To-do apps are a dime a dozen these days. Everyday there seems to be a new to-do manager that’s going to make your life better, solve all your problems, and actually help you acheive everything. I’m not here to tear them all down, but the main problem I see in them is that the only philosophy that backs most of them is a sort of mechanical methodology to force your way to “To-do Success”.
As humans, we don’t do well when we’re forced to do things or when too much willpower is involved. Indeed, our willpower to acheive is a finite resource that must be used carefully throughout each day. Because willpower is limited in supply, it puts a lot of pressure on a to-do app to not only remind us of what we should do, but also make it as easy as possible to do it. Further, a to-do app that isn’t backed by a self-proven philosophy that is used by the user is no good to the user at all. The app is merely half of the puzzle; the other half is the mode in which you live your life. The app is merely a work glove for your hand. You won’t be comfortable forcing yourself into an ill-fitting glove. The system will sooner or later fall apart (just like your too-small glove), so it’s important to find the system that works best for you.
Omnifocus: Not Your Grandpa’s To-Do List
While to-do apps are busy bossing your peers around, Omnifocus is working with you to accomplish your projects. Anyone familiar with David Allen’s GTD system will slide right into the Omnifocus system and be ready to run right away. The Omni Group has done a great job implementing the GTD system and i’ve really enjoyed taking the GTD approach in the smart device atmosphere.
Omnifocus is GTD at it’s core. With quick entry tools, different views (project, context, due, focus), device sync, and added note support, keeping track of your projects in Omnifocus is a breeze. These tools are essential to the GTD system.
The Sweet Suite- Mac, iPad, and iPhone
Each version of Omnifocus has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. Most of these will be presented in the rest of this article, but a general idea is given here.
Omnifocus 1 for Mac does it’s job well, though it’s not quite up to snuff, is quite dated, and doesn’t look as nice as it’s iOS counterparts. Omni’s blog shows that an update was planned for the release of Mavericks last year, but we have yet to see it’s release. Hopefully we’ll see an update soon. Omnifocus for Mac’s strength is in it’s variety of tools, views, and larger screen, making it even easier for you to quickly put long lists of items into the system quickly. While the app begs to be updated, it is still an indespensible part of the Omnifocus system and I would be very hesitant to only buy the iPad and iOS 7 versions.
Omnifocus for iPad has it’s own unique look and feel compared to it’s peers. With a slightly darker background it makes the app feel a lot more business-like than the Mac or iOS 7 apps. I love using this app when I’m at my desk and having my iPad propped open. This makes it easy to stay on task in the office. It’s also great in meetings to quickly add tasks or review/change due dates.
Omnifocus 2 for iOS 7 is it’s own seperate app (this seems to be more and more common lately for businesses to build seperate apps instead of universal) and it’s the only version you can get anymore. This redesign of Omnifocus fits right into iOS 7 with it’s flattened look and brighter colors. It looks like Apple could have made it themselves. This is probably my favorite app out of the bunch and is certainly the one I use the most. My iPhone is always on me and within reach, and with Omnifocus 2, so is all the information I need to get things done.
Although each of these apps look quite different and have different strengths, they are each inherintly the same system, use the same tools, and use the same database. Below are some of the finer features of Omnifocus in general.
The quick entry tool is not only incredibly valuable, but quite essential. One of the hardest things in other to-do apps is that you have to add items directly to the list in which it belongs. This takes up precious time and could mean forgetting some of the things you meant to record. Getting everything down on paper and emptying your brain of all your tasks is one of the basic principles of GTD. This makes the quick entry tool invaluable because it takes away the worry of which list or project to assign the task to and lets just get it all out of your head first.
I have found this tool especially useful on the iPhone or iPad app because it’s usually when i’m walking from place to place that my brain wanders to those things that I need to accomplish. So I just make a quick entry in Omnifocus, sync it with the Mac application, and then sort it to it’s proper place.
