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March 28, 2018, 6 a.m.
OmniFocus 3 and Tags, with Dave Messent and Tim Ekl

Dave Messent, OmniFocus product manager, and Tim Ekl, OmniFocus engineer, join the show for a special episode to talk about OmniFocus 3 (for Mac and iOS) and tags.

Show Notes:

In the new OmniFocus, tags replace contexts. Tags can do everything contexts can do, and more — you can apply multiple tags to tasks and projects, where with contexts you could apply just one.

Dave and Tim go into detail on how this all works, and they discuss some of the organization and workflows that tags enable.

You can find Dave @dmessent on Twitter, and you can find Tim on Twitter @timothyekl and on the web

For more about tags, you read the Omni Roadmap 2018 — particularly the second half, which concentrates on OmniFocus — and listen to a previous episode of the show where Ken Case talks about the roadmap.

Also see the OmniFocus 3 development blog, which is just starting up (at this writing) and will have more details as we post more.


Brent Simmons: You're listening to The Omni Show. Get to know the people and the stories behind The Omni Group's award-winning productivity maps for Mac and iOS. Music!


I'm your host, Brent Simmons. In the studio with me today is Tim Ekl, engineer, and Dave Messent, OmniFocus product manager. This is a special episode where we talk about OmniFocus 3 and tags. Say hello, Tim.

Tim Ekl: Hello, Tim.

Brent: Say hello, Dave

Dave Messent: Hello, Dave.

Brent: Awesome. So how's the beta going?

Dave: I think it's going pretty well.

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dave: We have a few dozen testers who had a build for a few weeks. The build is pretty rough, and they are being very patient, but we're getting lots of good feedback. We have a really lively private Slack channel for those testers and we're learning a lot.

Brent: We gotten a lot of sign ups?

Dave: Yes, I believe probably at the time we're taping that we're over 10 thousand sign ups now.

Brent: And that's about the TestFlight limit?

Dave: Yeah it's a little tricky because we expect that not all 10,000 of those people will be iOS customers, so we won't necessarily run into the TestFlight 10,000 hard limit with the list that we have now, but I think that it's pretty sure that we're going to run into that limit.

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mkay. Cool. So my first question is, why are we doing tags at all? We already have Contexts, which fit with the GTD methodology and it was good enough for OmniFocus 1 and 2 and now we're doing tags. Why? And what does that bring that we didn't already have?

Tim: Well, I think that tags really open up OmniFocus to a wider range of workflows, right. We started out with OmniFocus being a very helpful tool for a lot of GTD-style methodologies, and we recognize that that's not how everyone works. There are other workflows that people like to use, there are maybe easier ways to get people up to speed on OmniFocus or introduced to the product or the app. And tags are much more of an industry standard, right? People recognize tags from other apps.

Brent: Even the Finder has tags.

Tim: Yeah, macOS has 'em built in now. So we think it's been a good way to not only continue to support the ways that people have worked with OmniFocus over the years, but also introduce some new way of doing things, of using the app and organizing your to-do's.

Brent: Hm. Kay. So for people who are worried about things going away on them — which is a legitimate worry, we've seen software that does this — can tags do everything that Contexts did?

Tim: Oh absolutely. Yeah. In fact, we took a lot of the features that we had built in for Contexts and simply expanded on them for tags. So, a lot of the things that you're used to doing with your Contexts will still be around in OmniFocus 3 and you can absolutely continue to use tags as Contexts if that's what you want to do. But they also open up this broader world of having multiple tags per task and adopting all new workflows that can come out of that as well.

Brent: All right. So one of our listener question from Tim Stringer is, is tag just another word for a Context? And the answer is yes and no. Since Contexts are kind of a simple version of tags, but tags can do more.

Dave: Yeah I think the answer to Tim's question is yes, if you want them to be, and no, if you wanted more from Contexts.

Brent: Cool. So if you're already an OmniFocus 2 user, and you have Contexts, will those turn into tags in OmniFocus 3? Or what happens?

