5 things to keep out of OmniFocus

OmniFocus makes it deceptively easy to quickly add and organize tasks and projects. But there is a trap in trying to keep all your stuff in one place. First, no software is fit for all purposes; and second no software will make hard choices and difficult decisions for you. After getting OmniFocus, I kept adding all my ‘stuff’ there until it started to feel wrong. Weekly Reviews became half a day long. The lists of tasks generated by OF were frustrating and overwhelming. I spent more time on adding folders, perspectives, and contexts but it did not really help. Worst of all, I felt that instead of being a trusted system OF had become a black hole for dumping things that would never be done. The loss of trust is the worst that can ever happen to a task management system. Once you suspect that it is ‘a black hole’ you will resist using it and start with old to-do lists or pieces of paper. Eventually your task management system will become useless and abandoned.

I almost came to this point with OmniFocus, but I liked it so much that I decided to try getting back on track. It took me almost half a year to get it functional again through removing the following:

  1. Uncertain projects. David Allen says that a knowledge worker has up to 60 open projects (a project is a sequence of two or more actions). At the worst point I had over 150 projects recorded in OmniFocus. As difficult as it was, I decided that I am not a superhero and removed or at least put on hold two-thirds of these projects. For example, I transferred the list of potential future publications from OmniFocus to NVAlt. Only when ‘potential’ becomes ‘real’ do I start a new project in OmniFocus. I was relieved to hear that Merlin Mann also deleted 100 projects from his OmniFocus at one point (as he describes on MacPowerUsers).
  2. Project plans. I stopped using OmniFocus for project planning. OmniFocus makes it deceptively easy to plan projects by adding subprojects and sequences of actions extending long into the future. I used to think, “ok, to complete this project, I need to do this task and then I need to do that and then I need to do something else” and add all of this to OmniFocus. The problem with all these ideas for future actions is that you don’t really mentally commit to executing them or even to thinking them carefully through. They are simply too distant. If you’re not fully committed to a task or if it is not fully clarified, it is not really a task, it is ‘stuff’ that clutters your system and distracts your thinking. Instead of being kept in OmniFocus such project plans can be kept in OmniOutliner (as I do) or in another system. Remember, OmniFocus is for keeping your next actions, not entire project plans.
  3. Someone else’s actions. Initially, I tried to use OF to organize team work or to keep track of agreements with my colleagues. This is just another way to complicate your system, slow down your Reviews and clutter your lists. If your colleagues cannot themselves keep track of the tasks they promised to do, you should really add a project Train the Team or even Replace the Assistant to your list. (Be careful with applying this recommendation to your boss though!). It does not mean that you should not keep agendas and minutes of your meetings with other people, or project plans which you collectively develop, just don’t do it in your own personal OmniFocus. I keep discussion lists in TaskPaper, notes from meetings in NVAlt and project plans (whether individual or collecting) in OmniOutliner.
  4. Project reference materials. Sometimes you receive an email which contains input to an ongoing project, for example a piece of information or a reference for your article or report. There is a great temptation to press ⌥⌘X and clip that email to your OmniFocus. Isn’t it ‘something’ related to a particular project? Indeed, it is ‘something’, but it is not an action and therefore should not clutter your OF lists. I used to keep such information labelled with a special context ‘Ref’ (reference). The trouble is that during Reviews all the ‘Refs’ obscure what exactly needs to be done. Nowadays, instead of adding such items to OmniFocus I use several other methods. For very rapidly moving important projects I simply use differently colored flags in Mail to assemble related messages under Reminders in Mail’s sidebar. For large publications I often place such inputs in TaskPaper (which is fast but does not allow links to attachments) or in OmniOutliner.
  5. Non-essential tasks. The best example is a reading list. I used to keep a list of everything I want to read in OmniFocus (once again, clipping and organizing is easy!). In reality I only read 5–10% of this list. Which is ok. But it’s dangerous to mix the things which you would like to do with things you really need to do. For example, to have 59 nice-to-read articles and one dissertation that you need to review in the same ‘Reading’ context is not professional. So nowadays I organize my non-obligatory reading lists in Instapaper, Google Reader and Papers whereas things which I absolutely need to read end up in OmniFocus. This requires hard choices, but at least you can make them at the right time, not when faced with daily onslaught of tasks. Similarly, I keep the lists of movies I want to see or books I want to buy in NValt, not in Omnifocus.

