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GTD

Things vs. Omnifocus

If you didn’t know, I’m a GTD’er. What is GTD you ask? Well, it’s a system for personal productivity based on the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. If you ask people who know about GTD they may describe it as a sort of nerdy cult. Since the inception of what’s affectionately known as GTD there have been a lot of apps for productivity based on the system outlined in the book. 

Two of the biggest apps for GTD on the market today are Things and Omnifocus. Both of these apps provide you with powerful tools to capture and manage thoughts and ideas and turn them into actions. Each one of these systems has its positives and negatives. I often end up having discussions with friends who are GTD’ers on which app most closely follows the scripture of David Allen’s book. I have been using the GTD system for many years and I can tell you that I still fall in and out of this discipline. Everyone I have talked to about GTD says the same thing about themselves.

People who practice GTD typically are systems oriented people. That’s one reason why they are attracted to GTD. Something else I’ve learned about GTD’ers is that most of them are on a never ending search for the “perfect system”. They’re always striving to improve themselves …..and their systems.

I own the full suite of both of these apps. I have used them both extensively and I still find myself switching back and forth between the two of them. Here are some of the pros and cons.

Things is a very capable application for personal productivity. What caught my attention first was the clean interface and “Mac” like feel. It’s simplicity is very inviting and at first glance it may seem limited in what it can do. After spending some time with Things you’ll discover it can handle most anything you throw at it.

Out of the box you’ll find that Things offers you the most basic components of GTD. From the top down you  capture items to the Inbox. Here you can add tags (as opposed to contexts), notes and assign a due date. You can also tell Things when to remind you of the task. Below Collection is Focus where you can arrange tasks and setup your daily agenda which is nice. It takes a little fine tuning to get this set up in Omnifocus. You can also see all of your tasks and projects in the big picture of when they are due by looking in the Next menu under Focus. If you need to set up recurring tasks like paying bills or servicing your car, you can do that in the scheduler. Projects can also be sorted and you even have a box for what David Allen calls “someday / maybe”.

Things for Mac (Desktop Version)

If you need to look back through the tasks that you’ve completed it’s easily done by looking at the Logbook. This serves as an archive for all completed tasks. Areas lets you build lists and projects in compartments that represent the different aspects of your life’s responsibilities. Things also gives you the ability to assign and delegate tasks to co-workers, family members or teammates and the application is fully scriptable.

Cons

There is some stuff that would make Things even better than it is. First of all, you can’t have a main project with multiple sub-projects and you also can’t make nested tasks.  The biggest downfall for me personally was (and is) the lack of cloud syncing. This is the reason I left Things the first time….. and the second and probably the third time. They are working on cloud syncing and have been for quite a while. You can sync over a private network, but don’t expect it to sync at work or at your local coffee shop. I have never had it sync successfully unless I was on my home network. Things is developed by CulturedCode and is available for your desktop, iPhone and iPad.

Omnifocus was built completely around the methodology of GTD. The functionality of the app is a mirror image of the book. Like Things, it’s also built around the Inbox. Instead of tags, Omnifocus uses Contexts to categorize tasks. These are useful because you can set contexts for where tasks need to be completed. If you’re by the phone you can pull up the Phone Context and see all the phone calls that need to be made. If you pass a grocery store you can pull up that context and see everything that is needed from a grocery store. You can do this with Tags in Things. One very neat part of Omnifocus on a mobile device is that it incorporates geo-tagging into your to-do list. If you are out running errands you can see all of your to-do’s on Google Maps. It will also arrange your list of tasks based on your location and tell you the next logical thing to do.

Omnifocus for Mac (Desktop Version)

Omnifocus is truly the closest thing to a “pro-app” for your personal life. You can manage multiple projects and sub-projects as well as nested tasks and folders. You can arrange tasks to run concurrently or consecutively. With Omnifocus you can very easily sync all of your data to the cloud and have it instantly push to all of your devices. They support WebDav and even offer a free syncing service for all users.

Omnifocus also places an emphasis on your weekly review, something that it stressed in David Allen’s book. This allows you to go through every project and track your reviews on a weekly basis. It also integrates iCal which lets you send tasks and appointments to your calendar. Another great function of Omnifocus is that you can create Perspectives that allow you to focus on a specific areas of responsibility. Not only that, but you can also use 3rd party icons or even custom icons to represent these perspectives and add them to the toolbar giving the app a sort of customized look and feel.

Cons

As great as Omnifocus is it does leave some users feeling overwhelmed with all of it’s functions, menus and filters. The interface is a bit clunky on the desktop version although the iPad version is very nice. The learning curve is pretty steep and it would probably not make much sense to someone who isn’t familiar with the methodology of GTD. It doesn’t incorporate contacts, but neither does Things.

One or the other?

