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Which Apps I Use (and When)

One of the big focus areas for iOS developers lately is the creation of task and reminder apps. Being a heavy OmniFocus user, the thought of splitting my focus isn’t one that I look forward to. Sure, I like checking out new apps now and then, but putting tasks in the iOS Reminders app, OmniFocus and yet another app seems like I’ll end up missing something.

Enter Checkmark by builtbysnowman, a new app that helps you remember things you need to do, but focusing more on where you are doing things rather than just having good ways of managing your lists.

After buying the app, and testing it out briefly, it is clear the app is slick and has merit but it is causing me, yet again, to rethink my tool selection to find the best combination of tools for the jobs at hand.

I have the following apps on my phone being used for some very specific functions:

Task and List Management

  • OmniFocus - Main task/project repository. Useful for everything. Does location-awareness and integrates with Siri (sort of).
  • Checkmark - Location-based reminders only(?)
  • Due - Useful for pulling recurring, reminder-type tasks out of my Calendar (“take out trash”, etc)
  • Reminders - Stock Apple app. Useful but hardly idea. Just used to shuttle things from Siri to OmniFocus.
  • Ita - Gorgeous but never used.

Writing and Note Management

  • Drafts - Useful for quick, “reminder-like” notes.
  • Scratch - Another quick text entry tool, like Drafts. Testing it out.
  • Writing Kit - This is the best app for writing on the iPad. By far. Hands down.
  • Nebulous Notes - Still my favorite Dropbox text file editor.
  • Byword - I generally use the Mac version (writing in it right now)
  • Notesy - I want to like this but had stability issues. Waiting…
  • Elements - Some great parts, but rarely used.

How Do I Decide Which App To Use?

Having this many tools makes it critical for me to be targeted with how each app should be used. Like lots of people who post about this stuff, I feel like each tool is not quite up to the task. I keep downloading each new thing, expecting it to be the final piece of the puzzle only to find it is ever-so-slightly imperfect.

The current task-tracking tool breakdown, for today anyway, is to use OmniFocus for capturing tasks that are related to projects. If it is something related to a project or a person I have a context for, OmniFocus is also a natural choice.

For single tasks or tasks that are tied to a specific place, I’ve started using the fairly-amazing Checkmark. So far the app has been performing really well in all of my tests and the interface is slick as hell. As I’ve never really used the location-based reminders in OmniFocus, this is scratching the itch for ephemeral needs. I will continue to put it to work and expect I’ll follow up with some sort of tech note on this site at some point.

Checkmark also does time-based tasks, which I have started using as well. Previous to that, I was using a mix of OmniFocus or my calendar, both of which aren’t really the best tool for the job. Due was in the mix for a while, and it was well-suited to the task, but having things spread out over so many tools is disorienting and just doesn’t sit well with my somewhat-well-ordered-and-organized mind. I generally want the best tool for the job, but I want to use the least amount of tools possible. Adding more tools just adds more friction.

For recurring events, since Checkmark doesn’t have support for them, I continue to use Due. As mentioned above, Fantastical works for this but it always felt like pushing a boulder up a hill. I’ll still use Fantastical to set up things like birthdays and actual events, but recurring reminders are now much better served using Due.

The Apple Reminders app only really comes into play via OmniFocus, making use of the makeshift Siri integration. Using Siri, I can integrate iCloud and Siri’s insertion of tasks into OmniFocus, which has saved me a ton of time over the last few months.

When I need to write something down that isn’t task-related and anywhere between a few words to a sentence or two, the two apps I turn to are Drafts and Scratch. Given how easy it is to make nice Markdown changes in Scratch, I’ve been using that more. I’d say Scratch is still in a beta state for me. It’s an impressive app so far, however. If I could get Scratch’s “append to Dropbox file” to work in the iOS6 beta I’m sure I could find some interesting uses as well…

Writing Kit is an amazing iPad editor (in fact I’ve written this post using it). I feel dumb not having used it sooner and I can’t recommend it enough. I have the notes for an upcoming review/recommendation post to explain exactly what makes it so great but, in the meantime, just go buy it.

Nebulous Notes is still a staple for editing Markdown notes for work. It works well for a lot of things and does a decent job of avoiding Dropbox conflicts, although they still happen occasionally if I’m swapping back and forth between my Mac and iPad.

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For me, keeping things as simple as possible in a very hectic work (and home) environment is paramount. Cluttering up my devices with a bunch of apps that are half-solutions doesn’t really help me much because adding any level of friction just means that I won’t record something or remember something or be reminded of something important. Friction can be anything from not being able to find an app you need when you need it to having to think for a half-second about what the best way to record something is.

Do I use Due or Checkmark to set a reminder? Do I use OmniFocus? Wait, is there a project for that? Does it make sense to put it in a particular context? Will I need to transfer this task to my main OmniFocus database at some point? Let’s look at how I make some of these calls…

I will generally follow the decision tree outlined below to determine which reminder app to use:

  1. Is it a simple recurring task? If yes, use Due. If no, go to 2.
  2. Is it a complicated recurring task? If yes, go to 4, if no, go to 3.
  3. Is this a simple, one-step task? If yes, use Checkmark If no, go to 4.
  4. Use OmniFocus.

How should I set a timer?

Due has timers, but Siri is so dead simple I prefer using it. I guess if I have to be sneaky and silent when I need to time something one day, I’ll use Due but how often does something like that come up? I’d guess nearly never. At least I have alternatives..?

I need to write something. How do I choose which tool to use?

  1. Is it really short? Like noting where I parked or someone’s phone number? Use Scratch or Drafts (Scratch is currently on the Home Page for this purpose).
  2. Is it a piece for the website? Use Byword on my Mac, or Writing Kit on my iPad. I don’t use my iPhone for writing posts.
  3. Is it longer than a few lines but not for the website? Then I almost always use nvALT on my Mac and Nebulous Notes on my iOS devices. Whatever it is gets synced to Dropbox.
  4. Is it really long? Use Scrivener or Byword (although I recently wrote a very long work document in nvALT – I didn’t know it would grow to the length it did and nvALT worked pretty damn well. It looked gorgeous with my output from Marked too.)*

So there you have it. My streamlined decision trees for which tool I use and when. I try to keep it as simple as possible but still use the best tool for the job. I consider myself lucky that there are so many great tools out there to make me more effective wherever I happen to be.