Omnifocus for iPad vs pen and paper

I finally took the plunge and bought an iPad, and naturally it’s prompted me to reexamine how I record some of my thoughts, keep lists, and so on.

One of the main targets of this scrutiny has been how I implement David Allen’s getting things done methodology. While I’ve been doing it using pencil and paper, the iPad is a distinct enough environment I felt there was a good chance the iPad could be a real alternative.

After looking a bit, I ended up buying Omnifocus for the iPad, which I’d bought a long time ago for the iPhone. I bought the iPad version while momentarily blinded by their review feature. I say blinded because instead of giving the app a more careful review, I just assumed that anything so expensive would surely have the features I need. I was wrong. I also now remember why I’d stopped using the iPhone version.

First, the good:

  • The app supports syncing between devices, and it doesn’t require a subscription to do so. This means I can change an item on my iPhone ($20 app), and see the change later on the iPad, or on the mac, if I have the software installed.
  • The inbox feature is also nice. Even though it is just a text box, it is just a text box with nothing else required. As a result it’s quick and easy to enter something and get it off my mind. I’d say it’s even easier than writing it down.
  • There is a review feature that takes you through all of your projects, to ensure you’re kept aware of them and keeping them on the radar. This is an area where most apps seriously fall short, and why I’ve stayed with paper, and why I got excited by this application. The iPhone version does not have this feature.

The bad:

  • The price is high. $40 for the iPad app, $20 for the iPhone app, and $80 for the mac app. [See update below]
  • There is no reporting. None. You cannot even filter lists of tasks by date or specific status. This means that when I’m doing my month end report for the boss and I want to review my finished projects and tasks for items to add, I can’t tell when they were completed, or even separate completed tasks from pending tasks. I can spend $80(!) for the mac application that may provide this, but the $40(!!!) price tag on the iPad app is justified by the maker on the basis that it is a fully-functional stand-alone app, which it clearly isn’t. Folks who are just managing personal items might be fine without reporting, but I suspect they could get by with something much less expensive.
  • There’s no dates on anything. If someone asks, say, on what day you sent the Henderson file, it may very well be on your list but there will be no way to see what date it was completed on.
  • The review process cannot be manually initiated, you have to review each project manually by clicking into each one or wait for the review period (default one week!) to pass so that projects are marked due for review.The problem is that I don’t review projects because they are X days old, or because it’s Tuesday. I review them because my next action list has gotten short, and/or I feel like I’m forgetting something. The review feature in Omnifocus doesn’t work for this. The system should, at least, mark any project where an item is completed as up for review.If there are no projects to review, hitting the review button just gets me a notice telling me there are no projects to review, but that I can review them manually by going to the project and hitting the manual review button. If the purpose of review is to ensure awareness of a project, clearly I’m already aware if I go to the project manually, which makes manual review pointless.
  • I use one folder for work projects, and another folder for personal projects. Unfortunately, I cannot review just a folder’s worth of projects. It’s either review them all, or review none. So while I’m in the office I have to review all of my personal projects. This also prevents folders from being a way to do Areas of Focus, which have their own review cycle.
  • There isn’t any notification that items are up for review. Not even a badge with a number on the review menu item.
  • The system has a way to mark projects as being on hold, but there’s no tickler mechanism to take them off hold or prompt their review. Nor is there any way to review just on-hold items. I feel like putting a project on hold is functionally the same as deleting it.
  • There’s no way of adding a note to a project so that it shows up in the list like an action item. This is used for things like “Boss canceled project because customer X said they didn’t want it.”, which aren’t necessarily part of getting things done but later may be a big part of getting things figured out when people want to know why it was cancelled. There are places to put notes, and they have some visibility, but it means adding the note to another action item which usually isn’t appropriate. Last but not least, notes should show up even after they are written because they show history.Second to the broken review feature, this is the biggest weakness. On paper it was easy to write down an idea, or a simple question to myself. In Omnifocus I cannot record those as next actions because there can be only one next action at a item. So there’s really no where to put it, and thus doesn’t get recorded.


