Custom Perspectives in OmniFocus - My Setup for 2020

Josh Mitchell

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Hey GTDers!!

I want to share my current OmniFocus set up with you for inspiration. After reviewing the official GTD set up guide and watching David Sparks’ course (https://learn.macsparky.com), I customized OmniFocus in a way that works for me, my brain, my daily actions, and workflow. If you’ve been turned off by OmniFocus, this approach may help you see it from a different perspective!

Custom Perspectives
Using the Pro-level subscription, I’ve set up a series of perspectives that work really well for my daily flow. To get them to show up on the sidebar and set up customized icons, click Perspectives from the Menu Bar and click the “star” on the right. You can also rearrange their order here. All perspectives are saved to the cloud and show up on mobile as well.

custom perspective.png


You can see them on the left side of my screen here:

1 My perspectives.png
I need to change the color of that Tickler icon! It looks better in dark mode :)

The Forecast Perspective is built into OmniFocus and you can learn more about that in the official GTD set up guide. I’m also following a lot of the foundational instructions in that guide like using the “—“ and viewing projects as “Remaining.”

The first custom perspective I have is called “Projects.” This view displays all items with the TAG Projects. I couldn’t come up with a better name. This is the purest form of the Projects term for GTD — the Complete Projects Desired Outcomes List. This is not the default Projects view that is built-in to OmniFocus. I’ll get into that later.

I keep it at the top of my list because I like to work from my Projects list to trigger next actions. I usually start all of my projects with a keyword or acronym. I like to keep a flat list of all things professional and personal that I’m working on at the Level 1 horizon.

2 Projects tab.png


Next, I have a perspective called Contexts. When OmniFocus changed their terminology from Contexts to Tags, I was disappointed. I like to think of these areas as my Contexts, not tags! So I created a new perspective that displays all tags :). This way, I can see all of these lists at a quick glance. I just like the name Contexts better! I can easily view the original Tags page by clicking Perspectives > Tags (which I need to do sometimes).

Daily Use — I occasionally scan this during the week, but this context is really just a “master view” of all next actions.

Weekly Use — I use this perspective to quickly scan all contexts and review with ease. Makes the Weekly Review really fun.


3 Contexts list.png

Agendas, Waiting For, Office, Home, Errants, Someday/Maybe, and Tickler are all flat lists. They just show that context by itself on a simple, clean list. I like them in this order for how my brain works.

daily contexts.png


The Phone Perspective

I found myself not really using the Anywhere context, so I created this “Phone view” to show me anything I can do at a smart Phone. It is set up to show anything tagged with Calls, Slack, and Texts. In the next photo, you’ll see how this is set up. I have the "— symbol" in each section because I haven’t found a way for the perspective to continue showing the tag when all of its available actions are complete. (For instance, without the —, the calls and texts tags wouldn’t show. I like to see all 3 of them at all times so I can add to them from this perspective and skip the inbox. Yes, you can add this tag directly from the inbox, but often as I process my PHYSICAL inbox, I’ll go right to the action list, so this solves that problem for me.)

5 Phone perspective.png

In the filter rules for the Phone perspective, here are the settings I created. To add a nested rule, you hold “option” and click the plus button. The master rule should be set to ANY and the sub groups set to a “ALL” for each of the ones below.

phone filter settings.png

Likewise for the Computer perspective, I like to see my computer options in 2 views: Things to do on the computer AND “Surf” which is like a someday/maybe list of things that aren’t as mission critical but I still want to see when I’m at a computer.

7 Computer perspective.png

The main Projects Default Perspective is where I keep nested lists and support material I refer to as needed. I also like to use Evernote, Ulysses, MindManager, Dropbox, and other sources — so this isn’t the only place Project Support material is stored. I make a note to myself at the PROJECT level (on the Project list) to view the support material in these folders. I also know to go here during the Weekly Review if I need to review Checklists and other reference items.

projects.png

Coaching questions that have really helped me
  • Are these the options I want to see when I do work?
  • Do these lists attract or repel me?
  • Does this work for me when I do the weekly review?
Some disclaimers:
  • I do not use all of the features in OmniFocus and don’t want to
  • I do not use OmniFocus for any attachments. I’ll write in the notes field if needed or a short note of where to find it.
  • I am not “matchy-matchy” (Thanks Coach Kelly for that)
  • I don’t use the “Review” function built into OmniFocus
Custom Icons

If this was helpful to you, let me know! I don’t think there’s ANY perfect application out there but I really like how I’ve customized OmniFocus and it makes my processing and defining and DOING time much more fun and engaging.

Happy to answer any questions if I can be of help!

JM
 
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mbusillo

Certified wine geek
Thanks for posting, Josh. I am not an OmniFocus user myself but seeing others' setups regardless of the tool being used is always inspiring. Appreciate your sharing!
 

samuel.d.kang

Registered
Thanks for sharing Josh!

