Are you struggling with OmniFocus?


#1

July 19, 2017

I’ve been using OmniFocus since it was Kinkless GTD. I’ve recommended it to friends and family, and it’s been running my life for years.

Three weeks ago, I shut down my OmniFocus system and moved to Things3. I’m really happy now. This isn’t a shot at Omni. I think they make great software.

I’m posting this because moving to Things made me realize that my mind is not fundamentally compatible with GTD. I’m posting this today in case there are other folks who are in the same boat but haven’t realized it yet. Maybe this post will help them.

I discovered that I am by nature goal oriented and focus-driven. I do my best work seeking out a target and focusing on attaining it. It feels like second nature to me.

GTD is about reducing your work to “cranking widgets” and being efficient about your actions. It’s biased towards accommodating constraints. It makes outcomes secondary, and scatters focus in favor of logistic efficiency.

This works brilliantly for some people. I have always struggled with it.

OmniFocus is by far the best digital implementation of GTD. It just feels contrary that the way my mind works. Using perspectives that can’t be directly reordered has been maddening. Repeatedly re-engineering a perspective for today’s work has been exhausting and dissatisfying.

I’ve been complaining for years about overdue items being hidden if blocked in a sequential project. Ironically, working in Things has revealed to me that I don’t need sequential projects.

You can follow GTD with Things, I just choose not to. I have projects and I have a daily list of things to do. Sometimes, I’ll use tags in today’s list to carve out a few things I want to isolate. When I’m at a field office I use the tags like GTD contexts. It does come in handy.

I like being able to easily and directly plan my day. If the day changes, it’s easy to move things around and change the plan. I can be goal oriented, and still do everything that I need to do.

The most surprising thing about the change to Things3 has been how much extra work I was doing to try to make GTD and OF2 work for me. I took the time to automate a few features in Things. I didn’t need to overhaul it, or fight its design daily. I get a lot more done in a day, because Things3 works more like my mind does.

I like the feeling that Items I capture won’t get lost in the morass. Things lets me move them to a future day, and I can see what else is on that day any time I want.

If you feel like you’re fighting GTD, and you’re constantly re-inventing your approach to OmniFocus, it might be time to change.


#2

The beauty is that there are different software offerings for different people with different needs. Things 3 is a great app that will cater to a different user base who doesn’t need all of the bells and whistles. OmniFocus 2 will cater to a different user with more demands. Asana and Todoist will cater to users who need collaborative teamwork features.

I’ve seen this happen with my other software packages. The industry standard for office suite is Microsoft Office. But I’ll find myself working in Pages, Numbers, and Keynote because it is offers a different UI experience that I like. When I need to ramp up, I’ll switch to Word, Excel, and Powerpoint depending on the job at hand.

With that said, I think there are many who take small building blocks from GTD and note adopt “pure” GTD. I like this Bruce Lee quote:

When my life becomes simpler, I might just move to Things 3. But for now, I’m humming along with OmniFocus 2.


#3

That’s one of my favorite Bruce Lee quotes. Words to live by.

I didn’t mean my post as a slam against Omni in any way. I used OF2 for years, and I think it’s great for many people.

At the same time, I don’t think it’s necessary to denegrate Things as “for people with simpler, less demanding lives.” My life is both complex and demanding. My brain just likes Things’ approach better.

Turns out I’m not a “cranking widgets” kind of guy, as David Allen would say. I’m a goal-oriented worker who does best with deep focus. My brain likes it better when I do a few things in a row that get me closer to a project goal. It’s more suited to my thinking than doing a list of tasks constrained by a context.

Different people will prefer different software. I was surprised by the relief I felt when I started using Things. The purpose of my post was not to say Things is better for everyone. It was to say that if some users are wrestling with OF2, and tired of trying to bend it to their will, maybe they should look at Things.


#4

@anamorph I’m delighted you have found the move to Things 3 beneficial. I have tried it. It is ‘easy on the eye’ and simple to learn and use. There is a lot to like. All good.

However it’s simplicity reduces it usefulness to me. I can’t attach any sort of files or images. I can’t have sequential lists to hide deferred tasks until they should appear.

I used the script supplied to move my OF2 database into it. It is difficult to manage such a large database on T3. There is no automated review to ‘trim’ the database.

I tried really hard to like T3 and see if I could manage my life with it. I think my mindset is too used to OF2. I don’t like the lack of structure. I find the flexibility with sliding tasks around to be fun but somewhat annoying. In OF2 I have a finely granulated ‘Today’ perspective that reduces clutter to what really matters. In T3 this can only be achieved with tags (tags are coming to OF2).

