OmniFocus at School: Contexts and Projects

by Curt Clifton on August 23, 2012

This is the second in a four-part series on how students can use OmniFocus to reduce stress and improve results. A previous post covered how to use OmniFocus to collect all your tasks in one central location. Today we’ll look at techniques for arranging those tasks so OmniFocus can help you pick the best task to tackle next. Future posts will talk about using OmniFocus to focus on the right task to do in the moment and review your progress.

Have it Both Ways with OmniFocus

In my previous post, I talked about using Quick Entry to toss all of your tasks into your OmniFocus inbox. What do you do with those tasks once you’ve collected them? OmniFocus gives you some great tools for organizing your work so you can tackle it without freaking out.

The two main tools for organizing your work in OmniFocus are contexts and projects. You can assign a task to both a context and a project. By doing that you have a lot of power to focus on just the right view of your work.

OmniFocus comes in three editions, for Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Contexts and projects are available in all three versions of OmniFocus. To keep things simple, I’ll talk about OmniFocus for iPad in this post.


A context in OmniFocus is a way of recording what resources you need to complete a task. That’s intentionally a little vague, but some examples should help. For some tasks, you might need to be in a particular place. Such “Place” contexts might include Library, Dorm, or Grocery Store. For other tasks you might need to talk to a particular person or group. Sometimes we call these “Agenda” contexts. Examples here might include Mom, your Tech Comm Project Team, or your friend Jessica. Still other tasks might require a particular mindset. For example, you might choose to have separate contexts for Writing and Studying. It’s easy to spend lots of time deciding on a final set. My advice would be to pick a few and stick with them for a while before making changes. Here’s a good starter set for students:

  • Decker Hall (Consider a context for important buildings or areas on campus.)
  • Library
  • Dorm (It’s useful to have a context for wherever you live at school.)
  • Home
  • Mom
  • Jessica (Consider having a context for each of your most important relationships.)
  • Brian (It’s probably worth having a context for your roommate, even if you don’t consider that an important relationship.)
  • Writing
  • Studying
  • Fun (Ideas to waste time, be social, and maintain your sanity go here.)

To create a new context in OmniFocus for iPad, first go to the Contexts view by tapping Contexts in the sidebar. (If Contexts doesn’t appear in the sidebar, you can tap the Home button, , to reveal it.)

From the Contexts view, tap the ‘+’ button in the upper-right corner and choose New Context. Enter a name for your new context and tap Done.

Popover Context


In addition to a context, you can also assign each task in OmniFocus to a project. A project in OmniFocus is a collection of related tasks that, taken together, help you accomplish some goal. For example, you might have a project named “Arrange financial aid for next year”. That project could have several actions like, “Stop by financial aid office to ask about what records they need,” “Call Mom about getting copy of tax forms”, and “Take forms to library to make copies”. You might have another project named “Finish term paper” with tasks like “Sketch rough outline of three different paper ideas” and “Talk to Dr. Horton about paper ideas”.

Projects With Contexts

Don’t feel like you have to list every possible task that you’ll have to do to finish a project. The important thing is to group tasks into projects and to make sure that each one has a clear next action. You’ll have trouble moving forward on a project if you haven’t thought about what to do next. On the other hand, try to avoid planning out every single detail in advance. Circumstances might change before you get to step 24 of your 81 step plan! Then all your planning would have been wasted effort.

Creating a new project in OmniFocus for iPad is a lot like creating a new context. To create a new project, tap Projects in the sidebar. (Again, if Projects doesn’t appear in the sidebar, tap Home to reveal it.) From the Project view, tap the ‘+’ button in the upper-right corner and choose New Project. Enter a name for your new project and tap Done.

Project Editor

Sometimes you’ll have a task that doesn’t really belong to a multi-step project. For example, “Get quarters for laundry” or “See if Mom and Dad are coming to Parents Weekend” might not have additional steps. You can use a single-action list for these tasks. Unlike a project in OmniFocus, a single-action list doesn’t have a definite end point. It’s just a collection of miscellaneous tasks that you want to do.

To create a single-action list, begin by creating a new project as described above, but before tapping Done in the Project editor, tap on the Type field and choose Single Actions from the popover.

Single Action

Moving out of the Inbox

So now that we’ve added some projects and contexts, how do we use them?

