Are we all just pretending Natural Language input is not a thing?


Don’t care about natural language input. Sometimes I need to make a task due in regards to a calendar event, and to be deferred a certain number of business days prior, etc. easier to just use the calendar.

The date picker on macOS is small and those little triangles are horrible design. I am always clicking off I’d them. And the roll wheels on iOS are outdated. Much prefer a rolling block calendar.

But I’d LOVE for OF to clean itself up some. Such a cluttered view. I don’t need to see the tags on every task.

  1. That’s not natural language to me; if it is to you, m then we’re talking about different things
  2. Clearly you know absolutely nothing about what I have seen or used, so spare us all the condescending asides


People are missing multiple points. One is how a todo app like OmniFocus is constructed (how it operates, what is based on) and second is the actual problem. The reason for that is tunnel vision (the problem isn’t analysed, people are just randomly proposing a “solution”) and becomes very clear when looking at the given examples and a misunderstanding of what natural language input is. One needs to look a lot closer at what is really going on.

Natural language input is a means where one writes out a sentence which is then interpreted by the software to fill out certain fields with the given data hidden in the sentence. Writing out a full sentence requires a lot of typing and time. Therefore it isn’t a fast way of entering data and it isn’t used as such either. Natural language input makes entering data more userfriendly because it uses the natural language of a person instead of unnatural things like text boxes, buttons, shortcut keys, etc.

However, userfriendliness is most definitely NOT the problem that is being portrayed here. What is mentioned here is slowness of data entry in OmniFocus and that is something entirely different. Due to the very nature of natural language input this is not a very good solution to that problem as it will slow down the data entry for most people (e.g. the ones who use the software and the methodology it is based on as intended thus only adding details other than a description of the task later on).

When looking at professional ERP, CRM, etc. software one can see how they are optimised for data entry. Data is mostly entered with the keyboard with users quickly tabbing through all the options, including things like pull down menus. Hardly any of them will have natural language input because they simply don’t need it.

What OmniFocus needs is that same kind of data entry as those ERP, CRM, etc. software uses where one quickly goes through the add item dialog. I wish the keyboard came with the same up and down arrows I have in Safari so I can switch fields quickly. When selecting a field it would be nice if it wouldn’t switch to a new window (tags and project will do exactly that), it is a unnecessary step that only slows down the data entry. It can be done from the field shown and it can use autocomplete. Many other apps such as the in-built calendar app do exactly this. As for the date/time entry fields…yes it is nice if you want to operate it with your finger but it would be nicer if you could also operate it with the keyboard. I think this is more difficult due to the constraints of iOS.
The data entry explained here only applies to iOS, OmniFocus for Mac is very capable of fast data entry via the keyboard.

TL;DR: the main problem here is the fact that people are looking at a piece of technology and touting it as the solution instead of looking at the problem and trying to find a solution that fits. Start by first defining the exact issue and see what all the options are (there are more than just natural language input!), don’t jump straight to some piece of tech! Not uncommon to happen, it is the main reason why many IT projects fail and apps are a pain to work with.

@nick it indeed isn’t natural language input, it is more of a hybrid (the first part is an ordinary sentence, from @urgent it is just random words) but it is common in apps that say they use natural language input and therefore easily seen as being “natural language input”.


Well put - thanks


Yes, this was the intent of this thread. It’s the slowness of data entry that is the issue. Setting up a recurring task by typing “File status report ev other thu” is way faster than setting up a recurring task in OF today.

It can even be expanded to include project in tag(s) with:

“File status report ev other thur #project @tag” No clicking, no dragging, types with the ease of typing a sentence.

And even Todoist allows “File status report ev other thur starting May 5” - it’s “natural” in that I’m telling it exactly what I want almost the way I would tell someone else what I want.

Not trying to be condescending, but I really don’t understand the violent resistance to it? They can still keep the “type-and-point-and-click” way.


Just my own opinion but for me it’s not. thing, I actually prefer to use a date picker, it slows me down and forces me to consider the real details of what and when. Many tasks in my case do not need hard due dates, those that do are usually related to upcoming renewals of something, invoicing, domain renewals, subscriptions etc.

For me clearing the in box methodically and with thought (should this be a project, does it need reference material repo set up? etc.) once a day is far better than casually writing something with “natural language”. Random thoughts or potential things I need to consider doing go into drafts app then across to OF if they need to.

IMO something like “write report for 5pm on Friday” is more a memo to self than a real task and would be better initially in something like Drafts or a mind map both of which handle “natural language” just fine, and then broken down into actual tasks before inputting to OF.


