Project Management Software Advice

You really only need five things for project management. You can be productive using any app or combination of apps that provides this functionality. There's no need to go hunting for the "best" project management app, or to check out the latest and greatest new cloud app that's loaded with features for only $7.99 a month.

These are the five things you need to manage projects:

Note Taking You need to capture ideas, make outlines, keep records of meetings, and draft documents. It has to be easy to create a new note and to find it later. Task managers and list making apps should not be used for taking notes because they were not designed for that. Typing into a little html text box will cause you to resist writing things down.

The type of notes you're taking will determine the tool you should use. If you are primarily entering blocks of text, Google Docs or Zoho Writer might work. If you're doing technical work, you probably need support for entering and displaying equations, or maybe computer code. A markdown editor would be a better choice in that case. Whatever you choose, be sure you have a system flexible enough that all of your notes for a project end up in one place, and that they're entered using one app. As soon as you break that rule, all hell breaks loose.

Hyperlinking The internet was built on links for a reason. Much of project management is about managing relationships between items. You've had separate email conversations with a dozen people, received three quotes for work that needs to be done, have contact information for someone that you might want to call depending on how things proceed, you have notes from the initial meeting where you planned things out and that will need to be updated over the course of the project, and you have fifty websites holding valuable reference information. These are all very different objects, but you need a system to remind you that they all go together, and to visualize how they are related. Hyperlinks are the answer.

Attachments Projects of any size will have reference material. Email messages, papers, files, and bookmarked websites are a few examples. Attachments require a way to deal with storage, potentially in large quantities. You need a safe and reliable system that is also convenient enough that you'll always be willing to use it to collect reference material as it arrives and that allows for easy retrieval/browsing.

There are many ways to capture and store information (just drop everything into a Dropbox folder) but the attachments functionality of your system is a critical component because that is what allows you to find what you need when you need it. Reference material should be attached to a note, even if the note is just a list of reference material.

Lists Lists are an important organizing concept. You need a complete list of everything that needs to be done for your project. Checklists allow you to perform lengthy, complicated tasks without expending a lot of energy thinking about what has to be done, largely eliminating mistakes in the process. I've come to realize the value of checklists as my obligations have increased...you can scale to much larger workloads if you aren't expending a ton of energy remembering what to do and worrying about what isn't getting done.

You want an app that makes it easy to add items to lists as you capture them. The most important thing is that it has to be so easy to create, modify, and edit lists that it becomes natural to put everything into lists. After a while you'll grow so used to the compact storage of information provided by lists that you won't be able to do without them. Note that this is not the same as an app for making task lists. Task lists are a tool for doing projects rather than for managing them. Notification and calendar functions are not essential to project management (but it's obviously hard to get through the day without them!)

Review system Projects require constant review:

  • Are you completing everything that needs to be done?
  • Are you missing anything that will lead to an emergency situation in the future?
  • Have you kept updated on work done by others?
  • Did you remember to follow up every time you promised to do so?
  • What parts of the project need recalibration?
  • Are you working on things it still makes sense to do?
  • Does your schedule reflect your priorities?

These are just a few questions that go through your mind when you're not regularly doing a comprehensive (as in 100%) review. Planning is done right only when you take into account all components of the project. You're not going to be doing these reviews unless it's fast and easy.

You need a master index that provides a link to every part of the project. You need to know what needs to be reviewed and where you'll find that information. Nothing works better than a wiki for setting up a review system.

Starting

None of the above information has value until you start managing projects. One way to get started is to buy a subscription to an app like Evernote or Notion. Indeed, those apps can provide tremendous value in many cases, and if you're willing drop some cash and put your data on someone else's server, go ahead and get yourself an Evernote subscription, then use it.

While you can do that, there's absolutely no reason that you need to buy a subscription to a cloud service in order to manage projects. I use Zim Wiki, but some other options include CherryTree, Org Mode, Dokuwiki, PmWiki, and Trac (Zim Wiki and CherryTree require little technical knowledge and have a small learning curve, while the other options might require more background and time investment). The cloud is popular due to its convenience, but it comes with its own set of issues, including what to do if you decide to move your data, security, and the need for internet access. Even if you decide to go with the cloud, you can use Dropbox or a hosted version control system like Git or Fossil. The easiest option is to use a $5 USB drive. No concerns with network security or moving your data.

Don't spend long hours evaluating all the different project management apps that are available today. Pick an app like Zim Wiki and work with it. You need a tool that works. No project management software will ever be able to make up for a poorly designed workflow, for a failure to put everything into the system, or for your unwillingness to do the work. No project management software will tell you what your needs are or tell you what the end product is supposed to look like. Going down the rabbit hole of searching for the perfect project management app is a complete waste of time. If you enjoy trying apps, go ahead and try apps, but be honest that you're working on your hobby, not on project management.


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