A Look at OmniFocus

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

OmniFocusOmniFocus 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.

On Intuitiveness

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.

7 thoughts on “A Look at OmniFocus

  1. I also found OF non-intuitive for me. As a matter of fact, just gathering my to-do’s and projects on it took me so much time I knew OF could not be the right app for me. (Tell me about reducing productivity!)

    However, I found two nice new friends on TaskPaper and Things:



    TaskPaper is very simple and very intuitive to use. In fact, it is so simple that I mostly use it not as a classic GTD (to organize several projects), but to organize tasks *inside* one single project. (I have several TaskPaper databases, one for each project.) This means that I gather all my to-do’s on my thesis or on articles I’m writing.

    Example: insert image x, citation y, mention reference z, etc.

    Basically you insert something like:

    – insert image 3 based on Smith 1993 @chapter3

    ( ‘@’ works as a tag and allows you to filter your tasks)

    Besides simplicity, TaskPaper also saves in a format that is .txt on its core. That means you can open your database on any program that reads text.

    As for Things — this one is much more a classic GTD app, ideal to work on day to day several projects (with contexts, colaborations, due dates, etc.). However, I found it much easier to work with than OF. Its basis, like TaskPaper, are tags, and since I really like tagging things it goes perfectly on my workflow. It’s still on its beta stage, so people are welcome to use it and make suggestions. (There are some capacities still on the works, like iCal integration, for instance.) Make sure you watch the screencast provided on Things website: it gives you a perfect view of how it works.

    Both developers — TaskPaper and Things — are very friendly with their users community (as OmniGroup folks are) and that’s also a plus!

    Maria Valente’s last blog post..NetNewsWire e Co agora gratuítos

  2. To make things even worse, the “focus” feature (which is a neat concept, but lacking in the implementation I think), is easily enacted by double clicking on projects/contexts, with no clear way back. Let me tell you, THAT was an exciting 10 minutes while I went looking for a way out of that focus view.

  3. Have you tried iGTD?

    Thanks for the review of OmniFocus. I installed it yesterday and was about embark on my own testing. Its great to have some of your thoughts in mind for this, hopefully allowing me to do a speedier eval. You are so very correct in lamenting the amount of time that is generally to be dedicated to getting these GTD apps up and running. Moreover, the integration with other apps remains largely lacking as of yet.

    I really liked iGTD, especially the fact that its free. Its price, however was not reflective of its power. Under Tiger it fit right into my workflow and integrated relatively well into iCal and Mail among others. Unfortunately I ran into the Leopard issues that the author is now working through and have had to sideline it. I hope only temporarily. It’s the type of GTD app that did suit my needs.

    Your earlier post on going simple to do GTD was a good corrective to the sense that one even needed a separate app to accomplish this.

  4. Wow. I just looked at the Web site for iGTD and it looks an awful lot like OmniFocus. Did the Omni Group use iGTD as inspiration?

    I’ll be keeping an eye on iGTD 2 as it goes through Alpha and beta. I need that iCal syncing and apparently, version 1 doesn’t support it yet. But thanks for this tip!

  5. I will agree that the $80 is somewhat steep, but I believe that OmniFocus is the best GTD app on OSX. I think other apps, like iGTD2 and Things, get way too complicated with tagging that it ruins the purpose of a GTD system. There’s too much room for fiddling.

    I loved iGTD at one point, but found it too unstable. There’s little that’s more frustrating than having an app crash while you’re in the middle of your Weekly Review – and having to start over.

    As for color coding, gray tasks are actions you can’t complete (they are blocked in a project until something else gets done, or or part of a “Waiting” context), purple tasks are the “very next physical thing” to do in a project, and blue tasks are things that you can get done at any moment.

    I’ve found perspectives very useful in helping me focus on what I can do right now and keeping things I have no control over (like someone giving me information/equipment, tasks I’ve determined that I can’t do until a certain day of the week, etc) out of my current work view.

    Now that the beta is over and OmniFocus documentation is available, I hope that you take a look at it again, especially if you’ve already paid for it.

  6. I’m wondering why you would do a review of software that was still in alpha, let alone beta?

    I found OmniFocus to be near the perfect solution. I found it very easy to understand, perhaps because I had the chance to learn about David Allen’s Getting Things Done system before I had a look at the app.

    Using the supplied documentation I have no doubt you would find it a lot easier since its release.

  7. Rob, I didn’t do a “review.” I evaluated the software as a potential user. The software was within 2 days of release when I ended my evaluation. I wouldn’t call that “alpha.” I used it for some time — at least 2 weeks. I found that the feature set was impressive, but the interface left much to be desired. I wrote all that up in my summary.

    Everyone has their own needs when it comes to software. I found that OmniFocus offered more features than I needed, which would have been okay, if the interface wasn’t so bad. I’m not the only one who feels this way, just as you’re not the only one who likes it. We’re all entitled to our own opinion, aren’t we?

    Fortunately, OmniFocus is sold as try-before-you-buy software. So users can give it a good evaluation before forking over the money to buy it. I personally think it’s overpriced and might have stuck with it if it remained at its original evaluation price. However, I’m glad I did not, as I know now that I never would have used it regularly.

What do you think?