I think if I had started with T3 I may have stayed with it. I started with 2Do but became frustrated with it and migrated to OF2. I also tried previous incarnations of Things but found them ‘clunky’. I admit the clunkiness has gone with T3. It is now much easier to use.

I was very disappointed, however, when I finished a repeating task ‘ahead’ of time. In OF2 I can check that task off early and it’s next repeat on the cycle will kick in. In T3 I can’t find a way to complete a task early. It just isn’t possible. There is no checkbox! So what do I do if I complete a task or tasks early? It seems T3 is not so flexible after all because it ‘railroads’ me into when I can finish repeating tasks. If there is a way to do this and I’m missing it I am ready to apologise and stand corrected.

I’m also concerned about the sync method. Does T3 have full encryption? I don’t think it has any? OF2 has full encryption and that provides real peace of mind when inputting confidential data.

Yes T3 is pretty, reasonably flexible and very fast. It is also very weak compared with OF2. If you can manage with T3 then you certainly don’t need OF2. But if you need the vast number of powerful abilities that OF2 offers then T3 is something of a toy.

Omnigroup could learn a lot from T3. Aesthetics for one thing. Tags and flexibility could be another thing. But T3 needs to up it’s game by miles if is wants to tempt OF2 users over to it.


#5

Different strokes.

My post was not aimed at users like you. My post is for folks like me who wrestled with OF2 for a long time. I got relief from Things3. Maybe others will find it as well.

You carry on, and godspeed.


#6

I am in the exactly same position. Had been using OF for years. Almost 2 months ago switched to things and have been very happy with it. (And I tried all of the apps and approaches)

I do not agree with the claim one cant manage complexity with things. On the contrary I actually believe T3 forces and allows you to simplify and reduce unnescesary structure to narrow focus that is so needed for busy minds.

I heard folks mentioning absence of seq. Projects. OF is not my project planning tool and my landscape changes so rapidly that most of seq planned tasks are obsolete or way to vague to act on them when available. For routines I just created a couple of checklists in OO where they sit better anyway.

When there is something I will need to do to but cant yet I just defer until time I believe I will be in position to do that thing. Which is very simple to do in T3.

Simplicity of things is so cool that it compensates lack of some features. (Review and filtering by stalled for example).

I do not need to think about perspective’s logistics anymore. I spent so much time reading books and blogs about how to set OF up and never was happy. Will see how it goes with things.


#7

@anamorph Please don’t misunderstand me. I actually envy you. I’m delighted you’ve found your groove with T3. I desire a simpler system like you. That is why I tried T3 in the first place. I gave it a ‘fair crack of the whip’ so to speak. It just isn’t for me.
I’d be interested to know how you changed your OF2 mindset over to T3?


#8

@Iljich @anamorph how do you manage meetings etc without image/file attachments?

also…am I wrong in saying you can’t check off a repeating task earlier than planned? Is there a way to do this in T3?


#9

Two key points that I see in your message are that OF is not effective to help you manage your progress toward defined goals and that you have little if no need for sequential task flow. I agree with the first observation. The lack of a big picture management in OF is why I use other tools (Curio … as you know elsewhere) to manage my big picture workflow. The second point is also a relevant take-home message. I maintain that, unless you have a grasp of and dire need for sequential tasks in your work flow, even down to the level of designing sequentially-flowing or parallel-constructed action groups within projects, the setup of task management in OF will seem cluttered, overwhelming, and even, as you suggest to have found, counter intuitive.

A supporting theme to your post is my own observation. After many years of using OF, I have now established a comfortable workflow with it. The evolution of my usage has taken a few years of time and has been rather bumpy at times. With my long experience behind me, what strikes me in the postings in these forums now are host of threads that are centered on a general theme “How can I get OF to do what I think I want it to do”? I’ve been there. I know that they are struggling against. It is the serious misunderstanding of some core concepts (e.g. sequential task flow and defer or due dates), the desire to micro-manage a workflow down to the last second, or the absence of an understanding of the task flow management versus the big picture development that keeps folks posting questions here.

In this regard, I am not surprised that you took a while to realize that OF is not designed for you. This is not a black mark against OF or you. It is just a reality of the complexity of the systems we face.

Best regards moving forward with Things. It is a nicely designed package in its own right.


JJW


#10

Yes! I had the same experience. I bought books, courses, read blogs and revamped my entire OF setup several times. I was used to a certain mental overhead spent trying to manage OF. When I moved to Things, I no longer had to spend that mental overhead which was a noticeable and unexpected relief.


#11

To be clear, the primary attractor for me is not simplicity. It’s the direct interaction with the Today list, and the ability to be project-goal biased, rather than efficiency-biased.

Years before David Allen wrote GTD, I took a corporate productivity course that taught many of the principles in GTD. Ubiquitous capture, projects, daily planning, weekly review, etc. A core concept in this approach was to organize the day into chunks of action pursuing specific project goals*.

