Seeing the Big Picture in OF

Hi all,

I’ve been using OF on and off since the beginning, but I am having trouble ever making it work. I have always found that I embrace using OF for a few months at at time, and it eventually stops working for me for one of two reasons.

The Big Picture
I find it hard to see, in any one view, how many projects I have and how close I am to finishing all my current projects. I have difficulty getting a sense of my progress overall, or where I should be focusing next. I don’t have a sense at all of the ‘big picture’ using OF. It’s the same way, I think, that I prefer mind mapping for note taking over OmniOutliner, that I used to use a lot. It eventually just becomes a big database I never look at.

Unlimited Scope
The other issue I have is that, if I put everything I ever need or want to do in OF, it ends up feeling unmanageable and huge. Just opening the app presents me with a seemingly endless list of things I have to do and, without being able to see them all at once, is kind of overwhelming. It may have something to do with the scope I am using OF for. I’m trying to make it useful for every action in my life, but maybe that is putting things together. I’m wondering if anyone uses OF with certain rules in mind, a clear scope of “projects I will definitely do” or “things I need to do”. As it is, it’s a program that reminds me of work when I’m at home, and reminds me of home when I’m at work. I know a big part of OF is focus, and that the whole point of contexts is to hone in on what you can do now. But I don’t find that works.

I’d love to solve these issues so I can use OF on a day-to-day. I considered switching to Trello to get that visual overview of my tasks, but it turns out I can’t do without OF’s power features like deferred actions.


[I think this is a great sort of question to be asking on this forum, and hope other OmniFocus users will chime in with their workflows and strategies.]

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The Big Picture

I have found that, trying to do big picture reviews solely in OmniFocus requires too much effort. This is true even though clever methods (i.e. AppleScripts) exist to help make the overview easier to obtain. So, I do my big picture stuff entirely outside OmniFocus with mind maps and Kanban boards. As needed, I keep active links between stuff on my mind maps, Kanban boards, and OmniFocus.

Unlimited Scope

The two anxiety-ridden statements I hear are that your setup of OmniFocus presents you with too much all at once and that it presents you with tasks out of context. I handle the former issue by judicious use of the ON HOLD status for projects. For example, learn to put projects on hold religiously when they are not doable in the coming week. That is one purpose of the review … figure out what can/should/will be doable in the coming period of time. I handle the latter by judiciously activating / deactivating contexts relevant to the framework where I am working. Keep a @work and @home context, and turn one or the other “off” when appropriate.


To develop a healthy big-picture view of your life’s mission, go outside OmniFocus (with mind maps or Kanban or Goalscape wheels or …). To reduce the anxiety from being presented with an overwhelming set of tasks, learn how to set aside (hold) and/or filter (turn on/off) projects and tasks within OmniFocus.




I start most of my Life Goals and big stuff like Areas of Responsibilities in a mind map. I don’t start in OmniFocus.

When I scan my mind map at the end of each month, I might decide to bring an important project into OmniFocus. I create a new project in OmniFocus and start fleshing it out there. I don’t clutter OmniFocus with long-term projects or goals until I am ready to start it up. When I intentionally want to start a project that is on my mind map, I will definitely put it into OmniFocus.

I make sure to always review the mind map at the end of the month. I don’t want to start any other big picture projects until I have finished a big picture project or at least advanced enough into a current big picture project to a sufficient point. It’s better to finish a big picture project and close it before starting another big picture project. Too many balls juggling in the air will mean that you have so many open projects and not enough time/energy to finish it. Just finish one before opening another one.


interesting question!

I use for the “big picture” different (visual) tools. IMO: OF is for getting things done, not for creating goals.
For my projects (business, freelance, lectures on university, private …) in the next 3 months I create with DropTask the tasks and 3 prio-fields (using the iPad-App or Web) and on the weekly review (WR) I manual synchronize between this to apps or “views”, depends on workload some Prio2 and Prio3-projects / actions go for the next week “onHold” om OF and on the next WR I change the status and it’s on the “DO-line” again. For detail-projectmanagement I additionally use the mind map technique and OmniOutliner, all without OF-connect. Only on WR!

Don’t forget: A goal broken into steps becomes a plan, a plan backed by action makes the results. and the action-part is inside OF the best place…

For the “big life picture” I use Goalscape and here I have my life-goals and check every 3 month the progress and updates. based on the feet-ideas from David Allen GTD-wikipedia
In the link I’ve inserted a PDF with the two visual tools and my use of it (in droptask a quick new draft, not my real result ):

hope this helps you on your way with GTD/OF/ in “GOAL-PLAN-ACTION” …

best wishes from Germany

:-) thomas


The main problem is: You can’t do everything at once. The only solution is to only allow yourself so many focuses in your life at one time. This involves making decisions.

