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how do you use OF to decide what to get done next? Thread Tools Search this Thread Display Modes
This really isn’t particularly an OF issue, but more of a pure GTD question — and the OF user community seems up for that! Perhaps someone could also point me in the direction of a good pure GTD forum ...

Here’s the thing ...

I never know what to get done!

I use OF intensively to capture ideas for things to get done, and to organize my projects and actions. I feel like I’m pretty good at it, and it seems like I’m doing it more less just as David Allen intended. But my actual work day is too filled with dealing with things that are right in my face, and rarely try to use OF to figure out what to do.

The result is that I have a lovely and vast database of projects and actions that I review regularly ... but basically ignore. I am “going through the motions” of GTD, but what I actually choose to do all day every day is not really guided by anything stored in OF. Rather than choosing an action from OF, doing it, and then checking it off, I do things that come up essentially at random, and then go looking for those actions in OF so that I can have the satisfaction of checking them off!

And when I do try to use OF to figure out what to do ... it just seems totally overwhelming. Dozens of “due” next actions from dozens of different projects, with, frankly, absolutely no sense of which with them is actually the most important next thing to do ... I just end up winging it and doing whatever “feels” the most urgent, a process does not feel at all organized! :-)

How can I better use OF to actually choose actions?

Last edited by bigcloits; 2008-11-29 at 07:49 AM..
Since you're asking about this from a pure GTD perspective, I would comment to make sure that if you're attaching a "due" date to something that it's a 'hard' date. Not a 'I'd kinda-like-to' get it done date. But then the question becomes, how to prioritize? I know, prioritize is almost a bad word in GTD.

I come from a Franklin-Covey background, and it's been really hard for me to break the lettering/numbering habit. But what really didn't work for me was kind of the same thing that you're describing. I'd end my day with 10 things that were on my list for the day that didn't get done.

Granted, I don't have a lot of super-time sensitive things in OF. But I use a combo of flags and durations. I thought that the durations were kind of 'silly'. But when I'm stuck and I'm not sure what to do...I often look for a 3-5 minute task to get me rolling. I find that once I'm moving, momentum kicks in. I don't assign durations to everything, but I have several repeating things that I can look to to get me moving. And those are the things that durations are easy to plug in, because you do them often, you know. Plus, since it's repeating, you only enter it once.

Flags, I use to give me my 'do today' list. I don't feel as bad unflagging an item at the end of the day (for instance if it was a work task and I didn't get it done on a Friday, I'll unflag it and then re-evaluate on Monday) as I did when I stared at items that weren't accomplished on an FC daily list. Also, I never flag so many that I'm overwhelmed.

Others successfully use the next-action, which would be even more GTD, but I guess I like to be more in control.
I know how things can sometimes get out of control for all of us, and that managing our projects on OF can sometimes feel more like a chore than a help. One suggestion I have is to try to break down your tasks into smaller bites. I've done this with much success whenever I've started to feel overwhelmed. Also, look over your projects and tasks and make sure that they are as specific as you can make them.

Example: One of your projects may be to repaint a bathroom in your house. You may have a task in that project "Buy paint." Well, no. What color paint are you going to buy? And from where? Here's how it would look given my suggestions above:

PROJECT: REPAINT GUEST BATHROOM (sequential) With start and due dates.
Task 1: Discuss the new color scheme with my wife. Context: Home
Task 2: Measure walls to be painted. Context: Home
Task 3: Get paint sample cards. Context: Errands-Lowes
Task 4: Tape paint cards to bathroom walls. Context: Home
Task 5: Decide on paint color. Context: Home
Task 6: Purchase paint color xyz and supplies. Context: Errands-Lowes

And so on. You get the idea. Now, some may say that that's a little too detailed. But it really isn't, because once you look at your contexts--errands at Lowes for example--you'll see all these tasks grouped together that you can get done while you're at that particular store, or out running errands.

After you get all of that laid out in OF, two other powerful features of the application to help you well, focus, is to utilize the FOCUS icon in the toolbar for projects or folders, and the NEXT ACTION filter in the view bar. Both of these go a long way to lessening that overwhelmed feeling you described.

