My OmniFocus Setup

As I prepared for my OmniFocus Setup session, I took the opportunity to step back from the application to look at the way I use it. I figured it couldn’t hurt to share this with those of you who may be considering the app or struggling to find your own way with it. This post won’t be for everyone, but I hope it will help those (like me) who tend to learn by watching/hearing how others approach a specific tool.

This won’t be a thorough look at OmniFocus. Just a thorough look at how I use it.

Mac, iPhone and/or iPad

I own all three versions, but I tend to do the majority of my work on the Mac, with the occasional use of the iPhone for capturing tasks and taking a peek at the day. The iPad is by far the nicest looking version of the app, but the limitations of iOS keep me from ever getting all that serious about using it.

Projects and Folders

At first, this sidebar served only as a place to drop all of my projects and to get a quick overview of just how much I was attempting to tackle. As I put more of my life into the app this became unwieldy. So I started creating folders that grouped logical projects together, but I still couldn’t make much sense of things. Turns out I was going about it wrong (or at least wrong for me). Rather than taking a bottom up approach to projects and folders, I made a switch to top down.

Folders

I started by creating five folders that represent the most essential aspects of my life (or “horizons of focus” as we GTD junkies like to call them) including Home, Work, Web, Personal and Family. I also keep a top-level Single Actions list that functions more like an Inbox for me (more on this in a bit). In each area, I determined key areas for each folder to determine where my attention should be. For example the Web includes my site, my podcasts, my newsletter with Mike Vardy and any guest work I do for other sites.

Projects

Once these folders were established, I set my sights on reviewing and recreating my projects. Once the essential aspects and key areas were defined, the projects fell into place. While they were still logical groupings of tasks, my folder structure often served as a gut check to make sure that the projects I took on made sense to help me achieve my goals. If a project didn’t help achieve a goal, I’d either have to determine if a goal was missing, redefine the project to align it with my goals or, best yet, abandon it.

Contexts

There are two kinds of contexts when it comes to OmniFocus: the Context field which allows for one context per task and actual contexts which are a person, place or thing needed to accomplish a specific task. Ask 100 people about how they use contexts and you will get 100 answers. Here’s mine:

The Context Field

When I first started using OmniFocus, I used a traditional contexts hierarchy that leveraged all of the people, places and things in my life. As almost every task involved multiple people, places or things, this fell apart. There’s also the added challenge that things like email can be done on at least four devices that I own, many of which can be used just about anywhere. I looked at the approaches used by others, including those that added contexts for energy levels, but over time I found that I only really needed two: Work and Home. Of all the crossover in my life, there’s a clear split between the things I do for my job and just about everything else. These contexts are all I need to power my perspectives, and despite some minor flaws, it’s proven to be the most usable for me (more on said flaws in the perspectives section).

True Contexts

Convenient as the two context approach is, it has limits. It lets me focus in on my mindset (which tends to be very different when I’m doing my job vs. my own pursuits), but it doesn’t do much to help me batch tasks together. This is where “True Contexts” come in, and by that I mean all of the people, places and things required to do a task. I no longer need to put much thought into what I put into the context field (considering there are only two options), but I put tremendous thought into how I name my tasks. By adding contexts into the task name, such as, “Email Bill re: Meeting time,” I can use search in OmniFocus to group tasks.

If I’m going to be working on email, I can use the search field in OmniFocus to see any task that includes the word email. If I’m going to be seeing Bill, I can search for any tasks that may relate to him. Combine this with project and context filters, and I can get very granular, very quickly. Is this perfect? No. If I had a task titled, “Call to Bill about his Email,” it would show up when searching for things I need to email. Does it work for me despite this minor shortcoming? You bet.

The Inbox

As you may have gathered from the section above, the naming and creation of tasks is a very intentional act. With intent in mind, I tend to avoid a very common step in OmniFocus: sending tasks to the Inbox. For many, the Inbox is a great place to throw things; for me, it’s a place to add clutter and another place I need to check. To avoid this I do my best to provide all of the information I’ll need when I look back at a newly created task later on.

When I’m not sure about the project (which tends to be the biggest outlier for me when creating a task), I’ll add it to my Single Actions list rather than dropping it into the Inbox or omitting it. When I do my weekly review, any incomplete tasks in this list get reviewed to see if projects have emerged from any these single actions.

As for the Inbox itself, there is one case where I do find it useful. If I want to brain dump (read: create a ton of tasks at once), I will just start creating tasks that only include a name (and often not the final one I’ll use), but this is just to get everything out of my head. I tend to immediately refine these after creating them. Brain dumps tend to be far more successful when I figure out what I want to do (or not do) with the crap that just fell out of my head.

