Getting active with OmniFocus: first days

by Linda Sharps on May 4, 2009

As threatened promised, here is my first installment of Mastering OmniFocus: Can a Slacker go from Productivity Zero to Guru or Come Up with a Pithy, Descriptive Blog Post Title? Well, we certainly know the answer to one of those questions, don't we?

The first thing I do upon launching my copy of OmniFocus is to delete the paltry amount of outdated info in my document. Wow! That feels GREAT. Look how I have nothing to do any more! I am like some sort of efficiency god. I instantly hit command-Q and vow never to open it again.

Or . . . not. Dang it, I'm committed to seeing this thing through. So I start dumping items in the inbox all willy-nilly, anything and everything I can think of that I need to take care of. After a minute or two, I find this activity enjoyable, and at the point where I find myself dreaming up random pointless to-dos just for the pleasure of entering them (“inhale”, “circulate blood”) I force myself to stop, and move to the next steps: organizing actions into projects and contexts.

This is an area where I've found myself tripped up in the past, so I try not to overthink these categories. I can always change them later, so I don't need to waste time fiddling with coming up with the perfect filing system right this minute. I start with contexts and assign one to each action, then I move on to creating projects. After I add a few projects it becomes more clear to me which folders will be most useful.

I spend about twenty minutes on organizing everything, call it good enough, and move on to setting up synching. I am very nearly as technically skilled as a parsnip, so I'm pitifully excited when I'm able to set up a MobileMe account and perform my first OmniFocus sync. I'm briefly confused when clicking “Sync Now” does not return a mouthbreathingly obvious “Hey dummy, this actually WORKED” window, maybe with a large smiley face or a thumbs up icon, but a quick glance at the “Last Sync” info assures me everything is copacetic.

Next I get my phone set up, which is so easy I can hardly believe it (you click an emailed link and OmniFocus just . . . figures everything out. Awesome). And finally, I sync my home Mac, which is really easy and—wait. What?

After some head-scratching I realize this message is trying to warn me that the copy of OmniFocus on my home machine has nothing in it that looks anything like the current data I synchronized to MobileMe, which isn't shocking considering the only thing in my home document was “USE OMNIFOCUS MORE YOU FORGETFUL FOOL”. I click “Use Server Copy” , and voila! All my data is belong to me!

(BTW: Omni folks tell me a less-potentially-confusing version of this error message will be included with the app soon.)

Now I've got things somewhat organized; all my info is up-to-date and accessible from my home computer, work computer, and iPhone; and I've dinked around with the app long enough to start feeling, well, if not exactly proficient, at least competent. Go me! It's my birthday! It's my—okay, it's not really my birthday.

ROOKIE MISTAKE MADE:

• After I first worked through my inbox and assigned a project and context to everything, I clicked over to the project view and instantly panicked because OMG where did everything go? It wasn't in the context view either! Did everything get DELETED? Answer: no. I had forgotten to click the “Clean Up” button, which is the OmniFocus command for “Clean everything out of my inbox and process it into its appropriate location”. Oops.

AWESOME BUILT-IN AWESOMENESS:

• If you have a phone task, like “Call Benny”, you can add the phone number as a note and when you use your iPhone to make the call, just click the number to dial.

USEFUL FEATURE I FIND ANNOYING:

• I wish there was a preference to turn off the notification badge in OmniFocus for iPhone (you know, the small red whatsit that's all HEY LOOK AT ME!). I find the due date reminders really helpful on the desktop version, but I'd prefer not to see them all the time on my phone.

(My coworker Bill shares this annoyance, and we have filed a bug request. I also asked that OmniFocus periodically release the invigorating scent of lavender.)

PRODUCTIVITY BENEFITS THUS FAR:

• I brought up my “Grocery” context on my phone while I was at the store, and totally remembered everything on my list. Wow, that's a first.

• I am realizing the upside of doing a bunch of related tasks at one time; staying in a certain work mode without switching topics all over the place really helps me finish things more quickly.

• Even when I'm not looking at my OmniFocus document, just the activity of capturing items helps me be more aware of everything I've got to do and less apt to forget things.

WEIRD SIDE EFFECT I DID NOT EXPECT:

• To my last point, actively working with my to-dos has made me more cognizant of all the stuff on my plate, whereas before I would tend towards an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality—which is bad, obviously, but I found that for the first couple days of using OmniFocus I was actually feeling kind of overwhelmed. By my projects themselves (yikes! This is due soon! Must work on it NOW!) and the preoccupying desire to enter new things as I thought of them.

Two things have helped: 1) learning to use the Quick Entry window so I can quickly enter a task from whatever application I'm in and kerblam, send it on its way; and 2) just getting familiar with the system in general. The more OmniFocus becomes a regular part of my day, the more I'm learning to rely on it and the less I'm obsessing over its contents. Which I think is the whole point, right? Get the stuff out of your head so you can just . . . do stuff, instead of thinking about it?

Next up: working with more in-depth task information, establishing a workflow, learning cool tips and tricks. Stay tuned for more HEART-POUNDING INSTALLMENTS.

(PS: Jeez, sorry for how LONG this post was. I'll try and keep it shorter next time.)