Lastly, are you religiously doing your weekly reviews? I schedule mine for Friday mornings, first thing, before I start plowing into my work for the day. When I first started with GTD, and later OF, I let those scheduled review sessions sometimes slide and suffered mightily for it. Only when I started making a do-or-die appointment with myself to do those weekly reviews as scheduled did I find that I was more on top of things.

Hope this helps.
Two things I think may help in this situation: clarify goals and make your "current projects" more selective.

One thing that can make deciding what to do difficult is not having a clear vision of what you want to accomplish. I find it helpful to remind myself frequently of those goals I have set for myself. These can include mundane things like keeping the bills paid, weekly goals, short term goals like get the house more organized, or long term/life goals like start a business etc. If you don't have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish, then it'll be worth your time to make some goal lists, and do some practical thinking about the steps (projects) that will move you toward the attainment of those goals. And review your goals periodically so they're fresh in your mind. There is some blending between small goals and "projects", so it's important to keep your actual goal lists as small as possible and not start listing random projects in there.

Where you list your goals is up to you. Wherever's easy for you to view them. You can post them on your wall or in your filing system. You can also put a project in OmniFocus that is either paused or in a separate folder that makes it not appear in your action lists. Record your goals in the notes field. This way, it's just a click away from you when you need it.

This leads to my next piece of advice, which is to be more selective about the projects you allow "on your plate" at any given time. Everyone is different, and I personally have a great deal of trouble trying to pick out the proper next action from a list of a hundred items. So I only allow those projects that I'm sure I want to accomplish now. I try to keep my current project list concentrated, so that every single action on there ought to be done as soon as possible. This keeps me from having to constantly re-scan my action list to weed out the important projects. And when a project no longer becomes really necessary or in line with my goals, delete it or relegate it to the someday maybe list for future evaluation.

Use your someday/maybe list very freely. For me, I have use folder called Someday/maybe where I put all the ideas and projects I'm not really concerned about accomplishing soon (though some things in there ARE important). Review this once a month or so.

For me, I need something between Someday/Maybe and Current Projects. I often have a project I think I might want to do within the next month, so I don't want it to get lost in my someday maybe list (which is very big & tedious to scan every time I want to find a new project to do). In this case, I put it into my Next Projects folder, which is really just a someday maybe list but for things I'm pretty sure I'll want to put on my plate within the next month, but which I don't yet want to tackle. It doesn't need to be done now and I don't want to dilute my focus by sticking it in among the things I am currently working on.

I'm not sure what David Allen would say about having a "Next Projects" folder (or, basically, a long-term someday maybe list and a short-term someday maybe list), but for me, it really helps me to keep those next projects out of my head until they need to be there, and allows me to keep my current action lists focused and simple to pick the next action.

Last edited by abh19; 2008-11-08 at 11:46 AM..
Okay, first of all, let me say ... what a community. OF users are half the reason to use OF! Thanks abh19, keone, malisa.

@malisa: I use flags very similarly. (And now I’m wondering how many others do.) And I seem to more or less get away with it. And I also don’t know if I’ll ever truly feel comfortable with it. Both flags and bright red “due” item seem to really push my psychological buttons — I do a little “oh %$@!#, that!” every time I see them. And that’s maybe okay if the action REALLY has to be done that day. But there are actually very few actions that are truly like that. Time and again I find myself blowing off even the flagged stuff, and realizing that it was optional after all — despite my best intentions not to flag stuff unless it truly must be done when due. Those little mental oh-crap anxiety seizures whenever I see a flagged, red item are exactly the kind of thing I wanted GTD to save me from. I think the calm, rational, mentally uncluttered and pure-GTD approach of only thinking in terms of what’s next is what I want ...

