OmniFocus makes it deceptively easy to quickly add and organize tasks and projects. But there is a trap in trying to keep all your stuff in one place. First, no software is fit for all purposes; and second no software will make hard choices and difficult decisions for you. After getting OmniFocus, I kept adding all my ‘stuff’ there until it started to feel wrong. Weekly Reviews became half a day long. The lists of tasks generated by OF were frustrating and overwhelming. I spent more time on adding folders, perspectives, and contexts but it did not really help. Worst of all, I felt that instead of being a trusted system OF had become a black hole for dumping things that would never be done. The loss of trust is the worst that can ever happen to a task management system. Once you suspect that it is ‘a black hole’ you will resist using it and start with old to-do lists or pieces of paper. Eventually your task management system will become useless and abandoned.
I almost came to this point with OmniFocus, but I liked it so much that I decided to try getting back on track. It took me almost half a year to get it functional again through removing the following:
- Uncertain projects. David Allen says that a knowledge worker has up to 60 open projects (a project is a sequence of two or more actions). At the worst point I had over 150 projects recorded in OmniFocus. As difficult as it was, I decided that I am not a superhero and removed or at least put on hold two-thirds of these projects. For example, I transferred the list of potential future publications from OmniFocus to NVAlt. Only when ‘potential’ becomes ‘real’ do I start a new project in OmniFocus. I was relieved to hear that Merlin Mann also deleted 100 projects from his OmniFocus at one point (as he describes on MacPowerUsers).
- Project plans. I stopped using OmniFocus for project planning. OmniFocus makes it deceptively easy to plan projects by adding subprojects and sequences of actions extending long into the future. I used to think, “ok, to complete this project, I need to do this task and then I need to do that and then I need to do something else” and add all of this to OmniFocus. The problem with all these ideas for future actions is that you don’t really mentally commit to executing them or even to thinking them carefully through. They are simply too distant. If you’re not fully committed to a task or if it is not fully clarified, it is not really a task, it is ‘stuff’ that clutters your system and distracts your thinking. Instead of being kept in OmniFocus such project plans can be kept in OmniOutliner (as I do) or in another system. Remember, OmniFocus is for keeping your next actions, not entire project plans.
- Someone else’s actions. Initially, I tried to use OF to organize team work or to keep track of agreements with my colleagues. This is just another way to complicate your system, slow down your Reviews and clutter your lists. If your colleagues cannot themselves keep track of the tasks they promised to do, you should really add a project Train the Team or even Replace the Assistant to your list. (Be careful with applying this recommendation to your boss though!). It does not mean that you should not keep agendas and minutes of your meetings with other people, or project plans which you collectively develop, just don’t do it in your own personal OmniFocus. I keep discussion lists in TaskPaper, notes from meetings in NVAlt and project plans (whether individual or collecting) in OmniOutliner.
- Project reference materials. Sometimes you receive an email which contains input to an ongoing project, for example a piece of information or a reference for your article or report. There is a great temptation to press ⌥⌘X and clip that email to your OmniFocus. Isn’t it ‘something’ related to a particular project? Indeed, it is ‘something’, but it is not an action and therefore should not clutter your OF lists. I used to keep such information labelled with a special context ‘Ref’ (reference). The trouble is that during Reviews all the ‘Refs’ obscure what exactly needs to be done. Nowadays, instead of adding such items to OmniFocus I use several other methods. For very rapidly moving important projects I simply use differently colored flags in Mail to assemble related messages under Reminders in Mail’s sidebar. For large publications I often place such inputs in TaskPaper (which is fast but does not allow links to attachments) or in OmniOutliner.
- Non-essential tasks. The best example is a reading list. I used to keep a list of everything I want to read in OmniFocus (once again, clipping and organizing is easy!). In reality I only read 5–10% of this list. Which is ok. But it’s dangerous to mix the things which you would like to do with things you really need to do. For example, to have 59 nice-to-read articles and one dissertation that you need to review in the same ‘Reading’ context is not professional. So nowadays I organize my non-obligatory reading lists in Instapaper, Google Reader and Papers whereas things which I absolutely need to read end up in OmniFocus. This requires hard choices, but at least you can make them at the right time, not when faced with daily onslaught of tasks. Similarly, I keep the lists of movies I want to see or books I want to buy in NValt, not in Omnifocus.
Keeping these 5 types of things – uncertain projects, project plans, team work, reference materials, and non-essential tasks – out of OmniFocus is hard but will eventually make your life easier. To monitor your progress in uncluttering, get this or another script for keeping the track of the number of projects, tasks and contexts in OmniFocus and watch this number being reduced to a manageable level. I reduced the number of active tasks in OmniFocus from some 500 to 150-170. At least this part is rewarding!