Although I’ve trusted OmniFocus for years, I’m still compelled to try out the alternatives sometimes. This time I wanted to see what the new Sequoia Reminders app with calendar integration was like. It’s so pretty!

    Today I discovered that it also silently mutates some of my tasks, like removing the URLs from them so I can’t click straight from the task to the thing I need to do, or removing their repeat settings so that they become one-and-done.

    Yikes, no. Back to OmniFocus, yet again.

    Retiring DEVONthink

    I used DEVONthink for many years to store, organize, and search all of my personal information. Nothing else came close to its wide variety of pro-level data management features when I started with it. However, times change. While DEVONthink continually improves, so do its alternatives. For my needs today it’s a complicated, expensive tool that’s no longer worth the extra effort and expense over other products.

    I recently realized I hadn’t launched DEVONthink in months. When I tried to, I remembered that I was out of licenses for it. DEVONthink is licensed by the number of computers you want to use it on. By a quirk of fate, I own or personally operate 4 Macs:

    • An older Mac Mini I bought several years ago and now mainly use as our home server. For example, our document scanner is tethered to it.
    • A work-issued MacBook Pro that mainly sits next to my desk.
    • The Mac Studio I’m typing this on. A previous job issued it to me as a work computer and let me keep it when I left. My current job manages it for me so that I can use a very fast plugged-in computer with several large monitors when I’m working from my home office.
    • A MacBook Air I bought for myself last year when I needed a newer computer of my own before the Studio was given to me.

    I’m the only person who uses these computers. Because of DEVONthink’s weird licensing scheme, my $199 Pro license makes me pick and choose which 2 I want to be allowed to use. I could pay another $198 to use my other 2, oooorrrr I could switch to another system. That was the kick in the pants I needed to investigate the options.

    I ended up following the Unix philosophy of selecting well-crafted single-purpose tools for each of DEVONthink’s features. If I decide to replace one of them, I can swap something else in while I keep using all the others.

    Storage and sync

    I configured DEVONthink to sync my documents with iCloud, including to DEVONthink’s separate $50 iPhone and iPad app. Therefore iCloud Drive was the easy choice for storing all my information and syncing it across my devices. This cost nothing extra since I was already paying for it.


    I use the Johnny Decimal system to assign each of my documents to the right folder. The closest thing to that collection of folders in DEVONthink is that same collection of folders in iCloud Drive.

    Now I use Hazel instead of DEVONthink’s “classify” feature for automatically sending files to the right place. Cost: $42, or $20 for an upgrade. (New major versions come out about every 4 years, so the upgrade price is about $5 per year.)


    DEVONthink has a fantastic search tool. So does HoudahSpot. I set up a global keyboard shortcut to open its search window no matter which app I’m currently using. HoudahSpot also searches locations like network drives and USB devices without indexing them in advance. Cost: $34, or $19 for an upgrade. (New major versions come out about every 3 years, so the upgrade price is about $6 per year.)


    DEVONthink has limited support for taking Markdown notes. I tried using it as my catch-all notes app but kept coming back to iA Writer. It’s much better for writing, linking between notes, publishing to various online services, and as of recently automating my workflows with Shortcuts. I don’t count Writer’s one-time $50 purchase price in my total because, like iCloud, I was paying for it anyway.

    Aside: If your workflows are centered around Markdown, get Marked 2 while you’re at it. Thank me later.

    Linking everything

    DEVONthink has mechanisms to link related objects together. Hookmark (which I’ve written about before) can make links between just about anything. I used it instead of DEVONthink’s features. Cost: $70 for the 1st year then $35 per year.


    I appreciate DEVONthink’s powerful features. However, other tools caught up with or surpassed it to the point that I had been using it as one part of a broader system:

    • DEVONthink to organize, store, and search my documents
    • …into folders laid out as recommended by Johnny Decimal
    • iCloud to sync them
    • iA Writer to take notes and edit Markdown
    • Hookmark to link between documents, web pages, tasks in OmniFocus, network files, and so on

    Now I’m using:

    • Hazel to organize my documents
    • …into iCloud Drive folders laid out as recommended by Johnny Decimal
    • HoudahSpot to search for them
    • iA Writer to take notes and edit Markdown
    • Hookmark to link between documents, web pages, tasks in OmniFocus, network files, and so on

    DEVONthink is better than any of those individual parts, but each of those individual parts is better at the one thing they do than DEVONthink is. Hazel is a better organizer. HoudahSpot is a better searcher. iA Writer and Hookmark are better for writing and linking. And while the end goal of this wasn’t directly to save money, as I’m not allergic to spending money on things that make my life better, DEVONthink’s sticker shock is what nudged me into action. It’s a happy result to end up with a more powerful, flexible system that’s cheaper to maintain.