I’m still using the app because the iPad is much lighter and easier to carry than a bunch of file folders, and not using an app that cost FORTY DOLLARS will drive me nuts, but I suspect I will be back on paper within a month. I can already feel the pressure building. I’m working around the review limitations by setting all projects to review every day, but that erie disconnected feeling is starting to happen more often. I’ve decided to stick with it despite the absence of any usable reports or dates, on the basis that if the app proves itself I might spring for the $80 desktop app to get reporting, or find some way to access the data some other way. More likely is that the end-of-month report will be hell, and it will be goodbye Omnifocus.

Then, once again, a bunch of file folders won’t seem like so much to carry 😎

[UPDATE 2-15-2012: I ended up back on paper. It felt better, and I slept better. BUT, I was impressed with the folks at Omni, who make the Omnifocus app, in that they offer a 30-day money-back guarantee which I ultimately took them up on. True to their word they refunded my total cost via paypal.

It would be better if Apple could see that some apps require a trial period, but in the absence of that Omni has removed most of the the risk from trying their product.]


A New Look For Recording Thoughts

I wanted to give this site an updated look, and while I was planning to hire a designer, and probably still should, I sketched some ideas and then managed to get one of them working in Adobe Illustrator. For a little entertainment value, here’s the pages from my notebook where I played with some ideas:



I found the color palate “The Happy Thought”, on – Many thanks to Opificium – and tweaked the theme a little. It needs more work, but I feel like some of the cobwebs have been cleared.

Playing With Watercolors & Stillman And Birn

When Stillman and Birn sent some books for review, naturally a Beta was included. I figured I’d let my girls at it, since they like to paint and surely having 5 & 6 year old girls paint on paper would be a pretty serious test. but after using the other books for a while I got a bit protective, and didn’t want to give up the Beta. That left the watercolor up to me, and I dreaded it. I put it off, put it off some more, and then finally I jumped. I must have had some kind of fear of watercolors.

Experienced artists with good technique find Beta to be perfectly usable paper. But what about the rest of us? What about people like me who haven’t picked up a brush with creative intent in decades? I’m as good a hack as anyone, and figured the absence of technique would provide a good test.

My first experiment was using tube paints from Reeves to color a simple sketch. Those familiar with You Can Draw In 30 Days will recognize the elements, and I’m sure the art of my children has been an influence:

I squeezed paint onto a pallet, and even mixed colors a bit to get different greens and different reds. The sky was way too thick and I tried to thin it out with more water once it was on the paper. I didn’t soak the page beforehand like some tutorials suggest. I just went at it like someone who had paints and a brush and no instruction, and who was used to painting walls. I was pretty pleased with the result, all things considered.

The paper took it just fine. It was almost like painting on plywood, or sheetrock. As I got each part wet, it did get a little wavy, but in the end the page stayed fairly flat but for a gentle curve:


Not bad considering that some houses have received thinner coats of paint. With the cover closed it flattened out:


After a few days and painting the other side the sheet flattened right out.

My next experiment was with Prismacolor watercolor pencils. Shrunk down a bit the one of Riley on the right doesn’t look half bad to my eye, but the other one is pretty horrid. As they say, don’t be afraid to make a bad drawing! I had no idea I was so fearless 😎 By the way, the paper is white – I just didn’t correct the white balance.

DSC_0100.jpg DSC_0099.jpg   

I think I prefer watercolor pencils to actual watercolor paints. They seem easier to work with for me, but that didn’t save me from the temptation of travel and pocket sets – one each from Sakura and Winsor & Newton. The red Uni KH-20 pencil sharpener below was painted using Sakura’s 12-color pocket travel set, using the color of the pans as the guide to which red to choose – bad move, as they look a lot different on paper than they do in the pan. The crab was pencils.


When I spoke to Michael Kallman, the main guy at Stillman and Birn, he said that many folks were using the Epsilon and Alpha books for watercolor even though that is not what they’re intended for and S & B doesn’t recommend it. Since we all want a book that does everything but in the end we’ll have to live with compromises, I decided to see how the thinner paper reacts for myself.

