2008: The Year of the Killer Task Management App

I've decided to get better organized in 2008, so I've been trying out task management solutions for the Mac.

What I'm looking for is a well-designed application with powerful features that cleanly integrate with the Mac operating system. I want to be able to group my varied tasks into project groups that are easy to view and are logically organized. I want tag my list items so they are easy to find and search. I want one central place where I can quickly see what I have to do today and what I have to do next. I want a central place to store everything in my head. Above all, I want to enjoy using this application. No, more ... I want an application that makes me want to use it. A tall order, perhaps, but this is what the Mac user experience is all about.

Seeking Alternatives to Apple's Mail/iCal

Unfortunately, I think Apple missed the mark with their improved Mail/iCal 'to do' management introduced with Mac OS X Leopard. Granted, it's better than what existed in Mac OS X Tiger and all other previous OS X versions (which, essentially, was nothing). But it's still not there. I tried using the 'Apple option' for a couple of weeks before I abandoned it. While the Mail/iCal solution is simple and well-integrated and may be enough for many people, it's just not working out for me. It doesn't feel right. I don't like the overly simplistic to-do list in Mail. I can't group items into bigger categories or projects. I can't tag items. I can't easily archive completed items. I don't like how it integrates with iCal. As for iCal, the to do list view is fine is you just have a few items, but it quickly becomes unwieldy and hard to read as more are added. I could go on. Suffice it to say that Apple's offerings seemed underpowered to me, so I moved on.

The good news is that there are an overwhelming number of third-party task management applications out there for the Mac user (there are also a number of plug-ins available to enhance Mail and iCal task management and a host of web-based solutions to help manage your life). That's the great thing about the Mac - the third-party developers who make applications for Mac OS X are unmatched on any platform. I truly believe that.


The bad news is that it's hard to know where to start because there are so many choices. My solution? I chose to focus on a peculiar subset of task management applications based on a system called Getting Things Done. Why? Because many geeky mac users that I respect are oddly enthusiastic about this model, and have been for quite some time.

Getting Things Done on the Mac

If you follow the mac community buzz, you may have heard of David Allen's 'Getting Things Done' framework for, well, getting things done. Over the course of the past year, it seemed I couldn't escape the chatter about this revolutionary way to manage one's daily and long-term tasks. Intrigued by the noise, I checked out an audiobook of 'Getting Things Done' from the library. Allen's ideas are indeed innovative and clever.

In essence, GTD is a systematic way to organize your thoughts that begins with dumping out the contents of your brain in an 'inbox,' then organizing those things along the lines of when you plan to get to them (e.g. today, next week, someday), in what context you will do these things (e.g. at the computer, at work, on the road), and how you group these things (into different projects). GTD is way of capturing all these little bits of 'things I want to do' and 'things I need to do' so you don't have to worry about remembering them all. Once you get all those thoughts down, GTD offers up a nifty way to organize it in a meaningful way over time.

At some point, Mac developers who adhered to the GTD model began creating clever applications and scripts to capture this process. While I haven't closely followed the evolution of this development, I noticed that it seemed to really get going in mid-2006 ... and this most certainly had something to do with organization guru Merlin Mann of 43 Folders, whose tireless efforts helped to popularize this system, particularly on the Mac platform.

Over the course of 2007, I came to associate GTD with Mac task management as more and more applications based on this model began to appear. Over time, I've watched as available mac-based GTD programs evolved from the relatively simple (see kinklessGTD) to the increasingly sophisticated (see OmniFocus, iGTD).

The 2008 showdown

As the options continue to evolve and refine, I think we're heading for a final shake out in 2008. My prediction: this will be the year for the Killer Task Management Application for the Mac, and that application is going to be based on the GTD model.

This will be the year when a small handful of really great Mac-based task managers vie for the mainstream — you may never have heard of GTD, but if these task managers are successful, you won't need to know anything at all about David Allen's system. All you'll have to do is pick your favorite and start getting organized.

Here are the applications that I will compare: iGTD, Cultured Code Things, Midnight Inbox, coalmarch Park and OmniFocus from OmniGroup.

As the dust settles over the next year, I think that one application will stand out above the rest. I've made my choice, but I'll save my opinion for the end of this series.

How I will review these apps

To keep things simple, I evaluated these power organization apps with a few questions in mind:


  • Could I figure out how to use the application with minimal fuss (preferably without referring to documentation)?
  • Was I still enthusiastic about using the application after a week of use? 
  • How well does the app integrate into the Mac OS? 
  • How well could I manage all of my tasks (work, home, play, etc.) 
  • How did the program 'feel?' How 'mac-like' is it?


This last point may need a little clarification. You may have heard or read that a particular program is 'mac-like.' What this means is this: Apple software is generally renowned for simplicity, consistency, lack of clutter, and a great user interface. A 'mac-like' application, then, exemplifies these qualities. I also consider a program to be 'mac-like' if the interface is instantly familiar and obvious because it's similar to other Apple programs I use, such as the Finder or iTunes. Last but not least, a good mac application should integrate seamlessly with the rest of the Mac OS.

In the next post, I'll begin the comparison.

Troy Kitch @troykitch