There’s a lot of different ways to view the same items in Omnifocus. Each way lets you view your items from a different perspective depending on your needs at the time. The nice thing about Omnifocus is that you can start your tasks from whichever view (context, project, due, or flagged) you like and feel confident that it will show up in the other views as well.
As a student, I spend a lot of my time in the context view. The context view seperates your life into whatever categories you need and lets you add actions to each of them to be completed when you are in that context.
For example, it’s pretty hard to help your Mom fix her computer if you’re not at your Mom’s house. How would you install it if you aren’t there? Why even worry about it until you’re actually there? The Context view brings up the tasks that are important to you in the moment.
This has really become indespensible to me at school. I created a context called “School” with sub-contexts for all of my classes. Each assignment then becomes a task within that sub-context. This is generally better than the Projects view because most of my assignments right now aren’t large projects with smaller tasks, but are just smaller assignments that don’t really fit into another project.
Another key part of the GTD approach is that we don’t really do projects, we only do the next action that helps us accomplish them. Projects involve many steps and are not usually finished in one sitting. The Project View in Omnifocus sorts out your tasks by their related project to show you what you should be working on and what other smaller tasks are coming up.
I use this view the most on my iPhone because it keeps things simple for me each day. It’s the list I check on my phone while i’m walking to school to the 4–5 homework assignments and other tasks that I need to focus my attention on that day. Doing this has really increased my productivity because I no longer worry that I might be forgetting something and can just focus my energies on actually accomplishing tasks.
This is another handy little feature. Flagging any item from any other view will pull it into the flagged view. This works really well for me to stay a little bit ahead of the game in school and to stay generally productive. Even though Omnifocus reminds me about due dates 2 days before, I often flag important assignments so that I can view them a little earlier than that so if I have more free time I can remember to start on them earlier.
I also use this feature in regards to my free time. As a tech guy, there are a ton of things that I read about in my news feed that i’d really like to try and implement in my workflow. I often don’t have time to try them immediately, so I just make a running list (with no due dates) in my “Try This” context and then flag a few to try out when I get some free time during the day (I often work on these at lunch or when I need an afternoon break).
If It Doesn’t Sync, It Sinks
Because Omnifocus is so integrated into my workflow and is important for me to have access to in any situation, it’s also important that the information is accurate and up-to-date on any device that I may be using.
Omnifocus supports many different types of syncing services including Bonjour, a local disk file, WebDAV server, or their own Omni Sync. I personally like the Omni Sync service as it is quick and easy to set up.
I mentioned earlier that Omnifocus not only keeps track of your to-do’s, but it also helps you accomplish them. The biggest way this happens in my workflow is in it’s added note support.
Often, a to-do is not just an arbitrary reminder to remember something, but that something has a document or other material on which it relies. With Omnifocus, no longer are those two things seperated, but are attached to each other for you to use at your convenience.
Often we get so busy at the grindstone that we forget to take a look back at what we’ve accomplished and to notice the things that may have fallen through the cracks and need our attention. Perspectives, Omnifocus’s approach to David Allen’s “Week in Review”, solves this approach however you’d like. You get to set up the categories you’d like to review from any perspective (due, context, project, flagged, etc.) that you’d like and can break them down the review as deep as you’d like. I find this feature easiest to use on the iPhone as it seems a little more user-friendly. I’m still not quite sure I’m using it the intended way on the Mac app. Luckily the iOS app compensates for it. Hopefully Omnifocus 2 for Mac will fix this poor user design.
Omnifocus; Your GTD Solution?
While Omnifocus does have a heftier price tag ($79.99) than other GTD systems, I find that the pricetag has been worth it. Omnifocus 2 for the iPad and iPhone are beautiful pieces of software and are a joy to use (and with the recent iOS 7 update, they’re super fast as well). The support for the program is great as well (as I was writing this article I found that they have a whole iBook (for free!) to explain the iPhone app). The entire system is built for those that already have a GTD background, while maintaining a friendly approach to those seeking a new approach to task management.