If you’ve visited 40Tech lately you’ve seen several posts on Things, which is now my task management app of choice. My switch to Things surprised me. For a few years, I was an OmniFocus snob. I fancied myself a power user, and thought other task management apps were somehow inferior because they didn’t have the level of power offered by OmniFocus.
So why did I switch? For the TL;DR reason, jump down to my third reason below, which is the main reason. It was a “wow” moment for me when I realized what the key difference is between the apps. It made me realize the main reason that OmniFocus wasn’t working for me.
This article isn’t meant to be a full review, but instead will focus on the friction I had with OmniFocus and the key differences for me between OmniFocus and Things.
There is a chance some of this could be moot soon, as the next version of OmniFocus is currently in a closed beta. There’s also a chance I’m unaware of a feature in OmniFocus to address the main shortcoming I mention below. If so, please let me know.
A few caveats at the outset:
Take this all with a grain of salt
First, productivity and task management is highly personal, subject to each person’s particular foibles. I’m by no means claiming that Things is “better” than OmniFocus. It just works better for me
GTD isn’t my thing
Second, I’m no longer a true GTD devotee. While I use some GTD principles, I found (after a few years of struggling) that it just didn’t work for me. Things doesn’t have as strict an adherence to GTD principles as other apps, but I’m fine with that. Keep that in mind when deciding if Things is right for you.
Death to projects
Third, my line of work really isn’t project based. Yes, I know you can categorize almost any task into a project if you really think hard enough, but my line of work is filled with a million different unrelated tasks. I also found it to be more mental overhead to plot and write out every single next action, than to just jot out a quick task.1 The whole GTD “next action” concept didn’t work for me, and I spent much too much time trying to twist my tasks into “projects.”
Let’s get the most obvious reason for switching out of the way. Things is beautiful. That might seem like a superficial reason for using an app, but I’ve discovered a pleasant side-effect of that beauty – I like using the app. And because I like using Things, I’m getting more done. I find myself opening the app regularly to check off my tasks, because there is a certain delight in interacting with Things.
Aesthetically, OmniFocus has its roots as an outliner, and is both indebted and beholden to those roots. Indebted because its soul as an outliner leads to its almost endless ability to slice and dice your data. Beholden because it still feels like an outline. A high-powered outline, but an outline.
If you have a huge number of tasks in many areas of your life, OmniFocus might be the better choice for you. OmniFocus is the power user’s tool.
But with great power comes a great ability to fiddle. I found myself constantly tweaking OmniFocus, and coming up with custom perspectives, to try to harness all my tasks. Things gives me just enough power, but not too much. I find myself managing the app less, and instead getting things done.
Things can be powerful too, but the focus is on simplicity. Because of that simplicity, Things is also better at one-off tasks. OmniFocus almost begs you to add projects and contexts. In Things, I often add quick one-off tasks without bothering to add a project or tag. I add the task, and dump it into either my Today view, or into the Upcoming view on a certain date.
Goodbye to the busy work of deferring tasks
Now for the overriding reason why I switched to Things. I was trying to figure why I was spending so much less time fiddling with Things, when it hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s simple – the two apps handle items without start dates (also known as defer dates) in a completely opposite manner.
Philosophically, OmniFocus wants to keep all items without start dates in front of you until you “kick the can down the road” by adding a start/defer date.2 Things, on the other hand, places an emphasis on its Today and Upcoming views, so it only puts items in front of you that you affirmatively choose to see. In other words, OmniFocus wants you to push things out of your view, while Things wants you to pull them into your view.3
Again with a caveat – the foregoing paragraph holds true for me because of the aforementioned nature of my job, with oodles of one-off tasks and a paucity of projects. I certainly understand that those with project based jobs need to be able to go to a project, see all their actions, and choose which ones to do.
That’s not me, though. I would never get anything done if I stared at long lists of single tasks all the time. With Things, I typically stare at those longs lists a few times a week – during my weekly review (hey, some GTD!) when I bring tasks into my Today and Upcoming view, and occasionally in the evening when I’m tweaking my plan for the next day.
You can use the Forecast perspective in OmniFocus to somewhat replicate the Today/Upcoming views in Things, with one major issue. In Things, if you don’t complete an action in your Today view, it remains there the next day. In OmniFocus, items disappear from the Forecast after their start date. Past due items remain in Forecast view, but items past their start date do not.
How OmniFocus could tempt me back
OmniFocus might be able to win me back with two changes:
Keep uncompleted items in the Forecast view when their start dates pass
As mentioned, actions disappear from the Forecast view in OmniFocus when their start date passes, even if you don’t complete them. I want them to stay there, so I can work out of the Forecast view.
Make Forecast more aesthetically pleasing
Even if Forecast view handled start dates the way I want it to, the Forecast view still isn’t pleasant to look at. Hopefully that will change in the new version of OmniFocus, which is not too far off.
We’ll see if this sticks, but so far my journey with Things has been an eye-opener.
A task for me might be “Answer client’s question on medical records.” I could break that down into some forced next actions, such as “Review records,” and “Research any issues that arise from review,” and “Call client with findings,” but . . . no thanks. I’ve found that to be a waste of effort and brainpower.↩
I am aware of some of the workarounds in OmniFocus to handle “hiding” tasks with no start date, but I’m unaware of support for truly having a way in OmniFocus to see only tasks with a specific start date of today, tomorrow, etc.↩
I have tried many a custom perspective to narrow this down, but I’ve found nothing truly satisfying. If I’m missing something, please let me know.↩