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.]


8 thoughts on “Omnifocus for iPad vs pen and paper

  1. You might take a look at Evernote. Steve. The app has a lot of functions. I’m not sure that it will allow you to sort by date for projects and such but it seems adaptable to all sorts of uses so it might. I’ve just started using it and it seems very customizable.


  2. Hello Steve,
    I discovered this today because of a link to your four-parter on the on or many notebooks.
    I’ve been using OmniFocus fo ipad for about 6 months and have been seriously paying attention to journals for a couple.
    Many of the cons you’ve listed for OmniFocus can be accomplished. For example, you can add notes to projects, not just actions. Reporting is a big hole, though. Hopefully Omnigroup will figure out that in the post PC world they should fix some of the gaps
    There is a forum reachable from the Omnigroup website that has lots of good information and helpful users who could help with many of your cons.


    1. Hi Ted,

      Yes, I know I can add notes but they end up attached to the project, and don’t show up in the timeline. I’m getting used to Omnifocus, but I’m still not sure it’s going to last.

      I should spend some time on their forums though, and see how others deal with some of these issues.

      Thanks for the comment!


  3. Steve – your desire for some form of metrics re: work accomplished (I like it in the form of time worked on x task or x project) is either missing, or poorly implemented, in every task management app I’ve come across. One would think with the Quantify Self movement, some firms will include this feature to differentiate themselves from the masses.

    However, paper/pen (in my case, self created pages, placed into an M ARC Junior notebook) will always be my first choice. Like you, I sketch, journal etc. Also, I’m a pathetic low willpower slop when it comes to computers. I NEED to shutdown all my gadgets to retain some form of sanity. If I depend on apps for to-dos, etc., I’m screwed.


    1. Hi Simon,

      Thanks for the comment. I’ve never used Things, but the reviews I’ve read suggest it is positioned as being less geeky and more friendly than Omnifocus, perhaps at the expense of features.


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