Help for someone who feels lost in OF3

Hi all,

Posting here hoping for some inspiration.

I’m a OF3 user of six month’s standing. I originally enjoyed the experience, but as my system has grown, I feel it has become more and more unmanageable to the point where I don’t trust it. Maintaining and using the system causes me more anxiety than not. I’m terrified of something slipping through the cracks.

I have used two basic systems during my times with OF3:

  1. I started with giving everything a due date. This way I could be assured that I wouldn’t miss anything but then I was hit by the overwhelming nature of having nine things falling due on the same day and the dreaded red circles.
  2. Realising the limitations of this, I switched to a tagging system, using a “Today” tag, when I needed to work on something. However, I then found it difficult to navigate my projects to find things to put onto my Today perspective. It was hugely time consuming.

I’m now at the stage where I’m considering dropping OF3 completely in favour of another task manager, or starting OF3 again from scratch and building a better system. I just feel a bit lost.

I’m here looking for inspiration as to how I could build a better system.

Can anyone help?

Have you read David Allen’s Getting Things Done? OF isn’t intended only for users of the GTD method, but its basic framework evolved out of Kinkless GTD, an OmniOutliner implementation of GTD, and I find that it works best for me if I approach it within the GTD mindset.

This GTD white paper from Omni dates back to an earlier era, when tags were contexts (following GTD) and you could assign only one context to any given task. But it’s a useful overview. Still, I recommend the book. It has relatively little fluff for a business book.

A few key ideas that help me:

Use due dates only for things that have a real deadline. That can be hard (my car inspection must be renewed by Nov. 30) or soft (I promised that report to my boss by Nov. 5, but I can renegotiate if needed), but it should be something where missing the date has a consequence (even if it’s just the embarrassment of missing a promised delivery). Assigning due dates that are promises to yourself is OK if done sparingly, and noted as such, but if you do it for everything, then due dates begin to lose meaning.

Use defer dates when appropriate. I use them for three things: (1) Things that cannot be started until a given date; (2) things that it doesn’t make sense to start now; and (3) things that, realistically speaking, I won’t have time to get to for a while. I can’t get my car inspected before Nov. 1, it doesn’t make sense to start my taxes before Feb. 1 when most of the documents will have arrived, and the revisions to my current book MS will have to wait until Thanksgiving break. So I deferred them all appropriately.

Review regularly. The way to avoid feeling as if you might miss something is to work a daily and weekly review into your routine. (And if you don’t empty your inbox daily, make that part of the review.) By default, OF sets project reviews to a 1-week interval, but I often change that. If something is important, I might review it every 2-3 days, or even daily. If it’s less important now, but I want to check in from time to time, it might be every 2-4 weeks. If a weekly review is appropriate but only after a defer date, or only when the deadline is looming, I’ll change the next review date to some future point when I think I need to resume the review. That keeps reviews manageable.

Consider setting the Tags perspective to show only next actions. If you tend to do a lot of planning, or you work from project templates, parallel projects can have a frustrating number of available actions. It might help to show only the next available one. You could also create a Projects-based perspective that shows only next available if you tend to work out of that perspective.

Use flags consistently. I use flags to indicate things that need attention, if not completion, within 4 weeks. I change them during my reviews. So my Flagged perspective is where I go when the fires are put out and I need to choose what to prioritize.

Use a someday/maybe list. And make it “on hold,” so items in it don’t appear in your to-do list. If something has been languishing on your list for a while, it might be because you aren’t committed to doing it now. So put it on a list where you won’t see it in active tasks but you can always remind yourself in your review that it’s there should you want it. I tend to review that list once a month.

Admit that you have too much work. If you implement these strategies and your list is still too long, that might be a sign that you’ve simply got more to do than you can accomplish. In that case, the solution lies outside of OmniFocus. Either you stop taking on new projects, or if you don’t have a choice in what you take on, you go to your supervisor, set out your list of open projects, and explain that you can’t do a good job on all of them. Get help prioritizing—or explain how you are prioritizing—and then ask whether the things you can’t tackle should be dropped or assigned to someone else, or whether you should have an assistant.

Those are my thoughts—more verbose than intended. And now I have to get back to making sure my lecture notes for tomorrow are in order…

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We all have our own needs and unique sets of circumstances so any advice can only be generic

My recommendation, read “Creating flow with OmniFocus “ by @Kourosh Dini. It’s a primer, a complete system and a reference book in one. You can embrace it as a whole, adapt it or pick the bits relevant to you.

