A Visual History of OmniFocus for Mac

Shawn Blanc provides some insight into the history of OmniFocus and how it all started, complete with screenshots.

What is more interesting is that the visual UI has virtually been the same for the past six years. Even though it has started to look somewhat dated lately, it has been fully functional and enough aesthetically pleasing to still be the go-to GTD tool.

OmniFocus 2 beta – initial impressions

I have been fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to try out the new OmniFocus 2 beta which was released a few days ago. I have been using it intimately since the release, and it has of course given me some impressions as to where the software is going in terms of functionality and appearance.

The initial impressions have been mostly positive with a clean user interface and finally a persistent inspector on the right side, which can be hidden with the click of a button. What I would have liked to see was an even more prominent notes view like in The Hit List, where one can expand an action to take the entire space of the application, providing a large notes field while still retaining the additional action metadata in view.

One of the initial thoughts I had when opening the new OmniFocus was the exact same though I had when opening iCal in Mavericks for the first time. While being beautiful, clean and well laid out, the interface has become overly flat and gray. I do like the subtle color distinctions separating projects, contexts and perspectives though, and the uncrowded list view.

It is easy to see that the developers used OmniFocus for iPhone as an inspiration when designing the new user interface, with the prominent new forecast view and the concept of starring perspectives.

While the user interface has been given a substantial rework, it is easy to tell that the underlying foundation still remains the same – which is usually a good thing. There are really no surprises in terms of functionality, except for the Forecast view which has been available in the iOS versions of OmniFocus for some time now.

I do like where The Omni Group are taking OmniFocus, bringing together the family of iOS apps with the desktop version. Having the Forecast view readily at hand will make the product easier to approach for anyone without having to deal with creating custom perspectives to access the same functionality.

OmniFocus 2 for Mac resumes testing, will ship in June

The Omni Group just announced that they have resumed public testing of OmniFocus 2. If you already have an account from the previous test builds, you can reuse those credentials to download the new version.

After having started the application for the first time, things look quite different from the last test. I will dive into the new features and give my two cents as I test the new builds.


What the new Omnifocus 2 beta currently looks like

OmniFocus 2 for iPhone manual available for free

The Omni group have just released a manual for OmniFocus 2 for iPhone for free in the iBooks Store. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but I have a feeling that any seasoned OmniFocus user will not find it especially enlightening.

I do however like the fact that they decided to publish it in the iBooks Store. This means that I will always have it available if needed, without having to resort to keeping it in Dropbox or have a link bookmarked somewhere.

How to use Gmail more efficiently using stars and multiple inboxes

Andreas Klinger describes an interesting approach to managing your Gmail inbox using a combination of the principles of Inbox Zero and GTD.

Without using any plugins, messages can easily be marked as having different statuses using custom stars while still having a good overview from the main Gmail view. The basic premise:

  • An easy to manage, usually empty inbox on the left
  • All "todos" in the first box
  • All emails "awaiting a reply" in the second
  • All “delegated” emails in the third
  • All emails related to meetings, flights, etc easy to find in the fourth
  • All done with 0 plugins, using only standard gmail features

There is just one thing keeping me from adopting this technique – I rarely use the normal Gmail interface, instead relying on apps such as Mailbox and AirMail. Not being able to use the entire workflow regardless of device will just make me not use it at all.

A lifesaver for me has been the OmniFocus Mail Drop service together with OmniFocus for keeping track of todos and waiting fors, but that is a post on its own.

Todoist Next

Todoist has just been updated and seems to have become a serious GTD contender, supporting contexts among other things. One thing it has going for it compared to Omnifocus is platform support, with clients for iOS, Android, Mac OS, Windows and even the web.

Most features seem to require a premium account though, which is why reviewing it properly will probably not happen.

Using Considered tasks in OmniFocus

Since OmniFocus doesn’t have a muffle option for repeating tasks, ticking off undone tasks has become a necessity. Kourosh Dini has an elegant solution relying on the way you think about the tasks, and the keyword is “consider”.

Writing “Consider” before a task is very easy to do. It almost seems to be a gimmick or “cheat” potentially fraught with thorns of procrastination.

It does however keep the OmniFocus history more honest, even though you would still not know which ticked off actions were in fact really done.

Tracking habits using Omnifocus

I was recently introduced to an iOS application called Lift, which helps you achieve new habits in a social fashion. Enter the habits you wish to track and when completing a habit for the day, just mark it as done to see it disappear only to return the next morning.

Lift features tracking of days done and missed, as well as streaks and is gamified with awards for achieving certain milestones. The social aspect comes from the ability to comment and like all checked in habit events, as well as the ability to add your own comment when completing a habit.

Having to check multiple applications for todos feels counterproductive, so I tried replicating tracking habits using Omnifocus, which is already being used for everything task related.

The end result will look something like this:

Start by creating a single actions project called Habits, perhaps in your Maintenance folder. Add all habits you wish to track to the list, and assign them a context of Habits. The actions have been set to repeat every day, so adjust accordingly.

Then create a perspective similar to the following image. Note that the Habits context has been selected, and the main sidebar has been hidden prior to creating the perspective, giving you a clean list.

The reason for creating the Habits context and not just create a perspective using the projects view is that the iOS apps seem to ignore all perspectives using the projects view mode.

Now just drag you newly created perspective to your toolbar and start tracking!

