Where is your to-do list right now?
Is your desk cluttered with everything from sticky notes to notebooks, or is your Notes app on your phone filled to the brim?
Are you sometimes scrambling for that ONE piece of paper where you know you wrote those super important notes down?
We know the feeling.
It might be time for a project management system.
We're talking about more than just a fancy to-do list. The right tool can help you organize projects, communicate with your team, prioritize tasks, and immediately know the status of everything you're working on. The best ones will integrate with other tools you're already using, like Quickbooks or a time tracker. It can feel like a dang miracle.
Before you pick a tool, let's prioritize what you need most. Is it crucial for you to have your tasks all in one list? Are you searching for a platform where you can instantly message your team, without having to go back and forth between your email inbox and another tab? Understanding your needs will empower you to pick a tool that's appropriate and, more importantly, that you'll actually use.
Here are a few systems we've considered (and one we use!) to help your search for prioritizing perfection:
Asana: This team collaboration tool specializes in workflow and task management.
- Pros: Think of Asana as a collaborative to-do list. You can add a project and break it down by tasks, teams, or a calendar to get the best possible bird's eye view of the progress made. What's really nice is you can change how you view a project, and change back; let's say you just want to see unfinished tasks? Cool. Want to see finished AND unfinished? Great. Want to sort tasks based on who's responsible? That's fine. One of our personal favorite features is the fact that you can only assign a to-do to one person for them to be ultimately responsible. Isn’t a world without multiple people being assigned to the same task (and no one actually doing it) a wonderful place?
- Cons: If you’re someone that likes having apps for absolutely everything, Asana might not be for you. While there is a mobile app, there is no desktop app, so you’re restricted to their web interface while you’re on your computer. It’s also not ideal for graphic-intensive projects, with a primarily text-based interface; while you can upload documents, it takes a few clicks to preview or download them.
- Cost: Small teams (up to 15 people) can use Asana for free.
- TGL’s Take: We use it, we like it, we think you should try it. It integrates with Harvest, our time tracker of choice! Plus, there's something very satisfying about checking something off on your list and watching it physically disappear, with an animated unicorn running across your screen to celebrate.
Trello: If you've ever put sticky notes up on a whiteboard for any reason, this might be a tool for you.
- Pros: Many projects on Trello are organized using the Kanban system, which is a visual way to illustrate the process of completing your work. On your board, you can create a series of lists that represent the stages of your work's completion; for example, if you're running a blog, one list might be Draft Blog Titles; another might be Completed Blog Posts. You then create a card for each blog post and put it in the appropriate category. This lets you see, at any point, the status of your posts and where you might be getting held up in your process.
- Cons: Many people we see on Trello don't bother to learn about Kanban before using this tool; instead, they treat their Trello dashboard as a bunch of to do lists placed next to each other. And, hey, if that works for you, great, but it can also get messy! Try to picture a project with 100 tasks divided into 10 categories, organized horizontally; unless your mind already works this way, it can be overwhelming.
- Cost: Basic features are free.
- TGL’s Take: Our experience with Trello is that it is something people get really excited about due to its colorful interface, and because it looks different from their typical task lists... but then they stop using it after a few weeks. So if you try it out, make sure it actually helps you analyze your process to achieve a better product. Don't just use it because it's different.
Basecamp: The project management tool with ALL the bells and whistles.
- Pros: Out of all of these tools, Basecamp has the most features (for better and for worse). You can chat with your team, start a discussion board, upload files, review docs, track time, make lists, and on and on. It covers the basics of project management while also handling team collaboration and communication, time management, file storage and sharing, and more. It's a beast.
- Cons: While Basecamp is the most powerful tool of these three, it also takes the longest to set up and understand. It also takes a real commitment from your team (and clients) to actually work within the interface, and not just send emails that get copied into Basecamp but still clog up your inbox. Basecamp is popular, but unless you really need all this stuff, it might be too much.
- Cost: Free for 30 days; after that, $99/month.
- TGL’s Take: Honestly, we’ve never used a software that people either love or hate so much. Kudos to those who use it and make it work for them, but let’s just say we’re in the camp (get it?) that would be happy to never see the smiling mountain logo again.
You may notice that these three are all digital systems; that's on purpose. Not only can you access what you need anywhere (phone, iPad, shared computer), but there are many features that can be automated to save you time, like how Asana can create regular tasks that repeat each day or week so you don't forget about them. Cut the desk clutter and put down the pen!
Obviously, these are just three of the most popular choices. There are lots more, like Bam Bam, Freedcamp, and Podio. What's your project management weapon of choice?