Strangely enough, it’s this decision making of what you’re actually allowed to do which is what people forget about. You need to make sure you don’t try and do everything, which means you need to keep things you’re not focusing on hidden, and keeping things you are working on active.

Here’s how I do it, as a freelance creative kind of guy. My PERSONAL folder is my main folder.


  • BIG 3
    *Project 1
    *Project 2
    *Project 3
  • SMALL 3
    *Project 1
    *Project 2
    *Project 3
  • NEXT
    *Project 1
    *Project 2

I have a perspective called ACTIVE which shows only the above folder hierarchy. So what’s it about?

Well quite simply, I’m allow myself to work on 3 big projects only. These are important projects I really need to get done and spend most of my time on. I’m not allowed more than 3. When I finish a project in BIG 3, I’m allowed a new one. But no more than 3.

In SMALL 3 are three other projects I’m working on, which aren’t as important as the BIG 3. If I finish a BIG 3 project, one of these SMALL 3 projects might get moved into BIG 3. Or not. Depends, doesn’t really matter! But you can’t work on BIG 3 projects all the time, so it’s good to have decided on 3 smaller less important projects you can chip away at when you’re not in the mood for BIG 3 projects.

Then there’s NEXT. Not allowed more than 3 of these either. These are three upcoming projects, all paused, but there so you can see what’s going to replace either BIG 3 or SMALL 3 projects when a space becomes available.

So, I allow myself 3 main projects, which I spend most effort on. I allow myself 3 smaller less important projects to help break the boredom and help things moving along. And I try to decide what’s coming next with my NEXT folder.

Apart from all this, I also have another folder called ETHER which is for all the crazy unformed ideas and projects that are floating around but haven’t been pulled down from the clouds to work on yet. Some of these might make it into NEXT. But sometimes things stay in the ETHER forever…

So for me, it’s less about being able to see EVERYTHING and more about making sure you focus on a sufficient amount of projects so you can get them actually DONE. For me, 3 main projects and 3 smaller projects is enough - things get done, but there’s enough so that if I get bored with one I can switch to another. But NOT so many that I feel overwhelmed.

It’s simple, but it works for me. It’s called omniFOCUS. People sometimes forget that it’s the completion of projects that should be the focus but get lost in the completion of tasks.

What should also be stressed here is to USE YOUR PROJECT DESCRIPTIONS. And make sure the project description describes what completing each project actually looks and feels like. Your project goals need to be very precise, you need to think about them, and make sure they’re ACHIEVABLE.

One other thing: Of course, I have a perspective called TOP - and it only shows me the next action for each of my BIG 3 and SMALL 3. I will never be looking at more than 6 things I can do next, because the decisions on what I’ve allowed to let myself work on happened already.

Hope this helps!



OmniFocus is very simplistic when it comes to projects. Projects are no more than containers holding tasks and that’s it. The end focus should indeed be the completion of the project but in daily life you’ll find that you are dealing with the tasks of the project. If you don’t complete the tasks or if you didn’t break down your project into tasks properly you won’t be able to complete the project. You need to start in advance by looking at your project and break it down as much as you can. By doing reviews you can see if it needs changing or not.

The problem with OmniFocus is lack of a proper overview. When asked on these forums they’ll tell you to use perspectives and do reviews. Doing reviews is a good thing to do, it tells you (per project) if you are on track and it allows you to plan ahead. A perspective is nice if you want to have a view that you are going to use on more than 1 occasion but it is very cumbersome if you only want to filter things to get to a certain task (or set of tasks) quickly. It also requires the Pro version which not everybody has and not every OmniFocus version supports it (yes they are going to change it but it won’t be free, for iPhone users it will cost $40 to upgrade!).

The biggest gripe I have is Forecast. I actually want to use Forecast to plan things and see what is going on in my week, both tasks and calendar entries. The latter is possible, the former is not as easy or just impossible. Forecast will only show deferred and due items. The deferred items will only show up when it is time to show up which is why you’d use it (and it’s a great feature to reduce clutter which adds to having a good overview). Due items showing up is also sensible since they have a deadline. What you can’t put in Forecasts are tasks you’d like to work on because “due” and “deferred” are the only options, there is not third “planned”. Forecast only gives me a partial overview just like all the other perspectives. I need other tools to give me an overview of my week/month. Reviewing does give me an overview of my projects though because you simply run through all of them. One should use it to decide what to do with a project and task (put it on hold, change the task into a project, complete it, delete it, plan it, etc.).

