Handling Deadlines and Multiple Projects – with OmniFocus and MindNode

Introduction

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:

Prerequisites

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:

  1. Deciding on a piece of work,
  2. Sitting with that work, and
  3. 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).

Calm Juggling

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:

Capto_Capture 2016-12-01_06-21-48_AM.png

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):

Capto_Capture 2017-02-05_06-29-27_AM.png

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):

Capto_Capture 2017-02-05_06-37-14_AM.png

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:

Capto_Capture 2017-02-05_06-40-47_AM.png

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:

Capto_Capture 2017-02-04_09-12-30_AM.png

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:

Capto_Capture 2017-02-04_08-23-12_AM.png

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.

Using Tabs in OmniFocus

Introducing Tabs

 

OmniFocus’ recent builds (beta test build version 2.8 as of this writing) have introduced tabs, much like we find in our Internet browsers. Here’s an example:

omnifocus-tabs-introduced

I’ve been experimenting with using the tabs to organize how I approach work by sessions. Notice the above arrangement. When working, I do so from right to left. On the right are the project tasks:

focus-on-tabs

I can work away, adding thoughts to the Inbox as needed via Quick Entry. When I feel that I have done enough work in the session, I close the tab with Command-w.

Using the above structure, this brings me to the Inbox, where I can process it as part of closing the session.

inbox-in-tabs

When I’m done processing the Inbox, and I feel that there is nothing more about the session that comes to mind, I once again close the tab with command-w to return me to the Dashboard:

dashboard-remains

… where I can mark the “Develop: Blog post on tabs” task as complete and once again decide what to do next.

Menu Options

There are 6 menu options related to tabs that are scattered throughout the menu bars:

  • File > New Tab
  • View > Show Tab Bar
  • Window > Show Previous Tab
  • Window > Show Next Tab
  • Window > Move Tab to New Window
  • Window > Merge All Windows

The last one, “Merge All Windows” takes all of your open windows and converts them into a single window with multiple tabs.

Using Shortcuts

Using Keyboard Maestro, I’ve added shortcuts as follows:

  • New Tab (Command-t)
  • Show Previous Tab (Control-Option-Command →)
  • Show Next Tab (Control-Option-Command ←)
  • Merge All Windows (Control-m)

The “New Tab” function already has a built in command (Option-Command-t), but I prefer the same key command as I find in Safari.

Using the Go To Link Script

Jesse Hollington created a script that takes you straight to a link from a task in a note field using a Key Command. A neat side effect is that, using the command opens a tab. (If it just opens in the same window for you, see the footnote below.) 1. So, for instance, here I select a session I want to work on:

launch-task

I’ve opened the note field to show the Copy as Link pasted link in the note field. However, the note field does not need to be opened for the process to work. I then type my assigned key command (Command-g) and a new tab with my desired project opens:

blog-post-project

The system is not perfect as no system is, but it’s been fun to play with.  There are still some variations I’m entertaining, too.


 

  1. Well, this works sometimes. Sometimes it opens a new window instead of a new tab. If that happens, I type Control-m to merge windows. I haven’t figured out what I’m doing differently to create the inconsistency yet.Also, you need to have the “Open in a New Window” option checked in the Open Panel (Command-o) for this to work, too:open-in-new-windowOtherwise, it just replaces the current window with the linked window.↩︎

Reviewing Large Projects

Large projects can be difficult to navigate for any number of reasons. When I refer to large projects, I mean those that span at least several OmniFocus projects and possibly several folders of projects.1 Here is an example from Zen & The Art of Work which had 16 video modules and other projects within several folders:

zen-and-the-art-of-work-omnifocus-projects

One reason large projects can be difficult is that there are so many tasks. It becomes hard to quickly know what a most efficient or impactful next action might be.

One means of addressing this is arranging the tasks in a project, perhaps setting priority tasks higher in the project itself. That way, if you are visiting the project or using a perspective with a “Sort actions by:” setting at “Project”, you will see those higher priority tasks up top.

However, when tasks are sent to projects from the Inbox, they are only added to the bottom. While it would be nice, it is not often practical to follow up each and every task to make sure it is well placed within its respective project, as it is processed from the Inbox. Unfortunately, when we later get to the project itself, there can feel like little rhyme or reason as to the order.

For example, while working on one module of the Zen course, I would have ideas about what to do with other modules, which I would dutifully add to the Inbox or even directly to their corresponding modules. After a while, though, there would be a slew of tasks added throughout, without clarity as to what had priority or what the relationship of tasks might be to each other.

Certainly, review is helpful, but I did not want to review each of these projects every day or even weekly. It would just be too much. Setting them to monthly was useful, but their reviews would easily become staggered.

Instead, a tactic I found useful was to deliberately change the review date of these specific projects to “today” on the day that I felt ready to do a solid review. In other words, using Shift or Command, I would select all of the projects I wanted to address:

selecting-all-projects-to-review

then go to the Review section of the Inspector and enter “today” as the next review:

review-set-to-today

Of course, this works best when I am on top of my reviews so that there is nothing else in the way:

review-signal-change

Leveraging the default OmniFocus review system, I could then sit and review each project in my own time:

ready-for-review

If I reviewed a few projects and then set it aside, that would be fine.  I could always pick up the process later. Meanwhile, I left the default review frequency for these projects at monthly.


