Lots of single-action projects? Or a couple projects with many tags?

I’m moving from Asana to Omnifocus and trying to decide how to organize all those miscellaneous tasks.

The standard advice seems to be to create single-action lists for various areas of responsibility. But my initial instinct was to create one single-action project for each top-level area of responsibility (roughly on the level of Work vs. Life), and then to use tags to flag them as belonging to more specific topics, because that seems pretty flexible and requires less decision-making.

(For instance, would “Read article about $NewTechnology” belong to Work? or Learning? or Reading? Or maybe Career? Does “Put mothballs in closet” represent “Wardrobe” or “Apartment Upkeep”? Does “Ask QA vendor for estimate to test $project” count as “Budgeting Misc” or as “QA Misc” or as “Vendor Management Misc”?)

Has anyone considered or tried both of these approaches? What are the trade-offs?

In any effort to organize OmniFocus, I think the best way to go is to think backwards. Think about how you want to use OmniFocus, and then work backwards to an organizational scheme that optimizes the app for those uses.

In my case: 99% of the tasks I organize with OmniFocus are tasks I do on my Mac. So I don’t worry about contexts or available tools much. I do find that my mental state is conducive to doing like tasks together.

As a journalist, the center of my job is writing. I have a project called “Writing,” and each task is an article that’s all researched and ready to write. I’m often overextended there — I’ll have a half-dozen or a dozen articles researched and ready to write at a given time.

I do a lot of travel, and I have a project called “Travel.” It’s a list of reminders to look in on conferences that are worth attending, making appointments at those conferences, as well as booking airlines and hotels.

Another project is called “Expenses;” it’s a list of expense reports I need to file.

I work from a home office, and I like to keep my professional and personal lives segregated as to times, so I have one big folder for “work,” another for “personal,” and a third for a community organization I volunteer in.

Note that most of the time I’m using projects to corral areas of responsibility, rather than projects in the pure, GTD definition of the word. And I use single-action lists almost exclusively; I rarely use parallel or sequential projects.

So my suggestion to you, when contemplating tags vs. single-action lists, is to consider how you want to use OmniFocus. For your example on learning new technologies — don’t worry so much about whether that’s work or personal; instead think about the circumstances in which you’ll want to focus OmniFocus on those particular lists.

Thanks, @MitchWagner - that seems like really great advice!

I don’t like having my list of action items broken up by a lot of subheadings or impossible to reorder within a view - which was a reason for rejecting a lot of other tools… It looks like it’s possible to suppress those subheadings using custom perspectives. But less easy to change the order of tasks from multiple projects in a given view to interleave with one another, unless they belong to the same tag and your view is by tag.

I do know I like to have information about projects and areas of responsibility highly visible (in part to avoid including all that information in the task name), which is what I used tags for in Asana.

The one thing I’m going to miss is having tasks naturally able to belong to multiple areas of responsibility, which is occasionally an important part of my mental model - especially at work, where a project may have a task that also belongs to another topic I consider an area of responsibility (such as being responsible for analytics in general, and then having to implement analytics for a specific project that I also have other work for). Which is probably why using tags instead of folders for them has such a strong pull.

I think maybe part of the problem is that for a long time I’ve been adjusting my workflow around the limitations of a tool because I couldn’t adjust the tool to support my ideal workflow. So now I’m both struggling a little with not knowing the best workflow for me would be, as well as defaulting back a little bit to existing habits.

It’s going to take a lot of getting used to. My biggest fear is spending a full weekend setting up a system only to realize I’ve made some major mistakes and have to do it all over again in 3 months!

1 Like

Are you ever in a situation where you’re doing analytics for all your responsibilities? In that case, you might want to have a separate project/area of responsibility/tag for analytics in OmniFocus. If you’re comfortable flipping in and out of analytics throughout the day, then just have analytics within each area of responsibility, as an action you need to complete.

To use an example from my own work: Writing an article, writing a reply to an email, and writing a report for my boss are all different kinds of writing. But there’s no friction involved in getting in a writing mindset, so I don’t have a separate tag, project or folder for “writing.” I just have each individual task.

(Actually, I do have a project called “writing” - but it’s just a short label for “writing articles.” Internal reports and replies to emails don’t go in that project.)

I do somewhat more of a day-planning method, which I realize is not orthodox GTD but tends to be less stressful for me personally. That’s partly because my day-to-day a) is highly interrupt-driven; b) typically involves multiple things that MUST be done on that day (or at least that week) but not at a particular time that day; and c) rarely gets to be focused on a single project or area of responsibility for the bulk of the day.

