How I’m Using Contexts in Omnifocus

I’m going to preface this post, by saying that this is by no means how someone has to use contexts nor is it a permanent set up of contexts for my system. In the world of paper planners, a lot of people refer to the idea of radically changing your set up as “planner fail.” In the world of Omnifocus, I find that many people feel that tinkering with their setup is the norm. It’s not seen as failure but as improvement. Some even have dedicated Omnifocus “maintenance” or “ideas” projects and/or contexts. {I have to say, the idea that making changes isn’t because I failed, but instead learning how to make my system better has been a nice change of thinking for me.}

Today I’m going to give you an overview of how I’m using contexts in Omnifocus.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with David Allen’s GTD, the way I perceive contexts is that they basically define a certain location or thing you need to have in order for you to complete a task. For instance, if you need to call someone, you need to have access to a phone.

Now needing a phone to make a phone call seems pretty obvious, but when you add up all the things we do on a regular basis, it can get a bit more complicated. I find contexts extremely helpful for 2 reasons:

  1. Contexts help identify what I can do at any given moment. For example, it’d be pointless to try and complete a phone call if I don’t have access to a phone or I’m out at a concert late at night.
  2. Contexts help to batch tasks together. If you have 5 items to pick up at IKEA, it makes more sense to pick them up in one trip than to go five separate times. This also works for batching other tasks like phone calls or emails.

This is my current list of contexts in Omnifocus.

OF Contexts

  • House – This context is for any task that requires me to be at home to complete. I’ve broken it down further to categorize tasks that can be done in a particular place in the home
    • Outside – These are garage-related tasks or things like taking the trash out.
    • Basement – My basement is 3 floors away. I typically try and tackle as many basement tasks in one trip as possible.
    • Bedroom – Given that my bedroom functions primarily as a studio apartment, this is where the majority of my tasks happen.
  • [Campus]* – These are either work or school-related tasks that require me to be on campus. *For privacy reasons, I’ve chosen to rename this context and edited the screenshot above accordinly.
    • If I have more than a couple tasks that involve a particular colleague, I’ll add them as a sub-context. When I’m meeting with that particular person, I can quickly go to their context and see any agenda items I need to discuss.
  • Errands – This context is for tasks that require me to be out and about.
    • Shopping – This context is specifically for items on my shopping list which I’ve broken down further into:
      • IKEA – Gotta love IKEA right?
      • Online – Many of my online purchases can also be made in a store, so I’ve kept this context under Errands so that if I’m out, I can pick up items on my list rather than buying them online. {This will come in handy when I describe my Perspectives in a later post.}
  • Devices – It’s been said many times over, the idea of “email” or “internet” contexts have become somewhat obsolete with the myriad of internet connected devices we all carry around. This context is for tasks that require some sort of digital device but not necessarily a specific one. For tasks that do require a specific device I’ve added sub-contexts:
    • Phone – Phone calls do require a phone {and a reasonably quiet environment}, so does installing an iPhone app, so these get their own context.
    • Mac – While I can do most of my “digital” tasks on any device, there are some that do require a computer or I prefer to do on a computer. These tasks get assigned a Mac context.

My last two contexts are maintenance contexts. I’ve put both of these contexts on hold so that they do not show up in my active tasks:

  • Waiting for… holds my tasks that I’m waiting on someone else for. For instance, if I’m waiting for a product to come in the mail or I’m waiting for someone to reply to an email.
  • Someday/Maybe holds my tasks that I don’t plan on doing right away but may like to do in the future.

So there you have it, my Omnifocus contexts. As I said in the beginning, this list isn’t set in stone. I see my contexts as dynamic, and they constantly change. I do, however, have one rule – If I find that a context has only 1 task, I heavily consider whether it really needs to be in it’s own context. More often than not, it fits better in one of my other contexts.

If you’re struggling with contexts in GTD or how to set up Omnifocus, I hope this has helped. I’d be happy to elaborate a bit more on any of the contexts above if they weren’t clear, and while I’m not an “expert” at Omnifocus, I’m also happy to take a stab at trying to answer any questions you might have.