I experienced an unprecedented boost in productivity using that goal-focused system. However, being a paper-based system, the bookkeeping became untenable as my workload increased. Over the years, I tried many apps to emulate the experience, but they all lacked key features.

I finally gave up and embraced GTD and OF. I read books, took courses, wrote applescripts – I did everything I could to make it work. My brain just prefers being goal-oriented.

When I tried Things3, I was struck by how much I missed having a Today list that I could reorder directly by hand. Just before leaving OF, I had started making a daily list in OmniOutliner whenever my day got very hectic.

It was very easy to use Things3 to run a goal-based system. It feels so much better for me. Efficiency doesn’t inspire me in the same way like pursuing and attaining a goal. The loss of time due to inefficiency is offset by my increased motivation and energy. This is not for everyone. Many folks love GTD and “cranking widgets.” I’m just not one of them.

There are numerous shortcomings in Things3 that I am working around, like the lack of folders to organize projects. None of the problems in Things3 are as big of an issue as the dissonance caused between my mind and the GTD strategy of efficiency.

Which is to say that my mindset never really adapted to OF2. That is why Things3 is such a huge relief for me.

*(This is exactly opposite of GTD’s bias towards efficiency. The goal-oriented system would have me build a birdhouse. GTD would have me cut the wood for the birdhouse and all my other projects while I’m at the table saw.)


#12

I think there’s a workaround, but it’s not as simple as I’d like. I’m still sorting it out.

T3 structures repeating items as a template, which spawns instances at the repeat interval. The design problem is that the template doesn’t spawn the instance until the repeat date. If they changed T3 so that the template would spawn the instance as soon as the prior instance was completed, it would fix that problem.

The developers seem to be making an effort to fix things. They’ve already added repeating items to projects, which was the source of many complaints.


#13

You can complete a repeating task earlier than planned in T3, but not by the way that most people try and do it. Creating a repeating task actually creates a template, which appears in lists with a recursive arrow instead of a checkbox, and will create a task on the (start) date specified when the repeat task was set up. Clicking on this template has no effect as it is not an actual task.

If the user wants to complete a task early, one can go into the repeat template and change the start date to now (or a date in the past) to create the task, then change the repeat interval to what it was before. Sounds complicated, but it is much quicker to do it than it is to describe it. Not a perfect scenario, but easy enough for me to live with and is perhaps the best way to do this with repeating tasks that do not have a hard due date.

The second way, and the way that works best if a particular repeating task is often completed early, is to add a deadline and then set it to start x days earlier. You could actually set it to start at the repeat interval -1 day, and the task would be available to complete early the day after the previous iteration was checked off. Very effective for repeating tasks that do have a hard due date.

On the image/attachments question, I would never store these in Things if it did have that capability, nor did I do this when I used OmniFocus. I use DEVONthink extensively and I just link to the documents or project folders in the notes field, and the link works to DEVONthink across macOS and iOS. Things is a little hampered on iOS in that the links are not clickable there, but I have a Workflow that will open the URL in the notes field.


#14

First, thanks for the understanding words, and all the help you’ve offered in this forum. As you mentioned, we will still cross paths in the fora of other software we share.

As I mentioned elsewhere in this thread, my underlying problem is really with GTD as well as OF. I found that having sequential tasks hidden from me was counterintuitive to my goal-oriented mind. In Things3, I just drop a project into my Today list. it shows up as a single item, which opens the project list on double-click. I can see the next task, reorder, add, or delete, and then move on with my day.

Being able to list projects in my Today list is much more useful and comfortable to me than having sequential tasks added to a daily report.


#15

I think I figured this out a few months ago. My Today list showing due or flagged was great for showing individual tasks but was horrible at showing my current Big Rocks. I had a Big Rocks perspective focused on a small subset of projects that I wanted to focus on today.

But I’ve since changed this Bog Rocks project perspective to make this a little easier. I’ll have to set aside time over the next few days to write this one up and show the new project perspective setting and workflow I’ve since come up with.

The interesting resistance factor with OmniFocus is that we have to tweak our workflows to find something that works for us. I have perspectives that have changed very time. T3 doesn’t have any perspectives type feature. You have to click on a bunch of tags to show certain tags. I don’t think I see any way of grouping to automatically change the sort order. But the ability to manually sort is what gives users the sense (or illusion) of control over a ne’s lists.

I think the feature set of OmniFocus’ custom perspectives is a blessing and a curse. It allows users to tweak away but it can lead to procrastination/distraction via overtweaking.

T3’s feature set does force you to simplify your projects. But then again, the overplanning or creating complicated projects is a user’s workflow issue and not an OmniFocus issue.


