How I use OmniFocus

I’ve raved about OmniFocus before. It is my favorite piece of software and it is the one app that I would hate—have hated—to do without. I use it to keep track of everything I want to do and I would like to share my OmniFocus setup with you.

Goals

First, what is OmniFocus? I think of it as a project management system. There are many projects in my life, some of them ongoing and others one-off. For instance, when my partner and I are constructing a piece of furniture, that is a one-off project because it ends when the piece of furniture is finished. By contrast, I periodically check whether the fire alarms in our apartment work, which falls under an ongoing “housekeeping” project. So I see OmniFocus as a system for keeping track of projects.

Why do I need help with keeping track of projects? Because like most people, I sometimes forget things if I don’t keep write them down. And if I forget things, I might worry about forgetting more. Most importantly, then, a project management system helps me worry less.

Let’s translate the goal to worry less into specific things a good project management system should do. It should:

  1. Reduce the chance that I’ll forget to do something (on time)
  2. Organize the things that I want or need to do
  3. Remind me when I can start a task and when it is due soon
  4. Help me decide which tasks to work on today

If a project management system does these things for me, odds are I’ll like it. OmniFocus achieves all of these goals easily, with a pleasant interface to boot. So I love it!

Tasks

The basic unit of a project management system is the task: something that you have to do and that you can complete. Let’s say the task is to file my (U.S.) tax return. It’s an annual task and fortunately OmniFocus supports recurring tasks. It’s also a task that I can’t start working on until the tax year is over. For instance, I can’t file my 2016 taxes until January 1, 2017 at the earliest—although in practice I end up filing in February, when some important tax forms come in.

Still, I certainly don’t want to see this task before January 1 of next year. It would clutter up my screen. To accommodate tasks that I can’t start until some time in the future, OmniFocus lets me set a deferral date. Before the date, the task won’t show unless I specifically go looking for it. Nice and clean.

Many tasks also have a due date, of course. U.S. taxes are due April 15, so the “file taxes” task has a due date of April 15, 2017. When I complete the task, OmniFocus automatically generates the same task for the next year.

Projects

As I said, I have ongoing projects as well as one-off projects. OmniFocus technically has three types of projects, but in practice the software also distinguishes between ongoing projects on the one hand and one-off projects on the other.

Most of the time, I use a single-action project. Such a project can never be completed—in other words, it is ongoing. For instance, I have a single-action project called “housekeeping” that contains tasks such as cleaning the kitchen counter, polishing my shoes, and oiling the cutting board. Often these are recurring tasks, but sometimes they are one-off tasks such as repairing an appliance. Either way, housekeeping will never be “done”. Which is a shame, of course.

Then there are the one-off projects. All projects consist of tasks that can be completed, but one-off projects themselves can also be completed. OmniFocus has two types of projects that are one-off and the first of these is the sequential-action project, which consist of tasks that must be completed in a certain order. For instance, “Renovate the kitchen” might be a sequential-action project. It requires setting a budget, choosing materials, sketching the design, etc.—more or less in that order. It does not make sense to choose materials before you set a budget, because if you do you might end up choosing granite countertops when you can’t afford them. I use this type of project occasionally.

The second type of one-off project is the parallel-action project, which can also be completed, but consists of tasks that can be completed in more than one order. Think of a project like “Highlight my latest work on social media”. It could involve writing an article on LinkedIn, posting updates on Facebook, and uploading photos to Instagram. In that case, it doesn’t matter which you do first. These tend to be fun and engaging projects such as “set up a new website”, “write a book”, or “get a scuba dive certification”. I use this type of project quite a bit.

Any project management system should let you organize your tasks into projects. OmniFocus does it well. But organizing tasks isn’t enough for me. I also want useful ways of looking at the tasks I have added to the system. Seeing all tasks, even sorted by project, is not useful. Many tasks are not due for a long time and others require that I complete other tasks first. And some tasks are simply more important than others. This is where contexts and perspectives come in.

Contexts and perspectives

A context is a freewheeling way to organize your tasks, separate from organizing by project. You can assign each task a context and then browse your tasks by context. I use four contexts to denote the type and quantity of effort a task requires. They are:

  1. Short dashes: tasks that I can complete in one go and that do not require much thinking. For instance, sweeping the floor.
  2. Full attention: tasks that will require my full attention. For instance, writing a report.
  3. Tough decisions: for instance, should I allocate a portion of my investment portfolio to bond funds?
  4. Brain dead: tasks that I can complete when I want to get something done but have no mental energy left. For instance, scanning and filing receipts.

To be honest, I don’t browse by context often. It would not surprise me if most OmniFocus users never assigned contexts at all. But I still like to assign a context to each task because it reminds me of how much effort the task will take.

While contexts allow you to organize tasks however you like, perspectives allow you to view your tasks however you like. For instance, one perspective might show all tasks due soon. (You can define what you want “soon” to mean.) Another might show all tasks that are available, meaning they do not depend on you completing another task first and they are not deferred until a future time.

OmniFocus offers built-in perspectives and lets you create custom ones. I use both built-in and custom perspectives daily. My favorite perspectives are the ones I’ve named the Planning perspective and the Today perspective.

My Planning perspective

I’ve set up the Planning perspective to show all tasks that are available for me to work on. I use it in the morning to pick tasks I’d like to complete that day. For this I use the flag feature. A flag is similar to a context in that you can use a flag to arbitrarily mark certain tasks, although flags are a binary marker, while you can create many contexts. I use flags to represent tasks I’ve picked to work on today.

But the list of tasks I plan to work on today isn’t set in stone. Often I change my mind about which tasks I want to work . When this happens, I sometimes go back to the Planning perspective to flag tasks or to un-flag them.

My Today perspective

My Today perspective is a custom one. It shows two types of tasks:

  1. Tasks that are due “soon” (meaning due in four days or sooner)
  2. Tasks that I have flagged (meaning I plan to do them today)

You can think of these types as reflecting tasks that I should complete today (tasks that are due soon) and tasks that I want to complete today (flagged tasks). This is the most fun OmniFocus screen, because this is where I get to check off tasks when I complete them. Check! Dopamine release. Check! Dopamine release.

Try it!

I’ve described how I set up OmniFocus and how I use it daily. But if you try OmniFocus, you will probably want to set it up differently, at least eventually. Luckily, OmniFocus is flexible enough to allow you to do that.

Either way, I encourage you to give OmniFocus a shot. If you have an iOS device and you want to worry less about the things you have to do, just try it. Spend some time setting it up. See if you can find a way to organize your projects and tasks in the way that you organize them in your head. If the way I set up OmniFocus doesn’t make sense to you, take a look at some other people’s workflows.

And if you do try OmniFocus, let me know how you like it.

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Posted by Peter

Here, Peter writes about whatever has caught his interest recently. Maybe he'll narrow down this blog's scope someday.

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