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.
Part One of this series, about setting up Projects and Single-Action lists, is located here. Part Two, focusing on Contexts, can be found here. Part Three, with a concentration on the Review process can be found here.
And so we arrive at a feature that not all users will necessarily be able to take advantage of in OmniFocus, Perspectives. In order to be able to use Perspectives, you will need OmniFocus for Mac but once they are built, you will be able to use them on all of your devices (with a few notable caveats which I will explain).
What Are Perspectives?
The term Perspective in OmniFocus describes a custom view of your data. This custom view is then propagated to all of your devices and gives you a unified way to see all tasks that are visible within a given Perspective. Keep in mind, OmniFocus is basically a database of your tasks. With Perspectives, you are given tools within the application to view that database in different ways, based on your needs at the time.
Rather than dive into the minutiae of creating a Perspective, let me describe some examples to give you an idea of their power and usefulness.
As I described in my Contexts post, ordering and displaying your tasks based on where you are at the time is one of the key features of the GTD methodology. Of course different Contexts comprise a wide variety of environments and places. When I’m at home, I don’t want to be bothered with tasks than can only be accomplished in the work context and vice versa. To create a trimmed down view of things that need to be done, targeted for when I’m at home, I created a “Home” perspective.
When I select this perspective, I only see tasks relevant to my home locations and tools — my phone, my macbook air, errands, chores, family, etc. (these are contexts, by the way). I further restrict the tasks to remaining and available tasks to make sure I only see the things I care about when I’m getting things done at home.
I have a similar perspective for work, one specifically to see “Stalled Projects”, and a key one called “High Priority” which I use everyday to make sure I don’t miss anything critical.
While you can create a perspective based on Projects or Contexts, Context-based perspectives are important because they can be synced to your iPad and iPhone. While there are uses for Project-based perspectives, their inability to sync makes them less universal. My hope is that someday Omnigroup will allow for Project-based perspectives on the iPad. It is becoming more a of power-user device and a Perspective for looking at all of the tasks in a given project, filtered just the way you want, would be immensely useful.
Once the perspectives are created, assuming they are context-based, they will automatically sync over to your iPhone or iPad. One tap and you’ll have the same view you just left on your Mac, ordered just how you want and omitting anything you don’t care to see at the time.
For those of you getting a sense of how great this would be, I’ll show you how to create perspectives but, if you’re still a bit foggy on why this matters, read on and I’ll make a case for why this feature is one of the most important in OmniFocus.
How To Create Perspectives
I’m going to start by showing you how to create my most-used, most important perspective, High Priority.
The goal for High Priority is to consolidate all of the things that I can’t forget or things that are time-based in the sense that they need to be done by the end of a given day. It doesn’t necessarily matter when during the day; only that they must be done at some point.
What are the components that would be useful to such a view?
- Items that are “Remaining”
- Items that have a “Due date” of today (or before)
- Items that are “Available”
- Items that are “Flagged”
The next step is to figure out how to create a view showing these needs.
First, hit Shift-⌘-V to show the View bar and make sure all of your Contexts are visible on the left hand panel. For High Priority, I don’t want to filter the contexts by Home or Work because, for me, this type of view spans where things get done. I’ll have other perspectives to show things at that level which I’ll describe later.
Once the drop-downs in the View bar accurate describe what you want in your own High Priority view of the world, take a look at the sorting. I generally organize it by Project (even though this is a context-based view) by selecting “Project” in the Sorting drop-down. This makes it so thats that things are grouped roughly at a project level but organized into larger headings by Context.
Here are the settings for my High Priority view in the View bar.
- Context Filter - Remaining
- Grouping - Context
- Sorting - Project
- Availability Filter - Available
- Status Filter - Due or Flagged
- Estimated Time Filter - Any Duration
At this point, you’re all set to save this perspective, but wait! You need to also do any sort of visual customization since all of the window settings get saved along with your perspective. Now that we’ve set up our View bar, there’s no longer any need for it to take up space, so I toggle that off. I also re-size my left hand pane (showing Contexts) to be the width of the widest context to reduce the amount of screen estate it is taking up. Now we’re ready to save the perspective.
Choose Perspectives > Save Window As… > New Perspective. Once you do this, a settings sheet will appear detailing and recapping all of the options you’ve selected and prompting you to name your new perspective. (You can even give your perspective a customized icon, if you want)
That’s basically how it’s all done. Everything else perspective-related is just a variation of this.
How to Use Your Perspectives
Once you get a few perspectives built, you will probably start using them as your default method of interacting with OmniFocus on all of your devices. Yes, they’re that good.
What other perspectives can you think of right off the bat? Here’s a few I use but I’m sure you’ll come up with many more as you start tailoring the ideas laid out here to your needs.
- You may want to see Completed, sorted by date in order to get a sense of what your progress has been for a given week.
- Maybe you want to see tasks that only apply when you are at your home or apartment, sorted by Project so you can skim them and see if you’re missing any steps.
- You can create a perspective for a specific type of Review process that you want to do. This might include Available or Next Action items, sorted by date and grouped by Project.
I have five commonly used perspectives that handle the bulk of my OmniFocus viewing and task management. Three of them are Context-based and are on my phone and two of them are Project-based, used solely on my Macbook Air.
- High Priority - See above. My most-viewed context. When I get this down to zero items, it’s usually a pretty productive day.
- Home Contexts - Yes, that’s actually the name for it. I created this by clicking on my root folder for all Home-based contexts and creating a perspective around it.
- Work Contexts - Same deal. Clicked on the root folder for Work-based contexts and created a perspective around it. I should note that my Phone context is included in both of these since I have it with me wherever I go — Home or Work.
- Home Projects - This is a list of all Projects in my Home folder. It’s not sorted in any particular way and includes tasks in any state (except completed). This is just a quick way to skim project-based tasks and serves as basis for a rudimentary review process.
- Work Projects - Same as “Home Projects” except it is work-based tasks.
Between these five perspectives I can handle pretty much anything thrown at me (and OmniFocus). The good thing about perspectives is that they can evolve as your needs evolve. Since they are completely custom, if you decide that you want to start showing things you’ve completed in order to provide some sort of weekly retrospective, you can easily do this with just a few clicks.
As I’ve tried to demonstrate often in this series, OmniFocus is chameleon-like and robust, malleable and extensible. As far as I’m concerned, it is the embodiment of the Getting Things Done ethos. I use it every day in dozens of ways and I’m hoping that putting together this series getting you closer to realizing your investment in the programs. I’m hoping it also unlocks your potential as someone who just wants to get projects finished.
Up next, I plan on doing a Beginner’s Series entry on “OmniFocus for Software Developers”. It is going to be a comprehensive look at how I use the tool to manage technical projects (sometimes several at once). I’ll try to provide some insight as to how OmniFocus can help in these unique situations but also provide signposts for how these techniques can apply to projects of all types.