So I decided to do some color charts from the portable watercolor sets, along with some tests to see if some of the pens I have would take a wash, in my Epsilon book. Noodler’s Bulletproof black proved to be more like BB-gun proof, incidentally. The paper got a bit lumpy, and in spots where I tried to blend colors aggressively a bit of pulp came up. When dry the paper flattened out, but the scrubbed areas were rough to the touch. The folks who are adept with paints don’t seem to have any issues, but I think I’ll stick with Beta. The Sakura Micron was the only pen that could take a wash without smearing like crazy – but it needed 5 minutes or so to dry first.

DSC_0102.jpg DSC_0103.jpg

When I first started using the books I was predisposed to like the Epsilon. It was most like what I had already, and being mostly a fountain pen user it seemed like a safe choice. Now I’ve changed my mind. I see why people get into watercolors, both the paints and the pencils. They’re fun. They also take more than a few different knacks to do well, and those who haven’t yet developed the skills need a surface that will be patient – for me that is Beta. A fine fountain pen, and a a harder lead work well enough on Beta that I’d rather have the thicker paper than the smoother surface. It’s more opaque than the others, and more crinkle resistant.

I did do a little watercolor, both paints and pencils, in my Leuchtturm1917 notebook, which has 80g paper. Pretty much instant buckling, and any scrubbing quickly rended the surface. Simply wetting pencil lightly wasn’t too bad, but this is definitely not viable watercolor paper, nor was it intended to be. I tried it because I wanted to see what the other end of the spectrum looked like.

I haven’t given Alpha much use – just a light sketch and very light wash with the watercolor pencils. I will give it a more serious try next, and my mind may change again, but for now I think Beta would be my first choice for a do-everything paper.

Pencils – mechanical vs. wooden

Sharpening vs clicking vs refilling vs carrying a spare. Sharpening is a moment of contemplation. A break in the process to briefly reflect and consider next steps. A nice sharpened point to record newly focused thoughts. Or it’s a pain in the ass interruption ;-). It’s handier to carry spares that sharpen, but it takes space. Refilling a mechanical pencil is easy enough, and doesn’t need to be done that often. A simple shake tells me if it’s got extra lead or not. Clicking on the mechanical might seem very convenient, but it’s got to be done often, and often in the middle of a word. If the lead gets too short, all of a sudden a nice smooth writing experience is brought to an end as the sharp end of the tube digs into the paper. A wooden pencil provides a more gentle transition from sharp to dull.

Availability of lead grades. Mechanical lead goes from 4H down to 4B, but I’ve only found 2B in stores. Wooden pencils go from 9H+ down to 9B+, depending on the brand, and I’ve had no trouble finding them in art stores.

Lead quality. I think there is better lead available in wooden pencils, but the standard Pentel Hi-Polymer lead commonly found for mechnicals is pretty darned good.

Eraser quality. You can stick an eraser on the back of any wooden pencil that will work fairly well, but really a stand alone eraser is the way to go. The little 3mm erasers on mechanicals aren’t worth much.

Pocket clip. Mechanicals almost always have them, woodies don’t.

Protected point. You can put an accessory cap on a wood pencil, but it’s built-in on the mechanical. However, if that little tube on the end of a mechanical gets bent it’s game over. Dropping a mechanical, and having it land on the point is usually a game ender. Wooden pencils are lighter, so there’s less energy to cause damage when broken.

Variation/character of line. Woodies have it, mechanicals not so much. Sometimes I want it, sometimes, not.

Cost. A box of premium wooden pencils is higher than a really nice mechanical pencil. But, one pencil lost costs less to replace than the mechanical. Since I rarely lose these things, the mechanical is cheaper for me.

Weight. No contest – a wooden pencil weighs less than half of a good mechanical – but it’s so little it doesn’t really matter.

Procreation. As wooden pencils get shorter, they get discarded around the house as they are replaced with new pencils. These discarded shorties can come in handy. A box of 12 pencils is really 12 writing instruments, even if only one is the ‘main’ one at any given time.

Nostalgia. This one is a draw for me – It really depends on which nostalgia I’m after. Grade school or college & early work years? Either is ok.

Smell. Wooden pencils have a very distinctive smell, and when I first started using them again it had me flashing back to grade school days. Mechanicals don’t really have that.

So what have I missed? Which do you prefer, and why?