 

  1. I would like to come up with a term that means large project without using the word “project”, but have not been able to come up one that feels satisfying. I’ve thought of “endeavor” and “craft”, but they don’t feel right. Any suggestions? ↩︎

Quick Entry & Inbox Settings in OmniFocus

An Inbox is integral to any solid task system. Whether we decide to use a piece of paper for a single session of work or a task manager to orchestrate many sessions, we need some way to set thoughts aside while focused.

There are several important properties of an Inbox are that it:

  • Can be called quickly,
  • Will remain until dismissed, and
  • Can be sent away quickly.

When we can call it quickly, ideas can be written without fuss.  When it stays until dismissed, we can better settle with the sense of having addressed the interruption. When we can move it out of the away quickly, we can reduce a tendency to be distracted by whatever we’ve put in it. Together, these properties allow us to field interruptions, whether they come from our own ideas or from outside demands while we maintain a chosen focus.

Problematic Inbox Use

However, we can still use an Inbox problematically by assigning a task more characteristics than are necessary to simply setting a thought aside.

For example, while I work on Project X, an idea comes to mind about checking on a file upload I had started earlier. I might then write, “Check on file upload”, assign it to its own  project “Build Flying Saucer” and also assign it a context “@Laptop”. I then decide if that is enough information for me to see the task when and where it would useful to be seen. Perhaps I add a defer date, due date, or flag, too.

While it may seem that I am saving future Inbox processing time, I am actually creating several avoidable problems such as:

  • Focusing too much on the interrupting idea, while my chosen focus falls to the side. Since I am effectively skipping the Inbox, I will not see the task until I encounter it through the system, so focus on how and when it will appear becomes important.
  • Incorrectly filing the idea, and then really need to derail myself from my current work to address it.
  • Incorrectly filing the idea and not realize I had done so, thereby missing it later.

Simpler Inbox Use

A better way to handle an interruption is to simply add the idea to the Inbox without assigning it any characteristics. That way I can focus on processing it later as its own session. For example, just writing “Check on file upload for flying saucer” in the Inbox is enough. Not assigning a project is particularly important when a default context is assigned to its project, and the clean up process will whisk it away.

Later, when processing the Inbox, I could just take care of a task if it takes 2 minutes or less. If it might take longer, I could now deliberately focus on how I wanted it to show up in my system. The session is dedicated to processing the Inbox.

Experimenting with Quick Entry Settings

I’ve been experimenting with a few settings of both the Quick Entry and Inbox to streamline their use and have listed them below. I should point out that I use not only OmniFocus’ Inbox, but others as well such as a sheet of paper for certain types of sessions.

Presentation

Quick-Entry-on-OSX.png

The Quick Entry guides me to only enter what is necessary for now. The Quick Entry is simply presented, prompting me only for the task’s title and contact.  The project, defer date, due date, flag, and note fields are conspicuously absent.  If I truly need to add a flag, I can use my key combination (Shift-Command-L) or if I need to add a note, I can use (Command-’).

This way, the task will not be automatically whisked off to projects that have a default context assigned. It is deliberately held in the Inbox for later processing as its own session.

To set your own Quick Entry appearance:

  • Open the Quick Entry panel (I use the default key combination Control-Option-Space)
  • Select the Eye icon in the bottom left corner:

Quick-Entry-on-OSX-prefs.png Which reveals the following:

Quick-Entry-on-OSX-pref-layout.png

My settings are noted above.

(Addendum 2016-11-10:  After some time, I’ve reverted back to including the Project column in Quick Entry:

quick-entry-with-project)

Legacy vs Default Behavior

Secondly, I prefer to use the legacy behavior of the Inbox from OmniFocus 1. In OmniFocus 2, the Inbox disappears by typing Return.  However, I often have several ideas at once, and I would like the Quick Entry Inbox to remain until I am done with it.

If you would like to use legacy, OmniFocus 1, behavior, then enter the following code into Safari[1]:

omnifocus:///change-preference?QuickEntryMultiEntryMode=1

For any setting changed via URL, you can revert to the default value by omitting a value entirely, like this[2]:

omnifocus:///change-preference?QuickEntryMultiEntryMode=

In legacy behavior mode, the following entry methods work:

  • (Return) ends task editing. (Return) again creates a new task.
  • (Control-Return) makes a new task immediately below the currently edited one.
  • (Shift-Return) creates a new task above the current one

When done entering tasks,

  • Use the clean up command (Command-k).

