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Hierarchy vs. Flat Task Lists, Part III

This could be an emotional moment, for it is the final part of the nested vs. flat task list trilogy.  In this article I cover how one can yoke the benefits of nested and flat task lists using a single app.  This may seem like some sort of medieval alchemy, but as we shall see, it is possible.

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.

Finished reading those?…..OK let’s proceed.  For this article I will need a volunteer app.  I am not going to pick one at random for not any old task management app can perform the astounding feats that will be demanded.  No no.  For this, I will need nothing less than Abstractspoon ToDoList.  This is a great little app that can handle just about any task management method that you throw at it through the variety of plugins including traditional multi-level nested lists, calendar view, Gantt view and even Kanban view.  It is even free  – how cool is that? Shout out to the developer, .dan.g. for that.

Let’s start with the hierarchical views in ToDoList, of which there are two options,

  • Nested view, where multiple levels of subtasks are possible
  • Gantt Chart, typically used in traditional project management

The standard view in ToDoList is a nested task list, and there is no limit to the extent of nesting.  If you want 20 levels, you can have it.  This is the standard way to enter tasks using this app, although it is possible using other views.  The advantages that I see in practice with this view are,

Task context

This means that when the nested view in ToDoList is used, one need only provide a brief note for each task as the parent tasks already explain the background.  For example, in the nested list below the lowest level task , “Write report”, context can be understood by leveraging the parent categories.  In practice, it means that tasks can be entered quickly with minimal typing.  For a flat list, an extensive description would have been necessary such as “Task list style – write report on nested task lists”.

Task list styles

Research nested lists

Write report


Easily understood system

If you give the nested list to anyone, they can immediately browse through it and find what they want.  This is because people are pretty familiar with such nested structures such as MS Windows folders or even the Contents page of a book.  Manual browsing takes time and often it is quicker to enlist the help of filtering or find functions.  Both of these are aptly supported by ToDoList where you can filter by any column or configure a more complicated search criteria.

ToDoList Filter.png


ToDoList filtering options

Import/Export of Tasks in ToDoList

Hierarchies is thee universal language for task management.  If you seek to import or export tasks from other format such as mindmaps or Gantt charts, then a nested task list will be the result.  Again, it is possible with ToDoList.  Let’s take the example of a mindmap import.  If you are starting up a new project and you may wish to first sketch out the main activities.  Mindmaps are great for such purposes.  My mindmapping app of choice is Freemind which is free and nicely integrates with ToDoList.

Going to the Tools menu in ToDoList you will see the option to import from Freemind, use it and it will automatically create a new todo list where the project activities have been transformed into actionable tasks.  Adding resources and dates to the tasks result in a fully-fledged project plan.

  • First, brainstorm the project in Freemind. Start with the central topic in the centre and progressively breakdown the activities to smaller, actionable tasks.

Now, if a nested view were the only one available people could rightly raise some of the disadvantages of using such a list as highlighted in Part I or this article.  But, it is not the only view available for there are many up ToDoList’s sleeve which pretty much addresses those problems.  And, all accessible from a simple push of a button to move seamlessly between them.  One of my favorites is the Kanban view as shown below.  The Kanban plugin is a relatively new addition to ToDoList and in my opinion one of the best views for actionable task management.




ToDoList Kanban view

There are a few great features with this view but let’s start with the ability to conceal parent tasks.  What this does is to hide all the upper levels and the tasks you are left with are the lowest level actionable tasks.  So, you want to know what actionable tasks need to be done to complete the project?  No problemo, hit the Kanban view.

ToDoList Filter.png

ToDoList hide Parent tasks

So, in one deft step we have essentially translated a nested list of n levels to a flat task list containing only the lowest level actionable tasks.  Cool n’est pas?

And, the rabbit hole goes deeper.  There are other options in the ToDoList Kanban view that go far beyond the typical interpretation and usage.  Generally Kanban charts have a fixed format and fixed column titles indicating which tasks are pending, in progress and completed for example.



Run of the mill Kanban board

ToDoList can also do this of course, but you can also change the columns to status, task category, person responsible etc.  That is a very powerful feature that provides a myriad of different opportunities for task management.  So, taking our task list, we could rearrange the Kanban view to show the actionable tasks per person, or actionable tasks by category for example.



Kanban plugin, organised by person

There are other options in the ToDoList Kanban view that go far beyond the typical interpretation and usage.

All of the upper levels which provide context or goals of the tasks is removed and you are left with only the tasks that are needed to progress those higher level goals.  When I have used this in practice within a team environment there is sometimes a need to see which branch the actionable task belongs to in order to understand the background to the short task description.  That is achieved by simply clicking on the Task Tree tab to see the full branch.  So, we have both the advantage of showing only the actionable tasks but with a switch of views, can quickly determine the context to which it belongs.

Hierarchy vs. Flat task List Summary

I hope this article has demonstrated how with the push of a button we can switch between a hierarchical and flat task list and obtain advantages from both.  It has been a long journey through the last three articles for both of us so give yourself a pat on the back if you have gone through all of those.  If your flexibility does not challenge that of a Yoga Master, feel free to enlist some help.

Thanks for dropping by and feel free to add any comments about this ongoing debate.  Will it ever be decided?  Will there ever be the one single, simple way to rule them all?  I don’t know, but the perpetual nature of the discussion reminds me a little bit of this clip from “That Mitchell and Webb look”.  Enjoy.



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