Switching Contexts in OmniFocus

In the lead-up to my Learn OmniFocus workflow session, I wanted to share some of the nitty-gritty details of how I manage my tasks with OmniFocus. That session will focus on the magic of Omni Automation (✨!). So, over this week, I’m concentrating on the more foundational, structural side of things, like projects, tags, and perspectives.

At this point, we’ve covered my main ‘dashboard view’, more custom perspectives, and some automation magic that helps with window management and navigation.

A fundamental reason for taking the ‘dashboard’ approach is that my brain likes its task lists to be short and ‘do-able’. Another way that I help to achieve this is to use what I think of as ‘macro-contexts’: on a high level, what situation am I in right now? (In my mental model, I distinguish this from regular GTD contexts, which are more modular i.e. am I at my computer? am I at home? do I have Person X available to me?)

Personal v Work

I think it’s common to draw a dividing line between personal and work tasks, and I do this as well. I know that some see this as an artificial distinction, but my feeling is that this is not artificial if you are working a “jobby job” where you are paid to concentrate on a specific subset of tasks at given times!

I split these tasks into folders and, from there, my dashboard manages this for me: I can select either my personal or work dashboard; Keyboard Maestro and Omni Automation take care of the rest by focusing on the applicable folders.

My iPhone is almost permanently focused on Personal tasks because I don’t use it for work.

Focused v Unfocused (Attention Level)

This is a somewhat poorly-named distinction on my part, I admit, not to be confused with OmniFocus’ built-in ‘Focus’ feature.

In my personal life, I have a 14-month-old, and that means I typically have two distinct macro-contexts:

  1. He is awake and I’m responsible for him right now, and
  2. He is asleep (or someone else is watching him!) and I have uninterrupted time to focus on something. If you’re not a parent, think of this as being broadly akin to a Pomodoro session, except you never know exactly when it’s going to finish.

We all know that some tasks require more time and attention than others: while I’m watching Sebastian, I can easily fold some laundry or possibly even watch a lecture. However, it’s more challenging to take a shower, sit down to work on an assignment, or hunt down a bug in an OmniFocus plug-in.

If I simply work down my dashboard perspectives in order, I may end up folding laundry during that sacred uninterrupted time, and miss the opportunity to work on a ‘big-rock’ project that requires more focus. This is not ideal!

At the same time, I don’t typically want to see tasks that require my full attention when I can’t act on them, because that’s just a recipe for frustration.

My solution is to tag each task in OmniFocus with one of the following tags: ‘β˜…’ (Focus), ‘β˜†’ (No Focus). Very occasionally, I also use a half-filled star for tasks that should be ‘always available’ and show up in either of these scenarios.

As part of my daily review, I check my ‘Needs Attention Level’ perspective (details in this previous post) to ensure that all of my tasks have one of these tags. (This typically takes less than a minute.)

From there, I have a series of Omni Automation plug-in actions that set one of these on hold and make the other active; or make them both available. I can use these to further ‘filter’ all of the tasks in my lists.

For example, let’s look back at the dashboard view from the first post in this series:

Dashboard view showing all tasks

Here is the same view, but this time filtered to show only ‘Focus’ tasks:

Dashboard view concentrating on ‘Focus’ tasks

And again to show only ‘Unfocused’ tasks:

Dashboard view concentrating on ‘No Focus’ tasks

This helps me keep my attention on the right tasks at the right time, which is even more crucial now that I have a toddler!

Tomorrow: do I have too many OmniFocus tags? You decide.

1 thought on “Switching Contexts in OmniFocus”

  1. Thank you for this approach, being a father myself and working from home, I totally get this. I think it’s also good to apply this outside the kids space, for instance after a long journey or anything else that was exhausting and as you take a easy-day this “Low-Focus” mode could help as well.

    Just working though your blogs and course. Thank you for providing such useful idea’s and automatons.. I get overwhelmed quickly (as I create waay to much items on a list) and then often just drop all the tasks lists but using these automatons to just show what is needed helps.


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