When you create a new task, by default OmniFocus will put the task in your Inbox. You move the task out of your Inbox by giving it a context and a project. To set these in OmniFocus for iPad, tap the Inbox button, then tap the task. The task editor will appear. You can set the context and project from the Info tab.

Info Popover

Tap on the Context field to set the context. You can choose one of your existing contexts from the popover that appears, either by choosing from the list or by first typing a few characters in the search field to reduce the number of possibilities.

Assigning the task to a project works similarly.

While you’re thinking about the task, this is also a good time to set start and due dates if they’re called for. You do that on the Dates tab. Set a start date on a task if you want to hide it until that date arrives. Suppose you know that you’ll have to re-write a paper after you get it back from your instructor. She’s promised to return your first draft on Monday. You could set a start date for Monday and not have to worry about the paper until then. You can also set a due date on a task.

It’s tempting to put due dates on everything. I recommend only putting due dates on tasks that really have a deadline. You have enough deadlines as a student. False urgency just creates stress!

Date Editor. Ignore the Repeat section, we'll get to that.

Once you’ve set the context and project, and perhaps dates, tap the Done button. The editor will close and OmniFocus will automatically move the task out of your Inbox.

Where did it go?

After you’ve moved tasks out of your Inbox, OmniFocus for iPad provides three main ways for viewing your work: Project, Context, and Forecast views. Tap Projects or Contexts in the sidebar to switch to the corresponding view.

Project view shows your tasks organized by project and single-action list. This view is great when you want to plan the next few steps of a project. It’s also your go-to view when you know that you want to work on a particular project and want to recall what the next step should be.

Context view shows your tasks organized by, wait for it, context. In this view, OmniFocus will list every available task in each context, regardless of project. For example, suppose you’re getting ready to call your Mom. You can look in your “Mom” context and notice your task “See if Mom and Dad are coming to Parents Weekend” from your single-action list along with “Call Mom about getting copy of tax forms” from your financial aid project.

Forecast view shows your tasks organized by due date. In this view, OmniFocus shows the tasks that are past due, due today, due over each of the next few days. This is a great view when you’re trying to decide whether you can make that weekend road trip or need to buckle down and get some work done.

Forecast View

In the next post I’ll talk about using OmniFocus for choosing what task to work on next, including some more advanced features of projects and contexts.

Editor’s note: Special promotional pricing is available for a limited time on OmniFocus for Mac and OmniFocus for iPad. Don’t forget about OmniFocus for iPhone, either. Students and teachers can also take advantage of every day special pricing on our Mac apps via our own Edu Store.

A Unified App Icon Style

by William Van Hecke on August 22, 2012

Software design is pretty much dead-center between being an art and a science. Or as Jobs said, at the “intersection of technology and liberal arts”. This means that while some decisions we have to make are logical and can be satisfyingly backed up with evidence, other decisions are thrillingly, maddeningly subjective matters of taste.

So… App icons! They’re way over on the subjective side, and are at least as much marketing as they are user interface. Over the years, we have taken a few different stabs at developing a distinctive style for our app icons, but the realities of shipping software made it so that we were never really poised to release a major upgrade to everything all at once. So instead we made staggered incremental changes across our suite of apps, making for this diverse crowd.

Diverse crowd of app icons

But during the course of pursuing our iPad or Bust initiative, we decided that we would never have a better time to make our app icons more consistent. Better to change all the icons at once than to wait for each of our five huge productivity apps (spread across three platforms) to reach major versions, updating the icons one by one. So we got to work on coming up with a consistent style. Here’s the final result:

Unified icon suite

This new suite of icons emerged from an extensive list of demands:

Each product should have a distinctive emblem with a strong contour. The emblems are simple figure/ground shapes. They don’t depend on colors, gradients, shadows, or other effects, so we can use them in a variety of treatments: flat logos, outlines, cut-outs, and so on. Joel forged these emblems in OmniGraffle as purely positive/negative-space shapes.

Each product should have a consistent look across platforms. The emblems and theme colors identify the products from Mac to iPad to iPhone. (Relying primarily on color would cause problems for folks who perceive color differently!)

Each platform should have a consistent look across products. iOS apps get a colored slab with the emblem cut out, showing the black slab beneath (or white, for our iPhone app). The Mac variants are the same, but with the slabs rotated and tilted slightly away from the viewer. We go way back on Mac OS; that composition is a bit of a callback to the classic angled-document app icon style.

