Getting Things Done: OmniFocus, Things, and TaskPaper

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About twice a year, I take a serious look at how I am tracking and organizing my various projects and activities. Several years ago, during one of these efforts, I read David Allen Greene’s Getting Things Done. If you are familiar with Greene’s GTD system, you are also familiar with the way he breaks down work into projects, contexts, and actions. Unlike a traditional to-do list, a GTD approach to an activity starts with a project. If I have a book review to write, I would not create an action such as “write book review” since writing a book review requires many steps, and each of these steps may take place in different contexts. Applying the principles of GTD, I create a project “Book Review” and then proceed to break that project down into discrete actions. Depending on how anal one is the number of actions might be to 1)order the book, 2)read the book, 3)organize notes, 4)prepare outline etc. I could also include a context for each actions. For example, I might create a context “Amazon” for ordering the book, or “computer” for preparing the outline.

I’m sure the GTD system is good for those that have more traditional occupations. But some aspects of the system (such as breaking a project down into contexts) are often overkill. I don’t normally need divide actions into a context like “phone” since I rarely have list of messages to return. Nor does much of my work take me away from my computer, so the context “computer” ends up being redundant. Still, I have taken to heart the idea of breaking down activities into projects and actions. For the past couple of years I have jumped around between a few programs that are designed to work to a greater or lesser degree with the GTD system. The first was OmniFocus, followed by Things and more recently, TaskPaper.[1]

Although each of these programs are different, they each have three elements I think are essential for any productivity set-up:

  1. Personal productivity software must be able to help keep organized whether I am at my computer, working on my iPad, or using my iPhone.
  2. Personal productivity software must also be able to sync across all these devices via iCloud or DropBox.
  3. Finally, the desktop version of the software must have some type of keystroke quick-entry option so that I can quickly update a project or add an action without having to lift my hands from the keyboard.

Each of these programs (or perhaps I should say suite of programs) meets these three criteria.

OmniFocus

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OmniFocus is the Cadillac of personal task management. It also seems to me to remain closest to the GTD system. Of all the personal task management programs, Omnifocus offers the greatest number of ways to get tasks out of your head and into the program. You can use rules in Mail.app, email a task via the Omni mail service, highlight text in any application and send it to OmniFocus with a keyboard shortcut, or simply add a task directly to the inbox. There are also a variety of ways to view your tasks (though I generally use the main project view).

Another aspect of OmniFocus is the ability organize projects into folders. I realize this is a matter of personal preference, and that one can get a bit folder-happy, but I like the this added flexibility that is not found in the other programs. If you are a folder person, then you will feel right at home in OmniFocus.

For an excellent overview of OmniFocus, I would highly recommend downloading a trial version of the software and watching the screencasts prepared by David Sparks co-host of the Mac Power Users podcast. OmniFocus can be a bit intimidating for the first-time user, and David’s (if he will permit me to call him David) tutorials really give you a sense of how to take advantage of the main features of the program.

Pros:

  • Multiple ways to enter new tasks including keyboard shortcuts, Mail.app rules, mail forwarding, and using a unique email address provided by OmniFocus.
  • Projects can be nested in folders, and folders with additional projects can be nested in projects.
  • OmniFocus allows for a number of customized views of your actions, projects, and contexts.
  • It is doubtful you will ever outgrow OmniFocus.

Cons:

  • OmniFocus has a bit of a learning curve (though I suspect this will be mitigate in version 2.0 which is scheduled to be released soon).
  • For some OmniFocus may be overkill.
  • Price: OmniFocus will run you $49.99, with the EDU discount. Add to that $39.99 for the iPad version, and $19.99, for the iPhone version you are looking at $110.99 for a complete 3 device solution.

Things

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Unlike OmniFocus, Things has a slightly different way of entering and organizing you tasks. While it does have the keyboard shortcuts, it doesn’t have the integration with Mail.app, nor does it offer an separate email entry option. Still, for many academics, Things is an excellent (and slightly more affordable) option.

The Things approach is very similar to OmniFocus. You can create and organize projects. You also have the ability to create a custom today list by simply an action from a project into the “Today” section. The dragged action behaves like a shortcut, and allows you to focus on just those things you want to accomplish over the course of your workday, and doesn’t affect list of things that make up the original project.

There are additional differences that most likely only matter to the GTD purists. Things doesn’t have contexts, but it does allow you to tag actions and projects. These tags effectively act as Contexts. As I mentioned, I am not a big user of contexts, so when I use Things I rarely take advantage of this feature. Another difference between Thinks and OmniFocus is a feature called “Areas of Responsibility”. In one sense, Areas of Responsibility function something like folders, though you can only put tasks in them. An Area of Responsibility might be something like a regularly taught class. In my Things list of responsibilities I normally include activities such as Introduction to Ethics, Business Ethics, Car, and House. Once created, these areas persist even after the tasks within them have been completed.

As with OmniFocus, I highly recommend downloading the trial version and watching the screencasts by Don McAllister at ScreenCastsOnline.

Pros:

  • Learning curve is not quite as steep as OmniFocus.
  • The interface is less cluttered and a bit more appealing than OmniFocus [though this may change with the upcoming release of OmniFocus2].
  • The ability to drag tasks into a Today view makes customizing a daily to-do list extremely easy.
  • Price: Things for Mac will run you $34.99 with the EDU discount. Add to that the iPad version at $19.99, and the iPhone version at $9.99, and you are looking at $64.00 for a complete 3 device solution.

Cons:

  • Things does not support nested folders in projects.
  • While Things does have “Areas of Responsibility” you cannot nest projects with these area (they appear as individual tasks).
  • For those looking for a glorified task list, Things may also seem to many to be overkill.

TaskPaper

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If Things and OmniFocus are more organization than you need, then TaskPaper may be your answer. TaskPaper leverages the simplicity of [plain text][2], list and tags to create a surprisingly robust task management solution. In TaskPaper you create projects by placing a “:” at the end of a line. To create new tasks, you simply start a line with a “-”. To tag an item you simply use the “@” sign. Once you have created a tag, TaskPaper will offer you the option of reusing that tag when you type the “@” again.

Unlike Things, TaskPaper does allow you to embed projects within projects. The result is something that resembles an outline. Also, TaskPaper’s reliance on plain text means that you don’t necessarily need to purchase the mobile version of the app. You can edit the text files in another editor of choice. While I did this when I initially started using the app, I found the ability to swipe finished tasks, and instantly sync (via Dropbox) todo lists much more satisfying—something that requires the mobile app.

Pros:

  • TaskPaper is based on simple text files thus future-proofing your lists.
  • Simple elegance/minimalism to the interface will appeal to those that prefer simple to-do lists.
  • Does allow projects to be “nested” within other projects and actions.
  • Will appeal to those that do not tend to have a large number of different projects to track at any given time.
  • Price: Although not as feature rich the Mac version is $24.99. Add to that the $4.99 iPhone and iPad version for a complete 3 device solution that will only set you back $30.00.

Cons:

  • Requires that you learn TaskPapers syntax for creating actions, project, contexts, tags, etc.
  • Does not offer the Start/Due functions found in both OmniFocus and Thing. To see what is due, you essentially have to sort your lists by tags you have placed in your projects or tasks (assuming you created the tags when you created the entries).

Conclusions

The choice of productivity software really depends on personal preference. I often find myself switching between all three programs depending on the time of year. In fall and winter, when teaching, committees, and conferences are in full swing, I tend to rely on OmniFocus or Things. In the summer I tend to default to the more minimalist TaskPaper to keep track of writing projects or course preparations for fall.

Who’s It For?

  1. OmniFocus: hardcore GTD users and those attempting to track multiple projects and activities.
  2. Things: those that need more than a todo list, but tend to have recurring actions that require managing and tracking (grading, prep, committee work).
  3. TaskPaper: those that prefer todo lists, enjoy working in plain text, and don’t need all the bells and whistles of Things.

  1. When I began writing this review I initially intended to do a OmniFocus vs. Things vs. TaskPaper. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the wrong approach. Each of these programs are very good ways to approach personal organization and productivity. There is not one program that is ‘better than’ another; rather one program is likely to be ‘better for’ someone. In my case some each of these has been better for me at various times.  ↩

  2. Although TaskPaper uses plain text, it does include several themes one of which is inspired by Things.  ↩

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1 Comment

  1. Shannon Thompson

     /  2013/08/09

    Several comments you make in this article really resonate with me, for instance, reevaluating your task management system twice a year. I don’t schedule my re-evaluations, I just feel an itch or a compulsion and away I go. Thank you for this article. I like the idea that a different program may be the perfect one for a person depending on the time of year.

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