I’ve always been the kind of person that has two or three todo lists going at once. If it doesn’t get written down, it doesn’t happen. And if I lose a todo list, a whole bunch of things don’t happen.

This makes me the perfect candidate for any one of the GTD-style task management apps that have been bandied about lately. I’ve used both OmniFocus and Things quite extensively, and hopefully this will help other people figure out which one is right for them. But first, I should warn you: I am heavily biased towards Things. And also, Chris Bowler of The Weekly Review has said a lot of this before, so I hope he doesn’t mind that I’m going to drag him into this a few times.

OmniFocus

OmniFocus icon

Overview

I spent a few months using OmniFocus for task management and tried really hard to like it. It’s got a lot of horsepower - if you want a lot of customization and need to track a ton of items, OmniFocus might be good for you.

Usability

No seriously, it’s a workhorse. You can create projects. You can create lists of single-action tasks. You can create folder of projects. You can create contexts. You can create sub-contexts. And yes, you can create tasks, which can have due dates and notes and might repeat. And you can filter on all of that.

The way I see it, OmniFocus is like taking a 747 when, really, all I need is a kite. It’s got a ton of features and options and filters and what have you, and it’s really easy to waste a lot of time fiddling around with settings and just managing the app itself. As Chris Bowler wrote on The Weekly Review:

GTD, or whatever your ‘system’ of choice, are merely tools to accomplish that which you want to achieve. When the tool becomes the focus - the only focus - then we’ve missed the mark of what GTD was intended to improve. Namely, completing work and our ability to do so. Not to give us another distraction.

This was my biggest problem with OmniFocus - it was so easy to just keep tweaking my projects and contexts, and I never actually did anything. Just firing it up to figure out what I needed to work on started to feel like a chore.

Also, Command-N opens a new window, which makes sense in some apps, but not in this one. If you want to create a new task, the key combo is Ctrl-Command-N, and I could never get the hang of that.

Price

Pretty steep: $79.95.

iPhone App

At the high end for an iPhone app: $19.99

The sync is dodgy. The sneakypeek beta version of OmniFocus can sync its database to MobileMe (and other WebDav servers, if you have access to one), and the iPhone app can do the same. As far as I can tell, though, it syncs up it’s whole database at once. There were a lot of times that I would sync and it would find some conflict, so I would be forced to choose to use the server copy or the local copy - either way, some data gets lost. It also means that the sync takes a little while. The biggest issue I had was adding an item to my inbox on my old iPhone while I was out somewhere, then waiting for it to sync the whole database up to MobileMe over Edge. Factor in all the problems MobileMe was having a couple months ago, and it was not a pleasant experience.

They may have improved this process since I stopped using OmniFocus a month or two ago, but I haven’t tried it since.

Things

Things icon

Overview

If OmniFocus were a Microsoft product, Things would be the Apple equivalent. It’s simple, it’s easy to use, and it’s pretty to look at.

Things offers enough options to be really useful without being obnoxious. You can create projects, and you can create areas of responsibility. This took me a little while to get used to, because they aren’t exactly contexts, necessarily - they’re intended for things that don’t have an end-point like a project, but will include several tasks over time. For example, I’ve got areas for Home, Work, Blog Ideas, Wedding, and Project Ideas.

Things also allows you to tag items. It seems that most people use tags as they would contexts, but with more flexibility. For example, I might have a task to check with my parents about their plans to come visit. I can tag it ‘phone’, ‘dad’, and ‘mom’. If I have some time to make some calls, I might filter for the ‘phone’ tag and see I should call my parents about that visit. If mom or dad calls me for something and I’m in front of my computer (and let’s be honest, I will be), I can filter on their names to see what I need to talk to them about it (as I said earlier, if I don’t write it down, it doesn’t happen - so, yes, I put reminders to talk to my parents about stuff). I also discovered just a moment ago that you can also tag projects and areas of responsibility in addition to individual tasks.

Things has a couple things that OmniFocus doesn’t. For one, there’s a Today grouping. The idea is that you just mark items you want to finish today. They aren’t removed from the project or area of responsibility that they were in before, they just get a flag. It’s pretty handy to take a few minutes in the morning and flag the items you want to get done that day. The second thing is teammates. You can add people from your Address Book and assign tasks to them. Things doesn’t e-mail them or anything (er, I hope it doesn’t, anyway), but it adds a notation to the task that indicates someone else is working on it. Again, it stays in the project or area it was in, but you can easily see that you’re waiting on someone else to finish it. This feature is not complete yet, though.

Usability

It was like the first time I used a Mac after years on a PC, and discovered that things really didn’t need to be all that difficult. It’s a piece of cake. It’s looks like a Mac app, and Command-N creates a new task, like anyone in their right mind would expect it to. Tasks can be dragged from project to area of responsibility to Inbox to Today and most anywhere in between. There’s keyboard shortcuts for everything I’ve wanted them for, so far.

Tags can be associated with a character to quickly apply them to a task. If you select a task and hit the key that’s associated with a tag, it will be added to the item. For example, Things comes pre-loaded with some tags for priority: High, Medium, and Low are associated with 1, 2, and 3. I have w for ‘work’ and p for ‘phone’. If I select a task and hit w, it gets the ‘work’ tag - or I can hit w and then p and then 1, and it gets ‘work’, ‘phone’, and ‘High’.

The thing I didn’t mention before about tags is how easy it is to filter on them. If you’re looking at a list of tasks and any of them has a tag, those tags will appear at the top of the list, like so:

Things Tags

Clicking on of the tags will filter the list. Piece of cake.

Chris Bowler of The Weekly Review has some more comments about Things usability and design.

Price

Free, for now. It will be $49 when 1.0 is released, but you can get $10 off that by signing up for their newsletter.

iPhone App

$9.99.

The iPhone app is just as simple and pretty as the desktop app. Unfortunately, they’re still working on it, and it doesn’t have all the functionality: areas of responsibility and tags are both missing, but Cultured Code has said that these are both high priorities. It would be nice to have them, but I’m doing OK without.

On the upside, the sync works great. Things doesn’t sync through any third party service. You must connect both your desktop and your iPhone to the same wireless network, make sure Things is running on the desktop, and then start it on the iPhone. It sounds like an ordeal, but it’s really not: if I’m at home or work, both devices are already on the same network, and I have Things running on my laptop all the time anyway. And, if you’re the kind of person doing secrety things, you don’t have to worry about your task list going through a third party like MobileMe.

The sync only takes a second or two, and I’ve never had any conflicts or lost data. Once or twice, there has been an item that was marked complete on one device but got marked incomplete during the sync, but really, that’s about the least harmful issue I can think of.

My Verdict

Obviously, I’m a fan of Things. Like I said, OmniFocus is probably appropriate for a different kind of user. I’m the kind of person that needs a simple, easy system that won’t tempt me to waste time. Things has filled that role quite nicely - I’m getting a lot done these days, and thanks to the easy iPhone app, I never lose track of anything I need to get done.