Figuring Out an Efficient System

I have had trouble keeping a system that works for me. I understand GTD but I don’t think I know how to implement it properly.

I have tried using many apps and no matter what app I use I never know how to use tags/contexts, projects, folders, etc. and I can’t figure out the best way to use all of these features to make my workflow seamless and allow myself to stay organized but also get things done.

My issue is organizing things as well as making it all work for me day-to-day without me feeling like handling my tasks is a job if it’s own and I just scrap it all and allow myself to get overwhelmed because I don’t have anywhere for my ideas and tasks to go, it is a vicious cycle and I’m desperate for help.

I appreciate and and all advice!


I also had difficulty with GTD because there were so many moving parts. There were many times when I thought I had it figured it out and my workflow worked for a while. But then it didn’t. Situations changed and I had to change with it.

If you can re-create your system on paper, then you can do it on OmniFocus or whatever task app that you settled on.

I actually had to do a reboot and started using ZTD (Zen To Done) as my basis. It was a simplified version of GTD focusing on 10 habits. Work on one habit for a few weeks and then add another habit to adopt.

Take parts of GTD and become good at it. Then you can take other parts of GTD and adopt those over time. If you try to adopt everything all at one time, you’ll have your head spinning. I know my head fell off my shoulders many times while trying to tame the GTD monster while also trying to figure out OmniFocus at the same time.

You’ll eventually create a hybrid GTD system that works for you. You can do a Google search for OmniFocus workflows and see how some other bloggers created something that worked for them. Adopt workflows that makes sense in your life and match your style.

There are also many fine commercial offerings that are available. These video guides and PDF files are well worth the money if you really want to kickstart your OmniFocus workflow. Otherwise you’ll be spending lots of hours doing Google searches trying to piece together different workflows together.

A good place to start is:

In any case, I think David Allen has mentioned in various public speaking events that it usually takes about 2 years to actually become a master at GTD. Just keep churning away and you’ll get there.


This is huge.

I think the most important part of GTD is making the front-end decisions about what things are when they come in to your world - will I do something about this? what? when? Those decisions occur in step 2 of the five phases (Clarify/Process) and so before they get sorted into OmniFocus (step 3: Organize).

I think a fatal flaw of workflow with tools and technologies is that it is tempting to try to offload the decision-making to the system (“If I put everything in the universe into OmniFocus with enough metadata, it should be able to tell me what I do next”), but this never works. Rather, OF is a great inventorying of tasks AND the decisions made about them (clarified actions with defer dates and contexts and projects that identify the availability of those actions).

Lastly, I think the stepping back reflecting of lists vs. reality is vital. If you can accomplish, say, five tasks a day, then having a list of 200 available tasks isn’t going to be helpful. You would need to limit available tasks by very actively deciding what you will actually never get around to doing (delete it), what you will put off (defer), and what you will review again for potential action at a later date (on hold, someday/maybe). Keeping available tasks manageable is key to making sure that (a) you’re getting a lot of things done and (b) that you’re not spending forever choosing.

These have been my keys. Does this help at all?



If you can re-create your system on paper, then you can do it on OmniFocus or whatever task app that you settled on.

This sounds great, but I am not 100% sure how to do this. Can you elaborate more on this?

This does ScottyJ, however I am still not sure of making my system work on paper and then offloading it to Omnifocus, Where do you think I should start to make this happen? Should I just dump everything onto a piece of paper, look at where these things fit for categories in my life (home, work, side-hustle, etc.) and go from there? Or did you have something different in mind on how to start with this on paper?

The best response to this is probably just to read the book, but briefly, the process would be:

  1. Identify all the open loops in your life
  2. For all those open loops that can be trashed, filed for reference, delegated, done in less than 2 minutes, or put on a someday/maybe list, do those things as appropriate.
  3. For the remaining open loops, identify which ones will take more than one next action to complete, and write them on your projects list
  4. For all the remaining open loops, decide on the specific, physical next action and add to your calendar or next actions lists as appropriate. You should have one next actions list for each context that’s relevant to your work and life, i.e. you need to sit down and think what different circumstances you regularly find yourself in, and which next actions you’d want to be able to easily see in those different circumstances.
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@PodcastingSpark I was intending to echo what @wilsonng said, but I don’t know if this is what he meant, so he can jump in and add if this wasn’t his thought.

