How I Use OmniFocus to Help Get Things Done

Posted: February 02, 2009 Comments(25)

Over the past year or so, personal time management has become a large topic of conversation throughout the community. Much of the talking came about as a result of a particular book being published; Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen definitely got the ball rolling. This particular book got the GTD mentality in the heads of many, and numerous designers/developers are picking up on it, myself included.

While the principles of GTD are in no way tied directly to Web design, the approach can be applied to all aspects of life, regardless of profession or lifestyle. The great thing about being a Web designer is the constant attachment to a computer, creating the ability for an application to help out with Getting Things Done. Over the past year, a multitude of applications have been built specifically for this purpose. Not all retain the jargon of GTD, but the same goal is at hand: effective completion of tasks.

Why I chose OmniFocus

OmniFocus icon

I’ve been using OmniFocus since it was released as a private alpha. I had no idea what GTD was all about, and I had never heard of David Allen. I was able to pick up the application fairly quickly, albeit in the most basic sense. I watched the OmniFocus Basics screencast and became more comfortable with the software.

For me, the most difficult part about OmniFocus had nothing to do with the application itself. Instead, I had the most trouble with integrating task collection into my workflow. It honestly took a couple weeks to force the action of entering a task, but it’s now second nature. I was very impressed with OmniFocus, and new alpha releases were being released at a constant rate, including new little features that helped me to better manage what I needed to get done.

Then came Things. Things is a terribly pretty application, and I decided that I’d give it a trial run for two weeks, to see which application I preferred. Things was in public beta at the time, and it was a terrific application in which to work. I liked the tagging approach, and I definitely took a liking to the methods Cultured Code included. One of the features that stuck out to me was the ability to assign tasks to people. I work among a team, and it’s very helpful for me to jot down what other people are doing to make sure the team has all of our bases covered. It was also neat that the icons in People section of the sidebar let me know who was on AIM at the time in case I needed to touch base on a particular task while I was reviewing. There are a number of little touches like that throughout Things that raise the bar.

I went back and forth between Things and OmniFocus for at least two months. OmniFocus was being developed at an astounding rate, and was much more feature rich in comparison to Things. From what I’ve seen, the community speaks about Things quite a bit more, so I feared I was missing out on some features which other designers found so attractive. I became more attached to certain features of OmniFocus, and came to realize that a preference between the two is simply of a personal nature from designer to designer. I’m a huge fan of the OmniFocus interface design, and truly believe it doesn’t receive enough credit. I don’t think the design is overshadowed by Things in many aspects at all. Of course there are little details about the OmniFocus interface I might change, but for me, the same goes for Things. I don’t mean to turn this article into a comparison of the two; it’s definitely not. I’d simply like to share why I’ve made my choice.

Killer features I depend on in OmniFocus

The features of OmniFocus are what helped make the decision for me. I quickly started to feel a bit overwhelmed when it came to using Things with a few dozen projects each with quite a few tasks to be completed. There are certain features in OmniFocus which help me to tackle that issue directly, and I feel in more control with OmniFocus.

Project Status
OmniFocus lets me mark each project with a status; Active, On hold, Completed, and dropped. I’m not sure about your workload, but my projects have a tendency to change status from time to time. OmniFocus lets me filter projects based on status, and it’s very helpful for me to review only Remaining (Active and On hold) projects constantly, while reviewing all projects (any status) on a weekly basis. Additionally, OmniFocus project icons reflect the status of the project so it’s easy to get a quick overview of what is a priority (and what’s not) at any particular time.
Parallel vs. Sequential tasks
OmniFocus lets me define how I plan to approach a project in many ways. One way is to set the order in which tasks should be completed. Some tasks can be completed in any order, while others require sequential completion. This small feature comes in very handy when automating the order in which you plan to complete your tasks.
Task and project grouping
I often have multiple projects for the same client, and it’s very helpful to have the ability to group those projects within a folder. OmniFocus also lets me group tasks into groups within projects. I’m able to fold these groups to prevent information overload and quickly target what needs to be taken care of next. Additionally, I can mark task groups as parallel or sequential on a per-group basis. This level of control has come in very handy a number of times over the past year.
Task group duplication
I create a task group for each page of a website I work on. Within a task group there are a number of tasks; markup, style, JavaScript, CMS integration, etc. I’ve found it very helpful to be able to simply create one task group and duplicate it for each page of the website, instead of manually creating tasks for each page. I’m able to set up a basic website project with detailed tasks in just a few minutes using OmniFocus.
I’ve only recently rediscovered Perspectives, but I’m in love. The best way to explain perspectives is via the four minute screencast provided by Omni. You’ll find the link to the screencast in the Resources section. Basically, perspectives lets me change the OmniFocus interface completely with the click of a button. When I’m at work, I switch to my ‘Office’ perspective and work away. When I get home, I’ll move to the ‘Home’ perspective and all of my work tasks are hidden until I get back to the office the next day. This feature has become very valuable to me, and I’m very excited to have stumbled upon it again a few weeks ago.
OmniFocus at Work
OmniFocus at Home
Clippings are probably my favorite feature of OmniFocus. Clippings don’t seem to get much press, but I hope OmniFocus does a feature screencast much like they did for Perspectives. Using Clippings, I’m able to hit a key combination to instantly add an email as a task in my inbox. Links are included to the original message (to allow for a quick reply) as well as links to any attachments in the email. Clippings are also available for any WebKit-based browser. I’m currently using Fluid to power my company’s project management software, and creating Clippings from messages is something I do consistently. It’s much faster than invoking the Quick Entry dialog and manually entering the information. I will use Clippings for hours at a time, and simply filter my inbox periodically throughout the day. Losing Clippings would slow me down quite a bit at this point.
iPhone support
OmniFocus for iPhone was a no-brainer purchase for me. The implementation is terrific, and I use it all the time, especially at status meetings. I’m able to quickly dump tasks into the inbox, and organize them once I sit back down at my desk. The syncing via MobileMe is awesome and I’d be sync-less without automation.

