OmniFocus Tips - The Omniscient Start Date

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I've been promising an OmniFocus screencast for some time but it seems the world is conspiring against me lately. Nevertheless, I thought I would share one of my most valuable tips, the effective use of start dates.

If you're like me, you have a lot of tasks in your database. One of the primary goals of task management is to actually get things done and not be paralyzed with fear when you see a list of 784 items. The trick is to make OmniFocus only give you the tasks you want to see at that moment. In addition to using contexts, another way to accomplish this is through the effective use of the "start date" field. For instance, if you have a particular project for work that you want to start on Wednesday, the start date for the related tasks should be Wednesday. You do not want those items appearing on your task list on Monday or Tuesday. I have some tasks that are not scheduled to begin for over a year. I was reminded of this yesterday when OmniFocus told me it was time to sort out the Christmas card list.

Every morning I do a sort of triage to my task list. Several items appear that weren't there yesterday. I look at them and realistically determine which of those will get accomplished today. Those that won't, get rescheduled to appropriate new start date. It's not that I'm deleting these tasks, I'm rescheduling them. They will appear again and will get done.

OmniFocus makes this very easy. You simply tab over to the start date field and type in a new date. You can also mouse over the calendar and enter the date that way. By far the most efficient and nerdy way to do this is through OmniFocus's intelligent date system. For instance, if the start date lists as December 8, 2008 and I type in the field "2d", OmniFocus will automate reschedule it for 2 days, December 10, 2008. If I type "Wed" in the field, it would do the same. You can even combine these. If you type"3w Sat", it will reschedule the event for three weeks from Saturday. I find it extremely useful and I am quickly able to parse through my task list to show only those events I need to work on today.

If you really want to go nuts, you can also use times in your start date field. If I've already blocked time out to do a specific project in the afternoon for instance, I will set the start time to coincide. That way my task list during the morning is not stuffed with items I do not currently need. I also do this for home related tasks. As an example, tomorrow someone's coming to work on my home and I need to prepare. When I made the appointment last week, I set a task for today. When that task appeared this morning, I promptly rescheduled it to 7 p.m. It will show up tonight but I don't have to look at it all day. If I were a bit smarter, I would have scheduled the task to "mon 7pm" and then I wouldn't have seen it this morning. Using this technique, I am able to keep my task list to a manageable and appropriate size. Once I finish the triage in the morning, I click over to context mode and then I'm off to the races for the rest of the day. By the end of the day I've either finished everything on the list or advanced it to a new appropriate start date.

I know GTD purists would argue that in doing this, I'm tying my hands behind my back. Specifically, GTD canon holds that if you have free time, you should be able to pull up all of your outstanding phone call tasks and work through them quickly. For me, this just doesn't happen very often. I think more in terms of specific projects I want to focus on and I'm such a terrible multitasker that jumping around quite often leads to misery. However, if I do find myself with free time, like I did a few weeks ago when the Internet went down to my office, it is a simple matter in OmniFocus to change your filter to show all tasks "remaining" instead of just those "available" and I can see all of my telephone calls.

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So MacSparky Nation, are these productivity posts helpful? Every time I post one I get several complementary e-mails from readers and several not-so-complementary e-mails from people threatening to unsubscribe because I've gone off the Mac-centric focus of the site. Let me know.