More than just an app, OmniFocus has been my teacher. It taught me how to clear my mind of anxiety about what to do next — by building a trusted system for capturing, organizing, and reviewing all the tasks that make up my life without keeping them inside my head. OmniFocus lifted a great burden off me, and I would not be where I am in life without it.
But where I am in life right now is putting down OmniFocus for the first time in almost 10 years. I have moved my tasks into Apple’s new version of Reminders, the one packaged on the device before it goes in the box. Reminders has been redesigned and expanded so it’s now more than just a pile of checklists. It can be a system now — a simple system — one too small to get lost in.
OmniFocus lets you build palaces and castles and cities of productivity, but Reminders is just a garden. And thanks to OmniFocus, I now know just what I need out of a task manager, and what I don’t need. I’ve stopped building spiraling, towering palaces of things to do. Now I’m just planting a little garden. And it’s growing. It’s feeding me and my family. Nothing’s getting forgotten. Nothing is falling apart. I know exactly what is going on, and I have no worries that I’m forgetting something. And because it’s built into every device I have, it’s always there, everywhere, wherever I am.
If you’re a grizzled veteran of a pro task manager like I am, you’re probably trembling right now. You’re thinking there’s no way Reminders can cover all the availability levels, intersecting perspectives, repeat logic, and nested hierarchies of a real task manager. There’s no way an OmniFocus system could be transplanted to Reminders. You might ask me, “Has your life gotten way simpler since your days as a 20-something shovelblogger?” And I’d reply, “Why, no! My life has gotten vastly more complicated! I have an almost-one-year-old daughter with fairly logistically intensive medical needs. I have a rabbi-wife whose schedule operates on the lunar calendar. Between us there are two jobs, one residency, and one consultancy. And yet, somehow, trading complexity and customizability for simplicity and ubiquity has made it instantly, palpably easier to manage my life. I’m completely on board with Apple’s new Reminders, and I have some suggestions about how to make it work.
The Scale of Reminders
Apple’s new Reminders is better than any list app I’ve ever seen at the basics. No one who launches this app for the first time is not going to know what to do with it. All you need is one list to get tremendous benefit from it. If you have a partner or roommates, throw in some shared lists for them. The key is, Reminders is divided into lists. Not “projects.” Not “areas of responsibility.” Lists just like the ones you’d make on paper. The biggest thing that’s new in Reminders this year is that you can group lists together.
This means you can have a top level of all-the-time lists, plus any manageable number of collections of related lists that you can open up or put away as needed. It seemed natural to me to put my top-level lists at the top and my folders below, because anything in a folder was going to be harder to get to. The thing is, once you’re in a list, you’re just looking at that list whether it’s in a folder or not; there’s no way to filter your view to show all the lists or individual tasks within one folder.
I can hear you OmniFocus-heads objecting already, but don’t worry! We’ll get to how Reminders lets you look at multiple lists at once. Just don’t plan your lists and folders like that. Think of each list as just a list, and if you have many lower-priority lists of a discrete kind, put them in a folder, so you can condense them down to just one line in your navigation.
There’s only one special kind of list in Reminders, and that’s the Default List, which you select in the Settings app. This is the list that Siri or other automated processes will drop a reminder into if you don’t specify. So if you say, “Hey Siri, remind me to get the laundry in half an hour,” it will go on your default list. If you say “Hey Siri, add a reminder to my ‘Household’ list to get the laundry in half an hour,” it’ll go straight to “Household.” If you add a task from the “Today” or “Scheduled” view (I’ll get to those below), it’s added to the default list. Out of the box, the default list is called — believe it or not — “Reminders.” In my first concession to what I learned from OmniFocus, I renamed mine “Inbox.”
The Inbox is a Getting Things Done concept at the heart of how OmniFocus encourages you to work. Have a place where you can throw anything that’s on your mind, and when something comes to mind, just throw it there and don’t worry about where it goes. Later, clean up that space and put tasks where they go. I still want to work like this, especially since so many reminders are things that won’t ever matter again, and they don’t need to go on any special list. In fact, it’s so easy to create reminders with Siri that I was often using Reminders for that sort of thing even while I was using OmniFocus! Now I’m making it official by calling my default list an Inbox.