One feature I definitely did miss in OmniFocus was the ability to assign tasks to particular people. There was a solution I was simply overlooking, however. When I need to remember a task that is to be completed by someone else, I simply use a context of their name. If a project needs to be completed by John Smith, that’s the context. I like the solution because I’m able to filter tasks based on context, and can quickly oversee what tasks remain for certain individuals if need be.

How do you manage?

I can’t emphasize enough how I don’t mean to turn this article into a comparison of OmniFocus and Things. It’s a challenge, however, because I battled between the two for quite some time before making my final decision. I do feel that I’ve given both applications a strong trial, and the features I’ve outlined are absolutely what solidified my choice. That said, I’m curious as to which application you’re using (if any) and maybe a little bit about why.

Additional Reading

Shawn Blanc recently posted the latest in his impressive series of software reviews, and Things was the topic. A Review of Two Things definitely deserves your attention if you’re interested in Things. His extensive review discusses many of the fantastic features of Things from top to bottom.

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  1. Pen and paper, mainly. GTD was big on Lifehacker a year or two ago: they posted so much on it that I got fed up and stopped subscribing.

    I’m wary of using software for this sort of thing as I find it takes as much organisation as the work itself. I use my email inbox as a quick way of reviewing what has to be done over any given period of time (as most instructions/requests are given via email in my company), and then break that down into tasks on a daily basis. I sometimes use todolist for this, but writing it down’s fine. Once the work’s been done, I file the email.

    Having said that, I’ve found Basecamp pretty good for breaking down work in the first place. I may start using that a bit more.

  2. @Leon Paternoster: I imagine you’re not alone. GTD has almost resembled a meme over the past year or so, and I can sympathize with seeing so much of it resulting in frustration leading to a complete lack of interest. I’m sure there are lots of people who use a combination of pen & paper and their inbox. I did the same for a very long time. When I first opened up OmniFocus I thought exactly what you did; I’d be spending more time keeping track of tasks than actually completing them. Over time, I’ve forced myself to simply dump everything in my inbox and simply review and organize periodically. That helped to no end, and I find myself able to tackle much more while keeping the stress level to a minimum. Thanks for sharing your process!

  3. Great insight on your choice for OmniFocus. I can certainly identify with the struggle between OmniFocus and Things. I started using OmniFocus early on and then went full force once the iPhone app was available, but I keep going back and playing with Things thinking I’m missing something.

    Ultimately I just decided OmniFocus works best for me. The MobileMe sync is critical for me. I don’t like having to manually sync data while in proximity to the other device. It’s cumbersome and I just plain forget to do it. That and OmniFocus’ ability to have more groupings and folders. With Things, I just find it difficult to have the directory structure I want.

    It would be great if you could expand on how you use the task group duplication specifically for website development and what that looks like. I hadn’t thought of that approach and it sounds interesting.

  4. I’ll be honest I’ve never found a need for a program like this while working full time or school full time with work part time. I use the stickies on dashboard and the unread status on mail to help me out. Other than that, I’ve never made the habit of using programs like these.

