Jan Rychter: blog (electronics, programming, technology)

GTD apps for the Mac: a subjective review


Having tried all major GTD apps for the Mac I thought I’d summarize my thoughts. While many people try to compare features, I would like to concentrate on a more subjective review. After all, a GTD app is something you use on a daily basis, so it isn’t just tables with features that matter.

Since I used all major GTD apps on the Mac extensively (e.g. I moved my entire life into each of them in turn), I think I’m qualified to form an opinion.

There are three major contenders in the Mac OS native application GTD arena:
* OmniFocus
* Things
* The Hit List

There used to be iGTD as well — but it has been discontinued now that its developer joined Cultured Code and works on Things. I used iGTD a long time ago, but found it too heavy on features and too crash-prone.

I should also probably mention TaskPaper, which while cool, isn’t really a full-blown GTD app.

Let’s go through each of the three in turn.

OmniFocus (The Omni Group) is the most mature of the apps. It was clearly developed with lots of user feedback. It is quite complex, with lots of user interface. However, I found that I’m spending lots of time on the mechanics of managing tasks instead of actually doing stuff. There is lots of clicking, tabbing and cursoring around to be had in OmniFocus. Plus there is that ubuquitous Omni inspector thing, which some people love and some people hate. I fall in the second category. I don’t like multiple window apps.

Things is carefully designed to look nice, which scores it a lot of marketing points. It also seems simple to use. I jumped onto it with enthusiasm, also buying the Things Touch iPhone app. But after several weeks problems became apparent. First, Things forces a structure upon you and that structure isn’t very well designed. There are projects, areas and „focuses”, which don’t really complement each other. In theory, Projects are for ordered, sequential lists of tasks, Areas for single-shot tasks and Focuses cut across them, letting you see which tasks you have to do immediately and which can wait. But if this is so, why can’t I schedule a task in a project to be done in the future?

The biggest problem with Things might seem inconsequential unless you realize this happens dozens of times a day. Let’s say I have a task in my Inbox. I know it belongs to a project and I need to start it today. I can either drag it to a project or drag it to „Today”, but in either case the task will disappear from my Inbox. I then have to hunt it down again, searching for it. This is a complete showstopper problem.

Until very recently Things also had no keyboard support at all — even the tabbing order seemed wrong. This has been improved in recent versions, but it is clear the developers never use the app without a mouse.

Things Touch was nice until I filled it with tasks. Then it became so slow that it was virtually useless. Unreliable syncing didn’t help either.

I then tried The Hit List — and after an hour moved my life into it and never looked back. It isn’t perfect, but it gets most things right. Here’s what I really like about the app, all of this is in contrast to the others:
* In the Inbox, you can drag things to „Today” and they still remain in the Inbox, which lets you then assign them to projects,
* There are lists and folders. You can use these lists as projects, areas, shopping lists, anything you want. No artificial distinction into „Areas” and „Projects”.
* Smart Folders let you organize tasks your own way (I have a „Stale tasks” smart folder that picks up untouched stale things for review).
* Insanely great keyboard support. Navigate to a task, press „F”, and then type several letters from any of your project names, press enter and your task gets moved. Similarly for jumping to projects, use „G” and type any subsequence of characters of your project’s name. I wish all apps had this nailed down so well.
* Great interface for repeating tasks. Press „Cmd-R” on a task, type „every week” and the task becomes a repeating one.
* Tabs that let you keep frequently used views easily accessible.
* Auto-suggested tags that really work (surprisingly).

Overall feeling after several weeks of usage was that I was on top of things. I could manage my tasks easily without spending too much time on the mechanics of it.

The Hit List seems to contain everything I wanted from OmniFocus, but with a much better interface. I just hope the author will keep improving it very carefully, without implementing every feature people ask for. In GTD apps, streamlined interface and usability are more important than features!

Roughly quoting Merlin Mann (43Folders.com): „asking which GTD app is better is like asking if mustard is better than ketchup”. Those are subjective choices, hence my subjective review.


Great review but you never mentioned the one gtd app that was around even before gtd was a term. Life Balance. Elegant and powerful


My subjective suggestion is OmniFocus. It has the backing of a real developer, and has an iphone app :) It's super easy if you actually sit with it for a while.


I agree in many ways with you about Things; particularly the keyboard support. I've used Things several times a day for almost two year, and so when I heard they had improved keyboard support I was excited, but the problem is they still not as good as keyboard support as THL. The most disappointing thing is that I doubt the keyboard support will be improved further; the devs probably think they've nailed it, and I've always found them to be overly sensitive to user feedback.

I'll probably give THL another close look once their iPhone app is out.


Nice review, I also like that The Hit List has contexts where Things doesn't. Yay.


Thanks for the review. I'm trying to use The Hit List, but their lack of an iPhone app (private beta begins in three (!) weeks) and the persistent beta of the desktop app is kind of bothersome. Hopefully it will get wrapped up soon b/c I need an iPhone app for my workflow; until that appears, THL is just not complete for me.


Nice subjective review – I find myself agreeing with you on each point.

No, THL isn't perfect, but the bugs are minor annoyances rather than show stoppers – and it's my hope that once they get their iPhone app out, they'll have time to focus back on the desktop version.


Definitely prefer The Hit List, as well, and really looking forward to their new iPhone app!


Denrael: I have to admit I never heard of Life Balance, much less tried it...

