eRambler
Jez Cope's blog on becoming a research technologist

Task management: Things vs. OmniFocus

It’s taken a while for me to realise it, but I’m a bit of a list-maker. Some years ago I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done (often abbreviated as GTD) and found some useful tips that have had a big impact in how I manage my tasks and my time.

There are heaps of apps to help you Get your Things Done, but I generally seem to oscillate between two: Omni Group’s OmniFocus and Cultured Code’s Things. The choice between the two is closely balanced in my head, and I seem to end up switching every 12-18 months. Until recently, Things’ lightning-fast cloud sync had be, but now OmniFocus has tempted me back with its general feature-richness.

Some key factors for me:

  • One system for everything:
    • One system that syncs across computers and mobile devices, so I always have it with me;
    • One system for work stuff and personal stuff, because sometimes I need phone my bank while at work and sometimes the solution to a work problem comes to me while watching TV;
  • Multiple ways of structuring and viewing tasks:
    • When I need to check that I’ve captured all my tasks, I need to view them by project to see what’s missing;
    • When I need to actually do things, I need to see my tasks by context, i.e. what equipment/location is required to do them.

Aside: switching is not inefficient

You might think that it’s a waste of time laboriously transferring all my projects and tasks from one system to another, but it’s really not. This only happens once every 12-18 months, and it’s a great way to do a full audit of everything I want to achieve, spot what’s missing and cull the dead wood.

Even if you have one task management system that works for you, I suggest you try occasionally printing the whole lot off (on real dead trees) and re-entering the important stuff. Because it takes more effort, it makes you more ruthless in what stuff you allow onto your todo list and sharpens your focus on what’s important.

OmniFocus vs. Things

OmniFocus’ strength is it’s flexibility. Each task has not only a title and a checkbox, but a project, a context, a start date, a due date, an expected amount of effort and, if that’s not enough, a freeform note field. It has a rich, hierarchical structure for projects and tasks, and the ability to create customised views of the system or “perspectives”.

Things, on the other hand, strives for simplicity. It lacks much of the complexity of OmniFocus and replaces it with tags. Tags can be hierarchical, which is handy, and because you can assign more than one to a task, you can actually use them to replicate a number of OmniFocus’ detail fields.

Things is pretty good…

That simplicity means that there’s very little effort involved in using Things — just throw in your tasks and get started. You can assign one or more tags to each task and then filter on those, and that allows you replicate quite a lot of what OmniFocus allows.

The other area where Things beats OmniFocus is in synchronisation. Every time you make a change in Things it’s synced up to the cloud, and updating another app takes moments. There’s no need to manually initiate a sync, so everything is always available everywhere.

…but OmniFocus is winning

Sooner or later, though, the lack of expressiveness in Things gets to me. OmniFocus panders to my desire for structure: I can have tasks from any project (or any part of a project) appear one at a time or all at once. That all takes a little more time to set up (though it soon becomes second nature), but it means when I actually want to get on with work I see only the tasks I need to see and no more.

OmniFocus’ perspectives are another example of where the extra power is useful. It’s trivial to set up one-click views that only show a certain set of projects (such as work stuff) or a particular set of tasks (such as things I can do offline), or even just group tasks differently (such as by due date or age).

Finally, the iPad app for OmniFocus has a killer feature: Review mode. This makes it trivial for me to sit down at the end of each week with a cup of tea and go through the entire system, finishing off loose ends and capturing next actions. This is central to the GTD way, and is the part of my routine that guarantees everything is in order and nothing gets missed.

Of course there are plenty of situations where you don’t need all of this complexity, and that’s fine too. It doesn’t force you into using all of the features to have a functioning system: you only have to use what you need for the current situation.

What about you?

So there you have it. I’d be interested in finding out how you use OmniFocus or Things, or if you have your own preferred system. There are even people who implement GTD using a biro, a binder clip and a stack of 6x4” index cards.