Tim: Yeah so, all of your existing Contexts from OmniFocus 2 will be preserved and will be exposed to you in OmniFocus 3 as tags, and if you're one of our TestFlight users in the coming months, or you happen to be using OmniFocus 2 and 3, side by side, after that, the first tag that you assign to any given task or project will sync back to OmniFocus 2 as the Context, but then you can continue to assign more tags in OmniFocus 3.

Brent: Can you then change which is the first tag if you want to change the Context?

Tim: Oh absolutely. Yeah.

Brent: Okay. So Tim also asks, do we have some examples of tags that are not technically Contexts in the GTD world? For instance, a vacation tag, would that be different from a Context?

Dave: Sure. So GTD pretty strictly defines Context as a person, place or a tool that you need to get something done. So the place you need to be, the person you need to be with, or the special tool that you need in order to accomplish your task.

Brent: Okay.

Dave: So, you can still give each item one of those things, but you can also add more metadata in the form of tags that don't have anything to do with those few things. So Tim's example of a vacation: I need to get all of the stuff done before I leave and that can include things like packing or making sure the fish food is in the right spot. But it doesn't mean that I have to organize my database into a specific form to fit that, so I don't need to create a “get ready for vacation” project that includes all of this completely unrelated, or otherwise completely unrelated stuff to do.

Brent: So you might have a vacation tag and a grocery store tag on the same thing, or you're buying fish food. So, currently, people's fish are starving but once OmniFocus 3 ships, the fish are taken care of.

Dave: We're doing amazing things for the captive environment.

Brent: It's really important.

Tim: Some of the other examples of a non-traditional tag that you might get into, have actually come out of that Slack channel. We've seen examples of people using these tags for things like energy level, or a more fine grained priority or urgency sense, where that's not strictly speaking. I don't need high energy to do this. I need to be at the office, or something like that. But it might be helpful for me to know that this is a thing I should tackle with my full attention. This is a thing that is urgent, and I should drop everything else and get to it, or maybe this is a thing that's a quick win that I can pickup at 4:30 on a Friday.

Brent: I could see having a quick hits tag.

Tim: Absolutely.

Brent: And yeah. 'Cause some days I just wanna do a bunch of little things and yeah, that makes sense. So tags aren't otherwise visible in OmniFocus 2, right? Just that first tag comes through as a Context though? Just to make doubly sure everyone understands, right.

Tim: So all of the tags that you define in OmniFocus 3 will be visible in the Context sidebar in OmniFocus 2. But only the first one assigned to any particular task will show up on that task.

Brent: Okay I got it. All right.

Dave: And that also means that an item, which has a tag assigned, won't necessarily show up in the bucket for that corresponding Context in OmniFocus 2.

Brent: Before long everyone will be on 3, so that's not a big deal.

Dave: That's the plan.

Brent: Yeah. Cool. Can you assign tags not just to tasks but to projects?

Tim: Yeah you can, and this is a thing that's proven helpful. It works the same way in OmniFocus 3 with tags as it has for years in OmniFocus 2 with Contexts, and the way OmniFocus treats those as sort of a default Context or a default tag set. So if you assign a couple of tags to a project and then make new tasks in that project, those tasks also get those tags assigned automatically.

Brent: Oh okay.

Dave: But that inheritance is only at the time of creation. So if you decide that something doesn't apply, you can remove it without ruining the tags that are on your top level item.

Brent: Oh okay. That's remarkably sensible. Well done. So do we still have nested tags? Rosemary Orchard asks. Is that still a thing? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of using them?

Dave: It's still a thing. We think that nested Contexts were a really important feature in OmniFocus 1 and 2, so you could have a ‘people’ top level Context and then have individual people within that top level, and we think the same power applies with tags.

Brent: Okay. On the Slack, Ricky, who didn't provide a last name, but I'll thank you, Ricky, for the question anyway. Ricky asks, will using a tag in the lower level automatically include the tags in higher levels?

