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
As I stated in my post "Beginner's OmniFocus", one of the most baffling things about Getting Things Done was the concept of "Contexts".
Briefly put, Contexts are where things get done. That can mean a lot of things to a lot of people and that's why people have such a rough time grasping it the first time they sit in front of a newly-installed version of OmniFocus.
My initial approach to the concept, as a newcomer, was to think of this simply as "Work" and "Home". As I started examining the tasks I had put into OmniFocus during my first capture, things got a little muddy.
- What if I'm at work but need to make a phone call about a home-related project?
- Are work trips still considered a "Work" context? I'm unable to do work-related functions when I'm away, so how can that concept hold up?
- Is "Computer" a context? If so, I can use the computer at work and home and have tasks for each -- how do I deal with that?
- "Phone" is where phone calls get done -- does it matter if they are work or home phone calls?
The questions got more confusing and I found myself cutting my idea of specific contexts finer and finer until they no longer held any meaning for me. I needed a new way to approach the problem and define a tactic for how to think about it.
Home and Work are good contexts to start with, but I added a few more that would provide the catch-alls for the tasks that would eventually make their way into OmniFocus.
Along with "Home" and "Work", I added
These seven groups form the basis of how I codify every task that makes it into OmniFocus.
There are still some hairs to split, surely. It's not a perfect system and I've come to expect that no GTD system will be completely perfect for every task you could possibly throw at it. As long as you know how to use the system and it gives you something to lean on, it's a good system.
One of the things that still bother me is the fact that Errands, on the surface, looks like it could be combined into Shopping. In truth, almost all of my shopping is done online these days so my "Shopping" context is generally things I want to buy from online home brew places or Amazon.
I consider errands something that pile up and need to be done outside of the house, generally quickly and efficiently. To add a bit more granularity (and give me the ability to add some location-aware fences for the iPhone version of OmniFocus), I have added sub-contexts in the Errands bucket like "Pet shop", "Hardware store", and "Supermarket". If anything doesn't fall into one of those three common categories, I will add it to the "Errands" context itself.
My phone is something that is always with me. As such, it warrants its own context because it neither falls into the "Work" context or the "Home" context neatly. Since the primary function of Contexts is to group activities, allowing you to act upon tasks that cross projects and use your time effectively, my "Phone" context contains reminders for phone calls I need to make that span many projects. When I sit down to make phone calls during the day, usually when I get a break during meetings, I can make several in one sitting and avoid wasting precious time cycles.
My "Home" context is a very straightforward one. It contains the following sub-contexts:
- Mac (with sub-sub-contexts "Online" and "Email")
The "Mac" context is simply reminders to send specific emails like "Arrange visit with John" or things I need to remember to do when I'm online like pay bills, buy concert tickets or do some specific research.
All other tasks fall into the "Home" context and that's ok -- no need to make it more complicated than it has to be.
The Work Context
I think where I depart from the mainstream of OmniFocus users is my work-related contexts. Setting these contexts up took time, lots of thought and a close examination of how I really need OmniFocus to function for me throughout the day. While reading the following, realize that how I set things up is a direct reflection of the power of OmniFocus in that the tailored nature of my work contexts are clearly pretty personalized. I love that OmniFocus gives me that kind of control and flexibility.
In my day job, I manage software development teams. These teams span many disciplines and skill sets and the people who work for me are highly skilled, technical individuals. In some ways, they all need their own tailored approach and each one is juggling many projects or requests at once.
Because of this, I needed OmniFocus to gather the various and disparate tasks from several projects and allow me to focus my attention when I'm speaking with one of the developers I work with.
The contexts I created under "Work" are the following:
- Computer (with the same sub-contexts as my Home/Mac context)
Under "People" is where the fun starts.
I created one sub-context for each department that I interact with -- Development, QA, IT, Management. Under each one of those headings, I created one context for each person I deal with frequently. Doing this created roughly thirty contexts.
That sounds a little crazy to most GTD grognards, I'm sure, but let me present an example and maybe it will make some sense.
One of my managers, L., is huge help in managing pieces of multiple projects. Often I'll need to talk to her about specific phases of those projects or to discuss planning and execution throughout the week.
In one particular project, I may need L. to make sure specs get sent to a team overseas. In another, she may need me to sign some paperwork for a trip or an expense report. In a third project, I may need a recap of a meeting she ran that I wasn't able to attend.
Each one of these tasks are things I logged in a particular project, but the context in common for each of those tasks is L. In other words, she is where these tasks get done for me.
Have you had the common problem where you run into someone in the hall on the way to a meeting and say "Oh, hey. There was something I needed to ask you. It was really important but... I don't remember what it was..."? Yeah, well, that type of thing used to be common for me but it never happens to me anymore, thanks to OmniFocus.
I take out my phone, open OmniFocus, find their context and everything I need to talk to them about, no matter how many projects the topics span, is right there. I can even check each item off as I cover it, which is obviously incredibly satisfying for a nerd.
Of course, I have actual tasks that need to get done too. The context I tend to use for that is "Computer" since these tasks usually involve sending an email, writing a document, doing some research, etc.
My "Meetings" context is a catch-all for things I need to do in an upcoming meeting. I only have one context for this as I tend to complete them throughout the day. I check this context everytime I'm in a meeting to make sure I cover everything I need to cover. If anything lingers too long here, I'll usually end up assigning it to a better, more focused context and finishing it up later.
I could go on for a lot longer about Contexts because they are so key to being effective in GTD and OmniFocus; in fact, I cut about 900 words from this to make things a little clearer after several re-readings. Almost 3000 words on Contexts probably would have been overkill for one article. I'm sure the concept of Contexts will be revisited on this site in the future, providing more focus for more subtle points or outlining something new I'm trying.
Up next, part 3 in the series will explore another pivotal piece of the OmniFocus puzzle - the Review. Hopefully, not too long after that, part 4 will explore one of my favorite parts of OmniFocus - Perspectives.
Thanks for reading and keep the good feedback coming via email using the Contact page, Twitter, or Google+. 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.