Photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash

After a few recent problems with a GTD vendor I use at home, I took a look into what I think goes into a good GTD tool. I also gave a presentation at my work on using OmniFocus with free-mind, and I thought about the more general points that you should look for when trying to choose between the myriad of tools out there.

Search features

An absolute must. If you can’t retrieve what you need, then you’re going against the whole purpose of GTD, namely ‘only having a thought once’ and ‘not putting info into silos’. If on the other hand, you have a vague recollection of something that you need, and can find it easily, then you get the benefit of all that info that you stored about it at the time.

Also, since things may have changed since you stored it, seeing any tasks associated with your search results info might kick off a chain of thought about better ways to do things.

Export to a standard format (ideally JSON)

It’s only when something goes wrong and you want to move vendors that this one might occur to you. No matter how good the feature currently is, you should always consider the possibility that good people leave companies, and that the app may not always get the support you need in the future. If you can export to a standard format like JSON or XML, then you are never completely tied in.

Continued support and fast turnaround for bugs

Related to the above, check out the forums on the software in question. Are the forums busy, indicating a product with a large take-up? What happens when something goes wrong? How quickly are problems response to initially? How long before the y are completely solved?

Ability to link to reference material

I like to include links from each of my projects out to reference material, in other words, by scanning through a products description, I can see where to find all my reference data.

I copy the path to locations on the file system, google drive and Evernote pages where appropriate, but bottom line, there’s one place to look to see all the tasks to complete a project, and all the places to go to find the related support materials.

If you can upload actual files I actually think that’s a disadvantage as you constantly need to sync local changes, but having a *link* to a file will speed you up as there’s not the maintenance effort re-uploading that all the time.

Ability to derive tasks from emails

I can’t think for too many cases where a developer won’t get emails making up some part of his or her work, and hence the ability to get the ‘task part’ out of an email is crucial. Some tools allow you to forward to a designated address that then imports the emails as tasks and then let you filter.

Omnifocus goes one further, and has a feature I use heavily at work. It lets you create tasks from an email and then retains an ID linking back to the original email. That way, you have the original email (which you are free to move to a different folder after creating the task) that you can always link back to, and a task which you can complete when you are ready.

Non Cloud Capability

Vital at home, but possibly prohibited at work, putting project information online might have to be vetted by your company. OmniFocus has the ability to run ‘local only’ (and encrypted), so this can alleviate this concern. Of course you need to ensure there’s a corresponding backup utility when you don’t get the comfort of a cloud solution

Bulk Import

Either through a Restful interface or by having a single line to enter tasks related to the same project, having something to keep you in your flow when you identify tasks is vital. Batching of tasks is a key part of any productivity flow, so having to enter the details of every task as you identify them is context switching you don’t want.

Works well on all your devices

Since you get ideas at the most/least opportune times, you want an app that works well on web, tablet and phone. Something with a clean UI on the web but a clunky phone version will stifle you quickly getting ideas captured. I’ve always liked doit’s clean UI, most of the features you can get on the phone version, but the ones omitted for the sake of a clean UI are not vital.

Clean UI

Related to the above, a UI that fits with your ‘interpretation’ of GTD is a must. If you’re always trying to make sense of the bells and whistles of a tool, you won’t use it (think 80-20 principle here when it comes to finding your tool). If it’ obvious how to assign something to a different project, put into a waiting state, or assign it a date, you can stop worrying about it until the right time.

Renewal cost

You get what you pay for of course, but it pays to bear on mind whether you’re paying a one-off or yearly cost. OmniFocus cost me more than a yearly subscription, (about 3 times as much), but it could outlive the comparative cost of a renewal based model.
The advantage of the yearly subscription model of course is that you’re free to ditch and switch if you want to (and you’ve previously chosen something with an export capability)


If you have a tool that works well across all your devices, you can retrieve your tasks in the event of a disaster, and you don’t “lose flow” when entering/updating tasks, then I think that should be your primary concern. The other enhancements you can think of as the ‘icing on the cake’.

By James