Like all entries on this blog, it will come as no surprise to my readers (who, according to wordpress analytics, virtually all know me) to hear that I have a fond curiosity for dabbling and experimenting with task management tools. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with Todoist as an alternative to Outlook as a task management system. To my surprise, I actually found it even more useful than I was expecting, and decided to do a head-to-head against OmniFocus, my current GTD weapon of choice. So how do these three systems work, and how do they stack up?
Background and Requirements for my GTD Trusted System
I’m currently writing this post on a Mac, but my work laptop is a windows computer, as is my personal laptop (although I would love an Airbook, I just can’t justify the price, and the windows laptop made sense for my computing needs at the time). One of the core tenants of GTD is that everything is in one system. When I bought OmniFocus, I wasn’t that concerned with this, since I wanted to keep my work life and home life separate. However, as I did more work (projects done for personal edification) split between my (PC) laptop and (Mac) desktop, my “system” started to fracture. I was using OmniFocus on my phone and desktop, outlook on my work laptop (which was, as expected, almost exclusively for work), and trello to piece the rest together, including on my iPad (see pricing section below) and personal laptop. It worked, but it was fragmented.
When I decided to try out Todoist, the primary driver was that I needed a better way to track projects, particularly small projects. Trello works really well (in my opinion) as a master project list and it even does a passable job as a project management tool for large projects. However, it gets very cluttered very quickly when you try to use it as a task management tool (i.e. all the unique next actions), especially when you include small projects of only 3-5 actions. Outlook is even worse. Outlook’s task list is useful only in that you can quickly turn emails into tasks using quick actions. However, Outlook completely lacks the concept of a project, and the only way of grouping tasks is using categories. Since I often have a lot of different projects going at once, this is completely untenable for me. What I wanted was a nice way to have sub-actions within subprojects, like I can do in OmniFocus on my Mac. Ideally, this should be available no matter what: home, work, in transit, whatever. Enter Todoist.
How did Todoist stack up to the other two?
User Interface and Look-and-Feel
Being part of the Microsoft Office Suite, Outlook is familiar. Hell, it’s where I spend at least 2-4 hours every work day, so the email portion (and subsequent task portion) is clean, familiar, and very customizable. You can change the columns and information shown for each next action. Besides the normal MS ribbon at the top, the overall space is very clean and you can very easily switch between different views. Of these three tools, Outlook is definitely the most customizable.
Somewhat to my dismay when I first bought it, OmniFocus for Desktop feels cluttered. In an effort to highlight/bold information that really matters right now, they put other information (like project, context, etc.) in a light gray. Far from actually honing the eye in, this looks like a block of text. Also, the fact that they consider “due soon” as “within 24 hours” means that things that won’t be actionable until tomorrow show up now as yellow, even though they aren’t actionable right now.
Where it’s most cluttered/cramped though is the side panel that shows the details for each action. First of all, I have to scroll to see the notes section. Second of all, the note is very cramped, inconvenient, and can’t really contain any useful attachments. The due dates and whatnot are very useful, but not very useable and are very click-heavy.
On the positive side, there are a good number of shortcuts for switching perspectives, quick entry, and other tools to make using OmniFocus on the Desktop and on the iPhone very easy to use.
Of these tools, Todoist has hands-down the cleanest display. Labels only show when needed/specified (unlike OmniFocus’s contexts, which are omnipresent). The comments section is large and easily accommodates some stream-of-consciousness work and updates.
Like OmniFocus, it’s got a fairly click-heavy UI, but Todoist does allow more keyboard use when assigning due dates to new actions, which can save having to move your hand back and forth between keyboard and mouse with each task.
Where OmniFocus’s UI excels at displaying the same information in different ways, Todoist’s UI excels in its simplicity and the ability to jump between different projects and display different information in the same way.
Features, Kludges, and Bugs
As previously mentioned, you can create tasks out of emails using quick actions. That’s really the only feature worth mentioning, because Outlook Tasks is really just a to-do list; it’s not a fully-fledged task management, much less project management tool. Quick actions, while useful, are a bit buggy in that the order of operations is not always respected, meaning that my categories don’t always take automatically
Of these three tools, OmniFocus seems to have the most features, and some of the most powerful features. Most notably, OmniFocus has the ability to defer tasks and has a robust concept of sequential tasks. In this example, Scan Wedding Cards is the next action I need to take for this sub-project, and the later actions, which are dependent on the first action, are listed as “remaining” but not “available” and can easily be displayed or hidden depending on the perspective.
