OmniFocus for iPhone

I promised at least one person I’d write a review of OmniFocus for the iPhone. Well, not a review, really … just some thoughts about how I use it.

First, some background as to my task management system at the time I started using OmniFocus. I carry around a notebook at work, which I take to meetings. I write notes in there, yes, but I also write action items for myself. This means at the end of the day I have 4-5 pages of notes with action items (marked w/checkboxes in the margins) mixed in. When I completed an action item, I’d check it off in-place.

I also have a calendar. On the calendar are scheduled meetings, yes – but I’d also devised a system of using my calendar to block out time to work on a certain project (so no one could schedule anything with me for that time), or to do a certain task, or to check up on something, etc. I trusted (still do, actually) my calendar like my second brain. If a task wasn’t in my calendar, it would not get done.

If I had a random thought about something I needed to do (either at home for personal stuff, or at work) I’d email myself there. For example if I was at work and suddenly remembered I needed to call a repairman when I got home, I’d email myself that reminder at home. Vice-versa for work stuff I thought about at home. (Try as I might, I often cannot separate the two from my brain. I contain multitudes!) This system worked only if I happened to be at a computer when I thought of the task; if I wasn’t, say, if I was in the middle of a meeting — I’d write it down somewhere — likely in my notebook, which is always with me at work.

Another way of remembering tasks was, if that task was contained in an email (or if I needed to respond to an email but not right away, or if I needed the email for some data in it but at a later date) I just double-click the email in my inbox, and it opens up as a separate tab in the Lotus Notes interface. I’d end up with 6-7 tabs open, meaning, 6-7 emails I needed to look at or do something with at some point.

So that’s four ways of keeping my tasks coherent. You want one more? You got it! Post-it Notes (and scraps of paper when post-it notes were nowhere to be found) were probably my bread and butter when it came to remembering stuff later. For example, if I wanted to thaw out some ground beef in the morning so it’d be ready to cook when I got home, I’d put a post-it note near my wallet before I went to bed at night that said “Thaw ground beef.” I need my wallet to leave for work, so to get to it I’d have to see the Post-It note. At work, I would do something similar. If I was leaving for the day and I needed to do something first thing in the morning, I’d stick a post-it note on my keyboard. Voila – reminder problem solved, as I obviously can’t type anything with a note stuck to the keyboard. I’d see the note and do what I needed to do.

This five-tool approach served me well for awhile. I generally get my work done on time and keep my personal life relatively sane. However, I came to realize this organization scheme had several problems:

  • Because the notebook is physical paper (damn you, reality!!) I had no way of searching for a task that I completed. If I forgot about a task (heaven forbid!) it was a pain in the ass to try and find it again. I’d have to try and remember when the meeting was, then flip through that page plus-or-minus a few pages in case I’d mis-remembered the date. It was also difficult to search my calendar.
  • Because my action items were mixed in my notebook in various places, I didn’t have a single to-do list anywhere I could quickly glance at.
  • I manage four people and am responsible to at least two others in a boss or boss-like fashion. I meet weekly with each of these people. If I wanted to remember to tell one of these folks something at our weekly meetings – or anytime, really – I had no great place to write it down in. I started flipping back through my notebook to write future action items in the notes of the previous meeting – because at each meeting I knew I usually went to the previous one to make sure I’d covered all bases.

    This process started to seem inefficient to me, not to mention it was sometimes difficult to find the previous meeting’s notes. And if I ever skipped a meeting with these folks, which happens often, I’d need to remember to go back two weeks in my notebook, which is even more of a pain to find, not to mention I have a habit of saying ‘we didn’t meet last week, so there’s nothing to catch up on’.


This last problem was what finally drove me to look for a task management application. I had no problem tracking my day-to-day work tasks. It was the feeling of, uh oh I knew I needed to talk to this person about something – but what was it? This constant feeling led me to feel I was never fully aware of what my employees were working on, which for me is a terrible feeling. I felt embarrassed every time I was surprised by what one of them was working on because I’d apparently forgotten about it.

I knew I wanted an iPhone application because my phone is always with me. After reading several reviews, I purchased OmniFocus and installed it on my iPhone 4.

The app is designed around two key concepts: projects and contexts:

  • Projects are a series of linear tasks designed to achieve a specific end-goal. For example, let’s say I want to go to Houston with my friend to visit my aunt and see a baseball game. I have to see when the Astros are playing at home, talk to my aunt to see which of those dates she’ll also be in town, ask her if my friend and I can stay with her, talk to my friend to see which of those dates work for him, decide on a date and confirm the final date with my aunt and my friend, ask my aunt if anyone else in the family wants to go, buy the tickets, print them out (if they’re electronic), and collect money from everyone.

