How do you deal with different project "states"?

Hi all,

So I use perspectives to focus my reviews and project lists to active or on hold projects, but I find I have several kinds of active projects, and I’m wondering how folks deal with them, looking for ideas.

Kinds or states of active projects include:

  • ones that need regular reviewing to make sure they’re on track, but aren’t crazy urgent or require tons of actions

  • ones that are active, but in a way on hold, because all actions are waiting fors

  • ones that are hot/on fire/require lots of attention or actions because they’re high priority

  • ones that are sort of in the middle, not quite at “cruising altitude” like the first example, but not on fire like the last one either

How do you use perspectives to properly manage attention across these? I have a list of like 80 active projects, so directing my attention in such a way that the right projects get more attention from me than those that need less would be helpful.

All thoughts welcome :)



Here’s how I do mine.

I set all of my projects’ status to “On Hold.”

In the weekly review, I will go through my projects and pick out three to six projects that I intend to work on this week. Then I set the project status to “Active.”

I have a limited amount of energy and time to work with. I know I am not going to work on 80 active projects. But I will work on this small handful of active projects. If you try to do one next action from each of your 80 projects, you will have 80 unfinished active projects. But if you work on three to six of your active projects. You can knock them out faster because you are focusing on just those projects.

All of the other projects are set to “On Hold” and will not show up in any perspective where you have the view settings to show Available actions.

As a tickler, I set the review cycles of each “On Hold” project to every two weeks or once a month. I know that when the review date comes, I will see the “On Hold” projects in my Review perspective. Then I can determine whether to set them to “Active” status or keep them to “On Hold” status. Use the review to remind yourself of these projects as they come up in the Review perspective. You can also set the next review date in the inspector panel.

The only projects that I consider “on fire” are anything that has a real due date.

If you want to pay closer attention to certain projects, shorten the review cycle to once every day, every two days, or some short amount of time. Other projects can be set to a longer cycle such as once every two weeks, once a month, or once every 3 months.

Personally, I’ve found three big rocks to be a good number. I have enough variety to switch from Project A to Project B or Project C. But I fully intend to complete any of these three projects. I don’t switch Big Rocks unless an event occurred that demoted its urgency/importance or I am stalled because I am waiting for something. I try not to switch Big Rocks frequently because I want to make significant progress or complete the Big Rock projects.

I’ve found that having more than three Big Rocks can dilute the significance of selecting the Big Rock status. I might get lazy and switch to another project that is easier. By limiting myself to three Big Rocks, I’ve found that I’m motivated to actually achieve these Big Rocks instead of going to another easier Big Rock. When you have 80 active projects, you might just go to the easiest one first and leave the other in various incomplete states.

As a way to boost its importance, I often create a planning perspective and have it show up in the perspectives tab.

Select menu Perspectives > Show perspectives.
Click on the + button at the bottom left of the perspectives window.
Enter a name and select an icon for the perspective.

Change the settings to:

Project Hierarchy: Use project hierarchy

Group Actions by: Folder
Sort Projects by: unsorted

Filter by status: Any status
Filter by availability: Remaining
Filter by duration: Any duration
Filter project: Remaining

Use the Focus dropdown popup menu to select the project that you want to focus on.
Click on the “Add to Focus” button.

Click on the star next to the new perspective to make it appear in the perspectives tab.

Now I see my Big Rock project in the perspectives tab on the left side of my OmniFocus window. This is a visual key to remind myself that I am working on this Big Rock today.

You can create as many project perspectives as needed to fill up your perspectives tab.

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In an ideal world, I’d love to pick three to five top projects to focus on, but having a job where I work on multiple reports, presentations, proposals, frameworks, budgets, etc., along with all the projects I have against my three kids or family or the boards I sit on, I literally do have 80 active projects.

I use the On Hold aspect as well for the same reasons you suggest - I have another 100+ in that pile as defined project outcomes I’m not ready to move on (reviewed weekly), as well as another 100+ Someday/Maybe On Hold projects that I look at monthly or quarterly.

I have tried grouping projects by area of focus, but found that didn’t work for me. Sure, I’m mostly in my professional job capacity between the hours of 8:00am and 5:00pm, but I have the luxury of picking my hours, and have my mind on all kinds of things through the day, so by looking only at a certain area of projects, I’d miss things that might require more attention.

I like what you said about using the focus, though, and I wonder if maybe I should use folders in focuses as something like a kanban-like approach, where I have Cruise Control, Work, Hot, etc. and I move projects across that way to make sure they get the right level of care/feeding (or not if they don’t merit it).