My second list is called “Love Life,” which is shared with my wife (our shared calendar is called that, too). Throwing stuff on there is SO MUCH EASIER than having to remember to tell each other stupid little logistical things. That list is full of little chores, many of them baby-related, which either one of us could do, and whichever one does it first checks it off, and it’s gone.
Below that, I have a few top-level lists for basic categories of personal things I need to do, all of which were refined over the years in OmniFocus.
“Health” is for medicine-taking, doctors’ appointments, taking regular body measurements and whatnot.
“Maintenance” is for all the various one-off and regular janitorial tasks required by computer life. For instance, I have one to remind me to rewrite my shortcuts for generating various packing lists from templates. OmniFocus uses this arcane markup language called TaskPaper for transporting data about tasks and projects, whereas sending stuff to Reminders from Shortcuts is much more straightforward. That means I have to spend some time disassembling the TaskPaper lists and turning them into Reminders lists. I’ll get around to it; there’s no due date on that one.
Maintenance is also where I keep two weekly tasks that were core to my OmniFocus system. One is an 8:00 PM Sunday task called “Weekly calendar review 📆,” in which I just look at the calendar for the next week to make sure I know what the landscape looks like. The other is a 10:00 AM Sunday task called “Review ☕️.” This is lifted from OmniFocus right down to the coffee cup icon. Every Sunday morning, I look at every single task on every single list to make sure I know the full range of stuff I’m expecting myself to do at some point. If I see something that isn’t right, I fix it. If I see something I know I’m never going to do, I get rid of it. If I come up with something brilliant to do during the process, I add it. Mostly I just familiarize myself with my expectations for myself. It’s an incredibly therapeutic process, and I get exactly why it was built into OmniFocus. I’m going to keep doing that in Reminders.
“Wait,” I hear you OmniFocus-heads objecting. “In OmniFocus, Review is an entire perspective that’s designed for doing this. How do you do that in Reminders?” Easy. Apple added four big rounded rectangles at the top of Reminders that they call Smart Lists: “Today,” “Scheduled,” “All,” and “Flagged.” I’ll talk about the first two later, but the ones involved in Review are “All” and “Flagged.” “All” shows you the current number of tasks you have in the entire system. Right now, mine says “90.” That actually seems like a perfect number to me. And when you tap the “All” rectangle, you see all your lists in order, with all their tasks (if any) in order, and you can scroll right through ’em. So there, that’s how you look at all the lists in a folder at once: you go to “All” and scroll down. (You can also add a task directly to any list at the bottom of it.)
During my review, if I see a task without a due date that seems like a good candidate for getting done sometime soon, I flag it, so it pops up in the “Flagged” Smart List. I use “Flagged” as a shortlist of stuff to get the ball rolling on. If there are more than, like, five things in “Flagged,” I’m kidding myself, so I go in and unflag a few. Review is the time each week when I make this evaluation and refresh my “Flagged” list, which I check periodically because it’s always sitting there with a small, doable-sounding number on it.
Anyway, my other top-level lists are “Money” (bills, taxes, etc.), “Spirit Errands” (spiritual practices and self-improvement projects), and “Communication,” which is an interesting one worth looking at for a second. That list is for reminders to contact people about specific things or just keep in touch with them, both of which are made much more powerful by the new “Remind me when messaging” feature. When you flip that switch on a reminder, you can pick someone from your contacts, and then their name and photo show up right on the task, which is already super cool for communication tasks. Then, when you next talk to the person in iMessage, the reminder is triggered! This is an incredibly useful feature made possible by Reminders’ integration into the operating system.
I also have a single top-level list for Inside Apple. I was still way deep on OmniFocus when I started that job, and I was prepared to make it this whole castle full of projects like I did for my previous job, but I quickly realized writing a daily newsletter is mostly just a handful of repeating tasks, and I could slim it down to one project containing one Monday–Friday task (write the newsletter), plus tasks for whatever rotating features I need to add to specific days’ issues.
