Advice needed on managing task overload

Hi… I’ve been using OF since the very earliest “SneakyPeak” versions. It has become an indispensable part of my life, yet I’ve become overwhelmed with far too many tasks than I can deal with. I’ve been doing some serious paring down, but am struggling with how to keep things from falling into obscurity.

Current strategy:

  • Due Dates ONLY for time critical tasks
  • Defer Dates without Due Dates for removing non-urgent yet important things off of today’s view
  • Flags to mark important tasks.

Contexts (which I’m still trying to simplify further)

  • 1-FullFocus
  • 2-Short Dash
  • 3-Brain Dead
  • Admin
  • Communicate
  • People (each key person has their own @Name)
  • Waiting For
  • Shopping/Errands
  • BackBurner

My problem, and main question is how to manage each day’s work load.
If I defer the bulk of it to tomorrow, or next Monday, and use a Today perspective, I see only Due or Flagged items. So far so good, but usually even then there are too many things to deal with. As OmniFocus still does not have a PRIORITY option (along the lines of Todoist - but I dont want to jump ship), I cant figure out how to reduce my choices each day without either deferring more, or unflagging.

Deferring has a huge downside. If I batch defer 40 things till tomorrow or next Morning, then when I start tow work I have to spend time cleaning up my list again, rather than only seeing what is on my immediate plate.

If I Un-Flag a task, then it will fall back into the giant pile without any distinction to separate it from the masses.

My real problem, I understand clearly, is too much on my plate. I’m making progress of reducing the load, but simplifying takes time and in the meantime need to keep the Urgent and Important moving forward.

Grateful for some light on my predicament.
Thank you!

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Why are you deferring tasks? Because you are otherwise operating on overload? Stop deferring them for this reason. As with DUE, use DEFER only because something EXTERNAL limits when you can start a task (or project). For example, I have a house closing on June XX. I will have to schedule to meet with the HVAC service tech to set up a service contract. I have NO WAY TO DO THIS BEFORE June XX. So, the task “contact HVAC rep” is deferred to June XX.

The better option is to pay attention to Due Dates and Flags. First and foremost, always do what is due (preferably before it is due). Then, look at your Next perspective. It should contain something like First Available or Next or Available or … Select from that list tasks that you know that you should/must do next even when they have no due date. Flag them. Do them. Rinse (Review). Repeat.

An alternative to reviewing over your Next perspective to choose tasks to set flags is to work from a top-level perspective to set flags. Do you have a Project that really should be advanced today (even though nothing on it is due). Flag the next action or action sub-group. Do this for your top three “big rock projects” (as some call them). Then, as you sit at OF, first do what is due, then do what is flagged. Rinse (Review) and Repeat.


JJW

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instead of deferring all of your tasks, consider using a separate Single Action List with the status set to On Hold. Here is a post from another thread: Defer dates, and general organisation

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[quote=“DrJJWMac, post:2, topic:24836”]
Why are you deferring tasks? Because you are otherwise operating on overload? Stop deferring them for this reason.[/quote]
Yes, overload. I realize I’m not using Defer properly and would like to stop, hence this post…

Easier said than done!

I think part of my problem is how I have my Projects/Sub-Groups/Actions setup. I’m producing a book and exhibition with many moving parts. Most of my projects are Parrallel, rather than Sequential, as the actions are not usually dependent on the previous actions. There is just a big pile of things that need to happen in no particular order.

This won’t work for me as I NEED to keep my Actions in distinct Projects/Action groups. I’m sure I could move some of the more “administrative” items to the SingleAction “Office Actions” & “Office Actions-OnHold” concept, but that would only address part of the issue.

I feel like I’m spending an inordinate amount of time in OF managing my work, rather than doing the work itself!

In life, we make choices about what we are going to do. Yes, I have multiple other projects that I would love to keep active. But I’ll have too many balls to juggle in the air. It’ll be maddening to try to spread your energy across multiple projects/sub-groups/actions.

