Inspiration For A New OmniFocus Setup And Workflow

2019.08.26
- 11 min -
Joe Buhlig

It’s official. I’ve come back to OmniFocus in full force. But after making that decision, I realized that my life is very different from where I was when I was using OmniFocus previously. And that means rethinking the whole structure. So I went on a search for inspiration and came up with a plethora of valuable resources.

Learn OmniFocus

There’s a lot of great material on the Learn OmniFocus site. Tim Stringer has done a fantastic job of pulling together helpful videos and articles for a variety of use cases in OmniFocus. Thus, the first place I went to was learnomnifocus.com.

Managing the BIG Picture with OmniFocus 3

Here, Tim Stringer goes through the process of looking at Horizons 3,4, and 5. At least, that’s my summary. I came away from this video wanting to realize an aspect of my OmniFocus system that I’ve contemplated for a few years now, tying my long-term and short-term goals to projects.

OmniFocus 3 Workflows with Kourosh Dini

I just love Kourosh Dini’s work. And to have him and Tim together on a screencast makes it awesome. Kourosh has a way of putting together meta projects that link to other projects in OmniFocus. That way we can manage priorities and easily make decisions on what projects come next. It’s this format that I think will play a role in tying the higher horizons to day-to-day work.

OmniFocus 3 Workflows with Scotty Jackson

There’s one small piece of this screencast with Scotty Jackson that jumped out at me: project codes. I attempted to use project codes a while back, but it didn’t stick. But this inspired a different train of thought. What if I write a TextExpander snippet that creates the code, creates a reference text file, and maintains a list of project codes all in one place? Done. More on that below.

OmniFocus 3 Workflows with Beck Tench

There’s one small tip I found here and that’s the use of a single actions list as a separator line in the projects list. When I saw this, I immediately went to OmniFocus and plugged in a couple of them.

OmniFocus Field Guide

My good friend David Sparks has an excellent primer on OmniFocus in his Field Guide. In particular, he has a lecture going through his personal system. He opens his real database and walks you through as much as he can. Having done several screencasts, I can tell you that this is quite a feat and one to be admired.

But the main thing I took away from David’s Field Guide is that I need a single project in OmniFocus that helps guide me through the day. I mentioned this earlier but it was solidified when going through these videos. A single project with references elsewhere can be immensely helpful.

Another point about David’s system, he used to be a huge advocate for using Defer Dates heavily. This is something I’ve resonated with while going through all these systems. It just makes sense to decide when you’re going to do something and not rely on my willpower to decide on a context to work within.

Using OmniFocus

Where do I start with this one? Kourosh Dini has a lot of excellent material on OmniFocus, but it’s deeper than that. I’ve been through his book and read every article on his site. It’s hard for me to nail down the exact tips and mindsets he’s helped me with, but I do know that almost all of it involves intention setting and building habits. That’s the part I want to focus on, habits.

I know that it’s easy to drop things into OmniFocus and tag it endlessly. But if I ignore tags altogether and focus on projects while building habits that bring all of my projects into focus throughout a normal week, I know I’ll be making true progress towards my mission of helping people with technology. Thank you for showing me the importance of this, Kourosh.

Omni Forums

I check in on the OmniFocus Forums pretty regularly anymore. I haven’t made big alterations to my system based on any posts there, but I do pick up some quick tips and ideas regularly. A couple of those posts I’ve keyed in on recently:

Be a good… project

David Allen’s GTD killer app can be created using OmniFocus and Shortcuts

And sometimes I have questions about how to do something that’s likely not possible.

Prevent summarized headings when grouped by date?

Around the Web

I run across articles about OmniFocus a lot. I suppose that’s to be expected. And although these don’t always change the way I use the tool, I do find them motivating in one way or another.

This time around, amid my searching, I enjoyed reading these articles:

OmniFocus - tyler.io

The 2016 OmniFocus Setup and Workflow – Johnny Chadda

The Complete Guide to OmniFocus: One of the Best To-Do Apps for GTD

Horizons of Focus PDF - David Allen

GTD and OmniFocus 2 - my productivity workflow

Jeff Taekman’s WiPPP - My Omnifocus Set-up (Part 1)

How to get started with OmniFocus - iMore

My OmniFocus Contexts Explained — MyProductiveMac

Miscellaneous

I can’t say there was one location in particular that I found this referenced, by Tim Stringer advocates for putting long-term single action lists in brackets: [Single Actions]. I like that concept but found brackets kind of hard to see on mobile and somewhat challenging to type. Though I’m just being picky. So I adopted the concept but use dashes instead: -Single Actions-.

My New Setup

Project List

After looking at a LOT of setups and reflecting on my own, I realized that this is pretty typical. I’m still particular with the order of these projects and I don’t keep everything in folders, but I do have it spelled out in a decent amount of detail. You’ll see more about how this pans out in the “Schedule” perspective.

omnifocus projects

Project Codes

Surprise. Surprise. I wrote an AppleScript for this to be used in TextExpander. Here’s how I use it:

  1. Go to the title line of a new project in OmniFocus.
  2. Type in pcode.new.
  3. Enter the name of the project.
  4. Done

When I do that, it adds a line to my project-codes.md file with the code and new of the new project like this: [[2019-0001 | My New Project]]. It also creates a new text file dedicated to that project: 2019-0001 | My New Project.md. And finally, it returns that text for the snippet result.

