Still struggling to organize and fully / easily use OF after a decade +?

After many years struggling to fully implement GTD with Omnifocus, out of desperation, I think i’ve finally identified the most significant road blocks I have regarding my usability issues, and so thought I’d share them here with the intention of building some consensus (if possible) and then emailing OG (along with any others who agree) about some (seemingly IMHO) badly needed functionality to address these fundamental issues? Embarrassingly, I was part of the OF4 beta group, so perhaps could’ve spoken to this then, but unfortunately was utterly preoccupied with work and personal matters, so didn’t have the clarity, or time to speak to this until now - and with OF 5 development likely 2+ years away, am gravely concerned I may not find enough suitable work arounds to finally achieve GTD black belt “mind like water” with the current V4 toolset?

To my point, me (and many others it seems?) usability issues relate to OF’s limitations in manually organization and tagging of projects and folders (and tangentially, “sub projects” which aren’t yet a thing), and Tags - outside of the Perspectives view. Simply put, there doesn’t seem to be enough functionality / flexibility in these areas to allow me (and as mentioned, many others) to organize things in a “top down” view (outside of perspectives) that make visual / organizational sense to us humans, and how we each would ideally view our areas of focus, projects, ("sub projects if ever a thing) actions, and action groups (which I’m not sure are usable enough, at least for me, as they stand now?)

These are (principally, though not exhaustively):

1. Inability to create fully functioning “sub-projects” within projects
2. Inability to send projects or actions to folders (or possibly “sub-projects” should that become a thing?)
3. Inability to tag folders (or set other inspector based parameters that only projects and actions can have)
4. Inability to turn “inherit tags” off for actions projects (or the ellusive “sub-projects” I hope may be possible) etc?

I know Action Groups are a thing - but the usability and display issues with them on iOS seems frustrating enough to me (and others) that “the juice isn’t worth the squeeze” in the midst of a busy work day? BTW - I would happily accept that the OSX version offers tools iOS doesn’t (now or even ever
?) to at least have them available to me on that platform! (till the day iOS inevitably allows functional parity to OSX version)

My primary wish for OF (if it’s not clear in the above list) is to have more options, more control, and more standardization to the different “objects” within OF4 so I can break big projects into “sub-projects” to increase OF’s readability. and allow a more human, sensible “flat” or “top down manual” view. My secondary wish is to make it as fast and easy as possible to send anything (projects, folders, and the currently non existent desired “sub-projects”) anywhere (folders within folders, projects within projects etc) as actions can currently easily be sent to a project, and as close to instantly as possible (simply type the first few letters of the project name and bam, done!)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if we could create a sub-project (which ideally would NOT be a new “object” in OF4 - unless programmatically or organizationally it had to be - and simply a normal project that automatically became a “sub-project” only when nested within another project?) that behaved like any other project, and instantly send it to a folder or another project - with the est. times for those sub-projects actions, automatically totaled in the projects preferences? Or to tag a folder with all the essential tags every item within might need - whose inherited tags could then be customized or even turned off and then tagged independently if one wished?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the ONLY truly powerful organizational toolset we have in OF are it’s tagging, and perspective features, with a few “toggle switches” like “focus only on this one project” which, while fantastic, mean my standard Projects view must be a 1 level, not well organized mess of EVERYTHING in my OF database - which as originally stated, is a very difficult thing for me to view / work with. I guess I have little choice but to try and get my mind around Perspectives being the ONLY way I can truly control my view - but again, find this singular way of organizing a bit laborious, clunky, and “tunnel visioned” as a primary, and nearly mandatory / exclusive means of viewing my world “manually” when not using Perspectives?

Anyone else care to weigh in? Don’t get me wrong - OF is great - and again, I’ve been an OF pro / iOS / OSX user since v1.0 - I just know it could be so much more (for instance, perhaps some day implementing a “Goals” object that Projects are nested within, and perhaps even some machine intelligence / AI “wizards / questionnaires / reminders, and more” that help the user identify / prioritize their Goals > Projects > Sub-Projects > Actions - and accomplishing them as quickly as possible) - as goals are truly what we’re all trying to manifest, right?

