iPhone Life magazine

How to stay on task with OmniFocus

Juggling school, work, volunteer activities and personal time is not easy. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for a better way to prioritize and manage my time. I recently received a review copy of the OmniFocus iPhone app (Omni Group (http://www.omnigroup.com) along with the OmniFocus desktop application for Macintosh. After working through the tutorials and using the OmniFocus system for the last three month, I’m delighted to say I’ve found the perfect solution for me!

OmniFocus consists of a desktop application and an iPhone app, currently only available for the Mac. The iPhone app can be used with or without the desktop application; however, it does not have as many features as the desktop application, nor does it have the ease of data input. I highly recommend purchasing the desktop application along with the iPhone app.

With the iPhone app, I can add new projects and actions or tasks directly to my iPhone, as well as set due dates and organize each action according to context. It features repeating tasks, breaking down tasks into subtasks, organizing projects into folders, search, copy and paste.

I can also view my projects and contexts in a variety of ways on the iPhone. I can work with all my projects or contexts by choosing “All Actions” under each category; or I can choose a specific project or context to view, as well as only those actions that are Due Soon, Overdue or Flagged. In addition, to make life even easier, a search feature is available that let’s me search for one particular action.

The iPhone app also uses the iPhone’s “Location Services” to show me how far it is to the next place I need to go to complete my tasks, as well as its location on Maps. From Maps, it’s easy to get directions if I need them. This is a great timesaver! 

The desktop version is a full-featured, task management tool. It is not a system for those who are looking for a quick, cheap, or simple solution. There is a fairly large learning curve to use the system, and it costs about $80. I do, however, highly recommend this for the person who needs a serious task management tool.

I first tried to set up my projects without going through the OmniFocus tutorials, but this didn’t work for me. What did work was going through the tutorials one-by-one and setting up my projects and tasks as I learned each technique.

It took me about 20 hours to read the manual, view the tutorials (http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/omnifocus/tutorials/), and set up all my projects. (Part of the reason it took me so long was because Safari 4.0.2 does not show the stop and rewind buttons on the video tutorials. Every time I wanted to see something again, I had to totally restart the video. I learned after the fact that this is a problem with the new version of Safari. I recommend you use a different browser to view the tutorials or use the iPhone version.)

The time was well spent, however, as I now have a system that forces me to focus on doing the right task at the right time.  Using the perspectives and focus feature, I can choose one project on which to focus and set up actions within that project so that they are sequential. I can then save that view as a custom perspective and add its icon to my menu bar for easy access. I can set up as many different perspectives as I need, depending on how I want to look at my information.

When I’m ready to work on that project, I simply click the icon on my menu bar and I instantly see the next task to be done. For example, if I am writing a lesson plan, I can set up an action for each of the following: online research, library research, interviewing, outlining, writing, and editing, etc. in that order. As I complete the first action, the next action appears. The other actions are hidden. Therefore, I can’t get distracted with too many actions available all at once. This is extremely helpful for me as I am easily overwhelmed if I see everything I have to do at one time!

With another click of a button, I can see what tasks I need to do next for work, college, volunteer commitments, and at home. It shows me the available actions and sorts these actions by context (phone calls, emails, errands, research on the Internet, work done on my laptop, etc.). The ability to view my actions in context enables me to use my time more efficiently. For example: I can complete all my phone calls for all my projects at the same time. Then, I can move on to emails or errands. When I’m ready to sit at my desk, I can quickly see which tasks can be done on my computer.

Some other features I like about OmniFocus are SmartMatch, “clippings,” and the ability to attach documents, photos and voice recordings to an action.

I use the SmartMatch feature when entering information into the system. If I type “tomorrow,” it automatically brings up tomorrow’s date. If I type in “Tuesday,” it brings up Tuesday’s date. If I type in 0710, it brings up July 10, 2009.

It works the same with other data. If I type a few keystrokes of a project name, context or action, it will match my typing with a predefined project, context or action and automatically insert it into the field. 

With “clippings,” I can add actions to my desktop application from clippings that I cut from Web pages, e-mail or just about anything located on my computer. It sends the clippings to my OmniFocus InBox or directly into a project, depending upon how I set up the preferences.  

I can insert links to documents or even embed the document itself right into OmniFocus. This is most helpful when I’m writing. When the action says, “edit article,” I can click on the document icon right there in OmniFocus and start working!

OmniFocus also works with Growl (growl.info). Now I receive pop-up “balloon” reminders on my desktop alerting me that a project or action is due.

Syncing is easy with OmniFocus. I can sync through MobileMe and to iCal from either the iPhone app or the desktop application; and, because OmniFocus automatically backs up at regular intervals and when it shuts down, I don’t have to worry about losing my data.

The only complaint I have about the OmniFocus system is that I would like to see a more flexible repeat feature. Currently, I can set actions to repeat every 1 (or other number) day, week, month, or year. However, there is no way to set an action to repeat on say, the 20th of each month, the first Saturday of each month or every April 15. In other words, the repeat date is not customizable.

In summary, OmniFocus is helping me to better manage my time. Yes, I spent quite a bit of time learning how to use it; but I’ll be repaid with many hours saved as I use this system in the future.

You can learn more about OmniFocus for the iPhone and Mac desktop at www.omnigroup.com.

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