A quick overview.
I tried OmniFocus for a few weeks to set up and maintain a Get Things Done (GTD) routine. I’m always interested in easy-to-use productivity tools that I can integrate into my workflow.
What OmniFocus Does
OmniFocus enables you to set up any number of projects, each of which can contain specific actions. For example, I might have a project for Flying M Air to send out a marketing letter to travel agents. Within that project might be the individual actions to get the job done: get a mailing list of travel agents, write the marketing letter, print out the materials, stuff envelopes, mail. You can set up a project so its actions must be completed in order (sequentially) or so that they can be completed in any order or concurrently (parallel). Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be any way to set up some actions within a project to be sequential while others in the same event were parallel without creating groups of actions.
Each action can also be related to a context. A context is “where the work happens.” This is a lot less intuitive but, I suppose, it can be useful once you get an idea of how to use it. For example, you might set up contexts for telephone follow-up or errands. Personally, I had a problem distinguishing between context and projects and couldn’t maintain a consistent approach.
OmniFocus offers a number of commands and options that help you “focus” on specific projects or tasks. You can flag things, set priorities, enter start or end dates, and choose from a bunch of different status options. You can then create “perspectives,” which are views of tasks matching criteria. But setting these things up can be time consuming and isn’t very intuitive.
I did not find OmniFocus to be very intuitive. For example, each time I entered a new action, I pressed Return. Return is usually the command programs use to end or accept an entry. In OmniFocus, it starts a new one. That’s likely because of the Omni Group’s experience with OmniOutliner, which this is apparently spun off from. But when I create a list of things to do, I don’t think of an outline. I think of a list of individual items. iCal doesn’t create a new item when you press Return after completing the entry of a new one. It doesn’t make sense to me that OmniFocus does.
The perspectives view looks and works just like the main OmniFocus window. Great. Except that a perspectives view contains a subset of all items and, if the View bar isn’t showing, it’s not clear that you’re looking at a subset. You wonder what happened to an event you’re looking for and maybe, like me, you think it’s been eaten by a quirk in the software. So you re-enter it and wind up with a duplicate when you finally realize you’re just looking at a subset of all actions.
Some items don’t appear at all, depending on how options are set and how the item is coded. That makes you think twice about whether you want to set sequential items as sequential — they might not appear in some views.
And I’m still not sure how OmniFocus applies color coding to tasks. I understand the red, but blue, gray, and purple? What does it mean? Without documentation during the beta process, I couldn’t be sure. (Now I don’t really care.)
One of the features that attracted me to OmniFocus was its ability to sync with iCal. I had a heck of a time doing this with the beta versions, until tech support suggested that I turn off the Birthday’s Calendar in iCal. Evidently, there’s a bug in iCal and that was messing things up. When I disabled it, syncing worked okay.
But OmniFocus syncs based on context, not project. So I needed to not only use the context feature, but set up corresponding calendars in iCal to properly sort out the tasks. Then, when I manually synced with iCal — automatic syncing is not an option — each task’s project was appended to the task name in brackets. This made the task names in iCal unnecessarily long.
OmniFocus syncs only iCal tasks, not calendar events. I also had some trouble when I marked off tasks as done in one program, it would not consistently sync to the other. So tasks didn’t “go away” when they were done.
I should mention that I need iCal syncing because I sync between iCal and my Treo to have a complete list of events and tasks when I’m on the road. My memory is bad (and steadily getting worse) and I rely on my Treo to remind me of things I need to do when I’m away from my office.
What OmniFocus Doesn’t Do
OmniFocus is supposed to make it easy to “capture” tasks from other applications. This is extremely limited. For example, although I can capture a task from a mail message, there’s no way within OmniFocus to easily link to that message — even though each message in Leopard has a unique URL. Instead, I found myself copying and pasting message text into OmniFocus.
OmniFocus falls short as an outliner in that it only gives you three levels of outlining: projects, actions, and “sub-actions” (created when you group actions within a project). Four levels, if you also create folders to organize your projects. But I suppose that if you want an outliner, you’d use OmniOutliner.
There’s no easy way to relate one action to other actions because contexts are not like keywords and you can only assign one per action.
Printing is also extremely limited, so if you want to print off a list of actions to take to a meeting or on the road, you’re stuck with standard formatting with large fonts.
When Productivity Software Reduces Productivity
My main gripe with most of these GTD software “solutions” is that they make you do so much work to set them up and implement them.
OmniFocus is a prime example of this. I wasted an entire morning trying to get my iCal events into OmniFocus , sorting them into projects, and applying contexts. And then, when I synced them back to iCal, I wound up with a bunch of duplicate items in both programs that I had to weed out. While this might be due to buggy beta software, I can’t be sure. I could be a problem I’d be dealing with every time I completed a sync.
It’s far easier for me to simply open iCal and look at my task list, which is already sorted by my existing project-related calendars, to see what needs to be done.
I was hoping that OmniFocus would introduce features that were not in iCal. It did, but none of them were features I needed or even wanted. The ones I did want — primarily calendar and task list printing flexibility — were missing.
At the introductory price of $39.95, OmniFocus was a program to consider. I might have sprung for it and made it work. But when the folks at The Omni Group upped the price to its regular price of $79.95, they made the decision for me. I’ve already paid enough money for software I don’t use regularly.
OmniFocus simply isn’t the solution I’m looking for. It isn’t intuitive enough to be a good productivity tool for me.
I only wish I could get back the two to three days I spent trying to make it help me get things done.