How to prevent OmniFocus from getting cluttered

I am using OmniFocus as a system to manage my dues and goals. Getting started with it is straightforward. However, if you go at it without a strategy, you can soon find yourself overwhelmed by a long, seemingly unstructured and dysfunctional list of projects and actions. 

It can rapidly grown out of hand. The sheer overload and maintenance costs this situation brings may cause the app to fail you. 

The thing is, OmniFocus lives up to its promise as a powerful task manager if you keep it from getting cluttered. Let me share a few things that I consider helpful in this regard.

Capture everything, but be meticulous about what gets passed on and how

Your mind is great at forgetting ideas. Forgotten ideas have the tendency to come back and haunt you with a bad consciousness. „What was that great thing that I came up with the other day?!“

This is why capture is the quintessence of GTD. Writing ideas down makes them immortal.

With the intention of keeping OmniFocus clean in mind, there are 2 things to consider:

  1. Where to write stuff down? (AKA your „bucket“ of stuff)

  2. How to proceed once the stuff is written down?

What serves as your bucket?

I believe the OmniFocus inbox is not the place for everything. In my opinion it shouldn’t be the notepad where you capture what comes up in your mind.

My bucket is independent of OmniFocus, yet allows for a quick transfer if I want to pass something on to the app.

As an iPhone user, I use Drafts 4 for iOS as the place where my thoughts materialise into words. Alternatively, I think paper (like a notebook) is an equally powerful alternative to Drafts.

Here is how the process goes: 

  1. Something comes to mind. It’s probably worth keeping or at least worth a second look.
  2. I tap on the Drafts icon in my iPhone dock. A new and empty draft is generated.
  3. I write down whatever the thought was. (Most of the time, I use dictation for this.) It is stored and a little badge on the app icon serves as a reminder.
  4. Some later time I return for a review and decide how to proceed with the captured item.

Decide on your personal bucket. Then review it regularly.

How to proceed once stuff is in your bucket

Looking at your bucket after a while, it will surely start to contain a plethora of different stuff: big ideas, quotes, jokes, items to buy, names of books to read, dues dates and so on.

Take the time and make it a habit to regularly review what you have stacked up. Then decide where each item should go. There is a place for everything.

  1. Items that represent actionable tasks or projects (or can be turned into such) to reach personal goals should go into OmniFocus.

  2. All else should go somewhere else.

Replace „somewhere else“ with calendar, reference database or trash as appropriate.

Items should flow easily out of your bucket - either further down your workflow or entirely out of it. 

Don’t be afraid to kill something if it doesn’t make the cut.

If an item does make my cut for further processing, I can simply transfer it anywhere using one of the available actions in Drafts. Regarding transfer to OmniFocus, I mostly go by an „Email to Omnifocus“ action.

Invest the time to process thoroughly

OK, you have moved something into OmniFocus. Now what?

Once an item has made it into your OmniFocus inbox, make sure it gets in good shape. This pays off later on when it’s all about doing stuff.

I found if I get sloppy with processing an item, this item might just lurk around in what I call „the Land of the Living Dead Actions“ - it doesn’t die, it never gets completed.

Is it an action or is it a project?

Ask yourself: How big is this item? 

If only a single step is required for its completion, it most likely is an action.

But beware: If the step appears to be a rather big one, consider splitting up the item into substeps, eventually creating a separate project from it.

Big actions frequently end up as non-completable zombies in my action list. I tend to repeatedly defer them and never check them off.

Actions turn into projects if you can chop them up into 3 to 5 subactions.

Consider splitting an action into a project if you have been deferring the action several times already.

Reconsider the naming of your item.

Step 2 to keep undead actions from rising: Only use fully descriptive names. 

For example, if I have to give a presentation on new Hepatitis C treatments, I have to go through a bunch of literature. Instead of creating a task called „Literature review“ in a project called „Presentation on new treatments in Hepatitis C“, I create an action called „Read: Latest review from the Journal of Hepatology on new treatments in Hepatitis C. [*]“

This is more specific and the name reiterates the related project itself.

The convention of placing XY: (in this case „Read:“) before the action allows for later filtering. Just like tagging if you will. Make sure you have your own list of these „tags“ ready.

Recently, I have started to add stars (in this case [*]) to my actions. I found this a great way to integrate the aspects of energy and yield into each action. I wrote a post about it.

Fill in all the blanks

Each action needs a context. Each action needs to be assorted to a project. Each action should have a projected time to completion allocated to it. Maybe also consider location-aware contexts if you are working with OmniFocus on your iPhone.

Once you have dumped your brain into OmniFocus, you want to trust the app and rely on it. Filtering down your actions is essential for this. Proper filtering can only be done if all the blanks are filled in.

Come time for everything.

When I open OmniFocus, I want the app to show me actions that are available. Not everything should be available all the time. What I am unlikely to deal with at the moment, just shouldn’t show up.

