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OmniFocus Series Part 03: Working with OmniFocus

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Asian Efficiency OmniFocus Series

Welcome back to our OmniFocus tutorial series. If you haven’t read parts 1 and 2 yet, you can find them here and here – they’ll show you everything you need to know about how to set up and get started with OmniFocus. This article is going to show you how I actually use OmniFocus as a task management and productivity tool – how to “get things done” so to speak.

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But first, I have a small confession to make: I don’t use GTD (Getting Things Done). I did read the book, a long time ago, and liberally borrowed some of the more useful ideas, and then made up the rest as I went. I found that taking what I found to be useful and integrating it into my existing rhythm of work to be more productive for me – you’ll also find that it is likely to be much more productive for you too.

I know that a lot of productivity experts (like Thanh) are GTD purists – they love the system, and will gladly donate a left arm to defend it. But I think there’s a line that needs to be drawn, between sticking to a system that was created to help a very specific type of person be more productive, compared to modifying a system to make it more productive for you.

So let’s get to it – let’s see how work actually gets done. And to do that, we’re going to go and revisit Tom.

Working With Tom

So the last time we left Tom, he had his OmniFocus nicely set up, with some projects and some hierarchy and some contexts, but still a lot of unprocessed tasks in his inbox, and not a lot of AE-style organization going on. Today I’m going to show you how to sort through all that, and then how Tom actually works on a daily basis.

I don’t remember what the GTD workflow is, but it’s probably pretty similar to what I do:

  1. Collecting
  2. Organizing
  3. Pre-Work Ritual (Setting Up Work)
  4. Post-Work Ritual
  5. Reviewing
  6. Work

Let’s look at each in detail.

Collecting

The first step to working efficiently is to collect everything. This applies in the classical business sense of incoming paperwork and phone calls, but you can also think about it in terms of collecting random thoughts, ideas, or things you hear.

How we do this is via the OmniFocus inbox, of which you can see Tom’s here:

OmniFocus: Tom's Inbox

Tom’s Inbox

You can also collect on the iPhone and iPad applications, or via the “send to OmniFocus inbox” function that is integrated into Apple Mail. Worst-case, you can jot down ideas on the back of a napkin (or hand) and transfer to your OmniFocus inbox later.

In Tom’s case, since we last saw him, he’s acquired a few more inbox items:

  • Jessica x 310-555-5555.
  • Talk to Nick about purchasing media across blog network properties and how to track it.
  • David’s housewarming drinks, Saturday 8pm.
  • Look into setting up a company blog. Probably Tumblr-based or a custom wordpress installation, with company news, ceo’s desk and design tips sections.
  • Look up Meetup202 Los Angeles.
  • Never have more than 3 drinks a night.

As an example, item number four, about setting up a company blog was written as an item within Notes on Tom’s iPhone:

OmniFocus: Collect from iPhone

Collecting notes on an iPhone

This is because it was longer, and because Tom sometimes gets impatient waiting for OmniFocus to load and “optimize” its database.

One advantage of collecting directly via OmniFocus however, is that you can capture both pictures and audio recordings on-the-fly, straight into your inbox.

Simple Rule:

You can collect data and tasks anytime and anywhere via any medium – so long as they eventually end up in your OmniFocus inbox.

Organizing

The next step in Tom’s workflow is Organizing. You should consider this a skill or a very specific state of mind, where you are essentially planning and sorting at the same time. For some people, the notion of moving tasks into the future (especially when you want to do them now) is foreign – but it’s essential in being productive, and prioritizing what it is you need to work on first.

The first thing Tom does is transfer his notes from Apple Mail, to his OmniFocus inbox:

OmniFocus and Apple Mail Send to Inbox

Clipping from Apple Mail Part One

OmniFocus and Apple Mail Send to Inbox Part Two

Clipping from Apple Mail Part Two

Now that it’s in his inbox, Tom can process it along with the rest of his items.

We want to separate out Tom’s business and personal tasks. Remember how we set Tom up with a business inbox in the last article? This is where it comes in handy. We’ll deal with the business tasks in a minute.

Right now, let’s process Tom’s remaining inbox items. Typically, a few things happen to inbox items:

OmniFocus: Tom's Personal Inbox

Tom’s Personal Inbox – and where inbox items go.

1. They become projects.

Some tasks become projects. In Tom’s case, “look into getting a new work desk” is a large enough item that it would require multiple steps to complete, and can be completed as a new project. We would recommend that Tom break it down into:

  • Find out suitable location and dimensions for desk in apartment.
  • Decide upon which type of desk is to be purchased. Create some specifications and criteria to go buy.
  • Browse on Craigslist for second-hand high-quality desks.

2. They become tasks.

The most straightforward type of inbox item is that which becomes a task in a project or single-action list somewhere, with an assigned start date and context.

3. They become action groups.

Some tasks are not large enough to become projects, but longer than 20 minutes and thus unsuitable to be single discrete tasks. These become action groups. One item on Tom’s list that matches this description is “buy a new couch”, which breaks down into:

  • Measure dimensions in living room.
  • Buy a new couch from Ikea.

