Let’s say you need to return a book to the library by Saturday, April 28. If possible, you’d like to return it a few days early while you’re out running errands. Simple, right?
Most task managers can’t handle this. They only have one way to schedule the task: set a due date on it. But which date do you put down? It’s due on May 5—that’s when you’re going to have consequences if you don’t get it done. But you want to do it on Wednesday, May 2.
Most apps can’t handle this simple scenario. You have one field. You need to know the due date to plan properly. You can’t sometimes use that field to schedule tasks or you will never trust your system again.
My two favorite task managers handle this just fine: OmniFocus and my Franklin planner. OmniFocus has a defer date which lets you schedule tasks for a specific date, keeping the due date and the do-it date separate. This is a good start, but it’s limited.
How do you schedule a task for the week of May 21? Or 2018Q4? Or sometime next April (April 2019)?
Here’s how to configure OmniFocus to schedule tasks as powerfully and flexibly as a Franklin planner.
How paper scheduling worked
A Franklin planner natively supports scheduling tasks in the following temporal contexts:
- Daily task lists. This is the bread and butter of time management. To schedule something for April 12, just turn to the page for Wednesday, May 2, and write it down. You can do this as far in advance as your current refill goes.
- Weekly Compass. You could schedule big rocks for sharpening your saw and achieving your goals by putting them on your weekly compass. Then, some day that week, you transferred the task to your daily task list. (This had the extra benefit of keeping your big rocks highly prominent.)
- Master Task List. During your monthly planning, you created a list of tasks you wanted or needed to do this month. Need to do something next month? In three months? Write it on that month’s Master Task List.
There was also space to jot down a few tasks further out, usually 2–3 years in advance, but these were the three most commonly used.
Out of the box, OmniFocus supports the Daily Task List. The Forecast view is a great view for seeing what tasks you have scheduled for specific days. What it lacks, however, is a way to schedule tasks for “the week of May 21”, “May 2018”, or “2018Q3”.
Setting up OmniFocus
OmniFocus usually uses the Context field to track the resource—the person, place, or thing—you need to accomplish the task. The more important resource to schedule, however, is your time.
If we try to use the defer date to schedule tasks for a week, or a month, or a quarter, it’s just as confusing as using the due date as a do-it date. We’ll run the same risk of confusing ourselves and dropping the ball. (I’ve tried it.)
Instead, let’s use the Context field to plan when we’re going to perform a task. Here are the temporal contexts you’ll want to set up:
- This Week
- Next Week
- This Month
- Next Month
- This Quarter
- Next Quarter
- This Year
- Next Year
Only Today is Active. Change the status of the others to On Hold. (Create them first, then select them all and change the status en masse.) Tasks assigned to those contexts aren’t actionable yet.
Note that if it’s currently April, the current month is This Month and May is Next Month. This is why 04-April and 05-May go at the bottom of the list. They represent next April and May—a year from now.
Get Some Perspective
You can now select Contexts from the sidebar (or
Perspectives > Contexts from the menu) and see the tasks you have scheduled for Today, This Week, and This Month, but OmniFocus Pro lets you create custom perspectives. We’re going to make custom perspectives for the Daily Task List and Weekly Compass that are a little more powerful than that.
If you star these perspectives in the Perspectives window (
Perspectives > Show Perspectives), they’ll appear in the sidebar on macOS. On iOS, you can rearrange them to put them closer to the top for convenient access.
Daily Task List
You’re going to spend most of your time executing from the Daily Task List. I call this simply “Today” because it fits in the sidebar better. (It also reminds me these are my tasks for today so I don’t add incoming tasks to it by default.)
- Group actions by: Flagged.
- Sort actions by: Due.
- Filter by availability: Available
- Filter contexts: Active
This groups your flagged tasks at the top. These are your big rocks—your A tasks. They go at the top. (Unfortunately, there’s no way to sort them manually to get an A1, A2, A3 effect.)
It’s helpful to keep an eye on the critical tasks for the week, not just for today. Your weekly compass can guide you through the morass of the week.
- Group actions by: Project
- Sort actions by: Project
- Filter by Status: Flagged
- Filter by Availability: Remaining
- Filter contexts: Remaining
- Sidebar Selection: Today, Tomorrow, This Week
When planning your week, flag the tasks that go on your weekly compass. When planning your day, start here. Fill your day with big rocks before the gravel starts to come in.
The key is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.
—Stephen R. Covey
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the gravel that pours in. When you focus on when you’re going to do things instead of the person, place, or tool you’ll need, you can keep your head above the fray. You can see what you already have on your plate. Instead of being buried by one more commitment, you will have the courage and clarity to decline or defer incoming requests.
This setup gives you a more powerful foundation for scheduling tasks in OmniFocus. It really does feel like you’re flipping forward and writing down a task for three months from now without assigning an arbitrary date. Let “July 1” mean July 1. Assign a task to 07-July and when the time comes, you’ll see it again, schedule it for the right day, and get it done.