Juggling multiple deadlines, knowing what to start and when, and knowing what we will be able to take on a few months from now is not a simple matter. Each project we take on will likely last an unclear amount of time, and we’ll have other responsibilities to take care of in the meantime.
In this post, I’ll describe how I’ve been planning and setting up several long term projects using a combination of MindNode and OmniFocus. In the course of developing this post, I also created a video version more streamlined to the exercise of planning the start of projects. The video is posted above.
The end goal is the same as always: a centralized, simple list that I trust to present the things I want to do during the day. I want to see something like the following:
The core concept of this post is simple:
Plan the beginning of your projects.
However, how I present things may still fall under advanced use.
You’ll need to have some functioning task system, and a system of setting project On Hold and Active. Using OmniFocus, I’ve developed the Land & Sea project (link 1, link 2, link 3. A more detailed, though earlier version, is described in Creating Flow with OmniFocus, page 706) to this end. It is a complex table-of-contents-like project that helps me navigate several of my ongoing projects.
In addition, you will need a sense of what I call The Workflow Fundamentals. In short, these are the practices of:
- Deciding on a piece of work,
- Sitting with that work, and
- Then doing so regularly.
These sound simple, but as anyone with a tendency to procrastinate can attest to, they are not. (For a full study, I refer you to Zen & The Art of Work).
I’ll also use both OmniFocus (for task management) and MindNode (for outlining).
The video displays a set of the projects that I have been working on over the past several months or so.
Throughout all of these, I’m also seeing my clients, managing their therapy and medications, practicing piano, meeting family obligations, doing the dishes, taking out the garbage, and even reading, helping the kids with their homework, or playing video games in the evenings.
That sounds overwhelming. And, if I were to have some omnisience of how my work days would turn out, and then and attempt to work from this blueprint, I bet I would fail. This thing is overwhelming to look at.
It would be impossible to work from here. But this is how we often try to plan. We think we should know all the steps before doing something. But this approach can instead be paralyzing.
Creativity is an act of discovering something as we make it. The act of choosing which projects to take on and when can itself be creative.
And while I do have days of stress, they are not from a sense of inability, so much as they are about my dealing with the arrows reality has decided to sling in my direction. I maintain focus, clarity, and often calm.
I never feel overwhelmed because I know how to adjust the throttle and still meet obligations. When I have that sense of guidance, work is no longer an inevitable chore. It is something I decide to take on at the pace I believe would work well for me. I can plan, and I can always change my plans.
A Set of Upcoming Deadlines
Recently, I’ve been in the midst of preparing several public talks. The presentations themselves are meant to be anywhere from 1-3 hours each. Essentially, each talk is a performance. I need to put together a set of ideas, some of which I’ve formed in advance, many of which I haven’t. Then I need to practice them, so I can simultaneously stand in front of a bunch of people, say something that is hopefully meaningful to them, and hopefully not fall on my face. And, since they are performances, I can’t just have them ready months in advance. I also need to practice them in the days leading up to the presentation.
My general system of work is to start a project early, preferably as soon as its assigned, and then sit with it daily. However, this is not possible for 6-8 projects simultaneously. Using the Land & Sea Project I limit myself to doing about 3 projects simultaneously. Meanwhile, the odds and ends of other projects find their way into my File & Flow perspective or in Communications (old link, but still relevant). The 3 Land & Sea projects also need to include work that is not about speaking gigs. Besides, I don’t really want to work on several talks simultaneously, so I can better concentrate on them individually.
Planning in MindNode
Starting a few months ago, I began a sketch of the talks that were on my mind:
As I planned, I used MindNode’s ability to create tasks (Shift-Command-t) to list the presentations and some of their dates. Later, I added tasks about planning itself to the top to keep them separate from the rest of the tasks:
Using MindNode’s task system, as opposed to that in OmniFocus, allowed me to stay within MindNode itself. However, I still use OmniFocus as my central hub of task management.
While I was planning, I realized that I wanted to spend several sessions doing so. Therefore, as I was in this initial planning phase, I added the task to continue planning in MindNode to OmniFocus, like so:
That way, I could spend a session planning, then mark the task complete, and it would show up again the next day. I deleted the task when I was done outlining.
As I continued planning, some tasks would easily be completed and never find their way into OmniFocus. These would mainly be about planning, like those listed above. Other tasks, though, would be better suited to my overall system, like communication tasks or really anything that needed to be called out outside of the planning process (examples circled below):
These tasks that do not refer to planning within MindNode itself are better suited to OmniFocus. While there is an export option in MindNode to send tasks to OmniFocus, I prefer to make the transfers manually. That way, I can distinguish between those that are embedded in MindNode and those that I want in OmniFocus.
When transferring a task, instead of marking the task as completed, I use the strikethrough option (Option-Command-u):
to indicate that they’d been transferred. That way, I could leave them in MindNode as I continued planning and knew what had been transferred.
I eventually came up with a series of potential start dates for preparations, usually at least a few weeks or a month beforehand:
Transfer to OmniFocus
When done, I then transferred dates of when I wanted to start each preparation to the Land & Sea project. Here is a screenshot of a more recent Land & Sea project:
The top section, labeled “Navigation”, is relatively new:
Essentially, it is a set of reminders to make adjustments to the Land & Sea projects based on my plans. The group is set to parallel:
Plan in Action
In the end, I maintain a simple presentation of tasks in my day to day:
When the date for starting preparations arrives, that particular task appears in the simple list of the Dashboard (link 1, link 2) shown above. I can then make arrangements, removing something else from being active in Land & Sea and replacing it with what I want to begin. Meanwhile, if I finish preparations for something early, I can always move something from inactive to active earlier.
I can also leverage the Forecast Perspective to keep my eye on the horizon. I can:
- Select the Land & Sea project
- Focus with Shift-Command-F, and
- Open the Forecast Perspective (Command-4), with deferred items shown
to present the upcoming month without interference from the rest of my project library:
Certainly there are other ways to plan ahead. But this has been nice for me. Once I had it set up, I really could just run on autopilot, sitting with the work in my daily list of tasks. In general, using the start-early/sit-daily method of work I described above, I tend to be done with projects well in advance of any due dates. I can always re-add a project in the days approaching the talk to get the material fresh in mind for the talk itself.
I never force myself to work. The point of will is being with the work.
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