A Year with OmniFocus

When I started using OmniFocus, there were very few guides around for people who aren’t already crazy productivity gurus.

I found the systems others suggested were too laborious and didn’t really work for me, even though I still felt I could get good, very specific use out of the platform.

Most of my time is spent at work, where I work on multiple projects at once that change constantly. Trying to use an app to manage my own tasks on these, I’ve found in the past, is just impractical and much better served by simple lists in my notebook.

Managing what I need to do at home, however, and planning things that need to be covered off each month / throughout the year, is where this app really comes into play – and has been incredibly helpful.

So I wanted to share how my system works – to help anyone else out in a similar position:

  • Having to organise multiple things
  • At home and at work long-term (e.g. personal goals)
  • When you might be slightly forgetful
  • In as little time as possible

But firstly…

What is OmniFocus?

If you haven’t come across it before, OmniFocus is a fairly heavy-duty, premium app for managing tasks, to-dos and lists.

Its main point of difference from other apps is its idea of “Contexts“, which let you simply group tasks by some other dimension – like “To do at Home” or “To do at Work” or “Urgent” vs “Not so urgent” tasks.

This sounds boring, but is incredibly helpful. It means you can really easily a) jot down things you need to do over time, then b) organise them by priority, and change that very quickly. So that you can end up with 100s of things you’ve needed to jot down stored in the app (to remind you), but only the main things you need to do in one list for you to keep reference to daily.

So y:

When I started, I found it quite difficult to find guides and inspiration as to how to best set up the app for a novice user.

There seem to be a lot of guides for people using it to manage freelance lives – and give their life structure when not doing a 9-to-5 – which results in a pretty intensive “work about work” scenario. But very little for just casual users who want to use it alongside their work lives to help them get more organised, productive and less stressed about things they might have forgotten.

This small report is therefore to help anyone who’s coming to OmniFocus from this perspective. Working 9-5 and otherwise using it to organise their broader goals and home lives.

You’ll notice for this reason that my workflow is probably more casual than many others who have shared their own. I am definitely not a Productivity geek, but have found the app very useful.

Why I started with OmniFocus

Back at the very end of 2016, I knew I had a big year approaching, with getting our first house, moving, sorting bills and also a few personal projects I wanted to get started.

My wife is naturally very well organised – it is baked into her blood – but I am not. My job requires me to come up with creative ideas at a fairly rapid pace, and this leads my brain to be more naturally searching, sporadic and slightly absent-minded rather than systematic.

I appreciate order, however, and so the ideas and plans I do have I want to note down as quickly as possible so I can review, refine and keep myself to them.

As a side-note – I’m also a massive cultural hoarder. Books, games, ads, TV shows, films… I take a lot of photos in my phone of things I find interesting around (esp. books) and store for future reference or purchase. Managing this is a nightmare.

When I came across the OF app I had already tried multiple task management and listing apps to try and achieve the same kind of thing – ToDoist, Trello, Clear, Evernote – as well as writing copious notes in VesperApp on my phone.

I was attracted to it for 3 reasons:

1. Contexts – because it allowed me to put another filter on projects/tasks right off the bat to make them relevant.

2. Its detail – sometimes a task is just a task, but often I like to list things and store that. With the iOS version of OmniFocus, it’s very easy to quickly note down outlines of what you want to do and flesh them out later without pain.

3. The Get Things Done (GTD) method – I’d heard about this before but never quite sussed what it was. The fact you can do a very ‘lite’ version of this task-processing workflow was very attractive.

In other task apps I’d found that I never felt comfortable using them as a second part of my brain. Either it was slightly too painful to get lots of tasks / lists down quickly, or just not structured enough to give me a way of working with them right off the bat.

With this, I found I got into workflow fairly quickly, and the app is so robust that I feel comfortable listing a lot of long-term things in there without the fear of the company suddenly shutting down or a trendier app coming on the market.

How I use it

The app is expensive (£40 – ridiculous for a task management app, but so well designed I have found it definitely worth it), and I think this breeds a kind of confirmation bias that leads users to really *want* to make it work to justify the cost. This is no bad thing, but also my experience with it is that I have been consistently impressed by the thoughtfulness of design and seamlessness – even beyond what I could imagine when I started, or when I need to try something new with it. It is very rigorous but easy and flexible.The workflow I’ve got into over the year is:

  • Capturing – get all tasks / thoughts down as I think of them, into the Inbox, try and be as full as I can and worry about organising them later
  • Processing – where I decide where all those tasks go, how I prioritise them, what “Context” they should have etc (more on this later
  • Doing – as tasks get done, obviously I tick them off; with this I roughly follow the GTD “do / defer / delegate” method, though rarely in my home life is there a situation where I can or should delegate.

