Time to pay for Things

Things from Cultured Code will be officially unveiled at Macworld Expo in one week. Today, Things 1.0 Release Candidate hit the streets.

I’ve been using this app for a long time now. It feels like it’s been in Beta forever. I am grateful that I’ve had the chance to use it for free for so long, and now I’m ready to plunk some money down.

That Things took so long to reach 1.0 (it was originally slated to come out last Spring) speaks volumes about the care and attention placed into creating this app. If you want to get a sense for how much care and attention we’re talking about, check out the blog entries chronicling the development process.

In short, if you’ve never used it, try it out. If you find it as useful as I do and also own an iPhone or Touch, consider getting the mobile version as well. The syncing is flawless.

Things is one of the most elegant and polished apps that I’ve used. It promises to be a well-deserved hit.

Things now at 0.9.6

Things
Cultured Code’s Things continues to improve, and it continues to be in Beta.

At version 0.9.6, it remains my favorite task manager, and it’s better than ever.

With today’s update, Things adds an important new component: global searching. This much-requested feature makes it easy to quickly sort through your sea of tasks by tags, title, note, or all of the above at once. Search results pop up on the fly as you type.

The developers have also added a small button to the search results (which apparently has no name). I’ll call it the search context button. Here’s how it works: select an item from your search results, click this button, and you are presented with the context (or the original list/project) of that item. This will come in handy.

It would be nice, though, to have a ‘back’ button to return to search results for those times that you just want to peek at the associated items tied to a given task, and then wish to return to your search results.

You can still download the public Beta for free. Things will be officially launched at January’s MacWorld.

If you like it, consider signing up for their newsletter prior to the official launch for a 20 percent discount (you’ll be able to pick it up for $39; regular price will be $49).

If you’ve read my review of this app, note that many of the concerns I raised in that review have been met. I use it daily on my Mac and iPhone, and I like it.

Cultured Code Things revs to 0.9

If you haven’t tried out Cultured Code’s Things yet, now is a good time. It’s my favorite task manager, and it’s better than ever. Yesterday, version 0.9 was released. You can download the public Beta preview for free. It’s a Beta, so you are encouraged to let the developers know what you think.

The big news about this Beta release? Recurring to-dos and projects. And there’s lots of other improvements as well. If you like Things, sign up for their newsletter for a 20 percent discount once 1.0 is released this Spring (you’ll be able to pick it up for $39; regular price will be $49).

If you read my review of Things, be sure to read the comments for this post, too. One of the developers of Things addressed many of the concerns I raised in the review.

Year of the Killer Task Management App: Wrap Up

Back in January, I predicted that 2008 will prove to be the year of the killer task management application for the Mac. Right now, there are dozens of ‘To Do’ list programs for the Mac…and OS X Leopard’s Mail and iCal now include basic ‘To Do’ list management. So what’s so special about this year?

It’s all about GTD. The recent release of OmniFocus and the buzz surrounding the pre-release version of Things mark the evolution of some serious competition — and serious refinement — in the field of Mac-based task managers that use ideas and concepts inspired by David Allen’s popular ‘Getting Things Done‘ workflow.

I just completed a series of in-depth reviews of some of the most popular and promising of this breed of Mac ‘To Do’ managers, and it may be no surprise to you that OmniFocus and Things look set to lead the pack.

To get the most out of the View from the Dock reviews, I recommend you start by taking a look at the first post in this series, in which I set out the criteria I would use to evaluate these applications. I originally intended to review five apps, but I ultimately only reviewed four: iGTD, OmniFocus, Midnight Inbox, and Things. I did not review CoalMarch Park (even though I said I would back in Jan.), because it appears that it’s no longer offered. But that’s Ok: I think these four apps are the main contenders in this contest. Which one is the best? Read on.

The Contenders

The four applications below are listed in order of how closely they follow the Getting Things Done process (Inbox is the most ‘GTD-like,’ Things is the least). In my opinion, this ranking also stacks the applications in order of ease of use and learning curve (harder to easier) and by degree of flexibility (from most rigid to most freeform workflow). Note that I’m only presenting a quick snapshot of each app here — be sure to read the full reviews (linked below) for detailed descriptions, opinions, screenshots, etc.

So here’s the countdown:

4. Midnight Beep’s Midnight Inbox | Developer’s site | full review

Summary:

Midnight Inbox is the only app of this group that reaches out and grabs data on your Mac. It also stands out as the app that most closely follows the GTD workflow. The user interface of Inbox is just beautiful, but the learning curve is a bit steep.

If you are well-versed in the GTD process and like the idea of an app that clearly walks you through a step-by-step task management process, give it a try. Version 2.0 of Inbox is now in the works.

Pro:

beautiful to look at; nice design; novel auto-collecting of data; system-wide quick entry

Con:

complicated; a little buggy; data entry options are limited and unconventional; workflow can feel restrictive; iTunes metaphor is a little weird

3. bartek:bargiel’s iGTD | Developer’s site | full review

Summary:

iGTD is powerful, full-featured, and free. This program follows the concepts and ideas of GTD quite closely — second only to Midnight Inbox. It’s been around longer than most of the others, so the feature-set is quite mature.

Since the program is well-designed, ties in nicely with other apps (in particular, QuickSilver) and is free, it will likely continue to have a strong following. If you’re one of those power users who like lots of options and choices, you may love this. Others may find the user interface a bit cluttered and overwhelming. One thing you will like: many users note that the developer is very responsive and the app is frequently updated. Version 2.0 (an Alpha release) of iGTD is now available for preview.

Pro:

free; great Mac OS and third-party application integration; nice design; chock full of features; system-wide quick entry

Con:

complicated; some may find the array of options and choices daunting; some terminology is confusing and hard to differentiate (especially if you aren’t very familiar with GTD)

2. OmniGroup’s OmniFocus | Developer’s site | full review

Summary:

OmniFocus is a powerful task management application with advanced sorting and viewing options that exceed what you’ll find in the others. It is obvious from the start that some serious brain power went into designing this software. You may be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of ways you can organize your data, but many users really like it. Perhaps more than the others, this app maintains a relatively uncluttered feel even if you’re managing tons of tasks.

The user interface is genius: it’s clean and sleek — but there is a lot under the hood here once you get comfortable with the workflow. I’ve found OmniGroup customer support to be top-notch: quick, responsive, and helpful.

Pro:

novel ‘perspectives’ feature is a handy way to ‘memorize’ favorite views; very well-thought out design; may have the best ‘scalability’ of the bunch; easy to zoom in to a project or task, then zoom back out for a global view; developer has great track record for quality, support; system-wide quick entry

Con:

The most expensive of the bunch; you may get bogged down by all the sorting, viewing and tagging options; relatively steep learning curve

1. Cultured Code’s Things | Developer’s site | full review

Summary:

Things is clean, mean, and lean. It’s the least ‘GTD-like’ of the bunch, so if you want a pure GTD-based workflow you may not like this app. The developers came up with some really interesting ideas with this one; most notably they integrated user-defined tags to organize and view data in a variety of ways.

If you like the idea of creating your own workflow and don’t have a problem with putting in some time to set up a tagging structure that works for you, you may love it. It’s still early in the game (as it hasn’t even bee
n released yet) but the Beta is great. I’ve been reading a lot of positive user comments out in the macosphere — and people seem to be genuinely excited about using this app. The trial is available now. Check out the developer’s wiki for tutorials and inspiration.

Pro:

Beautiful user interface; it has a certain Zen quality of simplicity to it; don’t need to know any GTD to quickly understand and start using it; system-wide quick entry

Con:

Many features are still missing; the app interface can start to feel cluttered if you have too many tags/tasks; minimal ways to enter new data

Conclusion

As I noted in my initial post in this series, I think the program that will rise to the top of the pack in popularity will be the one that does not require the user to know anything at all about GTD, is easy (dare I say fun) to use, and best captures that elusive ‘Mac-like’ quality of simplicity and elegance.

With this in mind, I think Cultured Code Things stands out as the best bet.

OmniFocus is a close second and will likely be the app of choice for many business users who have tons of tasks to manage (the higher price of OmniFocus will continue to be a limiting factor). Midnight Inbox and iGTD will surely continue to build upon a stable cadre of dedicated users, but I don’t think they will be the breakaway apps that bring sophisticated GTD-based task management to the masses. They are great, but they may be just a little too geeky for some.

