Creating Kinder To Do Lists

Hi everyone,

I’ve been experimenting with how to create a sense of spaciousness and possibility (instead of overwhelm) when I open up OF and decide what to do with my day. After a couple months of attempting to create “kinder” tasks, I feel as though I’ve come to some observations about things that are actually working. I blogged about it (link below). While I doubt this approach will work for most of the folks that post here, it may resonate with some. I also wonder how Omni designers might feel about considering the process of adding/reviewing/completing items as messages of intention between past and future selves.


Great post, it’s great to see a refreshing take from a philosophical and psychological point of view.

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Such a good point.

(and it would be interesting to understand how the imperative mode and tone became established in this genre in the first place …)

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Typically thoughtful and creative post from Beck.

I have to admit, my OF actions seem to be 100% imperative statements.

I am skeptical, as it would take longer to write actions in this more subjunctive style, compared to the imperative. How much effect does it really have to say “Don’t forget you wanted to get the laundry done” vs. “Do laundry”? Or maybe it has more affect than effect. I suppose if it helps you be more willing to engage with OmniFocus that’s a good thing.

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Brevity is the classic sales pitch, but does that persuade us to bark maximally compacted commands at our kids or co-workers ?

(And if it does, what are the results ? :-)

An imperative tenor in any relationship seems bound to erode motivation – not sure that our interactions with ourselves (or interactions between the writer today and the reader next week) are likely to be very different.

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I think it’s because the whole notion of Getting Things Done (I mean the concept, not the David Allen approach to it) is imperative in itself. The only thing that matters is that I Get It Done.


I wonder if this might have something to do with it, too. I recently had a realization that GTD isn’t about getting things done, as much as the name suggests. It’s more a system engineered to help you remember everything you want to do. The name creates misinterpretation, and at the same time, the name is necessary for the method to gain traction. We sure love a promise like “Getting Things Done.”

If I look at OF as a list of things to do, it soon becomes overwhelming bc GTD asks me to record everything I can think of to do. If I look at it as a list of all the things in my head, many of which I’ll never decide to do, it’s a bit more inviting.

I wish OF were more inclined to be a list manager, where lists are regularly reviewed and any item could instantly become a task or a project with defers, dues, reminders, repeats, etc. As a task manager, everything is considered a to do item. This creates performance issues if you don’t treat it that way and the archive, where retrieving something is onerous, is not as powerful as it could be.


I can agree with all of that.

I’ve started limiting what goes into OF now. I keep higher-level lists elsewhere and move items into OF when I know I need to carry out tasks. As an example, I’m just starting to learn to draw. I have many things I want/need to do and try - they’re all being listed elsewhere and all OF has is a reminder task to make some time to do some things on that list.

This is a real issue for me.

Could you say more about (1) the software you’re using for the external list, (2) how you add/remove/organize items when the thought occurs for you to do so, (3) what the review process is like, and (4) how you move items to do from the list to OF and back again if you decide to do them later?

I didn’t intend to request an opus! Feel free to neglect any part that isn’t interesting to explain.

That is beautiful. Thank you for sharing a useful technique in a thoughtful way. I’ll be trying this.

…Where lists are regularly reviewed and any item could instantly become a task or a project with defers, dues, reminders, repeats, etc.

As a perennial newbie to OmniFocus, I thought this was how the program already worked.

Maybe I’m just thinking of my too-neglected Inbox with its dozens of items that could become an immediate task by my doing it. Or it could become a project with just a click or two and thus have access to defer dates, repeats, etc.

OK, here goes.

Software I use depends whether it’s for work or personal.

Work: for. context, I’m a freelance project manager.

I use:

Mindnode or iThoughts mind mapping. to produce the high level shape of the project

Omniplan for the formal plan

DEVONThink as the information repository (documents, mail and notes)

Tinderbox to collect notes and organise decision-making

Curio as the “control centre” - pages (“idea spaces”) for major areas in the project. Example - I’ll have a` template page for the Project Board - new copy for each report and meeting with templates in it for the report, minutes, notes or whatever I need each reporting period. Relevant documents or links are embedded in the relevant bit of Curio.

I get tasks from Curio into Omnifocus manually and they’re usually not very granular. So, for the monthly project report, I’ll just have a task “Do Monthly Report”, with a link back to the Curio page with the report guidance on it. I create the task manually. If. OF linked to Mac Reminders fully, I could automate this via Curio sync to Reminders.

Only if there’s a specific, non-standard task associated with the monthly report will I create another task in OF.

Similarly, for the other major work areas (planning, people, testing and so on), I try. to keep the higher level view in Curio, fed from the other applications.

At home I work a little differently. For day-to-day activities, I have some OF projects and tags (Household is a project, Car, Decorating, Shopping etc are tags) and I’ll record “tasks that need to. be in OF”. I don’t put everything there (no weekly garbage collection, no weekly shopping lists) - only things I’m likely to need to be reminded of, either because missing them would be bad (due dates for bill payments) or because I might lose sight of them (doer some more water softener salt).

I have some creative stuff (I’m learning to draw and I’m an amateur musician). All OF will have is “Practice time” or “Rehearsal time”. DEVONThink has lists of material, actions, songs etc and I just refer to those to decide what to do with that time.

I’m not sure how much that helps. In a sentence, Omnifocus is for specific things I need to do - not for goals or aspirations or plans. It’s too granular for that other stuff.