I can not recommend it highly enough for beginners or long time users.

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I’d start with habits. It doesn’t matter what productivity app we use. It’s about repeating certain routines or workflows.

Develop a habit of reviewing. Develop the habit of processing the inboxes (email, Slack, social media inboxes, etc.). Develop the habit of capturing.

I developed checklists that I kept separate outside of OmniFocus. I printed them out and kept them on my desk whenever I’m engaging in OmniFocus. I have a checklist for a Daily Review. Another checklist for the Weekly Review. I have a checklist to remind myself of which inboxes to go through. My own inboxes include any customer requests from Facebook, Instagram, email, iMessages, and my physical in-tray on my desk.

Trying to remember all the steps that I need to go through can be easily forgotten or skipped. This results in missed assignments or customer requests. Going through the checklist helps me with not missing anything. This idea came from the Checklist Manifesto:

You can also try David Spark’s OmniFocus Field Guide, Kourosh Dini’s Creating Flow with OmniFocus, and the Learn OmniFocus club to expose yourself to different ideas.

As the Old Designer said, pick the different tips/workflows that fulfill your needs. You don’t need to use all of OmniFocus’ features. Just use the ones you need. You can always learn about the other features as your demands/requirements change and you can slowly incorporate the OmniFocus features as needed.

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Lots of great suggestions for you here. All of the sources mentioned are worth looking into as well as the Getting Things Done (GTD) guide for Omnifocus 3:

The guide does a good job summarizing the GTD methodology (but I recommend you also read/listen to the book by David Allen) and presenting a simple and straightforward setup in OF3

Peter

I understand the feeling. I have gone through a large number of GTD and Project Management apps and methodologies… so much so that I think I am beginning to see the flaw in these apps. It’s been an issue that I have struggled with for a long time (10-20 years). Sometimes you are doing fine, and sometimes you go off course and it seems that you can’t recover.

The other answers that were posted here are basically trying to take the technical approach. It is true that you have to understand the intended use of OF3, but you also have to understand your own needs.

The only way to really deal with your struggle is to talk it through or keep reading and studying and hope you reach that ultimate epiphany.

If you want to chat directly, let me know.

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Everyone’s life gets out of control every once in a while. That’s completely normal. We use our apps to help us get back on track. That gives me piece of mind when I need to recalibrate. Stop everything. Review and curate our projects and lists. Then reset and move forward.

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Don’t give up OF and read all the great recommendations above but also try using Sunsama app, it made a significant diference in my daily planning workflow, helping me to decide what to do first and set my weekly goals.

Just curious - with the system you described, how do you setup priorities and your today view? I was reading through it and it seemed very interesting. I was just trying to figure out, if a lot of items are flagged (since they are due or important to do within four weeks), how do you then define what you want to do today, and then on top of that, how would you go about placing things at the top of the list that has to be done first, etc?

Thanks!

My post was already getting long, so I left out one additional thing I do: I have a tag (“Soon”) that I show in the Forecast perspective. If I think a task or project needs attention not only in the next month but sooner, but it doesn’t have a hard due date, I tag it Soon.

When I’m deciding what to do, I’ll look at the Forecast, scan the day’s calendar and anything due or newly available today, look over the other tasks that are due soon (or overdue), take care of things due or overdue, then scan the Soon tag section in the Forecast and choose what to do based on my sense of either what is most important (not urgent) or what I’ve neglected and need to return to, to keep momentum. Regularly reviewing the Forecast (daily), flagged items (at least once a week), and projects (variably) is the key to ensuring that the decisions I make about what to do today are sensible and not entirely driven by urgent deadlines. I try, as much as possible, to be working in the “important/non-urgent” quadrant of the Eisenhower decision matrix.

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So, if you have multiple due items that come up on the same day (or for that instance, multiple ‘soon’ tagged items), that are, let’s say Priority 1, Priority 2, Priority 3 type items. How do you display this on your screen with OF? Or do you just mentally note what is a P1, P2, etc and then work the list as such?

This is the part that I find difficult since I like to view my list from top to bottom with the most important item at the top, then the second most important item, etc.

I just look and decide. I don’t explicitly prioritize in advance, because my priorities can shift depending on how the day goes, and I also decide based on the available time, my energy level, and whether I feel like doing something enjoyable or like getting something unpleasant out of the way.

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Thanks! Never head of this app and will check it out, especially if it helps with planning flow. I’m such a good planner, but weaker in execution so I want to improve this.