But first things first - **how do YOU think we might best offer some clear concise ideally actionable suggestions to OG they could most easily understand, and possibly develop OF’s functionality further with, to make adding / moving / viewing / organizing / tagging easier, and more comprehensive - thus more “human” in non-perspectives views? **

Thank you for weighing in. This is extremely important to me and a topic I’ve been troubled by, struggling with, and trying to work through / around for many many years now.

Beyond that, for all of us in the weeds today, given the time it will take for us users to find consensus (if we even ever can? lol), not to mention the time until OF 5 development begins, not to mention the time OG will need to dev / beta / release OF5, we will all undoubtably be waiting a rather long time for the issues I’ve raised here (and others have raised in other posts here and on the web) to be addressed (if in fact they ever are, though I have a lot of faith and greatly admire it’s founder and team), and so more than welcome any other feedback / ideas / workflows / org systems / work arounds and methods of using the currently released tool set that might make OF a happier experience for all of us in the meanwhile, as I’m pretty sure there are no competing apps that are even as functional as OF, let alone have the UI / UX / functionality and usability posited above?

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Hi @kidtreo,
I read your post yesterday evening. There are things in OF like tag inheritance I struggle with as well (seemed to not work consistently). That‘s one of the reasons why I never use it. So I think to understand some of the topics you mentioned.

Before OF I used Things 3. But it did not support what I needed at work. That‘s why I switched to OF with its many capabilities.
My GTD journey started in 2004. And although I‘m always learning new things, I think, I understand a few things.

My first thought after finishing your post was you know certainly a lot about OF and GTD as well, but I‘m quite sure your implementation approach is too complex. With that, one is going down that rabbit trail trying to do something specific, but there‘s always some functionality missing.

I don‘t want to start a ping pong about which approach is right. Please just take the point that there’s one in the forum thinking your approach should be simplified.

Best wishes

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I switched to a competing product after the OF4 release, and it’s been working well for me. I’ve been wanting to swing back here to give my impressions to help drive OF’s evolution. I am a OF and GTD power user.

When I think about OF and GTD, I’m often reminded of a quote David Allen once made along the lines of “When you are a short-order cook in a diner, your job isn’t to neatly stack and restack your order slips”. If you reading a forum like this, you are probably at risk of this behavior. Any GTD system used long enough is going to accumulate large amounts of completion-resistant tasks and projects that seem to be “must do” but essentially are not. The work becomes trying deal with important items in that noise.

So what do I see in this other product?

  1. Inbox – The product has an inbox, but it also lets you easily move inbox items into area folders as single tasks. In OF you have a general inbox for all your captured items and they have to go to some type of project to put them into an area folder. In OF you constantly have the “misc” projects being created to capture them. And to put them in an area you have to create special dedicated “area inbox” projects that are clutter when empty. The other product probably has these misc projects in the internal data structure, but they are hidden. I keep my main inbox clear by moving topics to their folders. This product doesn’t force “next action” thinking, but it keeps my life more sorted by default rather than always being faced with 30 unprocessed items in unrelated parts of my life on a Sunday morning.

  2. Today – is things dated as needing to start today or earlier, and things due today or earlier. It’s not a “tag”. There is a “This evening” button to push today items to bottom of today list.

  3. The single user interface “perspective” is single scroll of inbox, today, upcoming, anytime, someday, logbook, then 1 level of folders (areas), with projects within them. “Weekly review” is just a pass down through all of these in order without the guilt of having to tag each one with a review frequency. Someday feels more visible and easily accessible and consequently I put more there than I did in OF, where it felt like a one way trip to never.

  4. Completed stuff goes to the “logbook” section rather than showing up graphically as still living under a folder as uncompleted work. There is no need to “archive”.

  5. It lacks perspectives, sub foldering, and many other things, but I’m not missing them yet.

As a company, OF might try to mimic some of these advantages for new users while keeping the horsepower under the hood for the advanced/legacy user base.

