MacSparky’s OmniFocus Video Field Guide

OmniFocus

 

Last week I finished watching every minute of David Sparks’s OmniFocus Video Field Guide.

 

OF In Action

 

The video is of professional quality. You don’t even really think about this as you watch, which is a good thing. It is just David Sparks, his OmniFocus (Mac and iOS, excellent explanations, and you.

Sparks covers all of the basics, and then some. You get in-depth tutorials on how to use Due Dates (sparingly!) or Defer Dates, navigating your way through Projects, what Contexts are and how to use them, keeping your Inbox clear, integrating OF with other workflows like email and TextExpander, and much more. From Capture to Review, the Field Guide has it covered.

There are two nice touches that I especially appreciated:

  1. Sparks is funny. You see him working on a project called Flat Earth Manifesto in the video. But he avoids the pitfall that some tech writers get into, which is being overly cute or annoyingly glib. He uses humor perfectly.
  2.  

    Custom Perspectives
     

  3. He shows you some of his unique Custom Perspectives in OF. This alone may be worth the price of the field guide. I have already copied his settings that he shows to set up my own Perspectives like his. Even though I have been using the app for a good while now, and consider myself fairly proficient with it, my productivity with OmniFocus has definitely increased since adding these Perspectives.

 
Chapter Titles
 

As you can see in the above shot, you can navigate by chapter, and scroll through all of them to see a sort of Table of Contents of the whole Field Guide.

Here is a short clip so you can get a feel for the approach and content.

Learning OmniFocus is an investment of time. Some people will balk at spending money to learn how to use the software they already spent good money on. But for $10, with well over two hours of top-notch content, the serious OmniFocus user should get to this field guide as soon as possible. Easily 5/5 stars.

Find it here.

 


 

Thanks to MacSparky/David Sparks, for giving me a download of the Field Guide for this review.

Streaks: Tracking Habits

Icon-1024-Rounded

 

A new breed of task management app seems to be proliferating in the App Store as of late: the habit tracker.

The idea behind a habit-building app is not just to help you cross things off your list, but to actually build the kinds of repetitive practices you’d like to be a part of your everyday life.

Streaks is one such app, and perhaps the one with the most aesthetically pleasing presentation.

 

What I Like About Streaks

 

The first thing to appreciate about Streaks is its layout:

 

home base

 
You can change colors from the default orange to 11 other options:

 
Colors and settings

 
As you complete (or miss) habits, the app makes it easy to access statistics from the main screen with just a tap. Check this out:

 
Some stats
 
More stats
 

The reminders are customizable, so they can be as obtrusive or unobtrusive as you want them to be, depending on what you need to get your habits in place:

 
Alt text
 
Checking off habits is satisfying. You just hold down the circle till it fills in:
 
Alt text
 
If you missed a day, Streaks knows it:
 
Alt text
 
There are a ton of habit icons from which to choose, and they look better than any I’ve seen in other comparable apps (some of which are just icon-less lists):
 
icons
 
more icons
 
yet more icons
 
Setting up habits is quite easy:
 
running habit
 

What I Found Lacking

 

Probably the biggest miss in the app is that there is no way to adjust a habit you forgot to check off more than one day ago. If you missed marking a habit yesterday, you’re all set, but you can’t check off habits you completed two days ago but didn’t note. I lost some streaks this way (at least within the app) when I was on vacation last month. I was completing habits, but not on my phone as often as usual; there’s no way to adjust to get your statistics to reflect such a reality.

I would love for future updates to Streaks to include some sort of sound when you fill in a habit circle. This is just personal preference, though.

Streaks maxes out at six habits that you can be tracking at a time. The developers have a reason for this–it’s hard to maintain more habits than that on a regular basis, but the limitation does not allow for as great user control as some other apps do.

One other lack: you can’t make a habit to do something, say, three times a week, without also having to specify the days. So I can have “Exercise” three times a week, but only if I assign days (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday)–I couldn’t set it up for any three days.

 

Final Words and Where to Get the App

 
Limitations notwithstanding, Streaks is easily one of the three best habit-tracking apps for iOS. It’s clearly designed with the user experience in mind, which makes charting habits through this app fun. As long as you can stay on top of tracking your practices each day, Streaks is a worthy aid in helping establish regular life patterns.

Find Streaks in the App Store here.
 

