OmniFocus: The GTD System On Steroids

In the world of to-do lists, the golden standard comes from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. Inside he details how to manage all of your tasks, sort them out, and accomplish them in a timely fashion. The book is so popular that it’s had multiple printings, and has become the benchmark for other organisation systems.

OmniFocus is designed to take the David Allen GTD system and make it easy to use on your Mac. The software implements the methodology to its core, making it simple to input, prioritise, and review tasks (and much more!) But OmniFocus is more than just a GTD manager—it’s a way to truly organize your life on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

GTD 101

Although the basic GTD system isn’t incredibly complicated, it does take a while to get used to. We could spend a good amount of time getting into it (after all, there is a book dedicated to the subject), but instead, check out the flowchart below from OmniFocus’ website. It does a good job of showing the process step by step.

OmniFocus Workflow

OmniFocus Workflow

Every task has a context as well. These should be places where you do the task at hand. If you have to make a phone call, then the context could be “Phone.” If it was an e-mail to send, it could be “E-Mail” or “Online,” depending on your personal preference. These contexts are critical to proper organization, because this way if you’re looking for a task to do, you can go to the context and select what actions you can perform.

At first, the GTD methodology may seem complicated, but in practice, it’s quite simple. Just give it a few days, and you’ll be fine.

How OmniFocus Works with GTD

When first starting the system, you want to do a “mind dump”, emptying out all of your ideas and tasks into OmniFocus. When doing so, you want to do it quickly, and just put it into the Inbox for sorting later. OmniFocus makes it super easy to do this, giving you two options for entering things into the system.

First, you can use the program directly, just by clicking on the “Add Action” button. Alternatively, there’s also a quick input method which can be done via keyboard shortcut. Just enter in the task, and if you have time, you can also enter in the Project it needs to go under and the Context. You can also add a date if this needs to be done at a later time.

OmniFocus Quick Task Input Box

OmniFocus Quick Task Input Box

Once your mind dump is complete, go back through the Inbox in OmniFocus and start sorting out your tasks. Create Projects for tasks that may need multiple steps, making every part of the process an individual task. Then start building your contexts, making it as varied as you like, depending on your preferences. Once again, if you need to assign a due date to a task, you can do so, and you can also flag them if they’re more important than others.

Viewing Your Tasks

Once everything is in the system, now you can see all of your tasks in a variety of different methods. Sort them by project, context, or flagged, just depending on your preference. One of the more important views, is “Due”. This will show you what tasks you have due next by date, or due by priority. If that wasn’t enough, you can also sort your tasks even further by clicking on the View option and narrowing down your choices by specific criteria.

Project view in OmniFocus

Project view in OmniFocus

If you have a lot of tasks to do, sometimes it can be difficult to narrow down specifically what you need to work on next. Fortunately, OmniFocus has a feature named – you guessed it – Focus, which opens up a new window dedicated to either one specific context or project. This can be really handy when you don’t want to be distracted by all of the things you’ve got to do, and just want to get one project completed.

Going the Extra Mile

Now the key to this system is being able to enter tasks as quickly and easily as possible. At some point during the day, you’re going to walk away from your computer, and you may have occasion to enter a task with your computer miles away.

To help with that problem, OmniFocus has an iPhone and iPad version, both of which sync with each other seamlessly.

OmniFocus Syncing Options

OmniFocus Syncing Options

OmniFocus gives you multiple options for syncing as well. If you have a MobileMe account, you can set all of your devices to sync to a folder on your iDisk. You can also use Bonjour or a USB key, depending on whether you’re trying to sync multiple computers or multiple devices. But even better, you can also share your settings by e-mail or Wi-Fi, which makes setting up everything as simple as possible.

The Alternatives

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention any of the dozens of different options out there for working in the GTD system, all of varying prices. One popular option is Things, which also has iPad and iPhone versions (but still no over-the-air syncing ability available to OmniFocus users). There’s also Firetask (which we recently reviewed), along with the seemingly forever-beta The Hit List . So why choose OmniFocus over these options?

OmniFocus is both powerful and simple at the same time. You can have tasks nested within tasks if necessary, making it easy to organize your system similar to a file hierarchy. But it’s also basic enough to just get the job done, and do the bare minimum.

It’s all about flexibility and ease of use. And if your GTD system isn’t easy to use, then you won’t use it. OmniFocus is by far and away the most faithful representation of this methodology in software format.

In Conclusion

I’ve tried dozens of different GTD programs over the years, including Things, which was my favorite until I gave OmniFocus a try. Between the interoperability and syncing options, and the ability to drill down tasks, I can organize projects to my heart’s content. It’s everything I want in a GTD program, without being so complex that you need an engineering degree to figure it out.

It’s not the cheapest option, nor is it the simplest. But it is the best, and for me, it’s the only method I have for getting things done.

Would you like some further reading, and an even more in-depth look at everything that OmniFocus can do? Check out Shawn Blanc’s piece entitled A Sledgehammer Called OmniFocus. It’s a great read!

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