4. They just get done.

Any task that takes less than 2 minutes, should get done right away (yes, this is something I did learn from GTD). In this case, logging onto a florist’s website and ordering flowers for Tom’s mom will only take him 2 minutes (give or take). It’s not so much the 2 minute cut-off, it’s more that it’s a simple task that he can do right now without slowing down his workflow – and once it’s done, it’s done.

5. They get deleted.

Some inbox items we simply write as reminders to ourselves, just so that we don’t forget. In Tom’s case, the inter-hangover “don’t have more than 3 drinks a night” qualifies as one of these – something to be remembered, but not something to be filed somewhere. This task gets deleted.

6. They get filed.

This is a special subset of #2 – inbox items becoming tasks. By “filed” we are referring to tasks that don’t end up with an immediate start date or due date, but a Waiting context and usually put into a project or the Someday single-action list. For example, Tom has an item to “Research GTD”, which has no clear start date or end date for this inbox item, but Tom knows he will revisit it later. It gets filed into Someday.

7. They become items elsewhere.

Some inbox items are actually not tasks or projects at all – they are appointments or bits of information. As an example, Tom has an inbox item to call Susie for a date, but he knows that she works during the week and is unlikely to pick up her phone. So, instead of setting a task, he creates a calendar item in iCal for Sunday afternoon.

As a second example, Tom also received a hastily scrawled cocktail napkin with a name and phone number on it this past weekend – this should go into his phone.

A Note on Contexts

We discussed contexts pretty extensively in parts one and two of this series. If you download the dataset at the end of this article, you’ll see that we’ve assigned each of Tom’s tasks and projects appropriate contexts, based on the descriptions given in the prior articles in the series. These are pretty straightforward, but if you have any questions – ask in the comments below!

Work Inbox

Now that we’ve gone through Tom’s personal inbox, let’s go through his work inbox:

OmniFocus: Tom's Work Inbox

Tom’s Work Inbox

The same rules of organization and how to deal with inbox items apply – some become projects, some become tasks, others get deleted, completed or filed elsewhere.

Timing

One thing to consider about this step of Organizing is timing – when do you do sit down and organize your inbox?

Realistically, I’ve found that if you keep on top of your tasks (or don’t have a lot of collected items) it’s something you can do within 30 minutes daily. In Tom’s case, we would suggest that he clear his inbox as a daily action, at home, near the end of the day. His business inbox is separate – he clears that during an uninterrupted time-blocked session every morning, right after he completes his most important task for the day.

Pre-Work Ritual

The next step in working efficiently is what I called the Pre-Work Ritual. It can also be thought of as “getting ready to work”.

It is very straightforward: before you start working, you look through your task list (in project view in OmniFocus), and flag items that need to be done today.

Why flags? Because flags can be used to create custom perspectives in OmniFocus (massive credit: AE Thanh).

In Tom’s case, when he’s still at home in the morning, he flags six personal items that we wants to complete that day:

OmniFocus: Tom's Personal Flags

Flagging Personal Tasks

When he reaches the office, the first thing he does is flag six business items that he wants to complete that day.

OmniFocus: Tom's Business Flags

Flagging Business Tasks

In an upcoming part of this OmniFocus series, we’ll show you how we’ve set up that custom perspective for Tom.

Work

Actually working is relatively simple – Tom has his list of six flagged items, and starts with the most important one.

Post-Work Ritual (Clear to Neutral)

When Tom is done with work for the day, he completes his Post-Work Ritual, or what AE Thanh calls Clear to Neutral. Essentially, Tom looks over what he’s completed for the day, and then sets up flags for the next day. If he’s at the office and about to leave, he should also lay out what he needs to work for the next day – for example, papers or reference materials.

Reviewing

Reviewing is one of those things that I read in Getting Things Done and ended up ignoring for the first couple of years that I started organizing my tasks. The main reason I had with it was that I didn’t see the point – until I realized that I was already reviewing on-the-go while working.

Reviewing in the pure sense of the word is where you’re supposed to sit down at the end of the week and decide if a project is to continue, be put on hold, or cancelled. I never found this to be of much use, even if you have hundreds of projects. Instead, the way I review is to:

  1. Review as I go, reassigning due dates, start dates and moving items around in real-time (i.e., while working).
  2. Schedule in a weekly review where I go through everything and see if there’s anything I missed.

As for how, I would not recommend using this view:

OmniFocus Review View

The standard OmniFocus Review perspective.

I would instead, start at the top of the Projects view, and go through each item one-by-one, and reassign as you go.

OmniFocus: Project View

A much better way to do reviews.

I realize that we assigned Tom a number of default review periods in the prior OmniFocus Series articles – that was more for posterity and because some people prefer the “review mode”. I find though if you actively manage your task list, review mode is completely unnecessary.

In Closing

You’ve just been provided with one way of working efficiently, and next week you’ll see Thanh’s methodology. I suggest you read both, take notes, and then find something that works for you!

Here is Tom’s updated dataset: Tom’s updated database

Edit: Click here for part 4.

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