Maybe you can put all of your projects on hold. Then select a small handful (three to five) of projects and set them to active status. Focus your energies on completing those active projects. Three to five projects should be enough to give you a variety to keep your plate full without becoming overwhelming.

I can imagine breaking the book into folders (Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3, etc.). Then creating projects that correspond to the chapters, perhaps? Then we’ll see the Unit 1 folder filled with projects:

Unit 1: Chapter 1 project
Unit 1: Chapter 2 project
Unit 1: Chapter 3 project

Unit 2: Chapter 1 project
Unit 2: Chapter 2 project
Unit 2: Chapter 3 project

Unit 3: Chapter 1 project
Unit 3: Chapter 2 project
Unit 3: Chapter 3 project
Unit 3: Chapter 4 project

Personally, I’d rather shut out all of the projects (set to on hold) except for the three to five in front of me (set to active). It’s better to have finished three sub-projects rather than to have ten sub-projects in various levels of completion.

It’s about chopping the tree down. Knock down one tree. Then work on the next tree. In the book scenario, tackle one folder at a time.

In my personal workflow, I have my administrative single action lists set to active. Then I have all of my special projects set to on hold. I know I’m always kept busy with the admin stuff. But I’ll have only a small handful of Big Rocks to tackle. I set three to five projects to active and I am focused on working on just those big rocks PLUS the admin stuff. That’ll keep me busy for the upcoming week or so. When I finish one of the special projects (Big Rock), I can activate another Big Rock project.

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Just one piece of advice, read this. The best software manual I have ever read, and as a developer/designer I have read a few :)

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Great. The disadvantage of this approach is, you have a plate in front of you that is full of tasks you could do at any time. What it means it, you need a better filter on how to choose what to take from that plate.

As @wilsonng notes, you need to review your workload from a big-picture perspective. Select a BIG ROCK at a Project or Sub-Group level. Tackle only the tasks at that one level until they are entirely done.

Perhaps a different analogy might help the appreciation here. You enter a restaurant and are confronted with a smorgasbord where you can pick any food you can possibly imagine. You are instantly overwhelmed by the choices. In your case, you should decide first whether you are going to eat just barbecue or Chinese or Italian or vegan or … IOW, you should first decide the specific cuisine you are going to eat. Otherwise, you will end up sitting down to a plate that has three tacos (beef, chicken and fish … smothered in cheese), a piece of roast beef (smothered in mayonnaise horse radish sauce), some sweet and sour shrimp (on sticky fried rice), and a load of french fries (smothered in ketchup). While each of these food items may be enjoyable in their own right, when the plate is consumed entirely, it is certainly enough to make anyone sick (in more ways than one).


JJW

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I have to admit that I didn’t find that book by Kourosh Dini especially great. I bought it after having heard all the praise for it, but to me way too much of the book was detailed and tiresome descriptions of specific features in Omnifocus, information I already had from reading the Omnifocus manual. What I saw in the rest of the book did not particularly help me bettering my workflow. But as the author offers dissatisfied customers the money back, others may judge for themselves.

@mlondon, one method that might help you would be to create a perspective with your most important projects and filter the perspective to only show first available task in every project. If you review the projects often enough to feel that you have the tasks in proper order, you don’t need to see all available tasks all the time. Instead you could just look at the first available task in every project and pick one of those to work with, and rest assured that you don’t miss any important tasks. This approach certainly made all my tasks feel much less overwhelming. This should also make it unnecessary to defer other tasks than those that for one reason or another are not possible to start working on before certain dates.

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It’s probably not for everyone, it really is not a manual about how OF works, more about how to work with OF. For me it was an eye opener, of course no two peoples needs are the same but the core concept for me anyway worked.

I would guess most authors who love their subject can be a bit self absorbed and this book does go that way a bit, but still a good read…

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To me, as I read the OP, this feels more like a GTD issue than an OmniFocus issue. OF can manage your commitments in multiple different ways (due dates, defer dates, flag, etc., as well as by inventorying them), but it can’t help you decide what commitments you make or have in the first place.