Thanks to the good folks at Streaks app for the review copy of Streaks, given to me for this review but with no expectation as to its content.

Two Resources (One Paid, One Free) for Getting On Top of Stuff

It’s Friday, so hopefully you’re winding down a bit and thinking about how to relax rather than how to be more productive–so file this away for Monday (or read it now if you work weekends).

Here are two resources–one paid and one free–to help stay on top of email and tasks.

 

1. Dispatch App

 

 

I’ve never understood the logic of apps that allow you to “snooze” email. Handle it once and move on, I think. Emails are often calendar appointments or tasks in disguise, and our Inboxes are no place to be keeping tasks. Inbox Zero is elusive (though see here), so an app that helps you get your Inbox messages into tasks quickly is appreciated. This is the goal of Dispatch app, newly available on iPad. Check it out here.

 

2. Free Podcasts from GTD

 

You might also check out free podcasts from David Allen‘s Getting Things Done:

Our GTD podcasts are here to support you at every stage of your GTD practice. You will hear interviews with people from all walks of life about their journey with GTD, from beginners to those who have been at it for years. The podcasts include personal and professional stories, as well as practical tips about GTD systems for desktop and mobile, using apps and paper. Start listening now and you’ll be well on your way to stress-free productivity.

Find the podcast page here.

Cultured Code’s Things Cloud Gets Even Cloud-er

Things Cloud 2

First things first–who is even doing design for Cultured Code’s app Things? Because that design team is the best in the biz. The two images in this post show as much.

Yesterday Cultured Code announced a significant improvement to how Things syncs data across devices. Once again, they’re ahead of the pack in this regard. From their blog announcement:

Shortly after Things Cloud launched, we released a feature called Local Push. It makes sync instantaneous as long as Things is open on your devices (and they’re on the same local network). But of course the app is often closed on your mobile device—so it won’t receive the push, and won’t be in sync until you manually launch the app later.

Today’s new version of Things Cloud solves this problem by sending your devices a push from the cloud (regardless of what network they’re connected to). This means that most of the time you’re in sync even before you launch the app.

And then they give you this sweet visual representation:

 

Things Push Sync

 

… which is quite nicely explained in full at their blog. Read the whole thing here.

And be on the lookout for Things 3. I’ll do my best to cover it here once it releases.

Todoist (Premium): Reviewed and Considered

I’m pretty tied to the Apple ecosphere of apps when it comes to productivity: OmniFocus, Drafts, MindNode, Ulysses, etc. Three major exceptions are Scrivener, Evernote, and Accordance. But otherwise–whether this has happened consciously or not–most of the apps I use regularly are Mac-only.

Todoist is the rare task management app that is available on every platform. And I mean every platform. It even has a Web-based interface, if you don’t want to have to fire up the app on your computer:

 

Universal Todoist

 

Not only that, it integrates with just about everything. This itself is reason to consider Todoist as a primary task management app.

In this post, I review Todoist Premium, considering at the end whether it could, for me, replace OmniFocus.

Here’s a short video from the makers of Todoist, which offers a quick overview:

 

 

What’s Awesome about Todoist

 

First, what’s awesome about Todoist.

 
1. It looks good. Really good.
 

Here it is in landscape mode on an iPad mini:

 

iPad Layout

 

At first I thought it was overly simple, sort of blasé. But the more I’ve used Todoist, the more I appreciate the layout. No clutter, easy to read, pleasing to the eyes. (And you can tweak the color scheme, too.)

 
2. The sync: It Just Works.
 

Todoist’s sync across devices is natural and fast. It’s much more like Things than (previous versions of) OmniFocus. I don’t even really think about it, which is what you hope would be true. No manual anything required.

 
3. Todoist is everywhere (almost).
 

It’s the most ubiquitous and app-integrated task management app on the market. Look, it’s even in my Firefox browser!

 

Firefox Plugin
Click to enlarge image

 

There’s a Gmail plug-in, too. This, unfortunately, is only available with Chrome–which is too much of a CPU hog for me. But it looks good.

Todoist doesn’t offer a Mac Mail plug-in, but as you’ll see below, you can email a task right into a Todoist project, so that’s not a big deal.

