Do you often feel there are so many things you would like to do but so little time to even think about them? Would you like to try something new, to brake up the routine in your work, to season your life with a little salt and pepper or simply to have more time for taking care of your health or family? Well, I already know that there is a high probability for you to answer “Yes” to these questions. There is no secret in that the majority of working people, aged 20 to 64, crave to have a little more spare time, so that they can decently manage the so-called work-life balance.
Luckily, for those of us who would gladly optimize their work in order to have more time to spend with their family and friends, there has been created a sum of little, easy-to-use, smart software applications that aim to help us improve the way we organize our daily activities.
OmniFocus is a good example of such a personal productivity application. In other words, with its user-friendly interface and smartly designed menus, OmniFocus provides you just the tools you need, to put your thoughts in order and make things happen.The Looks
When you first open the application, you are invited to either watch a short introductory video or to start with a brainstorming session, to find the items you might want to introduce in your project.
The approach is fairly simple and down to earth: even if the first check box suggests you to watch the Quick Start video for a better understanding of how the application can be efficiently used, you are also offered from the very beginning tips on the spot, so that you can start using it right away.
As it is a professional-grade personal task management application, OmniFocus provides an airy interface: one narrow vertical panel for the arborescent view of your projects on the left, a wide panel for the description of tasks on the right, and a toolbar with the most used buttons on the top of the window.
The buttons have intuitive names, as one would have expected, namely: Inbox, Projects, Contexts, Due, Flagged, Add Action, Clean Up, View Inspect and Sync. But you will see later on that you can customize the toolbar in accordance with your needs.
For the ease of use, and probably for the sake of introducing a visual delimitation between the buttons that let you edit or switch the views and the buttons that provide you quick access to the configuration menu, a search field has been introduced, right between the two groups of buttons.
Going back to the left panel, you can see, by default, a few branches in your project’s tree. The predefined items are called as following: Inbox and Library if you are in the Projects view, and Errands, Home, Office, Mac, (Email, Online), Phone, People (Boss, Spouse) and Waiting if you are in the Contexts view.
Right on the bottom of the panel, you have a plus and a minus button for quickly adding or deleting an item and a Tools-like button that offers you a vertical menu with the most utilized actions: Add a new Action or Project, change the status of an action in Active, On Hold or Dropped, Cut, Copy, Copy as Link, Paste, Delete, Duplicate and, finally, Group in new Context or Look Up in TranslateIt!
The File menu offers you the possibility to Add a Folder or a Single-Action List but to also Import or Export a file, to Synchronize with a Server or with iCal, or to perform a bunch of additional operations on the databases.
The Edit Menu, besides the standard group of actions, mentioned above, provides you with the possibility to Duplicate an item, to Add a Child or an Aunt (a new node, regarding the hierarchy that is above or under it) to a project’s tree, to Sort the tasks after certain criteria, to Insert a Time Stamp, to check or to attach a new Status or Context, to Find a keyword, to Check Spelling and, finally, to make the application verbalize the content of your project by using the Speech options.
The View menu offers you an alternative for switching between the two main views, namely Planning Mode and Context Mode and, in addition, it lets you Collapse or Expand a certain row, or all of them. What is very important is that it provides you with the possibility to see the tasks organized after their assigned date (Estimate, Start Date, Due Date, Completion Date), a smart substitute to the complicated manner in which the milestones and the deadlines are highlighted in other project management applications. Also in the View menu, you will find some composite options like Grouping, Sorting, Status Filter or Flag Filter.
The Inspector menu delivers you an alternative method (to the one of using the Inspect button present in the toolbar) to open the windows where you can edit the characteristics of an Action, Group of Actions, Project or Context.
The Perspectives menu tab allows you to switch between the default and the newly created views, to drop the perspectives in the Inbox or to assign them a Project, one or more Contexts and a status: Due, Flagged, Review.
Finally, the last three menu tabs, Format, Window and Help, let you play with the font and styles, to minimize or to zoom different windows and to read detailed info about each menu, command or regular expression employed in the application. The Works
OmniFocus aims to be a personal task management application. This means that it is supposed to be a non-complicated tool for individual use that should have the power to simplify your work due to a better organization of tasks.
This is probably why, when you first open the application, there are few tasks and actions already set up for you. To start adding new projects or actions, all you have to do is to use the plus buttons placed in the toolbar and on the bottom of the left panel (we will call it the sidebar) or to click on the appropriate options in the File menu.
It is recommended that you start with a brainstorming session, meaning that, for avoiding the situation in which you might get stuck in the incipient phase of the project because you pay too much attention to the coherency, structure or chronological order of actions, you can simply give a name to your project and start writing everything that comes to your mind when you think of your project, in a total random order.
This is probably the best way to get things started. Try to write down as many tasks and actions. Do not bother about the order, the tenses or the due date, in this phase.
You can, of course, describe both your work projects and your personal projects. But let me give you an example, to understand things better. Let us consider you work in the IT field and need to conduct a series of tests for the newly developed software in your company. As for your personal life, let’s say you are a true workaholic that has almost no time for their friends and family but who aims to get the most of the little time they have to spend with them.
With this aim in mind, you create a separate project dedicated to your loved one (where you aim to think of the actions you can take to express your feelings in an original and romantic manner) and another project for your friends (where you plan to organize, for instance, a trip full of thrills and adventures).
