OmniFocus 2 review: Stay on top of your task list with this top task manager
Rare and revered is the person who can mentally track everything that must be accomplished. Everybody else needs tools and techniques for staying atop our tasks. In crowded and diverse field of possibilities, OmniFocus (Mac App Store link) is an appealing option if you’re willing to invest some time learning how it works.
Ease of entry is crucial to any task manager—one simply can’t track tasks that aren’t in the system. OmniFocus offers up a standard array of options for feeding the beast. You can, of course, create new actions from within the application itself. A customizable system-wide keyboard shortcut will invoke a quick entry window for entering as many actions as you wish. The window persists until you save or cancel your entries—a welcome touch when copying/pasting multiple items. OmniFocus installs an OS X Service that can send the selected text and images from just about any application to the OmniFocus inbox as a new action. It’s great when it works, but through no fault of the Omni Group, Services are not consistently supported among all applications. Finally, users of the free Omni Sync service can add items to their OmniFocus inbox via email. Upon request, an email address is generated for you and all messages sent there become actions in your OmniFocus inbox. The email subject line becomes the action’s title and email body becomes the action’s notes. It’s a bit disappointing that there’s no way to embed things like due dates and project names in the emails; metadata like these must be set manually after the action shows up in OmniFocus.
Each action in OmniFocus can be categorized in a number of ways. Here the Omni Group has been wisely selective in its offerings. An action may be assigned to one project, it may have one additional tag called a context, it can be flagged, and it can have a due date and a start date (called the defer date in Omni-speak). At a time when Apple Mail has seven different flag colors and even the humble Finder supports unlimited tagging, OmniFocus has taken the position that too much categorization becomes a hindrance to simply achieving the task. Individual temperaments and predilections weigh heavily here, but I feel OmniFocus strikes the right balance.
OmniFocus’s new look makes heavy use of the single-window experience popularized on iOS. While everything in one window isn’t a universally good idea, it is an apt design pattern for task management and well executed here. A sidebar on the left provides speedy access to various OmniFocus perspectives such as the inbox, project list, contexts, and flagged actions. But the most innovative sidebar perspectives are the forecast and review modes.
When forecast is selected, the left column gains a calendar showing the next 30 days. A number on each calendar day indicates how many actions are due. Clicking any given date populates a middle column with your list of actions and any events that appear on your iCloud or Google calendar. You can also shift click a date range on the sidebar calendar to see multiple dates in series. For as simple and even obvious as the forecast feature may sound, few other products so elegantly and succinctly marry “What is on my schedule?” with “What must I accomplish?”
Each project can be assigned a review interval—a repeating schedule you set to step back and look over what you’ve completed and what comes next. When a project’s review date arrives, OmniFocus adds the project to the review perspective in the left sidebar. Click the project name to see a compact list of its constituent actions. Revise as necessary and click a “mark reviewed” button to tuck it away. Reviewing your projects is the kind of task that easily gets pushed aside day after day. This approach takes the question of when to review out of your headspace and makes performing the actual review less onerous than it may otherwise be.
Owners of OmniFocus Pro (a standard version is available for $40) gain the ability to create custom perspectives and access to a robust AppleScript library for automating and integrating with other software on the Mac. They also get the ability to temporarily filter from view all but the selected projects.
For as thoughtfully designed as OmniFocus is, some time and effort is required to understand and take advantage of its deep feature set. The Omni Group has responded with excellent documentation. They’ve wisely foregone Apple’s slow and cumbersome on-screen help and created their own. The articles are well organized, thoughtfully composed, and liberally illustrated.
OmniFocus Pro 2.0.2 is at the top of its class. Unless you’ve really got to have that AppleScript support, the basic version is sure to serve you well. If $40 still seems a bit dear for a task manager, download the trial version. You’ll find that the design, capabilities, and documentation make it a very good value.