    DEVONthink’s been good to me. It helped me collect and organize all the information I use in my personal and professional lives. Still, its alternatives got better and learned to play well with each other. Now it’s an overly expensive tool that’s less good at addressing my needs than the cheaper, better tools that replaced it.

    I wish OmniFocus used perspectives in Forecast

    I wish OmniFocus would replace the way its Forecast view selects items to display with a user-selectable perspective. Then I could make my own choices about what to include, and OmniFocus would display those items in its handy integrated view alongside calendar events.

    I can’t make those choices today. For example, the Forecast view doesn’t allow me to include actions that have a defer date in the past. That is, once an action is past its “start date” and available to be worked on, it no longer shows up on Forecast’s Today tab, or even in the Past tab. This is all the configuration available to decide what the Forecast view should show:

    Forecast configuration tab

    That’s one place I think Things is better than OmniFocus: If I have an action like “pay the rent (after the 20th of the month)”, the Things Today view will still show that action as something I could and should be doing on the 22nd of the month.

    Purists might argue that I’m using OmniFocus wrong. I shouldn’t be leaning on the Forecast view at all, but should be regularly checking my tags and projects to see what I should be doing. That workflow isn’t the right fit for me. I know. I’ve tried it many times. What does work is a nice Today view that shows all my available scheduled actions in one place, along with actions I’ve tagged with “Today” during a review. I have a personal items perspective like that which ends up looking much like Things if I squint at it the right way:

    Perspective configuration tab

    Notice that the Forecast configuration looks an awful lot like a pared-down version of a regular perspective. If I had a magic wand to wave, I’d remove the “Items” checkboxes from the “In Forecast, include” and “Today includes” sections and replace them with the name of the perspective that would select all the items I wanted to show on the Forecast. Ta-da, done. Then I could customize the Forecast to make it perfect for my own needs. Others could make their own perspective, or use a default that OmniGroup could include to emulate the current behavior. Alternatively, a perspective could gain a “Display as Forecast” checkbox where I could have multiple Forecasts, each with its own filtered view of items. Tell me a separate “Personal Forecast” and “Work Forecast” view doesn’t sound nice. Imagine that you could associate each one with the appropriate focus filter so that they show up automatically when you’re doing personal or work things on your computer. The heart flutters!

    Please consider this, Omni Group. OmniFocus is powerfully customizable in so many ways! I’d be delighted if this one last set-in-stone limitation were removed.

    Back to OmniFocus. Again.

    I know I said I’m using Things to manage all the things I need to do, but I’ve switched back to the OmniFocus 4 beta.

    I like Things. It’s pretty and ergonomic. That matters in something you’ll spend so much time with. For the most part, I like using Things more than I do OmniFocus, which isn’t exactly beautiful to look at. OmniFocus does everything right where it matters, though.

    First, Things lacks end-to-end encryption. That by itself should be a deal-breaker for me. I tried to overlook it because I wanted Things to be my ideal to-do app, but I just can’t. I think the Cultured Code gang are great people. They have a long track record of treating their users well. I have no reason to think that will change. I strongly doubt they’re going through my boring to-do items, but it’s at least technically possible, and I hate that I have to trust any company’s good intentions. Even if I think they’re good people, my employer may not appreciate me storing sensitive information in an unencrypted vendor database. Even more, my wife’s a doctor, so HIPAA implies she can’t use Things at all for her work unless she keeps all her actions so vague as to be useless. If she put an item in there like “Call Joe Smith back”, she could be sued and/or fined for storing personal healthcare information in an insecure location. In contrast, OmniFocus lets you set an encryption password on your data. Then The Omni Group can’t access your information even if they want to. If you don’t trust Omni’s sync server, you can sync it with your own WebDAV server.

