A Two-Context Approach to GTD with OmniFocus

With versions available for both iOS and OS X, OmniFocus is the most powerful task management system intended for individuals on the Apple platform. OmniFocus is highly configurable, allowing the user to tailor it to their own particular approach to GTD (Getting Things Done). Until recently, I’ve struggled with identifying an ideal approach to using OmniFocus for task management. The solution I settled on is described in this post.

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My system for Getting Things Done

Update: This article was written in 2011. An updated description of my system for Getting Things Done can be found here.

Back in 2004, I wrote a popular article describing my system for “Getting Things Done”. Since then, tools have changed and my needs have changed, and so it was about time for an update.

Today’s system is simpler; it’s based on two tools — OmniFocus, and TaskPaper. Here’s how it works.

Capture.

Having OmniFocus on the Mac, the iPad and the iPhone, I can capture ideas and actions pretty much any time, anywhere.

On the Mac, a hot-key (command-space) triggers OmniFocus’s quick-input window. Many of the tasks I create on the Mac are associated to incoming emails. By dragging those emails into the quick-input window, a link to the original message is created in the task, allowing me to archive the message in Mail.app (and helping to maintain inbox-zero zen.)

On the iOS devices (iPhone and iPad), OmniFocus thoughtfully allows you to create a new task, without even having to wait for its cloud-syncing to complete. Fast and efficient.

Most important, the highly-reliable cloud-syncing ensures that my captured tasks are immediately available in OmniFocus on all devices, regardless where they were captured.

Weekly Review.

For both review and planning (discussed next), I use OmniFocus on the iPad. OmniFocus on the iPad has a better UI than its Mac counterpart; but even more importantly, the iPad itself tends to promote focus, which I find essential for reviewing and planning.

For each project in OmniFocus, you can set a frequency for how often you want to review it. For my active projects, this is weekly. But for some projects (especially product ideas or suspended projects), this might be once every three months — long enough so that I’m not mentally interrupted too often, but at the same time, making sure they’re not forgotten.

Once a week, usually on Sundays, I’ll grab the iPad and head down to the local tea shop, order a “Té Moruño” (green tea with fresh mint), and spend about an hour doing my weekly review and planning.

I’ll start in OmniFocus’s Review Mode. In this mode, OmniFocus walks you though each project — one at a time — which is due for review, showing you all the tasks you’ve created. In this mode, I:

  • Think about the state of the project. Is it still active? Has it received enough attention? Should its priority in the overall scope of things change? If necessary, I might change the status of the project from “Active” to “On Hold”, so that its tasks (for the time being) don’t appear anywhere else in OmniFocus. (Or, vice-versa; I might “activate” a project that’s currently on hold.)

  • Manage the tasks. I add new ones that come to mind, and I delete those which may no longer be relevant. Since OmniFocus’s perspectives allow me to filter my tasks (something we’ll look at next), I can define all the tasks I imagine relevant to the project, without worry about task-overload while later working.

  • Manage the start and due dates. Each task can have “start” and “due” dates independently assigned. The meaning of due dates is obvious; start dates somewhat less. For every task that I’ve committed to do, I assign a start date corresponding (roughly) to when I plan to start working on it. This means that all the tasks I’m currently working on have start dates in the past. (In fact, more specifically, I make sure the start date is set to “now”, or in the past, for all tasks I plan to work on in the upcoming week.)

When I’m done reviewing a project, I tap “Mark Reviewed”. OmniFocus closes the project, and then shows me the next project needing review. I continue until there’s no projects left to review.

Weekly Planning.
When I finish the weekly projects review, I move on to planning of the following week — i.e. figuring out when I’m going to work on my active tasks. OmniFocus supports something called perspectives — which are highly configurable filtered views of your tasks. In addition to the default perspectives delivered with OmniFocus, I have two others:
  • Urgent — This contains all tasks that are due, overdue, or coming due soon (within two days), grouped by Context.

  • Active — This contains all tasks that are active — i.e. have a start date defined as now, or in the past. The tasks in this perspective are grouped by Project.

