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My Mac & iPhone GTD Philosophy: Less Is Perfect

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This past weekend didn’t just mark (at long last!) the installation of my standing desk, or the moment I chose to wall-mount my life-size replica lightsaber; it also marked my return to using CulturedCode’s Things on the iPhone and Mac (s aapl) — and I gotta tell you, it’s a wonderful feeling having those apps back in my life.

Before that, I had been using The Omni Group’s venerable OmniFocus as my task management tool-of-choice, mostly because, in mid-2010, I convinced myself I absolutely needed over-the-air sync between my Macs and iPhone (Omnifocus has it; Things does not).

Now, if you’re like me, you probably follow the work of some notable figures in the Mac community; people like Ben Brooks, David Sparks and Merlin Mann. It seems that those guys are OmniFocus ninjas. There’s nothing they can’t do with OmniFocus. I’m just not that good, and I don’t think I ever could be. To make the most of OmniFocus, I feel like I need to become both a GTD guru and commit hours and hours of my life to learning the software. Things, on the other hand, is so simple it requires almost no learning. For someone as old and inflexible as me, that’s a bonus!

Fiddly Bits

In trying (for six months!) to really get to grips with OmniFocus, I discovered that its greatest strength can also be its greatest weakness — everything is just so endlessly tweakable! Start dates, due dates, priorities, flags, perspectives, custom folders, nested folders, projects, location awareness, contexts, actions and who knows what else all add to the mountain of fiddly bits of detail that can be added, edited and generally mucked-about-with. In fact, there’s so much scope for fiddly details that Omnifocus offers its own Inspectors to make it more manageable. To be honest, when I have to open an Inspector, I don’t feel like I’m using a to-do manager any more.

Let me be fair; OmniFocus is a wonderful tool. But I always felt like I was neglecting some awesome functionality that could make me super-productive. I suffered a kind of productivity anxiety with OmniFocus: a nagging worry that I wasn’t making the most of this fantastic software the Merlin Manns of the world talk about with such enthusiasm. Finally, though, I’ve arrived at something of an epiphany; I wasn’t missing anything other than the discipline to stop tweaking my to-do lists and just get things done.

Choices, Choices

Mac users today are spoiled for choice when it comes to powerful, beautiful productivity software. Don’t like Microsoft Office (s msft)? No problem; use iWork. Don’t like Pages? There’s always WriteRoom, Scrivener or TextMate. Every one of those apps is a great word processor without the Microsoft bloat.

This philosophy of “less is more” should be familiar to us all; it’s baked-in to Apple’s DNA, and it seems poised going to become even more of a Mac feature with OS X Lion. It’s also the reason Pages isn’t like Microsoft Word, and it’s why the iPad isn’t a Windows 7 Tablet PC.

So why, when it comes to personal productivity software as fundamental as a to-do manager, do we often think we need more complexity, more sophistication and ever more bells and whistles? Could it be that we all trick ourselves into thinking that time spent poring over our to-do’s is time spent getting things done?

One of the primary reasons for my switching to the Mac was the Apple philosophy of design; everything that’s there — be it in the hardware or the operating system — is there for a clear and obvious reason. It’s simple; it’s easy, and it all just gets out of the way so I can concentrate on doing my work. That’s why I stick with instead of using more sophisticated apps like Mailplane or Postbox. It’s why I use TextMate instead of Word. And I suppose I could even use TextEdit to keep a list of tasks; but then, that wouldn’t be as much fun as putting a tick in a box, would it?

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14 Responses to “My Mac & iPhone GTD Philosophy: Less Is Perfect”

  1. Chris Herborth

    ‘This philosophy of “less is more” should be familiar to us all; it’s baked-in to Apple’s DNA, and it seems poised going to become even more of a Mac feature with OS X Lion.’

    I really wish they’d apply that philosophy to iTunes.

    You’ve inspired me to take a good look at Things; I’ve been using OmniFocus for about two years and have really fallen out of the habit.

