Cheating on Things…with OmniFocus

There are a lot of good reviews about Things, and the CulturedCode developers are frequent commenters on reviews of GTD software that include Things. Things is a beautiful application that works amazingly well for a beta. And I certainly can’t complain about the nearly one year free trial while it’s been in beta. But I got tired of the regular pop-ups telling me that a feature is not available until the release version, and having to re-organize my Today list every morning was getting a little old. So I decided to give OmniFocus a try. Only a 14-day trial, kind of a bummer after a 9 month trial with Things, and I do wonder if I can be satisfied at the end of 14 days, about which application is right for me. I mean it took a lot of use for the nit picky items I mentioned above to start to bug me in Things.

As background, I’ve listened to the Unabridged recording of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done multiple times. The concepts were like a huge breath of fresh air to me and really made sense in the context of the many tasks I was trying to keep track of. That is what prompted me to go looking for a GTD application for Mac last winter.

There are a lot out there. The ones I considered last winter:

  • iGTD – maybe it is the interface design, but it just looked complicated and obtuse to me. It’s got a lot of happy users so it is worth checking out.
  • TaskPaper– sweet little app if your task list is short….mine is VERY not short.
  • OmniFocus – too expensive and every review I read said it was not quite as good as Things. That was then and this is why I’m writing now.
  • Things – right price and seemed to do everything I wanted. A nice little intro video from a user made it look simple.

There were a few features in Things that threw me from the start. 1) Areas v. Projects. Though I have spent a fair amount of time reading about the subject in the Things forum, I still don’t understand how to use Areas effectively, but I do have close to twenty. 2) There didn’t seem to be a way to see everything. I was always worried that I was overlooking some item, maybe hidden away in Scheduled or Someday. I really wanted a view that showed me everything relevant so I could do a quick review each morning. FWIW, after this long trial, I have come to trust Scheduled. It has always worked reliably, popping tasks to the Today list when their time is up. Someday can get overlooked, but honestly the few things I put in there were things I will probably never get too. That said, I think what I really wanted was a function in between Scheduled and Someday. There are tasks I want to review when I look at everything, but I want to decide when to review them. I don’t like having them dumped in Today and waking up to an 80 item Today list to cull through and reorganize.

Some issues that have bothered me after the long trial. 1) Maybe it is because I have so many tasks, but clicking a task seems sluggish. Things is especially slow to de-select an item. Sometimes I don’t know if I have not clicked in the right area to de-select or if Things has just hung up for a few seconds. 2) I guess not being sure if I have clicked in the right place after several months of use is one of my issues too. 3) I’ve never made much use of Tags. Probably I need to simplify my Tags even further. My Things are tagged, I just don’t use the available filters (though they look very cool!). Maybe it is that fear of missing something when it is hidden.

So I downloaded OmniFocus last night and watched the excellent OmniFocus Basics Video, produced by OmniGroup. (There’s also a Perspectives video in the Resources section on the main OmniFocus page.) I also did a quick scan of the manual and downloaded the one page reference chart.

A lot of reviewers have found OmniFocus’ interface design lacking. I think it is great and functional looking, whereas Things interface looks a little like a toy with all its eye candy. To me the <return> based item entry is much more intuitive, than Things’ <space><return>. I like that Omnifocus has all the pertinent data; Project, Context, Start Date, Due Date, Duration, in one line; and that I get to choose the Columns displayed. I don’t care much for having to click an icon to add a Note, but that seems to slow me down less than navigating the item entry box in Things. At first I didn’t like being limited to one Context per task, but I quickly saw the benefit of that, when I realized I never used Things Tags because mine were too complex. OmniFocus also has estimated Duration as a separate feature so time doesn’t have to go in your Contexts. Interestingly I have 23 Tags in Things and 22 Contexts in OmniFocus. For the most part they don’t map. I took the 11 most useful Tags from my Things list and added a Context for non-computer tasks and some subcontexts for errands.

A surprising realization to me was, while all the reviews I’ve read said Things was the simpler of the two applications, for me the reverse was true. OmniFocus was more intuitive and fit better with my workflow (admittedly somewhat shaped by using Things for several months). OmniFocus’ Views and the ability to organize Projects and Single Action Lists within Folders were more useful and made more sense to me than Things implementation of Areas. Though the two features are very similar. OmniFocus may have a more bells-and-whistles at this stage (comparing a release candidate version of OmniFocus to a beta of Things), but I think the basic usage of OmniFocus is more straightforward.

