After concluding that Evernote wasn’t the task management solution for me, I decided to check out OmniFocus 2 for task and project management. I’d heard a lot about OmniFocus as a productivity suite from other Apple die-hards. In fact, our very own Patrick Jordan used to swear by OmniFocus a few years ago.
I’ve tried a number of systems over the years, including Things, TeuxDeux, 2Do (previewed here), Clear, Wunderlist, Todoist, and even Evernote. These apps are all wonderful, but because I’ve gone from freelance writing to exec assistant work, and now into digital marketing, my needs have changed quite drastically in the past three years, and so the systems have changed with them.
One of the very first barriers to using OmniFocus is its price: it’s positioned as a premium solution for productivity needs. The OmniFocus 2 iPhone app is $20, the iPad app is $30 (with a $20 optional in-app purchase), and the Mac app is $40 (with an optional $40 in-app purchase). If you’re just looking to add grocery items to a list alongside household chores, then you’ll want to something like Clear. However, anything more than that and OmniFocus 2 can become a legitimate candidate for your task-management needs.
Buying into OmniFocus is like buying into an ecosystem of Getting Things Done (GTD) friendliness, complete with a slice of cantaloupe. OmniFocus 2 has one of the very best on-boarding experiences I’ve seen for an app suite. Not only is the website beautiful and informative with its entertaining videos and blog posts, but there are also actual e-books available on the iBookstore for every version of the app. These e-books are polished manuals that are interesting to read from cover to cover.
I did a lot of reading before investing my time into OF 2, and suffice it to say, there was a lot of content out there to show how different people use this app suite. I know Patrick previously used it to schedule his appointments and blog posts, and one of OmniGroup’s features even shows how one user runs an entire vineyard off of OmniFocus on the iPhone, iPad, and Mac.
I chose to use OF 2 primarily as a project management app for my work, which is what I think the program really excels at. However, I also threw my own personal tasks into the app, just to keep everything in one place.
The OmniFocus 2 Suite
Out of all the apps in the OF 2 suite, I ended up using the iPad app the most. The iPad is my secondary computer at work, and because my work laptop can be slow as molasses, the iPad is what I’ve been taking to meetings as well. So I’ve really had time in the past few months to review how well OmniFocus 2 fits into my work flow.
I’ve found that the general scheme of things has been as follows:
- use the iPhone app for adding tasks as they come up
- use the Mac app for reviewing and re-categorizing items in the inbox
- use the iPad app for ticking tasks off, reviewing my daily list, and re-prioritizing tasks as needed
Great, Clean Visuals
OmniFocus 2 deserves major points for establishing a very clean slate for what a powerful task manager looks like. The menu is always on the left side sidebar, and extra options are always along the top. The right side of the screen is devoted solely to tasks, and all of the elements of the app have plenty of white space to breathe in.
Despite all of the power beneath the hood, OF 2 on the iPad manages to look very clean at all times. Each of the items in the sidebar menu is colour coded and given a unique icon, and every task circle is colour coded according to its due status. There’s a great deal of visual consistency to the app; much of it boils down to subtle detail, but it all comes together to make the app easier to navigate, and more delightful to use. I also really like how the Forecast view isn’t actually a menu item, but rather a set of options — Past, Today and the coming week, and Future — embedded above the sidebar options.
There’s a danger to embracing the iOS 8 design language too tightly and looking like a a generic app with a ton of white space, but OmniFocus 2 pivots enough with its design to come out looking really unique. I love the informative circles in lieu of checkboxes, and the clean and well-spaced type keeps the app from feeling too crowded.
One of the main organizational features baked into OmniFocus 2 is the idea of the Inbox. You don’t have to use the Inbox, but because it takes a prominent position on the main OF 2 menu, you’ll probably want to at least try it.
The Inbox is a place to do brain dumps or quick reviews. When your head is simply spinning with all the things you’re supposed to do, the Inbox is there to help them snatch them — one by one — and ground them in a list or project. However, staring at a single, gigantic list of all of your tasks can also be daunting, so the idea is to get things out of the Inbox every once in a while.