I don’t personally agree with the mindfulness explanation. But to each their own.

Often more thought and pondering about life isn’t required.

Sometimes you easily know you need to “do a task every other weekend ending 6/20/2020”

Todoist would parse this.


In fact, there’s an anti-mindfulness argument to the idea of making it extra work to organize tasks. The need to search for and use additional aspects of the UI—rather than “just write”—adds extraneous cognitive load on top of the cognitive effort required to think through the task itself.

In other words, cognitive information systems theory suggests that natural language processing would enable more mindful task capture.


You put it a little more eloquently than I did. In my defense it was while my son was asking for breakfast, lol.

Of course Omnifocus is a fantastic app and it does A LOT better than Todoist, but fast input is not one of them imho. Todoist is the absolute fastest in this regard.

Todoist seems to be all unicorns and fairies with respect to remote work and mindfulness and seem incredibly slow to ship updates. They still don’t have a series 4 Apple Watch complication.


Heh. See, your son was also extraneous cognitive load.

I’ll take my eloquence as a good sign for the PhD comprehensive exams I write tomorrow on these subjects…

Yeah, I moved from Todoist to OF a couple of years ago. The natural language parsing is the only thing I miss.

OmniJS might help with this soon. There should be a way to write natural language parsing scripts…


It is. However…

…this is not the solution.

  1. This is not natural language, this is your language. It is not correct English, it uses some abbreviations and special meanings. To a photographer the word (or is it an abbreviation?) “ev” means “exposure compensation” but to a Tesla driver or even petrolhead it means “electric vehicle”. It may very well be “evening” or worse, something that is specific to the company you work for. What you are doing here is simply impossible for any computer on the planet to do. Hell, it is even near impossible for any human on the planet to do. To be honest I have no idea what that sentence of yours says. A Chinese website that went through Google Translate makes more sense to me. Just to show that language is a very complex thing, it even depends on the individual.

  2. Adding natural language support changes absolutely nothing about the workflow. You still have to tap through a lot of things because the workflow didn’t get changed. You only added a feature.

  3. As explained, natural language input isn’t a fast means of data entry, it is only a friendly way of data entry. If you want to compare it to something then compare it to taking meeting minutes. What you want is to write down things in full sentences. Anybody who has tried that knows that it doesn’t work because it is slow. Too slow. Having to wait for the person to have written things down isn’t uncommon. Hence why they invented a system that is actually fast and fixes this issue. It is called shorthand. Whoever has tried to read it knows the biggest problem with shorthand: without any proper education on shorthand it is simply impossible to read.
    Another example is data entry in the days we had phones and PDAs. Palm was one of those very successful PDA manufacturers. Their data entry consisted of writing on a special area on the screen. You couldn’t use your own handwriting but had to use the Palm variant instead. It had a learning curve but it was quite easy to learn since it was based on ordinary handwriting (print to be more precise). The reason for that was quite simple: it was a mix of userfriendliness and speed. It was userfriendly because it was very similar to normal handwriting but it was fast because they tweaked it by leaving out parts of the letter. They could do that because whatever you wrote got converted to a computer font so precision wasn’t necessary.

  4. You are not taking iOS itself into account at all. Things like “ev” and “thur” are going to get autocorrected to something else. It is not going to surprise me that these are going to be turned into “Eve” and “Thor”. However you are forgetting one of the biggest features of iOS, a feature Apple was first to tout on a smartphone, or in fact, any consumer device. That feature is natural language input and goes by the name of Siri ;-)
    Siri is exactly the natural language input you are talking about. Instead of typing you are talking which is even more natural! And guess what…OmniFocus supports Siri. Has done so for about 5 years now. That raises the question if Omni Group is even the correct party to request this feature. Apple has shown that they could pull this (write to Siri) off in macOS so technically it is feasible.

The problem here is the type-and-point-and-click process. That’s what needs to be changed and that’s why there is resistance to natural language input. As explained, we already have natural language input in OmniFocus due to it supporting Siri.

Real world IT experience suggests it doesn’t nor does research into our attention span. The reason for the “more mindful task capture” is also the reason why it doesn’t work. We have different kinds of tasks and not every task will benefit from this. In case of the latter the data entry is rather annoying because it is slow. And what do people do when something is a pita to use (aka slow, difficult)? They stop using it.
There is also some research about loading times of websites and retrieving information. They found that a website needs to load in mere seconds (I believe 5 seconds was the max) and retrieving information should take no more than 5 clicks (or taps). If it takes longer then people move away and you lose their business.