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I see your issues as deriving primarily from trying to use OmniFocus to manage projects from a top down perspective. OmniFocus is excellent for task management within projects–for completing a project from the bottom up. I have never seen OF as being well-suited to manage choices at the project level looking from the top down, and I do not ever see this limitation as being on the radar for OG to change. My ability to work more effectively improved once I accepted these limitations and correspondingly implemented a separate approach to handle my top-down views of projects (in my case with Kanban style boards).

Otherwise, I fear that you ask a lot to have a community of users to agree on clear, concise, actionable suggestions to push to OG. As you see already by responses, you will be equally likely to get a laundry list of various ways to fix your problems and/or a collection of “me too” or “that idea is not useful” comments rather than a short list, let alone an actionable one, with a consensus behind it.

In summary, you may have more success reducing your current frustrations when you would include a companion method to oversee projects in your workflow and allow OF to help you manage the tasks within the projects.


JJW

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Happy to see you’ve got Things working for you. If it works well enough for you then you should stick with it.

A long time ago, I took a deep dive into Things to see what the fuss was about. it’s a beautiful app. But then I got around to trying to figure out how to replicate many of Things’ sidebar inside OF3 and OF4. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

For those one-off actions, I just have a bunch of Single Actions List (SAL) at the root level.

Personal one-off tasks
Work one-off tasks
Family one-off tasks

I consider these root level SALs like a folder. it just holds my single one-off tasks that don’t really belong in a project.

I use the Forecast for this. I can change the view settings to show Flagged tasks or a Forecast tag. The flagged tasks or the Forecast tags are tasks that I want to work on today. They’ll automatically move to tomorrow if I don’t finish it by end of day.

I have been able to replicate this by going to the Forecast perspective’s view settings to turn off “Keep Sorted”. I can drag tasks to the end of the day to indicate it’s something I want done last. If I happen to finish today’s work early, I can get a head start on this evening’s tasks.

I have a custom perspective called “Someday” which shows all projects that have been put on hold and displays remaining actions. I consider any paused project as something I’ll work on someday. It’s not something I’m working on today.

I also have a custom perspective called “Big Rocks”. It shows all projects that are active and shows all remaining tasks. These are the project I want to make progress in for this week and/or month.

By using these 2 custom perspectives (Big Rocks and Someday), I can switch to any project by selecting a project in the project sidebar. The outline will show the tasks I need to work on for that particular project. This emulates Things’ areas and the projects inside them.

I don’t have to archive. I can see anything in the Completed perspective. I also have a “Logbook” perspective that shows all completed actions grouped by projects.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. OF4 is flexible enough to allow me to mimic a Things 3 workflow. It took a little bit of time to figure out but I got it working. Others will have their own way and don’t necessarily follow the Things 3 workflow.

But yes, hopefully there are still ways to make it easier for new users to get onboard. OF4’s complexity can be overwhelming. But then agin, every uses just the features they need. I reckon I use about 1-5% of the power of Microsoft Word in my day job. And I’m fine with that.

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I’ve tried using a folder with multiple projects inside. Each project represents a phase of the project, The first project is set to active status while all the others are set to On Hold. The last line in the first project has a task titled “Set Project - Phase 2 to active”, I set the next project active and complete this last task for Phase 1. I do this last task for the remaining projects

I try to stay out of action groups when possible by using multiple projects inside a folder. But there will be the occasional time when I do use action groups but it’s not very often. Using multiple projects inside a folder solved most of the issues you discussed.

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Some people are Things people. That’s okay. Things fans tend to want OF to do things that would make it worse for OF fans (and vice versa.) It’s good both flavors exist.

I think it would be great if you could move an action to a folder from an inspector, and it would convert into a project. That said, it’s not hindered me.

Sub-projects that aren’t fully featured and added an extra step would be bad.

OF has an automatic misc. task project that automatically receives projects if you set inbox cleanup to either “Tag” or “Tag or project.” You only need to create misc. task projects if you care about having one per folder, which IMO isn’t necessary since you were planning to only work off of tags and due dates anyway.

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This is an important point to remember. When I start to think too much about my system, I remind myself that too much time sharpening my tools means too little time actually getting work done.

I discovered GTD before OmniFocus was around, and started implementing it with Ethan Schoonover’s Kinkless GTD scripts for OmniOutliner. When Omni announced plans for OmniFocus, I signed up for the Sneaky Peeks and alpha tested what became v1. My active OF database has tasks in it that go back to May 2007.