I should note, in closing, that this site and these reviews are not sponsored by anybody. I should also add that I am by no means a GTD expert, and that all the reviews here are just my opinions. I really believe that all four of these applications are excellent, well-designed and full of promise. I urge you to try each one out to decide for yourself, and I hope this series will help you get started. Oh, and by the way, ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co.

Good luck Getting Things Done!

GTD-based Task Management Apps V: Things

NOTE: (Summer 2010) When I get the time, I may review Things again. This article is quite out of date, but there are still some useful bits in it.

This is the fifth post in a series comparing task management applications based on the ‘Getting Things Done‘ process. Today I’ll look at Cultured Code’s Things.

For an application that hasn’t yet been released, Cultured Code’s Things is generating a healthy amount of discussion in the Mac community. Why? It’s arguably the easiest to use of any of the Mac-based GTD task management systems, it’s elegant and the interface is beautiful. It’s also the application that is the most loosely-based on the Getting Things Done framework.

This all adds up to an application that effectively lowers the entry barrier for those who are interested in exploring the ‘Getting Things Done’ process, but have been scared away by complex user interfaces or steep learning curves posed by other applications in this field. Things, in other words, conforms to the basic ideas of GTD, but it’s flexible enough to allow you to come up with your own unique management system. It’s GTD light.

 

Things’ is in the Beta stage now — anyone can go and download a free trial that will remain operable until version 1.0 is released this Spring. The current version is at 0.9.6 at the time of this post. You should be aware that the interface and features of the current version are due to change; ‘due to improve’ would be more accurate. While I didn’t find too many holes in this pre-release version (and it has been perfectly stable on my installation of OS X Leopard), there are a few features that I’d like to see added which I’ll highlight at the end of the article. Fortunately, the developers are still adding features and refining the user interface based on user feedback and their own ideas.

Collect – Focus – Organize

Let’s start with an overview. The app breaks down task management into three main action verbs: Collect, Focus, and Organize. Each concept is easy to understand. Unlike other GTD-based programs in this category, Things does not offer a heap of sub-choices, organization and filtering options. Instead, the developers place this burden on the user through the use of tags. This freeform tagging system allows each user to effectively create a (very simple or very complex) filtering system based on individual choice. I’ll get to tags in a moment, but let’s first walk through each of the three main categories of task organization.

Obviously, ‘Collect‘ is where you collect things. Like the other GTD-based apps we’ve looked at, the collection starting point is the ‘Inbox.’ This is GTD straight from the tap: the Inbox is where you collect tasks as they pop into your head — where you dump all those nagging things floating around in your brain into a trusted system. Once these items are captured, you don’t have to worry about forgetting them anymore. Easy enough.

 
With the Focus section, Things starts to diverge from the other GTD programs we’ve reviewed. Think of the Focus section as place to view your tasks oriented by time. You can view things you have to do today, you can see all the stuff that’s due ‘other than today’ (which is labeled ‘Next‘ in Things), you can see the stuff you’ve postponed to a later date, and you can view things you may want to do someday (with no set time or date).

While iGTD, OmniFocus, and Midnight Inbox all offer ways to organize and view tasks using similar terminology and concepts, they tend to emphasize contexts and projects over time/date based views. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s worth noting.

Within this ‘Focus’ section, you will likely spend most of your time in the ‘Next‘ view; this is where you get a snapshot of all the tasks you’ve accumulated — organized by project and area first, then by date/time within these areas. The ‘Next‘ view, by the way, reminds me of the ‘Review‘ category (or sorting option) of the other GTD-based apps. Things does not directly employ the GTD ‘review’ concept (which emphasizes the value of periodically validating your tasks to ensure you remain on track and on target).

If you want to review your tasks in Things, you won’t find a specific workflow designed to help you do this. If I understand this correctly, the developers at Cultured Code expect you to use the ‘Next‘ Focus (where you see all of your tasks in one main window) as your go-to place to track and review your tasks on an ongoing basis. Again, it’s subtle but significantly different than the others. You can review your items if you want to. If you don’t want to, no problem.

Next is the Organize section. Things allows you to organize by Project and by Area. Project will be immediately obvious to most people and is a core part of the GTD process: a project is a container for a list of tasks that must be completed in order to reach a goal (and the goal here is the name of the Project). For instance, I have a project labeled ‘Sell Honda,’ and each of the tasks in this project, once completed, will hopefully result in the selling of the Honda. Once the project is done, it’s closed out. It’s then moved to the ‘Log’ section of the program, which is called the ‘Archive’ in other apps. Easy. This isn’t really any different than the others.

 

But what about Area? This one is less obvious, and it’s not a GTD term as far as I know (but it’s an interesting derivative). Think of an area as a project without an end point. I have created ‘Mac maintenance,’ ‘Home maintenance,’ and ‘Health & Wellness’ entries as my Areas of responsibility. For these categories, there is no real ‘completion’ of a project or end state. I’m going to need to manage and complete tasks that fall into these broad categories perpetually (many will be repeating tasks), but the area of interest will always remain relevant and viable. It’s an idea that is unique to Things — you won’t find a similar function in any of the other GTD-based apps.

The main problem (which I quickly discovered using Area of Responsibility function) is that Things offers no solution to schedule repeating tasks, which is something I need to do. For Mac maintenance, for instance, I want to run maintenance scripts using Titanium Software’s Onyx on a repeating schedule. However … I’m not too worried about this. This feature will soon be added according to a Feb. 4 post on the Cultured Code blog. For now, I’m forced to manually re-enter my repeating tasks. UPDATE: As of Beta 0.9, Things now supports recurring tasks

 
I forgot to mention one important item: Things also lets you assign tasks to other people. In the screenshot, I’ve assigned ‘cleaning the garage’ to a fictitious person named Saiki. This could be very handy if you are using Things to manage a larger project with multiple people, or if you manage several people and want to assign and track tasks for them. For now, it appears that this collaboration tool is still limited to local (non-networked) use only. In the future, Cultured Code plans to add a collaboration across the network to manage multi-user tasking with, presumably, other people that are also using Things. I’ll be curious to see how this will be implemented.

Where are the Contexts?

GTD adherents may wonder where the ‘Context‘ section has gone. The answer is that Things did away with contexts (sort of), choosing instead to give the user an entirely unique and freeform way to categorize data. Things uses tags. Tagging, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a handy way used in many applications these days to add keywords to your data to help you quickly select a subset.

In the case of Things, tagging can be used to ‘tag’ how much time you think each task will take, to indicate the type of task, to mark the amount of effort you intend to put into a certain task, to add contexts, etc. It’s an open-ended system, and it’s entirely up to you to decide how your tasks will be tagged. So, while it appears that contexts were axed in this app, they are really still there … but only if you choose to add them.

As an example, you can see (in screenshot #5) that I’ve added an ‘@’ tag category with sub-tags for ‘mac,’ and ‘home’ (I’ve also added a tag for ‘errands’ which you can’t see in the screencast – this is an example of how the tags only appear if they are used. In this example, I’ve not yet used the ‘errand’ tag … so it doesn’t appear). This is an example of the GTD idea of ‘contexts.’ My context tags are markers I use to filter through all my tasks when I want to see what I have to do based on my current location (at my mac, out running errands, or at home, for instance). Other GTD-based apps also give the user the ability to add user-defined contexts, but Things is the only app that combines contexts together with all the other ‘markers’ you choose to assign to your tasks.

To see what I mean, take a look at the screenshot here. Note that I’ve added a bunch of other tags (in addition to contexts) to help further refine the filtering of my tasks. This is freeform to the extreme: the system you devise can be as complex or as simple as you like. To see how tags can help you filter your tasks, we’ll next look at how it all fits together.

 

The Things workflow

It’s much harder to describe the Things workflow than it is for the other GTD-based apps because the program doesn’t really follow a defined process (in this respect, it’s closest cousin is OmniFocus). Here’s what I do. First, I enter a bunch of tasks in my inbox. Next, I create some projects and areas to contain those tasks. Following this, I comb through each task and assign tags.

