Some useful perspectives for OmniFocus

One of my favorite TV programs of all time was The West Wing. When it comes to getting things done, I have often wished for the software equivalent of what happens with President Jed Bartlett finishes one thing and calls, "What's next?" Ideally, finding the next thing wouldn't be difficult, and it wouldn't require reconsidering a myriad of possible things to do.

We haven't reached that degree of AI yet, so the next best thing would be a way to organize what you have to do in a way that brings up a small set of choices for what's next, so you can decide based on whatever combination of priority, urgency, deadlines, energy level, and possibility makes sense in the moment. I have even mused about trying to write a program that does this, but it never got high enough on my own to-do list.

Instead, I've been using OmniFocus from The Omni Group to keep track of things to do for a long time, with varying degrees of success. As with many powerful programs, figuring out to make it work best for you can be a challenge. After a lot of experimentation and daily use, I have settled on a few perspectives that help keep things moving without spending too much time simply dealing with the to-do list.


The "Due" Perspective

<<text-1>> The first one is "Due". It lists the actions that are due soon, which I use for two things: tasks with deadlines and for reminders of long-term recurring tasks (like "pay the accumulated bill"). The setup for "Due" is:

  • Don't use project hierarchy
  • Group actions by Ungrouped
  • Sort actions by Context (It doesn't really matter to me which sorting is used; I try to keep the list of possible due actions short enough that the sorting is not important)
  • Filter by Due Soon
  • Filter by availability Remaining. Allowing any remaining task to appear means that I can see something that is due, even it got blocked by some other task in a project.
  • Filter by duration Any duration
  • Filter contexts Remaining
  • Sidebar selection: All contexts

Also, I often set the defer date for an item to the date I want it to appear, with the due date set to a couple days later so that the configuration to show upcoming due items doesn't cause it to be shown earlier than I want. For real deadlines, I usually set the due date a couple days in advance anyway, with a defer date (if any) that gives me plenty of time to take care of it.


The "Top Flagged" Perspective

<<text-2>> The second important perspective is "Top Flagged". I use flags to designate the items that I want to tackle on a particular day. This is, in effect, the list of things I want to do today. Most days, I start at the top and work down, since I try to keep my most important projects at the top. I also try to write tasks that can be completed in a reasonable time block (usually less than half an hour), rather than big amorphous tasks like "Write bestselling novel." In this way, I can also get to the less important tasks soon enough.

The setup for this one is similar to Due, with the following differences:

  • Sort actions by Project
  • Filter by status Due or Flagged
  • Filter by availability Available. I want to see only tasks that I am able to do now.
  • Sidebar Selection: A selection of the contexts relevant to getting my main tasks done. Include whichever ones are most important and possible for you to work with.

Sorting by project means that I can use the organization of Projects in the sidebar to give me a sense of relative priority in the projects as I scan down the list.


The "All Flagged" Perspective

<<text-3>> The third one is a slight variant of "Top Flagged". Sometimes during a review, or as part of capturing a new idea, I'll flag an item that isn't the next available action for a project. It's a note to myself that I need to deal with this soon, even if I don't want to rearrange the tasks to get it to the top. It's also useful for parallel projects, since OmniFocus only lists the first one as "next."

It's just like "Top Flagged," except:

  • Filer by availability is Remaining
  • Sidebar Selection is blank, meaning that all projects and contexts are available. This ensures that I don't miss anything.

This perspective is most helpful when "Top Flagged" is empty, or nearly empty, since all of those items will show up here as well.


Getting perspective, fast

<<text-4>> OmniFocus lets you customize the toolbar to include your own perspectives, using the View->Customize Toolbar menu item. Here's the main part of mine:


Keeping things in perspective

<<text-5>> OmniFocus is a great place to create a complete list of projects and tasks, but it can get overwhelming to look at all of it to decide what to do next. Perspectives can limit what's in view to make it easier to focus on what's important at a given time and decide what to do next.