Things vs. OmniFocus
The age-old question, answered.
Are you in that pickle of situation, where your to-do list needs a to-do list? If you are looking for a task manager, believe me – I have looked far and wide for them all, and it really comes down to finest two apps in their field: OmniFocus, by The Omni Group, and Things, by Cultured Code.
Before we get into the benefits of one over the other, let me say that Apple’s Reminders is a great place to start if you feel that you just want flat lists with no frills. I even once contemplated using the built-in stock apps to run my business, since I already use Mail and Notes daily.
But Apple’s Calendar (see this post for my preference of a calendar app) and Reminders are really basic. That’s OK for the majority of people out there, and they are really nicely designed apps. If they gain greater function, I can see myself reviewing their fit in my app lineup. But for now, I need deferred task management, multiple tags per task if needed, and I really enjoy a nice watch app.
Both Things and OmniFocus have these features, and more.
App history and comparisons
I have used OmniFocus for quite some time, dating back to 2012 when I was finishing a university degree and wanted something better than (at that time) Apple’s bare-bones version of Reminders. I used OmniFocus 1, and was baffled as to how to organize anything in it with ease – until I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which would change my world forever.
I saw that structuring tasks was the way to go, and not operating from a project-based approach, but rather, a contextual one. Using tools at hand like a phone to make calls, my Mac for sending or processing email, or a classmate agenda list so that I could cover ground with them when I spoke with them next were methods that propelled my approach to, well…getting things done, as the name implies.
In 2014 when OmniFocus 2 was released, I was overjoyed that the app had gotten an overhaul from it’s dated-looking design. It was clean, approachable, and ready for me to add a Context to any task.
A few years later, I found myself using Things because of it’s delightful design and the ability to add multiple tags to tasks. Let’s say that a task could be done at home or at work (like writing thank you cards, where I have a stack of the same card in each location). I wanted the ability to assign multiple tags, and so I used Things in earnest, and wrote GTD With Things 3, a passion project book that attempted to fuse Allen’s GTD method with Cultured Code’s app. I enjoyed the look of Things…but I missed the OmniFocus app’s structure.
Herein lies the heart of this writing.
As Things was being developed further with new features like the ability to mail tasks to the app, or URL command integration, I found that I really liked Things more and more. It was quickly gaining feature parity with OmniFocus. I saw less of a need for the big purple sledgehammer of an app by the Omni Group. Although I wanted to use the app, I felt that I could “get by” with Things.
I started to drift from OmniFocus, the forums and awesome community, in addition to great sites like Learn OmniFocus, which is a personal favorite of mine.
Cultured Code, while extremely responsive in its support dealings, and iterative in its approach to building a more well-rounded app, didn’t have the best track record of listening to their customer’s needs. Users (like me) have been asking literally for years for the ability to complete a repeating task before its due date. They have been getting better at acknowledging their user’s requests, however. The Markdown ability in the notes section of a to-do is one amazing example.
However, I sort of missed OmniFocus. I missed the very logical approach to task management. If a task is deferred for a future date, you could do it, if it suddenly became available to you. With OmniFocus, you can search for that deferred, repeating task and complete it early. With Things? Nope. You must wait until it shows up in your Today list.
Therein lied the problem (or so I thought) with taking Things seriously for the long-term. If I defer 80 tasks (let’s take that number, because it is relatively large), until October 1…in Things they suddenly all show up in my Today list on October 1.
In OmniFocus, they would silently become available, and I could see that they were now ready to be done when reviewing my various Tags in the app.
So, I began to see the perceived lack of power in Things, and headed for OmniFocus. I felt whole again!
I could now actually manage 400 tasks in OmniFocus, and only see literally what I can do right now. That is the both the promise and delivery offered by the app. Hooray!
Having written for the Inside OmniFocus site, visited the Omni Group at their office in Seattle (thereby solidifying that these are lovely people who really care about their end users), I got invited to know some of the folks at the Omni Group, and was later invited to their beta test of OmniFocus 4 early.
I was initially impressed that there was such a change, but after some use, I felt like I was pulling levers, switches, clicking “X”‘s…all to see my next tasks due.
I didn’t give it a long time to get acquainted with it. From the start it felt too fiddle-y for my liking, but I hung with the beta in earnest for maybe 3 weeks. Then I bailed.
I thought, “Well, they have gone wrong here, I guess I will have to head back to Things..”. Honestly, I was bummed at the design and implementation decisions by this wonderful company. I voiced some of my opinions and then headed for the hills.
I deleted OmniFocus 3 and 4, and re-installed Things.
I quickly ran into the same limitations as before.
Not knowing where to turn for an app that would fulfill my need for GTD near-perfection, I began using Reminders after re-reading Getting Things Done. hell, David Allen used to use paper before he used Lotus Notes. I could do something similar in digitize form, I thought. So, I set up my lists like this 👇.
What to do with future tasks, you might ask? I put them in the Tickler list, which surfaced them by date. It keeps them out of sight from my Next Actions, which are the lists that you can act on right now. Each morning I would drag the days’ tasks, one by one, to their appropriate contextual list. Then I would remove the due date (because they were not “due”, but I had used the Tickler list’s “due” date as a “start” date/
This quickly felt like a game of whack-a-mole.
Where I am today
*I have edited this post as of July 17, 2022 after recently installing OmniFocus to try the beta.
Seeing first-hand the way that the Omni Group runs their operation (damn, that really was an impressive office in Seattle!), and how they actually listen to customers, I decided to give the beta a shot again, about 12 months later.
It has come a long way, as evidenced here on the Learn OmniFocus site.
It looks much more usable, and the Omni Group have taken a lot of care in the design and implementation of the features that will eventually make it into the public release. However, after much consideration, I still cannot say that I can move forward with OmniFocus. I do feel that the design tends to make me anxious when using it. After a year plus, there are many bugs and unfriendliness for the user (as of July 2022, I cannot yet figure out how to add a new folder in OmniFocus 4, for example.)
I had been looking forward to upgrading my apps to OmniFocus 4…but I think it is clear to me that my relationship with OmniFocus as a viable task manager for me is probably at an impasse.
The reasons that Things is my task manager of choice over something like OmniFocus or Reminders are:
- The watch app. Although a point of slight friction in Things’ watch app is that it is only a view of your Today list, and not sortable by tag or area, it excels at being simple. You can take the 5 seconds it takes to add something to the Today list via your iPhone, and have it surface on the watch if you really want your actionable tasks at a glance on your wrist.
- The keyboard shortcuts are amazing.
- The opinionated workflow. Initially this was a mental roadblock for me. I thought that I wanted to see all of my next actions sorted by tag (context) – but to be honest, after doing that in OmniFocus I was just seeing a really long list of actionable tasks. It leads to visual clutter and overwhelm. I didn’t want to have 4 different perspectives to look at my tasks. It was just too much after a while.
- The design. It is truly second to none.
This is not to say that I don’t love OmniFocus or Reminders. But keep in mind that you are trying to choose that path of least resistance when taking actions to get your to-do’s on and off of your list(s) quickly.
Nothing is perfect. Choose what works for you!