I like the idea behind the Inbox, but I don’t think it’s as efficient as it could be. I find OmniFocus in general quite slow when I have more than a handful of tasks to process. There is an edit button on the top bar for re-ordering tasks within a project or context, but there are no options for batch editing or batch deleting tasks. If I want to move five tasks out of the Inbox and into my Work project, I have to move them one by one. This would be acceptable if this were the earlier days of iOS, but batch editing is now quite common in iPad apps, and is even present in first-party apps (e.g. batch archiving in Mail).
Projects > Context
Let’s discuss what happens to tasks when you get them out of the inbox. A task can only ever be assigned to one project and one context at a given time.
Projects are a lot like lists in the iOS Reminders app, or categories in other task managers. You can have a project for home, a project for work, and a project for stuff like shopping. Contexts are usually named after after types of tasks, places, or people. Tasks with the context “Tara” are ones that I need to discuss with my boss, and tasks with the context “E-mail” are for periods where I intend to respond to a lot of e-mail in one sitting. A work task that requires me to discuss something with my boss might be in the a “Work” project and its context would be “Tara”. The context or the project alone would be enough to get me to do the task, but that bit of extra detail can be helpful when you really have to maximize your work hours.
The idea behind contexts is very interesting, especially when they’re centered around people. It can be difficult to find my teammates as they float between meetings, so when I see Ryan or Maria, it can be very useful to pull up their context within OF 2 and tick off a whole slew of to-dos that I’d need their input on.
Overall, I prefer to use projects over contexts. I tend to build the idea of contexts right into my titles anyway. The task “Tara: discuss budgets” tells me, right off the bat, that I need to discuss budgets with my boss. I also like how projects can be nested inside of folders, or even under other projects. That means that if a single “Work” project isn’t cutting it, I can create sub-projects under it for “Videos” and “Budgeting” to help myself stay on track. Contexts don’t really function like this, and so they don’t quite match how I tend to mentally organize things.
If the Inbox isn’t quite your thing, you may still like the idea of the Review, which is a special view nested at the bottom of the sidebar. You can set individual projects to be reviewed at regular intervals, and the app gently reminds you to do so by showing an in-app badge in the menu.
The review is useful for people with lots of projects that could conceivably be missed during the work week. I also like the visual behind the review, which is reinforced by the coffee cup icon on the “Mark Reviewed” button. The OmniGroup pictures users relaxing with a cup of coffee and reviewing whether or not tasks are still relevant.
I didn’t end up using the Review feature, but to OmniFocus’ credit, it’s the very first app that ever got me to use “defer dates” (i.e. start dates, in most other apps). Before OF 2, I stuck purely to due dates. Adding a due date in OF 2 means you’ll be presented with an alarm or notification at the exact time that your task is due.
Defer dates, on the other hand, help manage the number of visible tasks without adding extra alarms. Take February’s budget report, for example. I know I’ll have to do it, but I really can’t do anything about it until March, when all of January’s numbers have run through our system at work. Seeing “February Budget Report” on my task list every single time I look at OF2 doesn’t help me much — and it could even be argued that it takes some of my focus away from more urgent tasks. By setting a defer date of March 10, I’m telling OmniFocus 2 that I don’t even want to see the “February Budget Report” until March 10, 2015 rolls around. This way I can rest easy knowing that I’ll see the task on my list at the appropriate time, but it won’t clutter up my task list in the mean time.
This article from David Sparks got me onto defer dates, and I much prefer them to using due dates for every task. If notifications are firing all day, it’s too easy to start ignoring them as they pop up. I’m good at keeping track of my tasks and I do get most things done on time, but it’s simply inevitable that I’ll have to re-order and re-prioritize my task list as I go through the work week. Using defer dates and then keeping due dates to a minimum has really helped me keep my focus during the week. Thanks to defer dates, the notifications from OmniFocus 2 can really mean something.
One of OmniFocus 2’s most interesting features is the Forecast view. Instead of looking at tasks by context or by project, Forecast view projects your tasks over the course of the coming work week. In one glance, you can see how many tasks are overdue, due today or in the next four days, or simply due in the future. The OmniGroup, developers of OmniFocus, understand very well that prioritizing tasks is all about perspective, and I think the Forecast is a novel way of visualizing what I have to do.
