Review: OmniFocus

This task master may be all you need to organize your life. (July 7th, 2008)

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Product Manufacturer: The Omni Group

Price: $79.95 US

The Good

  • Comprehensive feature set. Flexible. Good technical support. iPhone version coming soon. Excellent video introduction on site.

The Bad

  • Steep learning curve. Understanding clearly how filters work together may take time. Limitations on multi-machine use. Mildly expensive.

OmniFocus (v.1.0.2) is a task manager from The Omni Group in Seattle, WA. It is loosely based on the vaunted Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy of David Allen, who holds the term's copyright. OmniFocus is not rigidly tied to the Getting Things Done approach, but strict GTD adherents can use it. This Tiger and Leopard compatible program has a simple and single purpose: To allow your computer to do the work of managing tasks - from feeding the cat to making your first million.

OmniFocus works well because it captures, organizes, sifts, orders, sequences, and presents your recordable tasks on and off the computer. You enter single tasks or steps, called Actions, which make up the individual bits of a Project or goal, but you dictate how it displays, organizes, and filters them. There are so many ways to splice and dice your Actions that OmniFocus might put you off at first. Rest assured, you'll quickly become familiar with the individual controls.


OmniFocus Overview


The greatest strength of OmniFocus is that it guides you through what you have to get done, no matter how daunting or long your task lists. It does this so well because it helps you to focus. You set the software's filters to reveal distinct pieces or phases of your jobs; at the same time, it allows you to maintain and update the lists independently and easily.

This is reflected in the division between the two modes, Planning and Context. You enter your tasks into their respective Projects in Planning mode and display the items in the Context mode. You mark tasks as completed when done. Used properly, Planning Mode contains the totality of your life, while the Context Mode displays sequences: What's due when and where.


Planning and Context Modes

You decide what to view and how to display items. You might want to see only the next step in a project, or to show only Actions with a certain start date or due date. You can view Actions according to where you happen to be or with a certain set of resources, such as in Mail on your Mac, at the supermarket, or with a hammer in hand. This is the GTD concept of Context; the physical items or environment you need to complete an Action. If you find it confusing or unnecessary in your particular circumstances, then you can ignore it, like many other such features of OmniFocus. You probably want to adopt this way of thinking and working, though, because Context and Project are the two top-level categorizing schemes.


The OmniFocus interface looks more complex than it actually is to use. You manage every Action in a single operation on one line. The software design is simple to use. Happily, working with OmniFocus doesn't become another project in itself.


Main Window with Content Area and Sidebar

Click on a Project and simply press Return and enter text to add a new action in the relevant Project. OmniFocus lists all your Actions in the right hand pane of the program's single window. A Sidebar on the left contains the Projects folders and the Contexts. You can edit and view actions, groups, projects, or contexts in the Inspector. This window changes its content depending on the item you select.


Inspector Window


With a minimum of fuss, OmniFocus has achieved an admirable blend between flexibly structuring your Actions, and efficiently helping you to focus and complete them. You don't need to assign any other information than the Action's description to each entry. Of course, you probably want to attach a start and due date and to place an Action in a Context and as part of a Project. You can also add longer notes, references, URLs, and clippings from other applications, with the Clippings Service in OmniFocus. The Preferences lets you choose which applications in which to activate the Clippings Service.

Let the Filtering do the Work

When you add properties to whole Contexts and Projects in the Inspector, you can filter, view, print, and export the data in a variety of views, using a collapsible View Bar in the Sidebar and main Actions list. This process is context-sensitive. You can flag and set Actions to repeat in a variety of ways. You can drag Actions into Project and Context hierarchies from where you may have dumped them in your Inbox. This is a classic GTD procedure: Brainstorm - Organize - Complete, or in OmniFocus, Capture - Organize - Do.

When you enter multiple Actions, OmniFocus lets you categorize them according to dates, to desired sequence and according to Context and Project. You also have a mechanism for postponing, reviewing, and dropping Actions or whole projects, as well as re-categorizing them. Links to iCal and Mail enable OmniFocus to work in concert with your already installed applications. It is not any more complicated than that. OmniFocus does these four basic functions extremely fluently and easily. During testing, the software was 100% robust in every way.

OmniFocus lets the filtering do the work. It has to be said that the relationships between three of these filtering criteria, Grouping, Sorting and Status, may not immediately be clear; and that repeated recourse to the excellent documentation may be needed before you get what you want to display consistently. For example, you may want to display everything with a start date today, or a due date tomorrow, or the next items in a project. The manual covers how to review your Projects for Active and Remaining tasks.


Project List Window


You can retrieve Actions according to these criteria whenever you want, thanks to the effective Perspectives feature. First you refine and aggregate Actions using the OmniFocus window settings, then save these settings, like views in a conventional database. If you want to change a Perspective, the Take a snapshot feature re-saves it with your changes. You can have and use multiple Perspectives.


OmniFocus is intelligent in the ways we expect from Mac software. For example, the variety of accepted date formats is huge and makes their entry and manipulation simple and intuitive. OmniFocus is particularly good at guessing what you want to type, such as mfm is likely to find "make first million."

The software is extremely flexible and customizable. There is an impressive search and there are multiple keystroke and mouse equivalents with System wide quick entry when OmniFocus is running. You can organize both Projects and the Inbox hierarchically and into meaningfully named folders.

OmniFocus is also AppleScriptable. If you choose to use a disk location other than the default one for your database, OmniFocus creates a backup copy before moving it.

What's more, OmniFocus supports just the right amount of control over visual formatting. It sponsors a happy balance between keystroke and mouse alternatives. You can postpone reflection in changes you've just made to an Action's status until you click a Clean Up brush icon. You can also keep completed Actions as a record of accomplishments in your busy life.


It is possible to transport your OmniFocus data using a Flash or Thumb drive, or your iDisk. The Perspectives are not as easy to transport because they're stored in your Home Library, Application Support folder. The OmniFocus lock prevents improper updates that must be overridden from machine to machine, but a more transparent system would be a good update.

The price tag might deter you from purchasing OmniFocus, but if task management is a priority, OmniFocus is worth that price. Other solutions, such as Things, iGTD, and Midnight Inbox, just do not provide the stability, and feature-set found in OmniFocus. You should watch the tutorial video on the site to see if it fits your needs.

by Mark Sealey


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