Stars: An Energy- and Yield-based System for Processing Tasks in OmniFocus

The more you get organized with your actions in OmniFocus, the more useful the app will be to you. It sure does require an effort, but it will pay off. I promise.

I have been wrangling a lot with OmniFocus, lately. I have looked at differing approaches to create structure inside the app. What’s written below is how I have made OmniFocus work for me at the moment. You know how things are with productivity nerds. They tend to change over time.

As this is my first post on this blog about OmniFocus, let me start with a few things in general. Feel free to jump right into the Star system way down below if you are already familiar with the basics.

Start with Why

Just like you I have too many responsibilities in my life. I’ll just name a few. This may sound familiar:

  1. I am being constantly bombarded with work-related obligations. I don’t want to fall short of due dates at work because I pursue a career plan.
  2. I feel the moral and conscious devotion to constant learning and self-improvement. This is why I have to divide my spare time after and in between work among studying, reading and improving my health and fitness.
  3. I am a social being. I have friends and family. I want to engage with other human beings. This can be a most challenging and demanding task.
  4. I want to be creative. Creativity is what’s neglected all too often. To me, it is a key parameter for psychosocial health and mental rejuvenation.

I have let these areas of personal responsibility roam freely and haunting my mind for too long.

Having your mind deal with all these responsibilities all the time, will likely end up in a mess. It causes system overload on your brain and gets your circuits to overheat. You will most likely work disproportionately hard to stay ahead of the game and risk falling short on your goals.

My advice, stop doing it. Don’t let your mind carry the weight of task management. Instead, get a system that works for you.

Get a system that you can dump your brain clutter into, that functionally structures your responsibilities and that presents you with operational bits and pieces to goal achievement whenever and wherever you need them.

Whatever the tools or apps you might have heard about and consider for task management, take a step back. Think about the framework and a systematic approach first, then start digging into the tools you need.

Why OmniFocus

If they have employed an overarching system for personal productivity in a first step, two people may legitimately end up using totally different apps and services to get their job done.

I fully respect if your choices of apps and tools differ from mine. My system of choice is the OmniGroup’s OmniFocus.

Maybe just like me, you have heard of the app and that it’s supposedly really good and powerful. Maybe, just like me, you didn’t really know what OmniFocus was when you first installed it.

Don’t worry. If you are serious about getting your personal tasks and projects operational - even if they are like „really big ones“, you have chosen the right tool. It may take a while to get a full grasp of the app, but you won’t be disappointed.

I have chosen OmniFocus for my task management because it incorporates the GTD system.

It’s strengths are

  1. Easy capturing. I make heavy use of inbox short cuts and Drafts 4 on iOS to get my thoughts into OmniFocus.
  2. Contexts. They provide a precious meta-level to structure my tasks.
  3. Custom perspectives for personalized filtering. This is where I can get laser focussed.

Contexts

Contexts are OmniFocus’s method to enrich the sorting of your tasks. They represent a level of specifiable meta-data for your actions. Compare them to tags or labels, if you will.

I use contexts to cluster my tasks following a classic divide between work-related issues and personal stuff.

my-contexts-in-omnifocus.jpg

Additionally, I have location based contexts for errands and things that I can do only at a specific place (like pick something up at my parents’ house, for example). Assigning real-world locations to contexts via OmniFocus 2 on your iPhone really brings this feature to life.

Energy-based contexts apparently enjoy a lot of popularity. I have read about this approach on Sven Fechner’s blog and on Tim Stringer’s Learn OmniFocus. These boys use contexts like „Brain-Dead“, „Energy: Focus“ or „Avoiding“.

There is a great amount of usefulness in this approach. It allows for a „mode switch“ in personal productivity. If you just don’t feel like doing something heavy, switch to „Energy: Easy“. If you have a high level of attention and want to dig into difficult tasks, pick something from your context „Energy: Focus“.

I have tried these contexts. They are great. But they haven’t stuck with me. Not because I disapprove of the idea behind it - on the contrary. Contexts just weren’t the right place to implement an energy-based tagging system to my actions.

Using custom perspectives and filtering in OmniFocus

Too often, I had encountered conflicts when trying to find the right context for an individual action. I have been thinking about a work-around to these conflicts.

Let’s say I created an action that belongs to a „work-related“ context. I may still want to categorize the action as „easy“ or „difficult“ as I may face different energy levels throughout my workday and still want to hunt down the next step on my to-do-list whether I'm energy-laden or tired.

