You know that creeping suspicion that some of your strangest idiosyncrasies could not possibly be shared by anyone else ever?
You’re usually wrong.
Case in point: it turns out I’m far from the only one who has had about a dozen different to-do apps on his phone in the last couple months. But it’s a bad idea to use multiple apps to organize tasks. All the better if you can track everything through one clearinghouse.
OmniFocus is that place for me. In more than half a year of daily use (exception: techno-Sabbath), I’ve only found one real flaw in the program (sync is not seamless). Otherwise OmniFocus (a.k.a. OF) does everything I want a task management app to do, and many things I didn’t know I would want such an app to do.
First Things First: Learn OmniFocus Language
There’s a lot to OmniFocus. To get a quick overview, check out this video, or this one, which explains the fundamental OF concept of “perspectives,” ways of organizing and accessing your tasks.
Or skip the videos and read this one-paragraph simplification of what you need to know about OF terminology before using it:
Projects help you break a bigger endeavor down into its component actions. Projects can be Sequential (you have to do action 1 before you can do action 2) or Parallel (it doesn’t matter in which order you do the individual tasks). For that matter Projects can just have what Omni refers to as loosely-related but not interdependent “Single Actions,” like a grocery shopping list. Contexts allow you to organize actions according to the things/people/environment you need to do them: Office, iPad, Internet, Computer, Car (careful!), etc. The Forecast view shows your tasks chronologically in one place–I spend most of my time in this view. Or you can just make a quick entry in the Inbox, and then decide how to categorize it later.
The Inbox is the starting point–OmniFocus suggests that you take some time to just “brain dump” everything there and then assign Contexts and Projects, due dates and duration times later.
Using OF requires some patience and learning, but is worth the investment of time if you’re serious about project and task management.
OmniFocus is Ubiquitous Across Devices and Apps
OF syncs automatically across Mac, iPad, and iPhone. When you are in the Forecast perspective, both the iOS apps and the OSX app allow you to see your Calendar Events right next to your actions for the day:
I even figured out, using their Clip-o-Tron 3001, how to turn Mac Mail messages into tasks with a keyboard shortcut. (Email inboxes are not a good place to keep tasks, you realize.)
And I love the Share Extension in iOS8. From almost any app I can create an OmniFocus task. I do this regularly. I see something I like, so share to OF:
From Safari, for example, the Note is automatically populated with the article link, and I can set the Project and Context:
One lack in the Share Extension is the ability to assign a due date from the screen shown above–you have to manually open OmniFocus if you want to do that. However, the more I use OmniFocus, the more convinced I am to only set due dates if absolutely necessary–you can always look through undated tasks in your weekly review, which OF makes really easy with their excellent Review perspective:
What if you’re on a library computer or PC or purchased OF for Mac only and see something on your phone that needs to become a task?
OmniFocus gives you your own unique email address, to which you can email a task. This “Mail Drop” feature helps get the user close to Inbox Zero on email, too, since you can just forward a Gmail message to OmniFocus, where it will end up in your OF for future processing. In other words, you can input OmniFocus tasks from anywhere.
And TextExpander helps here. That app allows you to type your own abbreviations that then expand into text of your choosing. With TextExpander enabled, I write “.omni” and my OmniFocus task capture email address (which is neither short nor memorable) pops up right away.
Another way you can input tasks? Connect your OmniFocus in iOS to the Reminders app, then you can tell Siri to remind you something, and it goes into OmniFocus. Awesome!
Bonus: It Does Photos and Voice Memos
The iOS OF apps even allow attachments to tasks. If I’m processing paperwork and need to set a reminder to pay a bill, I can just take a picture of the bill from OF and save it to a task. Whenever I pull that task up on my computer or other device, the photo will be there.
You can also tap on the “Attachments” tab to record a voice memo, and save a task that way.
There are some limitations to using OmniFocus, though not many, and far fewer than other task management apps. Its sync function, which uses Omni servers, operates with a delay. Though sync is supposed to be seamless, it doesn’t function with the same instantaneous speed as, say, Apple’s native Reminders app. On the ground level this means that if I work through a task list on my computer but don’t have the OF iPhone app open (even though background refresh is on), I will still get outdated task notifications on my phone until the sync properly takes place. This is a daily frustration, even if a minor drawback compared to all the other robust features.
The workaround for this is to manually sync the app each time I update it, to make sure it’s up-to-the-minute. OmniFocus has made improvements here since I started using it, but I hope it will soon match what other apps do by way of syncing speed.
OmniFocus is not cheap–they’re working on making their iOS app universal (very soon), but in the meantime, there is a separate Mac app, iPad app, and iPhone app available for purchase. It’s not on Windows or Droid.
However, if (a) you have a complex set of roles, priorities, and tasks to manage, (b) you don’t feel fully on top of them, and (c) you’re willing to take the time to learn OF, it’s well worth the purchase price. One could probably get by with OF on just one platform, too, though if funds permit, having it on a mobile device and a desktop is an advantage.
Made with Care: Some More Thoughtfully Designed Features
The longer I use OmniFocus, the more I appreciate some little features. Just the other day I noticed for the first time that in your perspectives sidebar on Mac, if there are items in that perspective to process, a little colored bar on the left highlights that perspective.
The image at left tells me I am due my Review, that there are items in the Forecast (i.e., scheduled actions), and that there are some entries in my OmniFocus Inbox needing attention.
There are lots of nice little touches like this–the color of your task circles, for example, varies depending on the status of the task (whether flagged, due soon, overdue, repeated, etc.).
And one of the best intangibles for me has been the ease of accessing the help manuals. Sure, you can get impressive help information from within the app, but OmniFocus has made their iPhone, iPad, and Mac help manuals available as free iBooks downloads so you can annotate them to your heart’s content.
Also, using Control-Option-Space on Mac, you can open a Quick Entry pop-up to enter an Inbox item. As long as OF is open, you can do this from anywhere on your computer.
Two more sweet little features I love about the iPhone version–there’s a little “+” icon for an new Inbox entry on just about any screen within the app, so adding tasks is easy, no matter where you are in the app. And once you add a task in iPhone or iPad, you can not only Save it, but can tap on “Save +” to go right to a new task entry. In other words, you can add a task and not be sent back to your Inbox, but keep adding task after task. I find this feature essential when I’m using OF to track action steps in meetings.
I could go on. Lots of people have! It seems that explaining OmniFocus is its own third-party cottage industry.
TL;DR version? (I know–I am supposed to put that at the top of the post.) OmniFocus is an amazing app, designed with care, and more than any other tool has helped me to greatly improve personal productivity. With a good system in place, I spend less time worrying about what I’m forgetting and more time doing what I know I’m supposed to do.
Thanks to the fine folks at Omni Group, the makers of OmniFocus, for giving me downloads for the Mac and iOS apps for this review. See my other AppTastic Tuesday reviews here.
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