I think if I were in your shoes, @mlondon, I would focus more on deciding what things in my life I realistically really have room for, and what I don’t. Only then would I move back in to OF and use it to manage those rules and decisions.

Personally, beyond the GTD book, I have really enjoyed these audio resources as ways to help me think about my commitments (again, OF is the organizer and manager, but it is not the decider):

  • GTD Live: this is the two day GTD seminar as taught by David Allen. Takes a lot to get through in a focused way, but I found it really rounded out the book. I also dig the Managing Projects and Weekly Review programs (I will say, though, that I have the CDs, and don’t know what the MP3 quality is like)
  • Merlin Mann’s Interview with David Allen: I mean, Merlin is amazing, and this interview, though old, has some great thoughts. Also, it’s free.

I am not affiliated with anything, so these links are just things I like.

Good luck!

ScottyJ

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@deturbulence may be on to something here. I had this problem not that long ago where I wasn’t getting anything done and trying to find software that would help me. Then I realized this was not an OmniFocus issue, this was a motivation issue. I was not doing a morning review of any kind and just kept deferring tasks because I didn’t want to do them. I had to take a step back and figure out what I needed to do. Someone recommended I use pen and paper which helped, but I am a digital kind of person so I went back to OF and set up a morning review that I do as soon as I wake up, and afternoon review to do the first thing when I get into work (I work nights), and and evening review to go over what I did and didn’t get to for the day.

I know this is off topic a little bit but I recently got my groove with OmniFocus and maybe this can help you too.

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Thank you for your detailed information!

Is there an easy way how to integrate new important tasks to your Next Available list? E.g. you have no time because a whole-day meeting starts in a few minutes (you have flagged tasks for today and the meeting) but just get an important task to do which can’t be done today but has to be done as soon as possible (e.g. the next day)

In OmniFocus it is easy to add the new important task with the provided shortcut but the task is put to the end of the task list of the assigned project. In my next actions list I just see the first available task. So what is your way to deal with this problem and see this task as soon as you want to plan the next day?

Do you flag and defer this new important task or do you just flag it and have it on the list for the meeting day and know that it has to be done the next day? Or do you use a certain context for such tasks? Or search for the new created task and move it manually to the top?

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Let’s see what you mean …

Does this mean, the task has a hard due date, that it is has a high(est) priority, or both? In the case of a hard due date, give it the hard due date. In the case that it must be done but has no hard due date, I would work with priorities (via contexts and flags). My highest-level context is “✅ close”. I would generate a task … e.g. “complete task just assigned” with this context and flag it.

My Next Perspective shows Available, not just First Available. This has no difference for sequential Action Groups. However, for parallel Action Groups, a choice using First Available hides tasks that I might want to do next. This difference is either a major deficiency or a subtle and powerful feature depending on user’s perspective.

Hope I have answered all of the questions you pose at the end.


JJW

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OP here, have been away for a few days.
Greatly appreciate all the suggestions…

  • I have Kourosh book, but it didnt do it for me. Need concise right now…

  • A review of GTD principles is a great idea. I’m on the GTD site now.

  • I searched here for “Big Rock” projects and will read after I post this.

  • Yes, much of the problem is due to a combination of too many things to do, unclear priorities, avoidance etc. ie: not an OF problem per se. I really need a day or two to go thru and Delete/Simplify/Automate/Delegate/Delay my tasks…

  • Another part of the problem is not using Sequential Actions for many of my projects. As a result, everything shows up as “do me now”, rather than a step at a time. Will review my Projects to see where I can convert to Sequential (not always possible)

  • Yet another problem is not implementing Review’s strictly enough. Got to get on that.

  • The idea of using Single Actions lists for some of my main projects is appealing. I’ve setup a few General-ACTIVE and General-ON HOLD projects for these projects. Does make it easier to see what is waiting for me on these projects.

