Dramatically increase your productivity by using a task management system – Meta-skills Part 3

Use a task management system

Many of us at 80,000 Hours have found that having a good task management system – a list of tasks with a process for maintaining it – is important for being productive. The most popular system is called Getting Things Done and you can read a summary of it here.

How does it work and what are the benefits?


Whenever you get new tasks you make sure to put them in your system. The main benefit here is that you get all your tasks out of your head. This means you feel more relaxed and can concentrate more easily, knowing that you haven’t missed anything. Capturing all your tasks also makes you less likely to miss something important.

Review and prioritisation

In your regular reviews (especially daily and weekly reviews) you’ll prioritise your work. This is a potentially huge benefit if your prioritisation helps you choose tasks with far more impact than other tasks.

Motivation through goal-setting

Good goal setting is highly effective at increasing motivation and a good task management system fulfils some of the criteria suggested by goal setting researchers:

  • It encourages you to set specific goals
  • As you tick things of you feel as if you’re making progress your broader goals.
  • It makes you more confident about completing your broader goals because you break them down into specific tasks.

Is it worth it?

I find the daily review takes about 10 minutes and the weekly review takes about 1 hour, so that’s a weekly cost of 1.5 hours. So you lose about 4% of your work time to this. Good goal setting can increase your productivity about 10%, so that single benefit probably makes it worth it. On top of this, you’ll be less stressed by all the stuff you have to do. And incorporating prioritisation into your task management could lead to very large benefits as you spend more time on the most important tasks. So it seems plausible that a good task management system would improve your productivity by much more than 4%.

The dangers of mis-prioritisation:

Task management systems can sometimes lead to people being really efficient at doing small admin tasks, but a) not doing things that matter or b) not doing things that take a lot of hard concentration and cannot be easily broken down into smaller parts.

The answer to this then is to

  • Build prioritisation into your reviews
  • Set aside blocks of time for focussed work on problems that are hard to break down into smaller tasks.

How strong is the evidence?

Firstly, the system makes sense – it feels more like systematised common sense than anything too radical.

But there is also scientific evidence that supports some of the components of task management.

Finally, the Getting Things Done system is very popular. Although lots of popular things are useless, this suggests that many people find it helpful. Several people in the 80,000 Hours have adopted it and found it to boost their productivity.

Our recommendation

  • Read a summary of Getting Things Done and set up the system, either all at once or bit-by-bit. This Getting Things Done FAQ has tips on how to get started.
  • Use a commitment device to get going – it can feel like a big hassle at the beginning so it’s helpful to aid your motivation.
  • Make sure that you set aside time for working on large tasks with ambiguous next steps.

Good software options for task management are:

  • If you’re on apple, use Things ($50)
  • If you’re on windows/android, use Remember the milk. (free)
  • If you want to share tasks with a team, use Asana. (free)
  • If you want a more minimal solution, use TaskPaper (Apple only, free).

It’s worth spending some time deciding between these, as you’ll be using your system every day.

The full series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Commitment Devices
  3. Task management
  4. Prioritisation
  5. Spaced repetition