OmniFocus for iPhone – a GTD application reviewed

A simple Google search for omnifocus is revealing more than 220.000 results (as of October 2008), which, for a personal task manager application, is a lot. And I would say that this popularity is well deserved by OmniFocus. Not only because it won the Apple Awards for Best iPhone Productivity Application in 2008, but because is a really useful piece of software. OmniGroup, the makers of OmniFocus, are well known in the Mac world for their OmniOutliner and OmniPlan products. I used OmniOutliner a lot until I shifted to mind mapping but I still use it from time to time even today. As for OmniPlan, it was a key factor in big projects, when I used to run my own online publishing business.

But from a large structure planning application to a personal organizer implementing GTD there is quite a gap, and one cannot expect to apply the same knowledge in both areas. Maybe this is why OmniGroup made some very interesting moves back in 2006-2007, bringing into the development team of what they called at that time Omni Fu the icon GTD blogger Merlin Mann, and the maker of a popular GTD implementation called Kinkless, Ethan Schoonover. I dare to say that OmniFocus wouldn’t be what it is today without the advices and know-how of those GTD gurus.

But enough with praises, and let’s start reviewing OmniFocus for iPhone. I expect this post to be rather big, so put aside some time to read it. Also, I must say that the intended audience for this goes from the unexperienced iPhone user who wants to increase personal productivity to the moderate GTD follower, so if you fall between these categories, give it a read.

GTD with an iPhone

The first and the most important thing about OmniFocus is its compliance with the GTD methodology. For those of you unaware of this concept, GTD is a methodology invented by David Allen, which can dramatically boost one’s personal productivity. In short, by using GTD you are doing stuff (Actions) grouped together (Projects) in specific locations (Contexts) and by taking one step at a time (Next Actions). OmniFocus lets you add your Projects, fill them with Actions, assign them to Contexts, and see when and where you can do them. But a picture is worth a thousand words (have I already said that?) so here is how the home screen of OmniFocus looks like:

OmniFocus home screen

Projects and Contexts are just usual handles for task management, so these are pretty self explanatory, but what you can see at a glance in the home screen is also the time constraint for your activities. Being able to see on the home screen how many tasks are due soon, how many are overdue and how many important (flagged) tasks you have is such a time saver. Another noticeable thing is the lower sidebar, which features icons for nearby contexts, syncing, and quick add an action to Inbox. That lower bar is available all over the application. Simple and clear interface.

Contexts in OmniFocus for iPhone

So, since the main screen is self explanatory, let’s take a closer look to the lower bar. The most important icons are those after the home icon: the context locator (also know as “nearby” context) and the sync igniter. OmniFocus uses the GPS facilites of the new iPhone 3G, meaning that you can physically assign latitude and longitude to a place you are frequently using, transforming it into a work context. Suppose you go to you office every day, and your office is not your home (as it is mine, for instance), you can actually assign to your office location an OmniFocus context. You can do this for any context when you’re editing it:

Edit your contexts in OmniFocus

When choosing “Current Location”, your context will be assigned to the actual geographical location. But one completely neat feature is the “Always Available” function. By choosing this, your context will always be available, regardless if your actual geographical location. Is much more complicated to describe the process, than to use it, that I can assure. After you set up your geographical contexts, just click the “context locator” icon in the lower bar and you’ll see something like this:

Nearby contexts in OmniFocus for iPhone

Now that’s work in context, right? And just for the record, if you wonder what’s the difference between the context “Mac” and the context “Mac : Email”, that’s a feature called “nested contexts’, and I find it extremely useful. Basically, one context can have many other sub-contexts, so instead of having only one level contexts, you can have a hierarchical view. Nice.

Projects in OmniFocus for iPhone

Another state of the art project implementation is the ability to chose your type the project when you create it. You can have 3 types of projects: sequential (Next Actions), parallel (Parallel Actions) and single actions. The main difference is in the way you are actually seeing the contained actions. When you chose sequential projects, you have the ability to see only the physically available next action, which is considered a major de-cluttering advantage of GTD.

Editing a project in OmniFocus for iPhone

Another goodie is the ability to group projects into folders. One can object that this feature can evolve into a cluttering habit, (as well as with nested contexts, for instance) since you can be tempted to create endless hierarchical folders for your projects, but I’ll swallow it as it is, for me it just works like this. Here is my “Blogging” folder:

Blogging folder on OmniFocus for iPhone

As you can see I have 5 folders in which I can create projects, and here is how the “Hardware and maintenance” folder looks like:

Projects in sub-folder in OmniFocus for iPhone

I have 2 projects there, out of which “Move blog to new server” is the biggest, with 7 remaining actions. Speaking of actions, we have to see how we work with them, right?

