Why most digital task list managers fail.

Unlimited levels of complexity is
apparently a bad thing if you ask
most developers of GTD software.
So this project checklist would be
a no no…

Ever since becoming a Getting Things Done(GTD for short) practitioner. I have been an avid tester of list managers. I have come to identify one mayor reason most of them won’t work, for most people. One essential feature is almost always missing. So every time it’s time to test a new product, I find myself going straight to the number one overlooked feature: Unlimited levels of sub tasks (also called hierarchy). And more often that not, I find that it is, indeed, missing.

What? Unlimited levels of sub tasks? Why on earth would you need…
Well, you see, one level in my task lists is just not good enough. It really doesn’t scale. So for me it means I will never be able to use it, as long as I can not choose the appropriate amount of levels, for my different projects. Yes some projects only need one or two levels. Even most of my projects only need one or two levels. But what about the others? I see no point in having a task list for only some of my tasks. Does anyone? If I am going to the trouble of keeping my tasks in a list in the first place, I want to keep them all in one place. I need to be able to clear my head and know that my task list can help me keep track of them all. All the time.  So while software like:

Remember the Milk
and many, many more
provide an excellent service to its users. Most of them fail miserably in the unlimited levels category…

With so many brilliant software developers dropping this feature, they must at least have some heavy weighing reasons, right? Sadly; no.

When asked about whether they would provide unlimited levels in the future. Most of them argue for not adding the missing feature. Saying it’s supposed to be like this. That providing the user with unlimited levels is known to be popular, but that they just don’t like it. Others say it introduces clutter and complexity, and that it renders their software unusable. Or go so far as to point out that it would break with the core principles of GTD. Some even ask me if I even have read the book. The link is very typical of the kind of replies I usually get when asking for this feature.

But not everybody is emulating a buddhist monk with only a handful of tasks and projects on their plate. Like Leo Babubta of Zenhabits. So here is a quote from the book Getting Things Done, by David Allen: «When a project calls for substantial objective control, you’ll need some type of hierarchical outline with components and subcomponents,» or you could read this post where he points out the same thing. But where he also points out all the other stuff you shouldn’t forget when organizing. How people do this without multiple levels is beyond me. What introduces the least clutter? Keeping a mental checklist for your projects or using a project template which guides you through the process?

Pretty clearly GTD is not all about simplyfy until you are left with two levels… Forcing others to only have one or two levels just because it works for some is an arbitrary and pointless policy. If it really was so important to keep it clutter free. Well, you don’t have to make use of the unlimited levels if you don’t need them. That’s the whole pont. Or as Einstein said: «Everything should be made as simple as it can be, but no simpler.»

Unlimited levels to the rescue
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Some few developers do get it right. Enter WrikeGqueues and MyLifeOrganized. If you use Apple you even have Omnifocus (a celebrated GTD app that even is mentioned on the David Allen website). For all their shortcomings they do, at least one thing right. They all support unlimited levels. Wrike is currently my daily driver, since it si the most intuitive of the lot. But Gqueues also makes it easy to share and collaborate with other non GTDers. It also sports a very nice integration with Google Calendar. While MylifeOrganized is the best for GTD purists, it lacks the calendar integration and oppourtunity to share projects with others not using the same software. To be honest I haven’t really tried Omnifocus, since I don’t use Apple products but as far as I can tell it is one of the better GTD implementations.

So untill I find the perfect GTD task list manager I will keep on looking. To help me I have made this matrix of GTD software. Although not complete and certainly not very usable for others besides myself I have chosen to attach a link to it.

If you know of a GTD compatible software that I should try, please feel free and give a shout out in the comments section below.


  • Hey.
    Like your passion, and hope you find todolist Nirvana some day:-) I have bumped up against the limited-subtask-wall from time to time myself. Lately however I have found that the only way to really make my todolist work is with limitations. I limit my areas of focus, number of projects and levels of subtasks. (I use todoist with 4 sublevels) Having said that I really think it should be up to the user to decide the levels to use. Ps. Cool matrix. how about writing a review of all the progs?

  • Thanks. I have a review of Wrike coming out soon. Also I want to redesign the matrix so people can decide for themselves which features they think are important and then they will find the optimal solution for their own GTD preferences.

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