This beginner's series will go through the steps (to my best recollection) that I took to arrive at a workable set of tactics for managing my GTD setup in OmniFocus.
There are many guides out there but they tend to either stay at 50,000 feet and gloss over some of the hard decisions or the go very deep and can sometimes be overwhelming for the new OmniFocus user. I don't intend this to be a user manual. As such, I won't go through what buttons to push and which menu items to click. I want to focus on the desire to get your life organized using OmniFocus and how to get there with as few false starts as possible. I had many and I'm hoping this post helps you avoid a few.
What I hope to do is be as thorough as possible in describing my thinking with each step in the process of my OmniFocus setup and hope that it speaks with enough universality that it will help others during that critical stage of setup.
I just finished an OmniFocus review. It was a lengthy one because things have been ultra-hectic lately. I've still been grinding through my daily reviews but they were hastily done, too quick for their own good.
The most obvious feeling after finishing one of the big ones is a huge sense of relief, purpose, and momentum. "Lightness" is a word that's often been mentioned as well.
As I described in part one of this series, your initial capture into OmniFocus is a key aspect of getting up and rolling with a sustainable system. You have to be honest with yourself and make sure you leave no stone unturned when inputting all of those things that have been weighing you down.
Once the initial capture is done, the system starts doing its thing and often you'll find that it works well for a while. Sure, you may tweak it here or there, but generally if you gave it enough thought up front, you'll be able to reap the rewards of a self-sustaining system that provides a good deal of benefit.
But often, it doesn't work out that way. We'll create new contexts, new projects and put items in OmniFocus that really shouldn't be there (like lists of random stuff*). Eventually, the source of clarity becomes as cluttered as the life we were trying to fix.
Frequent reviews are the solution to this problem.
What is a GTD Review?
A review, in GTD terms, is simply going through your projects and task lists, deleting things that no longer need to be done, marking things complete if you neglected to do so earlier, adding new projects, phases, tasks or contexts to better organize and manage your OmniFocus queue.
On the surface, it is merely cleaning up your mess, but done right, a review is a powerful tool you can use to reorient your priorities and put yourself on a better trajectory to stay on track with your of critical tasks.
When you're in the heat of the moment, often you'll enter tasks, flag them and set their due date to a time in the near future to show how important they are. In the review phase, what will often happen to you'll re-examine those priorities in the context of other projects and it will completely change how you view them. Sometimes circumstances are much more dire than you realized but, more often, you'll end up turning down the flame for those front-burner tasks.
The review is a mechanical task, to be sure, but there is a mental component to it that is hard to describe to someone who hasn't gone through one. It isn't simply that tasks are getting moved around, sorted and cleaned up. You also get a comprehensive view of the job laid out ahead of you. By "job", in this case, I'm speaking in general terms about the totality of projects and tasks you have in your short term and long term future. Heady stuff, but when you finish a big review you'll see what I mean.
How I Do OmniFocus Reviews
This all sounds pretty simple, and it really is, but we often get so caught up in our day-to-day that we forget to do it.
OmniFocus has been set up to mimic David Allen's GTD methodology. When a project is created, one of the first things you should do is go into the project properties (shift⌘-I) and set a review date.
You can also set how often you want OmniFocus to remind you to do a review of this new project as well. If it is a project that will be changing a lot, you might want to review it daily, whereas if it is a project that will have just a few tasks happening at low frequency, you could get away with a monthly review cycle. My default is "weekly", but I have some Single-Action lists that I review much more often than that; some get reviewed every morning.
I have my Review and Mark Reviewed buttons on my main toolbar in OmniFocus, not only to make them convenient to use, but also to keep reminding me to review whenever I have time.
The process of the review itself is fairly straightforward. A click of the Review button will put OmniFocus in Review mode. You'll see a list of projects, listed in chronological order by the last time they were reviewed. Go through each project and examine the tasks in each one. Take the time to clean them up, move them to a different phase of the project or a different context if circumstances have changed.
Here's a list of things I do when going through the review process.
- Fix spelling and capitalization - it sounds trivial but it helps keep things lined up. If you're one of these "clean desk/clean mind" people (like me), this is something to consider. If you're someone like Merlin Mann, maybe not so much...
- Make tasks more actionable if needed - Don't leave a task worded vaguely. For instance if you quickly entered "Goals document", go back and add something to say what you need to do with the document. "Finish goal document" or "Complete and email goal document" would be somewhat more descriptive. Now's the time to break that task into two tasks if you need help getting it done - "Complete goal document" and "Email goal document to my boss", for example.
- Move tasks to more appropriate contexts - You have "Complete goal document" in your Computer context but maybe you need to come up with some goals first so your Thinking context might make more sense.
- Put projects on hold to reduce clutter if you're making no progress on them - I've started doing this more and more. If you have no tasks that need to be done for a while, just put the project on hold, which will effectively remove it from most of your views (and if it doesn't, my next entry in the Beginner's series will tell you how with Perspectives). Since you're going to be doing regular reviews from now on (right?!), if the project heats up again, you'll see it during the review process and you can simply reactivate it. Making sure your view filters are set to "Available", rather than "Remaining", is key for uncluttering your view using this method.
- Reactivate projects that you put on hold - See above...
- Delete, delete, delete - When you find a dead task, just get rid of it. If you think you may have need of it someday, delete it. "Delete" should be your first choice when dealing with a task like this and be as ruthless as you can. If you really must save this marginally useful task, stash it away in a "Waiting" project (a permanently-on-hold project at the bottom of your project list). You'll get to visit this task every time you do a review until you finally get the courage to delete it. Or you can just delete it now. Go ahead. You know you want to.
- Add tasks - Conversely, in doing a review, you'll sometimes remember things that never made it into OmniFocus. Now's the time to add them. I'll also take a task that has been lingering and break it down into smaller tasks which have a better chance of getting acted on.
Theory / Practice
Overall, the review doesn't sound like a revolutionary idea. In fact, it probably sounds like drudgery if you haven't done one yet.
By starting with a weekly review schedule on projects, a daily review schedule on Single-Action lists and (if you're a task hoarder), a quarterly review on your "On Hold" and "Waiting" projects, you'll see how useful the process is for you and tune your review frequency to what works best.
Part 4 in the series is going to focus on OmniFocus's Perspectives feature. Tune in soon for that one because it is one of the most useful features in OmniFocus, especially if you use the iPad and iPhone versions of the app.
If there are any other topics that you think would be good for a "Beginner's OmniFocus Series" post, let me know and, as always, the support is greatly appreciated.
* Generally I move my lists of things to text files stored in Dropbox. I give them a "runx" prefix to designate them as files undergoing neverending editing and a topic. I have a lot of these files but "runx books to finish" and "runx games to finish" are a few examples. Using nvALT, I can access and search these files extremely quickly and it reduces clutter in OmniFocus.