How do you reduce the number of tasks?


I have a rather philosophical ;-) question this time: How do you reduce the number or tasks you look at?

Right now I have only a couple of due-dates, many defer-dates and 42 flagged tasks (15 of them as “next actions”), but choosing the “iMac”-context reveals 515 tasks (345 of them as “next actions”)… that make this context unusable as a filter!

I was thinking about reducing the general number of OmniFocus-tasks, so I put already all sort of lists (like books to read, movies to watch etc.) in text-files.

Inspired by Joe Buhlig I have all the stalled / someday-maybe / single-actions projects organized into separate folders… but the main problem remains: I still have 1885 tasks in 144 projects in the OF-database!

Do you have this problem too?

How do you handle this?



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Suggest you take a look at this other very recent thread below, as it’s pretty much about the same topic:

Sounds like it’s a good time to say no to new projects. ;)


Why reduce the number?

My tactic is to be sure I have detailed and extensive contexts so that I can handle the number of items I have. If they are all really next actions and need to be there then that is the amount of work to do.

So instead of an iMac context I have separate contexts for each major software package that I use, LambTracker, Banktivity, LibreOffice, DEVONThink, Scrivener, Lightroom & Photoshop etc. I have one Mac Misc context for the Finder related things or stuff in apps I rarely use. Similarly on our farm I have contexts for each major location, so one for the Red Barn, the Shop, the Hay Barn etc.

Right now my OF system has 346 projects with 1718 actions and it’s easy to do a quick scan in the morning to see what contexts I need to go to and work in.

I also have lists of books to read in a separate location as that’s not usually a project unless I need to read one for something else. (Like read a manual on SQL queries to design some stuff in LambTracker, or read a book on solving linear equations to work on the calculate EBVs for the sheep project)

My someday/maybe projects are also in separate lists by area of focus so the OF system only has projects that are either active or could be active now that can be done in this season (3 months). At my longer quarterly reviews on the solstices and equinoxes I scrub out the projects that are not done but that can’t be moved forward in the next season and add in from my S/M lists those projects I can work on this next season. Even so I generally have between 300-400 projects active at any given time.

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I’ve got a couple of ideas and I’ll try to implement them

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This is for sure one strategy!

I’m not sure that is enough though.

I’ve tried the app_as_context idea before but it wasn’t enough: the now 345 tasks divide by

  1. OmniFocus
  2. MailMate
  3. BusyCal
  4. Safari
  5. PathFinder

will still let me around 90 tasks in each context.

And: Do you really divide your work by apps?
I’ve found myself rather forced to use a context (= context as a constraint, like being in the front of my iMac for the next hours) or inspired to do this (= context as a choice) - and none of this is true for specific apps on my Mac.

I felt almost ashamed with my 1885 tasks / 144 projects - but reading about yours I’m not feeling so alone anymore ;-) - seriously, HOW EXACTLY do you manage to quick scan such a huge number of tasks?

And: if you someday/maybe projects are externalized (BTW: good idea! Doesn’t this mean that they are not coming up as OmniFocus-reviews though?) that means that your huge amount of projects and tasks are active! WOW! I’m even more impressed about how do you manage to keep all of this current and remain calm! :-) I would really appreciate some concrete examples if you can.

Yes I do really divide my work by apps, I found that even though I COULD switch between apps the mental energy was a lot more than I expected. I do far better staying in a single app until I’m done or until I need to move to a new context even though I cross project boundaries a lot. Also keep in mind that my best estimate is that roughly only half of my projects or actions are actually on a computer. I’ve never really counted though. I’m a farmer, there are a lot of contexts that are unrelated to any computer stuff. In any case I still have 15 app or device contexts.

I scan my active context lists by reading them. I read very fast. I have a window open in OF that has the contexts and I just scroll down it to see all the actions. I have both next and available perspectives. My default for projects is sequential not parallel so much of the time actions are blocked and not available which reduces the load a lot. I’ve found that if I have a project with sub projects or with parallel actions that usually I’m really looking at 2 or more projects so I split them out. The only projects I have that are parallel are the monthly filing/housekeeping ones where I can do each segment in any order but within a segment the actions are sequential.

Things that are in my DEVONThink GTD Someday/Maybe folder within my Notebook Database include stuff like:
Writing Projects to do
Lists for each major hobby (knitting, weaving, spinning, scrapbooks quilting, because I try to only have one or 2 projects in any given hobby area active at one time and some are mutually exclusive. I can only have one weaving project per loom for example.)
My books to read someday/maybe is actually several lists by type of book, non-fiction, mysteries, science fiction and so on.
I have separate lists for travel places to go, the wild bucket list type things, personal stuff, movies, classes to take, and so on.
Farm projects can often only be done in a specific season, For example a someday/maybe project of make a new ditch box is a summer thing. And the Install ditch box is an early spring only as it has to be when the ditch is off. I catch projects like that when I do a more in depth review on the solstices and equinoxes and will move them into OF for the duration of the season I could work on them. Some projects may take many years to complete, for example we had one of rebuild all the elk fences. That took 6 years because of both the seasonal aspects (can’t build fence in the winter for example) and the resource requirements (needed to have the fence contractor available and money to pay for it). Each spring Equinox I’d review that and we’d decide if we could do another segment of fence. If so I made that project active so I could manage it if not it rolled for another year. My quarterly reviews usually take about 3-4 hours. Weekly reviews are usually about an hour as long as my inboxes are empty when I start.