If some. fo that needs explanation, ask away - it’s helpful for me to have to think about what I do and how


Great post, as always, Beck! I had to laugh at something as I read it. I have very frequently had the same reaction about the computer–OmniFocus in this context–being my taskmaster, relentlessly telling me what to do, when to do it, and how far behind I am on various things. Then, I remember that I was the one who told the computer to do that to me! I’m my own slavedriver.

It also made me think of something else related to task managers. Let’s say I have a goal to reconcile my bank account on a certain day of the month. Putting aside OmniFocus, or Reminders, or a yellowpad, I might be reminded of that task on the appropriate day, realize I’m too busy to do and and just do it another time. I’m not “late” in any real or meaningful sense. I just did not achieve an aspirational goal. If I get to it the following week, or the beginning of the next month, it does not matter. Still, I don’t want to forget it.

The problem with digital tools is that there is no such thing as creating a “fuzzy” deadline. And it’s kind of draining to look at a task manager and see 39 past due tasks. Sure, you could just push the date off. Sometimes I do that. The problem is that we (at least some of us) use dates in task managers to (1) remind us of tasks that are actually due on that date, (2) remind us of tasks we want to do on that date, (3) try to plan our days and weeks in a comprehensive way, and (4) remind us of tasks we are afraid we are going to forget.

Which, leads me to this point about GTD.

As you know from some of our prior dialogue on this point, I decided to re-engineer my GTD system a while back because I had fallen into this trap of having too much on my plate and no reasonable way of recognizing the value of completing one task over another the way my system was set up.

When I re-read some key sections about GTD, I realized that the system is supposed to do what you described–help you remember everything you want to do–but it is not a system that is designed to present you everything you need to do at all times.

The amazing thing about our digital tools that wrecks havoc on practicing GTD is that the tools combine next action lists with project plans. In paper GTD, you may have a project plan that lists all the things you might want to do on a project. On your next action list, would go only the thing you need to do next to move that project forward. Once that’s done, you add the next next-action.

OmniFocus is wonderful because it allows us to create project plans and source the next actions from them. It’s been a life saver for me to have one home base where everything I need to do and the projects to which those things are related exist.

Finding the way to manage it such that we do not forget things, we “get things done,” and yet we are kind to ourselves is the challenge. Your proposal is a lovely method of bridging that gap.

My new system has helped resolve some of these issue for me, and I hope to carve out the time to share it and see what others think. We certainly share the same goal: achieve and accomplish those things we want in a way that does not make us go mad. :)

This is why it’s so important to regularly use the Review perspective. Simply looking over projects for a few seconds acts as a spaced repetition interval—causing indefinite retention of your captured to do’s.

Yes, for me, a better review process gave me the confidence not to have to over schedule—although, it still takes a lot of discipline to avoid falling into the trap. That review process consists of the GTD weekly review (a practice that I had been using since before GTD popularized it, thanks to Seven Habits) coupled with the use of a few specific OmniFocus perspectives designed to surface certain project types that enable me to have a couple of quick targeted reviews. My weekly review process takes about 45 minutes most Saturdays. The mini-reviews take 3-12 minutes. The longer duration is only if I have project updates; e.g., I have actions I am ready to do or new actions to add to the applicable projects.

This is wonderful, Nick. Thanks for going into such detail. We have similar flows except I do not use Curio (though you have me curious!). Would you mind sharing a screengrab of one of your curio spaces so I can get a better sense of how you’re using it? And also, what level of the software do you have?

What I’m gathering from your setup is:

  1. You do thinking-style visualization/mapping/outlining in TBX
  2. You collect and find things in Curio and Devonthink
  3. You use OF to trigger visiting those collections (do you use links in your OF notes or just know where to look?)


Ain’t that the truth.

Hi Tom! Nice to hear from you. I would very much like to know more about your perspectives. Right now I feel pretty stuck in the default ones, with the exception of two that really help me focus and see what needs to be done (these are my reading list and my email). I know a more clever use of perspectives would help with other tasks. I’m sure any light you can shed on making this work would brighten many of our OF repositories.

Perhaps… I feel like the main demotivators for me are that the task is unpleasant to do, or that I feel anxiety about it. It’s possible my own imperatives to myself are eroding motivation, but I’m not sure how much a factor that is. I think it’s worse when it’s someone else bossing you around, subsuming your will into their own. When it’s you, it’s the same will. And if you don’t like the orders your past self is giving, you can just delete or amend them.

I was just wrestling with this issue yesterday when needing to find appropriate language for a task I didn’t want to do, didn’t have to, but felt I should do. I’ve long been a proponent of not shoulding on others or myself, so what to do?

The act of having difficulty with the item was a moment of insight in itself. (Not that I didn’t know it already, but) I realized that I was in an unbalanced relationship with what was being expected of me from this person and my own personal sense of agency. At the same time, this person is important and I really shouldn’t (there’s that word again) leave them hanging.

I came up with the language, “You’ll feel better if you ____.” and that’s what I did checked off today, when I completed the task. It was a sort of compromise with that person’s expectations of me and with my own shoulding of myself. It’s not a panacea, but it helped in that case.

This is interesting. My immediate reaction is that the more verbose statements, while friendlier to one’s future self, will be harder to write, scan and read. I generally dislike having to look into the middle of a sentence for the meat when we’re talking about a big list of things. Still it’s worth thinking about. I do spend a fair bit of effort fiddling with my OF instance to keep the lists from being overwhelming…