This is very similar to the broad Marie Kondo method for organising things in your house, which also gives me a pleasing bit of symmetry & satisfaction.

Setting up the app

img_9556

For those on the app already, you’ll see I just keep standard layout – I’m not a power user.

If you’re new to it and wondering whether to try it out, you can see there are 7 main parts: Forecast, Inbox, Flagged, Projects, Nearby, Contexts and Review.

In reality, I find I only really use 5 of these – “Review” I started off using but found it too fussy and annoying to set up the way I wanted (I think the desktop app is better for this); “Nearby” I just never use.

The main bulk of work happens in “Inbox”, “Projects” and “Contexts”.

Inbox

img_9557

All my tasks start off as a dump in Inbox.

I use this to remind myself of tasks which I can’t do immediately (so have to remember). Then I sort them into Projects and Contexts before ticking them off.

Often if a task is pretty quick I’m sorting it into a folder only at the same time as ticking it off, to keep some kind of order and trail.

Projects

img_9558

Projects, I’ve discovered, should be used more like a filing system.

I rarely refer back to them for tasks, unless I’m sorting a list in there (eg. books on my want list, clothes on my want list, year goals).

You can see here that I try to keep Projects as clean, simple and structured as I can:

Goals – for setting myself yearly / monthly goals

Home – to house odds and ends I need to do in the house, errands or things we need to get etc.

Finances – to house my lists of credit card due dates, main recurring outgoings etc for financial planning & budgeting

Work – for any work tasks (these are only few and far between as I note most work tasks in a book) or personal projects (more likely)

Organising – to list sorting tasks within OF that I haven’t done yet; so for instance “Organise your Books folder”, “Add in Birthdays”. By far the most meta of my Projects.

Lists – this is my favourite folder, where I house all of my lists of books, clothes, films and games to get / watch, as well as friends’ birthdays so I remember and get an alert:

img_9560`

“Kondoing” on there is just a noted list of the order things should be tidied in the Marie Kondo / KonMari method for house tidying.

For whatever reason, I find all these lists highly satisfying. They help me plan the year and track & get the most out of purchases across it.

Everything except these lists (mostly) gets a Context.

Contexts

Contexts are where the most “doing” happens. Also the most difficult and complicated to set up.

The way I’ve thought about them is “This is how I prioritise the tasks in my mind”.

Most tasks are “!” – you’ll see there are lots of dots there. These are short, doable tasks to remind me what key things need doing when I have time.

Important or urgent tasks I “Flag” in orange. There are usually only a few flagged items. As I say, I use this to organise home life and long-term work matters rather than everything.

Anything that takes a long time, is pretty nebulous (like an idea for making something, for instance) or just doesn’t need doing right away goes in “Later”. I review this at regular intervals. It’s the indefinite twilight realm of tasks.

Everything else is pretty self-explanatory – I keep a “Buy List” to track across things I definitely want to get from those purchase lists I was talking about. This also combines with home item lists to let me plan finances a little around them.

“Goals” is to remind me of my yearly and long-term goals. “Waiting” I don’t think I’ve ever used (but have it in there from when I was trying out other people’s methods). And “Regulars” is to capture those regular payments, admin requirements etc that fit into various categories but I need to keep track of through the year. In reality with these, I mostly see them when they come up in “Forecast” on the front screen.

The remaining “Shopping” ones have been superseded, as you can see, but for earthiness I have kept them in there without tidying them out. Rebel.

Fitting into daily life

That’s about it for my tour of my beautiful OmniFocus collection. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

I’ve one comment regarding how this fits into daily life:

Often with these productivity things they ask you to put everything in there, do 15-30min every day, check back regularly etc. And to me, with my work style at least, I find this leads to a lot of ‘busywork’ – trying to keep all your work tasks in there as you go and ending up spending half your time mindlessly editing and updating.

For me, I’ve found the optimum has been checking my list consciously a few times a week. And only including in-work tasks in there if they are longer term and for my own benefit. Otherwise, daily work tasks I manage in a small written to-do list in my book.

It may be different for you, but this is what I have found. I am working in an agency where my time is often at the mercy of other people, so I suspect this makes a big difference.

If you use this and have found differently, please let me know. I’d be interested to hear your situation and process.

Until next time,

Michael

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