁

The biggest limitation was always the lack of integration with mobile clients (especially those by Microsoft). Even if you manage to sync your tasks to another device, not all of them will be included (for example, flagged emails). And when you assign a task to someone, you’ll only get the status information when they send it.

My recommendation for Outlook tasks:

  • Good for starting your journey with personal task management (usually, experienced people use other tools)
  • If you want the whole team to work on a task list, there are easier and more modern options.

 

SharePoint

Back in 2007, everyone was surprised by how quickly SharePoint usage grew. Platform flexibility and features such as tasks were some of the reasons. SharePoint task list is very feature-rich. It’s hard to mention all of them, but the main ones are:

  • Creating, updating, deleting tasks (of course!)
  • Setting custom statuses
  • Assigning tasks to other people
  • Creating custom views
  • Gantt chart view
  • Microsoft Project integration
  • Exporting to Excel
  • Connecting and managing a task list in Outlook
  • Notifications
  • Setting permissions per task
SharePoint task list

Figure 1. Example of a SharePoint task list

 

I haven’t used SharePoint tasks for some time, and when I wrote the list above I thought: “wow, SharePoint tasks are not so bad”.

The main problem with older SharePoint features is usability. You get a ton of features, but in the end, many of them require a lot of clicks. This just makes adoption hard and discourages users. The views are not mobile-friendly, and there is no easy way of syncing or working on the task list on a mobile device.

Gantt chart in SP

Figure 2. Gantt chart view in SharePoint

 

When it comes to assigning a task to other users, remember that you can do it only for those who have accounts on SharePoint. You can also assign a task to a group, but it’s tricky to filter them.

In SharePoint 2013 there was a very nice feature – Work Management Service. It aggregated all of SharePoint, Exchange and Project Server tasks in one view. Tasks sent by workflows used to integrate with Outlook nicely.

Unfortunately, this feature was disabled. The biggest pain of SharePoint tasks is that Microsoft no longer invests in them and from a future usage perspective, this is a dead-end scenario.

My recommendation for SharePoint:

  • Good for any scenario with complicated usage requirements such as task-level permissions, custom views, integration with Project
  • Many features make adoption harder, so remember about proper end-user training
  • Microsoft no longer invests in it, so if you plan long-term usage, then look for other options.

 

OneNote

OneNote is a one-way journey. Once you start using it, there is no turning back. It’s also a component of many collaboration scenarios such as Team Site, Groups, Teams, Skype. At Predica we use OneNote for virtually every case.

When it comes to managing tasks there is a simple process. You can tag your notes with a “To Do” tag. It’s the simplest, easiest and quickest way of working on a task list.

ON tasks

Figure 3. Example of a task list in OneNote

 

You will probably ask if it’s possible to assign a OneNote task to a specific person. Yes, it is! This task will appear in that person’s Outlook task list. When they complete it in Outlook, the update will be synchronized with OneNote!

OneNote and Outlook sync

Figure 4. Adding a OneNote task to Outlook. By using Custom option it’s possible to assign a task to another user

 

Now – this feature is really cool, but to be honest it didn’t really work for me. At our company level hardly anyone uses Outlook tasks, so I stopped doing it. Instead, I just use a simple table in OneNote with an Assigned To column.
My recommendation for OneNote tasks:

  • It’s the simplest and quickest scenario. Because OneNote syncs to your devices, it’s also convenient for people who travel a lot
  • If you require filtering and custom view, it’s not possible
  • Use it when you prefer simplicity over features.

 

Microsoft Planner

Planner is part of the Office 365 portfolio. It allows users to create modern, visually attractive plans. It has many features that competition such as Asana or Trello offers. If you have Office 365 subscription and your scenario is group collaboration, it should be your first choice.

Planner example

Figure 5. Example of a plan in Planner (Source)

 

Main Planner features are:

  • Creating plans (that are connected to Office 365 Groups)
  • Mobile application
  • Task labeling (simple visual categories)
  • Adding attachments
  • Comments
  • Simple task history
  • Checklists (a simple sub-task concept)
  • External access (using Office 365 Guest capabilities)
  • Simple reports (such as plan status, assigned to me, tasks in categories)
  • Kanban/Buckets view (allows you to see categorized tasks in a nice, visual way).