In my next Omnifocus post, I’ll be going over how I’ve decided to organize my projects.

Signature Update

Growing Pains with Things

Hi everyone, I’m back from a nice little 4 day vacation in Atlantic City with another post about Omnifocus vs. Things. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve outgrown Things. So what specifically started bugging me?

Things is loosely based off of GTD. This is both a blessing and a curse. It did mean I got right into using it because there was no learning curve. It’s also meant it failed pretty quickly because I didn’t think of how I should set it up.

My first struggle was with Things’ Areas of Responsibility. Because it’s loosely based off GTD, Things doesn’t have traditional “contexts.” Instead, it has Areas of Responsibility which according to Cultured Code, “allow you to group both projects and to-dos according to your responsibilities.” Areas of Responsibility to me meant things like Personal, Work, School, etc. which is how I initially set everything up. The problem is, when I’m deciding what to do, I don’t necessarily care what area of my life it’s for. I’m more worried about whether or not I have the resources to do it. In some cases, personal tasks do mix in to my work day and vice versa. For instance, if I put off calling my doctor until after I get home, they’ll probably be closed. So, using Areas of Responsibility as I initially had gave me lists of tasks categorized based on parts of my life, but with no particular regard to what I needed to actually do those things.

I took a second go at Things, and redid my Areas with more traditional “contexts” in mind. I ended up with Work, Computer, Errands, and Home. After all, I have certain tasks I have to do when I’m either at work or at home, things that I need my computer for, and things I need to do when I’m out and about. This was better, but my Today view still showed me EVERYTHING regardless of whether I could actually do those things. If I’ve learned anything from all my planning OCD, it’s that having a task in your face nagging you that you can’t do is draining. For me, sitting at work seeing that I needed to clean 6 things at home distracted me from the 2 things I needed to make sure I did while I was working.

Contexts, or Areas, weren’t my only issue though. Things seemed to lack organization in general. Again, this is makes Things incredibly simple to start using, but the more I used it, the more I struggled with it. Active projects are all kept together. My school projects with hard deadlines were mixed in with remodeling my room which is just something I’m tackling on the side. Moreover, when it came time to my class which I broke down into a project for each week, I either needed to manually schedule every one to appear x days before a certain day, or choose to make the projects inactive and manually activate the next one as I finished each week.

The issue I had with scheduling my projects leads me to my last gripe. Tasks can only be assigned a date not a time meaning, if I had to do something by the end of the day but couldn’t start it until 3PM, I still had to stare at it all day (again nagging me making me resent it). This created constant friction in deciding whether to put time-sensitive tasks without due dates on my calendar which I try to avoid, in a separate app which I also try to avoid, or just live with it.

All in all, my struggles led me to Omnifocus which has solved all of the issues I had with Things. It’s not perfect, and I’m still tinkering, but my next Omnifocus post will be about how I’ve organized my projects and contexts.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and thank you for stopping by.

Signature Update

Switching from Things to Omnifocus

I’ve been using Omnifocus for a little over 2 months now I believe, so I think it’s time for some details about my journey from Things to Omnifocus.

Let me start off by saying I tried both Things and Omnifocus at some point in the past and both got either uninstalled or stored away in the depths of the Applications folder for quite some time before I ever really used them. Omnifocus has a high initial learning curve which puts off many users including myself initially and truthfully I hadn’t gotten into task management enough to need it’s features or use it to it’s full potential. Things, on the other hand, is much simpler, loosely based on GTD, and looks pretty good too. As a newbie to GTD and a fan of well-designed apps, it’s no surprise that I found myself using Things.

Things is a beautiful app on the Mac {a bit dated on iOS right now until they release version 3 though.} I didn’t jump right into using Things. Instead I found myself gradually putting more and more into it – chores, tasks that repeated at intervals I was bound to forget, school assignments, etc. – until eventually it became habit for me to put everything into Things. You can read more about my early set up of Things here. As I began to use Things more, I began to readjust my system. Then came the day that I realized I trusted Things and Google Calendar enough to abandon my Filofax all together.