What I found when migrating to Reminders was that the repeat logic in Reminders was amazingly powerful and configurable — and this was true even before the update. Setting tasks to repeat “on the third Tuesday of every five months” or “on the 14th of the month” is completely easy, but what’s great about the design of the repeat settings is the progressive disclosure. You can just flip a switch that says “Remind me on a day,” and you’re done. All-day reminders are one of the app’s best features, which I’ll get into below. You can flip another switch to add a time. Whether you add a time or not, “Repeat” takes you another level deeper, and there are really good default choices there: Never, Daily, Weekly, Biweekly, Monthly, Every 3 Months, Every 6 Months, and Yearly. Those are just one-tap options.
Then there’s “Custom,” where you can set Hourly, Daily, Weekly, Monthly, or Yearly, and how many days, weeks, months, or years should go by before the next instance. Then Weekly, Monthly, and Yearly each have their own controls.
Weekly gives you a picker for days of the week.
Monthly lets you choose “Each,” which shows 31 days of the month and lets you pick the dates (interestingly, if you choose “31,” it only repeats for months with a 31st, so keep that in mind),
or “On the…” which has double spinner, one for “first,” “second,” “third,” “fourth,” “fifth,” and “last,” and the other for the days of the week, “day,” “weekday,” or “weekend day.” (So if you wanted a task to repeat on the last day of the month, you’d do “On the / last / day,” not “Each / 31st,” you dig?)
And of course, the new natural-language input and keyboard suggestions in Reminders let you skip all this fiddling by just typing “Move the car for street sweeping third monday of every month at 8 am,” and Reminders figures it all out for you.
The case of the “31st” points to one of the interesting challenges Reminders poses to users of more advanced task managers. The repeat logic for tasks in Reminders is simple, but it’s straightforward. Every task has its own independent repeat logic. If you miss a couple repeats, the task stays overdue at the original due time, but if you check it off, it jumps correctly to the next upcoming repeat. So if it repeats daily, but you don’t check it off for three days, it will jump from three days ago to tomorrow once you check it off. OmniFocus takes your repeat instructions too literally, and if you missed a due task for three days, checking it off would make it overdue for two days, then one day, then today, then tomorrow. I guess for something that really has to get done that many times, that’s the right behavior, but for me, I’ve always used explicit numbers of tasks for things like that, and when I set a repeat, I assume that missing it means the missed instance will never need to be done, and I just want it to tell me the next time I have to do it. So this is how I want it to work, but users of other task managers should be prepared.
There is one bug with the repeat logic in Reminders, and it has to do with its implementation of subtasks, which is new this year. For the first time, you can now nest tasks one level down underneath another task in Reminders. All you OmniFocus- and Things-heads are like, “WOW. GEE WHIZ! WHAT’LL THOSE GENIUSES AT APPLE THINK OF NEXT?” I know. But this seriously improves the app.
Reminders doesn’t bother with things like “defer dates” or “start dates” for tasks, but subtasks solve the problem. You can give Task X a deadline, and then you can give it a child task called “Start Task X” with its own reminder time, and that reminder is what tells you the start date. Of course you can also use subtasks for whatever components make up the big task, so you can mark progress towards the completion of something that takes multiple steps. This all works the way you’d expect it to, except for the bug in repeat logic.
Subtasks do get automatically checked off when you check off the parent task, but if the subtask is repeating, completing the parent fires off the next repeat of the subtask first. Then, in your database of completed tasks, you end up with an extra instance of the subtask that is not marked as complete, hidden inside a completed parent task. This isn’t a huge deal, but it does create noise in the completed task history. It makes sense that the logic of the app just says “IF parent task is completed, THEN mark child tasks as completed,” but the app needs another condition that says, “IF parent task is completed, THEN don’t repeat.” I can’t think of a situation in which that isn’t what you’d want.