    That’s a shitload of Post-It Notes!! OmniFocus encourages you to create one project and enter each of the above steps in as a separate task.

  • Contexts tell you something about what you need to do in order to complete a task. For example, in the above sequence, I’d assign the first task a context of “Web browser” since I need one to see the Astros’s schedule. I’d probably assign the second and third tasks a context of “Email” since I will likely email my aunt a few dates to pick from and ask her if I can crash with her. The fourth task will also get a context of “Email” because I’ll email him with the list of available dates. You see how this works.

    It’s important to understand that contexts don’t need to be locations. They can be people, places, things, states of mind (e.g. these are tasks I can complete when I’m feeling lazy), and so on.

Projects and context are independent of one another, and OmniFocus allows you to sort your to-do list by either. So I can say “show me all the tasks related to the Houston visit” and voila, I’ll see all the incomplete tasks listed above.

Or let’s say I plop down at my desk and decide to plow through some emails. I can ask OmniFocus to show me all the tasks with a context of Email; this way, I can knock out several email-related tasks at once, even if the tasks themselves are not related to each other.

In fact, contexts is how I use OmniFocus the most. I have a context for each of the people I manage or am responsible to, so six contexts. Inside of each one I can create discrete tasks (or reminders, for me). So when I meet with Barbara each week, I can pull up the Barbara context on my phone and see all the things I need to talk with her about. When she completes a task, I can check it off in my phone also. I can go back later and see everything she’s accomplished. This workflow helps me stay on top of things and is easily the most value I get out of the app.

Apart from that, because OmniFocus is on my phone, I can easily jot down a task whenever it comes to mind. (If I’m in the middle of a meeting though, I write it on paper and transfer it to the phone later; I think phone-spotting is rude during meetings.) The iPhone keyboard is sufficient enough, and I abbreviate often enough, to not impede my thoughts.

I can assign GPS coordinates to contexts, So using the iPhone’s built-in map, OmniFocus can automatically show me pertinent reminders when I arrive at a certain place. (I like the ability, present in the upcoming iPhone 5 Reminders app, to show me reminders when I leave a place also. I’m sure OmniFocus will incorporate that at some point.)

Tasks can obviously have due dates (or start-by dates). If you put this information in, OmniFocus will of course remind you when the time comes due. If you don’t check it off immediately, it’ll move to the Overdue folder, where it sits waiting for you. You can push the date back if need be. In fact this is a third way in which you can sort tasks: by due date (in addition to the previously-mentioned projects and contexts).

I have tried using OmniFocus to keep lists of things, as in, lists of things I need to buy for my camera, etc. It kind of works like that, but I’ve found apps like SimpleNote to be better for such things.

Finally you may ask what happens if a to-do has neither a date, nor a project, nor a context. In this case it goes into the ‘Inbox’. This design ensures that nothing gets in the way of you tapping out an idea or sudden brainstorm on your keyboard, that is, not requiring a task/context/project lowers the barrier for entering an idea, ensuring you’ll do it more often.

You’re supposed to review your inbox every so often and clear it out to make sure no tasks are stuck in no-man’s land. I am still training myself to do this, so I have about 20 items stored up in my inbox. But at least they’re not in my head or on bits of paper scattered everywhere.

And that brings me to the point of OmniFocus: it’s to get your to-do list out of your head by enabling you to capture any to-do or idea you have, no matter where you are, and ensure you are reminded of it by associating it with the proper project, context, and/or date.

So far so good for me.


  1. Do you only use it on the iPhone? They just added the forecast feature to the latest version. You might like the app even more then!

    Since I also use it on the Mac and my iPad, I tend to do very little on my iPhone. I use it primarily for capturing ideas into the inbox that I usually process later on the desktop or iPad. The way I use OF on my iphone is usually just to see what I can do and tick it off, not really managing it.

    You can also build perspectives, that might come in useful when you need very specific tasks in front of you. Works great on the iPhone too.

    1. Yeah, I only use it on the iPhone. I did get the new version; it’s pretty nice. I dig the Forecast layout vs. the separate Due/Overdue sections.

      I can see getting the iPad app since I don’t have a Mac, but I haven’t looked into syncing them. Maybe when/if iCloud support happens, I’ll look into it. But for now the iPhone is a good way to manage it, mostly because as you said, it’s always with me (whereas my iPad is at home during the day).

      I haven’t looked into the Perspectives feature yet; how does that work?

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