Omnifocus and Things are perfect for different types of people. I’ve been both.
My wife and I were at the supermarket a few weeks ago, with an unusually long shopping list in Things to stock up for a remote camping trip. We were in high spirits, and I grabbed her arm in mock disapproval when she was about to put a bottle of soy sauce into the trolley.
“That isn’t on the list”, I said sternly. “We have to add it to the list first so that we can check it off.”
There are some people who would actually do that. It’s not my style, but who am I to judge? The developers of an early todo app found that a surprisingly large number of tasks were only active in the database for a few minutes.
It comes down to what you want from your todo list of choice. There is satisfaction in completing a task even if it has only existed for a few minutes. But the core idea sold by most task management apps is the concept that you can blissfully forget what you have just entered, because you trust the system you use to retrieve it at the most appropriate time.
When I was an Omnifocus kinda guy
I used to be a project manager, and at least ten percent of my time was spent in Microsoft Project. Like most Gantt chart based tools, it is great for telling you who in your team is working on what, and if they’re not working, what they’re waiting for. You can estimate how long a project will take, how much it will cost, and find out what steps can be taken if it is running late.
After reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done years ago, I was hooked on the idea. I went on a lengthy app-hopping exercise, trying at least a dozen. I even looked at the familiar Microsoft Project, realising quickly that although it was quite good for big projects like “Landscape Garden”, it was hopeless for “Put out the rubbish bins”.
I zeroed in eventually on Omnifocus, not least because it was slightly familiar; a sort of ‘Microsoft Project lite’. One of the great strengths of Omnifocus is its sequential project type, which in effect creates a waterfall of tasks much like a Gantt chart, allowing it to be used to manage quite elaborate task dependencies just like Microsoft Project.
Looking back on my full time working life, I see a heaving mass of stuff to do, and a constant triage process of deciding what not to do. I needed and ran a complex personal organisation system, always aiming to reassure myself that I was spending enough time on things that I had decided were important.
I like the analogy of the bicycle wheel: unless your spokes are distributed around the wheel, and you keep them pretty much the same length, your path down the road will be bumpy at best. I spent several hours a week just reviewing stuff in Omnifocus, keeping those spokes nicely trued up, and ensuring that I hadn’t missed anything.
Here’s a summary of my system during that time, a hybrid of GTD and Agile, facilitated by some quite complex perspectives, another strength of Omnifocus. For those of you not familiar with Omnifocus terminology, a perspective is a saved set of search criteria producing a filtered view of your tasks.
Agile style perspectives
- Weekly sprint
- One day
Tasks moved automatically or manually into different Agile perspectives using filters such as flags, defer dates, due dates, and tags. It was like running an Agile Kanban board without the board itself.
GTD style perspectives
- Brain dead
- Quick wins
- On device
- Current project
Lots of project templates
Because the aim is to reuse them, it was worth investing time developing detailed templates. I used combinations of sequential and parallel subtasks to create a familiar Gantt type task structure which unfolded as task dependencies were completed.
Simplification eventually paved the way to move to Things
My Omnifocus system had a data model that had a high data entry and maintenance overhead. There are only one or two other task management apps that come close to being able to run with that level of complexity. I think it was worth it at the time, but I’m no longer working full time and life is calmer now, even though I actually do a lot more casual work.
Here’s a rough estimate of the size of my current task list in Things
- 12 folders
- 70 projects
- 200 tasks
- 2 level one tags
It’s probably one quarter of what I had in Omnifocus, and is a very manageable size for Things. I also run 7 perspectives, and before you protest that that isn’t possible in Things, I’ll be getting to how I do that shortly.
That simplification didn’t occur overnight. It gradually dawned on me that I had stopped being as rigorous with my data entry and reviews, and tasks had started to fall through the cracks. How come “Put sunglasses back in car” didn’t come up on the “Brain dead” perspective? Or how come I was at the shopping centre and I had left a letter at home that I wanted to post? Over time, I reduced the data entry for each task, and even decided not to enter whole categories of projects and tasks at all.
When to triage
That last point is the biggest change, and it illustrates one of the shortcomings of using a task management app too broadly. The GTD method features “Someday/maybe”, and, sure, you can dump all of that into Omnifocus, but it’s not the ideal place. Someday/maybe is the domain of wish lists, brainstorming, even, dare I say it, “Never”. But Dave Allen, the author of GTD, has always been keen to distance himself from advising about the choice of technology.
That’s the key paradigm shift – I changed from adding lots of data attributes and triaging projects with perspectives after they’d been entered, to never entering them in the first place. That can mean, simply, “No!” No, I’m not going to entertain the idea at all, because it will sludge up my life.
But some ideas really are “maybe” and deserve to be recorded, and I’ve taken to using Notion as a very useful list manager. I also use iThoughts for brainstorming.
I pared the Agile idea down to basically “Next” and “Today”, and stopped entering nearly as many context tags, in the process greatly simplifying data entry.
Getting the most out of Things
It was then that I decided to give Things a go. Two much loved functions in Omnifocus are perspectives and the project review. Could I somehow do those in Things? The answer is yes. With the iOS (and now MacOS) Shortcuts app, I created simple perspectives such as Anytime filtered by tag “Next”, and added them to my Home Screen.
Here are my Things ‘perspectives’, in a menu group on my phone.
Here is the Next perspective shortcut
What about project reviews? I came up with an approach which I think is better, because it operates at folder level (I have about a dozen), rather than being pestered to review each project. For each folder I created a repeating task which contains the URL for the folder in the note. The URL is easily obtained from the Share menu for the folder.
That clears up the critical Omnifocus functions that I needed to see in Things, but there are some other good reasons to choose Things over Omnifocus when your personal process is not too complex.
Things has a deserved reputation for a user interface that is really easy to use. I should at this point mention that Omnifocus 4 is currently in public beta test and I have been looking with interest at their progress. Thanks to feedback from a keen cohort of testers, the user interface is showing promise.
The Things data model is not as strict, which tends to fit the way I think better and reduces friction.
- I can add tasks at folder level. In Omnifocus, I often had to add a “miscellaneous“ project under a folder, as a catchall for that sort of task.
- I can have a project with a start date in the future, but also a task under it for earlier than that. In Omnifocus, all tasks in a project inherit their availability from the project.
- I like the Headings feature of Things. In Omnifocus, I would have had to use sub-tasks or tags to group tasks
One guy; two successful and very different ways of working; two very different apps
So there you have it. Omnifocus is an ‘industrial strength’ app, and can present fine-grained and situation-specific views of your tasks, if. If you are meticulous with your data entry for each task such as tags, priority and duration, and are prepared to spend a lot of time on reviews.
If you decide to run a pared down system, Omnifocus will of course handle that with ease, but Things becomes more attractive with its beautiful user interface, and a simpler and more forgiving data model.
But wait! There’s more!!
Here’s something which should be useful for users of many of the task management apps out there – a Calendar to Reminders iOS Shortcut. It looks for calendar entries created or modified since the last time it was run, and sends them to Reminders as “Prepare for <event> on <event date>”.
My phone is set to run it automatically every day at 4am. It really helps with planning, and it’s also great for alerting me to any recent entries that my wife has added to our shared calendar.
Calendar to Reminders shortcut
Both Omnifocus and Things (and many other todo apps) have a Reminders app import function, but I use a modified version of the shortcut which sends the tasks directly to Things.
Calendar to Things shortcut
To import one of these shortcuts to your phone or laptop, you need to enable third party shortcuts.