 
4. Labels and Filters
 

I don’t know Todoist like I know OmniFocus, but Labels and Filters would appear to be the app’s heart and soul. Sure, there’s an Inbox you can use for GTD-style capture (from anywhere). Yeah, you can set up different Projects for organizing your tasks. But Labels allow you to assign contexts and anything else you like to your tasks (expected task duration?). Then you can filter your tasks by Labels or priority or any other saved search:

 

Priority 3

 

Annoying is the fact that when you create a new Label, if there are two words or more, Todoist automatically inserts an underscore. So one label of mine is now “Waiting_For.” I’m sure I’ll get used to it, but it feels a little AOL-ish.

I’m sure there are Label and Filter ninja reading this post, and there’s much more to say about them–Todoist can do quite a bit here. So check out this page and this page for more.

 
5. Easy task input
 

Todoist understands natural language, so entering tasks intuitively is no problem. It’s easy to enter tasks in rapid-fire fashion, too, so you can do a brain dump well with Todoist.

 
6. Email reminders
 

Todoist assigns an email address to a Project of your choice, so I can email tasks (or forward actionable emails) directly to my Inbox. This is a must-have for me in a task management app. You can include attachments, too.

Speaking of email… you can also have Todoist email you reminders of your tasks. At first I thought this was redundant (well… it is). But even though I’m seeing the same task twice (maybe a GTD no-no?), I have found the added reminder helpful.

 

What I Don’t Particularly Like about Todoist

 

 
1. The Premium, subscription-based model
 

Of course. It would be ridiculous to expect a sophisticated app with task notes, attachments, email reminders, fast sync, etc. to be free. There is a free Todoist, but it’s limited. Here’s some of what is in Premium, which is about $29/year:

 

Premium

 

But I’ve never liked subscription-based models. Sure, if you work for a big company that’s paying for it, I can see it working. But what users otherwise want to pay $150 to use the app for the next five years? Other apps with one-time purchases end up being cheaper. If you don’t have Premium, or let it expire, you can no longer add notes or attachments to your tasks–serious GTDers (and other task management obsessives) will need Premium.

 
2. The interface is not so customizable.
 

You can change your start screen, but not on iOS, that I could find. You’re pretty tied in to the layout Todoist gives you.

 
3. For GTDers: No weekly review option
 

My weekly review–a built-in feature of OmniFocus–is what allows me to set due dates sparingly, a key practice for effective project and task management. Todoist’s Karma is fun, but feels gimmicky. And their GTD page has suggestions for something like a weekly review (it would be easy enough to set up a recurring task for it, employing Filters and Labels as needed), but I have gotten so used to OmniFocus’s Review function that not having one already in the app is tough. But it won’t be a deal breaker for a lot of folks.

 

Concluding Evaluation

 
If I were to stop using Apple products tomorrow, I’d get Todoist up and running right away.

How does Todoist Premium rate with apps like OmniFocus and 2Do and Things? It’s right up there, and maybe—given its cross-functionality and fast sync—the best of the batch. But the subscription model is just something I can’t latch on to. Some will have no problem with this.

When I set out to write this review, I was planning to conclude it with, “Yet another app falls short of OmniFocus….” But Todoist really doesn’t. Sure, OF beats it in some regards, but Todoist outperforms OmniFocus in other key areas.

So if you’re one of those handful of disaffected OF users, or if, heaven forbid, you’re not keeping track of your commitments in writing at all–and if you have $30/year to spend–Todoist Premium might just be your new, sole task management app.

 


 

Thanks to the fine folks at Doist, the makers of Todoist, for giving me 6 months of Todoist Premium so I could write this review. See my other AppTastic Tuesday reviews here.

Two Soul-Piercing Gems from David Allen (Getting Things Done 2.0)

GTD 2The wedding of productivity literature and thoughtful anthropology (let alone spirituality) seems to be woefully uncommon, but David Allen strikes me as a spiritually attuned writer. That’s why I think it’s no stretch to call some of his insights into personal productivity “soul-piercing.” Or, at least, one can better provide oneself good soul care when implementing Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) principles.

Readers of this blog know of my new-found use of OmniFocus, which is really just one possible tool (out of several) that helps one practice Getting Things Done.

Here are two total gems from Allen’s new, re-tooled GTD 2.0:

What you do with your time, what you do with information, and what you do with your body and your focus relative to your priorities–those are the real options to which you must allocate your limited resources. The substantive issue is how to make appropriate choices about what to do at any point in time. The real work is to manage our actions.