I love how OF 2 maps tasks to the Forecast view based on due date, and I like how it will show me deferred tasks below the ones with due dates. However, I think there’s a flaw in how these deferred tasks are handled in the Forecast. If a task only has a defer date, but no due date, it’s easy to miss that task if you don’t complete it by the end of the deferred date.
For a concrete example, let’s take a task called “do laundry”, which is deferred to February 12 at 10pm. It has no due date (so no alarm); it only has a defer date and time. If I forget to “do laundry” on February 12, I will no longer be able to see the task in the Forecast on February 13. There’s a section of the Forecast view for Past tasks, but it only shows tasks for which you have missed the due date, not for tasks where you’ve missed the deferred date. For any deferred tasks I may have missed, I’ll have to go to the project view to remember them.
It could be argued that truly crucial tasks should be assigned an alarm (and therefore a due date), but I also don’t think it would be too big a deal to include overdue deferred tasks on the Past section of the Forecast. If deferred tasks show up in all other areas of the Forecast, I’d argue they should also show up in the Past section for users that prefer to use OmniFocus 2 mainly in the Forecast view.
Another feature that sets OF 2 apart is its focus on the different types of projects someone can engage in. Some projects require you to do things in a sequential order, some have tasks that can be done in parallel, and some projects are really just buckets for tasks you’d like to get done someday. OmniFocus 2 has this type of thinking built right into its core. Whenever you create a new project, you can assign a project type:
- Sequential projects require you to complete one task before the next becomes visible
- Parallel projects can show multiple tasks at once, but they’re all related to an end goal
- Single Action projects are incredibly (confusingly?) similar to parallel projects, but the difference is that single action projects are supposed to just be lists (e.g. “stuff to buy” or “shows to watch”)
I’ve stuck mainly to parallel projects because they tend to work best with all the views I liked in OmniFocus 2. I like the concept of sequential projects, but I like living in the Forecast view, and that view seems to ignore the idea of a sequence. The Forecast sticks purely to the deferred or due dates assigned of tasks, so if two tasks in a sequential project are due today, they’ll both show up in the Forecast under Today. I was a little annoyed by this, because if a user takes the trouble to set up and order a set of sequential tasks, that intention should be respected throughout the entire app, and not just in a Project or Context view.
If project types seem like too much trouble, you can also triage tasks by flagging them. This isn’t an uncommon feature — other task apps offer stars or pins to similar effect — but I like the minimal visual effect of flags in OF 2. Instead of the usual square checkboxes, OmniFocus uses a set of coloured circles. Those circles turn red when tasks are overdue, yellow when a task is due today, or orange when something is flagged. Flagged tasks also have their own special category on the main OF 2 menu, so if you have a large list of tasks, but want to hand-pick the ones you’d like to do today, flagging works really well.
Task Notes and Attachments
Each task in OmniFocus 2 can be assigned a text note and set of attachments. I’ve rarely used attachments because I place files and pictures inside of Evernote (which I treat like a virtual workspace), but I do like adding notes to tasks.
One of my favourite use cases for notes is simply as markers for progress in a given task. If the task is to “set up Thomas Wong” as a new vendor, I’ll add notes to say that I’ve gotten my tax forms and new vendor forms filled out, so the next time I review that task, I’ll know exactly what I’ve achieved thus far. These could be handled a set of sub-tasks, but I’ve found those cumbersome to create within OF 2 (more on this soon).
Unfortunately, the iOS versions of OmniFocus 2 don’t appear to have any markers for task notes. The Mac app has enough screen space to actually preview notes right below the tasks, but when I’m on the iPad I have no idea if a task has a note until I tap on it to preview it. Considering the brilliant layout of the app, I believe there must be a way to signify that a task has a note, without cluttering up the gorgeous UI.