Tasks

Much as this may be a taboo (or possibly even wrong), I don’t put every task into OmniFocus. Just the ones that OmniFocus is going to help me accomplish. The most obvious omissions are various types of to-dos that I leave out of this system in favor of more focused tools (e.g., reminders live in Due, lists live in Listary, habits in Good Habit and my appointments live in Gcal/Fantastical). I also tend to leave certain aspects of my creative work outside of these kinds of systems entirely. While OmniFocus does wonders to keep me on track when I have an article due for someone else, it proves to be more of a burden than a benefit when attempting to use it to track the writing for my own site.

The creation of tasks is nearly as important to me as what constitutes a task. This intentional approach does wonders to ensure I actually remember what the hell it was I wanted to do at the time of creation. Here’s my approach:

Task Name

I always try to balance clarity and brevity. My hope is that if I were hit by a bus, a relatively intelligent person could look at my list and figure out what I wanted to do (primarily because when I’m not clear, I often look back at a task and have no earthly concept of what I meant). I also try to make each name a specific action. Stupid as this may seem, “Email Bill re: Vacation Days” or “Call Bill re: Vacation Days” tend to get done faster than “Talk to Bill re: Vacation Days,” which requires me to think about how I’m going to communicate with him.

Project

I tend to skirt the line between best practices and what works for me. There are some people who love to get super granular with projects. I don’t. By GTD standards anything that requires more than one step is, in fact, a project. I try to boil the task down to the most reasonable starting place, as it can get a little nuts. As much as “Call Bill re: Vacation Days” requires that I check to see if I have a number for Bill, it’s rare that I would make this a separate task. This gets me in trouble every now and again (like when I go to change light bulbs around the house but have run out), but I find the sanity of a more manageable task list to be worth the tradeoff of occasionally not having exactly what I need for common tasks. Don’t get me wrong, I can see the benefits of this approach, but the practice drove me insane. I found myself spending more time time managing projects than doing them. I also found that creating these kinds of micro-projects often slowed down task creation.

My current approach (which is still a work in progress) is to assign tasks to existing projects. If a new project name is not readily apparent to me, I drop the task in my Single Actions list. If I know the name of the project, I’ll create it using the on-the-fly functionality in the OmniFocus Quick Entry or Clipper, but not file the new project into a proper folder. This ensures that it gets a good, hard look during my weekly review. During this same review, I will also scan through the Single Actions folder to see if any of the actions should be added to a new or existing project.

Context

When creating a task, I always require that it get either the Work or Home context to ensure it shows up in the proper perspective (more on this in a minute). I run into the occasional challenge where a task can or should be done anywhere (more on this in the section on Perspectives), but I force myself to choose one and get on with things.

Start Date

Start dates were a game changer for me. They allow me to not think about something until I need to think about it. While I love the idea of capture, I hate the idea of reviewing something weekly that won’t matter for some time. When creating a task, I’m a big fan of using a start date to help shield the task from my view until the time is right or until I am doing a more thorough review.

Due Date

Since adding start dates, I’ve really dialed back on the use of due dates. There are only two cases where I will add a due date: if there is a true drop dead date by which a task or project needs to be completed or if there is a firm date where I need to make use of the information in a task. They are most commonly used to keep me from missing deadlines or obligations. They’re also one of the only instances where I will use badges on my computer and iOS devices to ensure that they are not missed.

Time

I don’t put estimated timeframes into my tasks and hide this. I prefer to make these determinations when planning my days.

Notes

It’s rare that I manually add notes, although it has been known to happen. Notes are most commonly created through the OmniFocus Clipper or by some Keyboard Maestro macro.

Quick Entry and Clipper

This is how most tasks are created in OmniFocus. While I tend to add tasks directly into the application during reviews, most get entered after hitting a keyboard shortcut for firing up either the quick entry or clipper pop-ups. The two are essentially the same, the one difference being that the clipper will add highlighted text and, in many cases, a link back to relevant materials including email messages. Over time I’ve also created “hacks” that let me add links to Evernote notes and nvALT files using the clipper. (I also have a super geeky one that lets me automatically send files to Evernote and then create a new task with a link to the file. Clearly, I have a problem …) Both the clipper and quick entry boxes allow me to create one or more tasks while entering all of the fields listed in the tasks section above.

Perspectives

Perspectives allow me to create specific views for specific mindsets. For example, my Work perspective offers up only the tasks that are relevant to what I am doing there at the time (in other words, they have a context of Work and if there’s a start date available, it is current). Since I can set a keyboard shortcut for each, I can cycle through all of my various contexts with ease. By default, my work computer opens OmniFocus to a perspective that focuses in on my work, while my personal computer centers around my broader Home context.

Note: This approach does have its limitations, the biggest one being that I can’t have seamless Anywhere tasks for things that could show up in both my Work and Home Perspectives. There are ways to work around this, but the limitation often forces me to make a determination between a Work or Home context for tasks that could be ubiquitous.

