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Hierarchy vs. Flat Task Lists, Part 2

Welcome to the second part of the enthralling hierarchical vs. flat list trilogy. The first part dealt with the advantages and disadvantages of nested and flat task lists. This article will cover applications of flat and nested task lists and where they can be best utilized to maximize their benefits. So, grab a cup of tea, some biccies and let me tell you my experiences of both. Feel free to drop your own comments in the section below.

In my case, the application of flat and nested task lists can be more or less divided along personal and professional lines.  For professional, work related tasks I use hierarchical task lists and for my personal life I use a flatter structure. I will explain the reasoning behind it in this article. First up, work related stuff.

Professional, hierarchical lists

For this, I have always used nested lists and they do the job admirably. The reasoning behind the use of hierarchical lists for work can be summarized by the following bullet points.hierarchy-vs-flat-task-lists-part-2

  • Very often, doing a task leads to follow up tasks. In a hierarchical list, these would be created as logical child tasks.
  • The origin of the task list is often hierarchical and in my case this can be the result of two different methods to define the tasks
    1. Macro to micro task management. This is a waterfall project management based approach, which is imported to a task management app. You can refer to the linked article where it is described in detail.
    2. Quarterly goals, broken down into smaller actionable steps. This is a very standard approach to beginning any package of work. The initial goals can be listed and then using mindmapping, the sub tasks necessary to complete those goals are determined.
  • The team can understand the structure as it follow project phases and then areas of work. This allows other team members to quickly zoom in on areas relevant to them.
  • Tasks can be quickly entered on the fly with minimal description as the context is already inferred by the branch where it is located. An example of this is provided in the first article dealing with the pros and cons of nested and flat lists.

All of these points deal with the creation and maintenance of the task list. There are two other critical points to consider though when it comes to team collaboration on those tasks. Those are the distribution of the task list in an easily readable form and the review of tasks in a team environment. Let’s also cover these related points.

  • When it comes with reviewing tasks with a team I tend to use a flat list of the actionable tasks and dispense with the parent tasks

    Task reporting. When it comes to reporting, a hierarchical task list is the most natural form. I simply print it as outline view and it can easily be read and understood by everyone as it is a common format. Think for example of bullet points, indenting, tables of contents etc. all of these are familiar applications of a hierarchy and commonly found in all manner of publications. A flat task list with tags is seldom used for reporting.
  • Task review. When it comes with reviewing tasks with a team I tend to use a flat list of the actionable tasks and dispense with the parent tasks. The only time I resort back to the nested view is if the task description is not adequate to indicate the background to the task. So, this is one example where flat lists trump nested lists for work task lists. I will explain in part three of this article how one can utilise the advantages of both in a single app.

Personal, flat task lists

I also maintain a task list for personal items. Since my personal requirements are different from my professional needs, how I manage those tasks is also different. At a personal level, I have only basic requirements and need a simple system with the following features,

  • Can operate across multiple platforms and operating systems
  • Voice entry for tasks for quick task addition on the go Smart dates so I can set reminders without excessive stabbing at a small screen
  • Quick and easy to move tasks between lists
  • Knowledge of what tasks can be done given my context or location
  • Can quickly indicate what tasks should be focused on
  • Reminders for tasks where time is of importance

All of the above can be achieved using any task manager such as Wunderlist, TickTick or Swipes. The task lists can be labeled as per your individual needs. For example,

  • Context.  You could have have lists titled computer, phone, work etc.  Each would then contain the tasks to be done given that context.
  • Time frame. You could have lists titled week, month and year to give some focus for the tasks during that period, from short term tasks to do in that week to year long goals.
  • Main projects. By the GTD definition, this is simply an activity that requires more than one task to complete it.

It is a very simple, flat system and for one’s personal life, where most tasks are not complicated nor time critical, is likely sufficient. As Einstein would say, everything should be as simple as possible but no simpler and indeed this applies to task lists. If a grocery list style is sufficient, then there is no need to add complication.

We can even go old school and use a bullet point journal if smart features are not needed.


In the third part of the trilogy I will look at how one can apply both concepts within a single app for maximum benefit

In my case I tend to use a more complicated task list(nested) for more complicated projects. Since the origin of the tasks are often from a hierarchical project plan or from sub-dividing complex tasks this would seem logical. Further editing of the plan with follow up tasks and reporting also align well with the indented nature of the list.

For personal tasks lists, a flat structure seems to fit the requirements. Since tasks are often added on the go I certainly don’t want to be searching through a hierarchy to determine where to add it. Many people take this philosophy and apply it to more complicated projects with the aid of other tools such as categories, tags or labels.

In the third part of the trilogy I will look at how one can apply both concepts within a single app for maximum benefit. I will also provide links to the free app so you can try it out for yourself. So, don’t forget to drop by for that and lest one forget, subscribe to get it automatically by email.

Brendan Toner

Let me welcome you to this alcove of the internet. In this little productivity blog, I detail the trials and tribulations of trying to use my time more effectively utilising the latest productivity tools and techniques. I hope you enjoy the articles, cheers! Brendan Toner, author of Done Before Brekky

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2 Responses

  1. Tom McLaughlin says:

    I didn’t understand a word of it but I know its all good !

  1. December 13, 2016

    […] For those of you who missed the first two articles you may want to review those first to prepare yourself mentally, spiritually and physically for this final installment.  The earlier articles dealing cover the advantages and disadvantages of nested and flat task lists and applications of nested and flat task lists. […]

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