omnifocus: the holy grail of productivity

I started using Omnifocus in mid-2009 when I moved from Windows to Mac, initially only for one-off personal tasks. At work, in a Windows-based environment, I was already using ToodleDo. While I initially liked the simplicity and versatility of Omnifocus, it started feeling complicated and overwhelming once I added in all my recurrent tasks after a year or so. I was missing a clear ‘today’ view and felt paralysed by the many ‘overdue’ tasks. I bailed out and tried alternatives including (in order of preference) ToDoist, NozBe, 2Do, MyProjects, Things and Wunderlist. I agree, dear reader, none of this made me particularly productive. And as my youngest daughter would say: ‘first world problem, dad’ – and she was right of course. As every other app at some stage confronted me with a deal-breaker, I eventually returned to Omnifocus, delved a bit deeper into the documentation and came to the conclusion that I had been overusing due dates and under-utilising ‘perspectives’. I have since overhauled my Omnifocus setup, brought in all my work tasks and I am now loving it.

The best features of Omnifocus for me are:

  1. It has a built-in review process that encourages you to review your tasks and workflow regularly.
  2. It allows you to specify whether tasks in a project are sequential or parallel.
  3. The availability filter makes it easy to focus on those tasks that you can complete now and a special ‘focus’ button lets you concentrate on a single project or context to minimise distractions.
  4. It allows you to create project templates that you can save for future use. As I am a project manager, this feature, together with nested (i.e. indented) tasks, was a major selling point.
  5. It is incredibly flexible, customisable and robust. Notes added to tasks can be one line or an entire web page.
  6. Data can be entered in a variety of ways including quick entry, email, web clipping and linking with Evernote. The default location for new tasks is the inbox.
  7. The iPad version is fantastic, introducing features like a calendar view and ‘drag and drop’ that complement the functionality of the desktop version and making it fun to review projects (some people say I should go out more).
  8. Omnifocus comes with all the bells and whistles you can expect of contemporary task managers, including nested tasks, location services and a search capacity. It comes with a good manual and is fully compatible with the GTD approach.

I see its limitations as follows:

  1. While Omnifocus is easy to start using, you probably need to invest a bit of time to understand the full potential of this application.
  2. It is not cheap. When I last looked, the iMac version was US $79.99, the iPad version US $39.99 and the iPhone version US $19.99.
  3. The desktop version runs only on the Mac operating system.

I have seen many people ask questions about Omnifocus and other task management applications in online forums. If you are one of them, I hope this post helps you make a more informed decision.

the quest for productivity

Lists. I love them. For years I kept lists of things to do, to pack, to read, to eat. Once I even thought it would be cool to make a list of lists to make. It must be genetic. Call it listlust. Anyhow, when it came to work I used to write my to do list in one of those heavy blue Collins diaries that showed a day to a page. I ticked off, or crossed out, whatever was done, and inevitably ended up transferring many tasks to the next day or the following week. It involved a lot of writing, and a lot of cross-checking to make sure that all tasks had been carried forward. In the early nineties they installed Lotus Notes on our computers at work and the developers had taken great care to make their electronic diary resemble our paper diaries as much as possible. I suppose it was a matter of minimising the shock of the new. Ah, those days of trompe-l’oeil productivity, with pretend ringbinders and fake leather covers.

Over the years, electronic to do lists have developed a format of their own, gradually introducing more functionality, such as the capacity to sort tasks by due date or priority, to create repeating tasks and to group related tasks into categories or projects. They have also evolved from one-dimensional lists to multi-dimensional productivity systems that are sometimes underpinned by a strong conceptual framework. One of the best known of these is probably the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach developed by David Allen. His 2001 magnum opus, subtitled the art of stress-free productivity, has spawned a myriad of applications for desktop computers and handheld devices.

David Allen emphasises the need to adopt ‘a trusted system’, in which you can record every single actionable thought as you go. For me, that trusted system is Omnifocus, having earlier tried Remember the Milk and ToodleDo. The latter two were worthy contenders, especially ToodleDo, which has nested tasks. As browser-based applications, they run on Windows and Mac, whereas Omnifocus comes in a Mac desktop version only, with separate apps for the iPhone and the iPad.

In a future post I will explain why I have decided to go with Omnifocus. I may also introduce some promising new productivity apps, including Asana and ZenDone.