Question, do you enter projects twice then
1. Projects with embedded actions in respect to OF3
2. A project or single next actions list of your projects listed as actions with each tagged with “Project” so you can have a master projects list in respect to GTD

Interesting approach. Correct me if I’m misunderstanding.

I also recently abandoned the embedded “Review” perspective in OF3 and created a project perspective that displays projects with all the next actions collapsed.

Thought provoking we both came to the same conclusion we really want a clean master list of projects without the bells and whistles

Best,
Sam
 

Josh Mitchell

Registered
Hi Sam,

Thanks for the reply! I think I’d need to see a screenshot of your OF3 to understand what you mean.
  • I do not enter projects twice
  • I do not use OF3 to link next actions to Projects
I use the Weekly Review (following my customized checklist based on the GTD workflow) to review all of my next actions, calendar, etc…. I do that before going to the Projects List to then review all of my commitments. Many times, I have projects that I realize I can’t agree to right now that I’ll move to my Someday/Maybe list (a tag and perspective)… or I’ll think through whether I’ve caught the true next action for each item.

My goal is to have very CLEAN next action lists on the perspectives above so that it forces me to go up to the Projects list as my default view to work from. When I’m at that level, it triggers next actions automatically. I will review my Projects list daily now and I find myself more quickly completing projects than when I tried to be “matchy matchy."

Both my Projects list and my Action lists are in a place that really attract me to look at frequently because I’m ruthless about whether I’m the right person to complete the work and if I’m actually the person who has the next action.

Let me know if this is helpful or if it made things more confusing! Happy to clarify further!

JM
 

Stephen Brown

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Thanks for the post Josh, very interesting.

I’m also an OmniFocus user. While there are certain features I can’t do without, I find that linking actions to projects is actually more work than it’s worth. I find myself constantly jumping between the default tags and projects perspectives in an effort to keep contexts clean and current.

I do wonder what the OmniFocus ‘project’ gives me in return for all the effort. Your approach does seem interesting and I have thought about something similar myself on occasion. But I was always reluctant to go against the way the app was built.

Looking at your use of OmniFocus Projects, it appears that you are using this area for reference. Could you explain how this works please? The folders you use seem self explanatory but how do you use project within the folders? Using a Weekly Review checklist as an example, would you enter the checklist items in the projects notes field or would you create an action for each item?

Also, do you keep all of your next actions in the ‘—‘ project? I’m guessing you never need to review this project as you review your contexts instead.

Do you use recurring actions?

P.S I also prefer the term Contexts over Tags

P.P.S. Have you tried the MacStories custom perspectives? I find they look much better on iOS devices.
 

Josh Mitchell

Registered
Stephen,

Linking projects and next actions in OF
I completely agree. I do not link projects and actions in OF3. I know you can but it’s more work than it’s worth. I simply review my contexts AND projects list frequently that I’m very current with what I’ve agreed to and the Weekly Review is critical for this.

Default “Projects View” in OminFocus
Yes, I’m basically using this for project reference. But if I had my way, I’d relabel it “Lists.” It’s just another place for lists that I want to review when needed. Often, I’ll find myself creating a ton of next actions but in the Weekly Review I realize I don’t have the energy or space to actually get all of them done. So I’ll create a NEW list and park it in a folder in the “Projects” section and then create a project to knock that out IF I’m still committed to doing it.

Example of how I use the Projects view in OmniFocus
I have a pretty big Project (12ish month desired outcome) to clean up every aspect of my digital life. This started off as a random thought I captured in my inbox as “clean up computer.” During the Weekly Review, I really thought about that hard and what I wanted to be true to check that off as done. I realized that my whole digital life was out of control. So I created a PROJECT (one line item on my custom Projects list that says “Digital clean up project completed.” During one of my weekly reviews, that triggered a next action to “Review cloud storage options @computer.” I really got inspired and decided Dropbox was the best choice for me… so I started transferring things into Dropbox. In the process of doing that, I noticed certain files that were missing. So I created a next action to “review external hard drive contents @home.” In the process of doing another weekly review, I realized, I wanted to consolidate my Google Drive data and export that. So I threw that on my @computer list. Within a few days, I had the following actions spread out…
  • Digital Cleanup - Clean up all downloads folders on all computers
  • Digital Cleanup - Clean up all duplicate passwords in 1Password
  • Digital Cleanup - Set up and sync Text Expander on all computers
  • Digital Cleanup - Clean up Safari Bookmarks
  • Digital Cleanup - Clean up iCloud backlog
  • Digital Cleanup - Download and use Snagit
  • Digital Cleanup - Collect VoiceMemos spread out on different phones
At one point, these items were spread out in different iterations between Next Action lists and the Projects list. (i.e. @home - collect Voice Memos… became @projects - Digital Cleanup - Collect Voice Memos spread out on different phones).

