Checkvist: Collaborative Outliner & Task Manager

For years I’ve followed the traditional method of creating to-do lists; adding an item, setting a due date/time and striking it off once the task is done. Rinse & repeat. Sure, the sheer satisfaction of striking off even the smallest item on the list drove me to stop procrastinating and get things done. The one thing I’ve often struggled with though, is in making sense of my entire task list as a whole. No matter how much I try to categorize it with folders and tags, they feel like detached units that I need to spend a lot of energy making collective sense of.

Online tools like Remember the Milk, Google Tasks and TeuxDeux, try to make things easier with e-mail integration, smart search and folders, or dead simple, lightning fast interfaces. But the inherent problem of a scattered, fragmented list of tasks that do not have an inherent hierarchy remains. Meta information like due dates and priorities are assigned to individual tasks, but what happens when a bunch of them have related properties?

Outlines as an Information Management Tool

A while ago, I was introduced to outlining as a method for quick, low-tech memory dumps. Think of them as textual mind maps — something I’ve been hooked to for years now. An outline is where you simply start writing whatever you have on your mind, building relationships and hierarchies as you go. You start with a primary topic and keep adding sub-nodes as they come to you. Wrote something that is a subset of the previous node? Hit tab to indent it and quickly create a new level. Move items around where they make more sense.

For an example, check out this outline I started with for this article:

Taking Outlines a Step Further

Sample outline

A sample outline

By nature, outlines work best in the digital medium where you can easily move things around. Now there are a ton of excellent outlining tools out there. I won’t go into too much here beyond pointing to this Wikipedia page to check them out for yourself. My personal pick of the lot is Checkvist, for reasons that will hopefully be obvious as we go along. Let’s see how you can use Checkvist to take your task management to an entirely new level.

Getting Started

Getting started with Checkvist is a 2-step process — enter your e-mail and login details on the home page and press Enter. You will be registered and taken to your first list, which is a sample outline Checkvist builds to familiarize you with the tool. You can leave it alone and dive straight into creating your own list. Roll your cursor over the arrow next to the ‘yourusername’s lists’ link in the top-right corner and click ‘Add new list’. If you like using the keyboard, press ll (that’s the key l twice) and start typing ‘add’. The appropriate link should be highlighted. Press Enter.

Lists

Quickly create a new list from the Lists dropdown panel

If you are like me and prefer using keyboard shortcuts, Checkvist is just the right thing for you. Pretty much anything in the application can be accomplished without ever having to touch the mouse. I will point to some of the most used keyboard shortcuts as I go along. There is also a quick reference guide for keyboard shortcuts along the right side of all pages within the app.

Now give your outline a name and press enter. Checkvist treats every single node in your outline as a ‘task’. To add a task, start typing in the input field that should have been created for you. Press Enter to save it and create another one below it. Now you can do a number of things here:

  1. To add another task at the same level, simply type it in and press Enter.
  2. To add a sub-task, press Tab and type it in. You can keep adding deeper levels by pressing Tab after every task/sub-task.
  3. To go a level back (create a sibling for the parent task), press Shift+Tab.
  4. Once you are done adding tasks, press Esc to get rid of the input field.
Sample outline

A sample outline that I started with for this article

Try to be as thorough as possible when adding tasks to the list. Anything that is related to the topic in question has a place in the list. Now that you have created your first outline, let’s look at how you can manipulate it.

  1. Use the up and down arrow keys to move from task to task in the list. To expand and collapse lists of sub-tasks, use the left and right arrow keys.
  2. To add a task below the currently selected task, press Enter. Note that Checkvist will add a task at the same level as the currently selected task, so the selected node has sub-tasks, the new entry will appear below those.
  3. To move a task in the list, press Ctrl+Up or Ctrl+Down arrow keys.
  4. To move a task in hierarchy (across levels), use Tab and Shift+Tab.
  5. To edit a task, highlight it and press F2. Make your changes and press Enter to apply the changes.
  6. To delete an item, press Delete.
  7. Deleted something you didn’t intend to, simply press Ctrl+Z to undo!

Apart from creating tasks and sub-tasks, you can also add notes to a task. Think of these are secondary information related to a task, or comments about it. To add a note, select a task and press nn. You can add as many notes to a task as you want, and use the left and right arrow keys to collapse or expand them from the view respectively.

Adding the Task Management Layer

A recommended practice when creating outlines is to dump all the information you need to note in the list. Hierarchies will get built as you keep adding nodes and relate them with other nodes already in the list. Once you are done, it’s time to add some to-do list goodness to the outline. Due dates and priorities are by far the most basic components of a task list. Checkvist allows you to add these and more to pretty much anything in your list using the ‘actions’ panel (press aa to bring up the panel for the selected task).

Actions panel

The actions panel

Here’s a look at what you can do:

  1. Assign due dates (keyboard shortcut dd). You can assign a due date by either clicking a date in the calendar, or simply typing it out in plain English. Today, tomorrow, Sunday, Monday, date, whatever you are most comfortable with. Checkvist will usually make sense of it all. There’s even a ‘ASAP’ status for things that you need to get done right away.
  2. Assign priorities as text colors – red, blue or green. Simply pressing  1, 2 or 3 on the keyboard also works. To make the background colored instead of the text, press Shift+1, 2 or 3. Press 0 to change it back to black text.
  3. Add tags for a finer level of categorization (keyboard shortcut tt). Note that tags are separated by spaces, not commas.
  4. Move a task and all its sub-tasks to another outline (keyboard shortcut mm).
  5. As you complete the tasks in real life, simply select a task and press Space to mark it as complete. Pressing Space again will toggle it back to an open task.
Tasks

Each task can have tags, due dates, priority and completion status

Added a task that you do not want or need to complete for some reason, but still need it to be on the list? Press Shift+Space to make the task ‘invalid’. Invalid tasks are displayed in the list, but ignored in the progress bar on the home page.

As you continue using the application, the number of lists will quickly grow and you will want to keep track of multiple projects/domains at the same time. Click the Checkvist logo or press hh to go to the application dashboard. This is where you can check on the status of each project using the helpful indicators next to each list, and go to any list to make further changes. Another way to quickly jump to a different list is to press ll, use the arrow keys to select it or type part of its name and press Enter.

Another neat feature is the ability to view all tasks by due date. The ‘Due Tasks’ page will show only those tasks that have due dates, categorized by Overdue, Today, Tomorrow and Later. Personally, I use this page as my dashboard, striking things off as I go, and planning my day based on what I need to get done (or should have done by now).

Due tasks

The due tasks page provides an at-a-glance overview of what you need to get done.

Adding Some Collaboration to the Mix

As has become a norm for any self –respecting web application, Checkvist allows you to collaborate with others on an outline. You can invite any number of friends or co-workers to view and edit a list. As others make changes to a list, they will be automatically updated in your list with a brief yellow highlight to make it noticeable. Another way to collaborate on a list is by adding notes, which show the author’s username and timestamp and be used like a discussion thread.

Notes

Notes can be used for quick in-context discussions when collaborating on outlines.

Conclusion

Checkvist does a whole lot for a webapp that’s so simple and modest from the outset. I’ve covered a very brief set of its capabilities simply from a perspective of getting one started with the core idea of the application. You can explore it further to discover the more advanced capabilities and get them to work for you on a daily basis.

Checkvist also provides a premium option that — for $30 a year — provides some more features like https access, read-only sharing, better tag management, UI customization and more. The recommended path would be to play around with the free account and evaluating what value the additional features bring to you before choosing to upgrade.