What I want to do is review my projects and tasks, decide what to do with them and plan things ahead. To see what’s ahead I want to use Forecast which should show me my planned, due and deferred items.

I see a lot of people franticly entering everything that comes to their mind, even the very simple things. I don’t do that because I remember things too well. Sometimes using a post-it is just easier than putting it in OmniFocus so I’ll use that instead (remember: it’s all about having a system, not using a specific tool). What I do is write down my ideas and other things that I want to remember or I want to plan (and for this I do use OmniFocus). It’s usually big stuff aka a project. I usually come back to it later via a review to see what I want to do with it. When I want to work on it I’ll turn it into a project and start filling it with tasks. It saves you time and overview because ideas come and go. What at first seems like a good idea might not be after a while or it may not be applicable any more because the world has changed. You’d have wasted lots of time if you had created a project out of it and filled it with tasks. It would also mean that you have another project with another set of tasks to review.

Or simply put: just start small and only make it big when it is time (when you want to work on it). That should make things more manageable.

First of all, thanks for all the answers in here. The quality of the conversation is really great and I appreciate the wisdom people are bringing to this thread.

I really like “it’s about a system, not a specific tool” consensus that seems to be forming. In my head I’ve been looking for a perfect system that can do everything and synchronizes everywhere. My fear with introducing a mind map for the big picture stuff is that the mind map would quickly be irrelevant as my OF list changes. But I think being structured about how often I mind map and how that info ends up reaching OF makes sense (perhaps with a monthly repeating action to prompt me).

I also like the advice to more judiciously put projects On Hold in the review process. I only really use the reviews for an “is this realistic” test, and right now I only really put projects on hold if I’m waiting on someone else. But this is quite a passive way of taking on a given week or day. Opening OF is like opening a pandora’s box of forgotten promises I made to myself weeks or months ago. Being more careful about what I am actually able to do this week, or what really needs my attention, seems like a pragmatic strategy.

I think my big takeaway from this thread is that OF can never truly work unless you have an active strategy that takes into account your own limits. And also, that it isn’t supposed to solve all your productivity needs in one place, and should be used within a broader productivity system. I’m going to be looking into the other apps and workflows that people suggested and see what sticks.

Thanks again for the responses everyone, and if anyone has any more thoughts about this I and others would love to hear them.


Interesting way to break down the complexity; I may have to work toward something like that. I’ve spent the last several months trying to use defer dates to keep things out of sight while I focus on other things, and it has been a failure. I feel like I spend far too much time deferring huge numbers of items each day. Too much monkeying with the system.

Since contexts are of limited use to me, and yet they’re prominent in OF, I’ve decided to break the rules and use them as a rudimentary tagging system. Anything not strictly location-based will get a work/non-work and active/on-hold context. (I’m still struggling to come up with some context names that are sensible yet auto-fill easily.) But that way I can easily set up a Perspective that shows me everything work-related that I’ve decided to work on this week and to quickly hide/reveal actions using fewer key strokes.

We’ll see. I’m not confident this will work, but it can’t be any worse.

Instead of continuously deferring tasks to a future date, consider creating a Someday/Maybe project with the project status set to “On Hold”

I have a Someday/Maybe project in each folder.

Home folder
:Home Someday/Maybe

Work folder
:Work Someday/Maybe

Family folder
:Family Someday/Maybe

Park your tasks into Someday/Maybe project. You will no longer need to defer it to a future date. Set the review date to once a week. When you visit the review perspective, you will see these Someday/Maybe projects. Then you can consider whether to move these tasks back to an active project. In my case, I move it back to a project labelled [folder name] Actions.

Home folder
: Home Actions

Work folder
: Work Actions

Family folder
: Family Actions

All of these Action projects have their project status set to Active. I can put all of these single one-off actions into the Actions project.

I can look at my “Available Actions” perspective to see all available actions. The tasks in the Someday/Maybe projects are hidden because they have the “On Hold” status.

The Home Actions project, Work Actions project, and Family Actions project will have all available tasks. I will only work on tasks that are inside the Action projects.

This is one way of doing away with continuously deferring a task. If you continuously defer a task into the future, it’s not an active task. It is really an “on hold” task.

You will see the Someday/Maybe actions at least once a week when you visit the Review perspective every day.

Just a thought on the shuffling of Projects or Folders around …

I have a Someday/Maybe context that is On Hold. For Projects that are yet to be ready, I put a first task in it as “initiate Project XYZ” with context Someday/Maybe. When I am ready to rock-and-roll on the Project, I change the context of its first task to “Define” (my starting point context for most all Projects).