The double brackets in the code file mean I can keep these notes in nvUltra and treat my master code file as a list of hyperlinks to all my reference notes on my projects.

Could I use the notes field in OmniFocus? Yes. Would it make more sense? Likely. But I like the ability to list all of my projects by code and see the history of my projects in one place whether the projects are complete or not.

In the future, I may expand this to creating the OmniFocus project for me and hyperlinking to the notes file from the OmniFocus notes field. But this works for now.

Another potential expansion would be to create a project folder for reference material and link it in the OmniFocus project notes field via Hook or an embedded link to the folder.

No Tags

People tag everything! And it kind of drives me nuts. There are tags for pets, coffee shops, and aspirations galore. It’s all overkill. So I set out to find a way to do this without tags at all. None.

And I found a way to do this. But it’s predicated on two things:

  1. You need a focus on habitual routines. If you have a schedule throughout your week where you know you have time for errands, follow-up, and each Area of Focus, this works beautifully.

  2. You will either need to have review time built-in for scheduling tasks or you need to assign Defer Dates to everything. I opt for a mix of both. If I know when something needs done or know the expectation of when it should be done, I enter that date as the Defer Date. Otherwise, I leave it blank and only add a date when I commit to doing it on a certain day.

What this means is that I no longer try to pick a tag to work in. I’ve dealt with the mess of choosing a context or tag. And I always find myself picking the one I like to do more than the one I need to do. I’m much better off sticking to a single list for the entire day.

And that means I now use Defer Dates as a way to schedule tasks on specific days whether it’s the next couple days or multiple weeks out.

Higher Horizons

This is the piece I wanted to get right. I think I found a great way to do this but need to continue working with it for many months before I can say it’s truly successful.

The way it works is with a single project called “guidance”. And inside that project are three recurring tasks:

  • “Work on Horizon 5 tasks”
  • “Work on Horizon 4 tasks”
  • “Work on Horizon 3 tasks”

Each of those has a link in the notes field that takes me to a perspective for each Horizon. And those three perspectives have a simple setup. They show me all available tasks for a limited number of projects.

That means I select the long-term or short-term projects for each perspective that pertain to each Horizon. And the perspective simply shows me the tasks that point me towards success in each of those realms.

As an example, part of my Horizon 4 goals is to heal from Lyme disease. I have a project under my Health folder called “stabilize lyme disease.” My “horizon4” perspective shows all available tasks for this project and a couple of others. And the “guidance” project gives me a line item in the “Schedule” perspective as an encouragement and reminder to work on these tasks.

The “Schedule” Perspective

This perspective is what pulls everything together. Remember that I keep my list of projects in a very specific order from top to bottom. So the theory is that I roughly start at the top and work my way down the list. That order is predicated on a daily routine of tasks and habits that are designed for long-term success and growth.

The “Schedule” perspective is simply a one-stop look at my entire day. Here are the settings for it:

schedule omnifocus perspective

It shows me any Available or Remaining task with a Due Date or a Defer Date and groups them by Defer Date. That means I can look at this list and see everything I’ve chosen for today, which is done by setting the Defer Date for that date.

But this also allows me to look at the tasks I failed to accomplish in days past because those will show up at the very top of the perspective. That turns out to be key for me as it is an excellent reminder to hustle and catch up when needed.

Being able to see these lists broken out by date is technically available in the Forecast perspective, but when I check the box to include tasks with a Defer Date, it shows me two lists instead of one. I simply like the cleanliness of this single, duplicate-free list. It also means I don’t have to switch back and forth across perspectives. I can work from my “Schedule” and that’s it. If I follow a link to another perspective and finish that list, I always go back to “Schedule.” There is no remembering where I was. It’s always the same.

Habit Building

I’ve alluded to this throughout this article, but to be more explicit, this entire system is dependent on a commitment to building routines and habits. In the last year, I’ve been forced to learn how to build a truly healthful lifestyle. And that lifestyle is one that requires routines and positive habits. It’s those routines and habits that have allowed me the freedom to be more creative and develop true joy in life. Thus, I’m continuing that commitment by building a task management system that helps me fine-tune those routines and habits.

Motivation

While I was going through these resources and building out this system, I also listened to a podcast by Brett McKay on The Art of Manliness about becoming a Time Warrior. It had a big impact on my way of thinking about tasks and delaying action on them.

The issue comes when deciding what to put into OmniFocus. Historically, I’ve followed the two-minute rule and deferred pretty much everything else. Steve Chandler (interviewed in the show) suggests that taking immediate action on most everything is the better path and the true method for achieving results. Instead of putting “call supplier” on the list, get it done now.

There are all kinds of complaints and arguments against this mentality, but I also have to admit that I know a handful of people who operate this way and it rarely back-fires. Even if it’s a one-hour project, doing it right away typically pays off.

I haven’t nailed down how I want to operate with this in mind, but I do know this, I’m glad I sat down to write this article when the idea struck.