Tim: Well, it kinda depends what that question means. So if you assign, we're calling them child tags — right? a tag grouped inside another tag — to a task, then that task doesn't automatically get the parent assigned as well. So if I were to say tag a task with Dave's name, that task doesn't automatically get the ‘people’ tag assigned as well. But if I'm looking at a view in outline for that parent tag, so if I'm looking at my ‘people’ outline, I'll see all the tasks in all the children. So I'll see everything that's tagged with Dave, I'll see everything that's tagged with Brent, I'll see everything that's tagged with all of the other people that are in my database within their own respective tag sections.

Brent: Oh okay. That makes sense. Rosemary Orchard asks, are people using punctuation in their tags? Maybe to get a specific sorting? Or anything like that.

Tim: Yeah so, what you don't see on the podcast is that Dave and I kind of glanced at each other when this question came up, because absolutely, people are doing that. People use punctuation, people use emoji.

Brent: Emoji?!

Tim: All manner of text in their tag names.

Brent: Tim, do you like emoji?

Tim: I love emoji.

Brent: Dave, do you like emoji?

Dave: Not a huge fan of emoji, Brent.

Brent: Mark, can we edit that whole thing out? Because we can't have someone from Omni saying they don't like emoji.

Mark Boszko: [laughs]

Brent: We just honestly can't do that.

Dave: I like emoji in Slack. I like emoji reactions.

Brent: Yeah emoji reactions are brilliant. Scotty Jackson asks, just generally, what are the use cases for having multiple tags? I think theoretically, he says, everyone can get behind the capability but in practical terms. How are people actually using it?

Tim: That's a really good question because this kind of [drives] at the heart of what we're building a lot of OmniFocus 3 to support is all different kinds of workflows for all different kinds of customers and users. So I think in practical terms, having multiple tags kind of gets you around some of the harsher limitations of Contexts, where if you could only assign a single Context but there were genuinely maybe two or three pieces of metadata, not dozens or even ten, but two or three bits of metadata, like of a person and a location, having multiple tags frees you up for the first time in OmniFocus to be able to do that. So I could say, I need to talk to Dave about something only when I'm here at the office, 'cause we're talking shop and I want to make sure that I handle that during work hours, or maybe I am at a particular store on vacation. The combination of those things are really where multiple tags shine.

Dave: We had a great example in the Slack of someone who had a broken toe and they wanted to tag a bunch of things that they couldn't do while their toe was broken.

Brent: Oh. Wow. Yeah.

Dave: So instead of changing their entire database to accommodate this injury, all they had to do was simply tag a bunch of items and use that criteria to keep things out of their face.

Brent: I should keep up better on the Slack, I entirely missed the thing about the broken toe.

Dave: It's high volume, Brent.

Brent: Yeah it really is. Yeah. I'm busy, I'm marketing so I can't read everything.

Dave: That's what I hear.

Brent: Can I see a list of everything that contains a least one of the tags I specify? This one’s from Tim Stringer. I think that he's asking, can I just click on a tag, tap on a tag and see everything, right?

Dave: Yeah that is, as it stands now, the default way that you access tag based perspectives.

Brent: Can I see a list, Tim asks again, that contains two or more tags?

Dave: So this is a not-yet.

Brent: Uh huh (affirmative), okay.

Dave: Top men are on it.

Brent: Top men are on it. Coming in 3.0 but ...

Dave: Yes absolutely.

Brent: But not in the beta yet.

Dave: Literally top man, Ken Case.

Brent: Ken's working on this?

Dave: Is working on this and we're trying to get a perspective editor in the app that will let you set up views that have intersections in addition to unions. So, show me the things that have this tag and any other tags or show me the things that have these two tags. And we're also planning on adding ‘not’. So you'll be able to say, show me the things with this tag but not this other tag, because I can't do those right now.

Brent: Okay. So I could get ‘home and computer but not broken toe’ or something.

Dave: Exactly.

Brent: Not that that example made any sense but ...

Dave: Not really, Brent.

Brent: Yeah. I know. I'm doing the best I can you know. That takes care of a whole bunch of questions right in a row, yeah. People are asking for all that and or and not.

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent: Absolutely they want that. So Ken's on it. That's cool. So, user interface question. Do we have any support for drag and drop here to make tagging a little big easier? I've got a task I want to, I don't know, just drag it onto a tag or something like that.