Typically at the beginning of the day I’ll pull the tasks that must be done that day and have upcoming deadlines, plus a few additional things that I think I can get through, and order them manually based on priorities, expected energy levels, and meeting landscapes. Then I’ll work through that list roughly in order, but with a GTD-style flexibility to account for changing schedules, moods, etc. I may leave a few things undone at the end of the day, or go back to the planning list to pull in a couple additional tasks if I finish the list early.

So I mostly use the information about projects and areas of responsibility a) for the planning phase and deciding what to put on the day list; b) for weekly reviews to make sure I’m advancing all projects appropriately; and c) during the day to day when choosing from the Today list to remind myself what a task is about and how it fits into the bigger picture.

That information also loosely correlates with frogs and energy level/time required, which is useful both in planning and for flexibility (“I can’t stand analytics - better get those out of the way first”; “Oh, an admin task - that’ll probably be a quick win as long as I’m waiting for Alice to finish that water cooler conversation”); or with what time of day they can be done (“That vendor is 3 time zones behind us - if that task is at the top of the list, not being able to get to it will annoy me for the first few hours, so let’s put it in the middle”).

Your workflow sounds similar to mine actually.

As to whether it’s orthodox GTD: I seem to recall that David Allen himself said he viewed GTD as a toolbox that people should pick and choose from and adapt to suit their workflows and way of thinking. Hardcore GTD fans seem to forget that bit. (For me: The whole business with 10,000-foot and 50,000-foot views confuses me. It’s not like I can fly like Iron Man — I’m stuck here at ground level unless I take the stairs or get in a plane.)

In my reading productivity forums, I find it’s a common practice for people to try to bend their lists to the tool —OmniFocus, Asana, whatever — rather than change how the tool works to work for them. And there is some sense to that; if a person is feeling disorganized, adopting someone else’s organizational method can help with that. But that’s not necessarily a good idea under all circumstances.

My impression of OmniFocus is that in Version 1 and Version 2 it was a very GTD-focused tool, but Version 3 has gone to the opposite extreme, and now it’s an extremely flexible tool that can be made to work in different ways to suit different organizational styles.

Yeah, it’s less that I’m feeling disorganized and more that I’m taking on new challenges and Asana no longer supports the features I need to make that work (or… it does, but at $38/mo, so OF3 pro on both iOS and Mac would cost less after 5 mo).

But it’s also good because it’s allowing me to use techniques like contexts that I’d been avoiding mostly because they were awkward the way I had Asana set up.

I definitely agree that one of the strengths of GTD is that it’s a collection of techniques that you can mix and match to make a system that works for you. The only problem is that that can make a tool that can manage that custom system difficult to find. And so you make compromises with that system.

In the end, it was a close call for me between OF and 2Do, but OF seems marginally more flexible in the ways that are most important to me. (2Do does have much better keyboard navigation, though, I’m afraid.)

After a bit of research, I’m now looking at the Outcomes/Domains/Checklists setup described here: Organizing nested Areas of Responsibility in Omnifocus , though still with a couple levels of folder nesting. I think that might be a decent compromise, leaving things a bit less scattered than a zillion per-area lists but more structured than entirely tagging-based; plus providing a decent way to organize reference materials.

My biggest concern is that it might make it more difficult to pull up both project-based and non-project-based tasks from the same area of responsibility to make sure I’m keeping up with it.

Have you tried that approach?

Have not even looked into that. Thanks!

Having reviewed technique: That’s more or less how I do things, except I don’t keep a separate hierarchy for domains, outcomes and checklists. I mix domains and outcomes, and keep checklists in other apps, outside of OmniFocus.

This conversation has me thinking I ought to start a someday/maybe list for big plans.

Piggybacking onto this: for my work work I nearly always have a computer available, so I don’t tag the tasks that need a computer I tag those that don’t. When my SSD died I looked at my contexts and returned the 2 calls I needed to return (I then ran out of work to do, but I’m a programmer, that’s not a surprise!). So I don’t tag everything, even though according to GTD I probably ought to. This approach might work for you too

I have folders for different areas (like most), I also have a routines folder where I keep all the repeating routine tasks that relate to my life or business. as I find it easier to keep track of them in one place

I keep a SAL for each client (50+ at last count) within an “office” folder where I keep domain renewal tasks, invoicing due and anything they send me to do, as well as any office related projects.

I also keep a folder for Tech (my hobby) as well as one for my personal sites and the work related to them. Each of these folders contains a SAL for one-off tasks as well as actual projects, current or on hold.

This mass of “stuff” is managed through various perspectives which I visit in a set order every day to ensure most things get dealt with. Oh, everything is tagged, some things I can better do on an iPad some on my MacBook others on the MacMini which is primarily used as a server and for automated file management tasks. Tagging drives my perspectives so is important to me.

