There is no doubt that OmniFocus is amongst the most comprehensive and powerful personal task management applications around. But this also why people often talk about a steep learning curve when trying to integrate OmniFocus into their workflow.

This series of posts about ‘OmniFocus Minimalism’ will take you through several steps that help you setup and use OmniFocus in the most simplest and fastest way possible. This may just be what you are looking for or at least a starting point for you to start exploring OmniFocus further.

You can start out simple

While I am possibly mastering OmniFocus to an extent, at least to one that makes it fit perfectly into my workflow, I appreciate that others may not need or want to use all features as well as not building complex folder structures, sub, parallel, sequential projects and what not.

Believe it or not, you actually can implement the most simplistic Getting Things Done setup in OmniFocus you can think of. If you were on the market for a truly minimal task manager, you would not have bought OmniFocus in the first place, but would have invested into applications like TaskPaper, Things or kept your hard earned money and used TextEdit or a plain old piece of paper. However, if you want to use some of the powerful features of OmniFocus but not all or like to explore the possibilities of the application one step at a time this minimalistic setup will help you.

Who should go OmniFocus Minimalism?

When I came up with the idea for a series of posts that introduce the most simplistic way of using OmniFocus I had two types of users in mind:

  • The novice - if you are new to OmniFocus and find it difficult to find your way into the application, this series of posts may actually help you getting started real quick and pick-up new features over time.
  • The minimalist - like said before I would expect minimalist to purchase or use other software than OmniFocus, but maybe you’d still like to leverage some of the more advanced features like rock-solid cloud sync, or you decided to go minimal and already have a OmniFocus licence from your not-so-minimal life.

As I started to write down some aspects of the posts I actually realised that there is another user type that may want to give this setup a try:

  • The confused - many end up with a setup which is more of a burden than of help for their workflow and personal productivity and to be honest this can happen in OmniFocus fairly quickly. If you need to get your head out of that mess and start from scratch to achieve a simpler and more useful structure this series of posts may also be helpful.

If you are a hardcore and advanced OmniFocus user mastering the application and happy with how it integrates into your day you may enjoy reading this as well, but the setup is properly not for you.

The real basics of GTD task management

Okay, let’s just forget all the fancy stuff you can do with OmniFocus and see what David Allen said you need to get going with your actions and projects.

  • A list of all your current projects
  • A list for all you next actions per context, basic contexts include:
    • @Computer
    • @Office
    • @Home
    • @Errands
  • A list for all things you are ‘@Waiting For’
  • A list with agenda items for people you talk to on a regular basis, e.g.
    • @Agenda Boss
    • @Agenda Brian
    • @Agenda Sue
  • A list for everything that needs ‘Read/Review’-type of actions
  • One or more lists for ‘Someday/Maybe’ items

And that’s it. The book suggests you can do this with paper-based lists and you can. Equally you can do it with OmniFocus - plain and simple.

Basic OmniFocus setup

Caution: I am going to ‘bend’ and sometimes even ‘break’ some of the fundamental concepts of OmniFocus here, so if you are emotional unstable, please stop reading here.

minimal-of-listsWe are going to use two folders to give us a structure that is easy to navigate: One for all our ‘Next Actions’-lists and one for our ‘Someday/Maybe’-lists. Go ahead and create them so your sidebar looks like in the picture on the left. Creating folders can happen using the Command-Shift-Option-N keyboard combination or navigate the OmniFocus menu ‘File > Add Folder’. Alternatively you may use the ‘add folder’ icon at the bottom of the left sidebar.

We now need a list that keeps all our active projects. We want this to be at the top of the list for easy access and review. Let’s create a Single-Action list on the top-level of your library using the ‘Add Single-Action List’ keyboard shortcut Command-Shift-Control-N (Menu ‘File > Add Single-Action List’).

Within the ‘Next Actions’ and in the ‘Someday/Maybe’ folders we are creating a Single-Action list for each of the lists we need. One for ‘@Calls’ in the Next Actions folder and one for say ‘Books to read’ in the Someday/Maybe folder. If you need some inspiration on Someday/Maybe lists you may want to read one of my earlier post on Single-Action lists.

If you have lots of @Agenda lists to accommodate you may well create an ‘Agendas’ folder within your ‘Next Actions’ folder to group those.

Your ‘@Waiting For’ and ‘Read/Review’ lists should also be created within the ‘Next Actions’ folder.

Swoosh! You’re done.

That’s it. You could now start using your new, minimalistic task management setup in OmniFocus. You can actually leave it where it is and work with it. But you may also explore the other posts in this series which are going to cover

But for now start adding tasks to your ‘Next Action’ lists, projects to your project list and thoughts, ideas and “things” to your Someday/Maybe lists. Work on your tasks and check them off by selecting and engaging with one of the ‘Next Actions’ lists at a time, depending on which context your are in.

A few words on projects & actions

The way we have implemented the project list is where we have broken one of the fundamental concepts of OmniFocus which defines projects as task containers/lists and not as a flat list. However, the way we have implemented it is very close to David Allen’s ideas of just maintaining a list of projects which we can review and that helps triggering the next action.

In OmniFocus you typically have a whole outline of what needs to be done to complete a project and you work through the tasks one by one. In this implementation we only have the one, single next physical action for each project in our lists. Again, one of the fundamental concepts in the original Getting Things Done. While the methodology asks you to think you project through (Natural Planning Model), it actually only asks you to have the next action recorded on your list.