As I said before, I have used both of these apps extensively for projects, to-do’s and even lesson planning. I love the “pro-sumer” strength of Omnifocus. Nested folders and tasks are great. Geo-tagging in the mobile apps are amazing and I love the ability to customize my toolbar with my own icons. But I also really enjoy the clean simplicity of Things. It offers me a real “low drag” way to keeping up with stuff in life and at work.

The most important thing about GTD is actually getting the things done in your life that need doing. Its a very systematic approach to productivity. Because GTD is so system oriented its easy to find yourself working on the system more than you are working on your projects and to-do’s. As great as Omnifocus is, I find myself constantly trying to improve my workflow and experience within the application. This leads to a lot of fiddling tweaking and time wasting inside of Omnifocus.

Things on the other hand seems to have found a balance between the cool factor and usability. It’s framework lends itself to improving your productivity but not so much as to steal your time away with gadgets and whistles. Also because of the clean design, it looks less like a “messy desk” which can happen in Omnifocus once you start loading it up with folders and tasks. There’s just something about the way Things presents itself that makes me feel like I am in control of my projects. Omnifocus often gives me the sense of being overwhelmed which can lead to procrastination….. GTD’s Kryptonite.

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About Michael McCoy

Michael is a Professional Pilot Instructor, Graphics Designer and Multimedia Producer specializing in Aviation content. He is also a speaker and presenter who helps organizations leverage the power of communications through Digital and Social Media. He has been a contributor in Aviation related stories for major network television and radio. Michael is also a musician who plays the drums, trumpet and some guitar. He graduated from the University of South Carolina with a Bachelor of Science. He lives in Savannah, GA.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Things vs. Omnifocus

  1. Love omnifocus’s employees and support
    Team but I made the switch to Things. Omnifocus does so much more, but just like you I was feeling a bit overwhelemed and I just want to keep things simple and direct. It’s why I love my iPhone, my Nike Tom Tom watch (the
    Garmins are so ugly and clunky) and my iMac.

    Cloud syncing isn’t an issue for me *coughbeta* and I love how fast and pretty Things looks. Create your folder, add in your tasks and your done! No fiddling around with options and I tend to open up things more than I ever did with omnifocus because I didn’t want to waste time
    Getting lost and configuring the app in different ways!

    Posted by David | January 11, 2012, 2:02 am
  2. Michael, I really enjoyed your analysis of these two great applications. Like you, I left things for Omnifocus because of the lack of cloud sync. It was a deal killer. However, I have recently been beta testing the new Things cloud sync which seems to be working well. What a massive mistake it was for them to take this long to perfect their sync system. How many customers did they lose? And their slow support (compared to Omnigroup’s awesome support team) doesn’t help.

    Omnifocus on the iPad and iPhone are excellent too. I really enjoy using Siri on the iPhone 4 to create reminds that then sync directly into Omnifocus on the iPhone.

    Posted by Scott Spiro (@ScottSpiro) | February 18, 2012, 12:49 am
  3. And what about now with Things having finally released syncing?

    Posted by D | March 3, 2012, 5:56 pm
  4. I don’t really understand all of the gyrations anyone would want to do using either Things or Omnifocus. The hassle of trying to get them to integrate with Mail, iCal, Contacts, etc.. While Microsoft has dropped the Project feature in OSX Mac Office 2011 (horrible decision), OSX Mac Office 2008 has everything that Things, Omnifocus, Mail, iCal, Contacts, etc. has and more in one tightly integrated app. In Mac Office 2008 I can easily set up projects and automatically tag every email with that project name as well as documents, graphics, contacts, appointments, notes, etc.. Plus a ton more that makes getting things done a breeze. All within the same app. Plus it’s easy to use and learn. Mac Office 2008 is so much more than Things or Omnifocus combined. Don’t understand why Michael hasn’t pointed this out.

    Posted by Wolfgang | March 11, 2012, 2:30 pm
  5. PS. Should have mentioned my comments above apply to Entourage 2008.

    Posted by Wolfgang | March 11, 2012, 2:32 pm
  6. Great review Michael,
    I too, bought both programs. It took me a long time and a lot of switching back and forth but I finally chose to use Things.

    With the new cloud sync, I no longer go through the hassle of being unprepared for a meeting because I forgot to sync. But the main reasons are the ease of use, the simplicity, the awesome global search function, the log, and the beauty of the UI.

    OF is an amazing app but sometimes, more time is spent tweaking and playing around with the options than actually laying out an effective GTD program. The desktop application appears cluttered and plain ugly. The search function is nothing but a filter. Altogether, it makes for a very poor UI experience.

    Bottomline, OF is a great project manager while Things is a great task manager. However, if I need to work on a project I’ll use Merlin or MS Project.

    Things is an amazing application. Solid. Effective. Beautiful.

    Posted by Andy Bridged | August 25, 2012, 1:44 am

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