During ANOTHER weekly review, I realized how unattractive and uninspiring it was to see all these digital cleanup projects on my custom (purest GTD) projects list. So I dumped them all into an OmniFocus List (aka OmniFocus Projects view) called “Digital Clean Up.”

Now, each week when I do my weekly review, I just see the desired state of “Digital clean up project completed” where I can think about where I am in the process of this larger objective. I don’t WANT to see all those other options. It’s not helpful when I’m reviewing every open loop. I’m actually OK with not doing most of these things. I just want to know that I know HOW to get this project completed when I want to.

Checklists and reference
My approach: Folder > List name > List contents
OmniFocus default: Folder > Project > Actions

Most of the time, my checklists are ‘actions’ listed in a project. I use the notes field a lot too, but usually write that in the action so I know to look there.

If I was doing a weekly review checklist, each item be entered as ‘OmniFocus actions’ within an OmniFocus project called “Weekly Review” in the Checklist folder.

However, for my @Agendas context, I alternate depending on the situation. Recently, I had 15 agenda next actions for an individual. They were listed out as next actions like “JF - Talk about this” “JF - talk about that”… well when it got to be so long, I just copied the list, and parked all the individual items in the notes field under ONE action, because it got to be too much to look at.

The takeaway for me is - it HAS to be attractive and “fun” to look at when I go to do work. I also like the word “elegant.” It has to be classy when I’m looking at my list. If I’m sensing that it’s too much on my screen, I’ll consolidate it under the notes view so it’s a cleaner look. But I have to remind myself that there’s data in the notes field, so I’ll type “JF Agenda Items - see notes for discussion topics.” For me, It makes it so easy to glance at my agendas list when I’m with someone and see what I need to talk about. Most of the time, everything is listed as individual next actions, though.

“—“ Project
Yes, I follow the official GTD OmniFocus set up guide and all next actions are assigned to this by default. I do not review this project and I kind of forget about it since I don’t use the official Review function in OF3.

Recurring actions
Yes, I love recurring actions. I use them a lot. Mostly in my “Tickler” list (which is a Tag).

However, I have a lot of CALENDAR recurring actions that are day-specific. So I keep those on my calendar since that’s the better place to park those things. I’m really experimenting with using my calendar better for day- and time-specific actions.

MacStories icons
These look awesome!! I’m not familiar with their approach to using perspectives but the icons are very nice. I am adding to my “Surf” list to check out! Thank you for that!!
 

redsleaves

Registered
Separating next actions from projects is great. I've thought about it before, but never really acted on it. I wish that my brain wasn't already broken with the intended workflow of the app and how I've been using it for so long.

it feels crazy some times. Every time you enter a task it feels like filling out a form at the DMV.

It's one of the reasons that I continually flirt with Things 3. It's so fast to just get something on the list for today on iOS.
 

Josh Mitchell

Registered
Redsleaves, OmniFocus has to work for ME. There are many features I don’t even touch.

The Weekly Review serves as my “connector” for actions and projects. And for me… it’s fun!

Things 3 is VERY nice. I wasn’t able to customize it the way I wanted to, but I purchased it anyway :) It is a fantastic piece of software and a really good team.
 

Oogiem

Registered
Very interesting and very different way of using Omnifocus compared to how I do it.

I like a very tight link between projects and next actions. For me it's far faster to deal with them that way. I also have many more recurring projects for which I only want todeal with the design and flow and what actions are required once and then repeat it. So my top level folders in OF are this.
2 single action lists and the rest are project folders.
Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 8.40.44 AM.png
My most common custom perspective is active with remaining
Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 8.42.27 AM.png
I use the review method and that is the only way I can make it through my weekly reviews at all. I have created my own custom review perspectives though as I like to see things in a specific order. My review is first stalled projects, then on-hold, then pending, then active and finally remaining. Here's the Active set-up the others are similar to pull only those specific classes of projects.
Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 8.50.12 AM.png
I use a lot of contexts or tags. This list is the current one but I will create, use and delete contexts as needed. The one without Ken is for me to work on things like a present or something that is a surprise. Firefox doesn't require internet because I use it only to do SQL queries against the LambTracker database. I'm in the middle of a major programming effort and doing a lot of new query design so I needed those tasks to be split out.
Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 8.45.35 AM.png
I have started testing adding a tag for each AOF. It does help with my big quarterly reviews and is easy to add so I'm sticking with it for now. These are my 9 AOFs.
Screen Shot 2020-07-12 at 8.52.50 AM.png

So that is a different take on how to implement GTD in OF3.
 
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