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Beginner's OmniFocus Series: (#1) Setting up Projects and Single-Action Lists

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.

Setting Up OmniFocus: The Initial Capture

When you’re faced with a white page in a new tool, using a new methodology, it’s immensely difficult to decide what to do first. Sure, you know you want to end up with a full list of your projects, all broken elegantly into tasks with well-planned due dates. But how do you actually get to that point?

My first attempts were halting stabs at setting up ornately-nested projects and folders; those all got deleted. Eventually, I got back to something resembling that type of arrangement but the steps I took to get there – the journey – was key to getting it set up properly.

The first step on this journey was to do a full capture straight into my OmniFocus Inbox. It took several hours in a quiet room and there were many pauses where I assumed I was done. I’d settle down, happy about a job well done, only to think of another set of tasks that I had forgotten and another round of furious typing.

When I say “full capture” I am speaking about dumping the entire contents of your actual brain into your new, outboard brain. No task is insignificant. No area of your life should be neglected. As Kourosh Dini says, (I’m paraphrasing) if your task manager only has tasks you hate doing in it, you’ll eventually hate your task manager and I couldn’t agree more.

I put tasks related to work, of course, but I also included home projects and vacation planning. I included day trips I’ve always wanted to plan and restaurants I always forget about when we are deciding where to go to out to eat. I added items related to people from work, even if it was about non-related work conversations I’ve been meaning to have. I dug up names of old friends I wanted to reach out to, appointments I had been meaning to make, games I’ve always wanted to play, books I had in my current reading list that needed focus to finish.

It didn’t matter what it was, I just entered it in a way that was clear and concisely described as a task. I didn’t just put “England trip”. I would enter “Take a look at flights to England” or “Ballpark expenses for UK trip”. Not making something a well-defined task gives you a reason to ignore it later.

Remember, this isn’t the final state of things and these disparate items will become coherent, cohesive lists of tasks soon enough. After dumping as much as you can think of into your Inbox, the next job ahead of you is wrestling these into “Projects”.

Creating Projects and Single-Action Lists

There are two different kinds of project paradigms in OmniFocus:

  • The Project
  • The Single Action List

Within the Project paradigm, you can break projects down further into Parallel projects and Sequential Projects.

To start making some sense of the tasks you put in your Inbox, you’re going to have to take the plunge and group similar or related task into logical areas. That’s where projects come in.

In the GTD method, a project is a series of tasks that need to be done in order consider the project completed. You can approach projects from two different directions. You can create a project like the aforementioned “England Trip”, then fill it with the steps required to fly to England and stay there for a period of time. Alternatively, you can create tasks for yourself and group them into a project you call “England Trip”. They accomplish the same goal.

I’ve often had single tasks balloon into full Projects after giving some serious thought to what I needed to do to complete them. Don’t be afraid to break things down as far as necessary. The goal here is that each task represents an easily-accomplished, singular event that you can do in a few minutes. If it turns out to be more than that, break it into the requisite steps or make a new project out of it.

OmniFocus is flexible enough to allow you to have sub-projects within a bigger project and move things around at-will so there’s no penalty for working out this process organically. It’s a really a good way to get started so dive in.

Skim through your Inbox of captured items and start looking for patterns. Don’t think about where things are done. (That will come later, in my Beginner’s Series post on “Contexts”.) Think about the end goal of a set of tasks and group them accordingly with the end goal being the name of the project.

The aforementioned “England Trip” is an obvious one. It ends when you get home from England, presumably, but there are a myriad of tasks that go into such a trip, from researching airlines to booking the trip to planning lodging, etc. Each one of these things could be a task, or a series of tasks making up a sub-project.

You can physically group these tasks in any number of ways, the simplest of which is to go to the “File” menu and selecting “Add Project” and then drag the tasks from the task listing on the right to the new project on the left. From there, you can drag them into any order you want but I suggest you put them in the order you envision them getting done.

At this point you can decide if this project is going to be structured in such a way that there are some steps that are prerequisites to getting others done. If this is the case, you can make the project “sequential”. Setting a project up as a sequential project means that the steps will remain unavailable until the task before it is completed. This is a handy way to approach projects if there is a well-defined set of milestone tasks, with each needing to be complete before the next can begin because OmniFocus will hide unavailable tasks in most views. While this doesn’t sound that helpful now, wait until you have hundreds of tasks in OmniFocus.*

The default, and more common way, to set up a project is “parallel”. This makes all tasks available to you to be completed at any time. I tend to keep projects in this mode unless there is a very strict path to getting something or there is no physical way to complete on thing before another. For instance, if I need to find another person’s phone number to call them before the task asking me to call them, it makes sense that it must come first. If there is no clear precedence, just leave the project set as a parallel project for now.

If you set up a set of tasks as sub-projects within a larger project, you can set just those to sequential as well. This is yet another example of where the tool is incredibly flexible.

“Single-Action Lists” are special types of projects that aren’t really meant to be completed. They are a holding area for single tasks with no real overarching goals in mind. They are created in much the same way as standard projects. Under the “File” menu, select “Add Single-Action List”. From there you can add tasks as normal.

I have a “Home Single-Action List” and a “Work Single-Action List”. These have simple one-off items in them that don’t really fit into another project but aren’t really big enough to warrant a project themselves.

Things like “Update website password” or “Give the dog heartworm meds” are things I definitely don’t want to forget, but they don’t need to be a project all on their own. The worry here is that these single-action lists become dumping grounds for ill-defined projects. Try your best to really think about what you put in these lists and clear them out regularly with your Review process (the subject of yet-another future post) so things don’t collect there and linger.

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The paradigm of “the Project” is meant to group like items and give you a focus to use as a goal. By taking those items, ordering them in a meaningful way, and allowing yourself to see the trajectory of the project laid out as atomic elements each needing your attention, you’ll gain a much tighter control over your time and your mind.

That sounds heavy, but doing a full capture to OmniFocus, organize all of the things that have been hanging over your head, and getting those items into a system you trust, it makes you feel like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders.

At work, when asked about the progress of a particular assignment, I can tell at a glance what’s been completed and what is yet to be done. I can tell when tasks were completed, salient notes (stored in the handy Notes field for each task) about the progress or results of the task and how much is left to do.

As we move on in the next part of the Beginner’s Series on OmniFocus, we will focus on Contexts.

Contexts are an incredible piece of the GTD puzzle and, when you understand their power and how they relate to tasks and projects, you’ll likely never think about task management the same way again.


* You can use a great app called OmniStats to gather information about your OmniFocus database. For instance, I have 726 tasks in my database with 498 complete. Sweet!