After much deliberation, soul searching, and not a little stress, I have come to the conclusion that the best productivity and GTD application suite for Mac and iOS users is OmniFocus.
This is no small decision. 5–6 years ago, this was an almost non-existent category of software. Today, solid options abound — from simple list-keeping to complex project management, GTD apps cover a wide spectrum of styles, workflows, and processes.
Stepping into this arena to research and choose the overall best is a daunting task.
“Mind like water.”
Armed with the above mantra, David Allen, with no small help from folks like Merlin Mann, set the geek world on fire with a love for obsessing over how to get things done in our lives.
However, like most things, how religiously one sticks to David’s prescribed system depends a lot on the person. Like many things, geeks and nerds have enjoyed hacking GTD to come up with their own interesting flavors.
This review is true to the heart of GTD, but is focused more on the aspects that make a great overall productivity app rather than clinging tightly to the methods outlined in David’s book.
GTD and The Folly of Choosing The Best GTD App
When it comes to choosing the best productivity tool, it can be a little like looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Except this pot is filled with fool’s gold.
People are varied, coming in many sizes and flavors. Because of this, how a person works can be vastly different from one individual to the next. So, how do you choose the best overall tool? By focusing on a set of criteria that the majority of people will require, then picking the one with the most polish, personality, and potential.
All the applications listed here are fantastic tools. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
Our criteria for choosing
In order to make a recommendation, there have to be some aspects that are vital to a piece of software in this arena:
Syncing: Because personal productivity involves your entire life, the most important aspect of a productivity system is that it’s with you at all times. Whether that means a notebook you carry around or an app on your phone, you must be able to capture information quickly and at all times, then have it available on all your devices. Moreover, people are increasingly using their iPads for “real work”, both in and out of the office. So, sync is an absolute must.
Easy input: Again, in the same vein as the first point, getting information into your tool is essential. Why? Because you’ll forget to add it later. Your tools have to be able to accept your ideas, notes, and inspiration on the fly — whether you’re out and about or sitting at your desk.
Organizable: Capturing information is often the easiest. Many GTDers have been in the place where they realize they’ve gotten quite good at capturing tasks, but are less apt to complete them. There’s nothing worse than a large, messy task list to actually add to your stress instead of giving relief. Your tool of choice must enable you to easily organize your captured tasks into an arrangement that makes sense to you and helps you get stuff done.
Visibility on all levels: Another way to describe this criteria might be enables planning. In his book, David Allen describes different views of your life as being on an airplane. Most of the time we’re on the ground, working in the trenches. This would be hammering out specific tasks for one project. But we also need to get up into the air: at 20,000 feet, where you’re planning multiple projects for one area of your life, as well as 40,000 feet, where you’re dealing with your overall life goals. Your productivity app should enable you to easily move from one view to another, from the high level, right down to the trenches.
Adoption: One sign of a truly great app is the community of users who rise up around it to savor its details and share its best features.
If a tool nails all of the above, then you have a winner. If more than one tool does, your choice can come down to the one that feels right. If a productivity app meets these criteria, you can mold to fit your workflow, rather than the other way around.
You’ll also notice that price is not included here. When it comes to being successful in your life (and although accomplishing tasks is not the only factor in success, it sure does help), making a small monetary investment is worth it. Whether it’s $40 or $400, price is not enough of a factor to sway the decision.
The Top Contenders
With these criteria in mind, I jotted down the apps to which I have given the most consideration over the past 5 years.
OmniFocus ($19.99/$29.99/$39.99/$79.99): The top of the heap! OmniFocus covers all the bases and is finally in a state where it’s simple enough for those who just want detailed lists, but powerful enough to exceed the needs of the power user.
Things ($9.99/$19.99/$39.99): The first truly lovely-to-look-at option in this category, Things has an interesting history. It’s dead simple to get up and running with this app, whether you’re familiar with GTD or not. It’s intuitive, fast, and lovely to look at.
Wunderlist ($4.99 per month/$49.99 per year): One of the more recent options, Wunderlist is primarily a Web application that also offers native clients. As the name indicates, it’s more of a power list making tool than a true GTD app. Which is exactly what some people want, judging by the high number of people using it. The company reports 3 to 6 million users, however, that may largely be due to the fact that Wunderlist uses the freemium model and many people (your’s truly included) sign up to check it out.
Asana (Free/Team Accounts): Created by ex-Facebook employees, Asana is a fresh approach to this category of tools. It’s Web based but also offers a mobile counterpart. This is an option that is targeted at teams, but can also work very well for the individual.
Note that toward the end of this article, we’ve also listed out several alternative picks that are nice but which don’t quite fit into the scope of being a powerful “productivity and GTD app” that has a version on the iPhone, iPad, and Mac.
