Planning big projects with OmniFocus

Hey everyone,

I’m about to undertake my honours degree at university, which will involve a whole lot of research, writing a thesis, etc. It will extend over an entire year, so all of these activities will culminate in one single deadline. If I plan to do anything before then, it will be me setting my own deadlines for myself.

Given that I don’t usually undertake such long projects, with so few externally imposed deadlines, I wanted to ask the OF community what they would do in such a situation.

Canonical GTD would tell me to use the natural planning model, and to brainstorm tasks and form them into a structure. But if I have that structure (say in the form of a bunch of action groups), how do I make sure this large workload gets planned and spread out throughout the year, in order to make sure it will all get done by the final day?

Should I use “soft” due dates for action groups like “Research topic X” or “Write first draft of thesis” in order to make sure I can deliver the final product? How do I keep all these in perspective if Forecast view only shows me the next month?

Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

I have a huge project right now on my plate. I created a folder with the proper name description. Then I create multiple projects signifying one stage of the larger project.

If I had one big project with a lot of subproject, I would be scared to death because it would be so overwhelmingly long and I was just taking nibbles.

I would break up your large project into smaller projects that represents each stage. Arrange them in the right order. Then set the project status of all the projects except the first one to “On Hold.”

Your fist project will have all the necessary next actions that you can think of. Your project’s next action will be much shorter and will feel more achievable. When you finish the first project (or stage), set the project status to complete. Then set the project status of the next one to “Active”.

Once a month, I would review all of my projects in this folder. I try to rearrange projects into a more logical order. I was free to move around projects and was able to restart after several false starts.

Feel free to modify, move around actions and projects. As you get rolling, you’ll realise that you’ll need to make changes because the project takes a life of its own. Evolve with it and change as needed.


Hi Wilsonng,

Thanks for the reply. My current approach is somewhat similar. But the problem I’m having is with keeping track of the timing of it all.

For example, do you put the projects in place and then flag some items which you would need to do each day to get them all done in time? Or, do you add an artificial due date for each project to make sure you can progress through the stages? How do you know how much you need to work in order to be on track?

I use flags to mark individual tasks that float around in my life. Things like “Pick up milk from grocery store” or “Buy party favours for my kid’s birthday party”. I don’t really like to use it for Big Rock projects. For me, flags are mostly for those floating single actions in your life.

I create a perspective that is focused on the folder. This is my “Big Rock” project.

I make the Big Rock perspective a permanent resident on my perspective sidebar on the Mac, my iPad, and my iPhone.

Now that I have the Big Rocks perspective in my icon sidebar, I know that I will always see it. It doesn’t get lost in all of my other next actions. I can’t avoid because I will always see it when I open OmniFocus.

In the morning, I visit my Big Rock perspective and work off the tasks in that perspective. It’s always front and centre because it is in the perspectives sidebar or on my iPhone/iPad home screen. I wouldn’t worry about flags for your honours degree.

In my current setup, I have three different Big Rocks perspective. They are focused on a project or a folder. I will always work on one of my three Big Rock projects.

Here is a sample setting of my Big Rock perspective:

In the Focus section, choose the folder or project and click the “Add to Focus” button.

Personally, I would set the due date for just the next action. I don’t like having to change the due dates on everything.

Your first task will have a due date set to next week, Monday. Work on that first. Finish that task then set the due date for the next task to a future date (next week, Monday).

I also try to make the due date set to a couple of days before so that I’m ahead.

I know I will work in sprints. So, I will often try to get on a roll and get ahead of myself. I’ve heard of cartoonists who publish in the daily comics work in sprints. Podcasts also do this as well. The cartoonist will have up to 4 weeks worth of cartoons already made. Podcasters will sometimes have up to 10 podcasts already in the can. When they get into writer’s block, they’ll have some cushion to try to get back on track.

I don’t use Forecast to look at the due dates of a Big Rock project like your Honours Degree. Just use the Big Rock perspective. For my personal setup, I set the OmniFocus due preference to 1 week. I know when I see the orange circle next to the task, I have to get my butt into gear and work until I can eliminate that orange circle by checking it off as complete.

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And one more thing…

I also create a two hour timeblock where I am nowhere to be seen. Cell is turned off. Facebook shut down. I run away to a coffee shop or the library and just focus on the honors degree project and finish as many next actions as I can. I don’t do my big rock in my house because it is just too easy to turn on the TV or think of numerous household tasks to do.

I also resist the urge to switch perspectives in the hope of finding something easier to do. Sometimes I will print out the next 10 actions to work on. I quit OmniFocus and work off that sheet of paper.

@wilsonng has good thoughts on the big rocks once you have your action plan.

I’d like to help with an earlier stage of the project. Here’s an excellent tip from Kourosh Dini’s Creating Flow with OmniFocus about creative tasks. The first edition has a section about creative tasks that emphasizes the need to think of tasks as “sit at the piano for 20 minutes” rather than “master the sonata.” Applying the thought process to academia, you might think of tasks as simple as “write for 20 minutes on source A” rather than a structured action group of “write intro to second proof of thesis.”

For the early stages of your writing, when the lack of due dates is even more apparent and the need to think deeply is necessary, try his idea for the ‘Considered’ task.


I’m in the process of analyzing and revising my workflow. For my project documentation I’m keeping it in a dedicated folder in Dropbox, for each one of my big projects. . It should help with the sync between my various devices, and keep it out of OmniFocus. I’m not an Evernote user, but I’m sure it would work the same.

In addition to the wonderful ideas here, and not to downgrade the important role that OF can play to help you, I would also strongly suggest to use other tools such as mind maps, Kanban boards, or GoalScape wheels to help you keep your bigger-picture view from getting clouded.

As far as using OF itself for what you face, some specifics in my case are …

  • I have a context called “❓consider” specifically for the ‘Considered’ task role in Kourosh Dini’s post (referenced above by @TheWart).

  • I use due dates sparingly.

  • I have @Admin single-action projects in every top-level folder (e.g. @Admin-Family, @Admin-Marketing, @Admin-Sales …). I put generous “reminder” tasks in these to prod me to set up the next sub-project (e.g. -setup sales promotion to XYZ, -setup family vacation plan). These come up in my weekly reviews.


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Here are two more links to consider, @rupert. Following the nomenclature common on productivity blogs, pastor and writer Tim Challies puts his verbs in OmniFocus and his nouns in Evernote. The rabbit hole for integrating Evernote and OmniFocus is pretty deep, but you can think of Evernote as an online binder system. The latest version also has its own reminder system that might be helpful for academic/thinking reminders that you want to keep out of your task list, i.e. “[Now that my 3 month reminder has elapsed] Does article X change what I think about theory Y?”

Thanks for the help and the links everyone, it’s much appreciated!

For the moment, my strategy is to plan out the basic steps of the project and put future stages on hold. Then, I’m flagging the most important parts to ensure I get to them. Also, I’m implementing the repeating “Spend x minutes on project” tasks as referenced in Kourosh Dini’s book. Finally, I have custom perspectives set up focused on major projects and areas so I can get to them more often.

I think the process of regular reviews along with flagging of the highest priority tasks and action groups, though, seems like the most important part to ensue I stay on track and make enough progress.