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Choosing Your GTD System

by Kerry Dawson

Choosing Your GTD System

In this article I’m specifically going to write about task management systems as they pertain to the “Getting Things Done” model. As such, we’ll look at the three major GTD task management systems and how one chooses from the lot. For the purposes of this article it is assumed that you know both about the GTD model, which has been covered extensively at The Daily Mac View and task management systems which are used to organize and prioritize your daily activities.

The Three Major GTD Task Managment Systems

For the Mac there are three task management systems that are considered top notch. They are:

  • OmniFocus
  • Things
  • The Hit List

If all three of the above task management systems are considered top notch how do you choose which one to go with. First, you can’t go wrong choosing any one of the above to do your GTD task management. Secondly, if you’re already using one of the three and like it, stick with it. It is too easy in GTD to take the simple and make it complex and changing out of something you already like would be a mistake no matter how fascianating something else sounds. Thirdly and finally the choice of one of these systems over the other has more to do with personal taste or the way something feels to you rather than you will perform at an “x” rate better if you choose this one rather than that one.

The Tools are Essential but the Model Drives Workflow

When we discuss any of the above tools and the conclusion is drawn that they are all good as they are in this case part of the reason is the model is the driver of workflow. The tools then enable the workflow. If the tools are good and in this case they all are then they will support the model and your workflow.

A good starting point to using any of the above tools effectively is to know GTD. Better still if you’re trained in GTD you will know exactly whether a tool will work for you and whether it will support your workflow.

However, this is not to say the above tools are all the same. OmniFocus is complicated and even though the new OmniFocus 2 for the Mac is light years ahead of the version 1 product it remains complicated. If you do not know GTD it will be extremely challenging to use OmniFocus. Another outcome of OmniFocus‘ complexity is complex workflows which are unweildy. Rather than being assisted you could easily bury yourself in tasks and projects and get nothing done. This danger is more real than it might at first seem. Many a bright person has found themselves bogged down under the weight of OmniFocus thus disillusioned with the whole system of GTD. It must be remembered though that the problem or the reason for this has to do with the person and their behaviour than OmniFocus. OmniFocus can be an extremely powerful assist tool but used inappropriately it will allow you to make yourself completely ineffective.

Things is supposed to be a simpler system and this simplicity appeals to many. However, the system is showing datedness and a certain lack of proper flow. This though is not an impediment to its good use and effectiveness if you are trained in GTD. You will end up applying the system appropriately thus producing a very effective enabler of the GTD process. You will “Get things Done.”

Finally, The Hit List has a bit of an interesting and convoluted history. This is probably the most streamlined and effective tool from a use perspective. Being trained in GTD and then applying The Hit List is like cutting into warm butter. It melds easily to your technique providing back rich information from an apparently easy to use system. However, The Hit List‘s creator has often just disppeared leaving the users without support and guidance. He came out with an adroit iphone app promising next an iPad app only to disappear again. Karelia software just bought the Potion Factory and it is their intent to fill the holes of this system but users are naturally unsure due to the history. Yet, if the system suits you this could be an ideal system, as is, regardless of not having an iPad app.

Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater

To fully clarify this point if you know GTD and are further trained in the technique all of the above systems will prove effective tools. If you already have a system do not throw it out and give it up for another system as you’ve vested time in learning it and it will prove effective. If you’re vested in a tool stick with it.

I’m very big on one needs a model to drive workflow and this will thus drive the tool. You will choose a tool that will effectively support your model. In the case of any of these three tools they are good. However, you can easily get carried away with OmniFocus; confused by Things and disillusioned by The Hit List.

Learning a tool requires a lot of time and effort. Some tools require more than others but to become really good with any tool requires practice. If you happen to think Things, as an example. sounds so much better than your current tool that you have vested a lot of time and energy in, say OmniFocus, and you give it up you simply might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. At this point it’s time to step back and reassess your process rather than throwing out your tool.

That which feels right is Probably Right

Any tool including and especially tools like these GTD programs boil down in many ways to choice depends on personal taste. If you’re a person who believes in simplification of process over even the most minute of complication OmniFocus is not for you. If GTD for you is exactly what it stands for and that’s Getting Things Done then all you’ll want to do is follow the process carefully but fast and not in a complex manner. You’ll just want to get your tasks down quickly, moved into projects as appropriate and assigned the necessary contexts quickly. In this case, you’re probably best served by The Hit List.

However, if all GTD principles such as flow are critcial to you then the lack of an iPad application might hinder that flow. However, if you happen to have an iPhone a long with an iPad, you can just as easily pick up the iPhone to enter the task as you can maneuvering to the app on the iPad to enter the task.

Again, such things are a matter of personal taste. To follow this even another step, if you’re a details person committed to all aspects of GTD in its most pure form then probably only OmniFocus will work for you.


The choice of a tool requires clarification along all these lines. If you are vested in a tool know that and don’t waste time learning one of the others. Know what appeals to you in terms of style of function of a program. If you’re the type that believes in the line “Beauty lies in simplicity” this will direct you to the best choice of app for your needs. Finally, let the model drive process which will lead to the right tool.

When All it Takes

Finally, there may be one thing about a tool that must be that is critical to it’s value for you. It could be a long, involved process like Review in OmniFocus or the way a task is moved from one list to another as in Things.

I’ve used them all. I’ve used OmniFocus 2 in its early beta and in its current incarnation. There’s no question, its nice. However, following the old expression “Know thyself” I like process but I don’t like it made overly complex. In this, I’ll start leaning towards a “The Hit List” but that’s not enough to guide the decision. It may be something a simple as hierarchy and dependencies.

I’m big on outlining tools. I like hierarchical structures as you find in DEVONthink. I like child tasks as they follow the rules of hierarchy and dependencies. The Hit List and OmniFocus displays full hierarchical, child dependencies. However, Things operates as a flat structure.

Further, I just sometimes like to see all my tasks in no apparent order. The smart lists of The Hit List will show all of this. Thus, one little feature, considering that all the programs are’ good as long as you follow the model determines your winner.

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