He says this as a reaction to talk of “managing time” or even “managing priorities.” Allen says you can’t manage time (“you don’t manage five minutes and wind up with six”) and don’t manage priorities (rather, “you have them”). That seems at first like semantics, but his point is:

Things rarely get stuck because of lack of time. They get stuck because what “doing” would look like, and where it happens, hasn’t been decided.

So the focus becomes managing our actions. And this is still relative to our priorities.

Phew. Love it. (Also, guilty as charged.)

Here’s the second gem:

Getting things done requires two basic components: defining (1) what “done” means (outcome) and (2) what “doing” looks like (action). And these are far from self-evident for most people about most things that have their attention.

I’m (actually, finally) reading Getting Things Done cover to cover. It’s already a breath of fresh air. Find it here.

I Love to Run vs. I Love to NOT Run

I Hate Running

 

I have fallen off the wagon a bit these last 10 days or so with regard to running. Nothing to be proud of, I know. Today I realized something frustrating (but true):

I love not going for a run.

It feels good to not have to wake up super-early to exercise, or figure out how I’m going to schedule a jog in a day with multiple other demands.

But then I went for a run today, and remembered:

I love going for a run.

Ah, these blasted competing values. I get caught in the crossfire every time!

 

I Love Running

 

But I do love running, even though I also love not running, and that feeling–as long as I can keep remembering it–will get me out there again in the next day or two.

A Review of Cultured Code’s Things App

Things for Mac - App Icon

 

I’ve reviewed enough software to know over-hyped copy writing when I see it, so I was initially skeptical at the Things app’s claim to be “a delightful and easy to use task manager” (my italics).

But its aesthetic and usability really are pleasing and enjoyable. The layout is very simple and clean. It has almost a cartoonish (in a comforting way) feel to it. It looks like this:

 

Mac OSX version
Mac OSX version (click image to enlarge)

 

iPhone version
iPhone version

 

Readers of this blog (especially patient ones) know that I’m a user of OmniFocus, but I’ve also been putting Things through its paces these last few months.

First, straight from the nearly perfect Things getting started guide, here’s the basic structure of the app:

List Icons

Today is the list for to-dos that you want to start before the day ends. They’re your priorities.

Next is home for all of the to-dos you could start at any time. It’s a good place to look when putting together your Today list, or when you’ve finished everything there and you need more to do.

Scheduled is for to-dos that you’d like to start on a later date, either because there’s nothing you can do to start them yet, or you’d just rather be reminded of them on a specific day.

Someday is the place for to-dos that you might like to get to, but you’re not sure when. Regularly review what you’ve added here to decide if it’s time to act.

It all starts with the Inbox, where you can put items until you’re ready to decide when to do them. Things also allows you to organize by multi-step Projects and Areas of Responsibility, as well as make extensive use of Tags.

 

Strengths

 

Things syncs instantaneously via its own cloud service across multiple devices. This makes using it on both a phone and a computer, for example, really easy—you never have to worry about an outdated notification showing up on your device. This is one of the few drawbacks of OmniFocus—if you don’t keep OF open and make sure it’s synced on all your devices, you’ll get a reminder on your iPhone to complete a task you already checked off on your computer. This is not an issue with Things, and it takes away an extra step in the task management process, so you can direct that energy to actually working through your task list.

Things is head and shoulders above other task management apps in this regard.

Things has a really nice tagging system. No GTD-style “contexts,” per se, though you could certainly use your tags as contexts if you wanted to. You can even assign sub-tags to your tags, a feature I really like. So I can tag a task under the category “Blog,” but also assign sub-tags such as “Future post” and “Learn apps.” I used this tagging system to track thank-you notes last Christmas—writing down presents (and who they were from) as we opened them, and then sorting by tag (giver) so that I knew what all I was thanking someone for when I came to their note! Handy, indeed.

 

Tags

 

Things for Mac OSX

 

The desktop app is feature-rich. As you might expect, in addition to seamless sync with the mobile apps, the desktop version of Things (pictured above) is fuller-bodied than the iOS apps. There is the Quick Entry feature, where a keyboard shortcut (no matter what app you’re using in the foreground, so long as Things is open somewhere) will let you enter a task before you forget. There is a really smooth way of accessing, displaying, and adjusting all your tags (where Things really shines). Editing a task is fast. And it looks good.