Thanks so much for all your thoughts on this, @wilsonng!


As I see, one downside to this is, you may be constantly shuffling projects in/out of folders inside OF. Since you mentioned this approach in reference to Kanban, have you considered to use a Kanban board outside OF and tie stuff from it back to OF?


Yes, and believe me, I’m not fond of this - IMHO, I should be able to use metadata to make projects appear (or not) in appropriate perspectives. Until we get tagging or multiple contexts or something, though, that won’t be happening. Also, since all new projects are created at the top level, my preference is that all projects be at the top level.

OmniFocus lives at the core of my every day and everywhere - I use Mac at home/office, iPad when working remotely, and iPhone on the go. Adding another tool or external overlay would, I think, hurt consistency or create complexity or or potential point of failure.

As annoying as a folder shuffle would be, if I make it part of a daily review process, it might not be so bad.

But maybe I’m being narrow-minded - have you had success with something like what you describe, @DrJJWMac?


I would have the same concerns when invested so deeply in an application. However, I also have learned that OF is a tool with a focus that is too narrow to keep me advancing properly. In a toolbox analogy, it is a powerful screwdriver, and many times I also need a basic hammer. Following this thought, I see that OmniGroup has screwdrivers and hammers and saws each sold separately rather than doing an “everything + the kitchen sink in one app” approach. Whether this is a better way to package applications or not is a matter of personal preference. Since I am also less enamored of the OmniGroup world-view, going somewhere else to find a good hammer has been a no-brainer decision for me.

I do Kanban and mind mapping entirely outside of OF. Mind maps are where my big picture motivation resides, and Kanban boards pull my focus on projects forward. I use Curio for both. A starting point for the Kanban boards is the link below. Feel free to contact me off-line for further discussion.

BTW and IMHO, I think this sentence should instead read “Since we will never get … … [in OF]”


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I’m a firm believer in multiple tools, don’t get me wrong. Mindmapping helps me define my bigger projects (but I’m mostly a Sharpies and paper kind of guy), and identify the tasks.

Still, I’ll create and close multiple projects every day, so it’s really the “review/reflect” piece of my workflow that I’m looking to address. For me, pulling out all my project info from OF and trying to do that elsewhere doesn’t make sense, although Curio does look pretty amazing. Are there iPad/iPhone apps to read Curio databases?

re: the “since we’ll never get…”, I think OG has been scared to break data model from OF v1, but with v2 now ubiquitously out across all three platforms, I have seen some references to breaking backwards compatibility. IMHO, data model and how it is used are the two biggest opportunities for OF:

  1. expand the data model to include tags, multiple contexts, and maybe even multlple versions/changelogs within stuff

  2. ANYTHING in that data model should then be able to be used to craft a perspective out of. Right now, there are elements (Project Type, for example) that cannot be queried to consider for Perspective criteria. Moreover, results returned should be able to be arranged/sorted in multiple ways (i.e. first by this, then by that, and choosing ascending/descending sorts, for example).

I see OF as a database of my actionables, and feel like I should be able to query and sort that database in any way I see fit. Right now, it’s close, but not all the way there. I get why they’ve done what they’ve done - they want to broaden the audience for OF. Unfortunately, in doing so, there’s been a degree of alienation of the power users.

But now we’re wildly off-topic :)

Some comments about OF first …

  • I agree, OG should change the database structure in OF (… and should have already as much as two years ago …) if that is what is holding them back on the developments that you mention.
  • I do not foresee a change in database structure in OF happening until at least the next OS X and/or iOS version iterations.
  • Even if/when a change in database structure for OF does happen, I do not see the developments that you mention happening in my lifetime.

WRT pulling your projects out of OF and doing it elsewhere, that is NOT what I do. I do the bigger picture outside of OF. I still run OF to keep my GTD workflow. I am absolutely not moving stuff out of OF and “doing that elsewhere”. In a poetically framed nutshell, this is about me finding the best hammer and saw that I can (mind maps and Kanban boards … in Curio) to complement the screwdriver that is OF. This is about me building a comprehensive workflow engine with a good set of different tools rather than using only OF to screw some GTD projects … together. ;-)

WRT Curio, I note these few replies. It is not on iOS devices. As the developer has said (and I paraphrase liberally here), the structure behind Curio is too rich to translate easily from desktop to iOS, and many users have Projects that would swamp a standard iOS device’s memory in one swoop. Not that he is dismissing the need to have an iOS app as a goal, just that he is honestly realistic that such a development is not easy to do. In the meantime, Curio does marry nicely (albeit in a one-way relationship) with some well-developed iOS apps, especially as I am finding … Evernote and iThoughts. I suggest that you will get a good feel for Curio by using it in the trial period and by scrolling through the forum’s postings.