David Sparks inspired me to indulge in defer dates. A defer date sets an action aside till a chosen date. Before that date, it resides greyed out as unavailable in your list.

If you use defer dates consequently on all actions, you can narrow down your list of available stuff. It helps you focus.

If you are an OmniFocus Pro user, you can set up a custom perspective that shows you an ungrouped list of all available and remaining actions. David Sparks calls this the „Clear Perspective“. I go through it from top to bottom each morning and decide whether something’s on my list for today or has to be deferred. If I don’t have a specific date to defer the action to, I usually defer an action for 1, 3 or 5 days. Then the action gets a second chance. 

By the time you have deferred something a third time, consider making it a project or trashing it.

Review dates is another important topic. A review list that is too long gets me frustrated and distracted. I start cheating and neglecting the importance of review.

Ask yourself: Do you need to review each project on a weekly basis? Some projects just need to be reviewed less frequently than others. You can set review dates individually for each project.

Be considerate about your structure.

The OmniFocus sidebar with its options to group projects into folders and subfolders can get quickly out of hand. Especially of you build your structure micromanaging around actions that you created.

Have a masterplan.

My advise: Start with a top-down approach. Come up with a masterplan first.

A real game changer for me has been Tim Stringer’s advice to map out my Areas of Responsibility first. It’s about defining your personal life goals, then building a structure that allows for accountability: Are you doing stuff that brings you closer to your goals?

Why would you add something to your to-do-list that doesn’t fit into your life’s framework?

My areas of responsibility are represented by project folders in OmniFocus.

To name a few examples, I use folders called Personal Advancements, Social Life, Career Advancements and Home. These folders group together all related projects, e.g. Writing a Novel in Personal Advancements or Continued Medical Education in Career Advancements.

Keep your structure lean and tight.

Don’t get lost in the labyrinth of nested folders.

I stick to a single folder level which reflects my major areas of personal responsibility. Within these folders, there is just a list of projects.

No project lives outside of my folders.

Try outsourcing.

As I said above, OmniFocus is not a place for everything.

It does not serve as a reference database. It does not serve as a calendar replacement.

Further, I especially find regularly recurring tasks distracting. They just pop up in my list of available actions too often.

Answering the question how and why these recurring tasks come into existence in the first place helps you figure out where to put them. In other words: What is the intention of these recurring distractors?

Recurring actions in OmniFocus often fall into one of two categories:

  1. Maintenance actions like supply errands and housekeeping.

  2. Actions that you want to turn into habits. (You want to purposefully interrupt yourself to stick with something.)

If you have maintenance actions and/or intended habits in your OmniFocus list, go put them somewhere else, for example outsource them to another app.

Maintenance actions like grocery shopping often involve my spouse. OmniFocus is not intended for cooperation. Also, items that are check off are likely to be needed again soon. That’s why my shopping lists permanently reside inside specialized and focussed list apps like Reminders, Clear or Bring! for iOS.

Habituation is a whole different topic in itself. I just recently started using Habit List (after a short intermezzo with Full as recommended by Mike Vardy) for actions that I want to turn into processes as natural and self-evident as brushing my teeth. On my Habit List, you can find „Picture of the Day.“, „Write a DayOne entry.“ and „Go for a walk.“ among others.

Focus on finishing projects.

Why have you set up personal goals in the first place? Because you want to achieve them. Projects are the building blocks of your goals. If you finish a project, you should have come closer to your goal.

Once you have finished all actions of a project, you have finished that project. If something is done, it’s done.

Sure, there may be related actions and further additions to a project somewhere further down the line. Group these actions into a new project if the former has already been finished. Yes, even if the name of the project and its outline are apparently similar.

The checkmark is the measure of accountability whether you are still on track.

The thing is, finishing a project is a form of accomplishment. Accomplishments are rewarding and inspiring. To get stuff done, especially if you need to get a lot of stuff done, a positive outlook is key. You want a feeling of being an achiever.

I don’t want everlasting projects in my OmniFocus list. In fact, I only have a few persistent projects. Mostly, they are single action lists dealing with formal stuff like documentation at work and the like.

Key Takeaways

Here is a short summary of the things you can do to prevent your OmniFocus list from cluttering:

  1. Be meticulous about what you put in your OmniFocus inbox. It’s not your bucket for everything that your mind comes up with. Try outsourcing items to different apps and don’t be afraid of the delete key.
  2. Invest the time to process your items thoroughly. Fill in all the blanks to make filtering an option and decide on the date you want an item available to you with the help of deferring.
  3. Know your areas of responsibility. Build a flat structure of single-level folders around this master plan.
  4. Allow yourself to check stuff off. Actions should be small enough to be easily completable. Consider making projects from actions that just never get completed.

As always, I really appreciate your feedback. So just let me know your thoughts!