    Second, Things’s search field requires you to type exactly what you’re looking for. If I have an item named “Do foo and bar”, searching Things for “foo bar” won’t find it. OmniFocus will. That’s bitten me more times than I’d like, usually when I can almost (but not quite) remember how I phrased a task. Sure, I could just type “foo” into Things and then scroll through the results into I see “bar”. I bought a to-do app to offload that mental grunt work.

    Finally, it shouldn’t bother me so much that I can’t check off a repeated task in Things before its start date. It does. It bothers me a lot. I put everything in my to-do app, including tasks like “text my distant friend, Joe, every month”. If he and I talk today, and I’m going through my weekly review tomorrow, it’d be nice to mark that as done even though I’m not “scheduled” to chat with him for another 3 weeks. Things won’t let me unless I’m willing to dig into the task’s repeat settings. OmniFocus doesn’t care. It’s like “Oh, you’re done early? Cool. I’ll remind you in a month!” Things users have been requesting this ability for years.

    I’m back to OmniFocus. It’s not as pretty to look at, but it does everything I ask of it. I wish it had Things’s gorgeous interface, and I miss being able to add sections and notes to projects, but I won’t trade encryption, better search, and smartly repeating tasks for those features.

    I have a note to myself: stop looking for a better task manager than OmniFocus. While it won’t win a beauty pageant, it’s the best app for helping me get things done.

    Integrate Things with Focus

    I use the Things task manager to keep track of what I need to do. I use the Focus pomodoro timer to help myself focus on a task that I’m actively working on.

    Focus integrates well with another task manager, OmniFocus: you can drag an action from OmniFocus into Focus to create a task to work on, and that task will have a button that links back to the original OmniFocus action. Super convenient! It doesn’t play well with Things, though. If you try the same process, you’ll end up with multiple separate actions for each of the Things to-do’s various properties.

    For example, this to-do has the title, note, checklist, tags, when, and deadline options filled in:

    A Things to-do with lots of options set

    Dragging it to Focus creates a whole mess of random tasks:

    Focus with 8 unrelated tasks

    That’s not helpful. We can do better.

    First, I wrote a shortcut using Things’s shiny new Shortcuts actions. For each to-do currently selected in Things, it uses Focus’s URL scheme to create a Focus task with the item’s title, notes, and due date, and a link back to the item in Things.

    Second, I made a Keyboard Maestro hot key macro, available only in Things, that executes my shortcut. When I select the to-do item above and press “option-F”, I get one single task with all the details set:

    Focus with 1 well-configured task

    If I click the link icon next to the task’s title, Things opens with that to-do selected.

    Ta-da! The workflow is slightly different than with OmniFocus, but only a little bit, and the result is just as useful.

    ...And Back to OmniFocus

    I recently wrote about switching from OmniFocus to Reminders and gave a lot of reasons why I thought that was a good plan. I was wrong and I’ve since moved back.

    Apple has made Reminders into a solid app with a lot of nice features, but I realized I’ve been taking OmniFocus for granted. First, I sorely missed its “defer dates”. That is, I don’t need to be reminded to buy Halloween candy when it’s nearly Christmas time. I don’t even want to see that on my action list because it clutters up both my list and my thinking. Second, you can set OmniFocus to repeat an action a certain amount of time after that action’s completion date, not only its due date. “Pay the electric bill” needs to happen at the same time each month, but “make a haircut appointment” should happen a few weeks after my last haircut, whenever that was. Finally, OmniFocus’s project options like “complete with last action” are unmatched. Mix in many less crucial but nice-to-have features like nested tags, and per-tag location reminders, and it’s too good to walk away from.

    I started moving my actions back out of Reminders and into OmniFocus and switched to using the OF 4 beta on my iPhone and iPad. That beta is turning into what I’d hoped OmniFocus would become: a stunning app that’s a pleasure to use. If it follows this current path, and OmniFocus 4 for Mac follows soon after, I think it’ll be amazing.

    I’m glad I tried this experiment, and if nothing else it forced me to deeply review all of my actions before copying them from one system into another. Apple should be proud of Reminders and I bet it does everything most people need. It’s not (yet) enough for me, though. Until then, OmniFocus, I’m back.

