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The most advanced task management apps are often the most confusing to use when you’re just getting started. It’s easy enough to understand how to add your tasks to Reminders.app or Wunderlist, but add in projects, contexts, repeating due dates, customizable perspectives, AppleScript, and more, and you’ve got a lot more to understand to get started.
That’s the challenge to getting started with OmniFocus. The original version looked quite like a spreadsheet—understandable since it was originally an add-on for OmniOutliner, an outline app. The just-released OmniFocus 2 sports a newer interface and is much easier to use, but also includes a lot of powerful features that can help you stay on top of your tasks, and those can be harder to figure out. In this tutorial, I’ll take you through how to use OmniFocus 2 for Mac, and how to take advantage of its best features to keep up with your tasks.
Adding Tasks in OmniFocus
OmniFocus, for all its features, isn't that hard to get started using. At its most basic, you've got a list of tasks in the middle of your screen. Click the New Action button to add a new task, and you can immediately start typing in your task. Press your return key, and you can start typing another task. Then, to check off a task, click the grey circle on the right (instead of the traditional checkbox you'd find in other to-do list apps and the older OmniFocus 1).
As you're adding your tasks, you'll notice there's several faint grey text sections under your task. The first is a button to add a note to your task; click that button or press Command+' to add a note. You can type in a description for your task using standard keyboard shortcuts like Command-B and Command-I to format your text. You can also paste in text and media from other apps, or can even drag-and-drop attachments to keep relevant files with their task.
Then, you have a place to type in the project and context a task will be assigned. We'll look at both of those further on, but when adding tasks you can start typing the project name and OmniFocus will show similar projects to select from, or you can press Command-return to add the text you've typed as a new project (or context, respectively). There's then the defer (the day you'd want to start work on a task) and due (the day a task must be finished) date; both of them can accept a real-language date like tomorrow, next tuesday, or +2w for two weeks from today. Best of all, you can press tab to move between the sections, or press return anywhere to start a new task.
Last of all, there's a flag button—the orange square on the top right of the checkmark. Click that to flag important tasks, as a 3rd way to sort out what you really need to do. You can also change any of these options from the inspector pane on the far right, which also gives you a spot to have your tasks recur on a regular basis of your choice.
Then, there's the Quick Entry dialog that you can open from any app on your Mac by pressing Command+Shift+O (or any other shortcut you want via the settings). It works just like adding a task anywhere else: type in your task, tab between the other text boxes to add extra info, and press your return key to save the task. It's the simplest way to add tasks without leaving your keyboard. There's also a Clipping service shortcut which you can setup from your Mac keyboard preferences to copy anything on your Mac and add it as a task directly.
Last but not least, you can add tasks from OmniOutliner. If you've used it to make your own to-do list, just copy and paste those tasks or import the OmniOutliner file directly into OmniFocus, and it'll recognize the projects and due dates and import them accordingly. That's a nice option to plan projects in an outline, then quickly turn them into actionable tasks.
Organize Your Tasks in Projects and With Contexts
The best reason to use an advanced task manager is for the tools it gives you to organize your tasks. In OmniFocus, the primary way you'll organize tasks is in projects. Similar to a folder, they'll keep all your related tasks together. You can start a new short project for an event you're putting together, or a long-term project for your overall work, and add all relevant tasks there.
Then, in the inspector pane on the far right, you'll see options to specify how your projects work. By default, projects are Parallel, where tasks can be completed in any order. You can also set a project as Sequential if the tasks have to be completed in order—if you pick this, tasks further down the list in the project will be faded out, and won't show up on your Forecast or send you reminders until the earlier tasks are completed. Then, you can even add a due date to the full project, to make sure all those tasks are finished on time even if you forget to add a due date to each task.
If you want, you can have sub-projects for an extra level of organization. You can also have sub-tasks; just select a task and press Command-] to make it a sub-task of the task above it. This gives you the freedom to have as much or as little hierarchy to your tasks as you want.
Then, there's contexts. In the GTD workflow, contexts let you add info about where a task is to take place or something else important that gives the task more, well, context. In your projects, you'll have tasks that are similar: you might need to buy things for both your work and home projects, so a store context would put those both together. They're similar to tags in other to-do list apps, except you can only have one context on a task at once.
