Part III: How to Use OmniFocus – Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground

on May 25, 2009

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For a primer on review, check out the recent OmniMouth post.


The Importance of Review


omnifocusThe Review process is likely the most difficult aspect of the Getting Things Done method. It is also extremely important and, as such, deserves special attention.

OmniFocus, or any task management solution based on the GTD method, invites getting things off the mind. Whenever an idea appears, there is a welcoming inbox or “bucket” ready to catch it. The assignments of place and time come afterwards as project, context, start/due dates, etc are added.

Being able to enter an idea immediately means that it can be entered without the intention of doing it anytime soon. The process lifts the burden of the compulsion to complete a task as soon as it comes to mind. There is no need to do it immediately with the fear that the thought and inspiration will leave or be forgotten. Tasks and projects that begin as “wishes” can gradually be fleshed out into smaller tasks and perhaps even become realized.

It’s actually a subtle therapeutic process. We all know the relief of writing down thoughts when overwhelmed with things to do. Here, we take things a few steps further by breaking things down into bite size and doable pieces in the form of sub-tasks. Suddenly releasing an album or writing a book no longer feels impossible.

Review is the process of actualizing the things we want to do. If something hasn’t happened yet, “why not?” Do the tasks need further breakdown? Are contexts well described? Review occurs at a micro level in the very first moments of associating the context and projects with a task. Review continues every time we pay attention to the projects and think about what needs to happen to bring the project closer to completion.

Inbox entry is akin to writing down a desired destination seen from the clouds, while review keeps our feet on the ground by drawing a clear path to get to those places.

A suggestion by GTD author Dave Allen is to simply set aside some time (e.g. an hour) during the week to do a review. However, this has not taken easily for myself, and I am assuming similarly for, at least, some others.

The reason for the difficulty is by the very nature of GTD itself: when done well it involves a trusted system that carries all of the tasks and projects that are on the mind. And, the mind tends to carry quite a lot.

We encode these thoughts and “wishes” in the powerful symbols of words. In one sense, this is obvious. But consider that in Review, all the tasks and projects written are specifically designed to grab the attention of every desire in mind nearly simultaneously. It becomes more apparent why the whole task is so daunting.

Instead, my own still evolving solution for this problem has been to take advantage of OmniFocus’ capacity to call attention to the Review process at specified dates and contexts. These are described in detail below:


The Details of Review


The task list mentioned in Part I is reproduced below in number 4. There are three key points, though, I’ll mention first:


1) The settings of the General Project Window are listed here:


The result should look something like the following:


Whenever there’s a free moment, I can readily look at the General Project window and notice if anything needs review. It also forecasts when reviews will be necessary.


2) Consider each review of a task as a major grab for attention, and keep the frequency as low as is reasonable.

Take special note that reviews do not have to be done once per week. In the information pane (opened and closed with Shift-Cmd-i) of any Project, there is the option of adjusting the frequency of review. As projects accumulate, it is easier to look at things only as often as necessary and avoid reviewing a task too often.

Having the information pane open during review allows a review of the review frequency itself. For example, my list of what books to read next does not necessarily need frequent review so it is set to once per month and could probably be set to even less.

Though, it would seem that simply hitting Reviewed (Shift-Cmd-R) every week would be easy for such a task, there is a subtle but significant grab for attention that could be avoided. Looking at a list of 30 projects, even if most are simple, is more harrowing than looking at 5 that you know do require some real attention.

Though the first scenario may contain just as many projects requiring significant attention and a bunch of others that can simply be stamped Reviewed, I wouldn’t know which 5 of those 30 required particular care until examined. Each of those 30 would ask for the limited resource of attention.


3) Anytime a project is reviewed, even if done in context of my regular working through of tasks, I mark it reviewed (Shift-Cmd-r). Regardless of the prescribed date for review, marking it reviewed now further reduces any unnecessary grabs for attention.


4) Reproduced from Part I are the repeating tasks of review:

A folder at the bottom of the Projects Window called “Omnifocus Maintenance” carries the project called “Routine OmniFocus Organization and Clean Up”. Inside this are the following tasks (all given start dates and no due dates):


See also: