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Ben is Vice President of Global Products at Walmart.com, where he works closely with his long-time friend Dion Almaer.

OmniFocus and Things

I’ve been using OmniFocus on OS X since the betas and have never really enjoyed it. I find the UI quirky and am still in awe of how tracking to-do items can become as complicated and unintuitive as the Omni team have made it. As someone else once said about something else, it’s like I step into a 747 cockpit full of all these daunting controls when all I really wanted was a Cessna. But with time, its concepts have sunk in and I’m able to be productive with the sucker. I don’t enjoy using it, but I appreciate it.

But, don’t get me started on the mobile version. For the longest time, you couldn’t actually interact with the iPhone OmniFocus app until >30 seconds after launching it–sometimes not for minutes after launch. Even in the latest version, after a ~5 second start-up delay, I’m sometimes able to enter new to-do items, but only in a special mode where I can’t categorize them. So then I have to remember to go into this special mode out of my normal workflow in the desktop application where I can see them–otherwise, they are lost forever.

OmniFocus on start-up

Of course, that’s only sometimes. Most of the time after I launch the iPhone version, the UI just sits there completely non-responsive while I watch a spinning circle. I’ve watched the circle spin for minutes with no indication of what’s happening (just last night, in fact). You can re-launch the app, but it’ll out-smart you and re-spin the circle when you go back in.

So it was with no small amount of enthusiasm that I finally tried out OmniFocus’ much sexier competitor: Things. Much has been said by many about how beautiful Things is, how Mac-like, how clueful the designers behind Things are, how lives are being improved dramatically by it, and so forth. I’ve tracked some of the praise for the past year and frankly, found my expectations were really high. “Finally,” I thought, “a to-do program I can enjoy using.”

To my surprise, that turned out not to be the case. While the UI appeals to me much more than OmniFocus, I found the quirks unpalatable. For example, when entering a new project with the keyboard, there are four fields. The third field is the due date. When this field gets focus, it is instantly populated with today’s date. If you wanted to get to the fourth field on the way and just happened to pass through the third field on the way? Tough. You’ve now got to delete the date with the mouse. Hmm…

Then take the “Areas of Responsibility”, something like what other to-do managers call a “context” (but, don’t they advocate tags for contexts?). There is no way to assign to-do items to an area without using the mouse, and areas don’t sync to the iPhone version of Things.

As I explored deeper, I found other bothersome limitations. For example, OmniFocus has a notion of projects with to-do items that can be completed sequentially, in parallel, or that are just catch-alls for items. In Things, projects just contain to-do items. Oh, and in Things items in projects can’t be set to repeat. (The Things developers promise to rectify both of these limitations.) I use both of these features. Duration of a to-do is implemented as a tag? Really?

I need to stop myself; if I continue to compare features, OmniFocus will win over and over again. I knew that heading into Things, but I expected to catch the zen of Things’ fantastic design and use that to overcome the missing features. But in the end, I find I am an OmniFocus kind of guy after all–maybe not to the surprise of those who know me.

This all ties into a meme that I’ve been pondering for a few years. More on that in another post.

Comments

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  1. March 16, 2009

    This describes my experience perfectly. It takes awhile to carve out a good Omnifocus workflow, but once you get it, it’s far better than what Things (or The Hit List) offers.

  2. mawrya #
    March 16, 2009

    It’s worthwhile to listen to the opinion of he who has tasted more than one soup. Thank you. I’m always looking for a better personal to-do / bug tracker program. Sometimes I break down and nearly start writing my own! Currently, I’m using Chandler. It is a little rough around the edges but does some things the way I want them done. Have you looked at it? I would be curious to hear your thoughts on it in comparison to OmniFocus. I don’t use a mac (yet) but am slowly collecting reasons to.

  3. Ben Galbraith #
    March 16, 2009

    @mawrya: I haven’t looked at Chandler for years; have made a note to give it another look. Know what you mean about writing your own; I have to resist that temptation. :-)

  4. March 16, 2009

    My reaction to OmniFocus has been similar to yours, in that I find the UI fairly painful, but I haven’t yet found anything that actually meets my needs and is better. I haven’t yet looked at Things, though I’ve been intending to. I’m not terribly hopeful, though, as I feel like it’s important to have some amount of hierarchy in my organization.

  5. March 24, 2009

    I found that the primary culprit to the slow syncing to iPhone to be my other machines that are setup to sync. On the forum, others have indicated the fix is to make sure all of your machines that are setup to sync actually do it frequently. Of course if they are turned off they can’t do that. There is a reason that sounds a bit technical, but in fact after I make sure all machines are in sync, the document opens fairly quickly on my iPhone and syncs perfectly. I have 120+ projects and over 2,000 tasks to put this in perspective, might be more than a lot of folks. Also, syncing the iPhone doesn’t seem to work for me at 3G speed. I need to be in a wifi to prevent the spinning icon. John

  6. March 25, 2009

    Areas in Things is less about context and more closely tied to GTD’s areas of responsibilities (work, family responsibilities, home management, etc.) and come into play mostly during the weekly/ monthly reviews. Context in Things is handled through tags.

    I too wish that areas where accessible in the iPhone app but I’m not sure I miss the sequential vs. parallel items that OmniFocus makes available. GTD pushes for the next actionable step not the next 10 and I have to wonder if that’s not a better method than trying to list out all the possible steps before you take any action. That elephant seems much easier to eat one bite at a time – as they say. Anyway, that’s what I got out of David Allen’s book.

    Took/is taking me some time to get the swing of things (no pun intended) but I think I’m getting close. For me the biggest obstacle to get over was the lengthy lists in my next, someday and projects focus. Once I got used to the idea that rather than look at the whole thing I should limit the list by using tags it started to make more sense and work better for me.

