Posts about Todo Apps

How I use Omnifocus to manage my life

For years, I’ve gone back and forth from OmniFocus to other task management systems. I’ve tried so many of them: Things, Todoist, Wunderlist, Basecamp, Reminders, Asana, 2do — I’m sure I’m forgetting a few. I’ve never lasted more than a month or two with any of these before coming back to OmniFocus.

I have a love/​hate relationship with OmniFocus. (I once called OmniFocus expensive” and dystopian” on my personal blog, which may have been a bit melodramatic.)

But this app is honestly the only task management system that lets me work the way my brain works.

I’ve spent the past year going back and forth between all these systems, and after purchasing it three or four years ago (whenever version 2 came out), I’ve come full circle to embracing OmniFocus again. I’ve made a lot of notes over the past year about how I work and why OmniFocus works for me.

If you’ve been struggling to embrace a digital task management system, or trying to figure out what app you should use, then I hope this can help you.

Outlines of tasks

First of all: like many creative types /​coders that I know, I tend to think in outlines. Give me the back of a napkin and I’m writing a list out on it. OmniFocus is the only todo app that feels like an outlining app. (Obviously, that’s because OmniFocus shares heritage with OmniOutliner — another app I’m a huge fan of.) So every day, when I’m doing a bit of a brain or idea dump, I can write it exactly how I would an outline. (It’s even better once you have the keyboard shortcuts memorized.)

But I know I’m not using OmniFocus right. I don’t use Reviews (well, not often). I don’t know use Contexts at all (seriously, not even a little). But I use Projects religiously. I’ve organized my life into folders of projects in OmniFocus. Each folder includes a project called Miscellaneous, which I use to dump individual tasks that don’t belong to a larger project, but still need to be filed in the right place. I have a folder for my studio, a folder for my church volunteering projects, and a folder for each client and product that I cater to. When a task gets added, assuming there’s a project or client related to it, the task immediately gets dumped in the proper spot.

I know what you’re thinking: This sounds like a ton of work. I don’t want to think this hard.”

But it’s really not. It works just like an outline. Here’s a bullet list to show off (in brief) what a typical list within folders might look like.

  • My Studio Projects
    • Website Update
      • Write New Copy
      • Get a Headshot
  • Acme Corporation Projects
    • Brand Package
      • Create logo
      • Design system
      • Put system into a beautiful book
      • Collaborate with an awesome A+ printer to get the book printed
    • Website Update (Project Two)
      • Design
      • Development
      • Kick-Butt Copywriting

Etc, etc.

It’s not hard. It’s sensible — the exact same way you’d write it down on the back of the napkin.

Deferred projects

To manage the bloat of projects, I also set up a ton of deferred start dates, which often repeat annually for clients on retainers. I can plan out a client’s entire year with them, and then start nudging them the day a project is set to start. This has the side benefit of hiding any inactive” project from my regular OmniFocus views. So there’s not too much clutter. Just enough to get a birds’ eye view.

Managing it all with perspectives

All of this sounds really hard to manage, I know. I’ve got about 50 active projects going on at any given time.

This is where a task management system usually falls apart: what happens when you have hundreds and hundreds of items in it?

Most people start using Contexts at this point. I really don’t understand Contexts. I don’t get tags either. These systems don’t work the way my brain works. They give me headaches.

How I work with all this

I bought the Pro edition of OmniFocus, so I could set up custom perspectives. Perspectives are, for me, a bit of a lifesaver. They let me focus on individual projects at a time, instead of the full monte. (Hence the Focus” in OmniFocus.)

I have two perspectives I use religiously.

Doing perspective

One is called Doing”. I manually select the projects that I must make progress on every day right now, and have only those listed in this perspective. With one click, I can go to the perspective, see a quick list of the projects I should focus on, and check on the related tasks for each project.

Today perspective

The other perspective is called Today”. It also focused on a project, but this project is just a single action list called Today”. Every morning, I delete everything in the list and write out only what needs to be accomplished that day. I don’t assign a due date or anything — I only use due dates if my life depends on it — but I start working through Today” every time I finish in my Forecast.

My key Principle: Daily task curation

Most hardcore OmniFocus people have a Today view in OmniFocus. The problem is, that Today view is usually based on some mixture of defer dates, due dates, and flagged tasks. I can’t have an entirely automated system like that; I need to manually curate my daily tasks.

I’ve tried, and tried, and tried to set up so many similar lists in any other app, but it never works for me. OmniFocus is the only app that bends to my will. (Things comes close, but their app is too inflexible to be of any real use for people with a million projects and areas of responsibilities.)

This workflow works if you’re the sort of person that dumps everything you need to do into your phone, but still writes out a quick list on paper every morning. I’ve just elected to make the whole thing digital.

If I’m being completely honest: you could probably make a compromised version of this system on anybody’s platform. But I don’t think anybody else makes it as easy to do what you want.

This isn’t a sales pitch. I get 0% of the money from doing this. I’m just finally happy with my system. If you want to try it out, you can check out OmniFocus on OmniGroup’s website.

Thoughts on todo list apps

Most digital todo lists suck. I’m sure you’re aware of this. I’m certain you’ve probably spent hours combing through tips on LifeHacker about how to organize the chaos of your life with this one simple app that will blow your mind.” Or maybe you’re like me and you’ve bent over backwards to fit your workflow into somebody else’s expensive dystopian view of getting things done.

I don’t need to tell you that task management apps suck. 

But I need to share this because nobody is saying it, and we’re all pretending like we’re organized, but the truth of the matter is that the people who make these apps must have nothing to do — because their apps don’t work for busy people. So this post is for them. 

I only need one thing from a todo list: to tell me what I should be working on right now. And when I’m done that, what’s the next thing I can do?

That’s it. No gimmicks. It’s that simple.

Yes, all your extra features, like sub-tasks of a sub-project inside a project within an area of responsibility in the context of Phone Calls’ are all well and good, but if you cannot give me a high-level look at what needs working on today, don’t bother.1

This isn’t just about what’s due: it’s about what’s important, what’s in progress and what big-picture project I should be working on. If I need to finish a project by Friday and it will take three days, then it should show up in a special Today view as early as Wednesday and not leave the Today view until it’s done, even if it’s overdue by three months and a day. 

My task management app should be about managing what’s important, making changes to the unimportant on the fly, and getting crap done. 

For reference, this is where I’m storing all the crap I need to do now. 

Note: This post was originally called I Tried Every Todo List App So You Don’t Have To’. I changed it for the sake of brevity, not because it’s untrue. I think I did try almost every todo app on the market for iOS and the web.

  1. If you plan on making a todo app, the second-most important feature is not fiddle-daddles like sub-projects and nesting. It’s making your information hierarchy really bloody obvious. Even some of the most famously simple task management apps fail at this. ↩︎