Opusmei: I guess it's a question of taste. Like I wrote, OmniFocus is very mature, but seemed too mechanical for me. I found myself spending too much time turning knobs and pushing buttons.

Jan Rychter2009-09-02

I agree with pretty much everything said about Things. I jumped on board due to the slick look and iPhone app... but stopped using after about a month. I always felt like I was putting too much effort into a program that was supposed to simplify my life. We seemed to have arrived at similar conclusions.

I received the Hit List as part of a MacHeist bundle, and I love what I've seen and used so far, mainly due to keyboard shortcuts. I won't jump on board completely until an iPhone application is released though... which I hope comes out soon. I'm pretty sure it's in beta, so this looks like a good possibility.



Having also used all three, in the same sequence as you, I completely agree, Jan. I spent a long time with OmniFocus, and took part in some long and lively exchanges on the forum, before coming to the conclusion that it was really meant for folks with a very complex and extensive schedule, and a lot more patience than I’m blessed with. It has features and conceptual quirks that I never managed to get my head round, much less get working, and in some respects - the devs’ refusal to consider multiple contexts for tasks, for example - holds to a highly rigid and dogmatic view of GTD. Discussions about that on the forum was sometimes akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin - folks get so fired up about such stuff! Things is much cleaner and more flexible, but for the same reasons as you I moved onto THL. I’m now back with Things due to the lack of a THL iPhone app, but when that’s out, I’ll be back like a shot.

I can’t agree about Life Balance, though. I started out with this, and found it terrible. A truly horrible interface, one of the very worst around, and when they charged an upgrade price almost as high as the original (fairly high) price for a version that did little more than add AppleScript support, I was out of there. It may be okay if you really want your computer ordering your tasks for you on the basis of some pretty flakey criteria, and a pie-chart to tell you whether you’re balancing your work and private lives well, but otherwise, leave well alone...imo, natch.

Malcolm Coad2009-09-02

I agree completely. Although the lack of a iPhone app is a (temporary) dealbreaker. I tried all 3 and liked THL best by far. But I migrated back to OmniFocus until they release the iPhone version. Here's to hoping they do that as well as the desktop app.


@JT: Things uses a tagging system to implement contexts. If you want to use contexts, just make a tag hiarchy like: contexts > (@phone, @computer, @work, @home).

I use Things and I am quite contented with it. I understand that some find the rigid definition of "Areas", "Projects", and "Focuses" to be frustrating, others find that it helps them adhere to a system they work well with. Personally, it makes no difference to me because that is how I would set my system up anyways. I did download a trial of THL and I liked some of its features. It definitely has some features that Things does not, and to top that off they are quite polished. Keyboard support is fantastic. I didn't really like the UI design, though. The notecard thing kind of turned me off. I also believe that its tagging system is not nearly as powerful as Things.

I might have bought THL if I had not already bought Things. It would be a tough decision, but I am going to stick it out with Things. The developers don't really follow user feedback too much, because they have very strong ideas as to where they are going. I hope that what they provide in the future turns out to be as clean and efficient as the current software.


Main issue with The Hit List is that the application is developed by a one man band who so far has totally failed to update his app or even his blog since March, until recently... Extremely recently as in Yesterday when he has resumed Twittering and blogging activities.
I agree that The Hit List is great but if you have been around for long enough, you will remember iGTD which went the way of the Dodos, due to the same issue.
Funny thing is that the former iGTD developer has just joined the Culture Code team, the team behind "Things"...

In my case, until Things gets me an iPhone app that syncs over the air and multi machines sync, I am using "Remember The Milk" in a Fluid app... Works like a charm, is full of keyboard shortcuts and only costs $25...


Tryphoon: yes, the stagnation periods are a problem. But IMHO Things has had very similar issues. Months of silence, no communication, no updates. OmniFocus had a more constant pace of development.

I guess I have to keep an open mind. So far I have, and I'm very happy, because each move to a new GTD app made my life better.

Jan Rychter2009-09-04

Like you I've tried the Big Three and favour THL, mainly because of it's flexible tagging and smart folders. The combination of these two features is very powerful. However I currently use OmniFocus, despite it's cumbersome interface, because of its support for syncing across multiple desktop machines and iPhone app plus a few other powerful features. I love the look of Things but not the attitude or productivity of the developers and the clincher for me was when I needed to track quite a complex project the shallow structure just couldn't gracefully cope. The OF ability to have sub-tasks in a project really suits me very well. Things plans to implement this in some limited fashion in the future but who knows when/if that will happen? My dream GTD app would have the look of Things, the tagging and smart folder of THL and the development team of OF. :)

Andrew Scott2009-09-07

Good overview and like you have tried the same apps......and came to the same conclusion this past week...

THL is the way to go...if not, then I'd use OmniFocus, and then Things....



Just discovered THL after trying - and abandoning - and trying again - and abandoning again - Things. Yeah, I want an iPhone app, too; but for now, I'll carry my laptop with me to/from the office. Really, only a few minutes in w/ The Hit List and I'm already feeling ounces lighter between the ears.

As for Things, all I can say is, it's pretty.

Rich C.2009-11-02

Thanks for this review ! On my end I finally ran into Daylite, which is more of a group management thing, but works very well as for GTD things, and it's synchronized with my Blackberry (on which I use ToDoMatrix, very efficient tool). However I mainly wanted to contact Jan about the Touchstream LP, since I have one too that is malfunctionning, sadly enough, but couldn't manage to find an email address on the site, so here's me showing up!

Romain Bisseret2009-11-19