Embracing contexts and perspectives in OmniFocus Pro.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been really trying to take my OmniFocus use to the next level. I know that I haven’t been applying the true power of the application to my workflow, and so I’ve been making a concerted effort to learn about and implement the aspects of it that I’ve either not understood fully (defer dates) or underused (perspectives, contexts). What I’ve found through reading and discussion with some friends and fellow users is that (surprise) there’s an entire other world within the application once you embrace some of those more complex concepts.

I’m by no means an expert user, even at this point (I’d give myself “advanced”, though) but as I explore it, I’m often compelled to share things I discover. I think there’s something interesting about this app too, similar to other professional tools like Photoshop or Logic/Pro Tools that encourage users to share tips and flows with one another. As an audio engineer might tweak settings to get something just perfect in Logic and then share that discovery, productivity apps like OmniFocus have a similar base of interest.

Note: before we go further, it’s worth mentioning that in order to create custom perspectives and do the things I’m about to describe, you need to upgrade to the Pro version of the application(s). It is seriously worth it, though, because as good as it is by itself, you can truly make it your own with this additional functionality. If you’ve been holding off making the jump, my advice is to consider it. Also, Omni is a great company full of great people and you should support them so they can continue being great.

The Problem

I manage everything in OmniFocus. Personal tasks, work projects, home renovations, writing activities, et. al. I have tightly organized project structures, but feel that I need to focus on critical tasks in specific scenarios, e.g., I don’t need to know that the trash goes out tonight if I’m standing in my office.

The Process

In order to understand what and how I wanted to see things to ensure I was always performing the right set of tasks without interference, I needed to explore some things I’d avoided, namely flagged items and defer dates. I’ve used contexts selectively in the past, but never managed to make them really stick. By combining all three of these features, I was able to create a set of perspective rules that always show me:

  1. What I need to do right now
  2. Things I need to do soon that require some level of follow up

And to ascertain how to do that, I needed to clarify where and how I think about things:

  1. At work (in my physical office, and during the work day)
  2. At home (any time I’m not in the office)
  3. Any other time (primarily the weekend, since the other time blocks are covered)

The Solution

Three new contexts, three new perspectives, and a clear way to see only the essentials no matter where I am.

First, I created three new contexts: “9am-5pm”, “5pm-9am”, and “Weekend”.

9am-5pm covers my workday. When I’m standing in my office, what are the things that need to happen before I leave? This includes work-related tasks, but is not limited to that. Sometimes I need to call a bank or run an errand at lunchtime. Personal tasks under this context also appear here to be bound within that timeframe.

5pm-9am covers all the time I’m not at work. This includes things that can only be done at home (take out trash, give our kids baths) and/or work tasks to be accomplished after hours.

Weekend is a wildcard. I apply this context to anything that I think I want to tackle on Saturday or Sunday, when I assume (haha, small children) that I’ll have a modicum of free time.

I also made the decision to start using flagged tasks to indicate dated or undated tasks that require a follow up activity either on my part or the part of someone else. (Some people use a “Waiting” context for things like this, but I could never make that stick either.)

Then, combining these new groupings, I created three new perspectives.

See if you can figure out where I’m going with this.

9am-5pm is a perspective that collects:

  • anything in the 9am-5pm context that is due or flagged and available (not deferred)
  • anything that needs to happen as I leave the office for my home in the evening

5pm-9am is a perspective that collects:

  • anything in the 5pm-9am context that is due or flagged and available (not deferred)
  • anything that needs to happen as I leave my home for the office in the morning

Weekend is a perspective that collects:

  • anything in the 5pm-9am context that is due or flagged and available (not deferred)
  • anything dated or undated in the Weekend context

Now, you might be thinking “but… you’re home between 9 and 5 on the weekend, so your whole plan is shot and you’re a shortsighted person who really didn’t think this through” and you’d be sort of correct. But I don’t really care. The main purpose of that context is not so much to bind me to the hours as it is to block the day up the way I need to think about it, primarily during the work week. Certainly I could have called these “Office” and “Home” but it didn’t really feel right to me, since I think about my day in terms of time and not so much location. Location is a modifier on time. I could be working from home one day–in which case I’m not really in the office, but need to accomplish tasks between those hours. It just made sense to me. Also, I realize I kinda contradicted myself in explaining all this, since the weekend time blocks don’t apply, but let’s just keep going. It’s working.

I also made a few other new perspectives to collect all the undated stuff between work and personal projects at a glance, so I can browse them in between weekly reviews if I feel like it. Useful if you find yourself with a little extra time and want to try to accomplish something.

I think the next logical step for me is going to be time estimates. It’s something I haven’t felt the need to do, but as I follow this process to its logical end, I’m going to want to (I assume) get even more granular at points.

Maybe you’re reading this and freaking out because it’s like a bolt of lightning for you. Maybe you’re reading it and rolling your eyes. In the case of the latter, well, I’ve got nothing for you. I like exploring this stuff because as I’ve discussed in previous posts, it keeps my brain happy and is interesting to me. It’s a rabbit hole, and you can certainly waste endless amounts of time tweaking and not doing. But tweaking enough to do more is a truly exciting feeling to a certain kind of person like me and an incredible positive feedback loop. And if you’ve read this far (or any of those other posts), you’re probably that kind of person too.

Now get to work.

OmniFocus for iOS / OmniFocus for Mac (MAS) / OmniFocus for Mac (Omni Store)

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.