So I’d like to see that fixed. I’d also like to see subtasks be able to inherit the repeat logic from their parent tasks, instead of having completely independent repeat logic. That way, if you had a multi-step task that you have to do regularly, you could just set the repeat logic on the parent task, and the non-repeating instances of the child tasks would be copied over to the next parent instance. As it is, a non-repeating subtask is treated as a one-time thing. If the parent task is repeating and has two subtasks, completing the parent task does not affect the subtasks. If you check off one of the subtasks and then check off the repeating parent task, the next instance of the parent task has the unchecked subtask, but the checked-off one is gone. So because of the simple repeat logic Reminders currently uses, you have to think about the next time every task in the group has to happen. So the only way for a repeating task to have subtasks is if they’re all set to repeat. This doesn’t actually hang me up in practice, but it’s something serious task manager people should know.
Aaaaaaaaaaaanyway, so those are my top-level lists. I have five folders, and what I’ve decided to do is set all my lists in each folder to one color, so they’re visually related when scrolling through “All” as well as the long version of my list of lists, with the folders unfurled. I have “Household,” which divides domestic life into “Gifts,” “Home Projects,” “Shopping,” and “Car” (shared with wife). “Projects” has a “Writing” list tracking all those blog posts I mean to get to, “Favors” for one-off bits of work I want to do for people, and lists for any big extracurricular projects I might have in progress. My “Ablaze Interactions” folder has one list for company meta-tasks, lists for any personal professional development (like learning to code) I might be doing, and a list for client work when I am so blessed with abundant time and energy as to have more than the occasional odd job going on. I have a “Music” folder for, you know, music stuff.
Then at the bottom I have a folder called “Apps.” This is where I keep the lists for a category of third-party apps that I hope is growing: apps that build powerful capabilities on top of the Reminders database. Like any writer in the Apple ecosystem worth his salt, I’m a heavy user of Drafts, which can be pointed at a Reminders list to automatically inhale the text of tasks from there into your Drafts database. Combined with IFTTT, which can talk to the Reminders API, this lets me do amazing things like automatically capture web articles via RSS in Drafts, using Reminders for the hand-off. So I don’t really use that list inside Reminders, but it has to live somewhere.
Then there’s Grocery. God, I love Grocery. Grocery reads from and writes to Reminders, storing what looks like a normal Reminders list of groceries in Reminders, but inside Grocery, it intelligently sorts the items into the order in which you check them off when you’re going through your regular grocery stores, and it offers auto-complete suggestions when you’re adding stuff. It does much more than this, too. The best part is, sharing the “Grocery” list in Reminders works exactly the way you’d expect it to, so just like that, my wife and I have a shared grocery list, and we can yell at the HomePod to add eggs to the grocery list, and it. Just. Works. So that’s what my “Grocery” Reminders list is for.
Hopefully that’s enough to convince you that it’s possible to set up Reminders in a way that covers all your bases, but now we have to cover how to use it.
Doing Stuff, Living Life
In practice, I find there are two discrete ways of working in Reminders. Deep, intentional work on a particular thing involves going to its list and staying there. Usually that means the app is in Slide Over or 1/3 Split View on my iPad; I’m only using Reminders in full screen on iPad if what I’m doing is working on the Reminders list, like adding, removing, and rearranging tasks to get organized. If I’m doing work and checking stuff off, it’s either in a narrow column, or it’s on my phone off to the side. But most of the day, I’m living in the “Today” Smart List.
“Today” is the heart of Reminders, if you ask me. It’s what you see in the widget and the Apple Watch complication, so it’s the view you’re presented with when you’re not in the Reminders app, and it’s also the first box you see on the app’s main screen. “Today” shows all-day tasks — that is, tasks due on today’s date but not at a specific time — at the top of the list, followed by the tasks with due times in chronological order. When you get to the bottom, you’re done for the day. In Settings, you can choose to get a notification at a set time of day — 9:00 AM by default — that tells you about all your all-day tasks. I am currently using this feature because it feels like a good kick-start for the actual workday, after the three hours of baby wake-up, feeding, packing, and departure tasks are over. If something’s not going to happen today, you can swipe right on a task in the “Today” view to reveal quick actions to bump them to “Tomorrow” or “This Weekend,” and if you do it on the weekend, it says “Next Weekend.” Apple is just so good at this stuff sometimes.