    I really wanted to make OmniFocus my GTD app but I couldn’t get the workflow to match my style of thinking and acting.

  7. Ben #
    April 6, 2009

    I’m trying to use Things, and the third-item-focus drives me nuts. if the Cultured Code team is so obsessive about UI, how could they get so many little things so wrong? Are they just not very good programmers? Or is this stuff way harder than you’d expect?

  8. Ben Galbraith #
    April 6, 2009

    @Ben: My guess is that they’re very good programmers, but that they’re a small team and once they grew a significant user base their resources became consumed fixing more serious bugs. As Donald Knuth says, software is hard. If they’re young, I’d speculate that what little non-maintenance time they do have they spend on some shiny new thing.

  9. April 29, 2009

    I’ve been using Things since early beta. I think that its interface is simple and looks very good. And if you’re not a strict GTD user it’s perfect choice.

    But since I started to follow GTD more I had to switch to OmniFocus. The reason is that Things lack sequential projects. Without them all contexts are useless. And working strict GTD style is simply impossible. You can’t filter only next actions for given context (tag). And 90% of my projects are sequential so until Thing would implement this feature i’ll stick with OF.

    And I have to say that OF is a great app. You’ve got to get used to interface and workflow but then working with it very easy and intuitive.

  10. November 14, 2009

    >But since I started to follow GTD more I had to switch to >OmniFocus. The reason is that Things lack sequential projects. >Without them all contexts are useless. And working strict GTD >style is simply impossible. You can’t filter only next actions for >given context (tag). And 90% of my projects are sequential so >until Thing would implement this feature i’ll stick with OF.

    This is so true, why do so many Things users not see this as a problem? Do they not use sequential projects and see the value of seeing ‘next actions’ at a glance?

  11. December 6, 2009

    Hi Ben,

    I’m not sure if this was available in the version you were talking about but in the current version, you can “compact database” which reduces the startup time significantly.

  12. January 11, 2010

    I’m thinking of switching from Things to Omnifocus. Primary reason is the lack of synchronization between Mac and iPhone in Things (only when both devices are on the same wifi, and only to one mac). Hopefully OmniFocus will do better.

  13. February 2, 2010

    Same experience for me. I am currently trying out “The Hit List”, which already has 2 strikes against it for not having an iPhone version. however I’m investigating a way to sync it with the TODO iphone app, which after a few days, I really enjoy. I’m currently only using the lite version which is free… but I’m still not 100% sold.

  14. rob #
    March 13, 2010

    I’ve been using The Hit List since getting it in the MacHeist bundle but in that time the iPhone app has been promised and not delivered and now the developer seems to have gone completely silent. Boo. I really liked it but I’m moving to Things. Omnifocus was the first one I tried but it just never clicked with me.

  15. Philip #
    March 21, 2010

    As an introduction i like to mention that i’ve to handle an average of 500+ (business)tasks. I’ve been trying (and bying) THL, OF, Things and Personal Brain. Please consider the amount of tasks when you’re reading this reply as the outcome could be different if i had to handle less tasks.

    After 3 years of switching and trying i have gone back to OF. I’d like to share my findings (only the headlines), as follows:

    Things: Best interface, but subtasks missing and only a very little development since they have gone public. I’ve lost my confidience in the Things-roadmap although the are now showing it very very high level on their website.

    THL: Excellent, future promise but (long) tags are unstable. Second best interface.

    Personal brain: Blowed my mind away. Every connection and complexity can be managed. However, at the end you will have a lack of overview (even when you’re structuring the information very well). The interface is one of a kind but they really need to develop a beter interface on behalf of GTD-workers.

    OF: At the end OF turned out to be the most stable GTD app to me. In my opinion the iPhone app interface of OF is the best of all (when you’re handling 500+). The main app supports all me needs. But . . . one way or the other OF is less sexy than the other apps; but, i dont need to be sexy, i need to GTD.

  16. Steve #
    June 12, 2010

    I have been biuncing back and forth between OF and Things for a while now. I will not get into the individual advantages and disadvantages of each app. They both have many.

    I will stick with OF. It’s not pretty but it is closer to GTD than Things is. I am handling many projects and that is the deciding factor. OF works as a project manager whereas Things is just a task manager. Granted, Things has never boasted to being anything other than a task manager.

    My biggest gripe with OF is its desktop app. It’s not attractive, it’s not easy to see all projects at a glance, notes must be collapsed individually which can get pretty annoying. The ‘Search’ function in non-existent. It’s nothing but a filter. Let’s not even talk about tbe UI which is reminiscent of early Windows apps. However, it is a robust app, a Mack truck. Not pretty but it can haul a lot of tonage.

    OF for iPhone is totally the opposite. It’s so good I find myself using it more than the desktop itself.

    Bottom line: if you require a shopping list for groceries, or basic tasks, go for Things. If you are a busy professional use OF.

  17. March 27, 2011

    I’m an OmniFocus addict, but something that grinds my gears is the fact that the Things interface is so much more intuitive, playful and easier to actually *focus* with.
    Yet Things doesn’t let myself or my employees sync when away from their workstations and this is crucial. Pity, otherwise Things would be the top dog.

  18. February 9, 2012

    Hi Bia,Very nice to hear from you again.Thanks for the input on OmniFocus … I will most ctniaerly give it a try.Like you, I like the ability to *sync* so I have up-to-date information wherever I am looking.

  19. February 9, 2012

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  20. October 9, 2012

    I had tried Things once, when it was recommended by one of my friend. But, I am pretty good with 2DO and Toodledo, the two task management tools I have been using from a long time.

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