Getting active with OmniFocus: repeating tasks, due dates, start dates

by Linda Sharps on May 11, 2009

2014 UPDATE: In OmniFocus 2, we changed terminology from “start date” to “defer date”.

Hello! Welcome to the second article in an ongoing series documenting my experiences using OmniFocus as a task manager n00b. The first post is here.

I've been using OmniFocus pretty diligently for a couple weeks now and I'm still learning new stuff every day. It's amazing how much there really is to this app, and I think one of the biggest challenges to making the most of it all is figuring out what sorts of options work best for you. I know there's that helpful book and everything, but the nice thing about OmniFocus is that it's flexible—you don't have to be a hardcore GTD person to benefit from it. Which is good for me, since just between you and me I started reading Getting Things Done but got sidetracked by something shiny about halfway through.

(BTW: has anyone written Doing Things Half-Assed yet? I would totally read that.)

That might explain my approach to projects, which a couple people asked about. If you take a look at my OmniFocus document, you'll notice that the projects I've created are more categories (or buckets) than anything else—they don't have a beginning and an end.

This is just what seems to be most useful for my working style, maybe because I have more ongoing activities than I do projects with steps towards completion. You can, however, specifically tell OmniFocus that something is not a project if you like. Click on a project, open the inspector, and click the Single Actions icon under Type. This will change the way your tasks are styled (in my document, remaining tasks become blue instead of gray); it's just another way to organize your info.

Now that I've got my tasks all squared away into projects and contexts, it's time to add info to the tasks so they're more meaningful to me. I start assigning due dates, which is easy enough: just click the task, open the inspector, and click in the Due field to assign a date and time. Many of my tasks are recurring—blog posts that are due each week, for instance—so for those I start selecting the Repeat Every … option and pick the appropriate interval of time.

After I've been working with due dates for a few days, I realize I can customize the way tasks repeat. Some tasks are due on specific days each week, while others fall into more of an “every so often” category. For example, I have a task reminding me to take receipts out of our checkbook so I don't let scraps of paper build up in my wallet and cluelessly empty our checking account because I bought too many zombie-themed comic books one month, not that I have ever done such a thing, ha ha ha *cough*.

I want this task to repeat every three days, and but I want it to show up three days from whenever I complete it. Maybe I'll take out those receipts on a Monday, maybe I'll do it again one day later in a fit of wallet-tidying. Whenever I do it, I want to be reminded three days later, so I choose the Repeat from: Completion date option. Now whenever I mark it as completed, OmniFocus knows to make it due three days later.

This receipt reminder is such a small example, and yet I can't tell how handy it's been. My checkbook is always up to date now, and my wallet isn't straining at the seams with nine thousand “Walking Dead” sales slips. BRAAAINNS! I mean, WIN!

Okay, so now I have lots of repeating tasks, and I can't help but notice the act of marking things as completed is starting to feel unpleasantly Sisyphean in nature. For only the briefest nanosecond do I get to enjoy the reward of checking something off and watching my task get that satisfying strikethrough, then KERBLAM. The task repeats and there it is AGAIN. Almost like it's back from the dead or something.

This really bugs me, maybe because so much of my life is steeped in the sense of continually working at something only to have to do it all over again (hi, please enjoy the typical fruits of my housecleaning efforts). I whine to a few Omni peeps about this issue, and they school me on the concept of a Start date.

For some reason I thought a task's Start date was referring to when you were supposed to start the actual task, but it really means something more like “Make this task available by” (which is of course too long to fit in the inspector, and can I just say I'm only recently starting to really appreciate the myriad challenges of UI design?). So here's what I do for a blog assignment that's due every other Wednesday: I assign a Start date that's two days before the Due date.

Now OmniFocus knows to make that task show up as available every other Monday, rather than just having it lurk in my document all the time. If I filter my tasks to show what's actually available to me, that task will not appear.

It's still there, of course, it's just not cluttering up my document and making me feel burdened with that continually-rolling-a-boulder-up-a-hill feeling. Awesome!

After two weeks I'm falling into some usage patterns with OmniFocus, and I notice that I'm using the phone only as a reminder when I'm out shopping. I should probably get more used to capturing items on the go. I also need to put more thought into how I actually want to view my Focus document contents—there are a million options, and I'm still figuring out what's most useful for me. That's the subject for the next post: filtering, viewing, Perspectives, oh my.

ROOKIE MISTAKE MADE:

  • When I was first setting up my repeating tasks, more than once I accidentally marked something as completed when it wasn't. I'd finish this week's task, mark it off, it would repeat (this was before I customized any Start dates), and I'd mark it off again, having stupidly forgotten that I'd already done so for the week. One way to avoid this is to show the Due Date column, so you can tell at a glance which task you're looking at.

A WORKAROUND:

  • You can repeat tasks by minutes, hours, weeks, etc, but you can't yet tell OmniFocus you have a task that's due every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. How to deal? Make three separate tasks that repeat each week.

WEIRD SIDE EFFECT I DID NOT EXPECT:

  • The first time I had a task go overdue and the little red badge showed up? I HAD HEART PALPITATIONS. Note to self: dude, it's okay. Calm down. Everyone gets behind, at least this way you're not forgetting it altogether.

RELATED LESSON I AM LEARNING:

  • Managing tasks with OmniFocus will get you partway there, but you still have to, you know, do them. Just because it's in the document doesn't mean it's going to magically get completed all on its own. Now that the initial ooh-I'm-so-productive glow has worn off, I'm realizing the no-duh concept: it's about planning your work, then working the plan. I've got all the tools, now I just have to figure out how best to use them.

CONCLUSION THUS FAR:

  • I am really and truly finding OmniFocus to be a big help—I'm staying more organized, I'm remembering a bunch of things I know I would have otherwise forgotten, and I don't feel that it's too much of a chore to keep my document up to date. At this point, I think I need to figure out the best way to view/review my data, and maybe establish some habits of when to check in with OmniFocus. I'm going to go back to the comments on this post to find some workflow inspiration, and if you've got any more tips to share, I'd love to hear them!

PS: Last time, when I said I'd try and keep the next post shorter? I LIED.