@keone, yes, absolutely religious about weekly reviews, despite the fact that it usually feels pointless, because I never actually do anything except mark everything as reviewed after looking at and thinking things like, “Nope,” “Nuh uh,” “Not even close,” “Can’t deal with that one yet,” “Not that one either” etc down the whole list. Occasionally I check something off that got done days ago but didn’t get checked at the time. That’s about it. It’s a ritual I am devoted to without much reward, yet.

(A little context ... part of my problem is that I have only one project I’m taking seriously, and that’s been true for a long time.)

@abh19 re: “selectivity” ... yes! More and more I’m noticing that most of my “active” projects are apparently wishful thinking. I am not being honest with myself. They ain’t. So, call a spade a spade and pause a few of them. Or maybe a lot of them. Or maybe most of them.

So... I just tried putting a bunch of this advice into work and ...

I’ve paused a LOT of projects. Most of them. (I had been thinking of “paused” in terms too absolute. It’s not a permanent condition! It’s not project death, just hibernation.) And with the ones that remained, I defined more specific actions. And moved a lot of them to someday/maybe. And then I tried to “utilize the FOCUS icon in the toolbar for projects or folders, and the NEXT ACTION filter in the view bar.” I had done that before, but the result was always a humungous list of first actions from too many active projects. With only the truly active projects ...

Interesting effect!

For the first time, I feel as though I have in my OF window both complete and useful and yet not overwhelming information about what I might choose to do next. Which also frees me to be choosier about what to make due and/or flag — that is, I don’t have to make something due and flagged as a way of making sure I notice it. Which means less of those oh-crap mental moments.

I’m sure this isn’t over, but I think I made a huge leap here ... thanks!
A more specific question about zooming in on next actions ...

When viewing only next actions of active projects, I notice that my single action projects show ALL their actions. I understand the rationale for it (I think), but they sorta visually overwhelm projects that may be much more important yet are displaying only a next action. So I get this kind of effect ...

sequential project: save Earth from hostile aliens
action: hack mothership wifi network from iPhone

single action project: misc cat stuff
action: buy cat food
action: pat cat
action: clean litterbox
action: do cat’s bidding
etc, etc for fifty cat-o-centric items

Really, saving Earth is probably more important than (indeed a pre-requisite for) doing the cat’s bidding. But the cat’s list takes up waaaay more screen real estate and consequently seems more important, which is doubtless how the cat would want it, but it constitutes clutter and heats up me brain.

Can anything be done about this? Some lists could be paused, but other need to stay active. But it seems like if they are active, they show all their actions.
Making the cat care project a parallel project might do the trick. My cats haven't complained yet :-) Truth be told, I actually changed my daily pet care project to a single action list (with lots of repeating actions/groups) in the last week or so, after a long time with it as a parallel project. I don't spend a lot of time working from a next actions only view, and usually do the pet care stuff immediately upon rising, so it doesn't have much visual impact. I'm not entirely sure why I changed it, other than a vague thought that perhaps it isn't really a project, having no real desired outcome.
This is a great thread. I've made an action to come back and read it in more detail. :)

I would like to see a Applying Omnifocus section of the Omnifocus forum. This area would be for how to apply OF in your daily life as opposed to the "why won't it sync with x" stuff. Both are important but I like to see some additional threads along this line...
Great Thread.

Something I'm trying out is using the Due grouping and assigning project due dates. The grouping will place the projects in handy containers like: due this week, due next week, due a month from now.

This assigns all tasks without a due date the projects due date.

Then when working in the contexts list, I can also group by due date and sort by due date. This helps to prioritize the actions on the list.
I started using Flags to help with the GTD-style of choosing what to do.

Highest personal payoff

In each context I put a flag on one item, and one item only, that I think might give me the highest personal payoff. It might not be THE best choice but maybe a good place to start. Identifying this flag forces me to review my next actions a little more closely.

I think using flags more than this would be counterproductive (for me!) by adding noise to my lists but it helps a little.

Another "trick" I've found helpful is to open a context and pick one item and DO that one. Don't worry about whether it's right or wrong just do it. It helps connect with your lists and to also make sure your next actions are truly the next physical, visible action.

Good stuff here!

- Mark

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