Getting things done paperless with @OmniFocus

Now I’m no Merlin Mann in terms of my expertise in productivity but being a double major in college and working a number of busy jobs will make you better at managing your time and tasks if you’re going to succeed at it.

When I was younger and in school, it was enough for me to just remember my assignments given to me or other things I had to do. I could just keep track of them in my head and I would have this general sense of what I had left to do and I’d feel at ease once I got everything done.  Moving into college, this became non-feasible and I had to track my assignments somewhere but I wasn’t yet totally clear on the best way to do this. But it was clear that I’d never again have this clear mind of having all my things done because I was just being given too many things to do. I would always have something on my to-do list (maybe it’ll empty out after I retire). 

I believe it was after my junior year in college that I discovered the OmniFocus app. I watched a video on how it made your life easier and I immediately fell in love with it. By always being available with a keyboard shortcut it allows for ubiquitous capture of information (which is important if you don’t want to fall back into the habit of reaching for a piece of paper), and it’s designed in such a way that it’s very easy to clip things from pretty much anywhere on your computer and turn them into actionable tasks with context. 

This is what it looks like on OS X:

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(I would have posted one of my own but it’s got some confidential info in it)

Some to-do list apps are ridiculously simple (like Clear), in that you just put things into it and then they’re in there until you cross them off your list. However, if your list is full of things you can’t or don’t need to be worried about right now, it’s that much more useless to you because it’s cluttered.

With OmniFocus, you’re expected to use a GTD-style workflow.  If you just need to capture a to-do item, put it into your inbox for quick entry. Later, you will go back to your inbox and review the items in it, set up due dates as appropriate and optionally assign a context and/or project to the task. You may have a context for the office, perhaps one for home, perhaps even one for the phone if you have phone calls. The idea here is that if you’re at home you don’t need to be focusing on tasks that are for at the office. I also have a shopping context that I keep a rudimentary shopping list in.

Projects are used to take big things you want to accomplish and break them up into actionable chunks. You can have projects that are one thing you do (get in shape, or maybe build that new product) and then you’re done with it, or you can have projects that are just a bucket of single ad-hoc tasks that are related in some way (or maybe they’re not, like the default Miscellaneous project). I have a good mix of both. 

At first it can (and will) be a little bit nerve-racking to know that you put a to-do item into OmniFocus and not see it in the view you happen to be in. If something doesn’t need to be on your radar until 3 weeks from now, set the start date for then and OmniFocus will hide it from you and sure enough, three weeks later it will appear, just when you need it. For some having that item hidden from view is nauseating (and for me it was a bit unnerving as well), but I strongly recommend that you learn to trust OmniFocus. 

And one of my favorite things about OmniFocus is the fact that you can clip things into it. My favorite thing to clip into OmniFocus are emails. Just install the Mail Clip-O-Tron 3000 into Mail and you can select any message and press ⌘⏎ to bring it into OmniFocus (or whatever other keyboard shortcut you use, I don’t judge). This creates a task in OmniFocus that contains a link back to the original message. An important tenet of the GTD principle is that your contextual information is right there available alongside the tasks at hand. Since I use GitHub issues for issue/bug tracking at work, I also have a handy bookmarklet installed in Chrome which also handily embeds a link back to the page I clipped a task from.

Having a task management system reduces my stress levels because I know that all my tasks are accounted for. Having a good task management system means that I have one that I spend very little time in. I throw information in, then I check back occasionally to organize it into the right contexts and projects, and then I find the next thing I need to do, do it, then I check it off. I’m more productive because I don’t have to spend my time wondering if there are things I’m forgetting. I’m not forgetting anything; the only thing I truly am forgetting is the thing I forgot to capture into OmniFocus; as long as I do that, I’m safe. Having OmniFocus doesn’t necessarily add time to my day, but it makes me accountable for all the things I do have to do. And in line with my paperless style, no matter what device I’m using I can fire up OmniFocus and have all my tasks at hand, so I’m never without my to-do list.

OmniFocus is available for OS X and iOS (both iPhone and iPad versions are available). The apps are quite pricey ($79.99, $19.99 and $39.99 respectively) but these are not your standard shitty little cereal box apps. I don’t want to pick favorites here or anything, but Omni Group makes probably the best apps for the Mac platform, and they’re doing quite well on iOS as well.

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