There are of course some glaring pieces missing compared to the Lift app, but it could be a small price to pay for having everything conveniently integrated in Omnifocus.

The OmniFocus Mail Drop

We call this new feature the “OmniFocus Mail Drop”. Unlike previous mail-processing features, we wanted a method that wouldn’t require any of your devices to be present in order to add items to OmniFocus, we wanted to add the much-requested better attachment support, and we wanted to reduce the amount of extra work you had to do in order to get your items into OmniFocus as much as possible.

This has the potential to completely change how we deal with the inbox in Omnifocus. There is more information in the official thread, including instructions for signing up for the service.

Thoughts on OmniFocus

There are plenty of applications out there claiming to end the chaos and make sense of everything. One of the schools is GTD, which focuses on next-actions and context. This makes a lot of sense in my opinion, and I have been trying to incorporate the practices into my daily life. One of the strongest questions you can ask yourself at the end of a meeting for instance, is

What is the next action to move this project forward?

Such as simple question, but the answer may not always be readily available after a meeting if you have been focusing on the wrong things. A project is by definition done when there are no next-actions, so why do we have such trouble defining and following a set course?

Another thing that has made it into my mindset is the notion of inboxes. I will not get into details on the different steps of the GTD process, but step one is “capture”. This means that any new idea or action is thrown into an inbox, until such time comes as to review this inbox and process each item in the list. In GTD, the outcomes for an action in the inbox is “do”, “defer” or “delegate”, which probably reminds many people of the Inbox Zero principle of Merlin Mann.

I have been a long time user of Things, a task management application for the Mac, iPhone and now also for iPad. While it has been working fine and does most things I need, further development of key features have been terribly slow. I decided to take another look around, and I have since long ago given up on The Hit List, even though it showed much potential. This time I gave OmniFocus a real shot. I even bought the iPhone application just to give it a proper chance.

Contexts and tags

There are some key differences in how both software work. While OmniFocus brings forward contexts, Things uses tags to achieve the same thing. While tags are a lot more flexible, there is a downside too. Contexts in OmniFocus are easy to use in the sense that they are always present and visible, whereas Things uses a bar at the top for tags, which makes it harder to get an overview of contexts. This has also lead me to not use contexts properly, but always work in the project/planning mode, which is not the GTD way.

Since Things is using tags however, other GTD principles, such as time available, energy level and priority are easy to implement. OmniFocus currently does not support all the principles, and there is no way to implement them by yourself.

Separating work and play

One of the best features in OmniFocus is the support for different perspectives. I have for instance a Work and a Personal perspective, which means that when I am working, just clicking on the Work icon in the toolbar hides everything else from view and lets me focus on what I should be doing right now. There is for instance no need to see actions regarding blog articles to write when I am at work.

Things on the other hand, has something similar in areas. You can assign a tag for different areas, which will then be inherited by projects and actions within that particular area. This makes it possible to differentiate personal and work related items in the next view. There is however no way of filtering the visible projects in the sidebar, which means that there is still lots of distraction and you might have to spend energy sifting though actions that are not applicable in your current context.

Making it work like your mind

While Things has a flexible and easy to use tagging feature, OmniFocus lets you organize your projects into folders, and projects can even have sub-projects and you guessed right, actions can even have sub-actions (which would make them sub-projects, but that’s another story).

In Things however, there is only one fixed hierarchy. At the top there are areas of focus, which can contain both projects and single-step actions. Projects contain actions as usual, but there is no way of creating sub-projects or actions.

Cutting out distraction

Another way the two contenders differentiate in philosophy is the way actions are linked. Things currently does not have any type of dependency support, meaning that it will always show you all actions in a project, regardless of whether they are available or not. Say you want to sell something on Ebay, and among other, there are two tasks. One says “Create the auction on ebay.com”, whereas the other one says “Take a picture of the item”. Since you can not create the auction before having the picture, the first task should only appear once you have completed the second action of taking the picture.

Doing this in OmniFocus is quite easy. A project can behave in three different ways:

  • Single-actions
  • Parallell
  • Sequential

This is true even for sub-projects, meaning that the main project itself can be parallel, meaning that all actions within can be done in any order. Sequential projects however, must be done in a particular order. After using OmniFocus for a while, I use parallel projects in most cases, while sub-projects within are usually sequential.

There is of course a downside to all this dependency behavior, and that is when actions are mistakably hidden, because of a project in error has been defined as sequential instead of parallel for instance. In a perfect world, doing the weekly review should help mitigate against these problems, but in the real world, things might fall though the cracks.

In summary

My move to OmniFocus has been a productive one by far, and only seeing relevant information when needing it makes all the difference in the world. OmniFocus may seem too advanced and hard to learn at first, but once you get over that initial threshold and set up your perspectives, you never have to fiddle with the software again – you can just focus on your lists and actions and everything else will be taken care of.

The thing I miss most from Things is the way it handles recurring actions. You set a schedule for the action, and when it becomes available, a copy is created. This means that while the action is still scheduled, you can still affect the copy, for instance by delaying it, setting another due date, without affecting the original scheduled action.

I now use OmniFocus for the iPad as well, and it will be interesting to see whether it can be used in new ways and for new things. I already love the new view for the weekly review, as well as the new forecast view, which is supposed to be included in an upcoming release of OmniFocus for the Mac as well.