Newfound Appreciation for Omnifocus

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Having used Omnifocus as my chief productivity app on my iPhone and Mac, I decided to dabble in other well-known GTD apps, namely Things, The Hit List and Firetask. One of the key things about these productivity apps is the ability to sync tasks between the smartphone and the Mac at home: ideally, you capture ideas, errands and engagements on the go, and then at the end of the day review and organize them at home. Problem was, the free demos are only available on the Mac, so there was only one way of trying them out on my iPhone: paying up. Having felt for some time that Omnifocus was too comprehensive to a fault – sacrificing simplicity and immediacy for versatility – I yearned for an app that could do the donkey work of all the sorting and trawling so that I could get on with capturing and then having the visibility on all my tasks without the grind. Turns out, I shouldn’t have bothered: not only are the alternatives not up to the task, but Omnifocus was flexible enough to cater towards my requirements in the first place.

One of the things that I became increasingly obsessed with was visibility. More specifically, I craved the ability to see the most compelling lists at once, with the fewest taps or clicks. Recently, I realized that I needed to keep a shopping list that I could access as quickly as possible. Why not just use Clear, one may ask, but a key appeal of these GTD apps is that they can integrate all aspects of your life – ideas, dates, numbers and chores – into a single arena so that you don’t have to worry about maintaining different programs. Anyway, ideally I would have this list right on the first screen I see when I open the app. The first screen on Omnifocus iPhone app is set: Inbox, Forecast, Flagged, Projects, Contexts, Perspectives, Map and Search, with options on the bottom. You can change their ordering, but you can’t delete or add new categories on this first screen. I found this restrictive, so I looked at the alternatives. Things and The Hit List allow you to add new ‘Areas’ and ‘Lists’ respectively to the opening page, although for the former you need to scroll down slightly, and fatally for the latter you can’t reorder the Lists once you add them. Firetask has a menu layout similar to the default Music app on the iPhone, with on-screen options on the bottom that allow you to toggle between In-Tray, Today, Projects, Categories and More. But the first page is always In-Tray, so it requires additional taps to get to a list of your choice. So essentially the shortest route to a custom list was a short swipe for Things, and if you discount The Hit List for its inflexible list ordering, two taps for the rest (Omnifocus: Project -> List; Firetask: Projects/Categories -> Sub-Item).

I then moved onto other areas of requirements: the ease of sorting items, the visibility vis-a-vis dates and scheduling, tag support, etc. Firetask was out on the first account, because the sorting screen for an entry on the iPhone has too much clutter: there are ten input boxes once you go into an item, arranged top-to-bottom so that there’s too much back and forth scrolling to sort tasks. The Hit List probably has the best tag support because there is a separate window you can go into right from the opening screen, but again the inability to re-order the Lists is an unfortunate deal-breaker. Assigning dates and times for tasks is another important feature, but Things and The Hit List don’t have the option for you to input the exact time for each item; Firetask lets you set up a reminder time for an event, but curiously not for the event itself. Each had shortcomings that were significant enough for me to hesitate transferring my commitment full-time.

All this made me take a serious look at Omnifocus again. Each item has a list of five sorting options divided into two sub-areas, plus a flag button and three media options on the bottom arranged in a reverse triangle. It’s similar to Firetask, but more thought has gone into it, so that it doesn’t look cluttered and is much easier to organize. There aren’t quick-sort options to move a task straight to the ‘Today’ category like Things and The Hit List, but Omnifocus makes up for it by having the flag button, and crucially is able to assign a task down to the minute. I never realized I needed this last feature so much, until I saw its absence in other apps.

Another long-standing gripe I had about Omnifocus was its lack of calendar view, but I was surprised to find that none of the alternatives had that either. The Hit List and Firetask (edit: and now Things, too) display full-sized calendars when you go into assigning due dates, but not in ‘Today’ or ‘Upcoming’ categories. What’s worse, in all three the ‘Upcoming’ or ‘Scheduled’ categories show the future tasks in a vertical list. Compared to Omnifocus’s ‘Forecast’ category that displays this week’s tasks, with date and day all shown in a horizontal list, these are inelegant solutions. I had believed that information could be displayed in a more visible manner than Omnifocus, but the contenders all adopted inferior methods, which was galling to discover.