Folks, I have spent untold hours of my life weighing the various options in this category. After settling into OmniFocus, I have not been able to leave it behind. It truly gives you the best overall experience.
Our favorite: OmniFocus
The suite of tools from the OmniGroup (OmniFocus for the Mac and iOS) have matured nicely over the years. Originally inspired from an OmniOutliner hack, OmniFocus has been a powerful tool from the beginning. But in recent years, the maturation of the product has resulted in a much improved user interface and a refinement that makes it possible for anyone to use the tool, not just the GTD ninjas.
What of Simplicity?
Why would anyone choose an app like OmniFocus or Things over a simpler tool, such as Clear or TeuxDeux? Or even Apple’s Reminders app?
That’s a good question, and the answer will depend on the needs of the individual. But, I will say this: the current iteration of OmniFocus can be as simple or as complex as you need it. If simplicity is your thing and you dig one global list of to-do’s, OmniFocus can be a good fit.
But if your needs resemble that of the average 21st century citizen, then perhaps a little flexibility is required. OmniFocus allows you to view and organize your tasks in different ways. This means your work-, home-, and family-related tasks (and any other area or organization you’re involved with) can be both included in one place and separated from one another.
There can be value in the reduced cognitive load of using a simple tool. But life is complex, and most of us need a way to track things that are not wholly related. And one of the greatest aspects of OmniFocus is that it is powerful enough to store all you need it to, but flexible enough to only show you what you need, when you need it. And thus there is also the value in the reduced cognitive load of using an app that you trust and which can help you with organizing and managing all your tasks and projects.
Here’s how OmniFocus succeeds in its feature set…
This is one of our primary criteria listed above and OmniFocus has included this since day one. The Quick Entry dialogue has been included since the first version on OS X, and it gives you the ability to use a keyboard shortcut to get an item out of your head and into OmniFocus.
This applies to the desktop version, of course. When you’re hard at work on your laptop or iMac, this option is available. As well, you can use several email clients to turn your emails into tasks. Mail.app and Airmail lead the way here. And AppleScript is another solid option.
But what about on your iOS devices? Well, thanks to the release of iOS 8, there’s a lot more possible than ever. With Apple’s Extensions, you can now add items to OmniFocus from other apps, like Safari (shown below).
Additionally, when launching the iOS app, there is a quick-entry button available at all times taking you right to the screen for adding a new task.
It has never been easier to get stuff into your OmniFocus Inbox, regardless of the device.
What I enjoy most about OmniFocus is that its structure is adaptable to you, even though it is one of the more GTD-strict productivity apps available. If contexts, start and due dates, recurring tasks, and regular reviews are your thing, OmniFocus is for you. But if you are less persnickety, OmniFocus can be a simple list manager, like many of the other options.
But it’s the flexibility with the structure, as well as the maneuverability, that shine with this tool. If you take the GTD methodology to heart, you can add your high level life goals as folders in OmniFocus. Into these go all your projects, sub-projects, and their related tasks.
Paul Boag is a good example and he explains his usage well:
For me it is about a lot more than organizing the tasks and projects I have on the go. It is about achieving broader life objectives.
Well said. Our productivity tool should allow us to remember why we do the things we do—hopefully, to achieve the larger purposes we have for our lives. And OmniFocus enables this in two ways:
It is easy to structure your folders, or areas of responsibility, as the top tier in your OmniFocus database.
Its review capabilities can be used to remind you to take the time to get back up to 40,000 feet and ensure your ground level tasks and 10,000 foot projects are moving you towards your larger goals.
And again, if that is all a lot of mumbo jumbo, you don’t have to use it. It gets out of the way.
The OmniFocus suite: an app for each device
It’s important to remember that OmniFocus started as a Mac-only tool. Well, back then there were no apps for the iPad (the device itself did not exist) and the iPhone was just starting to disrupt the mobile industry. But, this is important because the folks at Omni Group did not simply take their Mac app and re-skin it for the iOS version.
Rather, each version was designed with the device and context in mind, which makes perfect sense. At its heart, GTD is all about context: doing what you can with what you have and depending on where you are. So, when using OmniFocus on the iPhone, quick entry is a prominent feature; on the iPad, the design focuses on planning and reviewing.
Both versions are great, and with the arrival of iOS 8 and the universal version of OmniFocus for iOS, they are nicely paired in terms of features and interface. OmniFocus on the Mac fits well with iOS 8 and was designed with Yosemite in mind, and the latest iteration for iOS marries the iPad and iPhone versions.
