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OmniFocus 2 for Mac Brings a Fresh Look to GTD

Getting Things Done (GTD) is perhaps the favorite productivity system of Apple geeks (see “Getting Things Done with Your Macintosh, Part 1,” 24 July 2006). The system, created by David Allen and described in his book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” has achieved a cult-like status in the Apple community, thanks in part to Merlin Mann’s legendary (though long abandoned) 43 Folders blog.

For those unfamiliar with GTD, the fundamental concept involves dumping everything you need to do or might need to do into a trusted system, and then organizing those tasks, not in order of importance, but by a context of where or when you can complete those tasks. For instance, you can’t buy eggs at home, so there’s no need to worry about it there, so you would put that task into the @OUT or @STORE context. Likewise, if you want to plant flowers, you can only do that at home, so there’s no reason to think about it while you’re 30,000 feet in the air.

If a task takes more than one action, it becomes a project. For instance, let’s say you have a task called “write OmniFocus 2 review.” But that’s not just one action, it’s a series of actions. First, you have to do some research, take some screenshots, write a draft, etc.

It’s an attractive framework for organizing one’s task list, but one notable problem with GTD today is that many of the techniques outlined in David Allen’s original book are almost laughably out of date. Almost no one uses a PalmPilot or even paper folders anymore.

The Mac software market has been flooded with GTD-specific tools, but the most lauded is perhaps OmniFocus, from the Omni Group, which was first announced on 8 January 2008:

It’s just going to get better from here: we have big plans for OmniFocus 1.1 — 2.0 in the works.

Much has changed from OmniFocus’s bumpy launch (see “OmniFocus Willing, But Not Quite Ready, To Help Get Things Done,” 30 April 2008). Versions for the iPhone and iPad brought new features and experimented with interface elements. But while OmniFocus for the Mac has seen a few user interface improvements over its six-year run, it has long felt old and crusty compared to its mobile counterparts.

But now, after six long years, OmniFocus 2 is here with a new look and some imported features from the iOS versions. Note that OmniFocus 2 requires OS X 10.9 Mavericks or later.

A Fresh Look — If you’re a long-time user of OmniFocus, the first thing you’ll notice is how different it looks. The Omni Group borrowed heavily from the iOS 7-inspired OmniFocus 2 for iPhone, replacing the tiny square checkboxes with big circles. (In the screenshots below, OmniFocus 1 is pictured on the left, OmniFocus 2 on the right.)

Another major change is that Perspectives have moved from the toolbar to a new sidebar. If you haven’t used OmniFocus before, Perspectives are essentially filters that let you view your task lists in different ways. For example, you can view tasks organized by context or project, limiting the results to the first available item in each project.

Options for viewing Perspectives have been greatly simplified. Just as in OmniFocus 1, you click View in the toolbar to see Perspective options, but in OmniFocus 2, instead of seeing a series of pop-up menus, you’re presented with a simpler popover with fewer options.

OmniFocus 2 features an improved inspector, about which Matt Neuburg lamented in his original OmniFocus review. No longer a separate window split into multiple tabs, the new inspector is now a single pane integrated into the main OmniFocus window, toggled on and off by clicking Inspect in the toolbar. Esoteric icon-only buttons are now more verbose, with textual annotations. Also included are handy +1 buttons for day, week, or month, for faster date entry.

My favorite feature of OmniFocus, the Quick Entry box, also received a visual overhaul. Press Control-Command-Option-Space anywhere while OmniFocus is open and you can enter a new task along with relevant metadata. In order to streamline it, The Omni Group removed a few options from the quick entry box, such as being able to attach an image or set a task as recurring. The revised Quick Entry box sums up much of the OmniFocus 2 redesign: streamlined, nicer to look at, but with a few less features than before.

Clipping — Among the dropped features is the Clip-O-Tron 3000 plug-in for Apple Mail, as is the Safari clipper plug-in (though that has been missing for a while).

Clip-O-Tron 3000 has been replaced by a newish service: OmniFocus Mail Drop, which is a part of the Omni Sync Server. Log in to your Omni Sync Server account (or create a new one), and you can create a special email address that, when you forward messages to it, will create new items in your OmniFocus inbox. It’s not as flexible as Clip-O-Tron 3000, but it’s not dependent on Mail, and won’t break with every update to Mail.

To send selected text from any other app to OmniFocus, you can use an included “OmniFocus 2: Send to Inbox” service. However, due to sandboxing limitations, you cannot set a keyboard shortcut for this from within OmniFocus. Instead, you must navigate to System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts > Services, and assign a shortcut there.

Quick Open — As you accumulate tasks in OmniFocus, sorting through them to find a particular item quickly can become cumbersome. A small, but welcome, new feature is Quick Open, which lets you quickly access any context, project, or task. To use it, click Quick Open in the toolbar, or press Command-O. Type in a few letters in the name of the item you wish to access and press Return.

Forecast Mode — It’s a pain switching between your calendar and OmniFocus to see what needs to be done on a particular day. That’s why probably the best new feature imported from iOS is Forecast Mode, which shows both your time-based tasks and your calendar items all in one place.

Review — An essential, but often overlooked, aspect of GTD is the weekly review, in which you clear out old tasks you might have forgotten to do or check off throughout the week, and write down any tasks in your head that you haven’t yet entered.

Yet another feature borrowed from the OmniFocus iOS apps, Review mode lists all of your current projects on a regular basis, in a special Perspective, giving you a chance to see if your tasks are up to date. By default, all projects are set to be reviewed weekly, but you can change this for each individual project in the inspector. When you’ve reviewed all your projects, click Mark Reviewed to reset them until the next review period comes up.