Tim: Oh for sure. That actually works in the TestFlight builds of OmniFocus 3 that are already out there.

Brent: Cool.

Tim: We use drag and drop in a ton of places throughout the app and you'll find that it can assign all kinds of metadata, right? Drag onto a tag to assign that. Drag a task around in forecast to assign a date and then drag and drop also works to reorder tags that have already been assigned to a task. So if you have a task with three or four tags assigned and you're in the inspector on that right hand side bar, you can drag to reorder those tags in whatever priority order makes the most sense to you.

Brent: Cool. Sounds natural. Sounds pretty easy. What about bulk editing of tags? Say I've got 50 actions that I want to all tag with something, is there a way to do that?

Tim: Yeah. OmniFocus 3 also supports multiple selection, which we think is a real game changer on iPhone and iPad.

Brent: It's not something I've seen on iOS that much.

Tim: Yeah. You see it in a couple of stock apps, like Mail or Messages lets you select multiple things in a row and act on them all, but OmniFocus is bringing that to the table in version 3. So you could select say, a whole role of tasks, or even a bunch of tasks in a project, and tag them all at the same time using some contextual actions.

Brent: This would work too on a Mac version I assume? Select a bunch of things, I guess use the inspector to whatever.

Tim: Yeah. Multiple selection has been in the Mac version for a couple years now, and we're bringing it to iOS.

Brent: Cool. What about OmniFocus for the web? Now I hear, because I hear rumors, that that's not going to have every single feature of the iOS and Mac apps, but will it have tags?

Dave: Absolutely.

Brent: Good. Kinda has to, right?

Dave: Yeah I think that once we add tags, they're a pretty vital part of the experience.

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Cool. So tell me about some of the workflows around tags? For instance, one idea I've heard of is having kind of a scratch list tag. How would that work?

Dave: That's a great use case because for a long time customers have been creating these custom perspectives and grouping and sorting by some criteria and then wanting to reorder items within that perspective, and instead of having to figure out what exactly they expect to happen when they drag these items around in a perspective that has set sorting, we can now help them export this perspective to a ... Apply a tag to all these actions and then they can have a scratch list that they can rearrange it however they'd like.

Brent: Oh cool. So my notes get a little bit cryptic at this point and it says, I don't really know what this means, something about a ‘blessed’ tag. What the heck is that? Is that really the term we're gonna use?

Dave: That is not the term we're gonna use.

Brent: Okay, but we'll use that term right now until we have a real term.

Dave: I think so, yeah.

Brent: Okay, so what is that?

Tim: What we're calling internally a ‘blessed’ tag, is one out of all the tags that you've added to OmniFocus, that you've also designated for its items to show up in your forecast view and the Today view. And so the idea here is to enable another kind of workflow, very similar to that kind of a scratch pad, where we know that a lot of people use Forecast and use Today to work out of. They see, these are the things that I have to get done by lunch time, by 5PM, by the time I go to bed. And so those are all date based. We thought wouldn't it be cool if you could also say, tag some tasks that you would like to get done today? So maybe there's not a hard deadline associated with them.

Brent: Sure.

Tim: But they're definitely kind of on your radar, and when you get some free time today, you'd like to do them.

Brent: The tag just might be ‘today,’ but it doesn't have to be?

Tim: We've actually kicked around ‘Today tag’ as the name.

Brent: Okay.

Tim: And so the notion is that you can go through and kind of combine the things that must be done, and the things that you've tagged as like to do or should be done, into a single view.

Brent: So if I have tagged things with ‘today’ or whatever I've chosen as that, and I don't get them done today, now it's the next day, do they still appear under Today in the Forecast?

Tim: Absolutely they do.

Brent: That's good, 'cause that solves my problem of getting plus one on...

Tim: Yeah and that was a big motivator. We realized that a lot of people where kind of using Defer Dates or Due Dates as a way to keep things in the Today perspective. And I know for me personally, that's not a workflow that I like to use. I'm a person who puts in the day something is due and if I miss it, it's overdue and it's not in my today anymore but with this tag, I absolutely have the power to say, this thing is not necessarily hard due on Friday at 5 but I'd like to see it every day until then, so I'll tag it in a particular way and get it in today, until I do.