Thanks for the details!

Two things I liked immediately:

  1. I think you’re right with the app-contexts - probably why the iPhone / iPad, with their self-imposed one-task-at-a-time are so efficient.
  2. It sound interesting having different perspectives for next actions and available.

I’ll try both of them.

And: Same here with sequential as a default for the new projects

Would you please tell me more about your projects that are NOT in OmniFocus?
You mentioned DEVONThink - is this the place you put them on hold?
And if so, how exactly (is there an “Export to DEVONThink” in OmniFocus?) and how do you bring/move them back in OmniFocus when you decide is time to start with one of them?

One more about the projects that are not in OmniFocus: How do you know when to review them? Do you have a link / reminder or something similar in OmniFocus?

Yes I “store” non-active someday/maybe projects in DEVONThink.

When I process my inboxes any projects that are in the not actionable someday/maybe pile get automatically added to the note in DT that corresponds to where my best guess that project should live. So for example: I am reading a post on Ravelry and there is a mention of a really nice simple sock knitting pattern with an unusual heel shaping. I decide I may want to make a pair someday, I use Clip to DEVONThink to get the link into my DT inbox. When I am processing my inboxes I add it to the Knitting Projects to Do note in the GTD Someday/Maybe group (aka folder) in DT.

Now let’s say I finish my current knitting project and want to start a new one. I pull up the Knitting projects note and read through it for ideas. I know that I am not going to have the mental bandwidth to do a lace project with lifelines and stitch counting during the holiday season and I want to be able to knit this at the brewery so that eliminates most cables. I decide that I could easily do the simple socks because it’s on 2 circular needles so nothing to get dropped or lost at the brewery and nothing major other than the turning the heel and I can do that at home if it looks complex. I create a new project in OF, “Make Simple Socks for me” and in the notes for that project I add the link to the pattern on Ravelry and some suggested yarns. I then add my first next action, “Investigate my stash to see if I have any handspun of the correct weight for Simple Socks” and give it a context of “Shop Building” I delete the one liner from my DT note. So that is how a project gets added to OF.

Now lets say that I’ve had in my OF system an active project of “Fertilize the Orchard Pasture” and I’ve been running through the actions “Investigate places to do foliar feeding”, “Take Soil samples”, etc. Now it’s my autumn equinox review and I see that I still didn’t finish that project and I can’t do it during the winter time. I have several choices, I could just put it on hold but leave it with a weekly review, I could set a start date in the future to tickle the project or I could move it to DT. The first option leaves my system cluttered so I very rarely do that. The second often makes sense but if I do that I also set the review schedule to be monthly or quarterly or something else to keep it out of my face until I can again do something on it in the spring. But in this case I decide that based on the soil results I really am not going to need to look at this for a year or 2. I want to move it into my general Someday/Maybe projects list. So I bring up my “Farm Projects to Do” note in DT and just use copy and paste. In OF I select the project, open all the notes in all remaining actions and then shift click on the bottom action to select the entire project. command c to copy, flip to DT and command v to paste. I usually have to add in some tabs as I like to have the actions indented but that is the quick way to get it out of OF and into DT. The last thing is look at the notes and I see that I had a paper folder with some information in my active projects section. I pull that folder and re-file it into my paper reference file cabinet for when I pick up the project again. Before I do that I quickly flip through all the papers in there and decide if any are likely to still be relevant in a couple of years. If not I trash them.

It takes far longer to type the instructions than it does to do it.

I review all my lists in DT on a quarterly basis. I used to have a checklist in OF for the quarterly review but now I know to go check all those places so I no longer use the checklist. I still have the checklist in my OF system in a folder of checklists set to on-hold with a yearly review schedule because if something happens to me whoever picks up my system needs to know there may be important work in those DT notes and lists that isn’t in my OF system. It’s my oh s**t backup for what I do. An emergency manual of keeping things running if you will.


Ok, I understand. Thanks again.

Why DEVONThink?

Devonthink can be used as a reference system to hold notes and file attachments about a project or various lists in your life.

In the above example, some folks don’t want to keep lists in OmniFocus. Using Devonthink or another program such as Evernote, Excel, Numbers, OmniOutliner, or a simple text file is another place to keep other lists that you don’t want inside OmniFocus.

Some folks might want to keep brainstorming ideas or future someday/maybe projects outside of OmniFocus.

As long as you can keep these pieces in a place where you know you can find them (inside one folder instead of in different folders located on different hard drives, thumb drives, or cloud storage), you should be able to access them anywhere.

Yes, I understood this.

My question was: why exactly DEVONThink (and not something else)?