<

p>To start the planning process, I switch into the Active perspective. This perspective should show me all tasks on which I intend to be working on in the following week.

If I see any task that I don’t want to work on this week, I’ll tap the “+week” or “+month” buttons in OmniFocus, to bump up their start dates into the future (or just reset them completely.) With a change of start date, they disappear from this perspective. Out of sight, out of mind.

At this point, I’ll try to mentally group the week’s tasks into related, largish, chunks of time — like two hours, or four hours, or eight hours.

While “chunking” my tasks, I’ll switch back and forth from OmniFocus into TaskPaper — a text-based outliner on the iPad — into a document called “Weekly Planning”, and start adding chunk tasks to a TaskPaper project called “Weekly Objectives”.

(Don’t confuse TaskPaper “projects” and “tasks”, with projects and tasks used elsewhere in this article; those are just the terminologies used in TaskPaper for its outline elements — parents and children.)

When I’m done, my “Weekly Objectives” project (list) in TaskPaper might look like this:

  • RaceSplitter (8h)
  • Makalu Miscellaneous Tasks (4h)
  • Makalu Management (4h)
  • Makalu Finance (4h)
  • Personal Finance (2h)
  • Catalog Choice (8h)

I won’t schedule a full 40 hours, because I know I’ll need some margin for daily emailing, and the various little things that inevitably pop up over the course of a week.

This TaskPaper document also contains day-of-the-week “projects” — i.e. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,…

When I’ve finished chunking about a week’s worth of work into the “Objectives” list, I’ll then conduct a finer-grained planning by distributing those chunks over the days of the week:

  • Monday — Miscellaneous (4h), Management (4h)
  • Tuesday — RaceSplitter (8h)
  • Wednesday — Catalog Choice (8h)

What this achieves is the organization of the week’s planning into blocks of time in which my focus is relatively contained within a common context. And that leads to better productivity.

(As a side note, my TaskPaper documents are kept in Dropbox, so they’re also available everywhere!)

Daily Planning

Each evening, I’ll look at the following day’s chuncked plan in TaskPaper. If it’s Monday in the example above, I see that I’ll be working half the day in “Makalu Miscellaneous” and half in “Makalu Management”.

I’ll then switch to OmniFocus, into the Active perspective (which shows me the active tasks), and I’ll focus only on the tasks in these two projects. From those, I’ll tap to “flag” each task that I intend to complete (or just work on) during the following day.

The list of “flagged” tasks then becomes my next day’s work-list.

Finally, after doing my daily planning, which just takes a few minutes, I’ll quickly switch into the Urgent perspective, just to make sure nothing due, or coming due soon, is slipping through the cracks.

Daily Work

During the day, as I work, I keep the iPad on and displaying the “Flagged” perspective in OmniFocus — i.e. displaying my task list for the day.

These tasks should be roughly within the same project or context as the day’s chuncked plan in TaskPaper. As I work through the day, I check them off — hopefully until the “Flagged” perspective is empty.

Achievements

This system works really well for me, achieving the following:

  • Based on just two tools, it’s far simpler than my GTD systems of the past. Being simpler, I’m able to better stick with it.
  • Having OmniFocus on all devices, I’m almost never in a situation in which I can’t capture a thought, action or task.
  • When looking at my tasks in OmniFocus’s “perspectives”, I see only what’s relevant, when it’s relevant. This helps to prevent feeling overwhelmed.
  • Using TaskPaper, my week is organized into “blocks”, allowing context-consistent focus, and improved productivity.

Personal Productivity Revisited

Update: This article was written in 2011. An updated description of OmniFocus’s role in my Getting Things Done system can be found here.

Recently getting access to the alpha version of OmniFocus (which, by the way, is going to be the ultimate GTD application) provided a good opportunity to re-assess my personal productivity.

Over the past months, without being able to pinpoint a precise cause, I’d begun to sense myself becoming less and less productive. Although somehow there never seemed to be enough time in the day to get everything done, the actual amount of useful output I’d been producing seemed to diminish.

Continue reading Personal Productivity Revisited