Grounded & Steadfast

The journal of Chris Bowler, a collection of thoughts on faith, business, design, and the creative process.

Aug 31st, 2010

One Bucket to Rule Them All

This post makes use of terminology from the ancient black art of GTD (Getting Things Done). If you are unfamiliar with this nefarious practice, good for you. I urge you to stop reading now. If self-abuse is your thing, you can learn more about GTD and its creator here.

Recently, Shawn Blanc succinctly and eloquently summed up a number of my thoughts on the topic of inboxes and task management. In his post, Shawn lists a few different issues that many of us experience when coming across bits of information of various types from various sources on various devices. This has been an irritating problems that has also vexed me for some time.

I’m not alone in this. I’ve had readers and online acquaintances complain of the same issue. Josh Cody, a fellow web worker, expressed his frustration well:

All of this is just off-the-top-of-my-head talk. I’ve just been thinking about trying to build something better for me, and I’m not even sure what I want or am frustrated with, I just know I’m not happy.

That’s a good way to word it — nothing is more frustrating than an unidentified source of frustration. And I believe Shawn puts it even better under III in the article I reference above:

It seems as if every day I bump into things while reading feeds, Twitter, the Web, or email — things I want to download, buy, research, and etcetera. But often I’m unable to take action at that moment. How then can I save it for later?

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact issue. After quite a bit of thought, I would describe it as such:

We have various sources of useful information, but of various types, each requiring different actions.

An example may help. I could spend 10 minutes on twitter, from whatever client I use to access the stream, and come across a mention of a wallet I may want to purchase, a link to some slides I would like to peruse, and a link to a blog post that I’d like to read later. Each requires a slightly different action from me: some are tasks, some are a piece of information to reference later, and some are just curiosity.

And for those immersed in the ecosystem of Apple, this means you have two or three devices on which you might come across these bits of information. And with each device comes a different context — your ability to perform each required action is not the same on each device.

The problem is multi-faceted, due to the types of information and the different levels of ability on a given device.

In his article, Shawn proposed a solution that was web based, similar to Instapaper, but focused on tasks. His premise is that you reduce your system to one overall bucket of collection, to which I say amen. I think he has the right idea — instead of one tool to file/archive/act-on for each item, what we need is one place to collect it all (and it must be accessible from the desktop, the iPhone and the iPad). From there, the user can perform whatever each required action in the comfortable, familiar tools of their choice.

And although Shawn is hoping someone will build this service, I think we have a really good option already.

My Choice: OmniFocus

Lest I start a holy war, let me start with this: I do not have a hard line stance that OmniFocus is so much better than Things or TeuxDeux or any other task management solution available today. It is simply my belief that OmniFocus is currently the best option to give Mac users the tool to capture everything in one place. With a client on all three devices, and their own cloud based syncing service (still in beta), I believe OmniGroup is in the position to dominate this arena.

I didn’t feel this way until I started to use the iPad client. It is by far the best of the three. Why do I feel like OF solves the issues I and others have stated?

  1. It’s on all three devices we Apple fans use
  2. It syncs flawlessly
  3. It’s accessible via all the apps that are our sources of information

The first item is self-explanatory.

For the second item, although OmniFocus gives you multiple methods to sync your data between clients, I believe their Omni Sync Server is the option that will win people to the platform. (Yes, I would consider it a platform since it lives in the cloud and syncs with a client for each device. Like Simplenote, it’s a proprietary platform, but a platform nonetheless). Who knows — perhaps in time the OmniGroup will also make your OmniFocus items accessible as a web app.

For item 3, the ability to dump links and reference information into your OF bucket is essential. As Shawn references to in his post, he cannot add items to Things on the iPhone or iPad as he can on his mac. Thanks to the Safari bookmarklet available in OF, this is not an issue for me.

Now, it’s true that one cannot add items straight from my iPad Twitter client or Instapaper on my iPhone. But I can from Safari. In Shawn’s post, he mentions that his proposed service, if adopted by developers as Instapaper has been, would meet the need of being available from all the apps we use regularly.

The archive mechanism in Safari meets this need now.

Every app that I use that is a source of archivable/actionable information gives the option to view each item in Safari. Reeder: check. Instapaper: check. Every Twitter client I’ve used: check. Sure, having to exit and re-enter the original app is a small bit of friction. But I can still do what I need and collect the piece of knowledge I have deemed necessary. And when iOS 4’s multitasking comes to the iPad (today?), this workflow will improve even more and the small bit of friction will be reduced to nothing.

An Aside

I may be running the risk of turning this post into an OmniFocus iPad review, but there are two items worth mentioning here. I stated above that this OmniFocus iPad is the best of the three. It is indeed, but I’ll go one further: it’s the best task management tool that I’ve used. Period.

This is partly due because the platform itself is present — and usable — on the three main devices I use. But I must profess my love for the Forecast feature that was added to this client. It is not present on the Mac or the iPhone clients.

After a couple of days of using the Forecast ‘view’, I asked myself, “Why has no other Mac task application used this exact interface?” Indeed, even the Mac client for OmniFocus pales in my usage. The ability to quickly see a timeline of what’s coming down the pipe, no matter the project or context — has been a boon to my tool belt. To have all overdue items available in one quick glance is also beneficial.

Don’t let my use of a task management app dissuade you here. The problem I — and others — have encountered is one of collection. The fact that OmniFocus deals with tasks is handy in that I can manage my tasks as well as archiving information in the same collection bucket. But it’s a great solution even for those who don’t give a hoot about managing tasks. Of course, with the total cost of all three clients coming in at $140, it’s a little steep for only collecting items.

But I don’t believe that’s the target audience in question here. Folks who work on a Mac all day, do just that — work. And since you have to manage tasks and information, OmniFocus is a great option. In my mind, it’s the best option and it’s already here.