Getting things done - options

Although it’s been said, many times, many ways… I did enjoy this ears-back rant from Merlin Mann on 43 Folders on “Distraction,” Simplicity, and Running Toward Shitstorms

Naturally, I came across it having spent an hour looking at screencasts on OmniFocus, which I am considering purchasing. I am a freelancer, and I’m beginning to feel that I can’t run my to-do lists and stuff in umpteen paper/online places, so I’ve been evaluating various tools. I’ve used Basecamp before, which I quite like - and there’s an open source version called collabtive which is almost there, although the graphics and German-> English translation don’t quite work in places.

I also looked at DotProject, WebCollab and various other open source PM apps, but I think I should reflect the reality of my life that I use iCal and email a lot more than any other software, and OmniFocus seems to tie in with both really well. It will mean finally ditching Thunderbird and going over to Mail for all my email, but I guess I can live with that.

Obviously, this is a monumental waste of time, and simply using up time - Mann-style - that I could have used writing, or HEAVEN FORBID, earning some money. But does anyone have any views on OmniFocus or can suggest an alternative?

I run a few clients, with some recurring project (and project patterns). I’d like to keep files together with project data (eg configs and passwords - things I currently store in a massive Scriv file), and then have a list of things to do which I can then ignore in favour of post-its…

As you’ll probably be aware from reading these forums and others, OmniFocus has several rivals: The Hit List, Things and TaskPaper amongst them.

It seems to me that before making a choice, one ought to ask oneself several questions. Foremost amongst them is: what sort of things do I need to get done? Most or all of these applications are designed for users whose daily round is to tackle a relatively large number of relatively small jobs. But if you’re a freelancer who typically works on a small number of large jobs, you may not need an application like these at all, or only need it for non-work chores, and what you actually require is a simple project manager like OmniFocus’ sister programme Omniplan. Or maybe a different system entirely, physically based, such as Antony Johnston’s excellent Getting Things Written system.

Personally I wouldn’t overlook the advantages of plain paper and pencil, or Post-Its: just Google “Will Self’s Room” to see what I mean. :slight_smile:

But if you don’t fit the “small number, big task” pattern, truly want to abandon Post-Its, and opt for one of the GTD apps, you may also require it to have an iPhone client. I don’t think The Hit List, which is still in beta, has one. You may also want the persistent backing of a strong developer; in this respect, OmniFocus and TaskPaper are well regarded. And simplicity: TaskPaper achieves that.

Whatever system you choose, I strongly advise sticking with it, even if you have to bend it imperfectly to your needs. As you suggest, there’s an immense amount of procrastination inherent in rambling around the wilds of anti-procrastination software.

I use Omnifocus on a daily basis, both on my Mac and the iPhone. For GTD, I find it invaluable. I even use if for my grocery list. Really, anything that I need to remember to do in the correct context goes into OF.

Each “thing” in OF can have an attached file, and you can make any project, folder, or individual item recur on a fairly sophisticated schedule once you figure out how it works. One of my most-used features is the keyboard short-cut to the OF Inbox, which brings up a pop-over window where you can enter any number of new items (which can later easily be filed into projects or become projects themselves). It’s a top-notch application; you certainly get what you pay for.

I believe they have a trial version of the desktop application (which you can sync with any number of other desktops & the iphone version), so you should test that to it’s limits and see if you can adjust to the interface. There’s a lot going on in the program, but once you figure out how to make it do what you want it to do, it blends into the background of your daily life.

Thanks both. I’ve tried the ‘Getting Things Written’ system, which I absolutely love as a concept, but I don’t really have a serial / repeat workflow, unfortunately. There’s a core pattern for most jobs, which could translate as a Basecamp project template, but no set path from there on in.

At the moment I have long-term big projects (the novel, marathon plan), recurring projects (client reports), web builds, and a seemingly endless list of short stories to write, together with mountains to learn or read. One other use I hope to have for this is a limited audit trail - how did I do that - kind of functionality.

I’m playing around with OmniFocus now. I struggle a bit with the concept of contexts, as nearly everything I do is context-> Mac-> online. And if I need to call Steve, do I use context -> phone, or context-> Steve? I don’t suppose it really matters.

I’m really liking the ability to input a task to OF from anywhere, or to add a clipping from most apps. I do wonder - well, more than wonder - if I’m not deliberately avoiding doing some work playing around with these things.

I guess the trick will be to commit to it for a while, and see if it helps or not. For example, just having a list of all the novels I have bought and yet to read is putting me off buying any more. Which is probably a good thing.


Honestly I don’t really use contexts in OmniFocus; you can safely ignore them and even disable that column in the project view. It seems like a waste of application given there is an entire Context mode sitting there, but over the years I’ve just given up on trying to classify my jobs down into pieces. I never work that way. I always go down a checklist; I don’t really have contexts, so when I sit down to work I just plunk away at the things I need to do.

My take on OF and productivity: I’ve tried a lot of systems over the years, and for a while it was a bit of a hobby I will admit, as I made Tinderbox to-do lists for myself and such. OF is the one that I ultimately settled on. It isn’t very flashy or necessarily trendy, but it works, is solid, and once you learn it, it takes up very little bandwidth. I spend no time meta-fiddling these days. For the particular things I do, it’s invaluable because much of what I do is cyclical. I would wager nearly half of my list is repeating stuff, with the other half being one-off projects. OF is great for this kind of thing. Another thing it is good at, which I need, is well… focus. I’m a dreamer, so a lot of the stuff I want to do just isn’t feasible to do right now. I couldn’t even begin to attack my entire to-do list. OF’s ability to mark a project as Holding, and hide it from view is invaluable. I can keep the interface tight and concentrated on only what can be feasibly done right now. If I get an idea for one of my medium/long-term notions, I can just expand the interface, adjust the project, and then close it down again to what I’m working on.

My second choice would be TaskPaper. I like it better than OmniFocus, actually. The only thing that keeps me from using it with any regularity is that it really has no support for repeating stuff. I mean, you can select everything and mark it un-done again and then calculate the next due date by hand—but that’s just a lot of fiddling for what takes no effort at all in OF. Once you check the last box, it spawns a new copy of itself, ready to roll, at precisely the time you need to do it.

When I got into “Getting Things Done”, I put EVERYTHING into OmniFocus. I have a lot of projects that I want to get done around the house, around town, and at the office. So contexts are absolutely important, because when I’m working and suddenly I remember that I was asked to pick up something one my way home, I just pop it into OF and continue working, secure in my habit of checking my inbox toward the end of the day, and filing things in projects & contexts that make sense. Conversely, while at home, a possible line of investigation on a problem that has been impeding my work for days may occur to me at dinner, or while I’m at the store. I add that in, and the context of “Work office” is used so that I’ll discover it the next day.

It all depends on if you are strictly looking for something for work, or if you find that the GTD method helps you get around to all those other non-work projects as well. Contexts for “just work” don’t make much sense beyond “phone”, “Boss”, “desk”, “meeting”, and the like, since that’s all you’ll have, but if you’re a do-it-yourselfer at home… “Hardware Store”, “Car Parts Store”, “Lumber Yard”, in addition to the regulars like “Grocery Store”, “Clothing store”, “Veteranarian”, “Doctor” make a lot of sense. Especially since you can save a selection of multiple contexts as a “Perspective”, so the hardware store & lumber yard might be combined. Also, Contexts, like projects, do not have to be permanent. Planning a trip to Hawaii? Make a context for it, and delete the context when you’re done.

If you’re not doing GTD for all of your life, then OmniFocus contexts may be overkill.

As for your context for Steve: I only do people-specific contexts for 2 coworkers, one friend and my fiance. All communication with them is filed under their context, not under the more generic “Phone.” Everyone else gets a context related to how I communicate with them primarily, or the location in which I see them the most (work, phone, home, secret lair, etc…). I actually nest my contexts so that I have Work->phone Work->office, Home->office, Home->phone so I can separate out my personal and professional calls.

“Meta-fiddling”: neat coinage.

If you really follow the GTD methodology, I recommend that you take a look at Thinking Rock.
I don’t use it now that they dropped PPC support, but that’s the only one I would recommend to people applying GTD.
I use JIRA more these days, but that may be overkill for most people. Updates are a real pain, but I love that software.
I do have licenses for OmniFocus (good) and The Hit List (eternal beta). I liked OmniFocus since the days it was called Kinkless and it was free, but although I got it from the start I preferred Thinking Rock. It was cross-platform and I could carry it around in a USB stick.
The Hit List, and many other applications associated with GTD, are not GTD applications. As task managers, calendars, etc., they can be incorporated into a GTD system. Thinking Rock truly adheres to the GTD philosophy, and includes aspects like mental energy, physical energy, etc. Version 2 was very good, and version 3 probably added plenty of improvements.

I’ve been relying on Circus Ponies NoteBook for my GTD, because it is the only one showing a flat list of tasks. I can’t really understand the reason for showing tasks inside their parent folder, when the GTD is admittedly made to forget any other task apart the one your are working on.

Unfortunately, NB has some serious bug, that is waiting a fix since several months. One of them is the random end of tasks transferred to iCal. Sometimes a task extends for days, with no apparent reason. Not being able to program an ending date/time in NB, you must go to iCal for adjusting this kind of problem.

Tasks are sometimes added to iCal at wrong weeks. There are no recurring events, so you must use the trick that AmberV described for TaskPaper. And - I just discovered - tasks are apparently not stamped with a time zone, so if you move to a different zone your calendar is messed up. I wonder if this last problem also appears in other programs.