    About the Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking

    I’ve written before about Hook, a nifty way of linking things you’re working on together so you can seamlessly bounce between them. I’ve thoroughly integrated it into my workflow now and adore how quickly I can jump from one document to another — in a different app, even — without ever looking away from my work. It helps me reach and maintain a state of flow.

    Hook depends on an app’s ability to support deep linking to its contents. Many apps are helpful, like OmniFocus. It supports both a right-click “Copy as Link” action to all sorts of items, and allowing other apps to ask it for a link to its currently selected item. Consequently, Hook’s OmniFocus support is top-tier, and I can make links between a to-do item and the website that documents how to do it. Other apps are less helpful, like Apple’s own Reminders app which supports neither users nor other apps asking for a direct link to an item. It somewhat supports drag-and-drop linking to other apps, but that’s not nearly so convenient and powerful as OmniFocus’s methods.

    Apps should be more like OmniFocus than Reminders. To that end, Hook’s author Luc P. Beaudoin collaborated with an all-star list of Apple software developers to write the Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking, which says in part:

    We affirm that the ability to copy a link to a resource is as important for cognitive productivity as the ability to copy other types of information. This applies to all persistent digital information.

    We invite software developers to do their part, by

    1. ensuring their users can conveniently obtain a link to the currently open or selected resource via a user interface; and
    2. providing an application programming interface (API) to obtain or construct a link to that resource (i.e., to get its address and name).

    I could not agree with this, or endorse it, more heartily. Anyone can write an app that locks away content behind its own twisty maze of navigation links. The best and most powerful applications open themselves to users. Today I can link from an OmniFocus action to a DEVONthink document, and from there to an Obsidian note, whether on my Mac or my phone or iPad. Tomorrow, I want to go directly into any of my apps. If you’re an Apple developer, please take the time to read and consider this manifesto.

    From OmniFocus to Reminders

    My wife’s been a Mac user much longer than I have. Years after she’d been happily using an iMac G4, a family friend asked if I’d like a bargain deal on their unused eMac. I was hooked. I’d recently learned about Getting Things Done (aka GTD) and wanted to try that on my new computer. At the time, on that OS, for Serious Users, that meant adopting either Things or OmniFocus. Then, as now, Things was the prettier choice. However, I had come to Mac OS after years on a Linux desktop and I knew that looks weren’t everything. I bought OF after a short trial period and I was off to the races.

    It’s fair to say that OmniFocus changed my life. I’d been a disorganized mess who was constantly forgetting what I was supposed to be doing, and was often paralyzed when faced with too many choices of what I could be working on next. With my new OF/GTD system, I started taming that and getting my life in order. OmniFocus was one of the earliest purchases for my first iPhone. When I later got an iPad, I gulped at the price and then bought OF for it, too. When OmniFocus 2 came out, I bought an upgrade on launch day. When OmniFocus 3 came out, I did the same.

    And when the OmniFocus 4 pre-beta became available for iOS, I installed it immediately. This time, though, something was different. Well, not with OF itself. That was the problem. OF 4 looked a lot like OF 3, which was pretty similar to OF 2, which closely resembled OF 1. Sure, The Omni Group had done a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work over the years. It was and is a brilliant product for power users. Yet sometimes even power users want something simple, and although OmniFocus scales up wonderfully, it never scaled down. Its industrial grade user interface would be instantly familiar to a user from 2008, with a hundred available options to tweak every last little detail. I realized that my own needs weren’t that incredibly complex and became curious whether maybe another app would be able to tell me to schedule a haircut.

    Meanwhile, Apple’s own Reminders app had started life as a severely underpowered afterthought compared to OmniFocus, Things, and other powerhouses. In iOS 14, it hit adolescence and sprouted new features that started to hold their own against commercial alternatives. In iOS 15, it went through another growth spurt into something that started to look feasible. I found a blog post from Jon Mitchell about someone in my situation who had made the leap from OmniFocus to Reminders. That sounded implausible and drastic but it gave me the nudge to try the experiment for myself.

