Getting things done with OmniFocus
Issue 106: A look at to-do apps and sharing what works for me
80% of side projects by are either a Good Reads alternative or a to-do app. There are heaps of to-do apps out there and the majority of them aren't a good fit for you, and that’s okay. People value different things in software and having different options of opinionated software helps you quickly identify what works for you. There are many wonderful to-do apps: Things, Todoist, etc. Even Apple's own Reminders app is great. For me I’m a long-time user and fan of OmniFocus.
Created by the Seattle-based software company The Omni Group, I've been using the software since I first purchased my first Mac—the black Macbook in 2007. I've used Macs before but this was the first one I owned. Though I'll share specifics about OmniFocus, my hope is this will give you ideas of how to get things done and build your own system that works for you.
I've tried other to-do apps, but I have more than a decade’s worth of dedication to OmniFocus, making switching systems a low priority.
Getting things done
"Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them." —David Allen
If you haven’t read the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, I highly recommend it. It’s a great overview of how to organize your work in a way that reduces stress and focuses on accomplishment. Getting Things Done (GTD) encompasses five primary areas:
Capture everything that needs to be done by writing down your tasks, ideas, projects, and more.
Clarify your ideas. Decide if they're really important—and if so, what action needs to be taken to complete them.
Organize your tasks, pulling similar tasks together to complete at once or grouping project tasks into a workflow so you do each step in order.
Reflect on your work, reviewing your projects to make sure the tasks are still relevant and to make sure you didn't forget anything.
Engage and actually do the tasks.
I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t spend a lot of time capturing their thoughts. They often have thoughts and it occupies their mental capacity or completely forget about it. Over the years, I’ve created a discipline around capturing important ideas down in a way I don’t forget. The concept of an inbox is key—unstructured space where ideas can live and be refined.
Whether it’s a product roadmap or my personal life, I like to think of three horizons: now, next, future. They are not specifically time-bound in an absolute duration but rather tiers to help prioritize what fidelity to think about things. My OmniFocus workspace is configured to accommodate such a concept.
Get it done now
(High commitment, low memory)
Not everything needs to be captured and remembered. For example, I don't have a to-do item to take a shower—perhaps we know some people who might need this! If it takes little thought to accomplish the task, I don't even bother writing it down. If it's a task that needs to be done later (even an hour later), I'll likely write it down. I might write this down on paper or digitally, depending on what is in front of me. The typical duration of this are things I need to get done within the week.
Plan to do it next
(Medium commitment, medium memory)
This horizon is usually within the month. There is high intention and need to get something done, but not within the immediate and the details might be blurry. In contrast the aforementioned section of now, this fidelity merits putting a bit of a plan together and prioritizing it against other things that need to get done.
Imagine it for the future
(Low commitment, high memory)
Not everything you put in a to-do app needs to get done. It’s supposed to help you accomplish vs. completing a list—a bit contradictory, I know. I also have a very aspirational view of a backlog. A backlog can be viewed as an icebox of things that will never get done or be neglected. However, I have a very aspirational point of view on backlogs. Make it future-oriented and something you look forward to working on—so much so that you want to ensure you get everything else done to get to it. The backlog is an active look into the future aspiration.
I use the tag #dreambig tag in OmniFocus to keep me motivated in what I'd like to experience and accomplish in life. The biggest of dreams? Own the Raiders and move them back. In times when I feel overwhelmed about the present, I remind myself of the future I look forward to and reflect if I'm making steps to get there.
OmniFocus tips and tricks
Now that you get a sense of my system of tasking and planning, I'll cover a few tricks that I love about OmniFocus. These are likely features other to-do apps have in a similar implementation.
Quick entry shortcut
The faster I can get an idea down, the less likely I'll forget about it. Any time I catch myself self-narrative, "I won't forget this," I immediately capture it physically or digitally. It's like the continued broken promises of remembering a dream without journaling it.
Command-Shift-O is what I set to add a quick task when it's top of mind. I love this feature because I don't even need the app open to capture ideas in the inbox.
Tags replaced an old feature called Contexts in OmniFocus. Like many other tagging system, it’s another way of organizing elements outside of a project or another structure. I have tags of important people, cities, and themes. For example I might look at a tag of a very important person in my life and be able to see all the things I need to get done related to them.
Every Sunday, I forecast my entire week in OmniFocus and Obsidian with my Daily Notes. It’s a great way for me to diffuse the Sunday Scaries to have a clear view of what is coming up. This forecast view helps me break down everything I need to do in a more digestable way that’s less overwhelming than thinking about the block of the entire week.
A to-do list's purpose is to accomplish what you need to get done. Whether you use OmniFocus or any other to-do solution, keep in mind the following:
There is no perfect tool. Pick one that works well for you and commit to it.
Capture the idea as soon as possible. You can always refine the fidelity later.
Not everything needs to get done. Choosing not to do something is an accomplishment within itself.
Tweet of the week
A Twitter thread of companies that are hiring designers.