But what about one-off tasks that aren’t assigned to a project? Don’t worry, they’re added to a catch-all Miscellaneous project, so you won’t miss a thing.

One enhancement I’d like to see in the future is a notification when it’s time to review my projects, as I have trouble remembering to review them.

Pricing — New OmniFocus licenses have always cost $79.99 (with steep educational discounts), but with OmniFocus 2, things are a little different. There are now two tiers of OmniFocus: the $79.99 Pro and the $39.99 Standard.

The only difference between the two is that Pro adds some power user features like custom Perspectives and AppleScript support. So if you’re curious about OmniFocus, there is now a less expensive option.

As for upgrades, the good news is that if you purchased OmniFocus directly from Omni after 1 February 2013, you’ll receive a free upgrade to OmniFocus 2 Pro. For those who purchased from Omni before that date, upgrades to OmniFocus 2 Pro and Standard cost $39.99 and $19.99 respectively.

However, if you purchased from the Mac App Store, things work a bit differently. Omni isn’t offering discounts on the Standard version of OmniFocus 2 for anyone, but if you already own OmniFocus 1, you can upgrade to OmniFocus 2 Pro for $39.99.

But, the question is, should you bother upgrading from OmniFocus 1? Frankly, most of the upgrades are cosmetic and OmniFocus 2 might break the workflow of some power users, so if you’re utterly satisfied with your current experience, you may not wish to upgrade.

For new users, though, now is a great time to dive into OmniFocus, thanks to the new, lower price of OmniFocus 2 Standard.

Getting Getting Things Done — I’ve tried just about every task manager out there, but when push comes to shove, OmniFocus is the reliable old workhorse I depend on.

Sure, it’s not perfect. For one, OmniFocus is pricey. Between the $79.99 for OmniFocus 2 Pro, $39.99 for OmniFocus for iPad, and $19.99 for OmniFocus 2 for iPhone, that’s a whopping $139.97 to install a fully functional OmniFocus on all of your devices. Even with all that expense, OmniFocus has no collaboration features, so it works only for me, myself, and I.

So why do I use it? If I had to sum up why OmniFocus works so well for me and for many others, it would be two things.

  1. The ease with which I can add new action items.
  2. Hiding those action items.

I know what you’re thinking. “Why would you spend so much on an app that hides the things you’re supposed to do?” In a word: focus. If I don’t need to think about an item right away, I defer it until later, then set my Perspective to hide it until the defer date. I can set projects to be sequential, as opposed to parallel, so OmniFocus hides the subsequent steps until I’ve completed the current one. Likewise, Perspectives allow me to filter out everything except what I’m working on. No other tool allows the level of focus that the aptly named OmniFocus provides.

If you’re just starting out with GTD, I recommend skimming David Allen’s book as well as listening to Merlin Mann’s three-part “Back to Work” series on GTD. But you can learn to use OmniFocus and GTD without reading anything. Here’s how:

  1. Open OmniFocus and create a new task for every single thing you can think of that you need to do.

  2. Decide which of those tasks are actually projects, and convert them by selecting them and choosing Edit > Convert to Project (Command-!).

  3. Decide which tasks can be ignored until later, and set the Defer Until date appropriately. Likewise, set the due date if one is needed, but I recommend setting one only if something bad will happen if a task isn’t done by then. Too many “false” warnings will cause you to start ignoring the crucial notifications.

  4. Assign an appropriate context to each of your tasks.

When establishing your own contexts, keep in mind that a context is a place or a thing you need to accomplish a goal. For instance, let’s say you need to scan some documents. You can’t do that without a scanner, so you might create a @SCAN context for that task.

David Allen suggests a few contexts in his book like @COMPUTER, @HOME, @OFFICE, and @PHONE. But those distinctions are easily blurred today. I always have a phone with me, and it also doubles as a computer! To complicate matters, I work from home. How do I separate them out?

My contexts are more about mental spaces. For instance, three of my contexts are @HOME, @OFFICE, and @TIDBITS, the latter of which is a subset of @OFFICE. For example, I can do my taxes from anywhere in the house, but my office, where I keep my Mac, is the most logical place to work on them. But I wouldn’t do my taxes on TidBITS time. Likewise, I might need to pull weeds in the yard, but I’m not going to do that while sitting in my office. Think about what makes sense for you, and don’t be afraid to ditch contexts that you don’t end up using.

Also, it’s important to set some time aside every day and every week to review your task list to prune old items, eliminate things you know you’re not going to do, and to add any new items you might have missed. As I said, I am terrible at remembering to do this, but I’m trying to get better. Maybe I should set up a weekly task to remind myself to review my OmniFocus list?

Last, but not least, always keep in mind that GTD and OmniFocus need to work for you, not the other way around. David Allen isn’t some deity, he’s just a guy who came up with a system that works well for some people. For instance, it’s common GTD wisdom that everything you need to do that takes longer than two minutes should go in your list and be sorted appropriately. But when I try to adhere to that, I end up spending all of my time fiddling with OmniFocus.

So my own GTD system is lax. In a typical week, I have only a dozen or so general tasks that I have to keep in mind, and it’s usually more efficient and less stressful to keep those in my head. I go to OmniFocus when I have a deadline or when I’m drowning in tasks that must be done. When it comes to outlining a complex series of tasks and projects and helping me stay focused on what matters, OmniFocus is the best tool I’ve found.

Some may scoff at my sloppy workflow, but that’s OK. In the end, it’s not about how well you implement GTD, but how efficiently and completely you accomplish the tasks you need to get done. When it comes to that, OmniFocus is the best tool I’ve found for the job, and between its streamlined interface and reduced entry price, OmniFocus 2 is a great way to get started.

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