Keep Everything Synced
You've got your tasks listed and organized, and you need to keep them everywhere. That's where OmniFocus sync comes in. There's official OmniFocus apps for iPhone and iPad, as well as unofficial Android and web apps that work with OmniFocus, so you can take your tasks with you anywhere. For that, you need to sync.
The simplest way is to use the Omni Sync Server. You'll signup for a free account, then use it to sync with any of the OmniFocus apps. It'll also give you a mail drop email address where you can send emails and have them added as new tasks—a great way to integrate OmniFocus with any other devices, including your work PC. Alternatively, if you have a WebDAV server, you can enter your credentials and sync your database on your own.
You'll find a few more options in the settings you might want to tweak, including date and times options, Mac OS notifications settings to alert you when tasks are due, and more. There's far fewer settings than in the last version, since there's no theme options and the only way to customize the interface is to rearrange the toolbar buttons, but there's still enough settings you'll want to look through to make sure they're set the way you want.
But for now, it's time to start getting your tasks done.
See What's Happening With the Forecast View
The best new feature in OmniFocus 2 is the Forecast view, which takes the place of the old Due perspective. This view shows a calendar with the number of tasks you have per date on the left, and a list of all of your tasks in the order they're due in the main section. Interspersed between your daily tasks, you'll find a linear calendar view that'll show every calendar synced to your Mac. It's the part of OmniFocus you'll spend the most of your time, while you're finishing off your work throughout the day.
You can also customize the Forecast view if you want, as well as any other view in OmniFocus, from the View button. Set the start and ending time of the day you want, and uncheck any calendars you don't want to show up alongside your tasks; holidays and Facebook event calendars likely aren't needed along your important work tasks.
Then, there's the new Open pane. Press Command-O or click the Open button to open an Alfred-like search box where you can quickly jump to any section of OmniFocus or any of your projects easily. There's an option at the bottom to open the list in a new window, which you should check if you'd like to not leave your current view in OmniFocus.
See Tasks the Way You Want
Each main part of OmniFocus—the tabs on the left side—are actually Perspectives that you can customize as you want if you own the Pro version of OmniFocus. There's the View options that you can tweak from any version of OmniFocus, but if you want to make a custom perspective, you'll need the Pro version. Click the Show Perspectives button in the Perspectives menu, and you'll have all the tools you need to create your own views. You can pick what order you want tasks in, what tasks you want to show, and more.
There's one other way the Pro version helps you focus on your tasks: the Focus button. Select a task anywhere, click Focus, and you'll only see tasks from that project. It's a great way to push your home tasks out of your mind when you're supposed to be focusing on work.
Make Sure You're on Track with Review
There's a final new feature in OmniFocus 2 that's made its way over from the iPad version: the Review screen. The GTD methodology says you should review your projects regularly to make sure they're on track, and that's exactly what this view is designed for. You can view each of your projects, make sure the tasks there are still relevant, and then click the Mark Reviewed button to save the date you've reviewed that project. It's not something you have to do, but it's an easy way to keep your task lists tidy.
OmniFocus is powerful on its own, but its in integrating with other apps that it's most powerful. Many tools, like the email apps MailMate and Airmail, let you send emails directly to OmniFocus. For every other app—and for any features you wish OmniFocus itself had, you can build your own integrations using AppleScript if you own the Pro version. There's a full library of functions covering every feature in OmniFocus. If you're new to AppleScript, be sure to check out our AppleScript Beginners Guide before you dive in.
There's a number of neat ways you can use OmniFocus with scripting that make it even more powerful for managing your tasks. You can find a number of scripts and workflows online to use with it directly, even if you have no experience coding AppleScript. One neat example is a script that completes a task and then makes a new task reminding you to reply about that task later, which is great for tasks where you need to email people later. You can find even more ideas on the Inside OmniFocus site which showcases unique ways to use OmniFocus' perspectives, scripts, and more.
OmniFocus 2 is far easier to get started using than previous versions, but it can still be a bit overwhelming if it's the first time you've used it. This tutorial should give you everything you need to hit the ground running and keep your tasks under control better than ever in OmniFocus, but if you have any trouble with it, be sure to leave a comment below and we'd be glad to help you get started.