Now that the scene is set, let’s get to work. First, create the three projects, by giving each a name. In my example, they are called Softpedia test, Be more romantic and Summer Holiday, and are displayed in the sidebar.
The next step is, as I have mentioned above, to populate the projects with tasks. To do that, click on a project’s name and start typing the first ideas that come to your mind, right in the main window. To move to a new task, press the Return key or hit the violet Add Action button placed in the toolbar.
You will soon notice that instead of writing down real tasks, you tend to write goals. But, that’s OK. Most people tend to do the same thing. Take your time and don’t hesitate to write everything you think about. There is an infinite undo loop in case you want to delete or edit something on a later project’s phase.
Once you have finished this, you can start organizing the tasks. Reevaluate what you have in your Inbox. Is it something that can be made in a single action? Then, you can use the Edit menu with its Child and Aunt options to transform an action in a sub-task or another small, independent project. To make the decisions at this particular step a little easier to take, you can proceed with assigning Contexts to the actions.
To do that, switch to the Context view. When you assign a context, it means you decide what the appropriate physical location for an action is and what the other requirements that need to be fulfilled so that an action can be completed successfully are. More precisely, those requirements might refer to an object that needs to be used, a particular type of activity or a person. Technically speaking, for assigning contexts to actions, all you have to do is to drag-and-drop the actions on a context or to employ the contextual menu.
Another method for assigning contexts to an action is to use the Edit->Context sub-menu or the drop-down list displayed in the Context column of the main window that appears when you hit the View button in the toolbar.
As a side note, it is worth mentioning that it is recommended to switch to the Project Mode when you want to add actions to your Projects and to switch back to the Context Mode when you want to assign contexts to actions. Moreover, all the context and actions can be nested.
To see a summary of all the projects you have created up to the moment and, particularly to check the Single-Action List, click on the Library option in the sidebar. The blue projects are categorized as One-Action projects or Miscellaneous. If you want to see all the actions categorized by contexts, simply scroll down the cursor in the main window and look at the bottom of the page.
Furthermore, to assign dates to the projects, you can use the Edit-> Column ->Start Date and Due Date options. Besides, helping you see, within a single click, when an action should be completed, those dates can also help you create new views. This is how it works: when the current date gets close to the due date for an action, you will be notified in two ways: through the badge assigned to that particular task in the sidebar and through the small red bullet added to the application’s icon.
But there is also another way to control the dates and the repetitive action cycles: you can use the Inspector. It allows you to easily edit actions, assign contexts or dates from a pop-up calendar.
And as a last tip about the assignment of dates, you can use the Growl synchronization. This is an independent application that prompts you to see the overdue dates and that can be integrated with other SMS services or specific iPhone applications. Since we are talking about the integration and synchronization with other types of applications and devices, you should not underestimate the special features provided by OmniFocus with regard to the Server and iCal synchronization and e-mail integration.
If you click on the Sync tab, in the Preferences menu, you can see in detail the synchronization options: Nothing, MobileMe, Bonjour, Disk and Advanced.
The MobileMe option should be used when you want to use your account from Apple, and to store the sync database on your iDisk. Use the Bonjour option when you want to store the sync database on your Mac, so that other Macs or additional devices in your network automatically discover it. The Disk option should be employed when you want to store the sync database on a mounted disk. The Advanced option allows you to make use of a WebDAV server, if you have access to one and if the hosting provider fully complies with the standards.
The synchronization with iCal works as follows: the application takes your contexts and syncs them with the calendars you have already set up in the iCal Sync preferences. Now, if it were to come back to the Perspective tab menus, I would only highlight the role of the main options. The role of the Save Window as a New Perspective is easy to understand: it simply helps you store the front most windows that you are currently browsing as a new perspective. Take Snapshot of option overwrites the old perspective with the current settings of the window. This allows you to summarize the changes that occurred in different phases of the Project.
To focus on a particular Project, you can create a special button with the same name and customize the toolbar, so that when you click on it, all the other projects disappear.
Last, but not least, I would like to point out that the appearance of the text can be customized when you open the Font option placed in the Format menu. The Good
The application is not stuffed with overwhelming menu options. The interface is clear and airy, and gives you a first good impression. The tutorials are well structured and not excessively long, so that if you don’t understand the role of an option in the menu, you can always browse the documentation or watch the video guides. Moreover, once you have understood how the contexts and the actions can be nested, you can easily transform the most complicated sequence of apparently unrelated and time-consuming tasks in easy-to-follow projects.The Bad
Some options in the File and in the Edit menu are a bit clumsy and not so straightforward. For instance, not every user might understand, at a glance, what some options like Back up Database, Toggle all Notes or even Speech are aimed for. A professional, user-friendly application should be as intuitive and self-explanatory as possible. Also, the synchronization options should be explained more in detail and maybe included in the main menu, for the most inexperienced users who might have never been in the situation to deal with such things.The Truth
OmniFocus is not a difficult-to-understand or an expensive piece of software, in comparison with other personal project management applications. Some options might be a little obscure at the very beginning and the whole game of adding contexts to actions aligned with the recommendation of permanently switching among different views or perspectives might seem a bit childish or incomplete but once you have understood the mechanism behind it, you will probably get to the conclusion that you really don’t need anything else to get your ideas organized into projects and the projects delivered on time.
Well, this is, in a nutshell, what OmniFocus can do for you. The rest of the story depends on you, because you do remember Walt Disney’s favorite saying, don’t you? “If you can dream it, you can do it.”Here are some snapshots of the application in action: