Struggling with Collect and Clarify -> To do List

Hey guys! I could use your help.
I really want to use Omnifocus. I’ve spent the money on the mac app and the iOS app. I’ve been reviewing GTD and online videos to understand the proper approach.

I set up Omnifocus with folders and subfolders to reflect areas of focus / responsibility. I’ve worked on a brain dump, but I have a hard time putting getting that info from inbox to the folder. It seems arduous and time consuming. I also have a hard time taking that info and making a “to do list” so I have a clear list of tasks I want to work on. I find myself pulling out a piece of paper and writing a schedule of whats coming up over the coming week and a list of tasks, starting with those that are time dependent, followed by urgent/important but less immediate.

I’ve read about using flags or creating contexts (Priority A, Priority B, etc) to help with lists and viewing those lists in the context perspective.

I read over and over again how great Omnifocus is, but I keep getting hung up in the implementation. Would I be better off with something simpler like Wunderlist? I’m a busy medical professional and the time I’m putting into this is driving me batty. Not sure what I am doing wrong or how to approach things.

Ideas? Suggestions? Resources?
Thank you!

I use OmniFocus as my bucket list containing all the various projects and tasks for me to do. Eventually, I create an Available perspective showing all available tasks as well as Today perspective showing all Due and Flagged tasks. Then I take out a piece of paper or index card and write down 3-5 tasks from the Available perspective that i really want to work on. Then I put away OmniFocus and work from my list.

Here’s where I discussed a little more about this…

I don’t work from my task manager. It just serves as a restaurant menu. When I have finished selecting the tasks to work on today, I don’t refer to Omnifocus until the end of the day when I am ready to check them off as complete.

Another post is here as well:


I’d rather use Omnifocus, rather than a paper to do list. If I wanted index cards, I’d switch back to a paper-based system.
My area of concern, is trying to figure out how to sort my “Collect” into projects and organizing those projects into roles.
When I do that, I find I lose the tasks into a milieu of roles-based folders, making it harder to determine my priority list.

Any ideas how to sort the important from the mundane when the details are in my roles/folders?

David Allen recommends that your system be no more complex than you can manage when you have a heavy cold. GTD Areas of Focus are intended to help you plan the next few months, not organise day-to-day activity. Just because OmniFocus allows you to set up nested folders, doesn’t mean you should.

I have only three folders: Personal, Professional, and Someday/Maybe (which contains ‘on hold’ ‘single action lists’ for each Area of Focus & Responsibility). The Personal and Professional folders each contain a ‘single action list’ named “—“.

For each item in my inbox, the decision process is this:

  1. does this fall within my Areas of Focus & Responsibility? If not, delete.
  2. is this something I’m committed to doing anytime soon? If not, move to the appropriate list in Someday/Maybe.
  3. is this work-related? if yes, move to the Professional folder; if no, move to the Personal folder.
  4. is this a one-off Action? if yes, move it to the “— “ list; if no, add a Next Action to what is now a Project.
  5. assign the appropriate Context to the Action.
  6. can the Action or Project be started today? if not, add a Defer date to when the Project or Action can be started.
  7. must the Action or Project be completed by a particular date? if so, add a Due date. (Actions inherit the Project’s Due date by default, but can have their own e.g. “this article is due next week, but I only have access to the library today”: Project’s due date is next week but my “hit the library” Action’s due date is today)

[NB: the above is a much smoother process when you’re dragging items from your Inbox to your Project list, a process made much more difficult in OmniFocus 2. Simplest fix is having two windows, one showing your Inbox, the other your Projects list.]

I then have a list of Projects, all of which are relevant to my Areas of Focus (if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be on the list), and lists of Actions, all of which I can do when I’m in the relevant Context.

My Contexts are

  • Agendas (with a subcontext for each regular meeting or interaction)
  • Anywhere (anything for which I need at most my iPhone)
  • Calls (if I need to talk aloud on a phone)
  • Computer (work PC or my MacBook)
  • Errands (including home visits)
  • Hospital (wards and outpatients)
  • Office (my workspace at the hospital)
  • Home
  • Study (my workspace at my house)
  • Waiting for

My Contexts are set to show Available Actions, sorted by Due Date & Flagged, so that more urgent Actions appear first. Because the ‘single action lists’ are named “—“, it’s easy to scan for one-off Actions when I need a quick success.

Every morning, I scan my Projects list: I check for Projects without a Next Action. If there’s a Project or Action without a due date I want to prioritise that day, I Flag it: Actions related to the Flagged Project will also sort to the top of their Context. Best to be sparing with the flags.

At my Weekly Review, with an eye on my calendar, any Project on which I can’t work in the coming week is put on hold, so that related Actions don’t appear in my Contexts. My Projects list is set to show Remaining Projects, so I don’t forget about suspended Projects and so I have a better idea of my overall commitments.

Every month I scan my Someday/Maybe folder for Actions and Projects to move to Personal or Professional (or delete entirely). Because they’re sorted by Areas of Focus, it’s easy to compare with my active Projects and spot Areas which need attention.

