When I started seminary over four years ago, Things from Cultured Code was my task manager of choice. The gorgeous design and simplicity of use made it a joy to organize and accomplish my projects. Around this time, most people complained about its lack of over-the-air syncing. Indeed, being able to sync devices through the internet would have been nice, but because I only owned a MacBook Pro and iPhone, I wasn't frustrated by the wifi-sync. Life was simple, and Things kept me stress-free.
But then, life changed. I quit Apple Retail to start my own consulting business, and I purchased an iPad and iMac. Now, there were four devices to manage. All of a sudden, wifi-sync became a huge pain in the butt! Those of us who used Things a few years ago remember that in order for all devices to be identical, each device needed Things open and connected to the same wifi network. If I neglected this ritual, I'd inevitably end up with projects appearing to be half complete and tasks that were missing entirely.
As you might assume, this was the original impetus for jumping to OmniFocus from OmniGroup. OmniFocus was one of the first project management apps to achieve over-the-air syncing. What surprised me was how much I loved OmniFocus. It was (and still is) fantastic. Project hierarchies, location-aware contexts, and sophisticated repeating tasks were essential to staying on top of deadlines and projects. Without it, I would have drowned. It served me well for three years of graduate school and consulting work. OmniFocus was my beloved, nagging task master.
Switching back to Things
I graduated last month. (Yay me!) Finishing school reduced the amount of tasks from my life, so it seemed fitting to ask if I still needed a task management juggernaut like OmniFocus. The quick answer is No, I don't. OmniFocus simply has too many knobs and levers, many of which would only collect dust in my current situation. And that is how I realized it was time to shake hands and depart. Good game, OmniFocus. We did it.
Well, during my three-year affair with OmniFocus, Things had grown up quite a bit. It finally gained cloud sync and a couple other powerful features. As Shawn Blanc notes, Cultured Code's sync solution is blazing fast, partly because Things is smart enough to recognize nearby devices and sync locally via Bonjour. But even if you're only connected via cellular, the updating happens swiftly behind the scenes of the app. I cannot understate how refreshing this feels as a former OmniFocus user. With OmniFocus, one must wait several seconds after launching the app in order for it to pull and organize the latest data. It's not traumatic by any means, but certainly obnoxious.
Design and structure
I personally prefer the design of Things over OmniFocus. There is a certain degree of playfulness to Things that keeps my eyes entertained. Skeuomorphism isn't a bad word in my house, and I'm glad Cultured Code employs small bits of it in each of the Things apps. On iOS, tasks appear as small strips of paper and projects as little notebooks. Forgive me for my lack of design rhetoric, but I think the color choices, shapes, and layout of Things is far more pleasant to the eyes and easier to navigate. It's no wonder Cultured Code has won an Apple Design Award for their software.
Structurally speaking, there are a couple major differences. First of all, Things does not let you embed projects within projects. Some people's workflows depend on this kind of hierarchy, but now that I'm out of school, it's not important to me. In fact, I welcome this restriction as a way to simplify the way I think about a project. Tasks in Things do have a notes field, so if a specific task becomes rather elaborate, I suppose additional information or mini-tasks could be added there.
Contexts and Areas of Responsibility
Classic disciples of GTD will laud OmniFocus for its use of contexts, which is defined as a tool or location needed to complete a task. I think of contexts as prerequisites; creating a presentation requires my Mac. One can nest contexts within each other, too. For example, you could have a Drug Store context nested within Grocery Store, so when you're at the grocery store, you can quickly pull up your drug store list as well.
This is where I got into trouble. I spent far too much time plotting out my contexts, but when it came to actually doing work, I never utilized them. For me, I think of tasks and work in terms of projects, not contexts. In other words, I'm not going to sit down in my office, pull up my Office context and then plow through four different tasks from four different projects. I simply cannot switch gears like that. Instead, I sit down an think about my Presentation project, and then run around the house collecting items, notes, or props I need to get the project completed. Projects supersede contexts, at least in my brain they do. Perhaps this is why I'm not a good GTD student, and perhaps this is why OmniFocus feels like overkill to me. The bottom line though, is that contexts are a distraction. I know my presentation is done with Keynote on my Mac. Taking the time to actually record this information alongside my task is unhelpful and time consuming.
Things does contexts differently. They're called Areas of Responsibility. As opposed to the dozen or so contexts I had in OmniFocus, I only have three Areas of Responsibility in Things: Home, Church, and Macinstructor. Right away, you can see the project-centrality of these Areas of Responsibility. I am not going to simultaneously work on something that spans across multiple areas, you know?
That said, if I'm so inclined to further categorize and label actions, Things does have the ability to add tags. I suppose some people really get into this stuff, but tagging isn't especially interesting to me. I mean, I do use tags, but they're not paramount to my workflow. Big tags I use are Bills, Saturday Chore, and Amazon (for my wish list). I know of some who like to tag their tasks according to how much time they take to complete (eg. 15 min, 30 min, etc), but that's just too cumbersome and distracting to me. Nonetheless, it's good to know about and you might have a very particular situation that depends on tagging your tasks. I appreciate that Cultured Code added the feature, as it can be the most appealing way to bend Things to your unique workflow.