In some cases (e.g. parallel action Projects or those as yet fully fleshed out), I put the task “initiate …” in a top-level, single-action Project “@Admin > …” that sits in each of my Areas of Responsibilities. I add a link in the Note field to the source Project. Then, I put the respective Project entirely On Hold without moving it.


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One technique I’ve found useful is Dr. Dini’s idea of Project Links. Whenever I create a new Project, I make an action item containing a URL link in the note field that links to the main project headline. Then I use contexts like @ActiveProjects to make a list of the current non-urgent projects I’m pushing forward. I keep all the detailed actions off the context list, and use a link to the entire project instead.

When I’ve done enough of the urgent daily actions, I look at the @ActiveProjects list and click a link to look a tthe next thing I’m supposed to do on a given project.

Sometimes, this sorta works…

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Dr Dini’s book is an excellent ebook that has helped me tremendously. It is in its second edition and updated for OmniFocus 2. Well worth the price.

Dr Dini’s project link method is like having a project that acts as a table of contents for your projects. Its an interesting example of OmniFocus’ flexibility and power.

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@anamorph & @wilsonng have good recommendations. I use the script located here to serve me a list of active projects (also configurable for dropped, etc.) that can then be manipulated easily in a text editor, outliner, or mind-mapper for other uses. Combine it with the ability to copy URI links to projects, you can jump back and forth between media as you review your projects at any level.

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That’s a nice Applescript. But I gotta do it Dr. Dini’s way. I tend be on the iPad more often than not and won’t have Applescript access on the iPad. ;-)

Nice Project list. I like it. The more I read about other people’s setups, the more OF makes sense to me. I’m new to OF, fairly new to GTD, and been making to-do lists forever:)

as a follow up to my post regarding using a mind map to plan the big picture….

I usually carry my iPad on the weekends and won’t be able to try this out until I return back to the office. But it’s a thought that might be worth checking out. Keep all of your project ideas outside of OmniFocus and then import it into OmniFocus when you’re ready to start working on it. I haven’t really experimented with this myself but was just thinking about it. I guess I’ll have to revisit this when I go back to the office on Monday.

You can use an outliner such as OmniOutliner or a mind map program such as iThoughts X, NovaMind, or MindNode to flesh out your project. Then export the outline or mind map into an .OPML file. You can open OmniFocus 2 and import that .OPML file and convert it into a project.

Following up on seeing the Big Picture in OF here.

I had switched to another mind mapping app but haven’t actually been using it because converting a mind map to OmniFocus was cumbersome.

Eventually, I saw an update the other day about MindNode and the ability to export to OmniFocus. I had bought the MindNode app ages ago when it was just version 1.0. Not fully fleshed out but very simple to use for beginning mind mappers. But it has definitely grown up since the last time I played with it. The new MindNode has a new “Share to OmniFocus” feature.

I created a rough mind map and created tasks for each part of the project. MindNode even has a simple outline mode that you can see on the right side.

Then I clicked on the share button and selected “Export to OmniFocus”

Click on the “Export…” button

It takes a few seconds and then your mind map appears in the OmniFocus Inbox. Then you can file it away into a folder in OmniFocus as a new project.

This provides a different way of seeing the “big picture.” Sometimes it’s easier to visualize the big picture in a mind map. After the mind map is finished, converting it to OmniFocus becomes an easy process. I think I’m gonna start using this shiny new toy as a way to pre-plan and visualize my projects.

It’s available at the Mac App Store. More info here:

I’m not an employee of Mindnode. Just a satisfied customer with a shiny new toy to play with :-)


Inspired by the post from @wilsonng I downloaded the trial version of Mindnode. Very convenient export feature, indeed (even though notes at this moment aren’t exported). Sadly I still found Mindnode a bit limited, lacking for instance the possibility to create boundaries. I will stay with Novamind and Ithoughts. It is possible to get mindmaps from those applications into Omnifocus (including hierarchy and notes), but yes, it is a bit cumbersome. My method is to export the mindmap as OPML, open the exported file in Omnioutliner, copy the text there and paste it into Omnifocus.

MindNode has grown up quite a bit since the first time I saw it.

I still use iThoughtsX but I thought MindNode would be an interesting twist. MindNode was originally targeted for users who didn’t require the power of iThoughtsX or NovaMind. Yes, it doesn’t have a lot of the features that iThoughtsX currently has. But for some folks, they might not need the more advanced feature sets such as boundaries, line numbering, etc.

I had purchased NovaMind but was get frustrated at the pace of development.