The cost of OmniFocus at $80 is a drawback, but not more than I would be willing to spend on a program I use everyday. The larger developer force behind OmniFocus is a plus. OmniGroup seems to be able to implement changes more quickly than Cultured Code. As a Blackberry user I was disappointed to see Things developers suddenly turn their attention to getting an iPhone version out the door to keep up with the release of OmniFocus for iPhone, pushing off the release date of the desktop version yet again. Though the upside is that Things is free as in beta, for another 3 months.

Overall I am impressed with OmniFocus. Enough to switch from Things to OmniFocus permanently? I don’t know yet, but I will create a task in both to let you know.

If you give OmniFocus and/or Things a try be sure to watch the videos first. It’s a few minutes spent that will save you time and get you up to speed using these applications and having fun organizing your task lists right away.

9 thoughts on “Cheating on Things…with OmniFocus”

  1. Make sure you try Nozbe before making a decision.

    I used and taught Covey and Daytimer for many years before reading David Allen’s GTD book and switching to GTD. Its made a significant impact for the good on my business and personal productivity.

    And I found an application that allows me to view my entire GTD at work on my Win machine, at home on my Macs and even on my cell phone. And another app lets me call in tasks to my GTD without any writing or typing, great for those thoughts that hit me while driving.

    I’ve written about my experiences with GTD at John

  2. I am impressed that you liked OmniFocus that quickly. It took me a few days to get the hang of it. Probably your experience with Things had you more organized going in. One thing that has really helped me start to get real productive with OmniFocus is using Perspectives. There is a two-part video on YouTube about how to create a “Do Today” perspective and that is very powerful. I also found instructions some where on “Completed Today” and that is equally nice. So now I’ve got several main perspectives I use, then will tweak if looking for something.

    Working (a group of contexts that relate to all I do in my office)
    Done Today
    Do Today

    Between those and the Project list, I get 5 very different views of my list and its working great.

    And I’m just diving into the iPhone app which is very clean and nice… but for some reason doesn’t have the ability to use custom Perspectives.

  3. Thanks for your input Mike. I was just starting to realize what a great feature Perspectives could be.

    The YouTube “Do Today List” videos, Part 1 and Part 2 are very helpful. I also watched the video about making an incubating folder. Seems like that is exactly what I want for inactive projects and items. I’d been trying to do it with an “incubate” context.

  4. Funny, I’m giving OmniFocus the 14-day trial as well, for many of the same reasons. I’ve got a lot of projects, and many of them have sub-projects. Once I really got rolling with Things and added as many actions as I could to it, I felt it really got unwieldy. Perhaps I could have used tags to organize stuff, but I feel OF has better built-in support for more complex projects. As you say, we’ll see how it goes.

    Oh, and I’m also a BlackBerry user (need it for work), so I feel your pain. One thing I do is use the OF email rule to add tasks. I added OF to my BlackBerry address book, and I can then shoot myself a quick email any time I think of or come across an action I need to add. This is actually faster than Remember The Milk, which has a nice app to sync BlackBerry tasks, but uses the built-in to-do list, which is very clunky. (Downside? Can’t get to tasks from the phone, or check them off.)

  5. Hi Geoff,

    I opened Things today to see if I’d added a note to a task there that hadn’t been copied over to OmniFocus, I had not. Having to spend just a couple of minutes using Things confirmed my decision to go with OF. It was overwhelming to see 80 tasks in my “Today” view and many “Scheduled” tasks that needed to be re-scheduled. I wasn’t sure where to find the task I was looking for, but finally found it in using “Areas”. I agree with your assessment that OmniFocus works better for complex projects.

    Thanks for the tip on the e-mail rule for tasks from the Blackberry. I’ve been using Jott for a few months, but that requires that I manually create the task when the Jott e-mail arrives.

    To get tasks to my Blackberry I created a two calendars in iCal; one for errands/shopping list, the other for non-computer contexts. I use OF to sync appropriate contexts to those two calendars, then use MissingSync to copy them to the Blackberry. I overwrite the Blackberry each time and check off items after-the-fact, using OmniFocus. I don’t trust a two-way sync not to corrupt my OF data. Besides the multi-step sync, another drawback is that as far as I can tell, there is not yet a way in OF to automatically sync to iCal so I have to remember to do it manually before I sync my BB.

  6. Interesting. It’s too bad Remember the Milk doesn’t yet have two-way iCal sync. I really just want to switch to the iPhone, but can’t until work moves to Notes 8.

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