Moving back to OmniFocus from Things

Published on 10/19/10

This is my third blog post about OmniFocus and Things, and I’m afraid my natural tendency of obsessively trying new tools in my workflow is showing itself. I’ve thought about this and come to the conclusion that when a platform does what it is supposed to do, getting out of the way so I can use it without thinking about the platform, then I stick with it. It’s the platforms that make me constantly evaluate how I am using the platform that drive me to look for something better.

The problem with Things

I decided to give OmniFocus another try because Things isn’t powerful enough to help me know what I should be working on. You are supposed to look through the “next” area and tag what to work on that day, but the next area is a huge list of hundreds of actions. Am I supposed to read through them all and decide if each one should be done that day? How does that help me?

Then when I start to fall behind, as I am prone to do, the “today” focus starts to become a smaller version of the “next” one. I end up with a list of 20-50 items that I should be thinking about and working on. I reschedule all those that I can’t do today, which might help me today, but I end up in the same situation tomorrow.

Using Things ends up being a perpetual grind of rescheduling tasks, all the while thinking I am missing something. I end up with no clear picture of the state of things and just drift with no clear direction. The only way to get a clear picture at that point is to spend a significant amount of time with the software and reschedule accurately what I can’t think about yet.

At this point, the list is my focus rather than the things I should be working on. So how exactly is it helping me?

OmniFocus perspectives to the rescue

When I tried OmniFocus the first time, I tried to translate everything from Things into comparable areas in OmniFocus. I created contexts for all my areas of responsibility, trying to squeeze the way I was using Things into a way to use OmniFocus. This worked for awhile, but I ended up in a similar situation as I had with Things.

This time I did things differently. I looked at the methods that OmniFocus had to offer and decided how I could use them to help me get things done.

So here is how I have it set up—

  • Projects or actions that I need to schedule for a certain time get a start date. I then set up a perspective that groups and sorts by start date. This perspective tells me what I should be working on.
  • Projects and actions that need to finish by a certain date get due dates. I then set up a perspective that focuses on work projects, grouping and sorting them by due date. This let’s me easily see what jobs I need to finish soon (or should have finished already).
  • I’m making good use of the ability to designate that actions within a project happen sequentially or in parallel. This is great for creating a focused today list (perspective). I may have twelve things to get done today, but I can view the list with only available actions and see a shortened version which makes the list more manageable.
  • I am using flags as my method of designating what I am working on today. So I have created perspectives that help me evaluate what is in the queue, then I just flag the actions or projects that I should work on today. I think this is going to work really well.

So through the use of perspectives I can create views to help me quickly analyze what needs to be done. No more scrolling through a list of hundreds of actions to find what I need to be doing. I view what I should be working on in one perspective and what I need to have done this week (or next) in another. I can easily see the bills that are late, or those coming this week. Items will pop up in the perspectives when I need to think about them, but not clutter up my focus on what I need to do today.

I am really excited to see this work. I would love to settle in and become OmniFocus only, focusing on the tasks instead of the tool.

A thought about OmniFocus for iPad

I bit the bullet and bought OmniFocus for iPad. There are many people who think this is the ultimate “getting things done” system, and there is something to say for using the iPad for planning and managing tasks. It is much more relaxing sitting on the porch with an iPad and reviewing the schedule than sitting at the desk with complex-looking software on the laptop. If I am relaxed going into the day with a clear picture of what to work on, and confident that I’m not overlooking anything, then it starts the day off right.

That being said, the iPad app doesn’t really add anything to the mix beyond what the other versions offer (with a couple exceptions). The interface is nice and minimal, which I really like, but it essentially is a redesigned version of the iPhone app.

The one feature that everyone raves about is the forecast view. It is basically a nicer looking version of a perspective that I could create. It does let me focus only on what is due in the next seven days, which is nice, but then I find myself wanting to refine the focus to only work-related tasks which I can’t do. So it is nice, but not something I absolutely have to have.

The one thing that I love, is the button to move from an action to it’s context or project. Actions show up in lists or perspectives, but before the iPad version of OmniFocus I had to navigate manually to the project. The iPad app let’s me hit a button to go there which helps me easily navigate through my list of stuff to do. (You have to click a confirmation that you want to go to that view, which seems redundant to me. Accidental taps would be inconsequential if we had a browser-style back button.)

So, I like it, but could live without it.


UPDATE—I was recently asked if I am still using Omnifocus, and the simple answer to that question is yes. Since switching back to Omnifocus I have not done anymore switching.

Omnifocus has proven to be flexible enough to allow me to change how I use it as my needs change. And by needs changing I simply mean that I occasionally rethink how I organize my work. I’ve gone through several iterations of setting things up in Omnifocus in a manner that I think will work best for me.

Just to give an example, I set up projects in OF in a pretty standard GTD fashion. I’ve got all the tasks written out that need to get done in order to be able to call the project completed. I use contexts and due dates to help me prioritize and plan.

This wasn’t much use for me though in actually creating my work schedule, by that I mean getting jobs, planning when I’ll be able to do them, and when I should have them done. I resorted to creating a calendar in Illustrator that was basically a grid and each time I got a job, I would fill in the grid for every work day the project had.

I never liked that I was resorting to a graphics program for scheduling, and if I fell behind I was spending more time redoing the graphics than actual planning.

So what I’ve done now is create a context called “Schedule” that basically has a single task for each work day that is scheduled for the project. I’ve found that I am much more productive if I dive into a single project for the day instead of looking at the list of all the individual tasks that need to be done and choosing what to work on from a (bewildering) list.

So the number of work days that I give a project is based on how much money I will make with the project. Then when I am doing my planning, I schedule the start date for all my “Schedule” tasks for the monday of each week. So for the monday of each week I will have four work days scheduled (Fridays are my Net-at-hand development days).

So now when a potential client asks when I can work on a project, I can quickly look at my work schedule and see when I have an opening, whether I am on my phone, ipad, or computer.

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