OmniFocus is an excellent and comprehensive task, list and project management app that's fairly true to the GTD ethos. Much better iOS support with version 3, although it still has a few niggles.
I’ve been an OmniFocus user for quite a few years now. Initially I only used it on macOS and iPhone iOS but more recently I’ve been using it on the iPad a lot more too.
I don’t have massive project management needs these days. I have a handful of projects covering the diverse range of things in my life that are on the go at any given time. I do like lists and use it a lot for those too. There would be better apps for simple lists alone but I like the depth of OmniFocus for those times when I need a bit more project management oomph.
This is the context in which I write this review.
I think the best way to go about this is to review the macOS version (version 2) and then make some specific comments about the iOS version. Previous versions of OmniFocus for iOS were, frankly, pretty bad on the iPad but OmniFocus 3 for iOS is very much improved.
The Basic Principles
The main organisational features of OmniFocus are inbox, projects and contexts.
The general idea is that, as you go about your day, you sling stuff in the inbox to be properly sorted out later. When you have some time you then either complete an item in the inbox or move it into a project.
A project consists of actions and these can be hierarchically organised such that any action can act as a container to store sub-actions. This allows you to break a project down into chunks of related actions and sub-actions.
Contexts provide give you another way to look at your projects. A context can be applied to a project as a whole and all the actions in that project will inherit that context, or it can be applied to individual actions. You can name contexts as you see fit and one common use is to base them on a location such as Home or Work. You can even be more specific with things like At My PC or In The Kitchen. There are no hard-coded rules though; you can use things like Errands, Must Do Soon, Urgent, When I Next See Peter or whatever you like as contexts.
So that gives you two primary ways to view your actions. You can see them as they’re organised in a project or you can view all actions from all projects for a given context.
Personally I don’t use the inbox much. My mild OCD can’t bear orphaned actions so I generally stick them straight into a project. This flies in the face of the standard Getting Things Done methodology, which is quite keen on using something like an inbox to capture ideas, but I’m just a rebel in that respect.
I’m keen not to turn a review into a mere help file or feature list but a few key features are worth mentioning.
Projects and actions can have two dates to keep you on target: a Defer Until date and a Due date. OmniFocus will, if you permit it in the OS, nag you about what needs to be done. The Due date is self explanatory and the Defer Until date just means you don’t want to be nagged about that project or action until the date you specified.
OmniFocus has a Forecast view that allows you to see a calendar-like picture of the projects and actions and when they’re due.
OmniFocus adheres quite carefully to standard GTD practices and thusly expects you to review projects on a regular basis and there’s a Review tab specifically for that purpose, although I confess I rarely use it. My projects are few enough and simple enough that I generally have a good handle on them without reviews.
A project can be one of three types. Parallel, which means all actions can be completed in any order and more than one action can be worked on at once; Sequential, which means actions must be completed in the order they appear; and Single Actions, which is the closest thing to what most of us would call a ‘list’. Actions that contain sub-actions can be of a different type to the parent project, so even though a project may be marked as Parallel, an action may be marked as Sequential to ensure all its sub-actions are performed in order.
OmniFocus provides many ways to view your projects and actions and it does this via what it calls Perspectives. You’ll get some Perspectives out of the box but you can also create your own. With your own Perspective you can fine tune the columns you want to display and apply numerous filters so that you’re viewing your project data exactly as you want it.
What Do I Think of the macOS Version?
As I’ve mentioned, I don’t have complex project needs so I don’t really use the full power of OmniFocus. I don’t use the inbox, I don’t review and I have no custom perspectives. I can see how all these things would be useful to someone who did have complex project requirements though, and by using OmniFocus I feel I’m future-proofed in case my project needs ever become more demanding. I’ve certainly played with all the bits of OmniFocus even if I don’t use them in my daily life.
I like OmniFocus a lot and the macOS version is excellent. Standing alone, the macOS version would be a five star app.
It’s clear that the OmniFocus team didn’t bother too much with iOS version in the previous versions. Actually that’s unfair, they did have a reasonably good version for the iPhone but the iPad version was more or less just the iPhone version with a big two inch black border around it.
I’m pleased to say that things are much improved with OmniFocus 3 for iOS. We have a proper iPad app now. This is important to me because OmniFocus is an app I now use almost equally on MacBook, iPad and iPhone. In fact, I can’t think of another app I use as equally across all three platforms. My other most-used apps are things like Bear, Coda and 1Password and, whilst I use them equally between MacBook and iPad, I rarely use them on my iPhone.
Anyway, the iOS app now encapsulates most of the functionality of the macOS app. However, the ‘most’ in that last sentence is the reason I gave OmniFocus four stars over all rather than the five stars it would have earned for the macOS version alone.
One of my pet hates is iOS versions of apps that are cut down in any way. In OmniFocus iOS I can’t for example duplicate a project and this annoys me. I set up template projects and on macOS I simply duplicate and rename the project when I need to. iOS has no such facility.
There are also a few other little things that bother me. If I want to add a new sub-action on macOS, I just press enter in any action and it creates a new sub-action (or action if it’s at the top level) straight after the action I pressed enter in, and the (sub-)action is placed at the same level in the hierarchy as the current action. On iOS you have to press the Add icon and that creates an action at the top level and you then have to move that action to where you want it.
I appreciate they’re different platforms and sometimes have different requirements by necessity (i.e. you can tap on an iPad but not on a MacBook) but pressing enter on an iPad when you’re focussed on an action currently does nothing at all, so that particular keystroke is free. Granted this is only relevant to people who use iOS with an external keyboard but many people do these days (like me) and it’s something I’d like to see in the next version.
The only other problem I’ve encountered is that I can never remember what the icons mean, even though I use the app daily. I generally just stab at various icons until it gives me the screen I want. I’m not blaming OmniFocus for this — it’s the fault of my own useless memory.
By and large, though, the iOS app in OmniFocus 3 is very good and it’s certainly 200% better than it was in previous versions.
Some people might think I’m being harsh by taking a whole star off this app just for some seemingly minor iOS quirks but I do feel very strongly that iOS apps should include all the functionality of macOS apps.
So, would I recommend OmniFocus?
Yes, without a doubt. It has a rich feature set and is (mostly) pleasing to look at and use. If all you want are lists then it’s probably overkill and a cheaper app would suffice, but if you want to define and track projects — even just relatively uncomplicated ones — then I think OmniFocus is an app you should consider.