OmniGroup has also unified the purchasing process on iOS. Instead of separate apps for iPhone and iPad, there is now a single universal app. If you previously purchased both apps separately, you can submit your receipts for a $10 rebate. If you haven’t purchased the iPad app, but have version 2 on the iPhone, you can “complete a bundle” to save a little money on the upgrade. With this unification, there are a number of new features in the iPhone version:
- Landscape mode with sidebar (iPhone 6 Plus only)
- Review perspective
- Ability to create Perspectives (requires Pro upgrade)
- View perspectives with Project hierarchy
- Show a custom perspective in the Today view screen (requires Pro upgrade)
- Customize your home screen and place Perspectives in any order (requires Pro upgrade)
And, for users who own version 1 of either the iPad or iPhone app, you can get a free Pro upgrade.
As Apple brings unmatched cohesion to the user experience with Yosemite on the desktop and iOS 8 on mobile, The Omni Group has done an amazing job of doing the same. The experience of moving between each device is seamless: all versions are similar, your data is present everywhere, and each version is optimized for the context of each device. There’s even a new sync service to keep things updated faster than ever.
The advantages of the iPad
Using OmniFocus on an iPad deserves a section of its own. When it debuted, the iPad version was arguably the best of the 3-app suite. The Omni Group embraced the new device and created the very best interface for planning and reviewing your entire project list. The Forecast and Review modes debuted here and set the bar for the desktop and iPhone versions.
Now, the desktop version includes the Forecast and Review perspectives as well. Previously, the Review perspective wasn’t included in the iPhone version, but the new universal app fixes that. All that to say, it was the original iPad version that truly set OmniFocus above the other offerings for me.
I, and others, felt that the iPad was the best overall option for using OmniFocus. As Shawn Blanc stated:
It seems to be a common practice that for apps with a strong presence on the desktop, their iPhone and iPad counterparts are portals into the desktop app, or light versions. But OmniFocus on the iPad is the current king of the OmniFocus hill. Ask anyone.
And now? The same could be said today. Many people agree with the sentiment:
If you can buy only one OmniFocus, get the iOS version. Between the mobility of the iPhone and the incredible iPad experience, it’s a great combination.
Personally, I’m enjoying the desktop version more than ever before. But it’s used more for quick entry and referring to tasks while I’m working or while on the phone with someone. When I need to sit down and take stock of my life, the iPad version is the one I use.
Additionally, Shawn Blanc uses the iPad to review and plan his daily task list. Shawn employs a hybrid sort of system that uses both digital and analog tools. At the start of his day, he opens up OmniFocus on his iPad along with a notebook and pen. He then goes through his OmniFocus to-do list and writes down on paper all the tasks he hopes to do that day. And so, though OmniFocus is the primary “brain” of his task management system, he also uses pen and paper during the day once it comes time to map out his daily action plan.
In the earlier years of the GTD wars, it could be said that Things from Cultured Code was the top dog. That changed with the arrival of iOS devices. For whatever reason, the Cultured Code team took a very long time to develop a syncing solution for the various device applications. You could manually initiate a sync when both your devices were on the same Wi-Fi network, but that proved to be worth very little.
Comparatively, The Omni Group team had an experimental sync option in seemingly no time. I have no idea what the numbers might be, but the pervasive feeling at the time was that many people switched from Things to OmniFocus for the sync alone.
As one who did, I can say that Omni Sync (are you picking up on their naming convention yet?) was rock solid from day one. It was true when it was experimental, and it’s true today. When you get a new device and install your OmniFocus version, the first thing to be done is add your Omni Sync Server settings.
Within seconds, your entire database is downloaded and you’re up and running. Opening the app on any of your devices can display a syncing message for a very brief moment — it’s so little bother that I had to test a couple times when writing this review because I barely notice it in my daily usage. In fact, the latest version of OmniFocus on the iPad adds background syncing, so the syncing delay appears to be destined as a thing of the past.
As David Sparks put it:
My database has a lot of projects and tasks in it and I’m jumping between devices all day long. OmniFocus has got so adept at synchronizing this data that I find myself taking it for granted.
Any syncing tool needs two things: speed and reliability. Omni Sync gives you both. I can count on one hand (with fingers to spare) the number of times I’ve had to deal with a syncing conflict. And in years of usage, I’ve never lost even a single task in a sync hiccup.
The Rest of the Story
There’s more to this tool; so much more. Keyboard friendly? Check. Different project types, such as parallel and sequential actions? Yep. Does it work well with email apps? You bet. Extensive AppleScript support? You have no idea.
The question with OmniFocus has never been: “Does it have enough power and flexibility?” It has always excelled in this and continues to lead the way. The issue has always been that it can be daunting for the beginner to get started. This is where the constraints and forced focus of iOS has sharpened the skills of the OmniGroup team, and that has benefited the entire suite of apps.