I keep track of my progress in several places other than just inside Reminders. I have the widget pinned to my home screen on my iPad, right under the Calendar widget, so I can always see the “hard landscape” of my calendar events and the due times for my tasks at the same time. OmniFocus has a dedicated perspective for this called “Forecast,” about which I have written extensively, and third-party calendar apps like Fantastical have gotten pretty good at showing you tasks and events in one view, too. Apple’s “Up Next” widget shows both calendar events and reminders, depending on what’s, well, up next, but it only shows the very next thing, not what comes after that. I’d rather have both the Calendar and Reminders widgets showing me the whole day. Point is, I feel like I’m getting all the situational awareness I need out of the stock Apple stuff here. I’m also a big Apple Watch guy, so I have the Reminders and Calendar complications right at the bottom of my main watch face.
The new Reminders app on Apple Watch is fantastic, by the way. This is one of the main reasons I switched away from OmniFocus so readily, because OmniFocus’s watch app is basically unchanged since the days of terrible, phone-dependent WatchKit apps, and it almost never worked for me. Not only does the Reminders watch app have all my lists with proper colors and icons and everything, it’s good enough for adding tasks and completing that I feel comfortable going watch-only for as long as my battery will let me, knowing I won’t drop any balls.
If there’s no longer anything looming in “Today,” I’ll check “Flagged,” and if there’s a hole in my calendar, the baby’s napping, and I’m feeling inspired, I might switch into GTD mode and do some extra stuff. Conversely, if I’m feeling some pressure and want to peek ahead, that’s what the “Scheduled” Smart List is for. It shows all tasks with due dates in soonest-first order, with nice headings for “Today,” “Tomorrow,” and dates after that, making it very browsable. Just like the “All” view offers for each list, “Scheduled” has a row at the bottom of each day’s section where you can add an all-day reminder directly to that day.
Managing Complex Projects
I hope it’s clear that Reminders can ably handle everyday life. The question is, can it handle professional-grade projects for which you might have to keep track of what you’ve already done, not just what you have yet to do. If you switch to the “Show Completed” view in any Reminders list, you’ll see something somewhat troubling. Your completed tasks are there, yes, but in strange orders and without completion dates and times or anything like that.
I use that completion history for things like billable hours when consulting, so this was a no-go at first glance, but it turns out that — as you’d expect from a company that’s been making entire operating systems for 40 years — all the information about your completed tasks is there, even if you can’t see it all in the app.
The trick is that, for now, you’ll have to use Shortcuts to get it. Shortcuts is built into the OS now, and I think the best way to explain it is this: Shortcuts is a self-teachable but obtuse tool for building additional features for iOS and apps that Apple hasn’t yet built itself. There’s not a single thing I do with Shortcuts that I don’t wish Apple would just build in, but until that happens, Shortcuts does the job. Logging completed tasks from Reminders is a perfect example. I built this shortcut, which logs every task completed today in order, along with its list, its completion date, and completion time, as a row in a Numbers spreadsheet. I run this task before bed every night, since there’s currently no way to have a scheduled shortcut run automatically, with no user input.
It’s kind of annoying, and it doesn’t always work on the first try, but it does eventually, and it gives me an instantly searchable database of what I did and when in Reminders, which will work fine until Reminders does that itself. More importantly, I’m incredibly reassured by how good the Reminders actions are in Shortcuts, especially when it comes to pulling up tasks according to user-defined filters. This means more powerful productivity uses of Reminders are already possible, they just have to be built — and until Apple builds them, it has given us the means to build them ourselves.
Another step down in terms of complexity is the lack of completion status for lists themselves. Unless you don’t care about losing its completed tasks, you have to keep a list around forever, so Reminders doesn’t scale as well to the project-level progress tracking you get in an app like OmniFocus, which lets you check off the list itself when the job is done.
If you want to keep completed tasks for finished projects around, I can see two options other than keeping an empty list forever. You can either keep one list as a workspace for every project in a group — called “Clients” or “Workspace” or “Jobs” or whatever — and just use subtasks rigorously in there to keep things organized and allow opening and closing of different views as needed. This is what I’m doing. Or, if you don’t need the data to actually be inside of Reminders, you can build a shortcut to dump the completed tasks from a list into a spreadsheet before you delete it.