These are my 10 cents after using OF for about 5 yrs regarding some of your questions.

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‘Process before tools’. OF will not, for good or bad, give you a process to follow. It is a tool for implementing it, but you have first to find out what is your process.

GTD is a natural choice to pick up as a process for OF, since OF used it as as a framework to develop the tool, but GTD is complicated and it is easier if you break it up into habits to gradually introduce in your flow. The above replies point to many materials that can help you in this journey.

For starters, I found easy and a great help using OF as a sophisticated Reminder app for my ‘Maintenance’ actions and have the peace of mind that I’ll be reminded when I want to.

I mean single action lists for home maintenance, errands, personal finance and the like. And I found it easier to start with my non work activities, where I do not have a boss os 100 collegues to take into account. As I gained confidence in my system I started including ‘change my life’ personal items (projects) and also work projects.

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    Due dates and capacity
    There’s no algorithm or tool that will solve the problem of you putting more on your plate that what you can eat. Reserving time in your agenda is the closest thing I know you can do to realize it before it’s too late.

Due dates are a headache however you manage them. Either you put it in your agenda when you still have free time as commented above, or you may find too late that you have more things due today than time to do them. OF allows you to put a duration for all the actions, but I don’t think is has any optimization engine to find out and alert you of capacity bottlenecks and the like. So why bother.

I invariably end up using due dates as a priority list, which is not what it is intended to, but I have like 3 priorities in practice: Due, Flagged and the rest. Needless to say, I never get to ‘the rest’ list and many times i just live in the due world. Non priority is a synonym of, will never be done.

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    Sequencing the actions for Today.
    There’s no algorithm to tell you what to choose from a list of equally important things to do today. Too many variables and too ambiguous definition of what is the function you want to optimize. Plus you are not a machine and you hate being ruled by one. GTD tells you to follow your intuition to pick up the items of your ‘now’ list.

These were some comments on my OF journey and present usage. Not intended, obviously, as a best practice but maybe some ideas will help your thinking.

I wouldn’t drop OF 'cause just the inbox and organization capabilities and reminding me the basics to run my life is already worth it to me. We run complicated lives and probably dedicate at least half our time to keep it in control.

More complex projects and strategies… I think you have to develop them outside OF and only input the curated actions for execution when the time comes.

Hi again all

I just wanted to express my thanks to you all, in particular, @brianogilvie (for providing such a detailed and helpful response), @TheOldDesigner (for the recommendation of @Kourosh’s book), @wilsonng (for their recommendation), @petervh (for the recommendation of the Setup Guide, @tonari (for the sympathy), @leitzman (for the suggestion of Sunsama) and @fort (for the Learn OF website).

Each of you provided me with really helpful guidance.

Since my last post, I have:

  • Read the whole of @Kourosh Dini’s book.
  • Watched a load of videos on the LOF site.
  • Read OF Setup guide.
  • Gone back to basics, stripped back my OF system, and rebuilt.
  • This includes a whole host of new perspectives.

In theory, at least (yet to be fully trialled) the system seems more sustainable and I feel like I will have more confidence in it. Time will tell, but I hope it is an important first step. I guess the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and I will see how I feel about it in a couple of months.

Thanks again to everyone for taking the time to respond. I appreciate it. This is a very supportive community.

With best wishes!

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thank you for your detailed response! Even more food for thought.

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Thanks for your kind words, @fort. Great to hear you’re finding Learn OmniFocus helpful!

Thank you, Tim! Just noticed the typo in my post, courtesy of autocorrect, but I can no longer edit it. Apologies. I’m reposting my message here, with a correction:

I can recommend Learn OmniFocus without reservation. After years of struggling with/against OF, I now have a system that I can trust and that isn’t a burden, and it’s mostly thanks to following Tim Stringer’s recommendations, as well as the fantastic community he’s built.

If you go through just the first couple of courses (“Start Smart with OmniFocus 3” and “OmniFocus 3: Beyond the Basics”), I’m sure you’ll see huge benefits, and that’s just the start of a massive library of resources.

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Don’t fear this – declaring productivity bankruptcy is not a bad thing per se, it gives you the opportunity to reflect upon what worked and what did not. Maybe you need more structure into your workflow, or maybe you need less. Changing to another app with a different workflow (Things comes to mind, always) could also work for you.

@DIYerUK I hope you’ve found Creating Flow helpful! I’d meant for it to describe a gradually unfolding system, one where you could design and build in increasing complexity but only as you need.

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