Over time, my tag list has stabilized — I found it worked best for me to keep the tag list short and manageable. If I didn’t do this, I think the filtering power of the tags would be greatly watered down. Next I file my tasks by dragging and dropping them to the appropriate Project or Area (which are also user-created). I can also choose to add tasks to ‘Someday’ if I want to come back to the task at some undefined future time; or ‘Postponed’ if I want to keep the task in a ‘hold’ status until a future date of my choosing. I can also move an item from a project or area to the postponed or someday category, and Things provides me a useful little unobtrusive reminder that I have an item in these categories — but the items remain hidden from view unless I want to see them (you can see an example of this in screenshot #3 – look for the line that says ‘1 more someday or postponed…’).

Then I start completing my tasks, selecting items by viewing them in the Focus area of the program. Within the Focus section, I may choose ‘Today‘ to view what’s due to today, ‘Next‘ to see everything else that’s coming up, etc.

But what about the tags? This is the best part of the program in my opinion. Tags appear horizontally across the top of the main program window (again, see screenshot #5). Only tags that are relevant for the given tasks that you’re viewing are displayed. To filter tasks using tags, simply click on a tag. To filter tasks by more than one tag, Shift-click to select more than one tag. By way of example, say I want to see personal tasks that are high priority, and can only be done on my Mac. Since I’ve already tagged my tasks with certain keywords, I simply select the tags that apply (in this case, ‘personal,’ ‘Mac,’ and ‘high’). It’s a simple and powerful solution. I think tagging offers an easier way to filter tasks than the other GTD-based apps. But there is a catch: with so much flexibility comes responsibility. You have to be willing to put in time and effort to create a system that works for you. Things provides a starting point for you (suggested tags), but it’s up to you to make your tags meaningful.

After using the app for a while, I started to develop a tagging system that really worked for me. In my case, I discovered that ‘more was less:’ I found a sweet spot between too many tags (which can be confusing) and too few (which won’t help you sort through your tasks very well). I really like the idea of establishing my own filtering system. If you use tagging in other programs (I rely on it with Yojimbo), the Things methodology should not be very foreign to you.

 
The last function I should note is the system-wide shortcut that allows you to quickly enter new tasks regardless of what application you are currently using (note that Things must be open for this to work). It’s a user-defined shortcut — in my case I use Shift-Control-Space, but you can assign any shortcut combo you like. This is by far the easiest way to enter new data — mainly because you can invoke the shortcut anywhere, and the pop-up window allows you to choose where you want your task to go (which Focus or Organization category). This feature (the ability to easily choose where your task should be filed) is curiously missing when you enter a new task from within the program (there are other options from within the program, but they are not as easy as the quick entry).

The Verdict

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?

Yes, I was able to start using Things without reading any documentation. The developers of this program have clearly focused on simplicity and lack of clutter as a first priority. Using Things is pretty easy right from the start. Using it well, on the other hand, is another matter. As with any program that you intend to regularly use, it’s worth the effort to read up on features and suggested usage. I’m sometimes lazy about reading documentation, but I invariably get a lot more out of a program if I take the time. Things is no exception. Check out Cultured Code’s Wiki for basic instructions and user-generated solutions. I think you’ll find their documentation (though still a little sparse) to be well-written and fairly devoid of tech jargon. The first step you should take, though, is to watch the great screencast put together by Ian Beck from Tagamac.com. It covers the basic usage of the program very well.

There were three items that required me to do a little more reading to fully grasp: first, I was not sure what to make of the term ‘Areas of Responsibility’ until I read the developer’s explanation. Second, while tagging was familiar to me, I felt that I needed some guidance to get some ideas about how to best set up my own tagging structure (the developer provides ‘starter’ tags, by the way, to help get you going). Third, I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to enter ‘Contexts’ for my tasks. After I read up on tagging, I figured that out.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?

Yes. Of the applications I’ve tested, Things is my clear favorite. It’s easy to use, it doesn’t lock you into a set workflow, and it’s not overburdened with choices and options. However, as I’ve said all along, this is more a matter of personal choice. I don’t necessarily think Things is the best of the breed. I think Things is the best pick for a certain type of user. Those who adhere to and really understand GTD may find this application a little too light on GTD. I’ll go into this in more detail in my final wrap-up post.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

Not very well. There is, as of yet, very limited integration. However, the developer’s are working on Mail, iCal, and other types of integration. Since the data you enter in Things is XML based, it really opens it up for sharing with other applications with relative ease. I’m eager to see how Cultured Code carries this forward. Other integration impressions: Things does have a services menu option. I like Apple Services — this underused menu offers a way to add items to Things even if you haven’t launched the program. Many programs integrate their apps with the Services menu — not many Mac users use these services, though. Finally, as I mentioned before, you’ll find no right-click menus anywhere. You will also not find a customized menu if you right-click on the program icon the Apple Dock. Many Mac users may not miss this at all. I do, but I admit this may be a latent hangover from my PC days (daze).

4. How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.)

Very well. It’s a very flexible program. While it appears to be very scalable (that is, the program can handle a few or many hundreds of tasks with relative ease), I think OmniFocus may have the edge when it comes to managing lots and lots of tasks. Why? Tags are nice, but aggregating all the sorting and filtering options within a tagging system has limitations in terms of ‘viewability.’ I made that word up, but hopefully you know what I mean. I can see how my list of tasks might begin to be hard to filter/sort or hard to understand at a glance if I had hundreds of tasks with many tags. It could easily get unwieldy. Even with the few tags I’m using, some of my tasks have four or five tags. Imagine viewing a few dozen tasks within the ThingsNext‘ view, each assigned four or five tags. I guess the developers are counting on users knowing what they’re looking for. OmniFocus, on the other hands, includes pre-set filtering options all tucked away in a tidy little menu bar. As you add tasks with OmniFocus, you may find that it’s easier to decipher because of the programs set (established) filtering options. This conclusion surprised me — I went into my Things review thinking that OmniFocus offered too many viewing options. Now I see that Things can get very complicated if you use too many tags. I suppose the lesson here is to seriously think about your tagging structure!

5. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘Mac-like’ is it?

I think Things is the most Mac-like of all the apps I’ve looked at. It has a certain zen-like simplicity about it that really appeals to me. The user interface is clean and uncluttered, and the workflow is only as complex as I choose to make it. However, I wonder how well this will hold up as my task list continues to grow. I’m optimistic, but the vote is still out. In short, I think it it perfect for individual users who have a relatively finite number of tasks to manage. But I’m not so sure which application is the best of breed once applied to larger business workflows with multiple users and hundreds of tasks. I’ll give this some more thought and post the results in the wrap-up.

In conclusion:

Things will probably be a close competitor with OmniFocus. Both products offer a high degree of flexibility and scalability. Both have clean, well-thought out user interfaces. Midnight Inbox and iGTD, on the other hand, may appeal more to those who prefer a tighter GTD workflow with more visible options and a clearer workflow. I think that Things, however, offers the most flexibility of the bunch. And it offers this flexibility through an inspired user interface. I’ll expand on these differences and summarize my final impressions of iGTD, OmniFocus, Midnight Inbox, and Things in the final post.

Before I go, I would like to point out a few annoyances I found with this program (with the hopes that most will be addressed before Things is released). Here’s a rundown:
You can’t delete projects once you create them (as far as I can tell) You can – see comments below.
– Perhaps it’s a remnant of my PC days, but I’m missing right-click options. There are none; nor is there a right-click menu from the Dock. Minor stuff, but it might broaden the appeal of the application
– I would like to have the ability to batch add tags to tasks (select ten tasks, assign one new tag or change a tag for all ten at once)
– In th
e ‘Next’ view, I would like to see a clearer division between areas, projects, etc. (perhaps with the use of color-coding)
– I would like to have the ‘Where do you want to file this’ option that is present in the quick task entry available when I enter a task from within the program. The ‘File’ button located on the bottom of the main window is clumsy. Dragging and dropping each item is inefficient
– I would like an automated ‘clean up’ feature – like what is available in OmniFocus – to sort out my tasks with one click once I’ve assigned all the variables
– the ‘due today’ and ‘overdue’ colors are the same shade of light red. I’d like them to be just slightly different so I can differentiate between them at a glance

Things is available now as a preview release. This preview will remain fully functional until version 1.0 ships in the Spring. Once the program ships, a single user license will cost $49. If you find that you like this program, consider signing up for the Things newsletter. Cultured Code is offering a 20 percent discount if you subscribe prior to the initial release.

This will be my final GTD-based task manager review. I was going to review CoalMarch Park, but it appears that it’s no longer be offered by the company. Besides that, I think I’ve hit the four main contenders already with my reviews of OmniFocus, Things, Midnight Inbox, and iGTD. My final post in this series comes next – the wrap up.

‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co.

GTD Task Management Apps IV: Midnight Inbox

This is the fourth post in a series comparing task management applications based on the ‘Getting Things Done‘ process. Today I’ll look at Midnight Beep Softworks’ Midnight Inbox 1.2.8.

Perhaps more than any other task management application I’ve explored to date, Midnight Inbox from Midnight Beep strives to be the single point of entry — the GTD command post — through which you organize your life. Unique to the applications we’ve looked at so far, this app is designed to reach out and grab data as it accumulates on your Mac through a clever use of Apple’s Spotlight and smart folder technology (it doesn’t actually move your data — it just creates an alias).

 

Out of the box, the app is configured to suck in emails from Apple Mail, files from your desktop, events and ‘to dos’ from iCal, texts & files from anywhere on your Mac, and shortcuts from Safari. As the program continually gathers all of this stuff together in one place, you periodically must process each item through a pre-defined Midnight Inbox workflow — a workflow which is tightly based on the ideas and concepts of GTD.

I had trouble getting used to this. Why would I want to automatically gather data from various locations on my Mac? That sounds like a lot of extra work.

Eventually, I started to get it. Here’s one way to look at it: Midnight Inbox is a Mac-based tool that implements the GTD workflow. It follows, then, that the ‘Collection’ part of the program is designed to be the dumping grounds for everything in your brain. If your Mac is the epicenter of your busy life (your surrogate brain, in a sense), then Inbox intends to be the meta-filter, the super sorting and processing center, for your surrogate brain. In order to be that center, it needs to collect stuff from your surrogate brain. That makes sense, right?

I think this metaphor holds up fairly well if your daily workflow centers around Mail, iCal, text files, documents, and bookmarks. If you don’t store your essential daily work within these programs or files in your work-a-day life, or if you prefer to manually add projects and items as you dream them up, you may find auto-collection a bit too time-intensive and restricting.

I say ‘time intensive’ because it can take considerable time and effort to process every item that Midnight Inbox sucks in (to be fair, you can adjust how much or little stuff the program draws in). I use ‘restricting’ here in the sense that Inbox seems designed to function as an implementation of ‘Getting Things Done’ first, and a general task manager second. That is, it’s a program that focuses on implementing the GTD process. I think it does an admirable job at this, but it’s important to keep in mind that this software implements a very specific workflow.

Those of you who really groove on the GTD process and want a system that tightly follows this model may find this program particularly appealing. Other task management applications I’ve looked at employ core GTD ideas in various ways, but they tend to offer higher levels of user-defined flexibility. That is, they focus more on providing a flexible framework, and it’s up to you to manually enter actions and items — and you can generally move stuff around in a more freeform fashion. Midnight Inbox, on the other hand is, at it’s core, more about following a pre-defined task management process.

Which way is better? Surely it will depend on the organizational style of the user. If you just finished reading David Allen’s book, you may really take to this model. I personally prefer the applications that follow more freeform solutions.

The Big Picture

So, how does this command post work?

 

The workflow is cleanly broken down into iconic sections, which are stacked in a left-hand column of the application’s main window. The first item on this list is the ‘Collect’ section, which I’ve already talked a lot about in previous paragraphs. This is where your collected items gather.

Next is the ‘Process’ function. At a point of time of your choosing, you process through your collection of items. When you choose to ‘Process Collections,’ a new dropdown menu pops up that presents you with options for filing each item that you collect.

 

From this menu, you may make a new project, complete an action immediately (if it’s a task you can do in less than two minutes — a GTD concept that is well integrated in this application), or file it away for the future. Curiously, you can’t assign a context at this stage (keep reading if you’re not sure what a context is). I like how Midnight Inbox handles processing: the dropdown menu is well-ordered, clear, and concise.

Next, you move on to the ‘Organize’ phase. As you might suspect, this is the stage at which you organize your stuff. Here, you may assign a context to an action, add new actions, add new projects, assign how often you’d like to review a given project, etc. Midnight Beep describes the ‘Organize’ phase as the ‘heart of the Inbox experience.’ It’s the place where, at a glance, you may view and reorganize all of the projects and associated actions you’ve gathered. The organization phase focuses on refinement of your projects, categories, and contexts.

 

I should note that you can also choose to add new projects, actions, etc. on the fly here as the need arises (which is essential — auto-collection is not likely to capture everything you need to act upon in your daily life. Clearly, though, the intent is that the auto-collection process will capture most of the important stuff).

Next is ‘Review,’ which will be familiar to those of you who know GTD. The basic idea is this: according to the GTD model, you should periodically review your open actions and projects to see if they are still correctly filed, within the correct context and project, etc. This is how you stay on track and keep all your actions in tidy order. This phase is fairly intuitive and similar to other GTD-based apps Ive looked at. Helpfully, the developer builds in pre-defined ‘Reviews’ that you can select from a dropdown list while in the ‘Organize’ phase. To initiate a review, you can either use an assigned shortcut key or choose a review option from the Menu Bar.

Next on the list is the ‘Work’ category. This is the phase where you may view your actions organized by context. ‘Context’ is GTD parlance for ‘location.’ The ‘@mac’ context, for example, lists items that must be done while you’re at your Mac. GTD really emphasizes the context idea, and Midnight Inbox gets this. When you get down to doing stuff, the idea is that you’ll base what you do on your location. At the Mac? Select the @Mac section, and get working. Note that Midnight Inbox (like OmniFocus and iGTD) also synchronizes your To Do list in iCal based on contexts with no option (that I could find) to do so by project.

After this phase, there is a ‘Reference’ section to hold all the cats and dogs: actions that do not have a defined timeline, actions requiring an incubation period before you plan to begin working on them, ideas you wish to file for a later date, etc. I like how this section is organized — it clearly stands apart from the rest of the workflow and is easy to view at a glance. I like how this is handled in Inbox more than the methods employed by OmniFocus or iGTD.

 

And finally, there is an ‘Archive’ category where all your completed projects are stored for posterity. (Actually, there’s also a Trash bucket after the Archive section to hold stuff you delete – handy if you accidently delete an item and later decide to recover it). These items worked as advertised, so I have nothing really to add.

Oh, I forgot to mention the Yak Timer. Yes, the Yak Timer. This is a littler tickler the designer added to help you stay on track. It’s a little reminder window that pops up at regular intervals (similar to an iCal reminder message) to help keep you focused and on track. I found it annoying. Fortunately, the Yak can be disabled from the Preferences menu. If you’re easily distracted, you may find it handy.

The Verdict

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?

I tried to use Midnight Inbox without referring to documentation, but I gave up after about thirty minutes of frustration. I usually start learning how to use a program by clicking around. This didn’t get me far with Midnight Inbox. The biggest obstacle was a lack of intuitive control. The two prime examples of this: there are no right-click menus anywhere; and you can’t toggle between items (such as choosing different contexts) by clicking on them — you must go up to the Menu Bar to do so.

In short, I headed for the app’s Help files. While I found basic concepts and suggestions here, it wasn’t really enough for me to get what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to do it. I then shifted over to the developer’s site and discovered a screencast tutorial. This helped a lot. I recommend you start there.

I have to say that I was not expecting the program to actively go out and gather stuff on my Mac. Once I got over that, and once I learned how to add my own projects and actions independently of this ‘auto collecting’ feature, it started to click. Still, some aspects of the program remain mysterious to me even now. I think a few more screencasts from the developer would be a big help.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?

Not really, but as I said before, I think this program will appeal to many people. Namely, I think it will appeal to those who really love the GTD process and want a program that really sticks to the GTD workflow. Still, I have to say that the more I used it, the more I appreciated it. And just when I started to really adjust to Midnight Inbox, my trial period ended.

If you intend to use this program, I think you need to be prepared to commit to it in order to realize it’s full potential. Certainly that’s true of all of all of the GTD-based task management apps, but I felt like Midnight Inbox required an extra degree of commitment. I was unable to start adding projects and actions as easily as I did in, say, iGTD or OmniFocus. I first had to take a considerable amount of time to study how it worked. It’s not without quirkiness — at times it felt more like I was learning how the developer’s mind worked. In the end, I gained a real appreciation for the time and effort that must have gone into developing this tool. I also gained an appreciation for the logic behind the workflow. Yet, I concluded it was not for me. I would like to check out version 2.0 when it arrives to see how it has changed and improved.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

While the program integrates well with Mail & iCal, and successfully reaches out to gather items from any folder on my Mac, the integration still seemed limited. It has the feel of a stand-alone application. Unlike OmniFocus or iGTD, there is no Services Menu function, there are no right-click menus, and there is no Apple Dock menu. You can’t drag and drop items around (except from within the ‘Organize’ window). Nor can you synch your data with other third-party Mac applications. I also could not find an export function to get my data out of Midnight Inbox and into a text file or other export format.