At work, I can Focus on the Professional folder and only work-related tasks show up in my Contexts. In my own time, I can Focus on the Personal folder and see only non-work tasks. For fast filtering on the iPhone, I have created ‘At work’ and ‘My time’ Perspectives but I don’t think it’s possible to sort by Due date and Flagged in custom Perspectives; I’ve settled for sorting by Due Date, as Flagged Actions are coloured so stand out anyway, assuming the Context list isn’t too long.

In this way, so long as I think each item through when clearing my Inbox, and take care to do a daily scan and a Weekly Review, OmniFocus automatically highlights the urgent and important Actions in my current Context(s).

I’m spread across four wards, two outpatient clinics and both institutional and individual homes. It’s all the same service, though, so the only meaningful distinctions for me are ‘out of the hospital’, ‘in the hospital’, and ‘at my own desk’. If you’re working in distinct services or have multiple roles (e.g. clinician and manager), extra contexts might add clarity (e.g. ‘Surgical ward’, Rehab ward’, etc).

Hope that helps.


You don’t have to switch to an exclusively digital or analog system. I use a mixture of both. I’ve learned to not try to make OmniFocus the hub of my productivity system. It is one part that works together with my other tools. I have a reference system (storing documents, PDFs in DevonThink), a calendar (Fantastical), OmniFocus (projects and tasks), and overall vision (iThoughtsX and MindNode). OmniFocus is not the all-encompassing tool that everyone is dreaming of. A handyman has a variety of tools in his arsenal. Sure, he can unscrew with his knife but wouldn’t a proper screwdriver be better. The handyman has a typical hammer for most of his work but he also has a sledgehammer when he needs to break down some walls. My drill box contains a wide variety of drill bits for different occasions. But I know when a screwdriver is more appropriate when the screwdriver drill bit is just overkill.

For years, I’ve tried to pound my task manager (Things, OmniFocus, 2Do) into becoming the ultimate task manager. But now I realised that I could complement OmniFocus with paper or index cards and be equally effective. If the tools are available, why not use it?

I struggled in the same manner that you are describing. It takes time to finally figure out what works for you.

Here is another thread that might reflect the same situation:

and yet another thread…

Don’t shrug off paper just because OmniFoucs/Wunderlist/other task manager is the shiny new toy in our toy box. Paper has its place in this world. We hear about how the world has been trying to turn into a Paperless Society with the introduction of computers and scanners. Paper will never go away. When used as part of an overall system, paper works well with almost anyone’s system.

Mark - I was trying to think of how to include Covey’s urgency/importance matrix in OF. The only quadrant that really matters in this regard is “Important but Not Urgent”, so I put “C-INU” in the Note field and search for that (or create a perspective in Pro: you need Pro), because anything could be important but not urgent. Three tips:

  1. I’ve finally learned one can’t do GTD at less than 100%, including weekly review (especially weekly review), so make sure you read and understand David Allen’s stuff.
  2. Stick with OF, you won’t set it up optimally at first, but if you keep at it it will pay off, especially with more automation coming soon.
  3. Check out videos like David Sparks OmniFocus Field Guide, you will pick up tidbits & insights that will speed you up (

What is curious to me is to hear so much about creating Folders and Sub-Folders but NOT to hear about working effectively with Projects. I might almost say, the approach seems to be perversely inverted, where a hard structure is being defined from the top down and then life is being forced to fit to it rather than setting a foundation from the bottom up that supports the work flow and organizing a top structure to contain it. It also seems that, with so many tricks being offered to “manage the management”, the core message is getting muddled. By this I mean, suggestions on how to hack priorities on tasks and how to set up contexts, while good in their own right, are only fluff unless the foundation of fitting Tasks to Projects is strong in itself.

At this point, it seems to me the best is to put in a call to Hercules to clear the stables. Redefine your workflow process entirely anew based on setting Tasks to complete Projects. Learn to distinguish when and how to set up sequential, parallel, and single-action Projects. Learn to recognize when and how to set up the same for Action Groups within Projects. Learn how your productivity can be better defined to it help you reach larger-scale, more-widely scoped achievements rather than by completing immediate, do-it-now checklists.

After that, you could return to discover what is recommended for contexts and priorities.



Thank you wilsonng, ldrydenb, dharmanaut, and DrJJWMac for your inputs. I appreciate the time you took to respond.

I hear what you guys are saying. I think I need to do a brain dump and go all in with GTD and Omnifocus. I think I’ll tweak the system best once I better see what works and what doesn’t. I think I’ve been using Omnifocus more as a list making tool, rather than a complete project/task management solution.

JJW, I hear what you are saying about the emphasis on folders. I started that way as that is now I process my brain dump / mind sweeps. That is, “what do I have to do for X role?”, then “what is pending for Y committee” and “what task is next on my Honey-Do list?”, etc.

