A modern approach to contexts and perspectives in OmniFocus

Ever since the book Getting Things Done was released and the notion of separating actions in projects into contexts was first introduced, people have been trying to customize, and improve the effectiveness of their definition ever since. Being an OmniFocus user for quite a while, I naturally started out with the classic contexts that David Allen himself outlined in the book, such as “at office” and “at computer”. Times have however changed considerably since the beginning of 2000 when the book was first published, and certain context stopped making sense as the years went by.

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OmniFocus 2 beta – initial impressions

I have been fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to try out the new OmniFocus 2 beta which was released a few days ago. I have been using it intimately since the release, and it has of course given me some impressions as to where the software is going in terms of functionality and appearance.

The initial impressions have been mostly positive with a clean user interface and finally a persistent inspector on the right side, which can be hidden with the click of a button. What I would have liked to see was an even more prominent notes view like in The Hit List, where one can expand an action to take the entire space of the application, providing a large notes field while still retaining the additional action metadata in view.

One of the initial thoughts I had when opening the new OmniFocus was the exact same though I had when opening iCal in Mavericks for the first time. While being beautiful, clean and well laid out, the interface has become overly flat and gray. I do like the subtle color distinctions separating projects, contexts and perspectives though, and the uncrowded list view.

It is easy to see that the developers used OmniFocus for iPhone as an inspiration when designing the new user interface, with the prominent new forecast view and the concept of starring perspectives.

While the user interface has been given a substantial rework, it is easy to tell that the underlying foundation still remains the same – which is usually a good thing. There are really no surprises in terms of functionality, except for the Forecast view which has been available in the iOS versions of OmniFocus for some time now.

I do like where The Omni Group are taking OmniFocus, bringing together the family of iOS apps with the desktop version. Having the Forecast view readily at hand will make the product easier to approach for anyone without having to deal with creating custom perspectives to access the same functionality.

Focused distractions

In a world where more than a handful of devices ((I use and receive notifications in my MacBook Air, iPad Mini Retina and iPhone, and I think I’m far from alone with that particular device configuration.)) constantly demand your attention, there is no question that distractions play a vital part of everyday life. Not only do all devices want to inform you of something potentially mundane, most of the time they want to bother you with the exact same message on every single device you own. Since notifications rarely sync their read state, you would have to clear the exact same message on all devices separately. This madness has to stop.

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Tracking habits using Omnifocus

I was recently introduced to an iOS application called Lift, which helps you achieve new habits in a social fashion. Enter the habits you wish to track and when completing a habit for the day, just mark it as done to see it disappear only to return the next morning.

Lift features tracking of days done and missed, as well as streaks and is gamified with awards for achieving certain milestones. The social aspect comes from the ability to comment and like all checked in habit events, as well as the ability to add your own comment when completing a habit.

Having to check multiple applications for todos feels counterproductive, so I tried replicating tracking habits using Omnifocus, which is already being used for everything task related.

The end result will look something like this:

Start by creating a single actions project called Habits, perhaps in your Maintenance folder. Add all habits you wish to track to the list, and assign them a context of Habits. The actions have been set to repeat every day, so adjust accordingly.

Then create a perspective similar to the following image. Note that the Habits context has been selected, and the main sidebar has been hidden prior to creating the perspective, giving you a clean list.

The reason for creating the Habits context and not just create a perspective using the projects view is that the iOS apps seem to ignore all perspectives using the projects view mode.

Now just drag you newly created perspective to your toolbar and start tracking!

There are of course some glaring pieces missing compared to the Lift app, but it could be a small price to pay for having everything conveniently integrated in Omnifocus.

An emotional take on contexts

A slightly different take on contexts in GTD which, instead of compartmentalizing the current tools at you disposal, focuses on the emotional outcome of completing a particular action.

Thoughts on OmniFocus

There are plenty of applications out there claiming to end the chaos and make sense of everything. One of the schools is GTD, which focuses on next-actions and context. This makes a lot of sense in my opinion, and I have been trying to incorporate the practices into my daily life. One of the strongest questions you can ask yourself at the end of a meeting for instance, is

What is the next action to move this project forward?

Such as simple question, but the answer may not always be readily available after a meeting if you have been focusing on the wrong things. A project is by definition done when there are no next-actions, so why do we have such trouble defining and following a set course?

Another thing that has made it into my mindset is the notion of inboxes. I will not get into details on the different steps of the GTD process, but step one is “capture”. This means that any new idea or action is thrown into an inbox, until such time comes as to review this inbox and process each item in the list. In GTD, the outcomes for an action in the inbox is “do”, “defer” or “delegate”, which probably reminds many people of the Inbox Zero principle of Merlin Mann.

I have been a long time user of Things, a task management application for the Mac, iPhone and now also for iPad. While it has been working fine and does most things I need, further development of key features have been terribly slow. I decided to take another look around, and I have since long ago given up on The Hit List, even though it showed much potential. This time I gave OmniFocus a real shot. I even bought the iPhone application just to give it a proper chance.

