After writing about time batching I was asked to detail how I use OmniFocus. I’ve actually been asked more than once but it’s such a complex subject that I’ve been hesitant to put my system down. It’s time to get it out there and hopefully you can learn from it.

Note: OmniFocus can be as complex or simple as you want. I set myself up way too complex a few times and stopped using OmniFocus before I settled on just the right amount of organization for me.

What goes in OmniFocus

The first stop is to decide what goes in OmniFocus. At one point I’d put all of my book lists (books I wanted to read) in OmniFocus. While that could be a valid use of OmniFocus it always felt like a cognitive burden to me.

I don’t use OmniFocus for lists to track random things. That would normally be the ‘tickler’ file for you GTD zealots.

OmniFocus is also not for projects I ‘might’ do. When I have a great idea for a new business product/plugin/mudpie recipe I don’t put it in OmniFocus. I found that it gave me a bunch of projects to deal with during my review process that I knew I wasn’t really going to do. I just thought they might turn in to something someday so I tracked them.

Now all my lists and ideas go into Evernote. Only once I’ve decided to dig into a project for real do I put it in OmniFocus with proper action steps. Until I’ve decided to dedicate time it’s just an idea that has no place in my OmniFocus workflow.

Walk Through

OmniFocus has a bunch of features and I’m not going to talk about all of them. There are great books on the subject that you can purchase to get a technical run down on all of the things inside OmniFocus.

I’m going to walk you through 4 scenarios and how I use OmniFocus to deal with them.

Client Follow Up

Staying on top of clients and remembering to email them (just to stay on their radar) is crucial to keeping a healthy business. If you don’t follow up with old clients and remind them you’re around your business is always going to be jumping between paychecks.

For my business I have a whole project set up in OmniFocus relating to ‘Client Follow Up’. I put every client I want to follow up with into that project along with a link to the last email we sent with each other.

MailPlane and it’s OmniFocus integration is a huge help here. By highlighting the words (or whole email) I want and then pressing “⌘-^-Y” I can add the text to an OmniFocus action and that action automatically contains a link to the email thread.

When I send an estimate out to a client I highlight the email (since I have FreeAgent email me a copy) and pass it to OmniFocus with a note to follow up in 2 days. I put it in my Follow Up project with the context of email.

When it comes up on my list for the day I follow up then usually bump the item off for 5 days. If it comes up and I’ve heard back from the client already I mark it is as done.

At times it’s not uncommon to have 3 TODO items for one project to follow up. If the client responds to the first estimate with a question I will answer it and then highlight my text to make another reminder in 2 days.

Since each reminder is attached to an email thread it’s easy to jump in and see what has/has not been said and it’s always been easy for me to remember if I’ve had more interaction with clients around a project.

Another thing I do is put all of my good clients in here to keep warm every 2 months. That means when an eCommerce client comes up I’ll probably send them a message asking how things are going and a resource I read recently that could help them increase their conversions. Once that’s done I bump it off for 2 months again.


My wonderful wife deals with 99% of the paper receipts I have in my business so my tax workflow only deals with any email items and my business credit card.

It’s fairly similar to my client follow up process. When a new item comes into my email I highlight the text (make sure you get that PayPal transaction number/link) and push it into OmniFocus.

The benefit of getting the PayPal (or Stripe) transaction link is that I don’t even have to go into MailPlane I can just click the link in the OmniFocus notes field and it will take me right to the transaction in PayPal so I can get the PayPal fee and add it to my business write off for bank fees.

All my tax stuff gets done on Friday. If it comes in after I’ve done my taxes on Friday then I push it off to the following Friday. The cost of context switching to get back to my taxes is just too high to bother adding single items (unless I happen to have a single item).

Full on Project

In full projects I use OmniFocus to manage my tasks. That means I may also be running a Trello board for a project if there is more than just me on the project (client, sub-contractors, other contractors…).

If it’s just me as the contractor (WordPress theme build say) and my communication with the client is via email then I only use OmniFocus.

Just me really

When it’s just me I use the nested items in OmniFocus to organize things into complete lists.

If I’m on-boarding a new project then the entries will be something like:

  • set up
    • Set site up on Vagrant
    • install WordPress locally
    • install wp-migrate-db-pro
    • sync down wp-content dir
    • pull db with wp-migrate-db-pro

Sure a bunch of those things are easy and won’t take time but you still have to remember them. Keeping things in your head is where the ‘open loops’ come in that just burn up coginitive process and make you less productive.