Sadly there came a time where no amount of readjustment to things would have solved my gripes with the app. I simply wanted more than it offered. Around that time, I discovered Mac Power Users, an amazing podcast that I listen to regularly each week. David Sparks, one of it’s co-hosts, is a huge Omnifocus advocate, and the more I listened to the MPU podcast, the more interested I got in revisiting Omnifocus.

Off I went to redownload the trial, but once again, I was immediately put off by the complicated interface. This time I perservered though. I knew Omnifocus had features I wanted that Things didn’t have like time-based or even location based tasks, and if “Mac Power Users” could figure it out, so could I. I watched a bunch of videos, read a ton of blog posts, and even read a few books, and Omnifocus finally clicked.

It took some time, and as with most Omnifocus users, I’m still tinkering {us digital planner people mess with our set ups as much as paper planner folks do if not more!}, but I couldn’t be happier I switched to Omnifocus. I’m currently in the test group for Omnifocus 2 which I’m incredibly excited about. Omnigroup plans to release version 2 in June.

I couldn’t possibly cover everything Omnifocus in one post, so I’m going to be breaking my Omnifocus journey up into a few posts that will hopefully include what I like about Things vs. Omnifocus, how I’m using Omnifocus {contexts, projects, and perspectives}, and some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoyed reading a bit about my journey from Things to Omnifocus.

Signature Update

Rethinking Things

Over 6 months ago I first posted about using Things for Mac/iOS to manage my tasks. For those of you who don’t know, Things, is a beautifully designed task manager loosely based of the GTD system available on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad. For me, it’s been one of the few constants in my planning set up, but it took a really long time for it to get there. {I actually hated it at first. True story.}

The Things app for Mac is set up with 4 main areas {The iOS apps don’t actually label these.}:

  • Collect – for your Inbox
  • Focus – for Today, Next, Scheduled, Someday, or Projects
  • Active Projects
  • Areas – Contexts in GTD

Now Things is designed with GTD in mind, but I never actually used it that way.  I set up my areas based on “areas of my life”, like my Google Calendars are set up, not based on actual physical areas. These were the areas I was using: Blog, Work, Personal, Cleaning, Pets, Media, and Shopping.

ThingsOld

The more I started using Things, the more I realized that these “areas” really didn’t work that well. When I opened Things to the Today view, my first thought was “I am at this location. What can I do right now?” I wasn’t concerned with what kind of task it was. I just wanted to see what I could do based on where I was quickly, so I changed my areas to reflect actual physical areas:

ThingsNew

  • Home – Personal things, pet things, cleaning, and anything else I need to be at home to do all go here.
  • Work – Work-related tasks go here. {A lot of these tasks are technically computer related tasks, but I really prefer to keep my work tasks at work, so computer-related or not, they go into work.}
  • Computer – These are things I need a computer to do like watching a video, buying something online, filling out a form, etc.
  • Errands – And this list is for things I need to leave the house to do like pick up something from the store.

Things also has tags. Using the 4 areasalong with tags gives me a really great set up. Cleaning tasks in the Home area have a cleaning tag, so I know I have to be at home to do them, but if I want to see all my cleaning tasks, I can view just that tag. Tags really shine in terms of shopping. Whether I want to buy something online {in the Computer area} or in a store {Errands}, I can filter by the shopping tag and see everything on my shopping list. Even better, I can add a tag for a specific store, so the next time I decide to go to Target or Walmart, I can filter by the store name and see everything I need to get while I’m there.

When I first installed Things and started playing around with it, I never imagined it’d be such a huge part of my daily routine. I also never imagined, my set up would evolve to where it is now, but through a lot of trial and error, I’ve been able to get Things set up in a way that really works wonders for me. {I’m talking my daily to do list is now 2-3 things vs. 20 things I put off doing for the past week.}

By the way, please check out the wonderful campaign going on for the BlueFit bottle over at Indiegogo. This awesome bottle reminds you to drink water throughout the day and links to your smart phone to track your drinking habits over time. They have 14 days left to raise another $84,000, so please consider contributing if you can.  They’ve been running quite a few referral promotions over the past couple weeks with great prizes so pass along the campaign and you might just be able to score some free prizes as well.

Signature Update