The investment pays off
OmniFocus is my particular GTD tool. While it has a significant and steep learning curve, I like what the tool can do for you once you get it configured right. Granted, it does take a while to figure out how it best functions for you. On the other hand, there is quite a lot of support available nowadays, from the blogs of Sven Fechner and David Sparks to the book of Kourosh Dini. So even if you feel apprehensive, you should not. You just need to be willing to invest the time in the appropriate configuration.
One of OmniFocus’ key functionalities is its ability to define so-called “perspectives”. A perspective is a set of selected contexts with defined conditions in several dimensions (only available actions, or all remaining actions for example) which allow you to focus on what you want to focus on.
To be a bit more concrete, if I want to focus on only work-related stuff and not be distracted by other things I need to do, I can define a perspective that shows me only work related “things”. I purposely refer to “things” as it could be an action to be defined, a next action, an element with respect to which I am waiting for input from someone … it could be anything, because that’s how flexible a perspective is.
While a bit intimidating at first, perspectives are actually quite easy to define. One very important remark: you will need OmniFocus for Mac in order to define perspectives. Once you have defined a new perspective and synced your database, you can use defined perspectives on any OmniFocus application, be it on your Mac, your iPad or your iPhone. The definition, however, is only possible on the Mac.
On the shoulders of giants
As I said before, you cannot read this without referring to the work done by Kourosh Dini, who by my standards is a demi-god, or David Sparks or Sven Fechner. These guys have published a lot on OmniFocus and how to use it. You can find these interesting approaches back on their blogs, and on the Omni Group website. Do visit these sites, as they will give you a lot of background information on how to configure OmniFocus to your particular liking. Pretty much all of my ideas on using OmniFocus can be traced back to them, or even further back, to Merlin Mann. They are the giants that are standing there, I just got on their shoulders to reach the cookie jar. That being said, and without further ado, let’s look at my perspectives for work.
My work perspective structure
I actually use three distinct work perspectives, as follows:
- to do @work
- today @work
- next actions @work
Let’s examine each of them in more detail
My daily planning perspective: “to do @work”
This perspective is the last one I open every work day, and I try to open it only once every work day, and once each weekend. This perspective is the core of my daily planning, as it should contain everything that needs to be done in all my work related contexts. All remaining actions, whether are next actions, available actions and blocked actions, but not closed actions, are visible in this perspective which is organized by project.
Once every day, usually in the evening on my way back from work, when I have about an hour of downtime on the train, usually after I cleaned out my OmniFocus Inbox, I go through this perspective and work through the remaining actions per project. It is pretty much a daily review* activity. I review whether all my actions I expect to find per project are there, I validate, assign or reassign start dates, which pushes forward my actions to a realistic time to start executing, and I review and assign due dates. My due dates are hard due dates. These do not reflect intents rather than obligations. If a task is not done by that date, I’m in big trouble. For more on that, I refer to David sparks excellent article.
This review really clears my head of all the stuff I have built up over the course of the day. It’s a cleansing ritual, almost. It gives me reasonable assurance that when I open my today at work perspective the following morning, it will be an accurate reflection of commitments and obligations I have to deal with that specific day.
The morning perspective: today @work
When I wake up, I usually take the time to go through the RSS feeds I try to follow. These give rise to a number of to do’s which find their way into my OmniFocus Inbox. I’ve written about that approach [here] . Once I get on the train, I usually reserve about 5 to 10 minutes to go through my today @work context in conjunction with my agenda. Long live the iPad for that.
This is more a sanity check than anything else. Any meetings which I need to attend have been planned in my agenda. Anything I have engaged myself to doing during the day that is not a meeting I find back on my today @work perspective. Like to do @work, this perspective is organized by project. In combination with my calendar, the perspective shows me whether I have been overly ambitious.
However, and this is an important step in my process, I also define two big rocks which I will flag in addition to possible due dates. Depending on their nature, I may even plan them into my agenda for execution, but that really depends on the nature of the actions. These so-called big rocks are the two (usually significant) tasks that I want to get done today. These are the tasks I commit to doing once I get to the office and right after lunch. This is why I avoid meetings before 10 AM if I can help it. It allows me 90 minutes of focus time before I get into activities such as meetings which usually lead to task collection, not task execution.
The focus perspective: next action @work
This is my true pedal to the metal perspective. In this perspective, which is organized by due date and context, I only see the next actions across all of my work.
It is a real focus perspective. There are no distractions. There are at most three tasks on there, that’s it. Anything else has been cleaned off my current to do plate. I liken it to having a clean desk before breaching a new task, a true OCD trait. I need to have a clean workspace before I can get to work on another task. I need that space as much in my physical environment as on my desktop and in my applications.
Having a to do list of concrete next actions in front of me which allows me to really only focus on what I need to focus on, based on well thought out process that gives me a reasonable assurance on the completeness and timeliness of my next actions gives me the necessary peace of mind to focus without anything yelling for my attention in the background.
Combining these three perspectives allows me to have the best of all worlds. I have a regular moment where I check complenetess across all my projects (to do @work), a regular time for checking feasibility and determining the big rocks (today @work) and a narrow focus perspective as well. It helps me staying focused on what needs to be done without losing track of everything around me.