The iOS apps have a useful Today widget. Some Today widgets are better than others, and this one is good. You can view items due today, check them off (both without ever opening the app), and tap on New To-Do to be taken to the Things app to make a new entry.

 

Things Today widget

 

Siri and Things work together (quite nicely). You can set up Things so that reminders you voice dictate to Siri go right into that app as tasks. So that you can use Things safely while driving. As OmniFocus is my task management app of choice, a comparison again is inevitable: to get Siri-generated reminders to show in OF, you have to actually open OF and let it sync. Not so in Things: the reminder goes to your Things Inbox for processing immediately.

 

Siri

 

Limitations

 

There are some things that Things can’t do, which I had hoped it could.

There is no way (whether in iOS or OSX) to attach photos or files to an item. I find this a noteworthy lack. In OmniFocus and Evernote you can take a photo of something and immediately set it up with a to-do reminder. Sometimes life’s “inputs” come as visuals, and taking a picture and setting a due date is easiest. That’s not doable in Things. (You can link to actual files on a desktop, but that’s not the same as attaching the file itself, and the file doesn’t show up on an iPad.) There is a “Notes” field that attaches to your to-do, which is essential, though that field just accepts text entry.

The cosmos (or just your co-workers and bosses) also like to give to-do items via email. There’s no way to automate moving from an email into a task in Things. In OmniFocus you can just forward an email to your special OmniFocus email address, and it automatically becomes a task in your inbox. Todoist, like Outlook, can let you turn an email into a task in just a click, without even having to forward it anywhere. Evernote even lets you send an email as a Note to a specific Notebook with Tags, if you phrase your subject line right. Things may add this email-in-to-Inbox feature in the future, but for now, you have to take the extra step of copy-pasting an email into a new task yourself. Not as automated as I’d have liked.

You can get to a new task via the + button on the bottom right screen on iOS—so entering a new task right away is easy—but there is not the “Save +” option that other apps offer… so you have to add an extra tap when doing a rapid-fire brain dump. (This is not as much an issue on the desktop version of the app.)

You can set up repeating tasks, but not easily. This process was not as immediately intuitive as the rest of the app is. Things’s support page (which is awesome) details how you can do it from iOS and OSX. But, wow, did I spend a lot of time figuring out the very specific way in which this must be done in Things—and a couple of methods that you’d think would get you there… don’t.

 

Repeat

 

Conclusion

 

So many reviews of task management apps affirm that there’s a personal element to what app works best for you. One user’s “intuitive” is another user’s, “Huh?” I’ve bought into the OmniFocus methodology and layout (mostly), which is intuitive enough but not easy out of the box. Things, on the other hand, is easy to figure out how to use right away without using a manual. The “Today” part of the app functions as a sort of daily review, though I prefer OmniFocus’s Forecast and actual Review perspectives. But you might be totally different on that!

In terms of complexity and capability, I’d put Things somewhere between Reminders and OmniFocus. It’s far more robust than Reminders, but not quite the souped-up to-do app some users might need. (Although one could just use the robust tagging system to customize Things for higher levels of complexity.)

Things is well-designed, looks great, and the seamless sync is a huge plus. Try it for yourself here (download link) with a free trial.

 


 

Thanks to the fine folks at Cultured Code, the makers of Things, for giving me downloads for the Mac and iOS apps for this review. See my other AppTastic Tuesday reviews here.

New OmniFocus iOS Universal App, Explained in 2 Charts

OmniFocusToday OmniFocus is expected to release an update that makes their iOS apps universal. The iPhone app, for the first time, will carry with it the capability to view and create custom Perspectives.

There are several upgrade paths, depending on what you’ve already purchased from Omni in the past. (Before the universal update, the iPhone and iPad apps were paid, separate purchases, with only iPad carrying a Pro upgrade version.)

It’s not the easiest upgrade process to understand, but here are two charts from Ken Case (via the Twitter) that will help:

 

The upgrade paths (click to enlarge)
The upgrade paths (click to enlarge)

 

More Options on the iPhone Version (click to enlarge)
More Options on the iPhone Version (click to enlarge)

 

And check out this lovely screenshot from the updated help files. You can now re-arrange your Perspectives on the phone.

 

Reordering Perspectives in iOS Pro
Reordering Perspectives in iOS Pro

 

You can see everything that’s new in iOS 2.1 here. My overly eager and long-winded review of OmniFocus is here.