4. How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.)

If you don’t use Mail, iCal, or the other pre-sets to manage your data, you can set up new rules to collect information from different areas or programs of your choosing. However, I found my choices to be limited. I use Yojimbo, for instance, to capture notes throughout the day, but I was unable to configure Inbox to automatically collect Yojimbo notes. Presumbaly, it’s because Inbox doesn’t know what to do with the SQL database where the Yojimbo notes are stored. That’s a shame — I think more people might take the plunge and try the auto-collect idea if more types of data could be included.

It appears that the only real flexibility I have is to choose a file location of my choice where Inbox should collect stored text documents or files. Yet I can’t really imagine getting any use out of collecting text files or documents. I simply don’t store relevant information in stand-alone text documents or files (relevant to my task management process, that is). This limits the usefulness of the auto-collection process for me (particularly because I don’t use iCal either).

Still, it’s an intriguing idea. I think there is a bright future for this kind of application: the meta-program that aggregates data and then allows you to process (file, tag, refine, categorize, etc.) a lot of information from many different sources on your Mac in one place. I look forward to seeing how the developer refines these ideas in future versions of Midnight Inbox.

Footnote: you can choose to turn off the auto-collection feature altogether from the Preferences menu if you would rather manually enter your own data.

5. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘Mac-like’ is it?

When I first launched Inbox, I was struck by the beauty of the user interface. The design is stunning. The look and feel of the program is undeniably like iTunes, but the metaphor breaks down there. Nothing about the program is much like iTunes when it comes to operational use. It’s quite unique and, if my learning curve is any indication, will take the average user some time to really grasp.

For example, the top menu area of the program has an interface that looks like iTunes, but I never found clear documentation to show me what I was supposed to do with that giant ‘Play/Pause’ button. I’m guessing it’s a timer with which you can countdown the minutes you’ve alloted for a particular action. But why would I really want to do this? For such a large prominent button, it seems like it should be more important to the program. Likewise, the giant ‘check’ button to the left of the ‘iTunes’ window seems to only be for checking off an item when it’s completed. However, it’s much easier to just check the box next to the item to indicate it’s completed. And then there’s the big iTunes-like window at the top. It’s clearly an information pane to indicate your current action, project, and context, but I didn’t find it particulary useful. This window, for instance, provides a hint to ‘Select a context from the Work menu to switch active actions,’ but I found it frustrating that I had to literally go to the work menu on the Menu Bar to change contexts. Clicking on the context doesn’t do the job, nor does double-clicking. Again, I think building in more user-entry inroads would help.

Another curious interface choice is that you can’t close the program window. The developer has disabled the ‘Close’ button (I’m talking about the red, yellow, and green buttons on the top left corner of every Mac window). You can minimize, you can toggle the size of the window, but you can’t close the window. The only option is to ‘Hide’ the program from the Menu Bar. I assume this is because you’re not supposed to w
ant or need to close the main window once you open the program, and presumably the developer hopes that you will open the program first when you fire up your Mac. Me? I would like the choice.

Next, I found the use of the double-click in this program to be unintuitive. Double-clicking is how you pull up a menu to change the parameters of each item in Inbox. You can’t right click on anything, which I intuitively wanted to do in order to get more options. I’ve never used a program that required me to use the menu bar choices so often (sure, there are also a plethora of shortcut keys I could use to navigate through Inbox or to add or change options, but I normally don’t get to learning ‘power user’ shortcuts until I really know a program well).

So, Midnight Inbox has a way to go when it comes to that elusive ‘Mac-like’ flow.In conclusion: If you carry forth the intended integration of this app to it’s full potential — that is, if you allow it to collect a good chunk of the daily data you accumulate on your Mac and then use the program to process all of this incoming data — it will surely be one of the most-used programs in your toolbox. But will you commit? It takes a lot of work. At times during my trial of this program, I felt like I was spending more time processing, organizing, and managing than actually getting things done.

Conceptually, Midnight Inbox is not really that distant from other Mac GTD-based task management apps. It’s closest in function and design to iGTD, in my opinion. So why did I find this program harder to use than two GTD-based task management apps I’ve tried out? I had a hard time quantifying this. It’s strange. In one sense, the organizational structure of this program is very logical. It very closely follows the GTD process, perhaps more than any GTD task manager I’ve reviewed. It’s also aesthetically pleasing.

I think the issue for me lies in the way the data is managed. It’s about the degree of flexibility. The only way I really got it working for me was to adopt the workflow planned out by the developer. I think that’s what frustrated me. At times, I would begin to glimpse the potential of this app, only to be frustrated when I clicked on something to discover it didn’t work the way I expected it to work. If the developer can open up the interface a bit so people can navigate around more freely, I think it would increase it’s appeal. OmniFocus, for instance, is much more intuitive and freeform in the way it allows a user to add, sort, and categorize data. Midnight Inbox, conversely, is more about process: you need to be willing to follow a fairly rigid ‘Getting Things Done’ workflow. I am personally more inclined to use a more flexible tool like OmniFocus or Cultured Code’s Things (which I’ll review next).

A single license for Midnight Inbox is available for $35 (which is good through version 3.0). Midnight Beep Softworks is now hard at work on version 2.0 of this application. Be sure to check it out.

Yet again, I want to note that ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ remain registered trademarks of David Allen & Co.

GTD Task Management Apps III: OmniFocus

This is the third post in a series comparing task management applications that are based to some degree on the ‘Getting Things Done‘ process. Today I’ll look at OmniGroup’s OmniFocus 1.0.

OmniFocus is the latest offering from OmniGroup, one of the most well-respected software developers for the Mac. As a long-time user of OmniWeb (my casual browser of choice), I’ve found OmniGroup to be quick to respond, helpful and friendly when contacted for support. This is a solid company, in other words, so I entered this evaluation full of optimism. I began using this app while it was still in Beta, and I’m now using the free 14-day trial of version 1.0 (which launched on Jan. 7). I did not opt to buy the program while it was still in Beta (for a limited time, Beta users could buy it for ). The program now cost , which is perhaps the most notable thing to say about OmniFocus. It’s expensive. Is it worth it? Before I get to that, let’s take a look at the program.

 

The Inbox

The OmniFocus Inbox is likely where you’ll start out, and where you’ll spend a lot of time (see Screenshot 1). Do yourself a favor: when you download the trial for this app, begin by viewing the available overview on their website to get a feel for it. I also found the tutorials in the Help files of the program to be simple and easy to follow, which I can’t say for many of the programs I use. Then jump in and start adding some actions. Actions, in GTD terms, are either single things that you need to do or steps you take to complete a given project (the Project is a pretty straight-forward concept, so I’m not going to focus on it here). Adding actions is easy: click, type, enter some text, then hit Return for the next action.

Once you enter some actions, you assign them to projects and contexts (easy to choose from a dropdown list). Once you make all of your choices, you hit the ‘Clean Up’ icon on the top menu bar, and your items magically file themselves away, disappearing from the inbox.

This is similar to the ‘Process/Review’ function in iGTD, but I like the OmniFocus method because it’s easier. In iGTD, processing and reviewing all happens from the same tool (‘Process/Review’). With iGTD, you use keyboard shortcuts to fly through your tasks (iGTD calls them tasks, OmniFocus calls the actions) to re-sort or verify your contexts or projects, change a task’s status, etc.

In OmniFocus, you assign each tasks as many or as few parameters you want, and then ‘Clean Up.’ At it’s most basic, you can just assign a project and/or a context. At it’s most complex, you can assign each action a wide variety of parameters, which I’ll cover when I talk about the Inspector (since that’s where you’ll find these choices). Unlike iGTD, the ‘reviewing’ part of OmniFocus is a distinct feature, separated from the initial ‘processing’ of your actions. I’ll cover this shortly as well.