The icons should have a sense of being part of a unified set. This was a big one, and it took a while to get right. We didn’t just want them to look unified, we wanted them to look unquestionably Omni — we don’t have it as bad as Panic, but our icons have been stolen from time to time. It was hard to think of how to do this other than slapping a huge Omni logo on each icon. So instead, Joel had the idea of slapping hundreds of tiny Omni logos on each one. In doing so, we were even able to evoke our old brushed-metal motif.

The colored front slabs bear a carbon-fiberesque pattern of Omni logos, and the back slabs bear a prime-number-based marble pattern of Omni logos:

Close-up of OmniFocus app icon textures

Lots of people here at Omni put a ton of work into this project, but Joel was the main dude. Many cheers for Joel! I did the final art for the iOS variants in Photoshop, and for the Mac variants in Modo. I’ll leave you with a shot of the OmniGraphSketcher icon from when I was zoomed in to scrutinize some tiny detail; Joel looked over my shoulder and immediately declared, “Oooh, I wanna play an FPS in there!”

OmniGraphSketcher as an FPS map

OmniFocus at School: Quick Entry

by Curt Clifton on August 16, 2012

OmniFocus is a powerful task management app. It’s available for Mac, iPhone, and iPad. This is the first in a four-part series on how students can use OmniFocus to reduce stress and improve results.

  • Today we’ll cover how to use OmniFocus to collect all your tasks in one central location. OmniFocus provides Quick Entry tools that let you capture every item that you need to work on.
  • Once captured, you can use OmniFocus to sort your work in ways that let you concentrate on just what matters now using the powerful, built-in organizing features. The second post in this series will talk about organizing your work into projects and contexts.
  • You can quickly view your tasks using a variety of built-in views in OmniFocus. Or you can take advantage of more powerful view settings to see exactly what you need while hiding the rest. The third post in the series will show you how to become an OmniFocus power user and take more control over what you see.
  • Finally, using Review mode in OmniFocus, you can make sure all of your projects keep moving forward. You’ll sleep better knowing that you aren’t leaving anything behind. The final post in the series will discuss strategies for reviewing your projects.

Don’t let anything slip through the cracks

As a student, one of the biggest challenges is keeping track of all the things you have to do. You might be a full-time student with four or five separate classes, extracurricular groups, social activities, and a part-time job. Or maybe you’re a practicing professional juggling work and family obligations while taking a night course or two to advance your career or broaden your horizons. Either way, your instructors aren’t likely to be consulting with each other, your boss, or your social calendar about the number of things already on your plate.

One of the keys to staying calm and productive amidst that onslaught is keeping a list of all the things that you have to do. With Quick Entry at the ready, OmniFocus is here to help!

OmniFocus comes in three editions, for Mac, iPhone, and iPad. All of them have great features for quickly jotting down new things that you have to do. I’ll describe some situations where each might be most useful. That doesn’t mean you need to buy all three versions. They’re a great trifecta, but any one of them will help you. (Editor’s note: Check out the end of this post for information on special promotional pricing.)

Suppose you’re sitting in class taking notes on your iPad. (By the way, we have a great app for that too.) Your instructor mentions that the role of anarchy in the English Civil War will be on your test. Just press your iPad’s home button, tap the OmniFocus icon, then the friendly, yellow Quick Entry button.

OmniFocus for iPad's Quick Entry button

Write “Study anarchy in English CW for history exam” and tap save. There’s no need to fill in all the other details. You can update those later. For now, be confident that you’ve added the task to your list. When the time comes, you’ll totally ace the anarchy question.

Just tap save when done

Or maybe your Modern Music History prof thinks the end of the class period doesn’t apply to him. You’ve thrown everything in your backpack so you can dash off to your next class when he announces “one more thing”: a three page essay on the evolution of punk rock in the U.S. and U.K., due on Monday. This is a great time to use OmniFocus for iPhone: tap the OmniFocus icon, tap the Inbox button—you don’t even have to wait for the app to finish loading—enter “Write punk rock essay”, set the due date for Monday, and tap Save.

Add to the Inbox in OmniFocus for iPhone

That night you’re at home listening to the Ramones on your Macbook Air while you do some background research for your essay. You get an email from your math instructor with the problem set for next week. OmniFocus for Mac’s clipping service is great for pulling tasks out of email messages. Select the problem numbers in the email, then from the menu bar choose Mail → Services → OmniFocus: Send to Inbox. Double-check the information in the Quick Entry window and click Save. (You can also set up a keyboard shortcut for Clipping in the OmniFocus Preferences for even quicker entry.)