I was suggesting paper not as a process piece, like do it on paper then put it in OF, but rather use only paper for your entire GTD system, then replace it with OF once your system is working.

I found this to be a very helpful approach, because with paper, it is very easy to see when a list is too long/undoable, and it is very clear which lists will be necessary/helpful as categories or contexts. In an expressly digital system, it is really easy to put in too much information, since there is not an obvious cost to doing so (until you try and actually use your system and go on a mind bending your of too much data and too many variables). With paper, the limitations are very helpful for system design.


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I have been working with GTD and several different task management applications for many years. Only this year did I finally get it all working very well. For me, it’s been an iterative learning experience, and I get more productive and less stressed with each iteration. Obviously, David Allen’s books are a fundamental starting point, but there are so many excellent GTD instructional sources that I am able to learn many different perspectives and then take what works for me. In fact, during one iteration, I watched Carl Pullein’s YouTube tutorials on ToDoist, which (after abandoning ToDoist for Omnifocus, again) really informed how I structure and use OmniFocus. Other great resources are David Sparks’ Omnifocus Video Field Guide, Kourosh Dini’s Using OmniFocus blog and Creating Flow with OmniFocus book, Tim Stringer’s Learn OmniFocus site, Asian Efficiency’s The Productivity Podcast, etc. I believe all of these resources, and more, helped me develop a very tight system that is really paying dividends.

Good luck!

Yes, this is what I meant. I first had to get GTD working on paper first. I wanted to work on my workflow first before I had to grapple with OmniFocus. In my earlier GTD struggles, I was learning how to do GTD in my own way and also added the burden of trying to learn how to use OmniFocus.

Don’t try to learn GTD and OmniFocus at the same time. You’ll hate the experience and will equate OmniFocus with friction because you don’t have a system in place yet. Learn how to crawl before you learn how to walk.

That’s why I tried ZTD first. I was able to get some type of workflow in place first before I tried putting it in digital form.

Here’s what I did in the beginning.

Paper forced me to keep my projects, tasks, and contexts as simple as possible. It’s just too easy to go overboard with hundreds of contexts when just a handful will work. It’s easy to have hundreds of projects but they’re not in the correct folder.

Buy a bunch of folders. Get a piece of paper and write down a project name. List all the next actions for that paper/project. Gather notes and pictures and staple or bind it to that paper/project.

When you have sorted all the papers into the different folders such as Work, Personal, House, Community, etc., you’ll have started a basic foundation. Then put a post it note on each page. Write the word “Active” or “On Hold” on each page. Or write down the defer date for each page. I have one page titled working on my 1040 taxes. The post it note says deferred to January 1, 2018. Another page says prepare Christmas gifts project. This one is deferred to November 15. I put a comment on my paper calendar that indicates when to start each project.

I have most of projects with a post it note that says “on hold”. I will work on these pages in the future but not today. These are my Someday/maybe projects. Then I choose a small handful of pages with projects that I want to work on today. I’ll mark these pages with a post it note that says “active”. These are my Big Rock projects. I want to work on these today. I might have 3 active work projects, 2 house related projects, and 1 personal project that are currently active.

When I’m at work, I will take out my work project pages and work on those. When I’m at home, I’ll refer to my house project pages and start completing next actions on these pages.

In addition to my big rock projects, I have checklists of all the routine things that need to be done. There’s a page titled Monthly Bills. I make sure my bills are paid off every month. I have another checklist at work with a list of all the admin stuff that needs to be done. Weekly status reports, payroll, general office maintenance, etc. all fall into here. I transfer them to my paper calendar when I have due dates on them. Then here’s the classic Honey-Do list which is all the tasks I promised my wife that I would eventually get around to doing. There’s also a checklist for the house. Things such as bringing out the barbecue grill out of storage for the summer BBQ that we love doing, the before school preparation in the late summer, the biweekly lawn maintenance tasks, etc.