A Lack Of Omnipotence
There are incredibly thoughtful aspects to OmniFocus, like the Review section, but they can also make the little gaps in functionality more pronounced. like the inability to create sub-tasks under a task. This is useful if you don’t want to have too many projects, but every once in a while you come across a task that requires a few planning steps to complete. The iPhone app handles sub-tasks well once you’ve used the move command to place one task underneath another. All you have to do at that point is tap on the main task and tap on the + button to start creating other sub-tasks underneath it. Doing the same is impossible on the iPad right now, and it’s strange to see a more powerful management feature present on the iPhone, but absent in the newer iPad version.
so all I can do is create tasks one by one and then move them, one by one, beneath another task. I pointed this out to OmniFocus support and they did get back to me and stated that they filed a bug report, but that was back in October 2014, so I don’t think it’s a priority feature for them.
Some extra power can be added to OmniFocus 2 through in-app purchases. A $20 OmniFocus Pro upgrade adds the ability to customize the sidebar menu and adds perspectives, which are very customizable views that can filter tasks by a combination of due dates, projects, and contexts, allowing for very niche perspectives on tasks. I know a lot of other users live by Perspectives, but I can’t speak to them, as I decided to stick with the base OF 2 experience for my review.
I realize the IAP is likely a tactic to lower the effective price of OmniFocus for those who don’t need those power features, but $30 is a lot to charge for an iPad app to begin with. Adding an extra $20 IAP (66% of the price) for two more features, especially the simple ability to reorganize the sidebar, feels like a cheap move that isn’t aligned with the warm welcome I received when I read Omni’s digital environment.
Between the Forecast view, Projects and Contexts, Defer dates and Due dates, there’s no question that OmniFocus 2 has the features and structure to promote and maintain a sense of productivity. In fact, although I’d read several reviews of the app over the years, I never purchased OmniFocus 2 myself because it always seemed a little too powerful for what I thought I needed. I love filters, due dates, and flexible alerts for tasks, but the way in which OmniFocus presents all of these things together can be quite overwhelming on paper. Now that I’ve taken a few months to explore OmniFocus as a planner, I can see some gaps in its design — at least in how I wanted to use the app.
Deferred dates are great for reducing clutter, but only if you view your tasks in the Projects, Inbox, or Contexts view most of the time. If you spend most of your time in the Forecast, it can be too easy to miss a task when its deferred date has come and gone. That’s because the Forecast view is super focused on due dates as an organizational tactic, but it really only partially integrates deferred dates.
Sequential Projects are a good idea, and I can see why you’d take the trouble to set one up for projects where maintaining the order of tasks is as important as completing them (e.g. planning the steps for a release of a big video on YouTube). However, sequential projects only show up properly in the Projects, Context, and Inbox view. If your sequential tasks all have the same due date, they’ll all be visible on the same day in the Forecast view, without any sense of the order you created the tasks in.
There are also multiple use cases — editing multiple tasks, checking if a task had a note, creating sub-tasks — where I wanted the software to provide me more shortcuts. In other words, I want to accomplish more in OF 2 with fewer taps. There are many interface solutions to these issues that are commonplace in the iOS 8 app world.
For example, the edit button could enable a selection box on the left side of each task, allowing me to tap on several tasks in a row and then move them or delete them en masse. Task names could have a small note symbol in front of them or beneath them, saving me the extra tap to see whether I’d written anything in a note. An extra line could be added on the task editing screen to create sub tasks. It’s very easy to create wishlists for software you haven’t created, but these features are present in the Mac and iPhone versions and simply absent on the iPad; I found this lack of feature parity difficult to dealt with as I used OmniFocus on my devices.
I respect the amount of thinking and organizing that went into the design of OmniFocus 2, and I love that there are iPhone and Mac apps to make an entire task ecosystem that stays in sync. What ultimately didn’t work for me is that the organizational ideas that OmniFocus presents aren’t necessarily supported in every corner of the software. I’m actually surprised; I had stayed away from OmniFocus 2 for years because I thought it might be too powerful for what I needed, and yet I’m moving away from it now because certain aspects aren’t quite powerful enough for me.
Here’s an App Store link for OmniFocus 2 for iPad; it’s priced at $30 with an In-App purchase option that adds more features for $20.
OmniFocus 2 was provided by The OmniGroup for review on iPad Insight. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.