    It worked. There are a few features from OmniFocus that I miss, like defer dates, perspectives, and “repeat from date of completion”, but those turned out not to be that important. And in exchange, I got a lot of nice benefits:

    • Reminders is integrated throughout the OS, and lots of apps are happy to export their contents to one of its lists.
    • I can share lists with my wife and family.
    • Taken together, those two features mean that Paprika can send its grocery list to Reminders so that my wife and I can both check off items while we’re at separate stores.
    • The user interface is vastly simpler and friendlier. Looks aren’t everything, but they’re not nothing.
    • I can ask my HomePod, “Hey Siri, what’s my first reminder?”, and it will tell me what to do next.
    • A lot of apps can be made to show reminders, like Calendar 366 which integrates them into a daily calendar view.
    • The Apple Watch app is genuinely nice to use.
    • It’s free.

    Since beginning that test, I found myself moving more actions from OmniFocus to Reminders. One day I noticed that there weren’t many actions left in OF anymore, and I sat down to move over the few stragglers. Wow. I’d been at inbox zero many times, but never at actions zero in over a decade of using OmniFocus. And then I did the previously unthinkable: I deleted OF from my iPhone and iPad. I’ve fully committed to a life managed by what used to look like a toy to me. Over the last couple of months, it’s been fine. I still miss the advanced features I mentioned earlier, but not enough to be tempted to go back. Again, my life isn’t so complex that I need an extremely powerful tool to organize it. I’m learning that something simple and fun to use is good enough for me.

    I still adore OmniFocus and I can imagine a world where I’d switch back. Maybe Apple will grow bored with developing Reminders and never improve it over today’s state, which is good but far from perfect. Perhaps OmniFocus 4 will be released as an absolutely stunning app that’s a pleasure to use. However, I think I’ll stick with Reminders for now. It’s helping me Get Things Done, and that’s what matters.

    How I get things done

    After years — decades — of experimentation, I’ve learned this about myself: when I follow a certain workflow, I’m happy and productive. When I don’t follow it, I’m stressed, anxious, and unproductive. There’s no in-between state. If I want to feel good about all the cool things I’m doing, I have to trust the process and follow it rigorously.

    These are the things I use to stay sane and productive.

    An inbox

    My workflow is inspired by Getting Things Done (aka GTD), but I’m not dogmatic about most of it. The critical part is that I have an “inbox” where I record all of the things I need to do. This isn’t like an email inbox where people send me things they think are important, but the opposite: I decide what’s important enough for me to remember, and those things go into it. I can’t overstate the importance of having this.


    The GTD book goes into detail about the psychology of it, but the gist is:

    • If I’ve recorded all the commitments I’ve made in a place where I trust myself to remember them later, my mind can let go of worrying about remembering to do them.
    • If there are things I haven’t recorded, my mind will get hung up dwelling on them: “don’t forget to buy the widget! Don’t forget to email your boss! Don’t forget to respond to the customer!”

    It’s the intrusive thought that I’m about to forget something vitally important that creates stress and diverts my attention from what I’d prefer to be thinking about.

    Specific recommendations

    I’m a huge OmniFocus fan, and I recommend it for everyone serious about organizing their whole life this way.1 Anything is better than not having a system, though. If you have Apple devices, the built-in Reminders app is a great way to get started. It lacks OmniFocus’s powerful features, but has everything needed to get up and running for free. There’s even nothing wrong with a notebook and pen, although that’s a lot less flexible in important ways and those are more things I have to remember to always take with me.

    Don’t underestimate the convenience of a voice assistant here. If I’m out running with my wife and suddenly remember something I need to do, I can say “Hey Siri, remind me to …” and trust that it’ll be waiting for me later. Then I can go back to paying attention to how much I hate running.

    A daily plan

    Every workday, I sit down and sort the things I’ve recorded in my inbox into project areas like “Personal”, “Family”, “Work”, or a few others. Then I decide what I’m going to try go get done that day. I review each of those project areas for urgent things such as paying a bill or preparing for a meeting, and flag those for my “today” list (which is an OmniFocus “perspective” that shows all the things I want to work on right now). Then I choose a few more things I’d like to get done until I feel like I’ve planned a day’s worth of work.


