My Mac & iPhone GTD Philosophy: Less Is Perfect

This past weekend didn’t just mark (at long last!) the installation of my standing desk, or the moment I chose to wall-mount my life-size replica lightsaber; it also marked my return to using CulturedCode’s Things on the iPhone and Mac (s aapl) — and I gotta tell you, it’s a wonderful feeling having those apps back in my life.

Before that, I had been using The Omni Group’s venerable OmniFocus as my task management tool-of-choice, mostly because, in mid-2010, I convinced myself I absolutely needed over-the-air sync between my Macs and iPhone (Omnifocus has it; Things does not).

Now, if you’re like me, you probably follow the work of some notable figures in the Mac community; people like Ben Brooks, David Sparks and Merlin Mann. It seems that those guys are OmniFocus ninjas. There’s nothing they can’t do with OmniFocus. I’m just not that good, and I don’t think I ever could be. To make the most of OmniFocus, I feel like I need to become both a GTD guru and commit hours and hours of my life to learning the software. Things, on the other hand, is so simple it requires almost no learning. For someone as old and inflexible as me, that’s a bonus!

Fiddly Bits

In trying (for six months!) to really get to grips with OmniFocus, I discovered that its greatest strength can also be its greatest weakness — everything is just so endlessly tweakable! Start dates, due dates, priorities, flags, perspectives, custom folders, nested folders, projects, location awareness, contexts, actions and who knows what else all add to the mountain of fiddly bits of detail that can be added, edited and generally mucked-about-with. In fact, there’s so much scope for fiddly details that Omnifocus offers its own Inspectors to make it more manageable. To be honest, when I have to open an Inspector, I don’t feel like I’m using a to-do manager any more.

Let me be fair; OmniFocus is a wonderful tool. But I always felt like I was neglecting some awesome functionality that could make me super-productive. I suffered a kind of productivity anxiety with OmniFocus: a nagging worry that I wasn’t making the most of this fantastic software the Merlin Manns of the world talk about with such enthusiasm. Finally, though, I’ve arrived at something of an epiphany; I wasn’t missing anything other than the discipline to stop tweaking my to-do lists and just get things done.

Choices, Choices

Mac users today are spoiled for choice when it comes to powerful, beautiful productivity software. Don’t like Microsoft Office (s msft)? No problem; use iWork. Don’t like Pages? There’s always WriteRoom, Scrivener or TextMate. Every one of those apps is a great word processor without the Microsoft bloat.

This philosophy of “less is more” should be familiar to us all; it’s baked-in to Apple’s DNA, and it seems poised going to become even more of a Mac feature with OS X Lion. It’s also the reason Pages isn’t like Microsoft Word, and it’s why the iPad isn’t a Windows 7 Tablet PC.

So why, when it comes to personal productivity software as fundamental as a to-do manager, do we often think we need more complexity, more sophistication and ever more bells and whistles? Could it be that we all trick ourselves into thinking that time spent poring over our to-do’s is time spent getting things done?

One of the primary reasons for my switching to the Mac was the Apple philosophy of design; everything that’s there — be it in the hardware or the operating system — is there for a clear and obvious reason. It’s simple; it’s easy, and it all just gets out of the way so I can concentrate on doing my work. That’s why I stick with instead of using more sophisticated apps like Mailplane or Postbox. It’s why I use TextMate instead of Word. And I suppose I could even use TextEdit to keep a list of tasks; but then, that wouldn’t be as much fun as putting a tick in a box, would it?

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