    Maybe I’ll see a need after I start working full time again…

  5. @Matthew Carlson: I’m sure we’re not the only ones who found making the decision between OmniFocus and Things difficult! I’m equally dependent on the MobileMe sync. I’m sure Cultured Code will bake that in eventually. I took a few minutes to record a screencast of my task grouping in a blank sample project, but hopefully it helps to illustrate what I was attempting to describe.

    @Adam Butterworth: I use OmniFocus not only for my work tasks, but personal tasks as well. I’ve found it terribly helpful to simply have a place to dump everything and then sift through all of that data when I have appropriate time to do so. I’d definitely suggest checking out a few task management apps to see if they help with your workflow should you find yourself overwhelmed with things to take care of.

  6. I’ve been a big fan of Things since the public beta. I like that it starts simple and scales to meet the needs of those with a lot more on their plate.

    But some of the features you mention sound great as well (especially perspectives—I manage work and personal items in Things). I haven’t played with OF since early on.

    If you’re looking for further torture, be sure to check out The Hit List for OS X as well. It shows a lot of promise.

  7. Great review!

    I’m starting to think I’m the only developer still working on a Pc/Win. Keep seeing these awesome programs popping up, all for Mac or the Iphone. And here I’m thinking of buying a HTC smartphone for keeping myself a bit more organized :p. Perhaps it’s time to start looking at buying myself a mac…

  8. I tried really hard to like OmniFocus, but $80 later, it just wouldn’t stick. The deal breaker was the horrendous sync between the iPhone and desktop version. iPhone took about 2-3 minutes per sync; most of the time the phone would time out and power off before it could finish. This made the app unusable.

    Although I dislike the interface, I use Remember The Milk, which has the distinct advantage of ubiquity, and a very strong native iPhone app to compliment it.

    The ideal for me, though, would be if Things, whose interface I prefer, would implement a Remember The Milk sync feature. Then life would be good.

  9. @Chris: Things is definitely a great application, I can absolutely see why so many people are finding it attractive. I imagine a year down the line, when more features have been implemented, Things will be giving OmniFocus users a run for their money. I did check out The Hit List and it just isn’t my style. The keyboard shortcut integration is beautiful, but I find OmniFocus’ implementation equally useful (for me at least). I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on it once it hits a 1.0 release.

    @Fredrik Karlsson: First I’d like to apologize for posting an article that wasn’t going to be helpful to you as you were reading it, but I am glad you found it entertaining! I can guarantee you’re not the only PC/Windows developer left, there will continue to be many. I think the main issue is that Mac users tend to write a bit more about the tools they use as opposed to PC/Windows users. I’m going to keep Apple articles few and far between because I know that a very large percentage of readers are not reading on a Mac. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment!

    @Scott: For what it’s worth, Omni has a 30 day money back guarantee, no questions. If you’re unhappy with OmniFocus and would like a refund, I’d suggest emailing them as soon as possible if you’re within 30 days. If you’re not, I would say to send an email to their support team and they’ll help you with that sync issue. I follow @omnifocusiphone on Twitter and they’re helping people with delayed syncs all the time. From what I’ve heard, a sync shouldn’t take more than a minute, and if it does, they’ll help you fix it. Lots of people love RTM but I definitely need a desktop application (Clippings, Quick Entry) so I haven’t given it a fair trial. Cultured Code is very open to their user base, so if you’ve got a feature you’d like to see, cast your vote. There’s probably a good chance they’re working on sync features currently. Thanks for leaving your tool of choice!

  10. @Anthony Decanini: I’ve never heard of Vitalist, and I thought I’ve tried just about everything! Thanks for the link, it looks like a well developed tool.

    @Brian: Of course I wouldn’t mind, that would be great!

  11. I m using mainly Things, tried Omnifocus.
    But I would mention TaskPaper that is beginning really interesting in its simplicity. And all is just text.
    Thanks for the interesting article.

  12. I just stumbled across this article and it was really interesting. I have been using Omnifocus since public beta. I was also really impressed by Things. What I love about Things are the well organized use of “Today” and “Someday”. Omnifocus handles “On Hold” projects nicely but you can’t really put a task on hold unless you use an “on hold” context in which case, you need to view your on hold tasks separately from your on hold projects. It’s weird. I also really like the use of “Areas” in things where you can dump single tasks related to an area of your life. In Omnifocus you need to create a folder to represent and area and then create a single action to do list inside that Folder. Kind of annoying. Things also has a better implementation of scheduled and repeating tasks. You have more options and you can view all of them in a nice and easy way.

    The reason I’m sticking with Omnifocus is the Clippings feature, the remote sync, and the outlining style of task creation. I can enter tasks as fast as I can think them. In Things, you need to click on new task or hit command + N every time.