This workflow — dump actions in, add some specific parameters or goalposts, then dispatch the actions off with ‘Clean Up’ — is easy for me to grasp, and I like to see my Inbox empty when I clean up. It’s a bit of nice user feedback that makes me feel, well, organized (or at least approaching organization).

In the screenshot [Note: screenshots removed], you’ll also see some simple built-in color coding that appears once you assign due dates to your actions. The red text indicates an action that is past due; orange means it is due today. Easy enough. So far, this doesn’t do anything that iGTD doesn’t do.

Where it differs is in design and workflow. It’s obvious that the team who designed OmniFocus were striving for clean lines and simplicity while maintaining industrial-strength power under the hood. In effect, the powerful sorting/viewing guts of the app are carefully arranged and hidden until called upon by the user, whereas iGTD presents so many options and choices up-front, it feels as if you’re looking at the guts.

 

Contexts

While the term may vary, all of the GTD-based Mac task managers have a way to deal with the idea of ‘context.’ OmniFocus calls this idea, aptly, Contexts. Simply stated, contexts allow you to organize your lists based on where you are (see Screenshot 2). I think OmniFocus performs about as well as any of the apps in this review series when it comes to managing by location. They get high scores for making their user interface work as you would expect. Indeed, the interface (the means to add or subtract an item, for instance) will be familiar to you from other Mac apps. That’s a good thing.

In the screenshot, you’ll see a list of actions that are due that I can only do when I am using my Mac. Note that only items in each project that can be accomplished while using the Mac are shown in this view. This is handy. The way that OmniFocus handles contexts, and the sorting and viewing of contexts, works for me. It’s intuitive and orderly.

One feature that sticks out is the ability to nest contexts within other contexts. For example, I have ’email’ and ‘online’ as nested subcategories under ‘Mac.’ While this sounded good to me in theory, in practice it was more organization than I needed. It was enough for me to simply identify ‘Mac’ as a context. I don’t need or want additional sub-categories. However, I readily admit that this will be very handy for users with more ‘to do’ than me, namely business users (and those who like to be really, really organized).

Also note that some actions in the Context screenshot are purple. OmniFocus tries to be helpful by displaying certain colors for your actions. This can be useful, but it can also be confusing. Take the purple action: purple actions are the next items to do on your list. When you create a project, you can choose if the actions must be done one after the other (sequential) or in any order (parallel). A purple action means this is the next suggested action to do in your project (if order doesn’t matter) or it means that this is the next action you must to before you proceed to the next action (if order does matter). Personally, I think the purple text should only be used where order is important. If order is unimportant to me, I don’t need to have the first item on a parallel list to be highlighted. It’s not necessary.

Final word on the Context screenshot: you’ll note that I highlighted the ‘View’ bar, which I’ll discuss in brief next.

 

What’s in a View

The View Bar (screenshot 3) is a fairly ingenious tool. Thankfully, the designers thought to add a subtle hint in each of the view options to remind you what it’s supposed to do (‘Show Actions with Status:’ for instance is a nice clue that you’re about to sort your actions by ‘status’). The screenshot displays the dropdown menu for the Projects view. By way of example, you can change which projects are displayed by choosing from the following dropdown menu choices: remaining, active, stalled, pending, on hold, dropped, completed. Yikes. Is my project pending or is it on hold? Or maybe it’s stalled? My brain is starting to hurt. Several of the other ‘View’ groups have similarly vexing choices. All I can say is, ‘try them out. Play with it. See what it does.’ I’ll warn you though: it can start to get confusing when you mix and match view options. It’s easy to lose ‘where you are’ in your data. Here’s the good news: you don’t necessarily need to use these power sorting and viewing options. You can use just a couple, or none. I think the developers, in offering this plethora of viewing and sorting choice, are aiming at people who need to balance hundreds of tasks and dozens of projects. I can see how sorting and grouping and flagging and estimating time duration, etc. could be helpful for these people. But not for me.

 

Focus

Now here’s a feature I really like (screenshot 4): the Focus. This is a simple idea, and it’s a useful idea. When you highlight a project and click the ‘Focus’ button on the menu bar, you will only see that project and its associated actions. The ‘Focus’ button will then change to read ‘Show All’ … allowing you to quickly toggle back to the see all of your projects.

It’s so simple, I have nothing else to say about it.

Review

 

Now we’ll take a brief look at the OmniFocus review process (screenshot 5). The idea here is that you must periodically flip through all of your projects and actions to make sure they are still relevant, that they haven’t changed, and that they are filed correctly (in terms of due dates, status, etc.). OmniFocus tries to make this painless by automatically setting up a review process based on the time that you entered the data. This view (the ‘review view’) can be, um, viewed by selecting the choice from the ‘group projects by’ view drop-down list. What’s important here is that the program tells you what you should review by week and within the month, and you are presented with a right-menu option to mark each project as reviewed (once you do this, that project will automatically be rescheduled for review in a few weeks). This is a pretty good way to handle the review process, which is one of the GTD process steps to ensure you are staying on track with your actions and projects. If you’re like me, though, you may find this a little tedious. The ‘Review View’ is yet another example of just how many different ways a user can rearrange actions and projects via the View Bar. It’s truly amazing, truly powerful, and potentially truly confusing.

 

Inspector & Perspectives

These two items should probably not be lumped together because they are do different things. The one thing they have in common is that they both open up in separate floating panes. The Inspector pane is similar to many other Mac apps (Pages has a similar pane). Here, you can add even options for your projects, actions, contexts, and groups such as status, due dates, etc. Note that ‘group’ is one of the options here. I’m still not sure where these groups are, how I create one, and how I’m supposed to use the Inspector to further tag them. I stopped looking, to be honest, after mousing around for a few minutes. I have so many levels of organization in this program, do I really need to group items beyond placing them in projects?

At any rate, the Inspector is one of those Mac-like ways to stick a ton of metadata in one place and get it away from your main application window, presumably because we Mac users like our main window to stay clean and lean. I like that the program is smart enough to interpret what I enter in the ‘date’ and ‘time’ fields of the Inspector: you can type any of the following: ‘2d,’ ‘3 mo,’ ’45m,’ ‘next wed 1pm’ … and OmniFocus will interpret the date and time correctly.

‘Perspectives’ (the other info pane in screenshot 6) is, as far as I know, an idea unique to OmniFocus. Essentially, a Perspective is a way to capture a certain view for later. This little organizational tool is like a super-bookmark: it reminds me of a similar OmniWeb feature which allows one to take snapshots of all open pages and current views on those pages to save for later. I love this feature. It’s a nice idea for OmniFocus — especially if, over time, you discover that you really like one particular view (or three or four) and would like to get back to that view quickly at a later time. Given the hundreds of viewing combinations one can choose from in this program, it’s a good idea to give the user a way to store it. The one potential pitfall of this is that you must remember you are storing a snapshot of all your data in one particular viewing state. If you forget this, you might choose to view a Perspective and incorrectly think that some of your data is missing! It’s not missing, of course, it’s just that your ‘Perspective’ only includes a subset of all of your data.

 

Quick Entry

I want to point out that OmniFocus offers what, for me, is essential: the ability to invoke a new action from anywhere at anytime on the Mac (screenshot 7). OmniFocus allows you to choose your own shortcut for this. It’s simple and straightforward. Since I love Services, I want to point out that the app also places a little OmniFocus shortcut in your Apple Services menu. This allows you to select some text in any application and quickly insert it into a new OmniFocus action (even when the program is not open). While not all apps require the ability to enter data on the fly, apps like OmniFocus really do. You’ll find yourself using it a lot more once you get used to quick system-wide data entry shortcuts.

 

The OmniFocus Right Click menu (Dock)

I thought I’d show you this final screenshot just as as indicator of the thought process that went into the application. I think it’s telling that the right-click menu focuses on Contexts. OmniFocus does seem to favor them — apparently iCal also synchs based on contexts. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: I frankly never organized my task lists based on location before trying out these types of programs. It’s a way of thinking that some will love and some will probably find abhorrent. Me? I tend to think in terms of projects, so I would rather see projects in a quick-access list. Better yet, I’d like the ability to toggle between projects and contexts.

The Verdict

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?

No. I had to view the tutorial video and read the tutorial help files to really get going.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?

