My search is finally over. After many years of jumping back and forth between various task management tools, I think I’ve finally found the one that I’m going to stick with. I’ve tried many apps. On the desktop, Things led the pack for a long time, though its lack of over-the-air syncing between iPhone and desktop was a real problem for me, and there were aspects of its design that I never really liked. I also used Remember the Milk for a year or two, but eventually decided I wanted a desktop application.
For the past six months or so I’ve come back to OmniFocus, which I first started using in its original beta period. Though it’s got quite a steep learning curve, I’ve found a lot to love about it. The iPhone app is extremely powerful, syncs in several ways, is location-aware, and does a great job all round. And now the Omni Group has finished the set, recently releasing OmniFocus for iPad. Join us after the jump for a walkthrough of this latest addition to the OmniFocus family.
An Aside on Training and Money
Before we start, I want to let you know about a really great resource. Lynda.com publishes excellent tutorials on a wide range of hardware and software. Their OmniFocus Essential Training is a fantastic introduction to OmniFocus, a carefully guided exploration of its features, starting with basic operations and extending to its most powerful aspects.
Lynda operates on a monthly subscription basis, so you can’t buy individual courses, which is a pity, but signing up for a single month gives you access to their entire library for that time, and if you’ve already paid for OmniFocus, then $25 to learn to use it well is a worthwhile investment.
And while we’re on the subject of money, let’s just say that, yes, buying the entire OmniFocus suite is going to set you back a quite a lot of money: you’re looking at $79.95 for the desktop app, $19.99 for the iPhone, and $39.99 for the iPad, so that’s a total of $139.93.
Search Twitter, and you’ll find quite a few people saying that this cost has convinced them to give up on OmniFocus. I feel exactly the opposite way: now that I’ve paid all this money, I’m sticking around. That’s one reason I feel my search is over.
Now let’s turn to looking at OmniFocus for iPad…
The first time you run OmniFocus for iPad, you will be asked to choose whether you want to sync or to use the application only on your iPad.
If you choose not to sync, you’ll then be presented with a demo project that includes several tasks demonstrating the basic gestures for using the app.
If you have been using the other versions of OmniFocus, then you will want to set up syncing. I have previously synced via Wi-Fi (which presents the same limitations that hamper Things), and via a WebDAV server – both worked quite straightforwardly, especially if you choose to have the desktop app share its settings.
Setting up Syncing
This time around, I’ve chosen to use MobileMe syncing, and this was extremely simple to set up – as ever, for all its issues, MobileMe does tend to be the simplest solution in a wide range of situations. Within a few seconds, everything was downloaded and synced, and I was ready to go.
OmniFocus for iPad’s window is split into two sections: the left-hand sidebar lets you navigate through various ways of viewing or interacting with your tasks, while the bulk of the display is taken up with the tasks themselves.
All the following screenshots are in Landscape orientation, but it’s worth saying that Portrait mode is useful for focusing more single-pointedly on your lists, without the distraction of the sidebar.
Entering tasks is quick and easy – just tap that nice big ‘pen and paper’ icon and up pops a ‘New Item’ entry box. You’ll notice from the screenshot that this box has four tabs, which let you enter the basic information for the task – its Context and Project – and then further information, such as a due date, any notes, and attachments.
Due and starting dates are nicely handled, so that it’s easy to set something as due the next day, week, or month with a single tap, and for more granular control you can use iOS’s familiar date and time scrolling interface.
Adding a New Task
Following established GTD methodology, OmniFocus helps you to see what you need to do in terms of Projects – so in the screenshot above, you’ll see I’ve focused on my current writing commitments. Changing to Context view, my list is filtered in terms of where I need to be in order to do specific things:
Closely linked to this is the Map section, which is handy if you’re in the habit of associating tasks with specific locations.
I’m not going to say much about a few of the other buttons on the sidebar; rather, I want to focus on two great new features. In brief then, ‘Flagged’ lets you focus in on items that you’ve previously flagged – I don’t use flags at the moment, but if you do, this is a nice way of quickly seeing everything you’ve marked in this way.
And Perspectives, as well as giving you access to the built-in ‘Contexts’, ‘Due’, and ‘Flagged’ perspectives, also lets you use any custom ones that you’ve set up in the desktop app, which are synced across to the iPad.
Forecast and Review
These are two of the best new features in OmniFocus for iPad. Forecast lets you quickly see what tasks you have due in the coming week, as well as showing up any that are overdue or coming up beyond the next week.
This is a basic linear calendar; tapping on any date in the top bar shows tasks due that day. It’s a simple implementation, but very effective, giving a quick overview and forecast, so that you can see in a few moments what you have to get done in the next while.
The Review feature might just get me to do the one part of the GTD methodology that I (and many others) tend to stumble over, even though I know – and David Allen has emphasised – it’s the fundamental step in keeping on top of things.
When a project is up for review – you can set the interval by tapping in the bottom row, or you can choose to review any project at any time by tapping and holding its title bar – you get to be realistic about what’s going on. Are you really going to be able to finish that task by Wednesday? Did James get back to you on collecting those figures you delegated to him?
And in my case, is there much point in leaving several undone items lingering under old deadlines I failed to meet – isn’t it better just to review and set a new, more realistic deadline? When you’re done, you just tap on ‘Mark Reviewed’, and a tick will appear alongside the Project title in the sidebar, and you’re done.
There is so much more to say about OmniFocus for iPad. This is a great app – it raises the bar for iOS applications, in terms of power and in interface design. Where OmniFocus for iPhone was a good satellite and adjunct to the desktop app, OmniFocus for iPad feels much more like a full flown application in its own right.
It improves on several aspects of the desktop version, and I’m hoping that some of its new features will find their way back to the desktop. I could quite easily see myself no longer using the Mac application, but instead relying on the combination of iPhone and iPad versions.
Of all the various GTD applications on the market, OmniFocus is the one that David Allen’s company gives the clearest endorsement. Have a read of the Omni Group’s White Paper, OmniFocus, GTD, and You for a good exploration of how the app can help you implement the methodology.
If you’re just setting out on using GTD, OmniFocus might seem a little overwhelming, but if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool GTDer, once you’ve had a good play around and become familiar with the app – whether on iPad or desktop – I think you’ll find it’s pretty hard to beat.