Checklists are great, but subtasks will kill your productivity

Checklists are great, but subtasks will kill your productivity

Laura Binder

One of the questions we get a lot about our product is, “Do you have subtasks?” When we say, “No,” the next question is invariably, “Why? I really need subtasks.”

We understand where you’re coming from. But… we don’t like subtasks. At all. In fact, we think subtasks are evil.

People think of subtasks as a great way to organize complex information, but believe it or not, using subtasks ironically leads to terrible management practices, wasted time, low morale, and all around chaos.

And to further complicate the great debate [of issues you never even knew were controversial], we also believe that there’s a key difference between subtasks and checklists.

Checklist = listing out things so no one forgets to do them = good

Subtask = assigning someone to a task within a project = bad

To be fair, the issue isn’t really with subtasks per se, but rather the overall conspiracy of hierarchies, to which subtasks are merely an accomplice. We believe that having a strict hierarchy of projects, tasks, and subtasks kills productivity and makes people unhappy.

Why? If you’re responsible for a large number of minor tasks across a multitude of projects, and your team is using a traditional tool that organizes work exclusively by project, how do you know what you’re responsible for and how it fits into the bigger picture? It’s too time-consuming and burdensome to click into each project, find the tasks you’re responsible for, and keep track of it all.

Your team ends up needing many different views for each team member just to make sense of the hierarchy.

Why is this bad? There are four main reasons:

1. It’s hard to prioritize on a high level

With a hierarchy, there’s no clear view of greater goals and how individual tasks fit into the bigger picture. Everyone’s focused on their own personal tasks, so you have to meet for separate discussions about what the global priorities are, what everyone’s working on, how everything fits together, and ensure that everyone’s clear on what tasks are high priority and what should wait.

The evil baby that’s born as a result: Long, repetitive, and super dull meetings.

2. You can’t visualize deadlines

With the separate views that hierarchy creates, it becomes very hard to answer the simple question, “What are we going to achieve as a team this week?” The project becomes a complex ladder of tasks and subtasks, and it’s impossible to clearly see when anything is going to get done. Without checking in with the team on a daily basis and asking, “What are you working on?” and “When will it be done?”, managers lose control.

The evil baby that’s born as a result: Managers become nags.

3. You lose all sense of achievement

When you mark a subtask as “complete” in a traditional project management tool, what happens? It disappears. No one knows.

You’ve probably never really thought about this, but this kills people’s motivation. You’re burdened to communicate your accomplishments to your teammates and managers, and then it’s on them to provide recognition and celebrate success. All of this happens outside of the tool you’re working with.

The evil baby that’s born as a result: More meetings and sometimes, office politics.

4. People work slowly

When the big picture goal isn’t clear, people don’t understand why their work is important and how even the smallest of tasks contribute to the overall mission. When they complete a task, they’re just handed another, so there’s no reason to work quickly or strive to achieve more. This is depressing, and you need more meetings to fix it.

The evil baby that’s born as a result: Low morale and slow execution.

What should you do instead of working with a hierarchy of projects, tasks, and subtasks?

Manage by time!

Put all of your team’s tasks in one single board, with no separate personal views. Then simply manage the week and make sure everyone’s clear on what the weekly goal is. In, each person can mark tasks “done” and turn them green as the week progresses.

Without having to say a word to anyone, this is an amazingly satisfying way to feel accomplished. Then, as a team, you can celebrate at the end of each week the success of completing what you set out to achieve.

The happy babies that will be born as a result:

  • Prioritize what’s important and keep everyone focused on why their tasks matter
  • Feel confident that you’ll meet your deadlines and know what your team will accomplish
  • Receive recognition when things turn green without the manager having to do a thing
  • Take initiative and self-manage because everyone understands what the goal is

And guess what? We’re working on a new checklist feature right now. It will give you everything you ever wanted from subtasks—the ability to drill down into great detail and stay organized on every single to-do so you can stay super organized at all times—while always allowing you to focus on the big picture and see how everyone’s tasks contribute towards your end goal. It’s the best of both worlds, and we know that many of you have been eagerly anticipating it. So stay tuned over the coming few weeks—we’ll let you know when it’s here. 🙂

In the meantime, lose the subtasks, and instead get your team addicted to “done.”