The conflicts I encountered at this point were mostly due to the fact that you can only assign one context per action in OmniFocus.

Enter custom perspectives.

Perspectives are OmniFocus’s way to filter your actions. Think of them as smart-lists like smart-inboxes in Apple Mail or smart-playlists in iTunes.

Out of the box, the standard version of OmniFocus comes with a preset of perspectives like Forecast, Completed or Review.

It gets much better if you create your own perspectives that reach beyond the functionality of the standard set of perspectives. In order to set up your own perspectives and sync them to OmniFocus 2 on iOS, you need to upgrade to the Pro version on the Mac.

The main way that I use custom perspectives is via the „Find text:“ option in the Filtering section of the perspective creator.

If you make use of a proper naming convention for your actions, you can use „Find text:“ to get laser focussed on specific tasks. You will find that you have basically hacked tagging or labelling into OmniFocus.

custom-perspectives-in-omnifocus.jpg

Naming conventions

I have a small list of categories that any new action in OmniFocus can fall into. These categories describe what type of action I’m dealing with.

Categories are defined by a short, descriptive text label that is separated from the content of the action by a „:“.

Here are a few examples:

In my project folder „Travel“, I have the project „Summer Holiday 2015“. One action of this project is „Investigate: Airlines that fly to Bali.“

„Investigate:“ is a recurring text label I put before every action that requires to do some sort of research.

Here’s another action from a different project called „Make better use of OmniFocus“ in a project folder called „Geek Stuff“. It goes:

„Buy: MacSparky’s new video guide on OmniFocus 2.“

In this case, „Buy:“ is my common label for all due purchases.

Another one:

„Process: Scan mail to Evernote with ScanSnap.“

The label "Process:" simply aggregates actions that require computer-based working on something. By now you will get the idea.

(In order to make the naming of my actions easy, I have set up a list of TextExpander short cuts - inspired by Tim Stringer from Learn OmniFocus.)

If you set up the filtering option „Find text:“ in the perspectives creator and then „star“ your perspective, it will appear on the sidebar of OmniFocus for Mac. Synced to iOS, you can activate the perspective to show up on the apps main screen in the perspectives menu.

Now, just a simple click on the custom perspective „Buy:“ (that basically filters for all actions that contain the text „Buy:“) brings up all purchases to make whether they belong to a work-related, personal or any other context.

Now for using energy-levels in OmniFocus and my take on the matter.

Introducing Stars

We are all craving for that feeling of being an accomplisher.

That tap on the shoulder: „You’re doing good“. - You’re getting things done.

I am just like you: I want to be rewarded if I check something off of my list.

Lately, I have been toying around with a scoring system for my actions in OmniFocus. I have come up with the idea of assigning an amount of stars to each action on my list. By accomplishing a task, I virtually collect the amount of attached stars to my little star bag. Like the Star Coin in New Super Mario Bros. or before that The Star Money by the Grimm brothers.

Basically, I have added [*] or [***] or [*****] at the end of the name of each action based on whether I regard something as easy, moderately difficult or hard.

The amount of stars categorizes my actions into the amount of yield each action has. If something is mission critical, it will get five stars. If it’s just side show, it will most likely get one starred.

The greater the amount of stars assigned to an action, the less likely the action is to be completed en passant. If something has five stars, it most likely requires an effort to get done.

If something has five stars attached to it, it may be an action that could be placed on an „Avoiding“ list in some other system. A task that you just can’t really commit to, yet you still have to get it done someday. On the contrary, if an action carries the one star label, it’s probably accomplished quickly and easily.

Make it a game

Gamification seems to be a powerful approach in productivity, learning and habituation.

The star-based naming convention of actions in OmniFocus allows for quantification of your doing. You might just turn task completion into a game.

If you set up a custom perspective that filters your actions by availability „completed“ and „find text“ - let’s say, „[***]“, you’ll get a list of all actions completed and labelled as three stars.

scored-three-stars-in-omnifocus.jpg

Add up all one, three and five star tasks and you get some sort of productivity score.

If you track yourself over time, you can set a personal threshold to qualify as being productive. Then, you can try to increase that threshold over time. Surely, you don’t want to fall short of your minimum star score, do you?

Let me know what you think about this approach.

And, hey, don't forget to check out these cool dudes who really know their way around OmniFocus: