OmniFocus knows three different types of “projects”: Sequential Projects, Parallel Projects and Single Action Lists. You would typically think that most of the time you need sequential projects, but that is not really the case. First of all most projects are often a mixture of things that need to happen one after the other and actions that can be taken one in no particular order. Luckily OmniFocus allows for these type of scenarios as well, but this will be covered in a later post.
Secondly you will encounter these one-off tasks that do not justify their own project. In Getting Things Done speak these would be actions that do not need more than one physical action. ‘Clean up downloads folder’ or ‘Hang picture in office’ would be good examples. While you could argue hanging that picture requires to get nails from the basement first, we all agree that we’re not going to micromanage ourselves here.
Lastly you have those things, maybe not even concrete actions yet, that you can or do not want to make a decision about just yet. Amongst those are simple reminders, ideas and triggers you’d like to keep somewhere to look at them at a later stage. The Getting Things Done methodology refers to those items as ‘Someday/Maybe’ and that’s exactly what they are. You may consider “Learn a programming language” at some stage, there is a “Situation with Dave” which you don’t want to decide on just now and “Cottage in the Mountains” could be a nice idea for a vacation with your spouse. For those things you need simple ‘buckets’ to toss them into so you could review them every now and then, e.g. every 4 weeks, and see if you want to take some of them on or simply remove them from the bucket since they are no longer relevant.
Single-Action Lists in OmniFocus are the solution for these ‘bucket’ scenarios, either for the one where you need to execute one-off tasks or where you just need a themed bucket to drop things into.
Your One-Off Tasks Bucket
You create a Single-Action List in OmniFocus by either selecting ‘Add Single-Action List’ in the ‘File’ menu or using the keyboard shortcut Command+Shift+Option+N. I generally advice to only create one Single-Action List for individual tasks you can and want to action in the near future. But I have also seen implementations where individuals had a Single-Action List in each of their folders or per Area of Responsibility, e.g. ‘Customers > Single Actions’ or ‘Finance > Single Actions’. From a simplicity point of view I believe this segmentation doesn’t add a lot of clarity and hence has very little added value.
Create a Single-Action List on the top-level of your OmniFocus Library. This will be used for all these one-off tasks you need to accomplish, independent to which aspect of your private or professional life they belong. I collect every actionable, one-off task in this one bucket.
You can also configure OmniFocus to collect tasks from your Inbox that don’t have an assigned project into this list. Make sure you want this and that it fits your workflow. If you feel you are ‘loosing’ tasks or tasks ‘disappear’, it is maybe not what you want to configure.
In OmniFocus preferences (Menu ‘OmniFocus > Preferences’ or Command+,) under the ‘Data’-tab, you can specify how Inbox Cleanup happens. Based on your settings tasks without a project assigned get sorted into the Single-Action List selected here.
Routine Maintenance Tasks Buckets
There are a lot of repeating tasks that come on a regular basis. ‘Submitting expenses’, ‘Fill timecard’ or ‘Backup laptop’ are typical examples. You could have these as repeating tasks in your ‘One-Off Tasks’ bucket, but to better manage these maintenance tasks and sustain some structure, I recommend to keep them in separate buckets inside a ‘Maintenance’ or ‘House Keeping’ folder. I have separate Single-Action Lists for daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and Annual Maintenance tasks.
By separating these maintenance tasks, you have the a couple of advantages next to a more sane structure:
- You can set different “review” cycles for these buckets since while you need to perform a certain action every week you may only need to review the ‘Weekly Maintenance Tasks’ every 6 months
- If changes to your routines are required, you have a single place to adjust what you have to the new circumstances
However, for larger reoccurring maintenance activities like the ‘Weekly Review’, I suggest using repeating sequential or parallel projects. This best practice will be described in a later post.
Themed Someday/Maybe Buckets
This is my largest collection of Single-Action Lists in OmniFocus and one of the most helpful ones as well. Particular in the Someday/Maybe domain, I think many haven’t found working implementations yet. This one is great a extremely helpful.
The most important aspect is to create Single-Action Lists and put them ‘On Hold’ in the OmniFocus Inspector (‘Inspectors’-menu > ‘Show Inspectors’ or Command+Shift+I). This will make them truly Someday/Maybe since things dropped here do not appear in any actionable view or perspective in OmniFocus.
By definition things you drop into these Someday/Maybe buckets do not need to have actionable characteristics. In David Allen’s words it would be anything that has your attention, but on which you can or do not want to decide what to do about them.
Someday/Maybe lists can become very cluttered and it’s easy to get numb at them when they get too long and badly maintained or reviewed. One way to prevent this from happening is to implemented a few different themed lists (or ‘buckets’), e.g.:
- Read/Watch/Listen — Books, magazine or online articles you’d like to read when you have time, movies you want to remember next time you buy DVDs or browse online rental catalogues, podcasts or audio books you could load for the next long travel
- Vacation/Trips — Ideas of where you and your spouse or you and your family could go to for the next vacation or the next free weekend
- Ideas for Kids — So you have the kids this Thursday afternoon and need an idea of a fun thing to do? Collect these ideas as you get or learn about them to have them ready when you need them
- Gift Ideas — What to buy for the wife’s birthday? Which wine did uncle Steve like? Christmas presents for the kids? Note your ideas here and have them handy when events come up (which will be detected as part of your Weekly Review)
- Great Ideas — A bucket for the crazy ideas and dreams you have like ‘Boat trip on the Amazon river’ or ‘Develop an ERP system in Rails’
- Learning & Development — Things you like to learn someday, be it painting, another language or presentation skills
- Wish List — All of those gadgets and things you like to buy, but not quite sure if you really want or need them; Also a handy list to give people hints when your birthday is coming up
- Ideas for Friends & Parties — How about a Halloween Party this year or visiting Sue and Michael for a weekend someday?
- Around the house — There is always something you could redecorate or change around the house and in the garden
- Ideas for Blog Posts — Whether you are running a blog, write novels or paint pictures: Have a list to capture your inspiring
- Next time in… — Keep a bucket for things to do, restaurants to eat in, shops to visit or people to meet for your most common travel destinations
- Miscellaneous — Well, the bucket that fits everything that doesn’t fit elsewhere
Those themed ‘buckets’ will represent the core of your Someday/Maybe implementation in OmniFocus. Have more or less buckets as it suits you. Just make sure they are all set to ‘On Hold’ and you assign useful review cycles to them. Some of my Someday/Maybe buckets I review as often as every two weeks, others will only be touched every 3 months.
A Word About Parallel Projects vs. Single-Action Lists
You could say parallel Projects and Single-Action Lists are effectively the same and you are right with a few exceptions: A different icon (and that makes quite a difference), the fact that only Single-Action Lists can be select as destinations for Inbox Cleanup and that all actions in a Single-Action List are considered ‘Next Actions’ where in parallel Projects only the next available action is recognised by OmniFocus’ filters.
The different icon remains quite significant difference since it helps you to visually differentiate real projects from simple ‘buckets’.
Note: Updated on 13/01/11 adding the ‘Next Action’-difference that has been rightly pointed out by Cameron in the comments
Single-Action Lists in OmniFocus are a great tool to manage ‘buckets’ of (partly) unrelated actions or things. You should collect all one-off tasks in an active Single-Action List and reoccurring house keeping tasks in active Single-Action Lists which collect all tasks that occur with about the same frequency. Putting Single-Action Lists in ‘On Hold’-status allows you to create themed ‘buckets’ for actions, ideas or simply things you can or do not want to decide about just yet, i.e. the classical Someday/Maybe items in the Getting Things Done methodology.