Until literally yesterday, I didn’t tag work that needed a computer vs. work that doesn’t. Because 90% of what I need to write down in OmniFocus requires a computer of some kind, and an Internet connection too. The rest of it jumps out at me without a requirement for tagging: Go shopping, pick up dog poops in the yard, open mail, etc. I can write a first draft of an article without an Internet connection, but I don’t need to tag that.

However, just yesterday I spotted a task that specifically requires the Mac – it can’t be done on the iPhone or iPad – and so I tagged it “Mac.”

And it has occurred to me that it might make sense to have a tag for “things I can do on the iPhone while literally standing around waiting.” Like when I’m standing at the gate at the airport, waiting to board the plane. Usually I just stare off into space – which is a rare luxury in this connected age we live in – or triage email.

Ugh. Awful. I remember the moment in August when the guy at the Apple Store said they would have to take my MacBook Air in for five to seven days to fix it and I was all ummmm I don’t have another computer? I need it to work?

Routines folder is a good idea. I’ve thought of setting up a folder or project for personal projects I want to push along a little bit every day. Like decluttering the house.

@MitchWagner, since you said our routines seem fairly similar: how do you compile and organize your daily “today” list?

I’ve been using a tag for it, since that allows you to set the order of actions within the list. But then sub-actions / subprojects / parent actions with sub-actions become impossible to deal with unless you group everything by project, which undermines the custom sorting. This is currently driving me up the wall!

Badly. I’m no paragon of organization. Too frequently, I skip weekly reviews and even daily reviews and I’m chugging along doing whatever is topmost in my mind and fighting off the nagging feeling I’m forgetting something.

However, here’s how I want to do it:

Most of my projects are really areas of responsibility, grouped in three folders: A work folder, with my employer name. Another folder, with the name of a community organization I’m active in. And a third folder, named Personal.

Under the work folder are single-action lists and projects with names including “writing,” “edit” (for editing other people’s articles), “do expense reports,” “travel” (for making travel plans), and so on. Under Personal, projects and single-action lists include: “Finance,” “health,” and a couple of others.

Each folder also has a miscellaneous single-action list and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about where each task goes.

I give the tag “today” to anything I want to get to sooner rather than later. I want those things to be visible to me when I’m considering what to do next.

I flag anything that needs immediate attention. I should have nothing flagged in the morning, and one to three things flagged by mid-afternoon.

Now for my two working perspectives:

  • “Flagged by project” does what it says on the tin – every one of my flagged actions, listed by project. I can move around the projects and move around items within each project.

  • Similarly, 'Today" has every one of my items tagged “today,” sorted by project, and again I can change the order of projects and change the order of items within projects.

What I want to do is spend my day working within the “today” perspective, until mid-afternoon, where I switch to “flagged by project” to knock off whatever needs to be done that day.

In reality, what I do is mostly work either in “flagged by project,” or just off the top of my head. As I said, I want to have at most two or three items in “flagged by project,” and most of the time, none. Right this moment I have 23! However, it’s not as disorganized as it sounds; a couple of months ago i realized that I could collapse the disclosure triangle on each project, and at that point it looks like an individual action. So right now I can glance at the “travel” project and see that it is present in the flagged view and telling me I have travel arrangements I need to make.

At some point, I need to do weekly review – which I missed for more than two weeks! – and at that point I will switch off the flags and remove the “today” tag from all my action items and start fresh, adding the “today” tag where it looks appropriate at that time.

And by the way I don’t really use of the Forecast perspective.

Thanks, Mitch!

I think my point of frustration is wanting to set all my tasks for the day into one list, where I control the order, and then work off that list. Which OF is just a little too strictly GTD-ish to support.

The one GTD practice I do adhere to pretty strictly are daily and weekly reviews because, well, not knowing what really does need to get done makes me too stressed to do anything.

I’ve sort of managed to figure out the custom Today perspective – just need to make sure things are tagged correctly.

What I’m really struggling with is the daily review. It seems like I have to choose between seeing all active actions for all active projects, without any useful grouping (including the 40 due-tomorrow actions belonging to the Weekly Review) or review every single action in every single project. I can’t even figure out what’s due tomorrow besides the weekly review because that list is so daunting.

Maybe it’ll be more tractable when I’ve finished processing the import and everything is tagged to within an inch of its life? Or maybe I need to review multiple perspectives daily instead of just one?

The latter seems like a lot of work. I’m a little worried that this system is going to turn into something that requires more effort and time and energy to maintain than it saves, which was why I abandoned strict GTD in the first place over 10 years ago.

My daily review is just reviewing everything with the today tag, flagged items, deferred and due items, items in the inbox, and deciding what I want to tackle first the next day. Doesn’t take long.

Virtue of my system is it fails gracefully.

1 Like

This topic was automatically closed 30 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.