Contexts and tags

There are some key differences in how both software work. While OmniFocus brings forward contexts, Things uses tags to achieve the same thing. While tags are a lot more flexible, there is a downside too. Contexts in OmniFocus are easy to use in the sense that they are always present and visible, whereas Things uses a bar at the top for tags, which makes it harder to get an overview of contexts. This has also lead me to not use contexts properly, but always work in the project/planning mode, which is not the GTD way.

Since Things is using tags however, other GTD principles, such as time available, energy level and priority are easy to implement. OmniFocus currently does not support all the principles, and there is no way to implement them by yourself.

Separating work and play

One of the best features in OmniFocus is the support for different perspectives. I have for instance a Work and a Personal perspective, which means that when I am working, just clicking on the Work icon in the toolbar hides everything else from view and lets me focus on what I should be doing right now. There is for instance no need to see actions regarding blog articles to write when I am at work.

Things on the other hand, has something similar in areas. You can assign a tag for different areas, which will then be inherited by projects and actions within that particular area. This makes it possible to differentiate personal and work related items in the next view. There is however no way of filtering the visible projects in the sidebar, which means that there is still lots of distraction and you might have to spend energy sifting though actions that are not applicable in your current context.

Making it work like your mind

While Things has a flexible and easy to use tagging feature, OmniFocus lets you organize your projects into folders, and projects can even have sub-projects and you guessed right, actions can even have sub-actions (which would make them sub-projects, but that’s another story).

In Things however, there is only one fixed hierarchy. At the top there are areas of focus, which can contain both projects and single-step actions. Projects contain actions as usual, but there is no way of creating sub-projects or actions.

Cutting out distraction

Another way the two contenders differentiate in philosophy is the way actions are linked. Things currently does not have any type of dependency support, meaning that it will always show you all actions in a project, regardless of whether they are available or not. Say you want to sell something on Ebay, and among other, there are two tasks. One says “Create the auction on ebay.com”, whereas the other one says “Take a picture of the item”. Since you can not create the auction before having the picture, the first task should only appear once you have completed the second action of taking the picture.

Doing this in OmniFocus is quite easy. A project can behave in three different ways:

  • Single-actions
  • Parallell
  • Sequential

This is true even for sub-projects, meaning that the main project itself can be parallel, meaning that all actions within can be done in any order. Sequential projects however, must be done in a particular order. After using OmniFocus for a while, I use parallel projects in most cases, while sub-projects within are usually sequential.

There is of course a downside to all this dependency behavior, and that is when actions are mistakably hidden, because of a project in error has been defined as sequential instead of parallel for instance. In a perfect world, doing the weekly review should help mitigate against these problems, but in the real world, things might fall though the cracks.

In summary

My move to OmniFocus has been a productive one by far, and only seeing relevant information when needing it makes all the difference in the world. OmniFocus may seem too advanced and hard to learn at first, but once you get over that initial threshold and set up your perspectives, you never have to fiddle with the software again – you can just focus on your lists and actions and everything else will be taken care of.

The thing I miss most from Things is the way it handles recurring actions. You set a schedule for the action, and when it becomes available, a copy is created. This means that while the action is still scheduled, you can still affect the copy, for instance by delaying it, setting another due date, without affecting the original scheduled action.

I now use OmniFocus for the iPad as well, and it will be interesting to see whether it can be used in new ways and for new things. I already love the new view for the weekly review, as well as the new forecast view, which is supposed to be included in an upcoming release of OmniFocus for the Mac as well.

A new approach to calendars

I have been thinking about ways to make my current GTD setup more efficient. One thing that makes it hard to keep on track and focus are interruptions and the way one has no control over them.

At work, we use the standard calendar features which let us invite each other to meetings, automatically marking that up in the calendar as busy time slot. While that is a convenient feature, it basically lets other people be in charge of your own calendar and your own time.

So what can be done about this? Since I use the GTD methodology, it would be very convenient solving the problem with the tools already at hand. I decided on a set of rules to makes this problem (at least to some extent) go away.

During my weekly review, which is usually done on Monday mornings, I activate projects and actions which will require my attention for the coming week or so. Part of the process is to do a rough time estimate for most actions, and some actions requiring at least one hour of consecutive time are then inserted into the calendar when I want to work with those particular actions. Smaller actions which are similar (preferably the same project or tool) may be grouped together in the calendar to form a longer session. This makes it much easier to focus on the tasks at hand, and it makes your colleagues aware of your sessions.


As a pleasant side-effect of doing this, you will appear busy in the calendar where you have planned these working sessions, meaning that people will be more hesitant inviting you to attend meetings during that time. I usually make a note in the calendar on which project I will be working on, which makes the project manager for that particular project more keen on not interrupting your flow.

This post is inspired by The Chokehold of Calendars, where you can read more about this method, and then maybe implement it yourself.