Task management with OmniFocus: collecting and processing

People stressed by their impossible to-do lists do not want to hear about philosophical principles of task management. Instead, they urgently want to know which software to use. Though I do believe in some principles, in this post I will stick to software. My message is simple: if you’re serious about task management and have a Mac, then use OmniFocus, but be prepared for a steep learning curve.

As most other task management programs, OmniFocus (OF) is based on the Getting Things Done (GTD) system developed by David Allen about a decade ago. It really helps to read (or listen to) the “Getting Things Done” book before plunging into OmniFocus. The GTD system is not a panacea for task management. But neither is it a choice. It is absolutely necessary for 21st century knowledge workers. If you do not understand the GTD system, OmniFocus (or any other task management software) will only be marginally, if at all, useful.

Even for those familiar with the GTD system, OmniFocus may seem a bit daunting at first, so I recommend to start with watching some OmniFocus screencasts. The best once are from MacPowerUsers (MPU), they come in three parts starting with this one. For those who want to hone their OmniFocus skills there is a great book ‘Creating Flows with OmniFocus’ by Kourosh Dini who was also recently interviewed by MPU.

It is easiest to explain what OmniFocus allows you to do by following the five phases of the GTD process: (1) collecting, (2) processing, (3) organizing, (4) doing and (5) reviewing. This entry describes the first two of these phases (covered in the first and second of MPU OF screencasts). I cover organizing in the next entry and the remaining two phases in the following one.

First, OF allows to collect information and ideas which may eventually become your tasks. For example, you can capture mail messages, webpages or any piece of digital content by ‘clipping’ them to OmniFocus with ⌥⌘X or simply dragging them there. When OmniFocus creates a task from a mail message it preserves a link to the original message so that you can directly reply to or forward it while doing the task. If there is no digital content associated with a new task, for example if I receive a request verbally, come up with a task while reviewing handwritten notes or reading a book, or simply remember doing something, I can create new tasks by pressing ^⌥Space. This opens the OF’s Quick Entry Window where new tasks can be be typed. OF ensures that the ‘collection’ process happens seamlessly without interrupting what you’re doing at the moment. You do not need to switch to OF when capturing content. For example, if an email implies a new task I press ⌥⌘X, press Enter, press ^A (my shortcut to archive the message) and go to the next one. Takes one second. You’re spared the fear of forgetting.

Second, OmniFocus supports processing or making sense of captured information. Initially such information comes to the OF Inbox, but a lot of it does not make much sense. The goal of processing is to decide what each of these items means. OF creates a space and a workflow for making such decisions. When I clean my OF Inbox I go from one item to the next and decide whether it is (a) a new task in which case I either do it immediately (if it takes less than 2 minutes) or organize it as described in the next post; (b) a new project (i.e. a sequence of several tasks) in which case I start a new OF project; (c) reference material in which case I remove it from OF and file with my other references (files or notes) or (d) is no longer relevant (e.g. the task has already been done) and simply needs deleting or marking as completed. Whatever the decision, the item is eventually removed from the Inbox (OF has a convenient shortcut ⌘K for clearing completed or ‘organized’ items from the Inbox). Your OF Inbox should regularly become empty: Inbox Zero applies to OmniFocus as much as it applies to email!

One can ask a question whether all these decisions can be made at once, when initially adding the content to OF. Technically, they can. OF allows to organize tasks and create new projects right from the Quick Entry Window which comes up when you clip mail messages or other content or press ^⌥Space. However, deciding on the meaning of new entries takes energy and is often disruptive to the ongoing activity. Examples of such potentially difficult decisions are:

  • is the new task worth doing yourself or delegating to someone else (who?)?
  • is the new project worth starting (or do you already have enough on your plate?)?
  • is the task formulation accurate so that you do not need to re-formulate it when it comes up on your to-do list? For example an email message with Subject “Conference” clipped to OF becomes task called “Conference”, but in fact the task may be “Check Conference Program” or “Prepare Conference Abstract”: two very different activities!
  • is it in fact a task or something else (usually reference material that needs filing)?

The danger of making such decisions in the middle of doing something else (reading, answering, experience decision fatigue, or else start making sloppy and uncritical decisions about your tasks. The power of OmniFocus is precisely that it lets you separate these two mental processes and creates a protected space for making sense of the captured items.

About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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3 Responses to Task management with OmniFocus: collecting and processing

  1. Luke W says:

    Thanks for the tips on the screencasts. Like many, I’ve dabbled between tools for personal use, but finally settled on Things, simply because it’s much easier to reprioritise deadlines that are apt to shift beyond our control (no matter how productive we are!). Also found hearing about ZTD rather than GTD which provides a shallower introduction curve to the whole methodology recently. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, always great to hear about others’ workflows.


  2. manprogress says:

    Thanks a lot! Very actual theme for me. As addition, recommend to use online-service “Personal goals” for managing, organization and planning of goals and tasks – http://manprogress.com/en/services/personal-goals/index.html


  3. Robert Miles says:

    Very interesting article. I also can offer one more free web-based tool for you which is Comindware task managment tool. It has lots of nice flexible options and great features.


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