I’m still trying to find a good reason to use DEVONThink ;-)

I tend to use DEVONthink in a similar fashion as OogieM. Personally, I have several reasons for using it:

One reason is I like having separate databases for aspects of my work. Though I could use Finder folders similarly, it just doesn’t feel the same to me.

Second, the linking system is more reliable. When I link to a file in the Finder from OmniFocus, quite often, I find that OmniFocus requests that I find the file manually. With a file I’ve linked to using DEVONthink’s linking system, I almost never have to do that. I’m not sure what the difference is.

Third, I prefer to keep my databases closer to my own filing systems. I want to have my systems local more often than in the cloud. There is a syncing system that is quite useful for DEVONthink, though perhaps not as seamless as some of the other ones.

Fourth, is just habit. Every time I try to leave the DEVONthink system, maybe because it doesn’t connect as well to a Hazel scheme as a Finder filing would, I figure out how I could still use both. Then I wonder why I am trying to leave the DEVONthink system in the first place as it seems to be working well for me.

Finally, I like the search feeling. Searching within the database feels thorough, useful, and well thought out. I’m not sure how often that is reflective of reality, but it’s felt that way.

That said, there are about 4 bazillion bells and whistles in DEVONthink that I’ve yet to understand.

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IMO DEVONThink is the most full-featured note and document collection, annotating, indexing and searching system out there. I can maintain total control of my data. I can split into multiple databases if desired or I can lump into one large one. It scales well. It is just as useful for a database containing a couple thousand items as one containing a million things in it. Searching and access is about the same speed no matter the database size. I am not required to put my personal or private data in some cloud system. If I choose to leave the DT ecosystem export of everything I created there is simple and easy.

Many folks compare it to Evernote, but I’ve tried both and Evernote is wimpy stepsister compared to the power of what you can do in DT.

It has it’s quirks, getting the new sync stuff working across all 4 devices has been “interesting”, but still less of a problem than getting WebDAV syncing working in the Omnifocus ecosystem. At least once I got it working for DT it’s never broken while the OF implementation breaks periodically. I still can’t read LibreOffice files directly within it although I can read MS Office files but overall I think it’s the best system out there.

ps my smallest database has less than 200 items in it, primarily SQL queries I run against my LambTracker system. My largest is about half a million items, an index of a bunch of archive folders. My main “notebook” database is about 2500 items in it, a mix of plain and rich text notes I made plus PDFs, and other support files for projects or of indfo I need access to easily on any device.

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You can use whatever app you want - Numbers, Excel, OmniOutliner…

I think DevonThink’s strength comes from the artificial intelligence scheme. If you are reading a PDF file about eggs, it can find other files in your DevonThink database about eggs.

Thanks, Kourosh, OogieM and wilsonng!
I’ll give then DEVONThink a chance ;-)

And once again thanks for the many ideas you gave me! I’ll implement them and will come back to report my progress.

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I had to deal with this years ago when I had been doing GTD for a while but was struggling. I ended up paying for some coaching, and the big thing was to make my task list of a manageable size. That way I’m not scared to look at it and I can actually review all of it when deciding what to do. Here is what involved, some of which were covered in more detail by other people in this thread:

  1. Arrange tasks by context. Well covered above.
  2. Arrange tasks by sequence. If task B depends on task A, set up a sequential project or make task B a subtask of task A.
  3. Review your tasks and consider which ones you care about getting done in the next month or so. If you don’t care if it ever gets done, delete it. If it can go a month without you caring, put it in a Someday/Maybe project. I have an inactive project just for this purpose, and you don’t need another tool to track them. The month time frame is arbitrary, pick an interval that works for you.
  4. While having simple atomic tasks is good, if there are two or more tasks that you are likely to do in one shot, combine them into one. As an absurd example, write letter, address envelope, and put on stamp can be one task. I’m not saying your tasks are that strictly broken down, but with so many tasks to manage watch for those opportunities.
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I’d also add to @lemuel’s list to add tasks only as needed and eliminate tasks once they are no longer needed.

Tasks such as “brush teeth” are not needed. These become habit. They don’t really have a place in a task manager such as OmniFocus.

When I am building a habit, I’ll have it repeat (once a week on Mondays or once a month on the first day of each month or any other repeating interval) and put it into OmniFocus. Over time, it automatically becomes habit and I can take it out of OmniFocus.

I used to have a task called “Perform weekly review” set to repeat once a week on Fridays. I would dutifully check it off when I did my weekly review on Friday afternoon. Once it became a habit, I didn’t need this repeating task in OmniFocus. I already know that when Friday afternoon arrives, I already set aside time for the weekly review and don’t need OmniFocus to remind me to do it. My household trash pickup is set for Thursdays. My habits/routine will tell me to roll out my trash bin to the curb on Wednesday nights. There is no need for this to be in OmniFocus when it becomes automatic.

I’ve come up with contexts based on the different hats I wear (Areas of Responsi, such as Marketing, Admin, Sales…

I have also designated specific days for different Areas of Responsibility — so that I always know which context to open.