Adding actions in OmniFocus for iPhone

The lowest, unbreakable piece of conscious effort you take to move a project ahead is called in GTD an “action”. Actions can be in turn single actions or grouped into Projects. When you break a project in actions, most of the time you will come up with “Next Action”, small activities that are dependable on the previous one. In OmniFocus for iPhone adding an action is fairly simple: you even use the Inbox icon in the lower bar, or you use the “+” sign, activated in Contexts and in Projects view. Which means you can have actions in Inbox, floating around until your next review, or directly into an established project, or directly into an existing context. Of course, you can make as many combinations as you like: add an action into a context, but without any project assigned for instance. Here is how the add action view looks like:

Adding an action in OmniFocus for iPhone

In the screenshot above I’m adding an action directly to the Inbox, but I do have the possibility to assign it to a context and a project directly. Each action can have an associated photo and you can record up to 30 seconds of audio if you want. Neat. Didn’t used it this so far, but neat.

Can’t leave the actions paragraph without saying something about the way you can look at your actions, once you added them. In the “Settings” view you have a variety of options: you can see in Projects only Available actions and in Contexts just Next Actions:

OmniFocus for iPhone settings

You can, of course, chose in the “Settings” area the sync method of your choice. What you see there, I mean the webDAV method, is not my current method, was just an experiment, now I use mobile me for synchronization. Oh, yes, synchronization, right!

Syncing OmniFocus for iPhone with OmniFocus desktop

The latest OmniFocus for desktop version, 1.1 that is, added a long awaited feature: the ability to sync your OmniFocus’es – both desktop and iPhone – via a sync service of your choice. There are several possibilities, including a disk, webDAV, or mobile me. I chose mobile me, and I must say the syncing was absolutely harmless and transparent.

There is, however, one trick: if you have a database on your desktop, and another one on your iPhone, you must merge them somehow, right? Here is how I did this:

  1. sync your OmniFocus for desktop with mobile me (and you can also make a local backup of your desktop database)
  2. sync your OmniFocus for iPhone with mobile me and replace the database on the mobile me server with the one on your iPhone
  3. sync again your OmniFocus for desktop with mobile me and replace your current database with the database on the mobile me server

Now you have the iPhone database on your OmniFocus desktop. Which, of course, is just not enough, because you need to have both databases. The good news is that your desktop database was archived before your synced with the iPhone databse form mobile me. You can find it in the folder ~Documents/OmniFocus Backups, and it must be named like: “OmniFocus backup before resyncing…” or something like this. Now click that document and you will have two OmniFocus for desktop instances, one with your iPhone database, and one with your desktop database. Drag and drop projects and actions to merge the databases and then forget about it. Again, this is easier to do than to explain. A good resource is the OmniGroup support page.

How I use OmniFocus for iPhone

I use it to plan almost everything I have to when I am on the move. For instance, I planned packing and the departure for the trip to new zealand. I also use it to plan blogging, because, I don’t really know why, it seems that most of my ideas and blogging moods appears when I’m on the move.

And oh, yes, I do plan all my errands with OmniFocus. I just put all the needs for stuff to buy in the “Errands” context, and when I’m at the shopping center, start to process items one by one. It’s really simple for me since I always have the phone nearby, and whenever we ran out of coffee for instance, it takes me 20 seconds to add “Buy coffee” to the Errands context and then just forget about it until I have to go shopping.

Money for value

That would be the final conclusion after using OmniFocus for iPhone in the last two months. The application is stable and the GTD implementation is complete. Compared with the regular “to do list makers” that are blooming all over the AppStore, OmniFocus for iPhone is making a different impression. This is a mature and dedicated application. Either you are a GTD evangelist or just a regular guy trying to organize yourself, you’ll find OmniFocus useful. And, after a month or two, even addictive.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s perfect: there aren’t yet recursive tasks, and learning it takes a little bit of an effort, but I’ll just accept this.

OmniFocus is a paid application at AppStore and it costs 15,99 USD. One may object that the price tag is a little bit higher, and, to a certain degree, I must agree. But it is also affordable. If you can’t pay 16 bucks to get even more productive, what are you doing with your time anyway?

Other resources:

I said that I use mobile me for syncing, but if you feel adventurous you can try to sync via webDAV, and get some advice here: HOWTO Setup WebDAV on Mac OS X Leopard for syncing OmniFocus to iPhone.

The official OmniGroup blog: omnifocus category.

Merlin Mann 43folders: omnifocus topic.

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