Brent: That could get rid of millions of man hours of people clicking the plus one button. I honestly think that's pretty important.

Dave: We've believed for a long time that in OmniFocus, dates do the most for you when you give them real meaning, and that by definition when you're dragging dates around in order to keep things in your view, you're lessening their meaning.

Brent: Yeah. Right.

Dave: What we hadn't done was give people a great alternative to doing that, to keep things in that forecast view, which people love.

Brent: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dave: And so this is a great way to do that.

Brent: Has the forecast view changed in any significant way?

Dave: It's funny that you ask, 'cause we think we've made it even better.

Brent: Oh yeah?

Dave: You may remember that we used to show your calendar events or optionally show those events in a little section within the forecast view, that we kind of give you a timeline view, but it wasn't particularly easy to see where things might fit in between those calendar items. Your ‘hard landscape’ as it's called in GTD, I believe. And what we've done in OmniFocus 3 is interleave those calendar events with your actions. So you have much- ...

Brent: It's just like a list?

Dave: Absolutely, yeah.

Brent: Oh okay.

Dave: So you have a much better picture of when something might need to be done in order to get it done before whatever appointment you have.

Brent: Cool. So if I've got a tag selected and then it shows me a bunch of tasks and projects and whatever, do I understand right, that I can reorder them there? And that order will persist and sync?

Dave: Yep, it will persist in that tag. So you're not affecting the order of the items in their projects or the projects in your library.

Brent: Right. But I may very well want a specific order in a specific tag. That's really cool.

Tim: This is another workflow that we've seen people create in OmniFocus 2 and have some success with, is like a shopping workflow, right? Maybe all of your shopping tasks are in a ‘go grocery shopping’ project, or something like that. And in order to get those items in the right order in the Context view, people would create a Context for every aisle of their grocery store.

Brent: Wow.

Tim: And so now with OmniFocus 3 and re-orderable tags, what you're able to do is put together your shopping list and then drag it around into the order that you're going to be shopping for things, so that as you walk through the grocery store, you can just work top to bottom through a single grocery store tag and call it a day.

Brent: I'm amazed by people. I've seen people organize their grocery list that way, 'cause they know the store and they know the order of things and now we support that.

Tim: Yeah.

Brent: Well, at this point I think I'm out of questions. You guys have anything that I haven't talked about, that really should be touched on here?

Dave: Just that it's really exciting to see what people are doing, and we look forward to being able to give more people the opportunity to show us what they're doing.

Brent: Yeah, yeah. For sure. Yeah. We're super excited about this, it's gonna ... I love seeing the early feedback. Other than there's the obvious bugs, which are getting quickly fixed, people seem to be really, really enjoying it.

Dave: Something about major releases, is that features get implemented in some kind of order based on how resources are available, and then a feature might be in the app for a while internally before our customer gets to see it, so we've all been living with these features for a while, and are kind of taking them for granted, and then getting to show them to a customer and have a customer geek out over it just like we did when we first implemented it is pretty fantastic.

Tim: Yeah I've been reminded of a couple features since we started getting feedback that have been ... It's like getting to rediscover the app all over again.

Brent: That's cool. Yeah there's something ... Seeing something through somebody else's eyes is definitely a fun thing. Well, thanks Dave. Thanks Tim. How can people find you in the web, Tim?

Tim: You can find me on Twitter @timothyekl.

Brent: Mkay.

Tim: Or at

Brent: All right, Dave?

Dave: You can find me on Twitter @dmessent.

Brent: And of course we’ll have the links in the show notes to all of this, so you can Tweet at these guys and try to bribe them to get in on the testers list early.

Dave: My Twitter may be private by the time that this airs.

Tim: And they know better than to give me iTunes Connect access.

Dave: Just kidding.

Brent: I'd also like to thank our intrepid producer, Mark Boszko. Say hello, Mark.

Mark: Hello, Mark.

Brent: And especially I want to thank you for listening. Thank you. Music!