Folders are great helpers and a curse at the same time. While we work with them naturally on our computers, we need to appreciate that they originate from the days where huge amounts of paper had to be organised in such fashion it could be easily retrieved again and take little space during storage. The time it takes to file documents and find them back is determined by the complexity of the filing system, i.e. taxonomy and structure, the ease of filing, e.g. registration or labelling required, and of course the size of the storage area and how far you need to walk to get to the right shelf. When folders were brought to the computer they have been used very much the same way. There are people that have developed the most complex hierarchies for their documents or emails, others follow a strict regime when naming their folders and there are also individuals that use different icons or colour labels to distinguish the places where they store stuff. It’s a personal choice, but be aware of the time you’ll spent to define, implement, refine and maintain a complex filing system. It’s seriously questionable whether efforts like these make filing any faster, more convenient or more fun. Especially in days of powerful desktop search engines like Spotlight.

Principles for Folder Structures

That’s why in OmniFocus (and for files, emails or RSS feeds for that matter) you should strive for the most simple, but still effective folder hierarchy. To paraphrase Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Perfection not achieved when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Using this philosophy your folder system in OmniFocus should allow for

  • Fast access for filing and retrieval
  • Low barriers to file things into the right place
  • A logical and memorable structure

There is, as usual, no one-size-fits-all approach and you need to work out what’s good for you and your workflow. However, there are a few rules I suggest you apply when creating filing systems, i.e. folder hierarchies, be it in OmniFocus or elsewhere:

  • A flat folder structure (one level of folders) is typically sufficient
  • At times you may need one more level below the root level
  • If your folder only contains three of less items, you don’t need it
  • Think about how you look for stuff and adjust your structure accordingly
  • If in doubt you use search

Even if you think that your job and life is too complex and has so many aspects that you can’t do with such simple structures, I can testify that it is perfectly possible. Working in a large corporation with lots of customer projects and internal initiatives, planning activities and regular meetings/calls while also enjoying lots of spare time activities with friends and family, I have a very simple filing system for everything, including OmniFocus projects.

Typical Usage of Folders

When I queried my Twitter followers I consistently got the answer that they use folders in OmniFocus to organise projects by Area of Responsibility. For those not familiar with the concept of Areas of Responsibility: They represent certain areas of your job or private life in which you play an active role and hence have responsibilities, e.g. ‘Marketing’, ‘Development’, ‘Kids’ or ‘Health’. But folders are also used to separate regular and maintenance tasks, templates or inactive items from true projects.

Areas of Responsibility

Areas of Responsibility can be quite detailed and high in number. The below Mind Map (done in MindNode Pro) represent my current Areas of Responsibility divided into job and private. Things like writing this blog are included in the private section, but I could certainly separate it out. I suppose this is determined by the importance of the subject and at present this blog is still a private side project.

aor-mindmapPretty much inline with what I have seen from others and what also David Allen mentions in his books I currently have about 20 Areas of Responsibility. Some of them have active projects and others don’t at present. You should only have projects in an Area of Responsibility if there is something to do or you’re not happy with where things are in this area. Some of my Areas of Responsibility have six concurrent projects at the moment, others just one. This imbalance is what led me to not use a 1:1 representation of my Areas of Responsibility for my folder structure in OmniFocus. There is simply no sense in having a folder if you have only one or two projects in there at a time.

top-level-foldersConsequently I have radically simplified my folder structure and now only sport three (yes, 3) folders that represent larger groups of Areas of Responsibility. It’s as simple as a ‘Customers’ folder for all active customer projects (currently contains about 10 projects), a ‘Cisco’ folder for all my internal projects, initiatives and administrative tasks (12 of those cooking at the moment) and finally a ‘Private’ folder containing all things I am engaged with outside of my regular work (summing up to 12 projects at present). I am very diligent in marking projects on hold or adjust their start date if they are currently not “happening”. Hence the 34 projects in these three folders are those I am truly working on at the moment. If I would use an exact representation of my Areas of Responsibility I would have 34 projects spread across 20 folders. You can do the math and conclude that this level of granularity would rather add complexity than clarity.

Maintenance Tasks & Templates

maintenance-structureWhat people use folders for in OmniFocus as well is to keep their repeating tasks and projects in one place. We all have things we do an a daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly basis. At times these are just small tasks, but there happen to be also larger projects that need to be repeated. Maintenance activities like running backups or doing your Weekly Reviews fall into this category as well. In my post about leveraging Single-Action Lists in OmniFocus I go into some level of detail on how to organise your regular tasks and activities, but in short you’ll find that grouping them all into Single-Action Lists that live inside a ‘Maintenance’ folder helps managing them quite well. Whether you call it ‘Templates’ or like me ‘Checklists’ there is a case for a folder that contains templates of projects or lists that you duplicate and move to another folder as you need them. Templates are very handy for reoccurring events that don’t follow a fixed frequency. I have templates for whenever my password at work needs to be changed, which involves changing it manually in many places, and a checklist I go through when I go on annual leave for a longer period of time.

Someday/Maybe

someday-maybe-foldersSeparating active projects from projects that are stalled/on hold for whatever reasons and from (ideas for) projects that you might want to take on one day is, as said before, best practice. This is where the ‘Someday/Maybe’ folder comes in. It’s actually the only folder in which I use and recommend one more level of folders. Someday/Maybe items are diverse in nature, so that you can and should group them for better overview. Next to various Single Action lists, of which you only see two in the screenshot, which I use to put ideas and thoughts into buckets, I created two more folders to help me organise items better. My ‘Stalled Projects’ folder is the place where I move projects that I decided to put on hold (before, in most cases, dropping them altogether) for whatever reason. Its good practice to move things out of immediate sight once you realise you won’t be able to or simple don’t want to action a project anymore. If you think the project may still make a come back the ‘Stalled Projects’ folder is a good place for it. As you review the contents of this folder on a regular basis (at least once a month), you can still delete projects that became totally irrelevant. If you travel a lot like I do you may want to keep a folder where you store lists for ‘Next time in…’ occasions. There is a list for each location I travel to on a regular basis in this folder and I put restaurants I’d like to have dinner at or friends I want to meet up with on these lists. Someday/Maybe is a good place for these lists as well as I don’t know when I will be travelling to these places again.

Folders & Focus

The one occasion you want to make more use of folders in OmniFocus beyond ‘just’ organising stuff is when you want to focus on certain projects. You can use Perspectives or do it manually whenever required, but you can select a folder and focus on it (Menu > View > Focus on… or Command-Control-F). Homing in on work or private projects only is a classical example. You could also create a ‘Hot’ folder into which you drop any project that needs your attention over the next few days. This way you can isolate your most important projects in times of trouble from things that are less critical. If a project isn’t on flames anymore, you can drag it back to its original folder. While folders can help you keeping projects and lists under control in OmniFocus, I would urge you to not overdo the structure. Browsing to a project or creating a new one by dropping something from the inbox into the correct folder in the sidebar needs to be easy. You don’t want to traverse four levels of folders to find a single project at the end. How are you using folders in OmniFocus and how do the resulting hierarchies look like? It’ll be particular interesting to learn about implementations that are different from the best practice I’ve shared in this article.