When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone at MacWorld on January 9, 2007, he referred to it as an iPod, a phone, and an Internet mobile communicator in one device, but the launch of the App Store expanded that three-in-one concept. Now you can use the iPhone to track the news, sports, and weather; quickly locate restaurants, movies, public bathrooms, even your friends; play games, listen to music, or watch videos. In addition, a number of apps enhance its capabilities as a productivity tool. This article looks at some of the best productivity apps available.
The "Getting Things Done" methodology
Getting Things Done (davidco.com/what_is_gtd.php) was developed by David Allen and popularized by his book of the same name (audiobook available in iTunes Store). Allen asserts that people feel overwhelmed and stressed because they cannot keep track of the large number of tasks required of them or recall them at the appropriate time and place. Getting Things Done (GTD) is Allen’s way out of this predicament.
The first principal of GTD is to off-load the tasks you need to accomplish from your head to some external storage media. This "bucket," as Allen calls it, can be a folder, notebook, inbox (physical or electronic), a computer program, or a device with PDA capabilities like the iPhone. More important than the bucket you choose is the strict adherence to a workflow review process. GTD suggests the following concepts as a way to help you organize and accomplish tasks:
Next actions: For every task you list, you need to include a “next action” that must be taken to accomplish the task, along with the context in which that task can be accomplished. A context is the physical requirement to do the action. It can be a place you need to be, a tool you need to have, an activity you must be engaged in, a physical state, or a person you need to be with.
Projects: Allen calls these "open loops." They are tasks that require more than one action to complete.
Waiting for: Something that has to be accomplished by someone else before you can proceed.
Someday/Maybe: Tasks that are not a current priority, but will (or might) be in the future.
Finally, Allen warns that a productivity system won’t work if you spend so much time organizing tasks that you don’t have enough time left to accomplish them.
Although the GTD concepts can be implemented in a variety of ways, some are more efficient and easier to use than others. In addition, different tools may better suit the needs of different users. The iPhone’s combination of mobility, small form factor, Internet access, and connectivity make it an ideal device to support Allen’s Getting Things Done system.
Some users, including the extremely prolific technology author David Pogue, use their electronic inbox as a simple to-do list. However, most of us need something more than an overflowing inbox to keep us productive.
$9.95 (Mac version sold separately for $49.95, no PC version); culturedcode.com
Cultured Code's Things is a beautiful, polished Macintosh and iPhone/iPod touch application. The Macintosh version won the coveted "Mac OS X Leopard Developer Showcase Apple Design" award at Apple's World Wide Developer Conference and got a "Best of Show" award at Macworld Expo. The iPhone version can run as a stand alone application, but Things really shines when integrated with its more expensive Mac brother.
Entering your to-dos
The first step in using any GTD system is to load all your to-dos into the system. With Things, you load all of your to-dos in the program’s “Inbox” (not to be confused with the inbox that holds your e-mail). The easiest and most efficient way to do this is to use a shortcut to bring up the quick entry panel found in the Mac version of the program. This way, you don’t have to switch apps and lose focus.
Once the panel is up, type in your task and click "Save" to put the new to-do in the Things’ Inbox. Unfortunately, there’s no quick entry feature on the iPhone version. You have to open the app and tap on the plus symbol at the bottom of the screen to enter a new to-do. However, you can enter to-dos on the Mac and sync them with the iPhone.
Due dates and tags
The to-dos you enter in Things can have due dates and tags. There is also a Notes section for each item that can include links to files, folders, Web pages, or e-mails. The "tags" can be used to specify the location of the task (home, work, school), its priority (high, medium, low), and even its difficulty (easy, hard). Unlike some GTD implementations, Things' tags are user-defined and can be sorted or searched.
Organizing your to-dos to focus your attention
Things provides five lists that organize your to-dos and focus your attention. They are Today, Next, Scheduled, Someday, and Projects.
Any to-do with a date assignment automatically appears in the "Today" or "Scheduled" lists. Ones without a date assignment appear in the "Someday" lists. "Someday" is one of my favorite elements of the GTD approach to task management; it’s a place for my dreams, goals, and things I want to do someday. The Next list is where you will find the next task in a multi-step project. Breaking large tasks (Projects) into a smaller collection of subtasks follows the GTD methodology and sets Things apart from many other task management systems.
Another important feature of any robust GTD implementation is its ability to delegate tasks. In Things, any person in your Contacts address book can be added as a "Teammate" and then have tasks delegated to him or her. Unfortunately, this assignment only appears in your copy of Things. You cannot synchronize the delegation with another person’s copy of Things, and there is no way to e-mail them the to-do from within the app. You have to contact them separately to let them know about it, which makes the process more complicated.
Synching is easy to set up. Simply identify your iPhone in the desktop app’s preferences and the two programs will sync whenever the iPhone version is open. However, there are some limitations. First, the iPhone and Mac must be on the same network. Second, the iPhone must connect to that network via Wi-Fi. The fact that they must be on the same network means that you cannot sync via a Wi-Fi hotspot while you’re on the road.
The Mac version of Things can also sync with the to-do list in iCal. That means that you can sync to-dos entered into Things on the iPhone with Things on the Mac, and then sync them to iCal. It’s a roundabout way of doing things, but it gets the job done.
Simple and flexible
Things' flexibility and simplicity are its greatest strengths. A new user can start with simple to-do lists and add more functionality as needed. Repeating tasks and other features found on the desktop program are missing on the iPhone version. Fortunately, Cultured Code has a good track record of taking user feedback and improving the app.