Keeping these 5 types of things – uncertain projects, project plans, team work, reference materials, and non-essential tasks – out of OmniFocus is hard but will eventually make your life easier. To monitor your progress in uncluttering, get this or another script for keeping the track of the number of projects, tasks and contexts in OmniFocus and watch this number being reduced to a manageable level. I reduced the number of active tasks in OmniFocus from some 500 to 150-170. At least this part is rewarding!

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He also coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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27 Responses to 5 things to keep out of OmniFocus

  1. Pingback: Academic writing, task management, and OmniFocus | Academic workflows on Mac

  2. Neil Planchon says:

    good to have found you, aleh! thank you for a wonderful article. i will be reading your other ones very soon and subscribe to the feed! i am really curious about what you think of evernote? and how come it is not an app which you are using to stay organized… :)

    thank again and may you be well


    • Aleh Cherp says:

      Thanks Neil! I tried to use Evernote (started even before I got my first Mac) and still have it, but I don’t use it for organizing professional and academic materials. Evernote is much too “multipurpose” for me which makes it not superior in any of the many tasks it can do. For example, it can keep text notes but it’s much faster and easier to do it in NValt. You can write short texts there, but ByWord is much better. It can handle pdfs but Papers is better. Finally it can work with a large number of different file types, tag them etc. but DevonThink is clearly superior if you need such a system. Moreover, DevonThink can keep files where they are (simply indexing them) whereas Evernote will convert them to some external format. Finally, DevonThink (and NVAlt) use OpenMeta tags which makes it easier to connect them to other apps.

      This having said, I do use Evernote, usually when I am traveling and need to have my bookings, maps and other notes with me on the go. Evernote allows me to save images, pdfs and texts and immediately have them on my iPhone. There are also people who use Evernote very extensively. MacPowerUsers had a podcast on Evernote and Katie Floyd uses it for her paperless workflows (bills and such). I’d be interested in your thoughts.


  3. Great and helpful article. One question:

    II currently do keep a list of movies/books in Omnifocus, mostly bc it seems easier to me to have it in one place, rather than having to remember what app stores what. I don’t have due dates doe these items, so I’m wondering what your thoughts are regarding the “clutter” of these items. Thanks!


    • Aleh Cherp says:

      Thank you, Eric! I guess it depends what is more important: to have all stuff “in one place” or to be more certain that you do your most important stuff. At the beginning for me it was the former that was more important. However, my list of tasks (I check it with OFStats) just kept growing and I was not sure whether this is because I do something wrong or for some other reasons. When I kept the lists of books and such out of OmniFocus I got a better idea of how many truly important task I have (e.g. 140) and how many can I normally do in a week (say 30). It was pretty important to get this arithmetic because it helped me to plan better. May be when I get more comfortable I will start adding books and films to OF as well.


  4. Pingback: OmniFocus Statistics | Academic workflows on Mac

  5. Tom says:

    Hi good article !
    have you heard of Beesy ? I’m using it for now 2 months. It’s working good so far. It’s a good productivity app for management purposes. http://www.beesapps.com/beesy-ipad-to-do/ .


  6. Peter says:

    great article, I had the same 5 categories of items cluttering up omnifocus to the point where it became impossible to use. It took me a long time to realize just what you have listed above. My response was to get rid of the third party apps altogether and just use the built in OSX/iOS apps, reminders for tasks, and notes for project material and everything else. Its sooo much less overhead and now I can spend more time working on my projects and tasks.


  7. paulzagaeski says:

    I agree with your findings, Aleh. Every task management system I’ve used has ultimately collapsed under the weight of “too much stuff” in it. Your solutions are very practical and workable for anyone, not just academics—OmniFocus works best when it is focused on actions. Regarding movies, books to read, etc., my suggestion is simple: keep a list in a “list” app (OmniOutliner, iOS Notes, even TextEdit), and put a task in OmniFocus reminding you to check the list on a repeating basis. When the task appears, either do it and mark it Completed, or mark it Completed to make it go away and re-appear again later. @RabbiLinder, I believe the wish to keep all your reference information “in one place” will subvert your ability to get things done. Keep your reference info in accessible places and create a link in an OmniFocus task to quickly locate a list when it is time to act on it.


