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Beginner's OmniFocus

Many books have been written about Getting Things Done and, if you’ve read any of them, you can probably skip this post. I’m going to try to explain the basic precepts of GTD and focus on how I view GTD, specifically focused on how I use OmniFocus, how I made it work for me and hope to give a case study, to some extent, of the entire process.

It’s going to be a long one. I apologize in advance.

Quick Primer in Getting Things Done (GTD)

There are things in your life that you know you need to do right now. Since you have no good way of capturing them, organizing them or cataloguing them, you just let them sit in your head, clanking around and stressing you out.

GTD is good for a lot of things but generally I boil it down to three:

  1. Taking all of the things running around in your brain that need to be taken care of and putting them into a repository.
  2. Capturing larger-scale projects and then breaking them into smaller do-able tasks.
  3. Learning to ignore the stuff that doesn’t need to get done.

These three ideas form the basis of how I approach using OmniFocus to simplify organizing all of the stuff I need to do in my life.

I don’t mean for this to sound like a commerical for OmniFocus but lately people have been reading my posts, buying OmniFocus and then running into the wall that everyone runs into – wrapping your head around the complexity of your daily life and trying to figure out how to codify it in a way that works with the whole GTD methodology.

Having that codification is key for GTD because easily capturing tasks, quickly sorting tasks, and assigning effective contexts to complete those tasks is the core of the system. Most people can’t see the forest for the trees when trying to come up with an effective way to use their tool of choice to do those things.

Smarter people than I have written books about systems to handle this, so I’m just going to explain how I approached it. I did quite a few things wrong initially but I did to get to a state of equilibrium where I’m not spending a lot of time tweaking the system but have enough of a framework that it allows the process to work.

Capture

So the first principle of GTD is to effectively capture what you need to do. There are a lot of ways to do that (3x5 cards, post-it notes, iPhone apps like Remember the Milk, and Things among others) but since you’re reading this post about OmniFocus, let’s just assume you’re going to use it.

OmniFocus for Mac, iPhone and iPad have great ways for inputting tasks. The iPhone version gives you a way to capture things wherever you are, whether it’s through the instant entry within the app or using the Siri integration. The Mac version is great for quick entry as well. The iPad version is a middle ground for me, but I still use it daily, especially to Review projects (a topic not covered in the scope of this post).

The key to “capture” is to do it quickly. No need to enter all of the details – just get things into your system as quickly as possible. I don’t write full sentences when I capture. In fact, during capture, I’m just putting in sketches of what I need to remember; maybe it is a single thing that can be done quickly that I don’t want to forget, or maybe it will become a full-fledged project. The point is, at the time of capture, it doesn’t really matter. The goal here is to get what you’re thinking needs to be done out of your head.

The simple fact that it has been moved from your brain, which is is having a hard time keeping track of it and stressing you on a subconscious level, to a capture system that you trust is what makes GTD so awesome. When I finished my first full capture of everything that needed to get done, I felt like a weight had been lifted.

Another big part of the stress relief is knowing that, if something isn’t worth capturing, it’s not worth even thinking about anymore. Just forget about it. All of those little things that cross your mind now and then either get captured or dropped. The less your mind has to keep track of, the more effective you’ll be at everything else.

Organization

In the case of our weapon of choice, OmniFocus, all of these new tasks will end up in our Inbox. The Inbox serves as the place where things come into the system until you decide what to do with them. I clear my Inbox in the morning but you can do it more than once a day if you want. Where things go after they hit the Inbox is where things usually get a little fuzzy for most people. The worst thing you can do is keep things in the Inbox, using it like a to-do list, because you’re never really taking advantage of the “doing” part of GTD.

Let’s say you write “Take the dog to the vet” on a post-it note. Most people would consider that “captured”, for all intents and purposes. But let’s say you don’t have a vet yet. Maybe you need to get your pet’s records forwarded to the new vet, which you haven’t even found yet. You should probably ask around, after you find a vet that looks decent, right?

That simple post-it note that says “Take the dog to the vet” is something that will never get done because you don’t have a post-it note to say “Look for a decent vet” or “transfer records to new vet”. The thing you want to do is really a few steps away and the thing you need to do isn’t accounted for anywhere.

What you really see when you look at that post-it note is all of the things that need to be done before you take your dog to the vet. The overwhelming, un-planned nature of all of those tasks combine to act as an insurmountable obstacle in your way.

So the post-it note stays attached to your monitor. For months….

Well, what if “Take the dog to the vet” was a project in OmniFocus? Under that project I’d create subtasks for:

  • Research new vets in the area (context: computer)
  • Make a list of potential new vets (context: computer)
  • Call local dog person and ask about potential vets (context: phone)
  • Call new vet and make an appointment (context: phone)
  • Call old vet and transfer records (context: phone)
  • Take dog to the vet on {date of appointment} (context: pets)

Note the term “context”. It was something that baffled me the first time I read GTD posts, so let me explain how I use them.

Contexts refer to where a task gets done. I realize that specifying obvious things like that for each task sounds slightly nutty but with good GTD tools, grouping tasks by context takes on a power that I hadn’t anticipated. Usually we view things at a project level. I need to find a vet so I set out doing all the things I need to do to make it happen – use my computer, call people etc.

But imagine that there are three projects that require me to do some computer research. And what if I have several people I need to call, besides the vet. How much more effective would I be if I wasn’t constantly task-switching and did all of my computer research at once and all of my phone calls when I’m on the phone? Very.

When you group your tasks by context, you suddenly see a view of everything you need to do when you’re sitting at your computer, or all of the things you need to do when your running errands, or all of the tasks you need to do when you’re at work. You start looking across projects and tasks instead of at the projects themselves and that’s when things get really interesting.

Here are some of my contexts. I have contexts for people, places, and things:

  • Errands - when I’m out running errands, I try to do everything in this context bucket.
  • Home - chores, things I need to remember and do when I’m at home.
  • Work - broken into sub-contexts of ‘computer’, ‘email’, people at work, meetings
  • Phone - I have my phone with all the time so the ‘phone’ context sort of comes along with me. I can make a call whenever I get a chance.

The key to this piece of the process is that you’re taking projects and breaking them down to tasks, then assigning where each task needs to happen (context). Then you organize your items by context to see a cross-project, holistic view of what needs to happen right now.

Doing

Now comes the easy part.

You’ve decided what needs to get done. You’re settled on where everything needs to happen. Now things just need to start getting completed.

At this point, I switch to Context mode, focused on “Next Actions”, because everything is keyed off of where I am or who I am talking to right now. Essentially I can be moving multiple projects forward while I’m on the phone because I’m looking at all of the phone calls that need to happen next for every projects on my list. Powerful stuff.

Once I grasped that single concept, it was like GTD unlocked for me and I was able to start adding tasks to take advantage of it.

Whew

I could write 1500 more words or come up with a million more examples of how I use and rely on OmniFocus. It is the single most important piece of software I use on a daily basis, across all of my devices.

It’s hard to break down something that’s become so ingrained in my workflow and bring it back to the basics like this but I hope it helps those of you curious as to how it all works (for me). If you are reading this and wondering about something I didn’t cover well enough, or something you might want me to focus on in a future post, drop me a line on my Contact page, hit me up on Twitter or post a comment on the Google+ thread for this post.