A More Powerful Way to Schedule Tasks in OmniFocus

How to set up Daily, Weekly, and Monthly Master Task Lists

Let’s say you need to return a book to the library by Saturday, November 25. 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 November 25—that’s when you’re going to have consequences if you don’t get it done. But you want to do it on Wednesday, November 22.

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 December 11? Or 2018Q2? Or sometime next November (November 2018)?

Here’s how to configure OmniFocus to schedule tasks as powerfully and flexibly as a Franklin planner.

Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / Igor Negovelov

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, November 22, 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 December 11”, “December 2017”, or “2018Q1”.

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:

  • Today
  • Tomorrow
  • This Week
  • Next Week
  • This Month
  • Next Month
    • 01-January
    • 02-February
    • 03-March
    • 04-April
    • 05-May
    • 06-June
    • 07-July
    • 08-August
    • 09-September
    • 10-October
    • 11-November
    • 12-December
  • This Quarter
  • Next Quarter
    • Q2–2018
    • Q3–2018
    • Q4–2018
    • Q1–2019
  • This Year
  • Next Year
  • Someday

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 November, the current month is This Month and December is Next Month. This is why 11-November and 12-December go at the bottom of the list. They represent next November and December—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.)

Weekly Compass

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 “February 1” mean February 1. Assign a task to 02-February and when the time comes, you’ll see it again, schedule it for the right day, and get it done.

Question: What tasks do you need to schedule months in advance? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. For more information, see my comments policy.

  • John Hesch

    I like this method but won’t you have to be constantly changing the tasks context? So next Monday I would have to grab all of the next week context and change the tasks to this week. At the end of May I will have to grab all of the next month tasks and change the context to this month. Correct?

    • That’s right, John. As the task gets closer, it will get moved from Next Month –> This Month –> Next Week –> This Week –> Tomorrow –> Today if it doesn’t skip any steps. That sounds worse than it is. It only takes a few seconds to select a bunch of tasks and change their contexts en masse. (Plus, I have some keyboard macros set up to expedite the process.)

      Doing this helps you realize how much you’re already committed to so you don’t spread yourself too thin. The alternative, which I did for years, is to assign tasks to their ultimate person/place/thing contexts where they accumulate and build up until I’m overwhelmed and I don’t know where to start. Every time I review my Computer tasks to select tasks I’m going to do today or this week, I have to scan the whole list, looking at tasks I know I’m not going to do until weeks or months from now.

      Using this method, your reviews will go more quickly. You’ve already narrowed down the tasks you need to think about.

      Today and Tomorrow are pretty short lists. This Week and Next Week are a little longer. Same for This Month and Next Month. The daily review is quick: I make sure I’ve checked off everything I did that day, then pull tasks from Tomorrow and This Week until I’ve got 5–10 tasks for Today. At the same time, I look for tasks to pull from This Week to Tomorrow. It doesn’t take more than a minute.

      • swhitlow

        How does this scale to iOS devices though? I use my iPhone and iPad a *lot* to manage my tasks. There is no way to select multiple tasks and assign them to a context that I am aware of right now correct? Perhaps a video showing how you manage this method would help to see it in action as well as something surrounding mobile devices too would help.

        • Hi, swhitlow!

          I do most of my daily planning on either my iPhone or iPad. There aren’t that many tasks that move day-to-day. Plus, two things that help: 1) I keep the temporal contexts at the top of the list, so Today through Next Month are right there, no scrolling. 2) The way OF’s text completion works, you can just type in “nw” and it will match Next Week. That helps, too.

          Thanks for the idea of a screencast covering the setup. I’ll keep that in mind!

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  • I can see the benefits but the maintenance of it would for me I think make it unwieldy. Also I have a lot of recurring tasks, month end admin, weekly work for clients, daily tweets etc. And I can not see how this would work for recurring tasks without adding yet more work on the list rather than actual work on the tasks themselves.

    I would also say as a self employed person I do not have the luxury of deciding when, for example if I am waiting on a client providing images from a photoshoot for their site, when they do I need to get on with it to ensure i get paid and the client get what they pay for, so sometimes time is not the only resource that matters, I just have to make more of it no matter what.

    • Hi, Richard!

      I have a lot of recurring tasks, too. For most of them, instead of using OmniFocus’s built-in repeating feature, I set up AppleScripts to create new tasks and projects each month. This way, I have tasks that say “Create budget for June” instead of “Create budget for next month”. For the rest, it’s a little obnoxious to check off a task only to have its recurrence immediately take its place (because the context is still @Today). I figure it’s no different than having the recurrence show up flagged. When I see it happen, I’m one keystroke away from sending it off to next month, and it’s out of my way until then.

      It’s not a perfect system, of course, but it fits the way we more naturally think about tasks. “Today, I need to…” “This week, I need to…” “Next month, I need to…” We don’t think “the next time I have a few minutes with my phone, I need to…” for most things.

      If you’re waiting on someone else to get something to you, use an @Waiting context. It fits right in with this method by parking a task outside of the time stream. Like you said, it’s not under your control. There’s no point in seeing the task every time you’re looking at things *you* need to do. Put it in a @Waiting context that you review appropriately and follow up with clients as necessary. I still use @Waiting, @Delegated, and @Agenda contexts.

      • Thanks for the response, always interesting to see how people use systems.. I also use a @waiting context, and park all recurring admin tasks in a “routines” folder with daily, weekly and monthly lists nested inside..

        Noted the applescript bit, my issue with this is it relies on a mac, and relegates iOS to a secondary (or not at all) system, and I now use my iPad pro at least 50% of the time..

        I will say this system is clever without a doubt, however my personal feeling is, is it just cleverness for the sake of it? I have been down that road inventing systems hanging together because I could, rather than because it really benefits. I reached a stage where it was more project masturbation than project management, so last year I ripped everything apart took a long hard look, ditched OF for ToDoist (because of its superior integration with other systems) and paired everything down to its simplest. No contexts other than @waiting, or @enquiry (potential work which comes in via web api flagged so I need to pick it up straight away and reply to it), everything else is equal or it should not be in the system, I prioritise on the day what needs attention first and just get working.

        I also do a daily review, a quick look through everything other than personal and routines so I can always have an overview of what I could do.

        • Heh. I try to eschew cleverness for the sake of cleverness whenever I can. I’ve learned that just creates busy work both now (setting it up) and later (keeping it together). Every time I’ve added a bit of cleverness, it’s been in response to a specific problem. For example, I created the “Pay June rent” script after I got confused as to which month “Pay rent” represented. Now, it’s crystal clear.

          I started using temporal contexts after getting overwhelmed by all the available tasks. I was spending too much time checking and re-checking lists to make sure I was working on the right tasks. Flagging and due/defer dates alone weren’t helping. I still use flagged tasks to separate the big rocks from the gravel and due/defer dates to identify hard commitments and availability. The temporal contexts help me manage my attention better.

          I like keeping things as simple as possible. Sometimes that means finding the simplicity on the far side of complexity.

  • Gerrit

    Have a question about your workflow. I am a newbie for a Franklin PLanner. Because all my contexts are on hold (besides today) i’m not seeing any actions in the future. How must i for example move my actions from tomorrow to today. Or am i missing something?

    • If I understand what you’re asking, that’s what the Weekly Compass perspective is for. Because it shows tasks that are Remaining (not Available), it will show you the tasks that are on hold because they’re scheduled for Tomorrow or This Week.

      • Gerrit

        Thanks. I understand now the workflow. Overlooked that part in your article. Works great now.