When to use a folder, a project, or an Action Group

I’ve recently been getting to grips with OmniFocus 2 on a Mac and the OmniFocus app for the iPhone. I like the way they work, look, and sync, and I feel I am making progress with learning how to use them. What I’m finding, however, is that I may need some guidance with the organizational structure.

When I first setup OmniFocus on my iPhone, I created a few folders with traditional headings (Work, Home, etc.) and I then created tasks which could be roughly grouped under headings (I used projects here) and placed within these folders. I wasn’t totally happy with this approach, however, and scrapped it all and started again after watching a user’s video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKqxZCtyfcg) on how they structured their own usage. I strongly liked the way he used folders representing personal goals so they had a broader perspective on life, instead of simply the usual work/home divide like a glorified To Do list.

I started again, using the video as a very general guide, but I found I ran into a few questions or problems along the way, which may result from my uncertainty about the boundaries between usage of folders, projects, and “Action Groups.” For example, at the top level, I could use folders with the general structure:

Friends and Family
Try new hobbies
Charity involvement
Career progresion
Routine tasks at work
House and home

I could then move tasks from my Inbox into different projects, located within these folders, to create headings. The problem I face is that the projects are often very broad topics, rather than specific one offs. For example, perhaps the “Career progression” folder could contain the following projects:

Expand team
Publish findings
Presentations and travel
Project ideas
Develop new collaborations
Look after existing collaborations
Professional memberships

Many of these projects are Single Action lists and the tasks all contribute towards an overall goal (e.g. ways to grow the current team, publishing more, separate ideas for creating new projects, etc.), but the individual tasks are not related to each other. The tasks do not all need to be completed and do not result in the completion of the project (which is simply a heading), but they do all help to make progress in that direction. I’ve considered making these projects nested folders instead and then making the individual tasks separate projects (with many more details listed as tasks), but then the organization becomes more cluttered, especially on the iPhone app.

If I instead use projects, it feels odd to have unrelated tasks, albeit with a common theme, where they are listed as single tasks. It would seem contrived to pad out each task with sub-tasks which may be very straightforwards, however. I often just list broad tasks to complete (e.g. write report), rather than include all the steps required because it would take up more time and would clutter the list. Perhaps I’m not using OmniFocus quite as intended!

Also, when using projects, sometimes I want to put particular tasks on hold, but it seems this can only be done for projects, which makes me wonder again if I’ve got the hierarchy wrong. I also have some projects that contain no actions at the moment, with a view to reminding me to keep a broader perspective, but this can be messy too, especially during the Review process.

So my questions are as follows… What are the intended differences between folders, projects, and Action Groups? When should one be used instead of another? If using projects to serve as broad headings, when should a “Parallel” or a “Single Action” project be used? Should projects not remain empty (according to good practice)? Again according to best practices, should projects only ever be relatively short term and achievable, so that they can be ticked off as completed, or should they serve as categories? I’ve found information about how to create folders, projects, and Action Groups, but not much guidance about when it is most appropriate to use one or the other.

I realize that there is a lot of flexibility and that people will use the software in very different ways. I’m left thinking I’ve not got things quite right at the moment, though. Any thoughts about how best to organize the information would be much appreciated! Thanks.

1 Like

I suggest to use top-level folders as your Areas of Responsibility (AoR), for example …

Marketing, … Family, … Surroundings, … Well-Being, … Hobbies, …

You might have sub-folders within many of these, for example …

  • Marketing: SE Region
  • Marketing: SW Region
  • Family: Spouse
  • Family: Kids
  • Surroundings: Office
  • Surroundings: Apartment
  • Well-Being: Finances
  • Well-Being: Policies
  • Hobbies: Photography
  • Hobbies: Programming

To handle comparable tasks for a given AoR, you might put a single-action Project in the Folder, for example …

Family: @Admin Family (single-action list project)

  • send family news and regards to siblings (repeat monthly)
  • kiss the dog (repeat daily)

  • Surroundings: @Admin Office (single-action list project)
  • water the plants (repeat ever other day)
  • get Secretary’s day card (defer + repeat yearly before day due)

Folders are non-actionable containers of other Folders or Projects. Projects are containers that are completed as an actionable goal. They contain Action Groups or Tasks. Action Groups are sub-set collections of Tasks. I use Action Groups ONLY when a certain group of Tasks in a given Project has a different path (sequential or parallel) than the main Project. For example, to paint a house, you have SEQUENTIALLY to buy all the supplies, then paint all the walls, then paint all the trim, then clean up. When you buy the supplies, you can do everything in PARALLEL. So, a layout may be as …

Paint the House (sequential project)

  • Buy the Supplies (parallel action group)
    – paint
    – brush
    – …
  • Paint the Walls (parallel action group)
    – front
    – back
    – left side
    – right side
  • Paint the Trim (parallel action group)

You should not create Projects without actions. Create a reminder Task in a single-action Project instead, for example

Marketing (folder)

  • SE Region (sub-folder)
    @Admin SE Region (single-action list project)
  • initiate Q2 regional marketing plan for SE region (task, due Friday)
  • send SE region team weekly updates (task, due Wednesday, repeat)

The rest is up to you to decide what works best for your flow.



Thank you, DrJJWMac. That was very helpful and I learned quite a bit. I’ve followed some of your guidelines, particularly regarding not having empty projects, and then wanted to see how I’d get on over the course of a few days.

I’ve used an extra level of folders in some cases and used Single Action projects when I know the lists will always contain a task at any given point in time. I’d originally liked having a relatively flat hierarchy so that it was easy to see my Projects. I had been worried that additional folders would just make it less convenient to navigate, particularly when choosing Projects for Inbox items, but so far it has not been too bad. It has also made everything easier to review (not having lots of redundant/empty projects, etc.). I’ve also revamped my use of Contexts, as I was finding I had redundant or unhelpful categories.

The reorganization has certainly helped so far. I’ll see how things continue to go and will tweak the structure if necessary. Thanks again for your help!