    Sorry, GTD purists! This is where my process diverges from The GTD Way, which looks closer to:

    • Find the most important thing to be working on right now.
    • Do it.
    • Repeat.

    I’ve tried to follow that flow many times but it doesn’t work for me. I’d rather dedicate time each morning to planning my day than continually revisit my list of possible tasks as I go.

    A timer

    Deciding what do to is good. Doing it is better. I use the pomodoro technique to make that happen. The short version is:

    • Pick the first thing on my daily plan.
    • Work on that thing for 25 minutes uninterrupted. This time is sacred: I don’t do anything else, with the minor exception that if I discover something else I need to do, I’ll pause for a moment to add that thing to my inbox so that I can stop thinking about it and go back to the current task.
    • Take a 5 minute break, doing anything but working on the task at hand. Return texts. Check Slack. Browse Hacker News.
    • If I’ve finished the task, mark it off and move on to the next one.
    • Repeat.


    I can’t work on 1 thing for 8 hours straight (unless it’s something that’s letting me procrastinate, in which case I’ll see you tomorrow). I can’t do it. But I can work on anything for 25 minutes, even if it’s not something I enjoy doing. That’s long enough to get an appreciable amount of work done, but short enough that my focus doesn’t drift. It allows me to concentrate intensely on 1 thing at a time without worrying that I’m neglecting important messages from family or coworkers — or worse, getting bored. Because I know that I’ll be able to check my texts a few minutes from now, I’m free to think about my current work.

    Specific recommendations

    I like Focus by Masterbuilders. It works on all the platforms I use, has nice reports, integrates with OmniFocus, and syncs perfectly. I’ve tried every similar app I can find, but keep returning to Focus.

    But any timer can work, from an app on your phone to a physical wind-up time stolen from your kitchen.


    Put together, these 3 ingredients give me superpowers:

    • I never forget the things I’ve promised do to.
    • I always know what the most important things are.
    • I have a way of getting them done that matches the way my brain works.

    Without them, I’m a ball of unproductive anxiety. With them, I can do anything. When I find myself feeling swamped by new things to do flying at me faster than I can finish the old ones, my mantra is “rely on the tools”. They always see me through.

    1. Update: I’ve switched to using Reminders. OmniFocus is amazing but I don’t always need so much organizing power. ↩︎

    "Let's Fix OmniFocus", indeed

    If you use OmniFocus, you should check out Paul Sahner’s Let’s Fix OmniFocus post:

    But lately there has been a growing demand for the company to rethink the user experience and interface of OmniFocus. As popular competitors like Things win acclaim for their clean, modern appearance, OmniFocus – for all of its power – appears stuck in another time period. So I wanted to see what it might take to re-imagine the OmniFocus suite of apps. The answer, it turns out, is not so simple.

    Simple or not, Paul’s idea of how a unified Mac / iPad / iPhone interface might work is absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t know I could want this so badly.

    Traveling with OmniFocus and OmniOutliner

    I don’t travel a lot, so when I do I invariably find that I’ve forgotten something important (9 PM the night before: “say, dear, where are we boarding the dogs?” “I thought you were doing that!”). I wrote an AppleScript to copy items from an OmniOutliner document to an OmniFocus project so that I never have to forget again.

    I love OmniFocus. It runs my life. But it lacks any kind of a template systems to let you quickly churn out copies of a project. That’s exactly what I needed here, though. Fortunately OmniOutliner fills that gap and gives me a nice way to describe that project. Here’s how mine starts:

    List of things I want to remember

    When I run the AppleScript and say “I want to travel on June 24”, it creates actions like “Call the vet to make pet boarding arrangements, with the Phone context, due on June 3 at 5PM”. I add everything to this list:

    • USB gadgets to charge
    • Toiletries to pack
    • Things to remove from my messenger bag (so I don’t find myself in line at security and realize I’ve still got my pocket knife)
    • People to notify, such as telling my credit union that I’ll be using my debit card in some exotic place like Topeka and please not to block it as fraud

    A magic moment for me was hearing Merlin Mann’s suggestion to add an “update this list” action:

    Reminder to update the list

    A couple of days into my trip, I get a reminder to add anything new I’d forgotten or wish I’d done differently. This turns my template into a living document of exactly my own personalized requirements.