Reviews

While many love the OmniFocus iPad app for reviews, I’m still old school and prefer to do these on my Mac. I have two perspectives setup for my reviews. A weekly review perspective that shows me tasks that have reached or do not have a start date and one that shows me everything, including items with a start date that could be well in the future for more in-depth monthly reviews.

The Overall Look

The default OmniFocus design on the Mac leaves a lot to be desired. While we expect to see this improve in the upcoming 2.0 version, I’ve never let this bother me all that much. The app allows users to tweak the look to suit their own tastes, but I’ve never changed a design setting. I always figured that once I started, I’d never stop.

While I haven’t changed the default design, I have changed the various views. One of my favorite things for OmniFocus is the ability to set different default views for different perspectives. At work, all I see are my tasks sorted by project. It doesn’t show the sidebar with my projects and folders, or the header with navigation. At home, I take a broader approach to my work. I tend to move around a lot more, so I like to have access to the header.

The Bottom Line

The theme for The OmniFocus Setup event is that the app is something different for everyone. The longer I use it, and the more I listen to people talk about how they use it (which I admit, I probably do too much of), the more I find this to be true.

In a recent episode of Gabe Weatherhead’s Generational podcast, he was talking to Jeff Hunsberger about the app. Jeff was sharing how flexible the app is, while Gabe commented that he occasionally finds himself frustrated by its rigidity. I think that the truth lives right between those two statements, that OmniFocus is flexible as to which rigidity you settle on. You have to choose a way to use the app, even if that means accepting a few trade-offs along the way, but when you take the time to find a way that works works for you, I doubt there’s another application that comes close.

Note: I may try to see if I can get a few other OmniFocus geeks to provide a similar overview. Let me know what you think of this idea in the comments.

  • William Gallagher

    Don’t you have any tasks that have to be done at certain places? I have many. Many. It can be a list of things my mother needs done when I go to hers or it can be something to do with a particular client and his or her office. So I use contexts for that, I use geo-fencing a great deal, but it does mean I have an enormous number of contexts. I’d love to see a way to cut that down to just the two you have but it’s beyond me. Have you figured this one out or does it just not come up with you?

    William

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      I totally see the benefit of location based contexts, but Brooklyn living tends to make them a bit less useful for me personally. There isn’t much that I cannot pick up on the walk from the subway to my apartment, so all I ever really need is a single context.

      I’m also not advocating that two contexts will be right for anyone else, just that you should find what works for you!

  • http://twitter.com/kevinbehringer Kevin Behringer

    I’d love to see how other people set their Omnifocus up. I’m always looking for something to tweak (unfortunately)

  • http://twitter.com/TomTweetz Thomas Landgraeber

    Looking forward to what Ken Case and his fellows coming up with tonight (OmniFocus 2). If I like what I see, I’ll switch back to OmniFocus soon. At the moment, I am fiddeling around with Taskpaper and Things because none of the three apps (including OmniFocus v1.9) actually fit my needs. Hope OmniFocus 2 gets a couple of good features and a shiny new interface.

  • http://www.thinkinprojects.com Rafal

    Great insight into your Omnifocus setup.

    I tend to use due date in the same way as you use start dates. At the moment Remember the Milk does not support other ways of replicating that, plus I hardly ever have real deadlines in there. Implementation of projects side of GTD seems to me an element that is really missing out from other applications. You can patch thing up in different ways but nothing comes close to the coherent Omnifocus solution.

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      The shift to Start dates was massive for me. It really let me take due dates seriously. I’m just getting back from being away and the start dates help me see what could happen the due dates let me see what needs to happen. Things that don’t need to happen, well, they are well hidden from sight.

      • Thee Gooch

        Same here. I just got started today, and when I read about how start and next start worked, my draw dropped. Gone are the days of my task manager scolding for a task where there was no penalty for being late. I like this OF app. I really do.

  • Mike Wilson

    I like how you are using contexts. I went ahead and converted to your methodology. I am starting to use searchable descriptors in the titles to differentiate things like email and readings.

    I also added 2 additional folders, templates and learning. I have several tutorials that I am finishing one by one.

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      Let me know how it goes for you! I’ll likely add back in templates, especially now with all the great work PxlDot has done: http://pxldot.com/blog/2013/omnifocus-templates

      As for learning, this is still more of a project based thing than a context for me. That said, there’s no wrong way!

  • Michael

    Awesome review, I just started using it after doing the Reminders/Daylite etc split. Your comments are very helpful.

  • janet

    The problem with omni focus is that you can’t just make projects within projects and instead have to use folders. when you do make an “action group” you still can’t put actions under folders. if you build with folders and need to add an action under the folder you’re stuck unless rebuilding the whole thing. it sucks.

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      Hey Janet,

      Have you tried nested tasks? This is how I handle projects within projects. Might not work for you, but it’s been helpful for me.

  • Denis Rafter

    So very useful, thank you very much for taking the time to share