After that organization depends on the project. For a recent site I was fixing there were issues in the WordPress admin and on the frontend of the site so I broke it up like:

  • admin
    • DB upgrade notice won’t go away
    • upgrade Gold Cart
    • remove old plugins
  • frontend
    • get the buttons aligning again
    • AJAX product submit not working
    • Archive view grid not right
  • checkout
    • form has extra fields we don’t need
    • make sure that button alignment covers these buttons

Many of the items contained links back to the specific email paragraph with the bug report. That meant if my short form explanation wasn’t enough 2 days later I have the exact words the client used to describe the problem right there in the notes field in OmniFocus.

No opening email and hunting it down. Didn’t even have to open my email and click on the link in the notes field unless I really needed to read it in context.

Collaborative Projects

When I’m on a collaborative project I still use OmniFocus as my daily reference to manage tasks. While I will talk about it as if you are using Trello the basics transfer to Basecamp or Asana or any project management app I’ve encountered.

In Trello each main item has a card and often some individual tasks assigned to the card.

For me that translates into a main task and sub-tasks just like I use when I’m only using OmniFocus to manage a project.

Each Trello card has a link so the notes field in OmniFocus will contain a link to the matching Trello card and any conversation inside the card that may explain the meaning of the task better.

Putting the link right in the card means I don’t have to hunt for it later which saves me manual work. Including any relevant conversation also means that I don’t have to go searching for the card to get any more information. Everything is contained in one spot.

Once I check off a few of the tasks I’ll open the corresponding card in Trello and add any updates that are required.

Yes this means I’m running two systems but it doesn’t mean I’m less productive. I find that I’m more productive.

When you have that big system to log into it’s easy to make a few updates, check on a few tickets and really just shuffle papers. It’s unlikely that your most important task is to shuffle those items so all that is happening is that you feel productive.

Email does the same thing to us. We jump in for just a second then when we look up 2 hours later we have done nothing important in our day even though we feel productive.

Running my tasks in OmniFocus means I sit at my desk and do my most important things first without distraction.

Since I establish my most important tasks the night before it’s very rare that a morning ticket update really changes anything that I do first. I’ll check the main project management system around lunch and then again before the end of the day.

Diving into it more than that is just shuffling papers for most developers and designers. Makes you feel good but really doesn’t get anything useful done.

General Life

OmniFocus can be more useful than just a way to organize projects for business. I use it when I have shelves to paint or groceries to get or a few things to pick up at any store.

If it’s a more involved project (like the shelves) then I make a full project for it and map out each little step.

  • get paint out
  • get extension cord out
  • get sander out
  • sand/prep shelves
  • 1st coat
  • get out drill
  • put drill on charger
  • 2nd coat
  • 3rd coat?
  • get out blue toolbox
  • mount shelves in bedroom

See I map out each little step. Not doing that just means that you can forget one, like the sander and then realize that you’re painting and forgot to properly prep the shelves. Or how about the cordless drill I don’t use enough and it’s always dead. Writing out part way through that I need to get it out and make sure it’s charged means that I have a whole round of painting with the battery on the charger.

So it’s not dead when I need it.

For general errands (right now I need new tent pegs) I have an errands context. It’s October so I don’t need the tent pegs today just before we go camping again.

When I visit a store I open the errands context and see what’s there. When I get to a store that I can get my tent pegs at I’ll just get them and then check them off the list.

It’s unlikely that I’ll open the tent next summer and realize that I forgot to purchase tent pegs since I’ll have so many opportunities to purchase them in the coming months.

Reviews are so important

I said at the beginning that OmniFocus dropped of my radar more than once and it was because I just got way too complex with my setup. While that’s true another major contributing factor was that I didn’t do reviews.

Neglecting reviews meant that I was never 100% sure what was going on with each project. In GTD parlance, it left way to many loops open and thus my brain had to think about them. Getting your brain out of the way is the whole purpose of OmniFocus and a proper GTD system.

If I can impress one thing on you as you try out OmniFocus it would be do your damn reviews weekly. Even as I’m fully invested and realize that I need to do reviews I find myself making excuses and not getting to them.

If I’ve missed a review I notice a 5% drop in billable hours. I’ve got about 6 months of data that show me the drop.

That’s how much time open loops cost my business. 20 minutes of review time would usually bring me 5 hours of billable time in the next week. It’s simply a bad business decision to skip my review time.

I hope this has given you some insight in to how OmniFocus may be helpful to you. Don’t start with my method, just use it to inform your method. Start with the easiest setup you can and only add complexity when you hit an issue more than once and only if adding complexity will fix the issue.

Adding useless complexity will only ensure that you stop using OmniFocus (or your system) and then all hell will break loose.

OmniFocus links