And yes, this is drifting off-topic for the topic OmniFocus and heading more in to the Lounge. Since I am at work now and cannot share a drink there over longer discussions, I have to leave it here. Feel free to contact me off-line.


Like @DrJJWMac, I tend to keep most of my Someday/Maybe projects in different mind maps outside of OmniFocus. When I’m ready to actually start working on it, I’ll create a project in OmniFocus. I try not to clutter OmniFocus because my projects list is long enough already.

OmniFocus is best suited for the lower Horizons of Focus in the GTD terminology - the Runway, Projects, and Areas of Responsibilities.

Yep, that’s how I use OF as well, @wilsonng - just runway and 10k foot (projects). I don’t go above that, because that would be untenable. :)

For me, I will complete anywhere between 5-25 projects per week in general, I create about at many, and most of my projects are completed in between 2 and 21 days, so my active projects list changes hourly. This is why I have a strong need for solid daily reviews, and am looking for the best ways to enable that.



Oh gosh! You’re herding a coalition of cheetahs while I am herding a parade of elephants.

Forget my suggestions to go outside OF (mostly). Here’s a different thought that may work entirely within OF.

Create a single action project never to be completed when completing last. Call it for example Overall Administration (or something … whatever …). For any project that comes active, create a place-holder task called “advance project XYZ” in Overall Administration. In the note field of that place-holder task, link to the full project itself.

Create a Kanban top-level context and put in it a set of Kanban sub-contexts … e.g. On Hold, Doing, Waiting For, Active.

Create a Perspective called Kanban that focuses solely on Overall Administration, shows tasks in context view, and shows only the Kanban group of contexts.

Move Project XYZ forward in Kanban-style by changing the context on its single-task in Overall Administration. Your Kanban perspective will give you the view (top to bottom rather than left to right). … Unfortunately, in OF2, you cannot simply drag and drop tasks solely in the central panel to move them from one context to another as you could in OF1. You have to use one or the other of the two side panels. That behavior sucks. … As needed, jump to the actual Project XYZ through the link in the note field.

You won’t have to move project folders around in a Kanban-style approach with this method. You will instead change contexts on “meta-hacked-links” to the full projects.

Admittedly, this is entirely an off-the-top-of-my-head idea that I think should work. When it doesn’t really work at all, you can tell me it was probably from some other part of my anatomy and I won’t take it personally. :-)


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I get where you’re going with this, and I see how it could work, but the downside is that not only do I then have the project to manage, but I also have the thing that represents the project to manage. All going well, that wouldn’t be so bad, but when projects frequently get put on hold or deferred and then brought back to active (depending on what’s going on), I could see myself fiddling.

Although, maybe I’m over thinking this - maybe it’s as simple as appending something like “#Hot” or “#CruiseControl” to project names, and then having perspectives that filter active projects for text strings. That way, if I put a project on hold or defer it, it would disappear from my active perspectives, and it would be easy enough to edit out hashtags if I defer or hold a project (or not, depending on where I want the project to “resurface”).

Very creative solution, though!


@deturbulence: holy 💩… It’s time to get a virtual assistant! :-P
You must tell me what kind of coffee or energy you are on. I think I’d burn out.

I like @DrJJWMac’s Kanban perspective.

I subscribe to the pure definition of “Project” in GTD: anything I want (or have to have) done that takes more than one step, and I do this across my whole life. So I have:

  • work projects (where I work cross-functionally, and every report, deliverable, proposal, etc. is a project)
  • volunteering and side consulting projects (policy development, event planning, proposal writing, etc.)
  • home projects (renovations, organizations, changes, moves, car service, etc.)
  • family projects (get kids ready for swimming, plan for parent/teach interviews, prepare for Christmas, vacation planning)
  • a bunch of miscellaneous buckets of actions that don’t belong to a specific project outcome (kinda like the kanban idea above, stuff that never ends but that has actions, like “health” or “board” or “car”)

So it’s not like my life is any more complicated than anyone else’s, I’m just ruthless about ubiquitous capture and organization of everything in OmniFocus (I get the sense that a lot of folks use it just for “day job” stuff? Maybe I misinterpret).

Anyway, some things to chew on.

