Task management

Now that I’m freelancing, I need to actually track my time, which is something I’ve had the luxury of not having to do before. That meant something of a rethink of the way I’ve been keeping track of my to-do list. Up to now that was a combination of things like the bug lists for the projects I’m working on at the moment, whatever task tracking system Canonical was using at the moment (Jira when I left), and a giant flat text file in which I recorded logbook-style notes of what I’d done each day plus a few extra notes at the bottom to remind myself of particularly urgent tasks. I could have started manually adding times to each logbook entry, but ugh, let’s not.

In general, I had the following goals (which were a bit reminiscent of my address book):

  • free software throughout
  • storage under my control
  • ability to annotate tasks with URLs (especially bugs and merge requests)
  • lightweight time tracking (I’m OK with having to explicitly tell it when I start and stop tasks)
  • ability to drive everything from the command line
  • decent filtering so I don’t have to look at my entire to-do list all the time
  • ability to easily generate billing information for multiple clients
  • optionally, integration with Android (mainly so I can tick off personal tasks like “change bedroom lightbulb” or whatever that don’t involve being near a computer)

I didn’t do an elaborate evaluation of multiple options, because I’m not trying to come up with the best possible solution for a client here. Also, there are a bazillion to-do list trackers out there and if I tried to evaluate them all I’d never do anything else. I just wanted something that works well enough for me.

Since it came up on Mastodon: a bunch of people swear by Org mode, which I know can do at least some of this sort of thing. However, I don’t use Emacs and don’t plan to use Emacs. nvim-orgmode does have some support for time tracking, but when I’ve tried vim-based versions of Org mode in the past I’ve found they haven’t really fitted my brain very well.

Taskwarrior and Timewarrior

One of the other Freexian collaborators mentioned Taskwarrior and Timewarrior, so I had a look at those.

The basic idea of Taskwarrior is that you have a task command that tracks each task as a blob of JSON and provides subcommands to let you add, modify, and remove tasks with a minimum of friction. task add adds a task, and you can add metadata like project:Personal (I always make sure every task has a project, for ease of filtering). Just running task shows you a task list sorted by Taskwarrior’s idea of urgency, with an ID for each task, and there are various other reports with different filtering and verbosity. task <id> annotate lets you attach more information to a task. task <id> done marks it as done. So far so good, so a redacted version of my to-do list looks like this:

$ task ls

ID A Project     Tags                 Description
17   Freexian                         Add Incus support to autopkgtest [2]
 7   Columbiform                      Figure out Lloyds online banking [1]
 2   Debian                           Fix troffcvt for groff 1.23.0 [1]
11   Personal                         Replace living room curtain rail

Once I got comfortable with it, this was already a big improvement. I haven’t bothered to learn all the filtering gadgets yet, but it was easy enough to see that I could do something like task all project:Personal and it’d show me both pending and completed tasks in that project, and that all the data was stored in ~/.task - though I have to say that there are enough reporting bells and whistles that I haven’t needed to poke around manually. In combination with the regular backups that I do anyway (you do too, right?), this gave me enough confidence to abandon my previous text-file logbook approach.

Next was time tracking. Timewarrior integrates with Taskwarrior, albeit in an only semi-packaged way, and it was easy enough to set that up. Now I can do:

$ task 25 start
Starting task 00a9516f 'Write blog post about task tracking'.
Started 1 task.
Note: '"Write blog post about task tracking"' is a new tag.
Tracking Columbiform "Write blog post about task tracking"
  Started 2024-01-10T11:28:38
  Current                  38
  Total               0:00:00
You have more urgent tasks.
Project 'Columbiform' is 25% complete (3 of 4 tasks remaining).

When I stop work on something, I do task active to find the ID, then task <id> stop. Timewarrior does the tedious stopwatch business for me, and I can manually enter times if I forget to start/stop a task. Then the really useful bit: I can do something like timew summary :month <name-of-client> and it tells me how much to bill that client for this month. Perfect.

I also started using VIT to simplify the day-to-day flow a little, which means I’m normally just using one or two keystrokes rather than typing longer commands. That isn’t really necessary from my point of view, but it does save some time.

Android integration

I left Android integration for a bit later since it wasn’t essential. When I got round to it, I have to say that it felt a bit clumsy, but it did eventually work.

The first step was to set up a taskserver. Most of the setup procedure was OK, but I wanted to use Let’s Encrypt to minimize the amount of messing around with CAs I had to do. Getting this to work involved hitting things with sticks a bit, and there’s still a local CA involved for client certificates. What I ended up with was a certbot setup with the webroot authenticator and a custom deploy hook as follows (with cert_name replaced by a DNS name in my house domain):

#! /bin/sh
set -eu


for domain in $RENEWED_DOMAINS; do
    case "$domain" in
$found || exit 0

install -m 644 "/etc/letsencrypt/live/$cert_name/fullchain.pem" \
install -m 640 -g Debian-taskd "/etc/letsencrypt/live/$cert_name/privkey.pem" \

systemctl restart taskd.service

I could then set this in /etc/taskd/config (server.crl.pem and ca.cert.pem were generated using the documented taskserver setup procedure):


Then I could set taskd.ca on my laptop to /usr/share/ca-certificates/mozilla/ISRG_Root_X1.crt and otherwise follow the client setup instructions, run task sync init to get things started, and then task sync every so often to sync changes between my laptop and the taskserver.

I used TaskWarrior Mobile as the client. I have to say I wouldn’t want to use that client as my primary task tracking interface: the setup procedure is clunky even beyond the necessity of copying a client certificate around, it expects you to give it a .taskrc rather than having a proper settings interface for that, and it only seems to let you add a task if you specify a due date for it. It also lacks Timewarrior integration, so I can only really use it when I don’t care about time tracking, e.g. personal tasks. But that’s really all I need, so it meets my minimum requirements.


Considering this is literally the first thing I tried, I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. There are a bunch of optional extras I haven’t tried yet, but in general it kind of has the vim nature for me: if I need something it’s very likely to exist or easy enough to build, but the features I don’t use don’t get in my way.

I wouldn’t recommend any of this to somebody who didn’t already spend most of their time in a terminal - but I do. I’m glad people have gone to all the effort to build this so I didn’t have to.