Not only is this useful for projects with long time horizons, but it’s extremely useful for recurring actions that only happen 2 or 3 times a year, like scheduling a dentist appointment or changing the furnace air filter. Ideally, I want to forget that I have to do these things at all until the time comes to do them. If I accidentally think about these things, I can rest assured that my task management system has it covered. This “defer” feature can somewhat be replicated in other systems, but it’s not native the same way it is in OmniFocus.
The other feature I really love with OmniFocus is the weekly review. On a weekly basis, OmniFocus (for desktop only) allows you to quickly look at every remaining project, regardless of status, to make sure that the status (active, waiting, or on hold) is appropriate and the due dates are well defined.
On the negative side, OmniFocus desktop has a really annoying bug where if you complete a recurring task, it will automatically generate the next task, but if you un-complete and then recomplete the original action, it will re-copy the recurring action for tomorrow, creating a duplicate recurring series. Also, OmniFocus recurrences aren’t smart enough to “jump ahead” if you miss a day. Also, as mentioned, the notes section feels like an afterthought and is very limited in tools.
In many ways, I think Todoist’s biggest features are the UI and its ubiquity. Todoist is available on iOS, Android, OS X, Windows, and online. It also has plugins for CloudMagic (my email tool of choice for my apple devices) and Outlook (my mandated tool at work). The UI makes entering dates exceptionally easy compared to OmniFocus; for example I can enter things like “every weekday” or “next Thursday” and it will set the date appropriately.
The other particularly cool/unique feature of Todoist is the Filters functionality (premium only), which, if you’re reasonably comfortable with Boolean logic and are willing to put in the time setting them up, can replicate many (though not all) of the features in OmniFocus that Todoist lacks (like the defer feature).
Organization and Structure
It’s a barely glorified to-do list. Tasks can be grouped by priority, due date, created date, or category. However, you can’t layer subtrasks within other tasks and you can’t group by combinations of categories.
Folders can contain projects, which can contain tasks, including sub-tasks, which may have their own sub-tasks. I love this level of nesting, since my brain tends to think in outline form, but being a mediocre developer, I don’t like it when my subroutines start getting more than 4 levels deep. Fortunately, OmniFocus can be configured to mark a sub-project complete when all the tasks within that sub-project are completed. I know it only saves a single click, but this is very nice.
Todoist is similar to OmniFocus with the multiple layers of projects, but instead of folders they have parent projects. Again, the nesting for the projects and the actions within the projects can, in theory, go on for a while, but I think 4 or 5 layers is probably the maximum you should ever do. In this screenshot, we just show the “projects” and the parent projects. We can also have tasks and subtasks in the main task window.
Finally, there’s pricing. Outlook comes as part of a package with the ubiquitous Microsoft Office, so let’s call that more or less free. Todoist has a free version that may work quite well for many people, but people with multiple roles or who want to compartmentalize work, home life, and personal edification would do well to purchase a premium subscription and use filters.
On the whole, OmniFocus and Todoist are fairly similarly priced:
- OmniFocus is priced on a software-as-a-product model with a different price per platform
- iPhone: $20
- iPad: $30
- OS X: $40 for the basic, $30 for the student version, and $70 for the premium version
- Todoist is priced on a subscription model, at about $30 per year and is available on all platforms (including online) after that.
So assuming OmniFocus releases a new version ever 2-3 years and you purchase the basic model on all platforms, both will run you just under $100 over 3 years. OmniFocus can be a bit more expensive, especially for the professional/premium version, but again, it does have the richest features.
As mentioned at the beginning, I have computers on multiple platforms, and I really want to consolidate my entire list of next actions—personal and professional—in the same place. To do that, I’ve chosen Todoist. Todoist has a nice outlook plugin, which makes it integrate seamlessly with my work email (which was the only advantage of Outlook tasks in the first place), and it’s available on my apple and PC devices. I’ve got my four different goal areas (think somewhere between 20 and 30 thousand feet in the GTD Horizons of focus model) listed as parent projects, with projects (10 thousand feet in the GTD model) delineated as appropriate underneath the parent project. Todoist has a built in view for “Today” and “Next 7 Days,” which are useful starting places, but I’ve created separate filters based on parent project (so far broken up broadly to “work” vs. “non-work”) to display only the sphere of tasks I care about right now.
We’ll see how this works out, but for now, I’m quite happy with my switch, particularly if I can come up with a viable way of “deferring” tasks like I could in OmniFocus (current strategy is to just dump them in a “long term recurring” project, though that is, admittedly, not ideal. Others have used a combination of filters and labels, but since labels don’t get automatically added or removed, this would require some complicated filters that I just haven’t gotten around to caring enough to write.
Let me know what you think. And with this, I’m going to cross off my next action in Todoist.