Why I switched from Omnifocus to Things

I deleted Omnifocus from my Mac, iPad and iPhone today and switched all my task management to Cultured Code’s Things. Why Things, you may well ask, when everything is talking about Clear right now? Clear, the new iPhone-only, ultra minimalist task management app from RealMac Software, just doesn’t cut it for me: I need (1) to be able to set dates and contexts for my tasks and (2) have them available and syncing across all my devices—which Things finally started offering in a superb but private beta last year that has just gone public. To my mind, the much-reviewed Clear is exactly what Things is not: the epitome of an app that’s hyped because of its (admittedly) beautiful and trendy design, but just hasn’t been thought out properly beyond that. Ben Brooks, in his glowing review of the app, actually admits he’s not going to stop using Omnifocus, which he perceptively calls the ‘grandaddy of all task management GTD apps for Mac users’ in a an earlier review: instead, he plans to use Clear (for shopping lists) and Omnifocus (for everything else) concurrently.

When you’ve reached the point where you feel you need to use two task management apps, the likelihood is neither is completely meeting your needs. I can see why Ben Brooks got frustrated with Omnifocus: it’s a powerful app that not only has a steep learning curve, but also remains maddeningly complicated even at the best of times. Task management is meant to help you get things done, not become an additional daily challenge, which is what Omnifocus has never ceased being for me.

I’ve been using to-do apps (also known as GTD apps) since my University days—so the list of all the solutions I’ve tried over the years would be huge [i]. To-dos of course fall within the category of actions that (in contrast to, say, word processors or coding apps) don’t carry a major barrier to entry: in other words, it’s trivial to switch from one app to another—just install, add your current tasks, learn the basics of managing them and you’re set to go. Just going back over the past four years, I’ve used three GTD apps. I started off with Remember The Milk, probably the ‘purest’ GTD player available—it’s also the cheapest by far and in my view has the best-designed iPhone client, but the fact it doesn’t have an official desktop app, instead relying on a web interface eventually made me give up on it.

Leaving Clear and Remember The Milk aside, let’s focus on a comparison between Omnifocus and Things. After trying both for an extended period of time, I’d say they’re both excellent, but whether they suit you will depend on your personality: in effect, whether you’re methodical and good at keeping deadlines (which I’m not) or apt to shift them constantly (which I am, unfortunately).

Omnifocus: the best solution if you’re methodical and good at sticking to deadlines

Of the GTD apps I’ve used, Omnifocus, though easily the most expensive (the Mac desktop app costs $79, the iPad app $39 and the iPhone one $19) is the one with which I’ve spent most time. It offers more scope for customisation than any other, and it strictly conforms with GTD standards: you can organise your tasks in any combination of projects and contexts, complete subsets sequentially or concurrently, and use incredibly intricate ‘inspectors’ to set every possible detail about them, including due dates, start dates, reminder parameters, etc.

Omnifocus’s best feature—which goes some way to hiding its complexity when appropriate—is Perspectives, a customisable display setting of which you can any number you like, showing only the items you need to view in a particular situation (e.g., ‘Supermarket’ or ‘Wishlist’ or whatever).

The Omnifocus Mac app
The Omnifocus Mac app window, showing the Perspectives settings panel. This is a powerful feature that allows you to conceal part of the app's inherent complexity when you want to. But Things allows you to do the same more easily with its 'Areas of responsibility' feature.

While this degree of control is well suited to people able to keep on top of the routine they’ve set themselves, that’s simply not the way other people work. I found myself constantly needing to reschedule tasks or change their context—meaning I constantly needed to open the inspector window and shift between its various panes to access the setting I needed, all just for the sake of updating one task.

When I started using Omnifocus, I was partly kidding myself into thinking that by forcing me to be methodical, this app would somehow change the way my mind focused on tasks and stick to whatever path I’d mapped out for my routine in it. Instead what happened was the Omnifocus rapidly got cluttered up with overdue tasks—and the sheer complexity of shifting due dates and contexts around meant I opened the app less and less often and ended up using it only for shopping lists—ironically, something for which Clear would have been quite adequate.

Two other things annoyed me with Omnifocus.

Firstly, its ugly design: the app was never a beauty to start with, and is beginning to show its age. You can apply custom themes, but they don’t do anything to clear the cluttered interface which is the main issue here. The team at Omnifocus has a bizarre approach to this: why have three different icons for the Mac, iPhone and iPad apps, when visual unity would make far more sense?