MailDrop to Mailbox
One of the killer features of OmniFocus that I will sorely miss is MailDrop. OmniFocus can provide you a unique email address just for your sync account, and anything emailed to this address is added to your OmniFocus inbox. As you can imagine, this opens the door to a ton of unique possibilities for capturing tasks. Paired with Mail rules, this was super powerful. For example, I had a Mail rule to automatically forward and archive any emails received from my utility or insurance companies. Oftentimes, I would open up OmniFocus to see that it was time to pay my water bill. Nifty, right?
While I would welcome this feature for Things, it's not a watershed issue for me. Here's why. I've been practicing Inbox Zero for about a year. Under this method of managing email, your email inbox is treated like a todo list. There are a handful of email clients that utilize this philosophy, and the one I currently use is Mailbox for iOS. (Unfortunately, it's restricted to Gmail and Google Apps users, though.) Mailbox has the normal features you would expect from email, like reply, forward, etc; but instead of archiving email, you mark them as completed. Additionally, you can "snooze" an email for future review. What does this have to do with Things? Well, it means that by practicing Inbox Zero, your email really is its own task management system. So, why continually migrate your tasks from one system to another?
What I decided to do is treat email as I would have treated my Mail context in OmniFocus. Therefore, emails are processed in Mail for Mac or Mailbox for iOS. In my opinion, there is little reason to constantly shuffle tasks to another todo system. Obviously, this means that there are now two inboxes you're managing, but really, isn't this what you're already doing anyway? My argument is that it causes too much friction to move those tasks from one inbox to another. If a task absolutely necessitates being migrated, then either pull up Siri on iOS or the Quick Entry on the Mac to speedily get that action into Things. But don't fret over moving each actionable email into your task management system. That's poppycock.
Another shortcoming to Things is that tasks cannot have specific due times. Instead, tasks all alert you at the beginning of the day. For 95% of my tasks, this is totally fine, but I do have a couple "end of day" reminders I employ. Following Patrick Rhone's style, I decided a good solution would be one of Apple's stock iOS apps: Clock. I set an alert at 4:30 each weekday, reminding me to do my Macinstructor paperwork. In fact, I kind of like that this daily, low-priority action isn't in my task management database, staring at me all day long. It's a gentle nudge set to one of the organic ringtones from Cleartones.
For some folks, using Clock or even Reminders isn't powerful enough. I've noticed in a couple conversations on App.net that several users of Things also use Due. Due has iOS and Mac apps, and they sync your reminders via iCloud. It stinks having to introduce another app into your system, and I haven't had to do so yet, but I understand why folks do this. They need finely tuned, timed tasks. Due is perfect for that. Personally, I would just use Siri + Reminders for any specific time or location based tasks. In my mind, those typically aren't project related at all anyway, so it's not a huge deal that they're not roped into Things. Usually, these are quick one-offs. "Siri, remind me at 2pm to call Dad." All in all, time specific tasks are a missed feature of Things, but there are apps out there that can supplement Things in order to equip you with this functionality.
What about OmniFocus 2?
OmniFocus 2 for Mac is just around the corner, and OmniGroup has graciously given the world a sneak peak. No doubt, it is a tremendous and much needed overhaul to the user interface. I've played around with it myself, and while it's certainly an improvement to the current Mac app, it doesn't alter my feelings about OmniFocus. Nor should it. You see, OmniFocus 2 for Mac is still a project management juggernaut, which is totally appropriate for complicated lifestyles and insanely busy people.
Users of OmniFocus are excited that OmniFocus 2 for Mac finally gets the two most praised features from iOS: Review mode and Forecast mode. These are certainly helpful, but Things also has minor versions of this: Daily Review and Next. I won't go into any depth over the differences. The overarching difference is that Things addresses the need to review your tasks in a very subtle way with the Daily Review. Next is simply a list of your tasks, ordered according to their due date. So, the ideas of reviewing projects and seeing what's on the horizon are both addressed by each app, but in ways that are nuanced according to their particular style and focus.
I hope I've made it clear that I have huge amounts of respect for OmniGroup and Cultured Code. I don't think one app is "better" than the other. They serve different audiences. Both development teams are creating apps totally suitable for their users: OmniFocus for the extreme power user who needs to categorize, sort, and plan elaborate projects, and Things for the busy, but not overburdened person. Thankfully, I'm in a season of life that doesn't necessitate all the features available in OmniFocus, and so I can enjoy the speed and playfulness of Things. If this article has informed your decision about any of these apps, please use the affiliate links below to purchase them. I also welcome any feedback or additional thoughts as well. Feel free to reach out to me on App.net, Twitter, or Facebook. Cheers!