in Productivity

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.