updated 05:16 am EDT, Sun June 22, 2014
Project management for big and little task organization
For many people, the ability to formalize a project -- write it down, include all the physical actions that will need to be accomplished and/or the people who will be involved -- makes doing a thing actionable and real. Likewise, setting deadlines can help motivate users to actually accomplish a goal by invoking their competitive spirit, challenging themselves or others to complete tasks on time. The Omni Group have put out a new version of their project-management software, Omnifocus 2, so we made a note to take a look at it.
The process of planning a project -- whether its a large job involving others or just a long-put-off household task like cleaning the garage -- can be daunting, although its often the easiest part of the work ahead. Outside of the office, most people wouldn't immediately say they need or would use "project management" software, even though they might rely on similar but more basic methods such as spreadsheets, notes, reminders, to-do lists, calendars, email and so on to plan, organize and execute tasks. Omnifocus is really nothing more than a way to bring all those elements together under one roof, and the Omni Group are to be praised for designing the program to be both pleasant to look at and easy to work with.
The program breaks things down into three basic categories: Projects (the overall name or goal one wants to accomplish), Actions (the series of physical steps that will be taken) and Context (other programs, people, services, places or anything that will help users finish the project). Contexts can be grouped separately across various projects -- for example, assigning a context of "electronics store" to action items that involve a trip to that store will allow users to be reminded next time they go that they need both a new drive sled for that project of replacing the MacBook Pro's optical drive with an SSD and that they need to pick up a new 64GB thumb drive for the archiving project they are doing with a work colleague, instead of leaving both actions in separate projects and thus possibly having to make two trips.
Users can opt to store all their Omnifocus data locally on their own Mac, or sync it to the company's free service so that the data is available on other devices (there is an iPhone version, and are working on an iPad version as well). Data can also be synced to a user's own WebDAV-compatible repository if one prefers. There is also a Pro version of Omnifocus for Mac that adds a "Focus" view, saved custom perspectives and AppleScript support.
In all versions, however, the layout of the program follows the standard Mac convention of putting categories on the left, and content in the main window, and creating projects, assigning actions to them and adding context for efficiency is very straightforward. There's a nice "quick entry" keystroke command that allows you to bring up a text-entry window while one is in some other app, and you can drag-and-drop images, PDFs and other data as notes in one's actions, and full integration with OS X's Calendar which can add alarms and reminders to specific deadlines. This is where the cloud-syncing comes in handy, as this can push notifications to users on their iPhone while they are out and about.
This brings us to our one main criticism, though: Omni Group have chosen to make the iPhone (and forthcoming iPad) version of Omnifocus equal to the Mac version in virtually all respects, thus allowing mobile-centric users to buy and use just the mobile version alone if they choose. While we applaud this, it also means that Mac users who have paid $40 for the regular desktop version ($80 for the Pro version) will have to pay an additional $20 for the iPhone version, essentially just for syncing and quick-entry or editing in the case of some users. The company may want to consider also creating a more lightweight free or low-cost "companion version" for those who primarily use the Mac version and just want some basic on-the-go functions.
Up until now, we've mostly relied on Apple's built-in tools such as Calendar and Reminders for basic task planning and notifications. We went into this hands-on as a skeptic that "project management software" like Omnifocus was really worth it to us (as someone with a relatively good memory and few large-scale projects). Going through the process of using it, however, has helped us focus and organize a few moderate projects better, and put is in a frame of mind to lay out some other projects we'd like to get done. We like the program and can see its usefulness for future projects. The iPhone version even works with Siri, allowing users set reminders and manage projects by voice.
One of our favorite features, apart from the ease of the initial data entry, is Forecast. When users add due dates and deadlines to actions, these can be integrated into Calendar, allowing easy notification of upcoming actions or alerting users when they are nearby one of the places or businesses they need to complete certain actions. The Forecast feature shows which actions are upcoming in the next day or week, serving as effective reminders and helping users plan their day for maximum effect. Used fully, it can replace -- or circumvent any need for -- a life coach, and cut off any nagging about procrastination off at the knees.
Omnifocus isn't a slave to a particular "getting things done" methodology; it is flexible enough to work with whatever method users prefer working, whether they set aside dedicated time to study and fine-tune projects and actions, or want to quickly enter future tasks to be reminded later when they need to be done. The program isn't wholly intuitive, but it is on the level one needs to get started; like most good Mac programs, there is a lot of hidden power beyond the basics if one wants to go looking, and it's generally right where you would logically expect to find it, thanks to Omni Group's devotion to the OS X philosophy.
Who is Omnifocus for? People who would like to get better organized; Mac-using office people who need real project management but not a complicated interface; leaders of small teams of all sorts, particularly if everyone can use Calendar or WebDAV to share info and deadlines.
Who is this not well-suited for? As any good organizing program takes some commitment to update it, really lazy or fundamentally disorganized people won't magically change their natures by buying Omnifocus. It's not yet ready for those who live on their iPad, either, and it's too pricey for those whose "to-dos" consist of single-step actions like "get groceries." If checklists and reminders aren't cutting it for bigger tasks, Omnifocus is a good Mac- and iPhone-centric option that can take users to the next level, with the Pro version adding features that managers will find useful.