Yes and no. I have a lot of respect for OmniGroup. I am impressed that they brought in productivity gurus to try to get this application done right. I can see that they tried hard to make it simple enough for basic use but powerful enough for serious business use. I think it’s a great start. I was still excited about the potential of this app a week later, but all of the sorting, viewing, and tagging options started to weigh on me. It’s too much work! I began to feel that I was spending too much time planning and not enough time doing. To get the most out of this complex app, I think the secret would be to stick with it for a long time — you would have to commit to it, get to know it inside and out, develop routines and workflows that work for you. Then, I imagine the curve would change: it will begin to feel more like a a powerful tool that helps you get more done instead of a powerful tool with too many options.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

Pretty good. Good integration for system-wide data entry (so you can easily enter new items, even when the program is hidden or closed). Not as many options for integration with other apps as iGTD (in fact, I think there is only iCal integration right now).

4. How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.)

It did a good job of keeping track of the things I had to get done, but I found myself playing with the View options too often. I kept adding more metadata so I could use the various sort options to see how they worked. In other words, maybe there are too many options.

5. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘Mac-like’ is it?

I think the user experience is good, but not great. The application is very Mac-like, in that I immediately knew how to move data around. I like the clever way that OmniGroup embedded the Views and Perspectives — when you step back and look at all the sorting and viewing tools they squeezed in there and then ponder how clean the user interface still looks, it’s an impressive feat. The question is: are there simply too many viewing and tagging options? I felt bogged down in the end.

In conclusion: this will likely be one of the top three GTD-based task managers. It’s a solid program — and it’s only at version 1.0. However, it costs too much for most Mac users. Those who are willing to plunk down for this will likely be serious business users who are serious about task management. The rest of us? I for one am still still seeking something a little easier to grasp, an even simpler user interface, perhaps a few less options, and a lower price point.

Once again, I want to point out that ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co. I still don’t want to get sued.

GTD Task Management Apps II: iGTD

This is the second post in a series comparing task management applications that are based on the ‘Getting Things Done‘ process. I’ll begin with a look at bartek:bargiel’s iGTD 1.4.5.6.

I started testing this application out many months ago, right about the time that I started to learn more about the GTD process. This little application was then generating (and continues to generate) a lot of buzz: it’s powerful, it’s free (well, it’s actually donationware, so it’s a nice idea to give the developer some cash if you intend to keep using it) and it integrates nicely with many other Mac apps (e.g. it can synch with .Mac, synch with an iPhone, and meshes nicely with QuickSilver, the very capable and elegant data management and application launcher).

The Poland-based developer who created this program (who apparently developed this on his free time; he has a day job according to his profile) integrates the core ideas of the Getting Things Done model very well. The application is updated and improved with amazing frequency — it seems that every time I launch it, there’s a new version available. I don’t know when this guy sleeps.

I find the user-interface of iGTD to be both interesting and daunting. I admit I have a weakness for lots of options, and in this department iGTD excels. That’s the interesting part: it presents you with an amazing amount of control for organizing your stuff. But all of these options come at a price. There are so many choices that it may make your head hurt. Check out the first screenshot (on the left) to see what the application looks like. At the simplest level, iGTD organizes your ‘to do’ items in two main ways: via ‘contexts’ and ‘projects.’ A context is simply a way to denote ‘where I will do this task.’ In screenshot #1, you’ll see that the context for the item ‘post iGTD review’ is the ‘computer.’ In other words, I will post this review only when I’m at my computer. I can then add this item to a ‘project’ of my choice. In screenshot #1, I’m about to add the ‘post iGTD review’ item to the ‘my website’ project. This simple bit of organization allows me to quickly see what I have to do by context and what I need to do by project. I can choose which view I want by selecting the appropriate button on the menu bar of the application. When I view my items by context, iGTD displays what project each item in that context belongs to. When I view by project, I see what context each item in that projects belongs to. Make sense? You may want to download the trial from the developers site and try it out to better understand this. By way of example, I could have two items in my ‘at the computer’ context. When I sit down at the iMac, I say to myself, “Let’s see what I’m supposed to do while I’m here at the computer.” I see that I have two items: one is to post this review. The project for that item is called ‘my website.’ The other item is to ‘back up my data.’ The project for this one is ‘mac management.’ So, iGTD offers a a handy way to organize, particularly when you’re dealing with a lot of items. I like how iGTD manages contexts and projects. It makes sense. But let’s take a step back — the first thing your supposed to do if you follow the ‘GTD workflow’ is to transfer all those dozens or hundreds of things you have ‘to do’ from your head to the computer. For that you use the ‘inbox.’

The inbox is simply a collection point for all your ‘to do’ items. When you’re ready (that is, when you’re done entering items and your brain is empty), you can start processing and categorizing those items to help you get better organized. I found that the easiest way to do this with iGTD is to drag items to the appropriate context (drag ‘get groceries’ to the ‘errand’ context, for instance … and note that you can create whatever context you want), and then double-click in the ‘Project’ field for that item and choose a project to add it to (or create a new one). These ideas (placing your tasks in an inbox, then sorting them by contexts and projects) is a core idea of the GTD process, and all the apps I’m going to look at more or less follow similar organizational lines. Now I want to discuss a few finer points about iGTD in particular.

Remember when I said the interface was both interesting and daunting? I want to hit on the daunting (or potentially confusing) aspects of this program. For starters, iGTD allows you to assign ‘priority’ and ‘effort’ for each of your items. Power users may like this, but I found it to be tedious. I tried setting both ‘effort’ and ‘priority,’ but it quickly became cluttered and confusing as the task list grew. Do I need both? What’s the difference? The ‘effort’ bar (seen in Screenshots 1 and 2) seems like overkill to me, but perhaps those of you with a penchant for extreme organization will enjoy it. If you don’t like or need to numerically prioritize and/or visualize your ‘effort level’ for each item, you can always ignore these functions. The application doesn’t care.

iGTD also allows you to add start and due dates to items which, of course, is critical for managing tasks across time. This works great and is easy to do in iGTD. But there’s more. With iGTD, you can also mark items as ‘pending’ or ‘waiting for’ (this is graphically represented in iGTD by a little Play/Pause button that shows up in a column right before the name of each task. Personally, I think the terms ‘pending’ and ‘waiting for’ are too similar. It confuses me. Start dates and due dates are enough. In fact, due dates are enough for my needs.

I’m also not comfortable with the sorting functions available below the task list (see the drop-down lists that say ‘Current & Future’ and ‘All Tasks’ in Screenshot #1). There are just too many options. From these drop-down lists, you can choose from ‘Current & Future,’ ‘Current,’ ‘Future,”Maybe,’ and ‘All’ … and once you make this choice, you can further filter your tasks by choosing one of these options: ‘All tasks,’ ‘to do,’ ‘to wait for,’ and ‘delegated.’ This exemplifies the problem for me: there are too many views, filters, and organizing fields. Who might need this level of fidelity and amount of power? Probably people using this app for business, where one is faced with managing many projects over time that involve many different people (and for this, iGTD offers the ability to delegate … perhaps this is when one might deploy the ‘waiting for’ tag). I could go on about the confusion factor when delving into dates, reminder tags, notes, links and time tags, but suffice it to say that this is likely going to be the point where some people may say “my head hurts.”

I forgot to mention that you can also right-click on each item and get even more options (as seen in Screenshot #2). Here, you’ll find the ‘Maybe’ tag, which is peculiar to GTD. It means ‘maybe I’ll get to this someday.’ I like that. I always have some items that I want to do in some vague, undefined time and place in the future, and it’s nice to be able to track these items without cluttering up your concrete time-sensitive items. When you mark an item as ‘Maybe,’ by the way, the ‘play/pause’ button changes to a little question mark in a blue bubble. What about the other choices you get when you right-click on a task? Suffice it to say that there are many more options, and the best way to see it is to try the free demo for a week or so. In my opinion, the developer did a fine job in offering up so many methods and shortcuts and sub-menus, etc. to organize your data, but I reiterate that it may be too much to easily grasp for many users. Here are a few more screenshots for you to peruse [screenshots removed]:

The first of these three is an image of the ‘QuickAdd’ box (screenshot #3). This is an example of excellent system-wide integration. I can be surfing the web, hit the F6 function key (provided iGTD is running), and this handy quick-entry box will pop up. I like this, but as you’ll see in the screenshot, I’m still not sure what to do with those ‘pending’ and ‘waiting’ checkboxes. Screenshot #4 shows yet even more options available from the Dock (with a right-click on the Dock icon). That reminds me, iGTD ALSO offers a menu item up in the Mac menu bar. This is yet another way to quickly add your data, synch your data, and categorize your data. Finally, screenshot #5 shows the iGTD Services menu. Why show this? Because I love Apple’s Services menu, and it’s surely one of the least used features on the Mac.

