Did you start out using OmniFocus with a great deal of enthusiasm, but end up getting bogged down along the way?
For years I’ve had the privilege of providing OmniFocus coaching and consulting to people all over the world. When people contact me for the first time they often compliment OmniFocus’ outstanding design, and quickly add that they don’t feel like they’re using it as effectively as they could be.
Based on these experiences, here’s a synopsis of the the most common pitfalls that people tend to encounter when using OmniFocus. I’ve also included some suggestions on how to surmount these challenges or, better yet, avoid them in the first place.
Issue: OmniFocus Has Become a Dumping Ground
The most common issue that I observe is people trying to use OmniFocus for too many things. Typically, the inbox is overflowing with everything from random thoughts to important commitments and projects contain a potpourri of actions, ideas and reference material. OmniFocus quickly becomes unmanageable and concerns arise over important tasks and projects getting lost in the shuffle.
I recommend that you reserve OmniFocus for projects and actions that you’re committed to completing and that you store ideas, project support material and incomplete thoughts elsewhere, referencing them from OmniFocus, as needed, to make sure that they’re not forgotten.
If things like ideas and incomplete thoughts end up in your OmniFocus inbox, either take the time to clarify them before adding them to your OmniFocus library or, if they’re not actionable, store them elsewhere. Better yet, get into the habit of storing non-actionable things elsewhere (e.g. OmniOutliner or Evernote) to minimize the number of items that end up in your OmniFocus inbox.
For some specific suggestions on how and where to store non-actionable materials, check out the Best Practice: Make OmniFocus a Sacred Space article (Free) and the Integrating OmniFocus and Evernote on Mac & iOS video (Free). If you’re capturing on iOS, consider using the Drafts app to collect what has your attention, and only direct those items that are actionable to OmniFocus.
Issue: Unclarified Projects and Actions
David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology stresses the importance of clearly articulating actions and outcomes. I often see projects with names such as “Board of Directors” that don’t define the intended outcome and contain actions that are equally vague. There's a tendency to feel stuck if your next actions and project outcomes aren't clearly defined.
In keeping with GTD best practices, be specific when naming projects (e.g. “Prepare for 2018-11-08 Board of Directors Meeting”). Consider adding a summary to the project’s note field that elaborates on the outcome (e.g. what does being prepared look like?). For projects, you might also want to consider including a checklist containing conditions that need to be satisfied before the project can be called complete (e.g. Agenda finalized, Venue booked). Next, define specific actions that will move you towards this outcome, using OmniFocus’ Groups feature to group related items, as needed.
Store one-off actions that aren’t related to a specific outcome in single action lists. For example, if the action is to book an appointment with your dentist, you could create an action such as "Phone: Dr. Nibble to book an appointment" in a single action list called "[Health]". For added convenience, include a reference to Dr. Nibble’s contact information in the note field of this action.
Unlike parallel and sequential projects, single actions lists don't have a defined outcome and are instead used as a container for related one-off actions. For added clarity, consider including the names of single action "projects" in square brackets to clearly differentiate them from projects that have a specific destination.
If you haven’t already, I recommend reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done book, which is essentially the manual for the Getting Things Done approach to productivity. You’ll find links to this book, as well as other books, articles and videos to support your GTD learning, in our GTD Resources page.
Issue: Overwhelming Number of Overdue Items
It’s tempting to use due dates for things that you’d like to get done by a specific date, even though they’re not technically due on that date. The problem with this approach is that it becomes difficult to distinguish between what’s actually due, and what you’d like to have accomplished by a specific date, even though it's not technically due. The end result tends to be a long list of overdue actions and projects, which creates stress and instills a sense of failure.
Use flags and/or tags for things that you’d like to get done, even though they’re not actually due, reserving due dates for things that are actually due.
If there are things that you can’t, or don’t plan on taking action on today, but that will become important in the future, consider giving them a flag and/or tag and deferring them to the date that you want them to appear among your available actions.
The Best Practice: Use Due Dates Sparingly article (Free) covers this topic in more detail.
Issue: OmniFocus is Out of Date
If not used regularly, OmniFocus quickly becomes out of date and ceases to be a useful place to go to decide what to do next; it's no longer an active reflection of the commitments that you’ve made. It’s difficult to trust a system that is out of date, and there’s a tendency to try and keep track of things in your head, which doesn’t tend to work very well. To quote David Allen, "Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”
Establish a habit of using OmniFocus regularly. If you’re just getting started, consider using OmniFocus for a specific area of your life to begin with and then build on this experience, gradually expanding your use of OmniFocus.
If you’ve been using OmniFocus for a while and your system has become unmanagable, consider temporarily moving everything to a folder called something like “triage” and establish a new structure of folders and projects. Process the contents of “triage” into this new structure, clarifying and discarding items as you go along.
It’s important to review OmniFocus regularly to ensure that it becomes and continues to be a useful and trusted resource. Performing a review of OmniFocus and the rest of your GTD system, that might include physical inboxes and apps such as Evernote, approximately once a week is a key practice that helps keep OmniFocus relevant.
Issue: Too Many…or Not Enough Tags
For some reason, tags (formerly contexts) are a source of anxiety for some people and there’s a tendency to either create more tags than are needed, or to not use tags at all. Either way, the potential benefits that come from using tags are lost.
When tags are used effectively, you can easily get to a list of relevant actions based on things like your physical location, who you’re with, the tools you have at your disposal and your energy level. Tags can also be used to identify, for example, things you'd like to get done today and everything you'd like to accomplish before leaving on vacation. The key is to define as many tags as you need without making your tagging system needlessly complex.
As you’re creating tags, think about what filtered views of your OmniFocus actions you’d ultimately like to see. If you have an Internet connection 99% of the time, then having a tag of “online” might not be very useful. However, if you spend a lot of time flying it may be useful to have a tag of "Airplane" to identify actions that can be performed even if you're at 35,000 feet. It can also be very helpful to have tags that define the type of activity (e.g. Email, Writing, Planning) so that you can group related actions together.
To help ensure that nothing falls through the cracks, make sure that each and every action in OmniFocus is assigned at least one tag. To help enforce this behaviour, go to OmniFocus Preferences, click on the Organization tab and set the “Clean up inbox items which have” option to “Both a Project and a Tag”. With this option set, items will remain in the inbox unless they have been assigned both a project and a tag. On the Mac this option can be found in Preferences > Organization. And on iOS it's in Clean Up section of Settings.
Check out our Tags for OmniFocus 3 directory (Free) for some inspiration on how to use tags. We also have a guide for Making Productive Use of Tags in OmniFocus 3 (Membership Required) that takes an in-depth look at using tags along side other organizational elements, including folders, projects, and single action lists.