"I can tell this is a fake screenshot because Prof. Pritchard would’ve used an Oxford Comma"

You’re about to call it a night when your friend IMs about a concert next weekend. (It’s a Clash cover band. What a coincidence!) You decide to go and you volunteer to order the tickets… but not tonight. Just hit the quick entry hot-key on your Mac—by default, that’s Control-Option-Space—type “Buy concert tickets”, and click Save.

The quick entry power of OmniFocus can also be a lifesaver on those nights when you go to bed exhausted, the remnants of that second liter of Mountain Dew still coursing through your veins, but your brain refuses to rest. Instead of letting that rolling list of worries just keep you awake, grab your iPhone and add the tasks to OmniFocus. Perhaps in the morning you’ll decide to delete half of them as unimportant, but if you’re like me, you’ll find that just writing them down helps you let go and fall asleep.

Once your tasks are out of your head and into OmniFocus, you can stop worrying and focus your mental energy on the actual material you have to learn. All the tasks are safe in your OmniFocus Inbox wanting for you to tackle them. In the next post, I’ll talk about ways to use OmniFocus to organize your work into projects and contexts so you can focus on what to do next. We’ll also look at some simple techniques for regularly reviewing your progress to keep everything moving forward.

Editor’s note: Special promotional pricing is available for a limited time on OmniFocus for Mac and OmniFocus for iPad. Don’t forget about OmniFocus for iPhone, either. Students and teachers can also take advantage of every day special pricing on our Mac apps via our own Edu Store.

OmniFocus for Academics

by Curt Clifton on August 2, 2012

Before joining the engineering team at The Omni Group, I was an associate professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. As an academic, I relied on OmniFocus to stay on top of the wide variety of demands on my time and attention. I always found summer was a great time to regroup and gear up for the coming year, so I thought it might be a good time to share some of the OmniFocus techniques that worked for me.

You can get OmniFocus for your Mac, iPhone, or iPad. To keep the discussion simple, I’m going to concentrate on OmniFocus for Mac here.

I want to touch on four areas where OmniFocus was especially helpful to me as an academic: dealing with interruptions, preparing for meetings, tracking projects, and saying “No.”

Dealing with Interruptions

Many of my days as an academic seemed to be a rapid succession of context switches. Between classes, committees, and meetings with students, my train of thought sometimes spent more time switching tracks than moving forward. I found that having a detailed list of the tasks that I needed to finish, including due dates, helped me to quickly choose the next thing to do when I got back to my office or finished helping a student.

I made heavy use of the Quick Entry window for dropping new tasks into my system as they occurred to me. My department chair was a great one for delegating by email, so many tasks made their way into my system through the OmniFocus Clipping Service. I could select the portion of an email that needed additional action, hit my clipping shortcut keys, and add details to the new task in the Quick Entry window.

Quick Entry in OmniFocus

By default, the Quick Entry window doesn’t include due dates. I found that academic work was much more deadline driven than my work in industry—class sessions happen as scheduled and conference deadlines are firm. Because of this, I set up OmniFocus to display due dates everywhere. To display due dates in the Quick Entry window, you can click the gear icon and make sure Due Date is checked in the list. To display due dates in OmniFocus proper, you can go to the View menu, choose Columns, and make sure Due Date is checked.

Adding the Due Date column

Preparing for Meetings

As an academic, I spent much of my time meeting with students or colleagues. I used OmniFocus “Contexts” to make sure that time was well spent. To be prepared for ad hoc meetings, I used an Agenda context. Under that, I had contexts for my advisees and the colleagues with whom I most often met. If I thought of a paper to recommend or a gentle reminder that I needed to pass along to someone, I’d create a task in OmniFocus (Quick Entry again!) and set the context to the student or colleague in question. Then when I met with them, I could check their context in OmniFocus and be sure to cover everything in one meeting.

Agenda Contexts

OmniFocus was also useful for preparing for regularly scheduled meetings. I kept a context for each committee on which I served. A day or two before these meetings, I could review the context for that committee and quickly compose an email with the agenda and reminders of the commitments other members had made.

Tracking Projects

The joys of an academic career come from pursuing interesting ideas and nurturing students. Around those there is a huge cloud of repetitive tasks that we have to complete, like preparing course materials, writing grants, designing exams, and arranging conference travel. Each of these has a familiar rhythm.

