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Don’t go there. Don’t even try it.

Merlin by Project Wizards

Merlin Gantt Chart Tool by Project WizardsMerlin is a whole different category of software from Daylite, and some might say that the two have so little in common it’s a bit of an apples and pears kind of thing. It is true that most of the features on my spec sheet, notably contact and diary management, a GTD environment and tracking and tracing of actions, are simply not what Merlin is about. Instead, this tool by German software foundry Project Wizards is what one might call a traditional gantt chart project management application. Essentially, it allows you to draw up a list of tasks and assign different start dates, durations and end dates to them. A project running over a certain time is thus broken down into a a number of shorter actions and stages.

This, of course, is only the beginning. Professional project managers are a very special breed of people who can spend an entire dinner telling you all about flexible resource allocation, critical paths and authorisation-workflows. Insofar as they work on a Mac (one would imagine most probably don’t), Merlin is in all likelihood their tool of choice.

The reason Merlin is mentioned here is because its rather sleek and mac-like graphic display of tasks is exactly one half of what I had been looking for. Unfortunately, the other half of Merlin (or maybe, the other 99 percent) consist of a fascinating wealth of features that creative workers are very unlikely to need for any of their self-managed projects or productions. Think of it as some sort of litmus test: if a project of yours is big enough to justify the full use of Merlin, it is too big for you to handle by yourself – you should seriously think about hiring a dedicated project manager.

OmniFocus and OmniPlan by Omni Group

If Merlin is slightly too big a gun for most creative workers, how about if there were a tool that would combine Merlin’s graphic presentation skills with advanced task management features – or if not a single tool, then how about a combination of two applications? Enter Omni Group.

Omni Group is an award-winning software company from Seattle. They have developed a whole group of nifty little tools that can all (more or less) exchange data with each other. I decided to first look at their task management application, OmniFocus.

OmniFocus is one of a whole new breed of applications that all do more or less the same thing: they let you enter tasks as part of a brainstorm into a general “hold-all” folder and then offer a variety of ways to organise them according to the bigger objective they are going to achieve (usually the “project”) and the things you need around you in order to do them (“context”).

This is, in very basic form, one of the ideas behind David Allen’s GTD system. There is a lot more to it, of course, but a lot of it is also pretty obvious and will hardly excite a jaded European in the same way as it seems to spark enthusiasm in legions of American businessmen. Suffice it to say that the whole thing, implemented as a software, works pretty well. You can “unload” your brain, often in a matter of minutes, by hacking everything into the machine that has recently been on your mind, from the proverbial “taking the rubbish out” to “saving the planet”. Next time you feel organised (or bored), you look at it again and then figure out what can be done instantly, what needs scheduling and what should be put on hold for now. Before you know it, your life is sorted.

OmniFocus is not the most beautifully designed of these tools – that is, in my opinion, Midnight Inbox by Midnight Beep, which is due an update soon – nor does it offer the best way of organising your tasks – that accolade goes to Things (currently in Beta) which offers a far more flexible tagging system, yet is otherwise very similar. Easy Task Manager by Orionbelt is the simplest of them all, but is excellent value for money if all you need is a simple GTD-environment. OmniFocus has a tiny edge over its competitors for a different reason: once you have penned down your tasks and organised them neatly by start and due date (type “next month” and OmniFocus will put the correct date – that’s how smart it is!), you can export the whole thing into a CSV file and then open it in OmniPlan.

OmniPlan is to Merlin what a Ford Kuga is to a BMW X5: it does a very similar thing, but is American and about a third cheaper. Contrary to a Ford Kuga, however,  OmniPlan actually looks good – I would even say it looks a bit better than magic Merlin itself. OmniGroup did a very neat thing when they designed the interface and timeline presentation of OmniFocus, and for my purposes it does not really matter much that some of the very extensive project management features of Merlin are missing. What matters, however, is that I can use OmniPlan to graphically present my project tasks to Rudolph’s sheikhs any time I feel like it. All I have to do is import the OmniFocus CSV file and map the imported fields to the timeline fields of OmniPlan. The process is not without a few glitches and only works one way, but something is better than nothing. In addition, I get to use OmniPlan as a gantt chart application in its own right, and OmniFocus will let me play around with my tasks for hours on end until it really is too late to get just about anything done.

Nearly all the applications I mentioned above, by the way, come with a little sister in the form of a native iPhone application that will take care of syncing, editing and viewing on the iPhone. The only exception at this point is Midnight Inbox but the developer is, as I said, working on version 2.0 as I write this.

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