    – chrish

  2. I absolutely agree with the “less is more” concept.

    Since a few weeks I use “Sorting Thoughts” – it’s a simple and very handy self management tool. My favorite features are:
    tree structure, real privacy (no cloud-based data), Palm Pre sync, available for Mac and Windows.

  3. Hi Liam, what your post suggests is something I’ve been thinking about for a while: time management routines and tools should be kept simple.

    There are people who get things done effectively with a simple routine of a) collecting every “open loop” or “input” on a notebook, b) processing it and 3) scheduling required tasks via to-do lists or a calendar.

    Not exactly rocket science.

    Even though I never used an Apple product, I respect their (minimalist) philosophy. Adding complexity without a reason is never a good idea.
    This is especially dumb when your goal is effective time management, because unjustified sophistication usually leads to time wastes.

    Marco Ricci

  4. I’ve used Things, The Hit List, and OmniFocus and have stuck with OF for one simple reason: it’s robustness. I can be as simple in setting up a task, or use as much complexity as I want. Most of the time, I keep it very simple. But on those occasions when I need to oversee a complex system, OF can handle it. Things? Not so much. The Hit List? Okay, but there’s no syncing with the cloud and who knows if there will ever be any future development?

  5. Thank you for mentioning the over-the-air sync feature I’ve never needd cloud syncing, and am surprised at the negative reviews Things has gotten over it. The ease in which Things syncs is all I need, and it just plain works.

  6. John Kendrick

    While I understand where you’re coming from I cannot totally agree. After I got Omnifocus customized and tweaked out a couple of years ago, I haven’t changed my MO, and I do just get things done. I easily manage 50 to 70 significant projects a year with OF and have found it to serve my needs far better than the others I have tried which always seem to come up lacking. I don’t think you need to use every feature of a product to find it useful, just use what makes you productive and forget about the rest. My thoughts anyway, John.

  7. Things certainly has a pretty face, but at $49.95 (Mac) and $9.99 (iPhone), it’s a little bit pricey for a one-trick pony. I downloaded it in beta and liked it. But even then the price they discussing made me decide not to become dependent.

    Consider a comparison. The marvelous writer’s tool, Scrivener, which you mention, costs only $45. And yet it does for more for writers of all sorts than Things does for just task management. It can even be tweaked to serve as a task manager. It synchs what your are writing easily with a variety of free and inexpensive iPhone apps for editing on the go.

  8. Andrew MacDonald

    Up until last weekend, I have never used any type of task manager / notes software on my Mac, iPhone or anything similar, however after reading about Things on a blog post on Gigaom, I thought id give it a shot.

    In less than a week, its probably the piece of software I use most now, gone are my notepads and pens for keeping track of my design projects, Things is absolutely amazing, and the fact it has Apps for the iOS ecosystem too just makes the all-round experience so much better.

    I would have happily paid an extra $20 for the software. Can’t praise it highly enough.

    • Things has wi-fi sync that I used for years but it was very cumbersome and difficult to keep a Mac Pro, iMac, Macbook Pro, iPhone and iPad in sync. When I got my iPad and CulturedCode still hadn’t implemented cloud-synching I had to abandon it and I’ve found a new home in OmniFocus. From the forums and blog postings I’ve read, many other people have given up on Things because of that missing link. Word has it that they’re now going to possibly charge for synching after the years of promising it to everyone who purchased it. Not exactly a company I care to deal with anymore.

  9. Things with no cloud-sync… no thanks. It’s been too long a wait. I switched to OmniFocus and didn’t have much trouble adjusting. The cloud-sync alone sold me on the product.

  10. I did almost exactly the opposite in December. I had all three pieces of the Things line-up, iPhone/iPad/Mac. I loved using the apps (particularly the iPad app for entry), but struggled constantly with the sync issue.

    Hearing how tough sync was after two years of waiting was the last straw. Now I’ve got the iPad and iPhone apps for Omnifocus and I’m feeling great about it. Entry on the iPad for more robust GTD works great for me without being as intimidating and distracting as the desktop.

    I agree with simplicity, but sync functionality was a must with three active devices. Having them all with me at all times for wi-fi sync just wasn’t an option.