  • I’ve taken advice to heart and weaned myself away from using Defer Dates for anything other than “things I CANT do until a certain date”

  • The last thing I’m struggling with is using Flags to select what to hone in on. Up till now, Flags have been my way of setting a “priority” so that tasks dont get swept off the table. I’ve removed a huge number of Flags, but still more than I can deal with in a day. I’m sure this is not the best solution, but I’m experimenting with the following:
    Items with HARD DUE DATE get a time of 10am
    Items which I can choose from for Today’s work are flagged
    Items which I decided to work on get a time of 5pm.
    This way, If I’m not able to finish all the things I put on my plate for today, they show up as overdue tomorrow.
    Does this make sense?

Grateful for this community. Thanks to all.

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Impressing new approach! Good luck!

One question: do you need to set a due time (which I suppose is what you mean by setting a time of 5 pm for flagged tasks)? In that case remaining tasks will still show up the next day as due, even if they don’t have hard due dates. Wouldn’t it be enough to simply flag them? If you haven’t been able to finish them the day before, you could just continue working on them tomorrow. Or is it a way to separate those tasks from tasks that you flag later, to know which of the flagged tasks to finish first? If that’s the case, the risk is that you are building up a new situation where you day after day keep postponing tasks with no real due dates. If you regularly flag more tasks than you are able to finish, you might need more ways of prioritizing.

I set flags on tasks that I should or must do ASAP. That is it.

I set due times rather randomly. Some of my work is time-scheduled. Other stuff just has to be done by close of business. IOW, hard due dates generally mean either hard due times or by 5-6pm. I avoid setting hard due times on anything that has no hard due date.

This approach lowers the noise level tremendously. My “active” perspective shows due and flagged. Anything that I do not do today becomes either overdue or continues to be flagged. I don’t flag something new until I complete the current flags. Or, in review, I realize that what I flagged was really not that important and unflag it. That frees me to flag something else.


JJW

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I can totally relate to your dilemma – I too have too many work projects and tasks. I don’t know if this would work for you, but I’ve been trying something new recently: I’ve created a context called @Mac - Work Future (in addition to my @Mac - Work context). I’ve moved a lot of tasks in there, but I don’t have to see them until I do a weekly review, at which point I can move some of them to the regular work context. It’s helped me to not go numb to my lists!

Great question. I’ve wondered this too.

I just discovered this forum after using Omnifocus for quite awhile with varying degrees of sustainability. Prior to that I used ResultsManager on top of Mindmanager fairly intensively.

I think the initial question/post lists a lot of best practices and has some interesting context ideas.

I think a key challenge with a GTD system is that it functions like an immune system. If you have 10 new tasks/projects come your way each day, and you successfully fight off 95% of them by completing them or deciding not to do them, after 100 days, you’ll will have accumulated 50 cringe-worthy tasks that defy your immune system and hang out on your lists.

Yes, you should weekly review them away, yes you should someday/maybe them away, but they have attributes that defy the weekly review for one reason or another. They are implicitly “someday”, as you are not doing them, but they don’t feel that way.

If the typical person has 125 total items on their lists, after 100 days fifty of their tasks become “ugh” items, and now the list is not only long but demoralizing. If you were using a paper system, just the effort/thought/wasted-paper of copying them over to a fresh sheet of paper might kill a few off, but electronic systems allow them to be harbored cost-free.

I am a PC user so I have had to live within the constraints of the iphone/ipad apps. I was very excited to noticed last week that I could upgrade and gain the ability to add perspectives from those apps. The first one I’ve added is one that simply sorts tasks in the order they were created. This view allows me to see the “live” items that are most likely to be current/relevant and this makes the system easier to trust, as it takes time for new items to drift into the middle of the abyss. The 1st screen has fresh items that are often 2 minute actions in the right context or that need some processing/thought. The bottom screen has those items that are clearly not getting done and unquestionably need intervention.

The other un-sticking simple list I created was a sort on time since last change. This also surfaces very recent and very stale items. If the item on the bottom of your list is worth doing, reword it or revise it in a way that makes it more likely to be done. If it doesn’t merit that much effort, it needs to go to someday/maybe.

The more zombie tasks you can knock off this way, the more vibrant the overall list and your system becomes.

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