Review of Build Your OmniFocus Workflow

I’ve been using OmniFocus for a long time. In fact, OmniFocus was the very first paid iOS app that I paid bought back in 2008 when the App Store debuted. At this point I’m definitely not a novice user, but I’m always looking for ways to use OmniFocus to manage my tasks more effectively. It plays a central role in my ability to get my work done so any improvement will pay dividends across a wide variety of areas.

In that vein, I recently read Build Your OmniFocus Workflow by Ryan Dotson and Rosemary Orchard. The book offers a comprehensive guide to using OmniFocus to manage your tasks, with an emphasis on how to fit OmniFocus into a larger system of task management.

Thanks to its customizability, OmniFocus has always been a bit of a build your own task manager kit”. With the addition of tags, OmniFocus 3 leans even more in this direction thanks to the many new options for how to use the app. What started out as a fairly vanilla GTD app has become a very powerful and flexible piece of software that can be used to support many different takes on task management. As the book puts it: There are two keys to getting started using OmniFocus: understanding the software and developing a workflow.”

Build Your OmniFocus Workflow does a great job of looking beyond the four corners of the app to talk about how to fit it into a broader context. It’s really a cross between a software manual and a higher level treatise on task management.

While the overall emphasis is at the system level, Build Your OmniFocus Workflow starts with the absolute basics (setting up the software, using the interface, and fundamental concepts) and builds up from there. As a guide to the apps, it’s quite comprehensive in exploring pretty much every feature, both on the Mac and iOS (there’s also a short section on OmniFocus for the Web, currently in beta).

Despite being a long-time user of OmniFocus on both platforms I still learned quite a few new things about the app. For instance I had no idea that on iOS you can drag the add to inbox” button to add a task in a specific place. I also have to say that Rose and Ryan’s explanation really made me get how a single action list differs from a regular project, which is something that I’d never really understood despite a decade of using the app.

As one would expect from Rose, there’s quite a bit of material on automation. Everything from AppleScript, to IFTTT, to Shortcuts. There’s also an appendix listing and explaining all of the rules you can use to create custom perspectives. This is nice since not all of these rules are necessarily obvious.

Interwoven with the software guide are Ryan and Rose’s thoughts on how to build your larger system. Again, it starts with a very basic workflow (capture, process, review, and do) and builds on that. They talk about what does and doesn’t belong in OmniFocus, how to define effective projects, what to do when you get overwhelmed or fall of the wagon when it comes to keeping your system up to date.

I really appreciated their thorough take on the review process, not just using OmniFocus to review your projects and actions, but also reviewing your system as a whole. Another tip I really like is to tag actions that you’re procrastinating on so you can go back and think about why (Is the action unclear or not well defined? Is there some obstacle that prevents you from doing it? Is it really something you need to do?).

Finally, Ryan and Rose wrap things up by laying out their own workflows as examples, explaining how they use the app and the systems and practices they’ve built around it.

The book comes in PDF, ePub, and .mobi formats, so there are plenty of reading options. I read the ePub version on my iPad using the Books app.1

Build Your OmniFocus Workflow has definitely helped me get more out of OmniFocus, both in terms of running the app and thinking about my task management system more broadly. Not only is it a great guide to using OmniFocus effectively, I think it really encourages a thoughtful approach to setting up your task management system. I definitely recommend it.

Comparison with the OmniFocus Field Guide

One question I’ve seen asked on the Mac Power Users forum is how Build Your OmniFocus Workflow compares to David Sparks’ OmniFocus Field Guide. I think the two are quite complimentary. Some of this is just the differing format; it’s easier to get certain things across using video while other things are easier to explain textually. However, this is also a product of differing perspectives on OmniFocus and how best to use it; there are areas where Ryan and Rose have a different view than David.

In some areas one goes into more depth than the other. The book delves deeper into review, for instance, while the Field Guide has a considerably more thorough treatment of tagging systems.

Both encourage using OmniFocus to build your own unique task management system. Build Your OmniFocus Workflow takes a somewhat broader view of OmniFocus as one element embedded in a larger system while the Field Guide concentrates a bit more on building a system within OmniFocus. They also take a somewhat different approach to presenting these systems. The book mostly lays out a series of options throughout the text that the reader can assemble into something that suits them, then details Ryan and Rose’s workflows as examples at the end. David presents six different systems (in varying levels of detail) giving the viewer a look at several widely varying approaches. He also spends a bit more time talking about the pros and cons of various ways to use tools or features within OmniFocus, and why one approach might fit a particular set of needs better than another.

Both Build Your OmniFocus Workflow and the OmniFocus Field Guide are quite good, and I think that if you get a lot out of one of them, you’d get a lot out of the other as well.

  1. One nice thing about the Books app is it makes it much easier to copy text than the Kindle iOS app. I did this quite a bit to take notes while I was reading. ↩︎

January 21, 2019

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