  13. I downloaded Things, and immediately liked it! Simple, intuitive, and visually… it’s just so cool looking. I liked it’s use of tags because I’m so used to tagging things in Evernote.

    I nearly bought “Things” after 2 days, but did some research and came across Omnifocus. After watching the Ethan Schoonover video, I decided to try them side by side.

    I’m glad I did!

    Omnifocus won me over. It’s flexibility is phenomenal, and I liked the way it manages projects with folders. It took longer to learn BUT that extra time was SO worth it!

    I got to hand it to Omnigroup’s support too… they are really responsive, and I like the fact they’re even reachable by phone.

    Overall, I think both programs are really good but in my opinion Omnifocus with it’s repeating tasks, perspectives and overall flexibility is tough to beat. It’s also very easy to customize the look of Omnifocus, and I’ve got mine looking ALMOST as cool as “Things”… 😉

    Yes there’s a price difference, but Omnifocus is well worth the price of admission.

  14. I have been using OmniFocus for over a year and i am mostly happy with it. But there are a few things that make me look at the competition:
    1. Lack of tag support – I work on multiple projects with multiple contacts per project and it would be great if I could somehow attach multiple ‘things’ to a task for meeting notes etc.
    2. Due Dates as a scheduling paradigm. I have 100’s of open tasks that I want to choose from to work on any given day. Some I may get to and others I won’t. I don’t like having to set up a ‘due date’ when the task isn’t really due on that date. It is just clunky. Maybe a 2a, there is no way for me to manually arrange the order of tasks on my view. not even a priority list to assign in batches.

    I am currently looking at The Hit List, because it handles the paradigm of the Today smart folder so well. A task does not need a due dat to appear on my ‘today’ view. The Hit List really lacks in some basic things like attaching notes to a list (not a task – a list). It’s poor handling of converting emails to tasks. and some other things that prevent me moving to it.

    Omnifocus is so close to being perfect, if I could only get tags and a real ‘today’ view.

  15. Jonathan,
    Great article. I have tried both Omni and Things. Good points on both, it’s up to the user to define what he or she needs and wants and then pick the best program for that. For me, it’s Omni. Like you, I need a desktop sync. Omni is robust with capabilities and simplistic in easr of use. Not to say Things isn’t a great tool also. Thanks for the great article and forum!

  16. I’ve used both and neither suits me fully. I’ve had OF since 1.0 and Things for about a year. I find the OF interface to be a bite cumbersome and too structured for my free format mind. 🙂 What pushed me to Things was the crappy MobileMe sync performance of OF. I like the GUI of Things very much. It’s lightweight and at the same time both flexible and powerful. The thing I missed from OF was the ability to have projects within projects but given the great iPhone app and local sync, I accepted this shortcoming. That is until I moved to iPad and OF for iPad was released. It is far and away superior to Things forw iPad and so now I’m back using OF. Color me fickle.

    MobileMe sync on OF still blows chunks but once I got local sync working (iPhone being the long pole in the tent here, it just did not want to play well with others) I was no worse off than I was with Things and so I’m happy.

    I do wish Omni would not have latest and greatest fever and put some effort into upgrading OF for Mac. My only real complaint are the disparities that now exist between all three versions. Like physics I’m looking for a unifying version that incorporates the best of the iPad and iPhone apps the Mac version. Oh, and bewtter sync perhaps ala Dropbox, which is how i kept Things in sync.

  17. I just switched to OmniFocus after using Things for over 2 years I think, since the betas. Sick and tired of waiting for OTA sync, and the lack of communication by their team about dates is annoying. I just bought an iPhone 4, and sync was broken, tried every example that “the users” suggested to fix, to no avail. Bought all the OmniFocus platform products and couldn’t be happier.

    Things is certainly prettier, but a lot of the things mentioned in this article are reasons why it falls down for me too.

    And as far as MobileMe sync being crappy slow, it’s really not OF’s fault, it’s Apple. I now sync with another service which they have a Free account if you just want to sync between your devices.

    Happy GTD’ing

  18. Re the sync problem, when my MobileMe subscription ran out and the online renewal form refused to accept any of my debit cards, I tried Omni’s free sync service and it’s actually much faster than MobileMe. OK so it’s beta and not guaranteed, but it’s only a sync service not the actual repository for your data.

    I really need to get back into using OF more comprehensively and in a way that suits me. I got out of the habit of putting everything into it because I put too many things on ambitious due dates and was fed up of being nagged by the icon badges, but I definitely feel less organised as a result!

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