As I play with this, some thoughts:

  1. Can “Focus” be directed at top level items? i.e. things not in a folder? It might help me to use folders not to highlight things but to help them fade out a bit.
  2. Can search be used with boolean? i.e. NOT? Again, this might help me identify things that can have lower attention

If the answer to either is no, I’m emailing Omni :)


That sounds completely normal now!

Be ruthless with ubiquitous capture but be cold-hearted about deleting projects that are no longer important in your life or no longer returns the best bang-for-the-buck. A lot of my projects sound cool but it often narrows down to “yeah, it would be nice to do but it isn’t really bringing any benefit to me.”

One example was that I had the “brilliant” idea of embedding lyrics for all of my songs in my iTunes library. Sounds nice. But when I observed my listening habits, I didn’t really look at the lyrics that much anyways. So that project went out the window. Just too much work with little return. Then I try to delegate as much as I can to other people. Then I can focus on the really “important” stuff that brings better cost-to-benefit ratio.

To get where you want to go right now, you will have to fiddle with something anyway.

WRT appending text to project names … I would test this first. With OF1 on the iOS systems, certain parts of this idea do not translate from the desktop. Specifically, I have a perspective built on a search for the text @Admin in OF2 desktop. That perspective does not work with OF1 on my iPhone or iPad. Also, the search field text gets retained when I switch to the built-in Review perspective on OF2 desktop. Perhaps a bug, perhaps a feature, always an annoyance.

Here is a different option. Create all your projects as parallel. The first task is “advance project XYZ”. The next “task” is an action group that contains all of the real project actions. At least then, what you see when you view within a Kanban perspective is a task in the given project (not a task outside that is a link to the actual project itself).

Finally, here is one other solution closer to what I use. In each folder that represents your “Areas of Responsibility”, create a single action project called @Admin AoR … e.g. @Admin Family, @Admin Workplace … Inside those projects, put actions that reference single actions about the main projects inside, e.g. “advance project XYZ”. Create a perspective that filters on projects with @Admin in the title. That perspective will serve as your overview. In the notes field of the single tasks, put a Kanban list … Doing, Waiting On, … As you advance the project through stages, note after each list item an X where it stands. For example …

@Admin Family

  • advance painting on house
    [note field]
  • On Deck
  • Waiting On - X
  • Doing

The above shows in review that my project to paint the house is currently Waiting On something.

Still fiddling I know but, as noted and as you know, that is the best OF will offer you.


I thought I’d weigh in with my full workflow. Caution: I’m basically doing GTD so some of the terms might be weird to new people.

I have the following folders as areas of responsibility:

  • Home and Family
  • Work
    • Technical architect (my job title)
    • Management (I’m also a manager)
  • Personal

and 3 top level Single Action Lists:

  • Single actions
  • To read/review
  • Someday/maybe (on hold)

And the following contexts:

  • Home
  • Office (For things I absolutely need to be at my office for, like getting things from my locker)
  • Working (I can work anywhere with Internet, so it doesn’t make sense to combine this with office)
  • Out (Errands etc. - geolocated for when I leave my house)
  • Agenda (for people - most tasks are called something like ‘Speak to Bob Jenkins about project X’)
  • Anywhere (anything else - phone calls, general internet usage (eg Amazon), OmniFocus usage etc)
  • Waiting (on hold)

All projects are bucketed into those areas. These are a few rules I follow:

  • If a project is blocked by someone/something it has a tasks at the top titled “Waiting for X” assigned to @Waiting. I review this context every morning as part of my daily review - if they need to be nudged I can either send an email (less than 2 minutes), or add a task to the inbox to follow up.
  • If a project relies on me speaking to someone, it has a task at the top titled “Speak to X about Y” assigned to @Agendas. I review this context every morning as part of my daily review.
  • When performing my daily review I flag all the things I want to achieve that day, and I do that while viewing my calendar
  • if I know I’m seeing person X today I can flag the “Speak to X about Y” task and raise it with them
  • if a thing is due within the next 2 days it has a due date attached to track
  • I only make things “On hold” if they’re just not important anymore, or I don’t have the finance to achieve them this month. Arguably in the first case should be shelved into the Someday/Maybe list and just killed from my views completely. I will pick these up in my weekly review.
  • I only ever assign things to “Waiting” if they’re genuinely blocking a project I want to finish - I regularly check that context to see if I can unblock things so I want the list to be small.

During my morning review I use the planning perspective from SimplicityBliss, and work off the “Today” perspective from the same blog. My daily review looks like:

I hope that gives some insight into how I work. I have a fairly complex job with a lot of staff and stakeholders, and this routine keeps me focused and productive.

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