OmniFocus is great for managing small projects like these. I kept a folder named “Templates” containing sample projects. For example, here’s a project template that I used for making sure I took care of the necessary details at the end of each term:

  • Wrapped-up CourseNumber
    • Enter final grades
    • Collect final ABET samples for accreditation
    • Backup ANGEL course
    • Post link from homepage to course snapshot
    • Brainstorm list of changes to the course made or planned for next time
    • Respond to course evaluations
    • Post course evaluation response

At the end of a term, I could just open my Templates folder in OmniFocus, copy the project, switch to my Teaching folder, paste in the new project, and tweak its title to include the right course number.

To keep the “originals” of my sample projects from cluttering my to-do list, I set the Template folder status to “Dropped”. OmniFocus keeps dropped folders around, but hides them by default.

Here are a few other template projects that I used as an academic:

  • Had Grader Grade Assignment
  • Attended ConferenceName
  • Reviewed thingToReview for venue
  • Posted Committee Minutes for MeetingDate
  • Administered Course Number Exam Exam Number
  • Prepped week WeekNumber (I kept different template projects for different courses.)
  • Initialized CourseNumber
  • Wrapped-up CourseNumber

A dropped folder with templates

Copying from a Templates folder is great for basic projects. If you need more flexibility, such as setting relative dates for individual tasks in a project or substituting key phrases, I wrote a script that will handle that. You can download my Populate Template Placeholders script, instructions included, from my personal project page.

OmniFocus also has built-in support for basic repeating projects that recur at consistent intervals. I found that my work wasn’t regular enough to use these much, but they might work well for you.

Saying “No”

Working on a college campus is to be surrounded by interesting ideas and exciting opportunities. One of the biggest challenges is learning when to say, “No.” OmniFocus can be a powerful tool to help with that.

By having all my projects and tasks in one place, OmniFocus helped me recognize when my plate was too full for “just one more thing”. Showing a colleague, or a department head, the number of items that I had to finish in the next week was a great way to explain why I had to turn down a new opportunity. And when the opportunity was too good to pass up? The Review perspective in OmniFocus was great for looking over my current commitments and deciding what things I could reschedule or set aside.


As you recharge for the coming school year, take a look at OmniFocus. It’s a great way to get a better handle on your projects and tasks. You can download the Mac app here for a free 14 day trial, read more about OmniFocus for Mac, or check out OmniFocus for iPad and iPhone. And be sure to contact our amazing support ninjas if you have any questions.

Editor’s note: Special promotional pricing is available for a limited time on OmniFocus for Mac and OmniFocus for iPad. Don’t forget about OmniFocus for iPhone, either. Academics can also take advantage of every day special pricing on our Mac apps via our own Edu Store.

Alternative Options and Shorter Shortcuts

by Derek Reiff on July 27, 2012

OmniGraffle 5.4 shipped in early June with a new set of keyboard shortcuts to zoom in and out of the current canvas. The new shortcuts follow the iWork suite: ⌘> to zoom in, ⌘< to zoom out. This is a deliberate change, but we’ve heard from a few people who’ve suggested other shortcuts — the biggest being the Adobe CS set.

Dr. Drang wrote about keyboard shortcuts in OmniGraffle a year ago, somewhat in the same vein.

But! You can definitely change things around, if you need to, by adding a few Application-specific shortcuts in the Keyboard pane of System Preferences. (In fact, you could add a setting so that any application that has a Zoom In menubar item follows the same shortcut. Caveats: In OmniGraffle and Numbers, ⌘+ is used for making font size larger; other applications might be using it for other things, too.)

Anyway, how’s it done?

  • Select the Keyboard pane of System Preferences, followed by Keyboard Shortcuts. Select Application Shortcuts in the list on the left.
  • Click the + button and add Zoom In to the Menu Title field.
  • Add a shortcut. In this case, to match Adobe’s suite, use ⌘+. (Side note, this is actually, of course, ⌘=. As far as I can tell, OS X won’t ever show + in place of =, even with ⇧.)
  • Do the same thing (+ button, Zoom Out, and add ⌘–) for zooming out.

You’re done! If you’d like that to be global, leave “Any Application” in place.

Hopefully you’re all enjoying Mountain Lion! Here’s to the early adopters.