Is this going to work for you? Are you going to be able to track actual work projects using a single list with two levels of hierarchy? I can’t answer that for you. But what I’ve told myself when I get concerned is that there’s no reason I can’t track the deadlines in Reminders and include a link to a richer document in Notes or something where I’m doing the actual project management. I no longer agree with the terminology of complex task managers that the list of stuff to do is the “project.” The project is the actual work, and that’s going to live all kinds of places. That part can be complicated. But a list of the things to do and when to do them? That’s actually a pretty simple structure, and a single list with tasks and subtasks seems like enough to keep track of it to me.
There are plenty of things the new Reminders can do that are just plain better than the competition. The most obvious is its native understanding of system-wide capabilities allowing things like drag-and-drop attachments from any app, which expand into rich, actionable previews. A typical iPad Reminders workflow for me involves dropping Reminders into Split Screen with Mail, picking up threads in Mail, dropping them into Reminders, and archiving the messages. Now I can remind myself at any time — or just when I’m browsing my lists — to go answer those messages, which I can do by tapping the Mail icon in the task and jumping directly to the message, no matter which device I’m on. You may respond that some third-party apps can do this in some situations, but nothing beats native for this kind of integration.
I also prefer the way Reminders handles due alarms and overdue status, which it does through a combination of humane design and home field advantage. Whereas in OmniFocus tasks due soon glared at you and overdue tasks glowered at you, Reminders treats due soon as a typical, expected status, and it elevates overdue to a kind of special, useful “do now” status with persistent lock screen notifications. I find this incredibly helpful, and I’ve taken to scheduling morning routine tasks all at the same time, at the beginning of the routine, so the short list of things to do next is always hovering on the lock screen.
There are a few issues I’ve identified so far that I hope Apple fixes.
Launching from a due notification doesn’t highlight the task; it just casts you into the list, and then you have to hunt for the one you’re looking for. It may not even be the only overdue task, so looking for the lit-up text doesn’t always help.
On the watch, tapping the notification launches you into “Today,” which is what I want, but on iOS, it launches you to the task’s home list. I don’t see why those should be different, and if Apple’s not going to make the call that it should open in “Today,” it should be a toggle in settings.
Why does “Today” in the watch app show the list color on the task for subtasks but not top-level tasks? That actually makes subtasks seem like higher priority than main tasks. The widget shows list colors on all tasks beautifully, though it doesn’t distinguish between parent and child tasks, but that’s fine. This is a situation in which a task only shows up if it’s due, so they’re all top priority, and they should all show their lost color.
Finally, and I know this is a petty one, but we need more glyphs for customizing lists. Seriously. It’s amazing to have them at all, and 60 sounds like a lot of choices, but this set is inscrutable. Why are there three that represent money and zero that represent communication?
That’s about it, though, other than miscellaneous UI weirdness that is probably as much to do with the janky rollout of iOS 13 as anything else. Pretty solid first release.
Features I Hope to See
In future versions, I’d love to see subtasks be able to inherit repeat logic from their parent tasks, so the parent can repeat willy nilly, and the subtasks can just be discrete, one-time tasks that are created anew when the parent repeats.
I’d be thrilled if Apple allowed custom Smart Lists, analogous to Perspectives in OmniFocus. This would allow you to create a list at the top that shows only your scheduled tasks on your worky-work lists, or doesn’t show you any work lists, only fun stuff, or whatever other filters you can imagine. I don’t think I’m the only person who thought that’s what Apple meant at WWDC when they said “We’re adding Smart Lists,” but it turns out they just meant the four built-in ones. But as you can see in Shortcuts, Reminders already exposes fantastic filter logic. Just let us set up and save filters inside of Reminders exactly the way we already can in Shortcuts, and the feature is done.
Reminders on the Mac
… Wait, there’s a Mac version of this, too??
Oh. Well, I don’t really use one of those anymore except to manage my music library, so… I mean, it’s probably pretty much the same as the iPad interface, right? You get it by now. Just imagine the same app I’ve been talking about, except more… old-fashioned.