OmniFocus 3

If you are interested in a personal project/task management app and are using a Mac, and have never even heard about OmniFocus at all — then there is something eerily wrong here.

For the rest of the world, OmniFocus is a juggernaut. It can do everything you can reasonably expect an application in that category can do, and more. In fact, OmniFocus offers so many options and organisational tools, it may be overwhelming, at first. Which is perfectly OK. Considering all the apps I have on my list so far, this is the most complex, but also the most powerful one.

As stated in my introductory remarks, OmniFocus has been around for a long, long time. The upcoming fourth major release, in beta on iOS/iPadOS, isn’t available yet; which is why I’ll probably come back later to see its latest changes and additions. There is a 14-day trial available, and I greatly recommend using every minute of it before purchasing — or subscribing — OmniFocus. Be sure to read every manual, the eBooks, and view the odd video. Due to its complexity and power, you most likely need several tries until you get it adapted to your needs.

OmniFocus is available either as a one-time purchase, or a subscription. If you prefer buying a licence outright, you can choose between OmniFocus and OmniFocus Pro, and which platform you want it for, macOS or iOS/iPadOS; those are separate items. The subscription gives you access to OmniFocus Pro on all supported platforms, and if you want web-access, you can book that option as well.

The structure

Piece of cake. Really. The most basic structural item is a folder, used to group other items, like projects, but also additional folders, together. Then, there are projects, which is where you put your tasks into. Tasks, however, can have subtasks which can have subtasks and so on. Neat.

Let’s look at tags

Hell yes, OmniFocus does have them in abundance. Like with NotePlan, tags can be hierarchically nested, allowing me to get my insanity into it. And, as with Things 3 before, I used AppleScript to add 1000 Tags to OmniFocus with basically the same result. Meaning: yes, you can have at least that many tags if you so choose.

Linking

Do you want to have your calendar within OmniFocus? Just allow it to access your calendar data. For some reason, the settings aren’t in the app preferences, but with perspectives. Reminders are ignored. OmniFocus does have a quick entry panel, for entering new stuff regardless of what app you’re using at the moment. If you want to reference content from, let’s say, an email, you have to set up a shortcut for Clippings in System Settings. Clicking on that respective button opens not only the relevant pane in System Settings, but also a very helpful manual on what you’re supposed to do. Once clipping is set up, you use the assigned shortcut to add a task with the selected text and a link to the application you were using. Unfortunately, Clippings are way more limited than what Things 3 and its helper app do offer, and the reason is how macOS shortcuts are working in general — in OmniFocus’ case the Clipping feature relies on the text service. Basically, and only as far as I do understand this, whatever the app is offering if asked to supply some text about the currently selected thing. Apple Mail returns the selected mail’s subject line (among others) by default, DevonThink can offer many things if asked properly, but offers nothing for “selected text” if a PDF file is selected. Things 3’s helper app, on the other hand, does not rely on the text services, queries the application and gets the filename and a link to it. In reality, the result is a lot more applications aren’t going to divulge their content to OmniFocus that way.

On the other hand, dragging and dropping a task from OmniFocus to Calendar, or Fantastical in my case, does work as expected, and the resulting appointments do contain a backlink to OmniFocus; something I miss dearly in Things 3 and NotePlan.

Organising

The most basic building block of OmniFocus is a simple folder. You don’t have to use any folders at all, but it may be useful if you’re having more than just a handful of projects.

On that note, we’re finally where OmniFocus proves, undoubtedly, why it is the most versatile task manager. A project can be just a more or less random assortment of tasks in its most primitive form. But there are also sequential projects, where tasks need to be completed in order. Or parallel task, which don’t rely on an earlier task being completed. Tasks, however, can have sub-tasks which can have their very own order, or not. Furthermore, tasks or whole projects can be set to be automatically switch to being complete if all tasks within them are complete. There can be recurring projects & tasks, they can be deferred, have a due date and duration, individual notifications — and a gazillion other things I’ve failed to notice. Crazy people, I’m certain, could re-create Beethoven’s 9th symphony using OmniFocus projects and tasks, assigning a folder to each musician in a symphonic orchestra.

By default, tasks inherit their properties from their parents, being it another task or the project. So, if your project has the tag work or the due date tomorrow assigned to it, all its tasks will have them as well; and feel free to override at least the due dates to your liking; otherwise they will clutter the forecast view when the due date is, well, due. In any case, inherited due dates are formatted in italics, making it obvious at a single glance where that particular due date came from.

Syncing

OmniFocus can sync with either their very own Sync server, which is free, or you can specify your own WebDAV-server. If you’re living where the GDPR is applicable, you might think twice about using Omni’s Sync service since it is based in, using GDPR-lingo, a third country.

Having said that, I haven’t found any errors or unduly delays using Omni Sync, it works as advertised.

Scripting

Omni Automation is, according to Omni Group, the way to go for any automation for the whole suite of their apps. It offers a bunch of ready-to-go plugins for OmniFocus (and everything else) and enough information to allow you to do your own, if you happen to know JavaScript. And, of course, using OmniFocus Pro on a Mac opens up the ancient, convoluted way of utilising AppleScript. In fact, OmniFocus is completely scriptable, allowing you to add features like calendar blocking.

There are enough examples available to have OmniFocus do anything, from brewing the coffee in the morning to walk the dog. Just give it a try.

Summary

I probably should have mentioned it before, but by now it should be blatantly obvious: I do have a relationship with OmniFocus, and it’s complicated.

I do like its incredible flexibility, its unrivalled power, and adaptability. All those features does make it somewhat harder to master. The analogy which springs to mind is like driving for, let’s say, commuting. You do that day in and day out, until you realise your car has more than the one gear you’ve been using so far; now just figure out how to use the clutch, or whatever. Mastering OmniFocus with all its bells and whistles takes time, and patience. So, don’t worry if you’re using OmniFocus for some time and still feel you’re using only 20% of its capabilities — it’ll be true.

The current release looks a tad old-fashioned, being around since 2018. While the UI is perfectly practical, I think it looks somewhat boring, oscillating into being ugly at times. Incidentally, OmniFocus 4 (in beta for iOS/iPadOS) will have a redesigned UI, so that is being taken care of.

I’ve been using OmniFocus, on and off, for about a decade now. It never stuck. Maybe too much flexibility. Like in: “I could have done anything I wanted, but couldn’t decide what to want, so I did nothing.”

But, if you want the ultimate power tool for your tasks and projects, give it a try. It certainly is the most capable application out there.

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