When I figured outwhat I needed to do on paper and was able to work from paper for a few months, I proceeded to do it inside omnifocus. I created the same folders for each area of responsibility in my life. work, Office, Personal, Family, and a few other folders were created. The. I created projects and the tasks needed to accomplish a goal. Then I created single action lists for my checklists. Next up was to create my contexts.

When I started using omnifocus, I used the standard edition first. This helped acclimate me to omnifocus before tackling the Pro features.

OmniFocus standard edition has the bare bones features for the beginners. Later on you can upgrade to pro and learn how to use custom perspectives.

The hardest feature to wrap my head around was custom perspectives. Once I figured out the standard features, I was ready for Pro features such as custom perspectives. When I finally figured out custom perspectives, I had to create my own and had to explore to find out which ones I used the most. I created many different custom perspectives and tried out many others that I have discovered from other user’s posts and blogs. Maybe the custom perspective works for just a little while. Or I only need it for a short time and then I delete it. If I created a custom perspective and I haven’t used it in a few weeks, I’ll probably delete it or at least make a screenshot of my settings for future use.

Custom perspectives are saved views of my projects and tasks that I access quite a lot. I have an @errands perspectives that is used when I’m going out. I have the @house perspective for things I can only do at home. And a few other perspectives such as @mac and @admin. You’ll find yourself heading back to different custom perspectives at the appropriate time.

It takes time to figure out what you want to do. What works for one person may not work for another person. Sometimes it takes a tweak to a custom perspective to fix it. Only you will know what works for you.

I think I finally created my own checklist to make sure I don’t skip any of my custom perspectives as well as figuring out when to use the right perpsective at the right time. I’ll probably write about it someday in a public forum.


@PodcastingSpark, depending on your situation, you might like to try a totally different approach. In my case, it was such a relief to get all my paper notes (very unsorted, I admit) into Omnifocus that I would never think about using a paper based solution for refining my system before going back to Omnifocus. The mere thought of a paper based solution makes me exhausted. In Omnifocus I have everything nicely collected, searchable and easily adjustable.

What I would do is to start simple.

  1. If your tasks aren’t parts of clearly distinguishable projects, they are probably at least of different kinds or in different categories. If you create projects for those categories, you will probably find it much easier to prioritize among tasks of the same kind. Make your priorities and start working.

  2. Set review periods for all projects shortly enough for you to trust your system and stop worrying about not doing tasks in time.

  3. Add more features to your system step by step when you feel the need for it and when you feel that you have mastered the basics in Omnifocus. Don’t be afraid to experiment – you could always go back to your earlier model if something doesn’t work for you.


oops. I realized I didn’t link to the system that got me back on track - Zen To Done (ZTD).

The 10 habits are listed on this page. The ebook for sale just expands on it. But you have everything you need to know on the web page.

Once I figured out GTD/ZTD, OmniFocus became easy. It’s a simpler variation of GTD and good for those just trying to establish their own GTD system.

I’d echo what others have said above. Getting your system in order is a necessary first step; implementing your system in OmniFocus depends on the first.

That zen habit list is a pretty nice distillation of GTD. But mostly it sounds like you need to take a step back, and really assess what you are doing and why.

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Apps are not the solution. Understanding the methodology and the science behind the procedures is far more critical.

I agree that starting on paper is good but don’t get discouraged if you can’t handle the paper version for more than a week. For me at least paper was a complete and unmitigated disaster. I could not make it work without spending inordinate amounts of time managing the system rather than managing my tasks.

My suggestions, in no particular order,

Do you like or tolerate or hate long lists of choices?
Do you have the capture habit down pat?
Do you have a weekly (or more often) review habit down pat?
Do you really understand what the difference is between priority by time or urgency vs context?
How do you handle other complex tasks? Do you prefer to start with the Swiss Army software and slowly learn it or do you prefer to limit your choices and only change SW when you are required to?

Once you have thought about those then you can move on to actual implementation.

What works for me may not work for you. That’s ok, what matters is that eventually you find a system that works for you.


Yes, paper can be a disaster for more than a week if your workload is very heavy. But the constraints that it places on you will force you to go an a diet and figure out where everything goes - into projects, single action lists, delegated to others, or deleted.

I used paper as a reboot when it looks like everything is becoming a mess.