Cultured Code promotes Things as "the most popular paid to-do manager in the app store." I can believe that, because Things is an excellent combination of simplicity and power. It combines an intuitive and uncluttered interface with a rich feature set that lets you manage your to-dos efficiently. Add to that a development team that loves their program and provides a steady stream of improvements makes Things a winner!
$19.95 (Mac version sold separately for $79.95, no PC version); omnigroup.com
OmniFocus (Winner of the 2008 Apple Design Award for Best iPhone Productivity Application) is another combination Mac and iPhone GTD application. It goes for completeness and is not an easy app to master. The serious user is advised to read the manual or go through the excellent video tutorials available from the developer (omnigroup.com/applications/omnifocus/tutorials). It's price is rather steep as well—buying both the iPhone and Mac version of the program will set you back almost $100. (There is a coupon code at the end of the first tutorial that gets you 10% off.) The iPhone app can be used by itself, but it’s more effective to use the iPhone and Mac versions together.
OmniFocus is the most complete implementation of the GTD system that I have seen on a Mac. A nice touch is its inclusion of your first project, which is called “Get started with OmniFocus.” This feature includes three tasks that assist you with the three main steps in a GTD process: Capture, Organize, and Do. Working through these three steps and watching the video tutorials should be enough to get a savvy user up and running in OmniFocus.
OmniFocus is incredibly flexible and complex when compared to other GTD implementations. In OmniFocus, there is no rigid structure to which you must adhere. Projects can have sub-projects, be put on hold, flagged, have start and due dates, and be turned into tasks and back again into projects. Tasks can be done simultaneously or linked sequentially so that one task must be completed before the next is started. Prioritization is as simple as drag and drop. You would be hard pressed to find a project that OmniFocus couldn’t handle.
Contexts are handled particularly well by OmniFocus. A task’s context is a physical requirement necessary to perform the action. The context can be a place you need to be, a tool you need to have, an activity you must be engaged in, a physical state in which you need to be, or a person you require to complete the task. The ability to organize to-dos by contexts can improve your productivity dramatically. For example, you may have a number of decisions to make about several projects, and you need to discuss them with your boss. Simply organize your tasks list by the context "boss" and you’re ready to go. Contexts can be nested and OmniFocus gives you tremendous flexibility to filter and view tasks.
You can import attachments so you don’t have to keep a document you are working on in the file system and link to it. Just double click on the attachment and the document opens. The Clippings feature allows you to import parts of e-mail messages, Web pages, or other data into OmniFocus’s inbox or a specified project.
OmniFocus takes advantage of the iPhone’s GPS capabilities to indicate your proximity to scheduled tasks by displaying them on the built-in Maps application—an incredibly useful feature. It implements the iPhone OS 3.0’s cut, copy, and paste ability in an ingenuous way. Touch and hold on the checkbox next to a task and the pop-up menu appears, allowing you to cut, copy, or paste the task and all its underlying data. Audio notes and photo notes are also supported in OmniFocus on the iPhone.
You can sync data between the iPhone and Mac versions of the program via MobileMe, Bonjour, or WebDav. The initial syncing with the iPhone is not particularly easy, but once you’ve set it up, syncing using MobileMe works flawlessly and offers the advantage of not being dependent on a Wi-Fi connection. (The Things app described earlier in the article badly needs a MobileMe syncing option.)
Finally, a more flexible repeating task feature is lacking, as pointed out in Cindy Downes' review of OmniFocus on iPhone Life's blog (iphonelife.com/blogs/cindy-downes).
In summary, if you can get past the somewhat steep learning curve and price, OmniFocus is the iPhone app for anyone with serious task management needs.
One of the largest impediments to using an electronic task manager is being able to access it whenever and wherever you need it. Inevitably, you find yourself making task lists elsewhere, intending to integrate them with your electronic task manager later. If you want a simpler solution, check reQall.
The only real requirement to use reQall is that you have a phone—and not just the iPhone. From any phone you can call reQall (U.S. 1-888-973-7255) and follow the voice prompts to set up a free account. Additional contact phone numbers are available online (reqall.com/about/reqall_phone). You can also sign up online. Once you’ve signed up, you can call the service from any phone to add, recall, or share to-do items. Optionally, you can obtain a free Web account to manage to-dos, grocery lists, notes, and shared tasks. There is also a free iPhone companion app that syncs with your Web account.
The reQall iPhone app lets you enter tasks using voice recognition. Accuracy is pretty good, and reQall does an excellent job of figuring out the data structure for you (contexts, tags, priorities, dates and times, and so on). Unfortunately, because an audio clip is sent to reQall’s servers for transcription and then returned to the iPhone, the lag time between speaking the task into your iPhone and having it available to review is too long. They will have to do something about that to make this promising feature truly effective.
The app has extensive calendar integration options, including the ability to sync with Evernote, Google Calendar, Outlook Calendar and Tasks, and iCal supported Calendars. One particularly useful feature is called "Here and Now." Integrating the iPhone’s location awareness with the app's prioritized tasks list, reQall can generate a map displaying things you need to do that are close to your current location.
Although initially impressive, I found the apps long list of features, integration options, and platforms distracting. The beauty of the iPhone is not the number of features it has but their elegance and simplicity—reQall feels cluttered. In addition, reQall lacks some common task management features and can’t handle complex projects like OmniPlan. Still, it might be a good fit for sales people, medical professionals, and other people who are constantly on the go.