OmniOutliner for Mac and iOS, Reviewed

OmniOutliner-for-Mac-1024The rise of the brilliant app 2Do notwithstanding, I continue to utilize OmniFocus as my task management hub. I was eager, then, to try out The Omni Group’s outlining app, OmniOutliner.

Think of OmniOutliner as a thought structuring app, suitable for both creating and organizing content. You can use it for any of the following scenarios:

  • making a grocery list
  • taking notes in class
  • writing a paper (and re-arranging sections easily)
  • planning and following through with a project
  • tracking and categorizing expenses
  • writing and editing your podcast script

There are multiple other uses for the app–I’ve made good use of it in sermon preparation, as you’ll see below. Right away the Mac and iOS apps take you to a templates screen so you can get started without delay:

 

Templates
On this and all images in the post, click or tap to enlarge

 

What’s Awesome About OmniOutliner

 

Getting content into OmniOutliner is fairly easy. It’s not as intuitive as just opening a blank Word document and typing, but it’s simple enough to open an outline and start writing.

Once you’ve gotten your outline going, being able to fold and unfold (collapse and expand) entire parts of the outline is a huge asset. If I’ve broken a book review down into parts, for example, I can just collapse the sections I don’t want to see at the moment:

 

Book Reviews Two Columns

 

Then there is the organizing power of OmniOutliner: you can take any node and indent or outdent it. You can drag sections of the outline around to quickly re-order them. And you can make batch edits when selecting multiple parts of your outline.

Perhaps the most helpful feature to me has been the ability to add notes to content, which you can then either hide or show. In this simple outline, I’ve set the note at the top to display (in grey), while the one toward the bottom remains hidden.

 

OmniOutliner Simple

 

You can show the sidebar, which allows you to move back and forth between a lot of content in one outline. When preaching on David’s odious sin against Bathsheba and her husband, I utilized an outline that included both my sermon structure and accompanying research. You can see that reflected in the sidebar, at left, even while my Topic column could remain focused on a smaller portion.

 

Outline in OmniOutliner

 

You can add media (audio recordings and video) to your outline. Your files would be huge, but if you wanted to use OmniOutliner for classroom notes, you could also add a live recording of the session, straight into your outline.

And then there is the styling. My goodness. You can tweak every aspect imaginable of your outline.

OmniOutliner Style PaneI found this feature set to be impressive but overwhelming. For my purposes, I didn’t need to do a whole lot by way of formatting, but the options are there should you need them.

To that end, the help files for OmniOutliner are incredible. So is their support team! There are user manuals you can download in multiple formats, and they are outstanding. In a couple of sittings, I read some 100 pages of the iBook version of the OmniOutliner for iOS manual. Yes, it was that interesting! Other app developers should take notes.

OmniOutliner is also available as a universal iOS app, working on both iPhone and iPad. You can sync across devices using Omni’s own server or your own.

The keyboard shortcuts available for iPad make OmniOutliner a serious contender for best writing app for those who are trying to make a serious go of it on iPad instead of computer. Omni Group’s Ken Case announced the shortcuts last November.

This means that the iOS OmniOutliner app is close to parity with the Mac app. This rarely seems to be the case with other apps, where iOS versions tend to lag behind their desktop counterparts.

OmniOutliner has had Split View and Slide Over in iOS for just about as long as iOS 9 has been released.

One other really cool thing: you can import the OPML file format from a mind map to move from mind mapping straight into OmniOutliner.

 

MN and OO with note

 

If that workflow interests you, read more about it here.
 

What’s Lacking

 

A few things are lacking in OmniOutliner:

  • I’ve experienced a couple of crashes when exporting my outline to other formats
  • The precision and plethora of styling options makes the app feel wooden and clunky at times, especially when you want to just sit down and write
  • If I want constant access to, say, a section of text in the second half of my outline, while I work on the first half, there is no way to split the screen or freeze a section so I can see easily disparate parts of my outline at once
  • There is no word count feature (!). Omni has indicated this could come in 2016, but not having it has kept me from making OmniOutliner my go-to writing app
     
    (Note: if you have OmniOutliner Pro for Mac (twice the price of the regular OO), you can go to the forums for an AppleScript that will help you with word count, but this is more than the average user should be expected to do.)

 

More Info

 

Byte for byte, OmniOutliner is worth your considering as your primary writing app. If you don’t need to be as structured with your writing, it may not be your top choice. Its integration across iOS and OS X, though, make it a possible go-to repository for collecting and organizing information.

You can find out more about OmniOutliner here and here.

OmniOutliner for iOS (Universal) is $29.99.

OmniOutliner for OS X is $49.99. OmniOutliner Pro includes a few more features and is $99.99.

You can get a free trial of Mac app here.

 


 

Thanks to the fine folks at The Omni Group, the makers of OmniOutliner, for giving me downloads for the Mac (OmniOutliner Pro) and iOS apps for this review. See my other AppTastic Tuesday reviews here.

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.

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.

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.

File Under: I Can’t Believe a Phone Can Do This

I can hardly believe the technology on a little iPhone exists to do this, but this is now how I am going to take and process meeting notes from here on out.

I have an app (Drafts 4) that has a downloadable action I found at their Web Action Directory.

Let me show you what it can do:

 

Drafts to EN and OF 1

 

Drafts to EN and OF 2

 

This means I simply open the Drafts app (which is quite aesthetically pleasing, and fast, too) and take meeting notes there…including marking action steps with the checkbox keyboard shortcut key (!).

Then I tap the action above, and all my meeting notes are saved as an Evernote note, with all the checkboxes I made automatically converting to OmniFocus tasks.

Many, many thanks to Agile Tortoise for the awesome app and to @rosscatrow for the action above to install into Drafts 4. A good step forward in my ongoing quest to stay organized.

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.

The Last To-Do App You’ll Ever Need: OmniFocus

OmniFocusYou 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.

 

iPad, showing various perspectives and Inbox
iPad, showing various perspectives and Inbox (“Blog Posts” is a “custom perspective” available with iPad Pro version)

 

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.

 

Contexts in iPad
Contexts perspective in iPad

 

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:

 

iPhone Forecast View
iPhone Forecast perspective

 

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:

 

iPhone Share 1

 

From Safari, for example, the Note is automatically populated with the article link, and I can set the Project and Context:

 

iPhone Share 2

 

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:

 

OmniFocus for Mac Review Perspective
OmniFocus for Mac 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.

 

Limitations

 

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

 

Perspectives sidebarThe 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.