If this were a Friends episode, I'd like to title it the one where I geeked out and wrote the longest post on the blog.
I moved back to OmniFocus! I used a plaintext-based task management system for the past year and half. It worked quite okay for the time, but it can get out of control when things are busier. Inevitably, I decided to revisit the never ending topic of task management.
Why I Ditched OmniFocus for Plaintext in the First Place
I made the move in the summer of 2014. When iOS 7 came out, OmniGroup released OmniFocus 2 for iPhone to adapt the dramatic changes iOS 7 brought to the platform. However, the new version was still buggy and feature incomplete after almost a year. The iPad version hadn't been updated at all. The Mac counterpart was updated to 2.0 before the summer, but I wasn't a big fan of how it displayed tasks. Personally, I was about to go back to grad school, so I thought it was a good time to reconsider my task management tool.
The idea of using a plaintext-based system was long appealing to me. I store most of my notes in plaintext files and this would fulfill a plaintext nerd's dream of having everything in one place.
I quickly decided on the setup. Tasks would be in TaskPaper format, and I used FoldingText on Mac and Editorial on iOS to access those TaskPaper files. Dropbox kept everything in sync. I put together a few shortcuts using Keyboard Maestro to make the files even more accessible. On iOS, I use Drafts as the main tool to collect tasks (and later Workflow made a great add-on to the workflow thanks to iOS 8's action sheet).
The system was simple and efficient, but there was one huge drawback. I could always see everything. It certainly wasn't that big an issue when task number was small, but it could be really overwhelming. Meanwhile, even when there are not that many items, seeing notes and other additional information of all tasks all the time could still be too much.
Now with work and side projects, the once elegant plaintext system no longer holds up. I tried to keep up with it for a few months, but I finally decided to go back to a more dedicated system.
I Took a Test Drive of Things
Instead of simply jumping back to OmniFocus, the inner nerd in me really wanted to try out something different. So obviously, I decided to give Things a go. Slowly developed but solid, Things has being around since the very early days of iOS. I've heard great things about its cloud sync.
There are a few things I really like about Things. First, what I heard is true—the syncing is phenomenal. If I make a change on Mac, the iOS apps will update immediately even when in the background. The badge and today widget will update too. If I add an item using the share extension, it will be synced instantly without the need of opening the app. Second, I love the ability of rearrange today/starred items. It's really nice to arrange things to the order that I want to accomplish them by.
Now the bad. First of all, I just don't feel in control of my tasks with Things. It's hard to tell why exactly. The lack of something like OmniFocus's Forecast view? But my plaintext system didn't have that either. The fact the Next view doesn't show all available items? Maybe. For whatever reason, I just don't feel as secure with Things. Besides that, Things lack some basic features compare to other dedicated task management tools. I honestly don't understand why Cultured Code choice to store scheduled and repeats items in a separate list. In other words, you can't schedule or repeat a task from a project. The app also feels old. Even with the iOS 7 overhaul, Things still feels like an app from 5 years ago. It takes 3 taps to edit an item!
Not sure if the promised Things 3 was coming out any time soon, I decided Things was not the task manager for me at this time.
Back to OmniFocus
Let's take a step back and take another look at why I left OmniFocus in the first place. Besides the reasons I mentioned in the early section, there were other ones that pushed me to look for other options. First, the syncing is somewhat slow. Second, the lack of ability to rearrange item in perspective. Third, the iOS version doesn't fully support perspective.
Now at least two of the problems are (semi-)fixed. Syncing is much faster now with push—still not at the same level of Things' but much, much better. With the universal update, the iOS version now fully supports perspective. You can essentially do everything you can do in the Mac version on iOS. Items in perspective are still not rearrangeable, but I suspect it's related to OmniFocus' database format. According to a blog post from OmniGroup, they are looking to change the file format. So here is hope that one day we will get manual sorting in perspectives. Another plus is that the Mac app's interface is now customizable.
Before I left OmniFocus, I had a kind of context-based system where my contexts were mostly based on energy level. The most important view was called Today, which was a customized perspective consists of due items and flagged items. It was a good system yet I just don't like the idea of picking up (flagging) today's tasks in the morning that much. I like to plan ahead. I want to at least plan for the next day's tasks. And sometimes I also need to plan for tasks in the future. Certainly I can use start date and have items with a start date shown up in the Forecast view but Forecast don't count them in the calendar so I won't know if I scheduled something for a certain day unless I click or tap on day.
I decided to use a different approach.
A Forecast-based System
I got rid of context.1 And my current system is almost based on the Forecast view exclusively. As a GTD guru, you probably already frowned as you know the principle that in general we should only set due date for tasks that have a hard deadline. However I assure you this is not as crazy as it sounds—at least not in my use case. Let's take a closer took.
Here's a breakdown of my Forecast-based workflow.
- All processed tasks should have a project. Projects are organized in folders based on area of responsibility. A task that can't be started at the moment should either have a start date or a context, Waiting, whose status is On Hold.
- All tasks with a hard deadline has a due date set to the deadline. Besides that, I also write the deadline inside parentheses following the task name.
- I have a customized perspective called Next that shows all available items across all projects including inbox. I might further break it into smaller perspectives such as Next Work and Next Personal depending on areas of responsibility.
- Every evening, I go through my Next view and set tasks I want to accomplish the next as due tomorrow.2
- During the day, if there's something new comes up and needs to be done on that day, I assign them as due today.
- At the end of a day, I clean up everything that's due. If there are items left, I either reassign them to a future date or simply clear their due date if I decide it's no longer the best time to pursue them. Process inbox items.
- Weekly review. Never forget to review.
With this system, I have 100% confidence that I won't forget or miss any recorded tasks since I don't need to remember them in the first place. Equally important, I have a clear view of what needs to be done today, tomorrow or even the following week. I feel in control.
To be honest, I miss Things' perfect syncing and capturing. I'm still curious to see what Things 3 has to offer. I'm still intrigued by 2Do and follow its development pretty closely despite. And I will for sure try out new tools from time to time. One thing I learned from all these years task management fiddling is that although I have so many different ways to organize my tasks, I have only one way to accomplish them and that's actually accomplishing them. I believe the most important thing is to have a system that I can trust and forget about so I can focus on actually accomplishing tasks. At this moment I think I found that trust in OmniFocus once again.3