In my experience, there’s a real risk of over-planning the kind of individual projects that GTD and OF are ideal for managing. What I like about GTD, and what OF makes possible for me, is keeping a list of open loops—things I want to get done but that I can’t do right now—with the contexts in which I can do them, and the next concrete action to take on them—and regularly reviewing them to ensure that I continue to make progress. I use folders for broad areas of activity (research, teaching, administration, academic service, home and personal, health and fitness, and a couple others), so I can focus on one or a few of them, but I don’t break things down more than that.

I’ll sometimes yield to the temptation to plan things out a little more, especially if I think of something I’m afraid that I’ll forget. For example, if I’m planning a trip for which I need one or more visas, I’ll put that in the project for the trip. But I try to resist it when I’m pretty sure I won’t forget anything. One thing that Getting Things Done (the book) brought home to me is that intuitive planning is often enough, especially for familiar projects.

I also try to be realistic about what I can do. I use defer dates liberally if I know I either can’t or won’t get to something before then. And I’m pretty ruthless about tagging projects as “someday/maybe” and hiding them, and in some cases, moving them from OF to a separate OmniOutliner document. My monthly review includes the task of reviewing someday/maybe lists.

On a day-to-day basis, I start with the Forecast perspective, which also shows my hard calendar commitments, to be sure I knock off anything time sensitive and to get an overview of what’s due soon and has just become available (I use defer dates like a paper tickler file). After that, I’ll generally decide what area needs attention and focus on that (folder or project), and get to work on that. I’ll end the day with a quick review, which helps me think about the next day or two, and end the week with a more involved review. The reviews are a central part of making my system work for me without adding too much complexity.

If I were managing a large, complex project involving several people, I’d use another tool, such as OmniPlan, that’s more suited to the purpose.

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What competing product if I may ask? Please DM me if that’s against forum rules - thank you. I will reply to yours and others responses soon.

Archiving is the process of making an immutable snapshot of a record that is no longer being and will no longer be actively changed. What OmniFocus calls archiving is instead “culling”. Explaining an alternative method to cull data and saying there is no need to archive betrays a frustrating naivety on this distinction.


JJW

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It’s easy to want more and more and more from a product, but you need to consider what is the product vision that OG have?

If you want features which would take the product outside it’s product vision, they’re unlikely to be added.

Omnifocus is not a Project management tool, it’s a task management tool. You probably want to look at OmniPlan (from the OmniGroup anyway) if you want to manage complex projects or another Project management tool like MS Project (I’m sure that there are others).

I can completely understand why Omni have not added Sub-projects as for most user’s sub tasks fulfils the basic need, and it would likely add a lot of complexity to OmniFocus as a product, plus they already have another product which offers this functionality.

OF 4 has just been released with changes to how this can be enacted after a long beta process

You can move projects wherever you want (Note that I mainly use the iPadOS app) using the organise option in the context (right click/long hold) menu. Or by dragging and dropping them. Actions, you can simply add the associated Project in the right field in the action, or drag and drop the action onto the project I’m unclear what else you want.

You obviously think that this is needed, there must be a reason you think this. Personally I’ve never felt the need to do this as you can build a perspective based on the folder a project or action is stored in. What you describe would turn a folder into a project (or if it didn’t have any descendants, an action). Projects and actions already exist.

I don’t seem to see this as my actions don’t inherit project tags to the actions within, but I don’t know why.

I have a number of Single Action Lists which I use in the product, they’re a great feature for those actions which don’t need a project and where the Single Action List doesn’t end e.g. Work Misc, Pers Misc, Someday/Maybe. The definition of a project includes something which has a start and and end. It shouldn’t be persistent.

The last problem I had with OF was its inability to assign multiple contexts to an action. OF solved that years ago with the introduction of tags and I can’t think of a feature which has regularly niggled by about the product since.

Omni are responsive to user needs when they feel that they are significant, or they’re harming the product .They’ve publicly stated that OF 4 is a foundation from which to continue developing the product through upcoming versions, rather than waiting for OF 5.