The second issue I had with Omnifocus was how bad its sync was. It’s unbelievably slow and unreliable: the iPhone app kept nagging me for my password every time a reminder popped up, although I have to say Ken Case, the Omni group CEO, made every effort to help out—even tweeting a few days later to check whether the issue was still bothering me, something I’ve never seen another app’s developer bothering to do—but unfortunately, the problem kept coming back and was never solved.

Things is ideal for people who constantly need to reschedule tasks

Things, in many ways, is the exact opposite to Omnifocus.

To start with, its interface is stark to the point of being bare, it allows you complete flexibility either to stick with the strict rules of GTD—which have become almost a religion for some people—or to adopt your own, more flexible approach: rather than forcing you to store tasks in contexts and projects, you can apply tags to them—as many as you like, or none. In effect, this means you can combine the power of Omnifocus with the simplicity of Clear.

The Things Mac app
The Things 'Areas of responsibility' panel for my supermarket shopping list. This has the same combination of power and simplicity as Omnifocus's Perspectives, with added flexility and simplicity.

I chose to take a hint from Sven Fechner—ironically an Omnifocus evangelist:

Based on this reasoning and the day-to-day experience we have, it seems no longer the best setup to have contexts such as email, computer, web and so forth. It is time to find a new way to organise tasks, a way that reflects our most precious resources: time & attention.

Herr Fechner’s suggestion to ditch the old ‘contexts’ (such as ‘Mac’, ‘phone’ etc.) is far easier to apply in Things—where you can combine any number of tags: mine combine the traditional ones (‘errands’, ‘online’, ‘calls’) with the newer ones (‘>15min’, ‘>1hour’, ‘tired’, ‘focused’, ‘thinking’): and unlike Omnifocus, Things doesn’t make this an either-or solution: I can choose to apply any combination of these tags or not to bother if they aren’t needed.

The tags lie at the top of the app window: clicking on one will display any items associated with it and hide the rest.

Things is also incredibly beautiful. It’s one of the best-looking apps I’ve seen and its style is carefully reflected in all three versions of the app: Mac, iPhone and iPad.

Things’s best feature—at least for scatterbrains such as me—is how easy it makes it to shift your tasks around: you store them in one of four sections: Today, Next, Scheduled and Someday. Anything that fits within a recurring theme can additionally and optionally be added to an ‘Area of responsibility’—which I find is just as powerful and easier to set up than Omnifocus’s Perspectives [ii]. Any list of tasks that belongs together can be grouped in a ‘Project’—and all these types of entry can be combined at will.

The Things projects pane
The Things Projects pane: Any project involving several steps can be stored here and its component items also stored in any combination of other views or none, giving you much greater flexility than Omnifocus.

The Today view will display anything that needs your attention—but if you change your mind and want to postpone it, the apps goes out of its way to make it easy to move: no need to open a complicated inspector. I found this fitted the way I actually run my life—I found Things didn’t make me waste time thinking about my scheduled tasks or feeling guilty about rescheduling.

This combination of power and simplicity has remained a well-kept secret since Things launched in 2009, for one reason and one reason only—but it was a deal-breaker for me and many others: Things could only sync across a wifi network, making it utterly useless. Incomprehensibly, it took the developers three years to bring the feature into public beta, and the Cultured Code forums are rife with users loudly complaining about the issue. The Things beta has solved this and while participation in the beta means I’ve agreed not to share any details about it, I think I can say the sync is superb: all three clients are updated instantly whenever they are in focus, with probably about one twentieth of the lag that characterizes Omnifocus.

Like with Omnifocus, you can link Things to reminders you’ve set in your iPhone using Siri (though, annoyingly, they’ll initially show up, again instantly, only in the Mac app inbox, not the iOS clients, so you’ll need to store them in one of your Things focus areas for them to appear in the mobile apps).

The Omnifocus and Things iPhone apps
The Omnifocus and Things iPhone apps. The Omnifocus app's design differs markedly from the desktop app. Things keeps its clients more consistent with one another.

After using Things for about three weeks, I find I’m not missing Omnifocus at all: far from needing the extra power, I found it actually inhibited me from doing stuff, and I’ve actually become more productive now that I’m using a GTD app that more accurately reflects the way I function. That doesn’t mean Things is necessarily for you if, unlike me, you’re well organised and methodical.

  1. In fact, the GTD app I’ve used for longest, over the years, was actually the dreaded Microsoft Outlook, something I’m actually rather embarrassed to admit now, though for the time it was actually not all that bad. []
  2. I set up seven areas of responsibility: correspondence, supermarket, appointments, wish list, blog posts, online maintenance and payments. []