There are two features that I would like to see in Planner. The first one is Outlook integration. The second feature is more granular permissions. Now if you assign a person to a task, they get permissions to the whole group. This means access to all tasks, documents, notes, conversations, etc.

Microsoft invests and actively develops Planner so it’s possible that these features will appear in the near future. You can also vote or submit a feature request here.

Plan summary

Figure 6. Example of a plan summary in Planner (Source)

 

My recommendation for Planner:

  • It should be your first choice for any task management for a team
  • It requires Office 365 subscription and Office 365 Groups enabled – note that many IT departments block group creation.

 

Wunderlist

Microsoft bought Wunderlist in 2015. It came as a surprise to many people, especially considering that it was the leading task management app (just look at the App Store rating). The app and the whole service is very feature-rich and is offered in a freemium model. This means you can start using it for free and you pay for additional “Pro” features. One of them is the ability to assign tasks without limitations.

Wunderlist demo

Figure 7. Sample view of the Wunderlist app (Source)

 

The main Wunderlist features are similar to other applications:

  • Creating tasks and subtasks (very easy, especially for subtasks)
  • Adding comments
  • Adding attachments
  • Creating lists (for task grouping)
  • Assigning tasks
  • Marking tasks with a star
  • Email integration (you can send an email and it’s converted to a task)
  • Dropbox integration.

The biggest strengths of Wunderlist are speed, ease of use and a very nice user interface. You can also use your Office 365 account to log into the application.

The main drawback is attachment storage – if you want to use it for business purposes, make sure it’s aligned with your company’s cloud strategy. The second one is lack of integration with OneDrive for Business. There’s also no integration with Outlook – it would be nice to have a plugin similar to the one Todoist offers.

My recommendation for Wunderlist:

  • If you are looking for an alternative to Outlook task management or just want to start your adventure with tasks – try Wunderlist
  • It can also be a good alternative to Planner when you use your Office 365 account to log in (it’s easy to assign tasks to your work colleagues).

 

Microsoft To-Do

What? Another task management application from Microsoft? Yeah…

To be honest I find it strange, that after Microsoft bought Wunderlist, they decided to create another application. Right now To-Do features are very limited to:

  • Creating lists
  • Creating tasks
  • Setting due-date, note and reminder (something so obvious that I didn’t even mention it in other applications)
  • Integration with Outlook – yay! The only application that natively saves tasks in your mailbox. I think this is the reason the features are so limited for now
  • Log in using Office 365 account (limited to the mobile app, it doesn’t work in the web version).

I added information about To-Do as a curiosity. It was launched a couple of months ago and as you can see, it is at an early development stage.

To-Do demo

Figure 8. Sample view of Microsoft To-Do (Source)

 

My recommendation for Microsoft To-Do:

  • If you are looking for nice access to your Outlook tasks on a mobile device – just use it (with Office 365 account).
  • For other scenarios, it lacks features right now, but I feel that Microsoft will quickly develop it, so keep track of that app’s status.

 

Microsoft Project and Project Server

From the regular user’s perspective, using Microsoft Project or Project Server for managing tasks is a bit exotic. These are nice products but in my opinion, their usage is limited to managing projects, not tasks.

I will just leave you with the information that it’s possible to manage tasks with Project and you can create complicated relationships between them to have the whole project progress overview. If you want to know more – drop me a message and in case of big interest, I will write another article.

 

Summary

If you managed to read till the end – thank you! It means that the topic is really interesting to you. Contact me if you have any questions!

To summarize:

  • Use Outlook when you begin your personal tasks adventure
  • Use SharePoint when your needs are very specific or detailed (custom views, workflows, additional fields, etc.)
  • OneNote is a great and simple tool to use, especially with informal groups or meeting statuses
  • Planner should be your first choice for group collaboration; it’s modern and easy to use with a great feature set
  • Wunderlist should be your go-to for personal tasks tracking, especially because it allows the use of your Office 365 credentials
  • Microsoft To-Do – the new kid on the block, but keep track of it – I have a feeling that Microsoft will develop its feature-set very quickly
  • Microsoft Project and Project Server for task management are overkill for simple scenarios, but for project management, they can be a good choice.

If you are still hungry for more information – just leave a comment and I will respond!

Comments

See also

Talking About R… And Power BI

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Don’t Fear The To-Do List: A Guide To Microsoft Task Management Tools

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Bring It On, Monday! My Career At Predica

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