Net-Based To-Do Lists Permit Collaboration By Family, Colleagues

Submit expense reports: Check. Buy school raffle tickets: Check. Finish writing column: Not quite.

For all of us trying to meet the myriad demands of work and home, a comprehensive to-do list can be indispensable. Part of the checklist’s power is its simplicity. Just a few minutes with a stub of pencil and a scrap of napkin can help supercharge your productivity for days.

Of course, anything you can do with a 10-cent pencil can also be accomplished with a 3-gigahertz computer chip. Email programs like Microsoft Outlook can track your obligations and hassle you until they’re completed, while PDAs and even cellphones offer task lists and reminder options.

The latest twist is to-do lists that you keep on the Web. Several new services promise to store all the details of your responsibilities online, from your loftiest career goals to how many bananas you need from the supermarket. Once the list is online, you can allow a colleague to update project milestones or let your spouse add to the roster of household chores.

Can a high-tech list help you accomplish more? I’ve been testing several in hopes of getting my own life better organized. I discovered some clever features and found that the shared-list capability works well for those who need it. But as with other organizational tools, from day-planner notebooks to PDAs, what you get out of these sites depends on how much you invest in their approach.

The best example is a new service called Backpack, located at www.backpackit.com, which has been drawing attention among bloggers who focus on productivity tips. (More on those blogs later on.) For those who want to give an online organizer a try, Backpack is relatively simple to use, with a clean look, clear menus and instructive “help” screens.

To use Backpack, you create a user name and password to sign on. That takes you to a home page that serves as your main to-do list. Clicking a button labeled “list” lets you type in a to-do task — “Have oil changed,” for instance. Then, after you hit return, the entry appears on the page in classic to-do style, with a small box next to it waiting for a triumphant checkmark.

While the home page serves as a top-level to-do list, Backpack also lets users create other pages to focus in more detail on individual projects. To juggle professional and personal demands, a user might create a page titled “Prepare Presentation for Meeting” that lists subjects to research, and another called “Plan Summer Vacation” ticking off possible hotels and items to pack.

What sets Backpack’s Web approach apart is its sharing ability. By clicking a button, users can choose to make their page available to others — either anyone on the Web or only those individuals whose email addresses the user provides.

The sharing option works well, but it isn’t for everyone. I found that whether a colleague or family member took to Backpack depended partly on how that person felt about taking a digital approach, and that only those who were highly motivated to keep their lives paperless collaborated easily. Still, some of the niftier features may help persuade others to give it a try — particularly the automated reminder service that nags you as desired with email messages.

Backpack gives away free accounts that limit users to five pages of to-do lists and notes. Paid accounts, starting at $5 a month, offer more pages, as well as storage space that lets users attach computer files and photos to their pages. Backpack’s producer, 37signals, also offers a service called Basecamp (www.basecamphq.com) with more features for business projects. Another sister site, Ta-da List (www.tadalist.com), offers a no-frills to-do list for no charge.

I also tried a service called Use Tasks (www.usetasks.com). It charges $3.95 a month for a “personal” online task manager. Use Tasks included some nice features, but I found it tougher than Backpack to master.

Ultimately, the usefulness of these services depends on your willingness to stick with the approach. I also discovered a major obstacle to acceptance: email. Many of my to-do list items are generated as a result of email correspondence. Unless I want to switch back and forth between my email and a task manager, it’s often easier to organize things with folders in my email inbox — even if it means giving up some bells and whistles. Backpack includes some features to bridge this gap, but it still requires some juggling.

The desire to become more productive and better organized is a powerful drive, and it has spawned interesting blogs. For anyone looking to exert some control over the daily chaos of work and home, these make for interesting reading:

- Lifehacker (www.lifehacker.com) is published by Gawker Media and focuses on productivity shortcuts. Recent entries range from an extreme home-office makeover to finding cheap gasoline.

- 43 Folders (www.43folders.com) focuses more closely on organizational methods. This site is of particular interest to fans of “Getting Things Done,” a useful book by David Allen. One lengthy discussion on 43 Folders debates the merits of a pocket organizer made from index cards and a binder clip, dubbed the Hipster PDA.

- To-Done! (www.to-done.com) is another blog catering to followers of the “Getting Things Done” method, known simply as “GTD” to devotees.

Walt Mossberg is on assignment.


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