If there’s a bug with Inheriting contexts, OF may see that as an issue, I doubt that any of the other things you’ve mentioned would be seen as issues, rather as feature requests, again, that will come down to Product vision and feedback from customers. As OF has reached version 4 without these Features (1, 2, and 3 from your list) It’s possible they’re either not something OG are seeing customers asking about, or that they’re not in the product vision.

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I see the Review context as a massive feature in OmniFocus. I have hundreds of Projects and Single Action Lists in OF, I don’t need to review them all every week, some I want to review daily, others every quarter or even annually. The Review Frequency allows me to manage this so that my work that needs the most focus, gets it.

EDIT: I also forgot to say that if I get interrupted while reviewing my projects, I always know where I’m up to as I mark them individually reviewed as I go.

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I really do wish OF had a native Kanban option for projects so I could visually see the stages they’re in within a perspective, but I doubt it’s on the roadmap.

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@Geoffairey You can do something like that with widgets on e.g. an iPad (have no Mac experience). Place a few of them next to each other and choose different perspectives using different Tags for example.

Unfortunately, it was not possible to drag and drop actions from one to the next widget recently.

Hello - and thank you all kindly for responding. My thoughts / answers in order of response date/time are below:

@Logan - While I do take your point - and have contemplated the question of “complexity” and diminishing returns / wasted time / effort quite a lot in my pursuit of “black belt” organization / “mind like water” Mr. Allen references, I can not agree with your position for the very simple reason - the epic amount of “reconfiguration” and revisiting / changing my “Top Down” organizational systems to work around Omnifocus’s limitations(including "Action Groups - which should IMHO be "nested Projects or Sub-Projects if they must programmatically be a different “object type”) that PREVENT simplicity in the “Top Down” view, with it’s essential “objects” either not behaving consistently, or hampered by a lack of tagging / organizational and hierarchal nested folder controls / meta tags etc. as evidenced in my original post - to which I’ll add the idea of ALIAS’s (the equivalent to Microsoft Windows shortcuts or Apple’s "Alias’s because YES, of course I might have the same action or action group or project as part of another folder or project or action group? The only way I can imagine succeeding with OF4 in its current state, would be to utterly give up on a manageable Top Down view - and just throw every project onto ONE level - which for me, would be overwhelmingly messy and difficult to parse? Beyond the simplicity and speed my wishes / suggestions might well offer in a top down organizing method (even just finding the right project as I’m unlikely to remember all their names or what folder they’re in - because we can’t currently send anything to folders - let alone tag them (!) we also can’t re-order actions in Perspectives view - which is extremely frustrating as far as sorting priorities for the day! So in summary, the “time wasting” you refer to (IMHO) has far more to do with the limitations of OF4 than my desire to “boil the ocean”, and after a decade considering this carefully, i’m unlikely to be pursuaded otherwise, but AM very much interested in yours or anyones input on how I might most efficiently work around these limitations? BTW thanks for your thoughts on the OF widgets - and being able to drag items from one to another - that would be an outstanding feature and one that almost let users create a “simple mini OF app” native to their iOS device. I hope OG catches this idea and implements it as it could open up a lot of possibilities and save time.

@activityowner - thank you for your input! I appreciate your thoughts, would point you at my response above regarding “completion resistant” tasks / projects (great name for them lol) as well, the “other productivity apps” features which I agree might well be helpful? I’m curious about which app you’re using, but imagine I already know and simply need to check the few other competing apps out.

@wilsonng - thank you for weighing in and for the “Things” tip - which I agree would be very unlikely to satisfy my needs. [quote=“wilsonng, post:6, topic:70565”]
For those one-off actions, I just have a bunch of Single Actions List (SAL) at the root level.
[/quote] I think this comment might spotlight my biggest complaint - which is an unorganized “top down” view that feels chaotic and instantly overwhelms? [quote=“wilsonng, post:6, topic:70565”]
I use the Forecast for this. I can change the view settings to show Flagged tasks or a Forecast tag. The flagged tasks or the Forecast tags are tasks that I want to work on today. They’ll automatically move to tomorrow if I don’t finish it by end of day.
[/quote] This is great, and something I might adopt as i’m currently using tags and the “Today” Perspective which requires I retag all items that didn’t get done today (which I may tag “Tomorrow” which also then needs retagging every day EOD. Also, thank you for the tip of using Forecast instead of Today perspective and adjusting keep sorted preference to manually resort for priority - I’ve not used the Forecast perspective heavily, and suppose this is the perspective needed for “Runway” real time prioritization and re-ordering?