The useful Service item here is this: if you highlight some text in whatever program you are currently using, you can go to the Services menu (click on the program name in the Apple Menu Bar and choose ‘Services’ – it’s available in every application you use) and choose iGTD. Here, you’ll find ‘Put to iGTD inbox.’ iGTD does not need to be running. What this will do is open up iGTD, create a new task in your inbox, and place the highlighted text in the ‘Task Notes’ field of iGTD. That’s handy — you can’t use the F6 key to enter new data, after all, if iGTD is not running. But you can always use Apple Services. (Take a look at your Services menu. You may be surprised at how many apps offer little time-saving shortcuts here).

The Verdict

1. Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?

I could figure out the basics, but some aspects of the program baffle me.

2. Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use?

I was enthusiastic for several months, then my usage trailed off. I was only using a fraction of the programs power, and that bugged me. I got tired of looking at all those options and blank fields that I just didn’t require for my basic life organization needs.

3. How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS?

Extremely well. From the Services menu, to the Menu Bar item, to the Dock menu, to the function ‘hot keys,’ to the integration with tons of other apps, iGTD is extremely integrated, and extremely powerful. According to the developer’s website, iGTD integrates with Quicksilver, LaunchBar, Safari, Firefox, Camino, BonEcho, Opera, Apple Mail, MailTags 2.0, Microsoft Entourage, NetNewsWire, endo, Journler, Yojimbo, DEVONthink Pro, Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, TextEdit, TextMate, TextWrangler, Finder, PathFinder, EagleFiler, MacJournal, Mori, WebnoteHappy and VoodooPad Pro.

4. How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.)

Very easily, but it got confusing when I started to organize by dates, pending, future, maybes, etc. However, I want to caveat this: you don’t have to use all of the available options and power features. And remember, we’re talking about a free application here. Maybe you could live with a few too many options for the cost of a donation to the developer.

5. How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘Mac-like’ is it?

It feels complex and heavy. I tend to initially like complex and heavy applications (probably just because of the ‘gee whiz’ factor, as in ‘gee whiz, look at all the things I could do with this’). But I find that, after some time, complex and heavy just weighs me down. It comes down to the difference between what I could theoretically do with a program and what I really am doing with it in reality. Perhaps some aspects of iGTD wouldn’t be so confusing if I were better versed in the semantics of GTD. But I’m a novice, and I think the winner in this war of GTD-based task organizers will be the one that doesn’t require a customer to know much about GTD. It should simply make sense, shouldn’t feel bloated and it should be a pleasure to use — the elusive Mac-like quality.

In conclusion: this will remain a strong GTD task management contender for the Mac because it is rich in features, looks great and is free. When you consider that this is made by one person, as opposed to a powerhouse Mac software company (like OmniGroup’s OmniFocus … which I’ll look at next), it really deserves to be a contender. It’s a great piece of software. If you are a GTD wizard, you will likely love this program. If you are not, you may find it’s a bit like using a chain saw to cut butter. The last word: iGTD Version 2 is now being developed (you can try an Alpha release of it by visiting the developer’s site). It’ll be worth another look once this new and improved version hits the streets.

By the way, I better add that ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co. I don’t want to get sued.

2008: The Year of the Killer Task Management App

I’ve decided to get better organized in 2008, so I’ve been trying out task management solutions for the Mac.

What I’m looking for is a well-designed application with powerful features that cleanly integrate with the Mac operating system. I want to be able to group my varied tasks into project groups that are easy to view and are logically organized. I want tag my list items so they are easy to find and search. I want one central place where I can quickly see what I have to do today and what I have to do next. I want a central place to store everything in my head. Above all, I want to enjoy using this application. No, more … I want an application that makes me want to use it. A tall order, perhaps, but this is what the Mac user experience is all about.

Seeking Alternatives to Apple’s Mail/iCal

Unfortunately, I think Apple missed the mark with their improved Mail/iCal ‘to do’ management introduced with Mac OS X Leopard. Granted, it’s better than what existed in Mac OS X Tiger and all other previous OS X versions (which, essentially, was nothing). But it’s still not there. I tried using the ‘Apple option’ for a couple of weeks before I abandoned it. While the Mail/iCal solution is simple and well-integrated and may be enough for many people, it’s just not working out for me. It doesn’t feel right. I don’t like the overly simplistic to-do list in Mail. I can’t group items into bigger categories or projects. I can’t tag items. I can’t easily archive completed items. I don’t like how it integrates with iCal. As for iCal, the to do list view is fine is you just have a few items, but it quickly becomes unwieldy and hard to read as more are added. I could go on. Suffice it to say that Apple’s offerings seemed underpowered to me, so I moved on.

The good news is that there are an overwhelming number of third-party task management applications out there for the Mac user (there are also a number of plug-ins available to enhance Mail and iCal task management and a host of web-based solutions to help manage your life). That’s the great thing about the Mac – the third-party developers who make applications for Mac OS X are unmatched on any platform. I truly believe that.

 

The bad news is that it’s hard to know where to start because there are so many choices. My solution? I chose to focus on a peculiar subset of task management applications based on a system called Getting Things Done. Why? Because many geeky mac users that I respect are oddly enthusiastic about this model, and have been for quite some time.

Getting Things Done on the Mac

If you follow the mac community buzz, you may have heard of David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ framework for, well, getting things done. Over the course of the past year, it seemed I couldn’t escape the chatter about this revolutionary way to manage one’s daily and long-term tasks. Intrigued by the noise, I checked out an audiobook of ‘Getting Things Done’ from the library. Allen’s ideas are indeed innovative and clever.

In essence, GTD is a systematic way to organize your thoughts that begins with dumping out the contents of your brain in an ‘inbox,’ then organizing those things along the lines of when you plan to get to them (e.g. today, next week, someday), in what context you will do these things (e.g. at the computer, at work, on the road), and how you group these things (into different projects). GTD is way of capturing all these little bits of ‘things I want to do’ and ‘things I need to do’ so you don’t have to worry about remembering them all. Once you get all those thoughts down, GTD offers up a nifty way to organize it in a meaningful way over time.

At some point, Mac developers who adhered to the GTD model began creating clever applications and scripts to capture this process. While I haven’t closely followed the evolution of this development, I noticed that it seemed to really get going in mid-2006 … and this most certainly had something to do with organization guru Merlin Mann of 43 Folders, whose tireless efforts helped to popularize this system, particularly on the Mac platform.

Over the course of 2007, I came to associate GTD with Mac task management as more and more applications based on this model began to appear. Over time, I’ve watched as available mac-based GTD programs evolved from the relatively simple (see kinklessGTD) to the increasingly sophisticated (see OmniFocus, iGTD).

The 2008 showdown

As the options continue to evolve and refine, I think we’re heading for a final shake out in 2008. My prediction: this will be the year for the Killer Task Management Application for the Mac, and that application is going to be based on the GTD model.

This will be the year when a small handful of really great Mac-based task managers vie for the mainstream — you may never have heard of GTD, but if these task managers are successful, you won’t need to know anything at all about David Allen’s system. All you’ll have to do is pick your favorite and start getting organized.

Here are the applications that I will compare: iGTD, Cultured Code Things, Midnight Inbox, coalmarch Park and OmniFocus from OmniGroup.

As the dust settles over the next year, I think that one application will stand out above the rest. I’ve made my choice, but I’ll save my opinion for the end of this series.

How I will review these apps

To keep things simple, I evaluated these power organization apps with a few questions in mind:

 

  • Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?
  • Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use? 
  • How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS? 
  • How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.) 
  • How did the program ‘feel?’ How ‘mac-like’ is it?

 

This last point may need a little clarification. You may have heard or read that a particular program is ‘mac-like.’ What this means is this: Apple software is generally renowned for simplicity, consistency, lack of clutter, and a great user interface. A ‘mac-like’ application, then, exemplifies these qualities. I also consider a program to be ‘mac-like’ if the interface is instantly familiar and obvious because it’s similar to other Apple programs I use, such as the Finder or iTunes. Last but not least, a good mac application should integrate seamlessly with the rest of the Mac OS.

In the next post, I’ll begin the comparison.