The penny really dropped when I cottoned onto the idea that you can use Omnifocus’s Contexts as tags, as suggested here (referenced in this blog). Omnigroup’s original suggestion to have Contexts as things that act as enablers/conduits of your projects – ‘Phone’, ‘Office’, etc – never really resonated with me, and I rarely made use of Contexts as a result. But using them as tags finally allowed me to reaffirm my commitment to Omnifocus. For example, I could set Groceries as a Context and move Contexts higher up on the opening screen, so that with two taps I could see a list of items to buy. It’s a compromise of my original aim, but an acceptable one. The key, though, is that I can now assign Projects to these items, so I can keep tabs on what I am buying them for, rather than sorting them into a Project and lose visibility. Also, since this approach means that the Context-as-tags now overlaps with many of my Projects – one previous Project was ‘Inspiration’, which has now been converted into a Context – it forces me to be more specific with my Projects, like ‘Watch Think Different Ad’ under a larger ‘Self-Development’ umbrella instead of a vague ‘Motivation’ Project. This approach isn’t perfect, because you can only assign one Context for each item; Things and The Hit List allow you to assign as many as you like (Firetask has separate ‘Categories’ list that functions similarly to ‘Context’).

So there’s still compromise when staying with Omnifocus: unlike its closest rival, Things, which moves the items into either the ‘Today’ folder for those due now, and then the next ones into ‘Next’ and ‘Scheduled’ according to their due dates automatically, it won’t declutter your entries with a degree of automation, nor present a nicely delineated opening screen that is much more immediately accessible. But in all other areas, Omnifocus’s customizability means that you can set up the system to maximize effectiveness the way you want it to. The trick is knowing what you want from your app, and how you want to use it everyday, and I guess most first-time users aren’t going to have this sussed out from the beginning. For me, it took me a year to realize that what I already had was what I needed anyway, and a brief dalliance with Things and others to be aware of the steps I should take to turn Omnifocus into the productivity app that can continue to help me in the long run. This shouldn’t detract from the many advantages that Things offers (I wasn’t so impressed with The Hit List and Firetask, however): the clean, attractive interface and its ability to offer its user approachable information mean that right now it’s the only alternative to Omnifocus.

Omnigroup’s product isn’t the most prettiest app out there. At first glance, it’s functional-looking, and doesn’t do a great job of using colours and blank spaces to make it easier for the users to understand various categories and priorities of entries intuitively. Dig a little deeper, however, and it starts make a lot more sense: the way you can re-order any list however you want, right up to the opening screen; the way ‘Forecast’ gives your week’s to-dos and priorities with zero fuss and minimal required interference from you; the way you can establish, emphasize and/or hide any project or context, and also have the system set up a project as a sequence of things to do or just a box into which you can just throw items. All these things are not available elsewhere, and while Omnifocus is indeed a lot more expensive than competing products, it’s also the only one I feel that really earns its pay. There’s clearly a lot of thought that has gone into it, and judging by the frequency of updates and communications from developers – compared to Things and The Hit List whose communities are full of people complaining of being neglected – Omnifocus is also the one that receives the most support.
* I should mention that since then Things has been upgraded to Version 2, with official cloud support and other significant enhancements. But the core approach and the attendant interface remains the same.

In the end, GTD apps are about helping you carry out the things you need to do, not have the apps do them for you. For those just beginning to use such programs, Things or even The Hit List will be a revelation, because they have an established set of options and categories that will probably work for most people with imprecise requirements that do not go much beyond the need to simply have their errands categorized. Omnifocus will appear to users to be a blank page at first, and the manual nature of its utilization serve to baffle and intimidate. But just beneath this facade is the most flexible GTD app on offer, and as you form your requirements regarding the system you will find that Omnifocus caters to your needs in a way that other apps just can’t. It’s a lesson that I have now learnt, even if my wallet is lighter for it.

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