@brianogilvie thank you for your input, especially regarding the Forecast perspective as well, being realistic about what can actually be accomplished in any given period of time? My goal and plan has always been to total the “est time to complete” and then intersperse my action items throughout the work day so they don’t interfere with “hard landscape” appointments I’ll only point out that you do you use folders - which indicates that top down organization is not unimportant to you either? lol. Really, I just wish I had a bit more control over that view - NOT to increase complexity or spend forever tweaking my system - but actually the opposite (!) so I can spend LESS time in the top down view getting new items into my system, organizing my “stuff” and performing regular daily weekly monthly (etc) reviews! Any other tips are most welcome thanks again.

@DrJJWMac Agreed re: culling vs archiving, Omnigroups likelyhood of making the “top down” view more capable / flexible (sadly) as well, your statement regarding your efficeincy going up dramatically “once you accepted it’s limitations” (which is where I’m at - and why I’m trying gather a bit of consensus that would allow me to settle this issue in my mind once and for all - to hopefully move on as you have. Thank you! That said, I’m loathe to introduce a “companion method/app” as it will greatly slow down everything I do in OF regularly not to mention add complexity - which could in turn create more “resistance” not less, and TBH, feel like the “top down” UI/UX ‘space’" is an area ripe for invention and improvement - potentially one day going much further than even I might want / need for new users trying to empty their mind in OF? I agree getting a community of users to find any consensus may well be futile, but I have found some of the comments and suggestions using the current OF toolset and work arounds to be very helpful - so will dive into those and see how much further that gets me?

@Geoffairey Thanks for your input which suggests to me that I need to lean far more heavily into the Review Perspective to help keep inactive projects / noise out of my daily / weekly views - correct? Thanks as well for the thought on Kanban features - I’d also appreciate Agile oriented options, but suppose both might be managed minimally with Tags? Is there anything else you might add to the subject at hand? Thanks again.

@michael2 Agreed about competing apps with different areas of focus and feature sets. I also agree sub-projects that in any way behave differently from regular projects would be bad and add significant extra complexity / time to use and manage. Also, I have long since used the MISC project for single action items so as not to clutter my projects perspective view. Thanks again for your input and any other tips / work arounds you might offer?

That’s a really interesting idea @Logan It wouldn’t be ideal, but might give me a better view.

I have been quite productive using Curio for project management via Kanbans, OmniFocus for task management, and Numbers for time blocking. Regarding the first two, I have an AppleScript to hyperlink projects Curio <-> OmniFocus. I also export the Curio status shelf as HTML to an iCloud folder and can view it as a desktop widget (Geektool) or on my iPad.


JJW

Well pardon me but this sounds a bit as the proverbial rock and hard place decision …

Bang your head against the wall for the fact OF does not do well at what you need or want, fuss about how much it hurts, and ask whether anyone can form a consensus committee to have OmniGroup move the wall …

OR

Invest in a focused period of time learning a new method to help do better at what you need or want, sweat and complain during the time required to master the new method, and celebrate for an improved workflow.

I know which path I took. You still seem stuck in wishful thinking and analysis for yours.


JJW

Could you tell a bit more about that?. Looks interesting

Here is an example from some arbitrary week in the past month.

I block out time slots in chunks of “morning”, “early afternoon”, and “evening”. The dark red blocks are pre-defined for courses that I am teaching this semester. Open periods (with no colored blocks) are such things as meals, getting cleaned up, walking, … and relaxing.

Starting about a month or so ago, I found myself needing to use time blocking primarily to avoid that I kept falling into distractions (such as replying to this thread :-) )

FWIW, here is a comparable example for my Kanban board for my (three) courses for this week.


JJW

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