  8. I keep lists of books I’d like to read within OmniFocus, but I do this within a folder of separate Single Action Lists in “hold” mode, named like “Someday / Maybe – Books I’d like to read”, with each item set with a context called “Someday / maybe” (which also is set on hold). It’s possible to set the review frequency for these lists to like once a month, or every other month, so that you still visit them frequently, but they don’t clog up your weekly reviews.

    Another handy tip is creating a Project support folder in dropbox, and adding a shortcut in your Dock. This way, even though document links may not work within omnifocus on a mobile device, you can still access the files within the dropbox app (as long as you know what you are looking for).

    I recommend the ebook “Creating Flow with OmniFocus” (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11822951-creating-flow-with-omnifocus) for good ways of filtering your workflow. Specifically, check out the “Flagged Core”-perspective – in effect a very handy workspace for all tasks that are either flagged or have a due date.


  9. Pingback: When there is no time for OmniFocus: TaskPaper | Academic workflows on Mac

  10. Pingback: Overcoming the myopia of OmniFocus: OmniOutliner and the yet-to-be-discovered academic planning software | Academic workflows on Mac

  11. kevinsayhi says:

    Reblogged this on Personal.


  12. Pingback: Managing email with SaneBox | Academic workflows on Mac

  13. Annamarie says:

    HI there,
    That was a really helpful article. I found it when I googled “managing projects in Omnifocus” because I was feeling overwhelmed and OF wasn’t working for me. Moving “Future Projects” out of OF and uncertain projects and eliminating nested folders should make it all MUCH better. Thanks!


  14. Pingback: Todo: Blog to Follow | DragonTenderDragonTender

  15. George says:

    Aleh, thank you for this post. I have found myself coming to the same near exasperation with OF. I tried to overorganize everything and the more and more I would organized, the more overwhelmed I became. I had far too many projects and subprojects and folders, etc and upon every review I was reminded of how little I was accomplishing.
    Would you be willing to post some screenshots of your OF projects, contexts and even how you use OO for projects. I have OP, but do not use it much. I have also found that I spend more time trying to make OO work and then go back to the simplicity of the outline format on Mac MS Word.
    Thanks again for this post!


  16. Gabe says:

    Really helpful article. I’m sure it’ll help a lot of people struggling with OmniFocus. It’s always a bit overwhelming at the beginning, isn’t it?

    I actually keep all reference material in Evernote and just copy/paste the note link into the notes field in the OmniFocus task. That way I can find anything with just one click.


  17. Gerrith says:

    Thanks Aleh, this is in 2014 still one of the most important issue’s in our daily life, professionally and privat. Choosing the best Apps to keep up a good workflow, is just one part of this complex issue. Another is how do we manage, act, react or think in daily life, to managing all the expectations from our surroundings, our boss, our family or our own expectations. The huge question is: How do we actually use our Apple devices and all the endless opportunities we get in our hands – in perspective to e.g. our tendency to create huge or minor black holes…
    Connecting modern humanistic Psychology with App development is more necessary then ever.
    One thing is testing some Apps for some days and writing a review afterwards. It not showing us so much, then a everyday experience in organizing all our research stuff, all articles, Youtube or TED.com clips, mail and so much information we can gather to our present or future projects.

    The main question today for my students, for me and for so many people around the globe in a information based society is: Can we develop a Application who is able to handle all this different information in all kind of formats – all RSS feeds, mail, sound, video and handwritings on Bamboo App, Bookmarks, Reading lists or whatever we came across? Do we have to use five or ten different programs with all the updates and new versions each, combatible at one moment and not for some month after a update? Some are working across iOS and OSX, some will not.
    Some interesting Apps like Bento get started by Apple and stopped after a while again. A rather frustrating situation.
    So what is the situation in 2014? Still using awkward procedures every day to open up so many different kind of Software to see how long did I come last time….? Open mail, open Facebook and all the social media, Omnifocus, Devonthink, OmniOutliner, TaskPaper, InstaPaper, NVAlt and Paper to keep a fictive kind of overview. in my workflow?
    ‘The -One App for All- is not possible’, is your conclusion and I agree, but we can ask Apple for it. Next was a concept to do this and it is partly integrated in our Mac today. The new Yosemite version is the right step in this direction, but we also need an powerful App to organize, handle and process all the information we have gathered until now. Evernote Bobble Browser is perhaps a great step in the right direction to present complex information structures?
    What is you opinion and experiences 2 years later?


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