We humans are just too lazy and impatient :-D


A quick rebuttal: try Fantastical or Todoist’s natural language processing and let us know how your arguments hold up.

I agree that the above example uses arbitrary and confusing abbreviations that would slow the process down. I’m not advocating for that, though. My experience with the two apps above is that you type pretty standard English and it autofills a lot of details for you. Then you can do the tippy taps to add and tune as needed—it is orders of magnitude than adding to OF.

I think most of your (feisty!?) arguments against this are predicated on the idea that it isn’t natural language input, but try a couple of the apps that do this well and I think you’ll change your mind.


I am sorry but it’s nothing to do with “mindfulness” whatever that actually is, it is about exactness, most tasks I add to OF impact on my business and my clients and their businesses so I need to be correct and accurate in what I enter.

Are we really all so busy and important that we need to shave milliseconds off everything? Personally I doubt it. The danger is that we can become so busy and therefore sometimes careless that we stop seeing the bigger picture.

The name of the product is Omnifocus, Omni and Focus, that is the key here I think.

For me adding a list in Drafts app, in natural language, and then refining things, or not if it’s not required works best, but we are all different I guess.


The strongest argument against so-called natural language input is AppleScript. :-)

I’ll get my coat. :-)


Dumb of me not just to include an example of what this looks like in the apps I’ve mentioned. See below. You can write this sentence in virtually any (sensible) order and it autocompletes the fields below for fine-tuning. (Note that Fantastical doesn’t use tags, so the hashtags are just for demo purposes). The / is indeed a quirk to specify which calendar, and something similar would be needed to specify project.

This is what this thread is about. @TheOldDesigner this retains the exactness you’re looking for (as nothing changes except you have the ability to write task details in) while granting the mindfulness (e.g. frictionlessness; no mental energy needs to be spent moving through the UI, no distraction comes from browsing the app to enter the data you want) that other users in this thread are asking for. Sadly I don’t have Drafts, but it sounds like you’re saying you’ve implemented natural language parsing for OmniFocus in another app—kinda defeats your own position against it here, doesn’t it?

And @dompelpomp, I get what you’re saying—indeed there are other ways of improving the speed of data entry, but including (this level/implementation of) natural language processing doesn’t prevent the ideas you’re suggesting above. (And yes, I’d love extending the keyboard further too.)

Incidentally we’re all yelling into the ether here. A quick reminder to email with a feature request if you’d like to see more natural language processing in the app.


I regret using the phrase “natural language” - I simply ment “text parsing for fast input.” And btw, in the example, you can type out the whole word if you want. That’s sorta the point:

  • take out trash ev thur 9p
  • take out trash on every thursday at 9:00pm

both work

I know - that’s why I am suggesting “fast text input” as what to change to (or I should say “allow” because, of course, you can always do it manually)

This, as well as your other stated concerns, makes me think you might have a different idea of what it is than what we’re saying. Please try it before you try to explain what would happen…

On the iOS Todoist app, I can type the exact phrase “take out trash ev thur 9p #chores” and it makes a repeating task at 9pm every thursday and files in the Chores project. It even auto-highlights the matched keywords/phrases as you type. No autocorrecting when you don’t want it to. And in the occasional case where you want “ev” to actually stay “ev” (or any of the other auto-detected keywords) before you press save, just tap the highlighted “ev” and it will not parse that. Works the same on the Mac, iOS, Android, and Web versions.

Here’s a video of me doing just that:

It’s free, so you could download and play around with it to see what it would mean for faster and easier entry.


Was there any need to try and score points and show just how clever (read condescending) you are? FYI no it does not defeat my point, the way I use Drafts is to make notes/memos to myself these may turn into tasks in OF they may not. If they do they are almost always cut to a simple focussed few words.

Feel free to have the last word.


I may be wrong but is ToDoist not a web app offering a simple UI wrapper, and therefore dealing with the “natural language” processing on its servers? This is a polar opposite with how OF works, a native MacOS/iOS app which syncs its database.Therefore we are not really comparing like with like.


I’m condescending because I posted a vid showing you that what you thought wasn’t correct? You would rather we all just believe something that’s not true because you said so? And I don’t want the facts to get obscured with speculation when trying to suggest an improvement.

Here comes more “clever” facts: iOS Todoist is native iOS app. The desktop apps are Electron apps, which is a native app framework based on Chrome, but native nonetheless, and require no connection to the internet to work.

All of this could simply be avoided if you would download and try it. You would see rather than incorrectly speculating


Well put. And, expressed this way, I agree it could be very helpful to many people - probably even me, although I’d need to break some habits first :-)