Weekly/monthly planning - what do you use?
#16

Good to hear that Things works for you, and thanks for sharing your views. It’s a bit surprising, though, to hear you say that OF doesn’t work for you because you are goal-oriented. To me, the beauty of OF is that you could have it work in a way that suits you, regardless of GTD principles.

I started with Things a couple of years ago and liked it, but very soon became stressed and frustrated by all its limitations. More and more I found myself moving tasks from Today to other dates, and more and more I got lost among all tasks when I got more tasks to handle. I switched to OF, tried some different approaches, and found that I could have it handle unlimited amounts of tasks without feeling lost of overwhelmed.

I would never switch back to Things, but after your posts I tried Things 3 out of curiosity. And yes, the manually re-orderable Today view is very attractive, including a nice This Evening part and everything. But still, there are so many limitations in Things that I got stressed just trying it for an hour. Still no way to show the notes for more than one task at a time? No way to show tagged tasks by selecting one or more tags from a list (other than picking one tag from the elegant Quick find field by typing letters from its name)? No way to list all tasks sorted by changed date (or at least not sorted at all)? Only one level of projects. No review feature! And no custom perspectives making the software work my way.

Quickly back to OF. Looking forward to manually re-orderable perspectives later this year, as an OF way of having a Today view. Till then I’ll keep using my work-around perspective grouped by contexts for today, this week and so on, and sorted by flagged.


#17

To clarify, it’s GTD that doesn’t work for me because I prefer to pursue project goals. Things lets me build a birdhouse, while GTD wants me to spend that time at the table saw cutting all the wood I need for all my projects. GTD is more efficient, but goal-orientation is more rewarding to me.


#18

Yes, I read that you wrote that, and even if that is not the way I have understood GTD, what surprised me was that you couldn’t be as goal-oriented in OF as in Things. I knew nothing about GTD when I started using OF, and I would also call myself goal-oriented. I found it much easier to achieve my goals after having switched to OF. But if it’s the Today view that makes the difference, I can understand you.


#19

I’m glad you found a tool that works better for you. I’m goal oriented too, and I find that both GTD and OmniFocus 2 work well for me (though as a fellow user from Kinkless GTD days and the alpha testing, I think OF 1 was perfectly adequate on my Mac, and I might have stuck with it longer were it not for iOS). My thoughts below aren’t necessarily intended for you, since you’ve solved your problem; they’re more reflections for anyone else who comes across this thread.

One thing that often gets missed, I think, by people who implement GTD in software like OmniFocus is that the context action list is only one criterion for deciding what to do. David Allen offers four criteria: context, available time, available energy, and priority. To take your birdhouse example: I don’t see GTD “wanting” you to cut the wood for all your projects. GTD suggests that if being efficient matters to you more now than getting the birdhouse done, or if cutting wood for your other projects is more suited to the time and energy you have, you should set aside the birdhouse temporarily. If, on the other hand, nesting season is approaching and you really want to get the birdhouse up, then your priority on the birdhouse takes precedence over context, and you change contexts.

I find flags and focusing to be useful in that regard. If I say that my top priority now is to work on a specific project, I focus on that project. If it’s more general (say I’ve been spending less time than I want on a particular area of responsibility), I’ll focus on a folder. That way the only things I see in my context list are related to that project/folder, and I can decide whether to switch contexts.

Another aspect of GTD that doesn’t really get adequately captured by task- and project-focused software is the higher level reviews, unless you set up reminders to yourself to reflect regularly on your 1-2 year goals, your longer-term goals, and your life goals. Software (OmniFocus or something else) can also encourage overplanning: instead of determining the next action and then actually doing something, you can spend too much time coming up with every step of a project all at once, only to find halfway through that you have to change approaches and delete the remaining steps.

A final thought on contexts: A lot of my work has “laptop” as its context, and since I have my laptop with me most of the time at home, in the office, or when traveling, I tend not to use the context view when focused on a computer-based project. For me, it’s most helpful for tasks that can only be done in one place or when talking to one person, so my most useful contexts are thinks like “hardware store,” “agenda” (with subcontexts for particular individuals or groups), “library,” or specific cities. It’s when the opportunity to be in a specific context is limited or requires a lot of time and energy that cutting all the wood makes sense. If you have a bandsaw in your basement and can use it whenever you want, prioritizing the birdhouse makes sense. If you’ve rented one for a weekend, it might make more sense to do all the cutting at once.


#20

There is so much that I like about OF2 and I’m committed to sticking with it. But I do have one really big issue with OF2. GTD is great for collecting everything and any easy environment for developing implementation tasks. The problem is by collecting everything I have lists far longer than I can ever complete. It would be great if OF2 included an easy way to included priorities.