Inbox on OS X

When I process the Inbox, I do so as a dedicated session. I would like to have all resources available. Therefore, I use a fuller set of the preferences to show all major components by opening the inspector (Option-Command-i) as well as having more components available inline:

OSX-Inbox-with-inspector.png

The settings can be accessed via (Shift-Command-v). Here are my own:

OSX-Inbox-Settings.png

Certainly, these are not the only settings possible or potentially useful to you. But the idea remains the same. The Inbox should be:

  • Easy to get to
  • Easy to keep in place until dismissed
  • Easy to remove from sight
  • Easy to process as its own session of work

  1. Note that this sort of coding into Safari is not officially supported by the Omni Group, nor myself.  ↩
  2. I use Keyboard Maestro to hold onto these sorts of codes I’ve gathered:

Quick-Entry-Legacy-KM.png Quick-Entry-Default-KM.png

That way, I just toggle between the modes using the key command Shift-Control-c, and then a number key, as noted above.

A Daily Review Habit

“Falling off the GTD wagon” (or any task system for that matter) can be all too easy and all too disrupting.  Especially, when you’ve grown used to a system, the gradual loss of trust in that system can come with feelings of anxiety, the need for constant damage control, putting out fires, losing follow up tasks, losing communication trails, losing the state of projects, and more.

To keep a system useful, it needs to be reviewed regularly. I often say that I’m not sure a system even exists unless it is reviewed.

Getting Things Done author, David Allen, suggests weekly as an optimal frequency. I used to review my entire system weekly and had done so for several years. At times, the review process would take me about 1-2 hours. I’d often feel quite positive about doing a review as I know how on top of things I can feel.

But, that is a chunk of time.  I can easily see how a person would lose the interest in review especially at times, for example, when things are very heavy or very light. At those times, you may think either, “I have no time” or “Why bother?”, respectively. The problem is that work ebbs and flows, and you can get hit with a whole bunch at once.

Nowadays, I do both a daily and a weekly review, which interestingly saves me time. The Daily Review takes about as long as my coffee takes to brew in the mornings. The Weekly Review is more centered on system blindspots and now takes about 20-30 minutes.

The Daily Review

My Daily Review includes:

  • Clearing the Inbox,
  • Reviewing any projects that are in the Review indicator, and
  • Making sure my flagged projects are appropriate for the day.

Generally, I use the iPhone to do this:

Morning Mini-Review - Before & After

Detailing the process, I:

  • Examine my calendar to review my scheduled meetings and appointments.
  • Acknowledge any tasks that are due soon as noted from the Forecast view.
  • Process the Inbox to “0”
  • Review all projects requesting review, thereby bringing that number to “0”. Note that this is a different method of Review than what I was doing when writing in Creating Flow with OmniFocus. At that time, I was doing the Weekly Review session only. Now, I do this aspect of the review daily.
  • Review the Land & Sea project as needed. I set its review reminder to every other day, so it is examined very regularly as part of this Daily Review.
  • Examine the Dashboard and decide if it supports me for the day.
  • Process the Inbox to “0” again, as needed.

If I want to be more thorough, I may also:

  • Review my Communications perspective
  • Review my Filing perspective

When I can sit with my tasks and calendar with a sense that they will support me and nothing else comes to mind, about my day or otherwise, I can then pause and decide on what to do next.

This can seem like a lot, but when you’re practiced, all of this can take only a few minutes.  Even if you work from a simpler set of lists, maybe only a single todo list, the same applies.  Examining the list and waiting until nothing else about it comes to mind can be a powerful way to help you move through your day smoothly.

 

My Current OmniFocus Dashboard “Recipe”

My workflow has, in general, shifted towards a session-focused style, as is evident from my recent post.  Essentially, that just means that my dashboard of tasks number only a few (about 5-8, give or take) and each represents a session of work. They are not very specific tasks and are more orchestrating in nature.  This means that my choices of what to do next are simple.

In addition, I tend to work by habit. In other words, I often work on a project over multiple sessions.  Similarly, my routines for maintenance are also a matter of recurring sessions.

As a result, my Dashboard has largely become a series of repeating tasks, using the “Defer Another” function.  Tasks repeat at different frequencies – daily, weekly, monthly, or other.. My current Dashboard “recipe” includes the following:

  • 1-3 “Land & Sea” tasks daily (“Land & Sea” Project)
  • 1 Office Filing task on weekdays, (“Routine : Home & Office” Project)
  • 1 Home Filing task on Fridays, (“Routine : Home & Office” Project)
  • 1 Weekly Review task on Fridays, (“Routine : Home & Office” Project)
  • 1 Family Agenda review everyday, (“Routine : Home & Office” Project)
  • 1 Develop: Music task everyday, (“Music & Artistry : Music & Artistry” Project)
  • 1 Morning Communications on weekdays, (“Routine : Home & Office” Project)
  • 1 Afternoon Communications on weekdays, (“Routine : Home & Office” Project)
  • 1 Financial Maintenance task monthly, (“Routine : Home & Office” Project)
  • Rare odds & ends when they do not fit in the above.

Each task links to a custom perspective or project.

And, of course, there are types of habitual work that do not appear above. For example, I also have the clients I see throughout the day, so I often check on my @Office : Agendas context in the morning.  Clients are scheduled in the calendar.

Also, these tasks are not forced.  For example, a particularly busy day with clients means I may not make it to a Land & Sea project that I thought I could have. If that occurs too often, though, it is likely time for me to re-evaluate my workload. In that way, I use my understanding of how the system is stressed to consider where to make adjustments in my general workflows.