Long ago a wise man once said: "You can't manage time, you can only manage what you do with it," and almost since the first computer we have been looking to digital solutions to help us decide what to do and when.

Modern personal productivity applications aim to help you do exactly this. Any good personal productivity application should let you capture, organise and complete tasks that you need to do. It's important to understand that they aren't project management apps. Although they should let you group tasks into projects, they aren't focused on project planning or resource allocation.

The only resource they work on is your time, not anyone else's. And they need to do this as quickly, seamlessly and easily as possible: if you have to spend lots of time trying to make your system work, it's almost not worth having.

In this test, we've picked six of the best productivity applications around. Each takes a different approach to helping you stay on top of things, but all aim to help you capture, process and act upon actions in a way that makes life easier.

And that's the key to how such products should work: they must be flexible so as to work with whatever task management system you choose, without forcing you to spend hours tweaking them.

Software on test

Firetask - £30
Omnifocus - £45
Onlytasks - £11.50
Taskpaper - £18
TaskSurfer - £19
Things - £45

Test one: Ease of use

Firetask

With personal apps like these, 'ease of use' is always going to be a little relative, as it depends on the kind of system you're using to manage your tasks. But in all cases, they need to be quick and easy to get to grips with.

Most apps here use a similar starting point, with an Inbox for new, unprocessed to-dos, projects and categories (also called contexts) for grouping tasks, and dates for when something is due.

TaskSurfer, Things and Firetask have similar interfaces, with options on the left that let you select projects, to-dos that are due today, and so on. Onlytasks is similar, but refers to projects as 'Notebooks', while OmniFocus splits 'Contexts' out from projects.

TaskPaper takes a much simpler approach, with simple lists organised using tags. Firetask is probably quickest to get to grips with. Creating projects is easy, and the 'Today' option is excellent, listing both next actions and whatever's due.

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Test two: Features

TaskPaper

Feature-wise, OmniFocus is probably the stand-out product: with a little time, there's very little that you can't get it to do.

Tasks can have a context attached (the physical context you need to do the task in - for example, a computer). They can have due dates, estimations of the time they'll take, and notes. Projects can be linear - so you have to complete step one to go on to step two - or parallel, where you can 'park' one step and go on to another. The features, and options, are endless.

None of the other products come close in terms of features, though, to be fair, they attempt to focus on a more limited set of features implemented in a way that's easy to use. TaskPaper focuses on lists, with the power of a tagging system.

An honourable mention goes to TaskSurfer for its 'Smart Folders', which let you set up live searches - almost matching OmniFocus's power - and its ability to use OS X's Core Location feature to geo-locate tasks.

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