It's that time again. The time when I am compelled to revisit my entire workflow. I have a new desk and chair on the way, I'm trying out a Surface Pro (more on that soon), and I'm switching task management systems.

I've tried out just about every tasking program in existence for as long as task management programs have been around. For the last few years though, I've always come back to OmniFocus.

It's a fantastic application. While I highly recommend it, I've always felt it's more than I need. And while I've known what I like and dislike about OmniFocus and other tasking applications, until now I've never really taken the time to formally list my requirements.

So, here's what I'm looking for in a tasking application:

Requirements

Outlining.

Essential. I'm a list maker. I need to be able to create a bunch of lists, nested as I see fit. This is the #1 reason I return to OmniFocus. It's unsurprising really, before OmniFocus, I relied on OmniOutliner for tasking and planning.

Saved Search.

Like most modern applications, good searches have replaced my need for reports, custom views, etc. Being able to save these searches makes all the difference. OmniFocus has perspectives. While complicated, they've worked for me.

Tagging.

Tags allow me to create any sort of taxonomy I require. Tags combined with a good saved search engine can replace need for all sorts of fields (priority, project, context, assignee, etc). OmniFocus doesn't support tags, and that's been a huge issue. I've added hashtag-like phrases as a workaround, adding searches for those to my perspectives. It works, but it's not as flexible as I'd like.

Desktop and Mobile Support, with Sync.

I need to work with my data anywhere, anytime.

Those four things are the only "must-haves" in my task management system.

I also looked at the features I don't use:

Don't Need

Dates

I have very few tasks with deadlines. I'd go far as to say I avoid taking on any deadlines. Those that I do have, including recurring tasks, have been put into Apple Reminders. Siri integration has proved too valuable for quickly adding reminders. Most other dated taks were better suited for the calendar, anyways.

Automated tasking, sorting.

Don't tell me what to do. Don't show me only "next-items". GTD, while having some great concepts, has never worked for me. I like to fiddle with my lists, and move projects around as see fit.

As is turns out, what I needed was an outliner.

The obvious solution was to return to OmniOutliner. I feel like I was the most productive I've been during the time I used it. OmniOutliner doesn't work for me the same reasons OmniFocus failed. It has too many features I don't need and not enough features I do. And while they have a great iPad version, there's no iPhone support.

Introducing Workflowy

I recently stumbled across Workflowy, a ridiculously minimal web-based outliner suitable for task management (you can cross things off).

It has all the usual trappings of an outliner. You can collapse branches, or switch pages to "focus" on any sub-list.

It has tagging, using # or @ based tags however you choose. Tags can be clicked or searched on to quickly filter items.

For more complicated filtering, the search field takes some additional operators. For example, I can see what I've purchased in the last week:

#buy is:complete last-changed:7d

Combining that with the ability to "star" any page, including focused pages or search results, and a flexible and powerful saved search emerges.

While I normally dislike web applications for this kind of application, workflowy is simple enough to work well on the web. It's fast. It has great support for keyboard shortcuts. It's a perfect candidate for Fluid.

And when I inevitably move on to the next best thing, I can export my list in Markdown.

All these features are available for free, subject to a 500 item per month limitation.

For $4.99 a month (or $49 per year) you get:

  • No more limits on content.
  • Automatic daily backups to DropBox.
  • List sharing with other Workflowy users.
  • More themes and fonts.
  • Eventually, offline access.

I didn't need any of the pro features, but it's already been so useful for me, I had to support them.

Limitations

  • There are iOS apps available. They're very usable, but they feel slightly new and unpolished. They're missing the starred page functionality. That's a new feature in the web version, I'm assuming it's on the way.
  • I'm not a fan of the the saved page selector. The "tile gallery" doesn't feel right.
  • Adding custom names to saved pages would also be nice.
  • Custom theme creation. The included ones are fine, but I want to tweak a few things to my liking. A custom CSS text box would be great. In the meantime, I suppose I could set up something in Stylish.

In the End

Try it out. It's free, it's fast, and it's simple. For such a minimalist application, there's a fairly comprehensive help section, with videos demoing most major tasks.

Workflowy is an incredibly limited application, by design. As someone who likes (or wants to like) all the wonderfully complicated features of other tasking programs, it was difficult letting go of so many features.

While I still believe that OmniFocus is still the strongest overall task management application, once I really sat down and came up with a list of what I really needed, workflowy was a perfect match.

For now.

April 30 2013.