JJW, et al, am I understanding this correctly? I can use a review of my areas of focus and responsibility as a means to get the projects and tasks out of my head and into my Inbox (as a means to Collect). I would then review and Clarify next actions (as appropriate) on those Inbox items. I could organize those projects/tasks into broad roles (to allow for easier review) and assign contexts with defer/due dates (as appropriate). However, I wouldn’t necessarily use nested folders to organize that content. Instead, I would use those Roles/Areas of Focus when I do my weekly review to help ensure I wasn’t missing anything stuck in my head and not in my trusted system. Is that correct? I’ve been so used to working top->down, that working bottom->up is a major shift for me to understand.

I’d love to hear more input. I appreciate your responses and assistance!
Thank you!

My suggestion is this. While you consider “what do I have to do for … role, committee, list …”, consider where each task fits in to a Project that is to be completed. By example, I have many tasks that fall in to a role as a mentor to graduate students. The ongoing Projects in that role include ones that might be labeled as “Finalize Publication Review”, “Confirm Camera Filter Specs”, or “Update Group Web Site”. Alternatively, I have Projects such as “Exam 2”, “IR Spectroscopy Report”, and “Homework 4” that fall in my role as an instructor.

Until you have a clear idea what you need to achieve by doing stuff, you will just be doing stuff. It can help when you set out what role you will take when you do stuff. However that is just a way to get a meta view, it is not a driving force in and of itself.

I do not set up a nested folder until I have a collection of Projects to occupy it.

My weekly review looks over my Projects, not over my Roles/Areas of Focus.

When I realize that I should put something down, I generally know the role. Before I put it down, I think about whether it goes either in a Sequential or Parallel Project or alternatively in a Single-Action List inside that Role/Area.


Mark - JJW makes excellent points. It really is all about listing the projects, defining which ones you are committed to starting (put everything else On Hold), and creating Next Actions using a verb. Limiting your “work-in-progress” is indeed key as noted earlier in the thread.

One thing I struggled with mightily at first (besides skipping weekly review which is the whole point) is that because the current version doesn’t have tags, I gravitated toward using Contexts as tags. Don’t fall into that trap. Tags will arrive in OF 3; they will be useful but are not vital.

The last thing I would say is that the more you can learn the technical details of formal project management (ala PMI) or at least some intro concepts, the more that will help in how you think about your projects, and help you realize when you’re straying from the concept of what a project is.

Yes, that’s exactly it…if you’re following David Allen’s GTD approach, which is all about getting what’s going on right now sorted before considering higher & higher levels of focus.

In the first edition of GTD, the metaphor was flight-related “Horizons of Focus”

  • “runway” (Actions)
  • “10,000 feet” (Projects, reviewed weekly),
  • “20,000 feet” (Areas of Focus, reviewed every month or so)
  • “30,000 feet” (1-2 year Goals, reviewed every quarter, perhaps)
  • “40,000 feet” (3-5 year Vision, reviewed every year maybe)
  • “50,000 feet” (Life Purpose, reviewed during major life changes)

Only Projects and Actions would be entered into OmniFocus: all else would be checklists, mind maps, etc, to be consulted at the relevant review interval to generate new Projects and Actions.

You don’t have to do things exactly as recommended by David Allen, of course. OmniFocus has a whole load of features that DavidCo specifically advises against using (e.g. sequential projects), but presumably they’re included because people feel the need for them. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of OmniFocus users have never read Getting Things Done.

So there’s no “right” way to use OmniFocus, but if you want the simplest, most frictionless starting point, the GTD approach you correctly summarised is a great place to begin.

Mark, I started using OF about 2.5 years ago. I was browsing around checking out videos and tutorials and decided to pick up a course from -

Took me about 2 days to skim through the course and start setting things up on OF. I was up and running in a short period of time with their recommended system to start things off. After I was familiar with OF after a few weeks, I started tweaking the system to suit my preference. Everyone is going to use OF differently and there’s really no right or wrong…as long as it’s effective for you and not a nightmare to manage.

I highly recommend you check it out instead of trying to piece everything together on your own. Saved me a lot of time and worth the investment.

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mpower, Thank you for that endorsement. I started listening to their podcast a few weeks ago. Specifically, I started with their omnifocus information. They’ve been flooding my inbox with several emails per day. I saw their omnifocus premium posts product and I was considering it, and I was comparing it to a MacSparky course on

I appreciate hearing your experience with it and I’m much more likely to give it a try. I’m going to work through their free 6 day intro email series. If I enjoy their style, I’ll sign up for their Premium Posts.

Perfect timing! Thank you!

Hi Mark,

My guess is you are providing too much detail during Collect phase and moving the tasks around does not give you much value anymore. I’m adding tens of items to my inbox every day, but most of them require some clarification which forces me to re-visit inbox later in the day and file each tasks properly. The key is to make adding to inbox as simple as possible (eg. “Groceries” rather than listing entire shopping list). Thanks to that you won’t hesitate before adding everything to OmniFocus.