The one secret ingredient to making sure you know where everything is and where everything should be is using the weekly review. Master this and you’ll be able to monitor all of your areas of responsibilities, projects, and next actions.

Some projects need to be monitored on a monthly basis (usually my someday/maybe [on hold] projects). Currently active projects and single action lists needs to be monitored on a weekly basis. Some currently active projects and single action lists that have tasks added/deleted/changed on a daily basis will probably have a review cycle of 1-3 days. Then I’ll do an end-of-the-month review to see what areas needs to be addressed and what can be placed back to on hold status.

Staggering the reviews helps me break up the review process into daily, weekly, and monthly intervals. Reviewing will help keep you on track and keep tabs of the various gears and screws that are turning. Then you’ll always feel comfortable in trusting the system because you are aware of all the projects that are on your plate.

Th review perspective is the one feature that has cemented me to OmniFocus.

This is nice plan though. I love it.

This thread was spun off to another Discourse forum here:

Oops! That page doesn’t exist or is private.

argh… sorry about that. This forum thread is in the Pro section of the Productivity Guild. I think it used to be a public discussion but may have been moved.

I understand this. I must say, when I first started in the GTD worlds, the more I studied David Allen’s chart of workflow processing, the more confused I became.

This thread has provided a number of good ideas. Change your tool set, read this or that book, do a thorough introspection, focus on certain parts of the GTD workflow specifically. I have to chime in with a different thought. In all of these posts, no one has yet to say “This is exactly what I went through”. So I will say it …

==> What you are going through is exactly what everyone has gone through. Even David Allen.

It means, you really do not understand GTD yet. You think you do.

When I had this insight, I then realized, I needed to take a step back. The help at that point was a statement somewhere along this line. Take one small piece of the big world of GTD and own it. Then, take another piece and own it.

So, I worked on the piece to “get it out of my head”. And it felt rewarding and overwhelming. Rewarding because my head was clean but overwhelming because all that stuff was staring me in the face. And I had no clue where to go next. So I thought I had to throw it all out.

But …

With some concerted effort, I took the next step. I learned how to process the stuff. By learned, I mean, I put in the time and effort to muck about, make mistakes, get frustrated, and search for that mythical GTD groove. The break came after many months (yes MONTHS) when I began to realize in truth what was meant by the terms Do, Defer, Delegate, or Delete. I also began to realize the significance of Review Routinely.

And then, it took me a few more months to have that piece sink in to the point where I owned it as well.

Contexts, due/defer dates, sequential/parallel … those all came later. They were the icing on the cake. They would have been meaningless without a clearer appreciation of the process of processing my stuff properly.

I sense that you are at that point where I was those many years ago. You have a system to get stuff out of your head. Take a small piece of it and learn to process. Allow yourself the time to make mistakes, give up and come back to it, and get frustrated and annoyed. But … most importantly, do not allow yourself the notion that your current sense of being overwhelmed or the immediate problems you will face as you struggle to own the next step mean that you have to throw away what you already have.

Hope this helps set your thoughts on a useful path.



Nailed it! That’s where I had to quit GTD and start over. My system was the utter craps because I didn’t have anything set in stone. That’s where I started using Zen-To-Done.

The first rule of ZTD is to adopt one habit at a time. The capture habit is a good place to start. Master that habit until it becomes second nature and then adopt another habit. The choice is yours.

It looks like OmniFocus is really tough to get into because this app introduces the idea of contexts. Many new users are comfortable with a list-based task manager. Adding the layer of contexts will confuse the heck out of anybody and it will take some time to get used to this idea of contexts.

Even I thought I had it all figured out years ago. But as I visit the OmniFocus forums, I gradually changed my workflow and added little bits and pieces. Or a situation occurs in my life and my once-trusted perspectives have failed me. I don’t necessarily burn everything down and start over. I’ll tweak something, eliminate seldom-used custom perspectives and add a new variation of a previous perspective.

Take your time. We’re all still learning and finding an efficient system. Be flexible. What worked two months ago may not work today. Life changes can introduce new challenges that will test any task manager or productivity system. Find other productivity systems that can fill in the gaps that you find.