Monday, January 23, 2012

Done To Do, what's next?

You start easy at first. It's just a bit of fun. You've got your iPhone with you, there's nothing bad about writing a little note that you need to buy bread on the way home.

But then you get that high when your iPhone spots that you've left the office and it bleeps to remind you about the loaf.

Suddenly, you get home and you've got bread. Instead of a niggling feeling that you've forgotten something, you've got the makings of a sandwich.

I know, it's crazy.

Only, tomorrow you need more. You need to remember your mother's birthday.

Then you're at work and it's just that little bit easier to make some To Dos than to keep going back to your email to see what you have to do next. It's sensible and it's also free. Apple's own Reminders app, it's right there, it's free, it does that trick with popping up when you leave or arrive places.

It's nothing, you're just doing this to be sociable. You can stop any time you want.

But Wunderlist comes next. Just a bit more power to your elbow. Lets you break down big tasks into bits, into smaller tasks. There are myriad To Do apps on iPhone and Wunderlist is deservedly very popular. I've never used it.

I used to get my kicks from Appigo Todo instead. Loved that app. Lived in that app. The iPhone one now costs £2.99 but you also want the iPad one. That's £2.99 too. And you should have the Mac one too. That's another £10.49.

Soon you're dividing your To Do list into categories. Stuff for work, stuff for home. A shopping list. Repeating tasks; those things you have to do every day like "Ignore new year's resolution".

It all makes sense.

It's only the next bit that gets tricky.

Back about five months ago, I was an Appigo Todo evangelist. Today, I'm not. In between there was a little curiosity about something else, then a bit of a plunge-taking, then a lot, a lot and three times a lot of annoyance, anger and rage. The annoyance was that I'd bought something fairly expensive: I think now it's cheap but it's only that when you know it is what you need. When you think you've wasted your money, it's a lot of cash.

The anger came from it not doing what I needed it to do. This more-expensive, much more highly recommended, ostensibly much, much, much more powerful piece of software could not do things that my Appigo Todo could.

And then the rage.

The rage because as annoying as this new software was, there were bits in it so good that it was too late. So good that I bought another version. And then a third. I hated all three versions of this new one but I could never go back to Appigo.

But ask me today, and it's completely different: it feels now as if I bought the new software in Damascus.

I even have evenings off. Sometimes, anyway.

Because I've switched to using OmniFocus.

If you don't use this yourself, the quick way to describe it is to say that it's a To Do list. If you do use it, you are right now emailing me to say come on, that's like saying XXXXXX is a football team or YYYYYY is a car when really ZZZZZZZZZZ. (Hey, it's your email, you do the metaphor.)

There is one version that is difficult to use, that I mean you look at it and wonder where in the world you even start. But the real difficulty and the reason you tend to break through it and abruptly find this all incredibly useful, is more a conceptual thing.

Todo was a To Do list. OmniFocus is more a list of things that Can Be Done.


If I get a job or think of something I have to do, it used to go in my Todo list and sit there until it was done, with this enormous growing pile of things. I used to find it very satisfying when I could get the number of tasks down from some giant number to some less-giant number.

Now, I'll do the same with OmniFocus in that I'll chuck anything from the smallest need for a loaf to a book commission into it. But the difference is that later I'll check through those new ones and start working on them. That's for the British Film Institute, that's for Radio Times, this is for when I get around to it, this is if I can be bothered. But the BFI thing might not be due for a month and I probably can't start it until next week. So, whack, start next Thursday, finish a week on Friday, I don't have to think about it again.

It takes longer to describe this to you than to do it.

And the result is that I can look at my OmniFocus list and, if I want to, see only what I need to do today. If I'm in London, it's typically for Radio Times but this week I've got a BBC Radio 4 meeting there so I can also see tasks by location: I can look to see what else I can get done while I'm there. Or types. I've got ten minutes before my train, I can immediately see what emails or phone calls I need to get done while I wait.

So you see, it is Tasks You Can Get Done Now more than it is Tasks To Do. Take a look at the difference:

I took that screen grab just before I stopped running OmniFocus and Todo in parallel. So it was for the same day, with the same lists of tasks to do. With Appigo's Todo - which I'm not knocking, I liked it a great deal until I found OmniFocus suited me better - I obviously didn't have to do all 30 that day, but I had to keep going into it to see what I could do now, what I could postpone. With OmniFocus, though I was getting through the same amount of work, one glance told me that yes, I could knock off for the night.

I thought that having tasks only show up when it was time to do them would mean I would forget them and would be forever behind but somehow it means the opposite. I know I'll get to them, I know I'm making better use of my time overall. And there are many ways in which OmniFocus shows you what's coming up, so that you can usefully tell when you can and can't take on anything else. This is my favourite: the Forecast view in OmniFocus for iPhone:

Things that I have to do at the top, tasks I need to get started in the middle, and below that a quick calendar of the day. There's more up above and down below.

There's also a way to see only the tasks to do with, say, my book. So this coming Thursday, for instance, I can see I've only got one thing that truly has to be done then so I can take on more. In fact, I'm probably spending Thursday on my book for that very reason – and come Thursday, I'll have OmniFocus just show me the tasks I need to do for that one project.

I think this all sounds like a lot of work and that was part of the reason I found OmniFocus annoying at first. Felt like I had too much to think about, that I could spend longer playing with this than in getting the work done. Yet in practice, it all just flows so easily - especially on the iPhone and iPad versions - that I spend much less time than I used to thinking about whether I've got everything covered.

The location reminders don't work as well for me as they should (and OmniFocus Support can't fathom out why) and I'd like the Mac version to be as slick as the iPad one or at least just a bit more slick. But I love how when I get an email on my Mac that I'll need to reply to later, I can tap a couple of keys and it's in OmniFocus as a task with what it's about and a link to that email.

I also love that I jot down something on my iPhone and know that it'll be on my iPad and my Mac the next time I look.

So I'm a convert. Join me. Come to the dark side. But only tell me about it after you've got through the bad bits and are a fan too.

Just so you know, there are three versions of OmniFocus and you don't need all of them but you will end up buying the lot. OmniFocus for iPad (£27.99) is the best, OmniFocus for iPhone (£13.99) is the handiest, OmniFocus for Mac (£54.99) is the toughest to use. There's no PC version.