Shame for these major problems, because it is an otherwise pleasant app.


You should take a look at the latest version of Curio. It does virtually everything you’ve enumerated, all in one place, and now has fancy project tracking completion thingies as well.


From what I recall, I had that view in Thinking Rock. I’m pretty sure I could also filter tasks by multiple criteria, or simply use colors (font and/or background) that were inherited by the task from the project.
I have not tried GTD with NoteBook 3 (which I have) but back in version 2 I did try some templates that were done for GTD purposes.

I have not upgraded my copy of Curio in years. How would email integrate into Curio?
How easy is it to track tasks involving different people? Is that part of the project tracking feature?
With Thinking Rock I could view and/or prince all the delegated tasks, or choose a specific person (e.g., boss, co-worker, client, etc.) and print out every task or item related to that person. This could also be done per context, project, and so on.
If Curio can do those things now I may upgrade. I remember it as a nice program for visual representations, but I preferred separate programs that were better for each task (e.g., Mind Mapping).

Don’t know about the fancier printing stuff but I’d suggest you download a demo and try it (and spend a great deal of time going through the rather good manual): they’ve added vast quantities of things. I use Curio all the time for a surprising array of tasks usually having to do with slapping pictures, text, references, arrows, and whatevers on a big digital whiteboard, pushing them around, and then sending them off to whoever needs them. It is quite simply wonderful for that sort of thing.


The last time I tried Curio Pro was when version 7 came out just a few months ago. I can see its usefulness in the way you describe, which is similar to how I’ve used it, but I just don’t see it as a GTD tool.

Just to muddy the waters still further, but also to provide a cheaper option than many mentioned above, I’ll put in a word for Things by Cultured Code.

It has a very elegant user interface and, for those familiar with GTD, it is very intuitive. It is easy to link from Apple Mail and it’s iCal sync is incredibly flexible. I have looked at OmniFocus on many occasions, but since the only way I could get it to sync in a meaningful way with iCal would require a complete restructure of my calendars, I’ve never made the effort. It is just too rigid and unforgiving.

And one thing I’ve always liked about things is that the developers don’t advertise it as a GTD application but as a task manager, which is what it is.
Nothing against it or THL or Entourage, Contactizer Pro, etc. All can be used for GTD since parts of GTD involve managing tasks, but none of these adheres to the GTD methodology. Of course, that may not be important for many users.
Things does offer tagging, which may actually allow users to include some (all?) of GTD’s unique features. It’s been a while since I tried it, but I recall it was quite flexible.

There’s also this unusual file-system approach to full-strength GTD on the Mac.

And Pagico, currently on a MacUpdate promo.

Thanks all. I’ve had a look at Curio and I’m sort of interested, but I’m not really sure what I’d use it for (I use Omnigraffle for all my diagramming / rudimentary mindmapping, Scriv for all my text capture). I am tempted by its use of resource allocation though. I guess where I’m going with all of this software testing is this:

  • I have a finite amount of time
  • In paid (and unpaid) work, I consistently under-estimate how long work will take me (or worse, has taken me)
  • My fiction work is suffering (therefore my ego and my happiness is also suffering), as I don’t give myself enough time to meet competition deadlines, or I’m over-optimistic about meeting my current novel targets
  • Like a lot of folk, I survive in chaos. My head’s muddled. My desk’s muddled. I often abandon or lose interest in projects 2/3 of the way through, or at the 95th percentile, assuming I ever started them. I’m too old for this crapola and need to get a grip on it. Software isn’t the answer, I know. But it may help
  • Getting things done was an unintentional title - I’m not a GTD devotee (as evidenced above). I just want to impose more order on myself.

I think I’m going to stick with OmniFocus for now, because of it’s integration with Mail and iCal. Then at some point I will start using DevonThink as my ‘How I/others do stuff’ resource bucket, including HTML exports of projects from OmniFocus. Or maybe even just use OmniOutliner for sequential task templates/reminders.

I guess that ultimately the ideal process is sweat and bandaids. Or at least it is while I’m off alcohol and caffeine. Being sober and uncaffeinated gives you all this extra time in the day to faff… slowly.


Oooh! That’s a grim situation! :slight_smile:

I’ve been bemused by all these GTD applications and methodologies and frameworks and tutorials. It seems to me that using a device that makes distraction and endless editing far too easy as the hub of one’s priority decisions is more than a little goofy. You might consider sweeping a table clean and arranging piles of projects on it using, gasp, printouts & hand-written notes and the like. Pushing real things around into a useful order can be invigorating.

Happy organizing


Dave’s right, Ivan. My wife does that to me all the time :frowning: …and…the more she does it, the happier she seems to be.