Other Options for Consideration
The apps listed here really don’t fall into the GTD category since they’re either more team-focused or else simple, flat task lists. Either way, they’re still excellent apps, and if you don’t need the cannon that is OmniFocus (or Things, Wunderlist, or Asana), then these task and list managers are fantastic.
Like we said earlier, these apps are all about the person using them and what they need to accomplish with the app.
Todo: Another flexible, web-based option, Todo comes with an inexpensive native desktop and iOS clients.
TeuxDeux: The simplest option on this list, TeuxDeux is a unique approach to managing your tasks.
Flow: Another tool in the same vein as Asana, Flow is a web-based service that offers native iOS clients. It’s focused more on teams and is significantly more pricey with its monthly plans.
Clear: A simple list manager at its best, the most unique aspect of Clear is its gesture based interface on iOS. It comes with a desktop counterpart and is well-designed overall, but not truly a GTD-style app.
Remember The Milk: A flexible, beloved tool for iOS that offers simple list creation and task management. RTM has been around for a while, and it’s certainly great at what it does. There’s a web app for keeping track of your lists on a computer, and there are also some 3rd party Mac applications that interface nicely with the service. You can even plug RTM into other applications like Google Chrome or Evernote.
Why is OmniFocus truly a better GTD app than some of these other options? Because many are simply list-making tools and not capable of supporting a workflow more compatible with the GTD methodology.
Wunderlist is a great example. While it offers sync across the web and device-specific native clients, and features such as sharing, commenting, and the publishing of lists, it truly is a list app, rather than a GTD tool. Again, options of this nature may meet the needs of many, but not the GTD practitioner.
As mentioned above, Things got a bad rap early on for its very slow adoption of over-the-air sync several years ago, and the developers were somewhat slow to update the app for the design aesthetic of iOS 7 last year. However, though Things may be an app that is slow to receive updates, when it does get new features and interface elements, those updates are extremely well designed and thought through.
For example, in an ironic twist of fate, though Things was late to the game with over-the-air sync, its syncing engine is arguably the best there is — being even faster that what OmniFocus has.
Additionally, the date picker found in Things on iPhone is something we wish Apple themselves would implement, it’s far better than the awkward rolling date picker that is the default in iOS.
In recent weeks, Things has received major updates for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad. The apps look great with the design aesthetics of iOS 7/8 and Yosemite, and they also take advantage of the new functionalities and features found in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite. Moreover, the company promises more updates are in store.
Another advantage of Things is that it costs about half the price of OmniFocus. However, when it comes to feature set and community support, you’re getting what you pay for. (And for some people, that’s not a problem, but it is something to be aware of.)
Ultimately, Things is our second pick because it isn’t as powerful as OmniFocus. Things is beautiful, fast, and reliable, but, alas, there are some power-user features we love about OmniFocus (such as the Review mode, Forecast mode, and custom Perspectives) that Things does not have. In short, projects aren’t as easily dealt with, repeating tasks are difficult to enter and edit, and the workflows within the app are slower and generally clunkier than what’s in OmniFocus. Additionally, the Things iPad app leaves much to be desired.
As mentioned above, a sign of a truly great app is the community of users who rise up around it to savor its details and share its best features. OmniFocus has a thriving community of users and an incredible amount of 1st- and 3rd-party resources for training and tutorials. These resources give both broad and deep assistance into the ways people use OmniFocus, as well as tips, tricks, tutorials, and other how-to guides for getting the most out of this powerful application suite.
If OmniFocus is your GTD app of choice, here are some resources that can help you take your usage to the next level:
Inside OmniFocus: An Omni Group-managed site that shows off different workflows from a few OmniFocus users, tools or services that work well with the suite, and systems like GTD or one of your own design.
OmniFocus Getting Things Done introduction: an outline summary of the GTD system by the Omni Group guys.
The OmniFocus Field Guide: A screencast, not a book, that takes you through OmniFocus by one of the app’s most prolific users, David Sparks. The screencast can turn an OmniFocus novice into a task-managing ninja.
Creating Flow with OmniFocus: An ebook that helps you easily guide your work, play, and productivity throughout the days, weeks, and years using the strength of the task and project manager, OmniFocus.
Workflow Mastery ebook: an advanced textbook ready to reward the diligent reader interested in productivity, creativity, and mastery.
Asian Efficiency’s OmniFocus Premium Posts: an online training course that offers a combination of written and video/screencast-based tutorials on how to set up and get the most out of OmniFocus.
If you struggle to always keep on top of the duties your life demands, OmniFocus can help. Whether on one device, or all your devices.