The idea behind assigning due dates and prioritizing your tasks is a well-discussed topic that expands beyond OmniFocus. In fact, I even wrote about it before. For those of you who have read that post, here's a tl;dr for this post — nothing has changed.
In my line of work, and even my personal life, situations arise in which attention needs to be redirected quite frequently. The ideal world of "first come, first serve" just doesn't apply to me no matter how much I would prefer it. "Random and urgent" projects/tasks are actually not really random when I think about how regularly "random and urgent" tasks get dropped on my plate1.
Knowing the nature of my daily life, I have to deal with managing priorities, even if it means that I don't get to complete everything that I had planned for the day. The question is — how do I manage those priorities while preventing the random nature of my day destroy the progress of things that were originally planned?
Soft Due Dates
For me, the obvious answer to putting priority on tasks that need to be completed "at my convenience" was to put soft due dates on them. For the unaware, soft due dates are arbitrary due dates you assign despite the fact that nothing disastrous would occur if you happened to miss that date.
However one of the key features for OmniFocus and tons of other task management apps, is that there are indicators to signify what's due, due soon, and overdue. While your mileage may vary depending on the theme that you use, with the OmniFocus theme that I use, that means that:
- Due Soon: Task/project font is colored orange
- Overdue: Task/project font is larger, bolder, and colored red
With my normal actions having the basic black font color, it became easy to pick out those urgent tasks that are overdue or need to be completed soon. However by utilizing soft due dates, everything became orange.
The car detailing project that I wanted to finish by the weekend (even though there was no need to do it other than the fact my car looked like a Pigpen from Peanuts)? The group of actions in that project became colored in a bold crimson as other priorities had prevented me from finishing the detailing project.
In fact, there were more colored items than the default black items. The colors had lost all meaning. No longer was I able to visually pick out the important tasks off visual cues.
Another casualty? Forecast view.
On iOS, the Forecast View is one of the most celebrated features in OmniFocus. People from all over the globe have voiced their desire to have it implemented in the Mac version.
With soft due dates, the Forecast view meant nothing to me.
Instead of looking at it and seeing a 1 or a 2 on a certain day of the week and saying to myself:
"Oh wow, what was due again? Ah yes — I will definitely get on that!!!"
everyday became full of numbers ranging from 15 all the way to 25 at times. Instead of using it for a quick spot check, I now wanted to run into a wall after peeking into that view.
In relation to the compromised Forecast view, the iOS app badges were just as worthless.
Due dates and priority have lost all meaning. I couldn't tell what I could put off for the next day from the truly urgent tasks.
Simple solution right? Switch to hard due dates and call it a day? It still didn't address the reason why I used soft due dates in the first place — to keep myself on the ball concerning projects and tasks that should be, but don't necessarily have to be done.
Using the combination of flags, hard due dates, and daily reviews, I was able to finally get a hold of prioritization.
Due Dates and Flags
The delineation between flags and due dates is simple and straightforward:
- Flags = intention
- Due Dates = mandatory
If all I did was complete what was actually due and goof off for the rest of the day, I would probably be okay. However, most of us have other goals and ambitions that we want to do. For example, as I am writing this post, I know that I have ran out of coffee and had to pick up a bag from a local roaster. But I want to roast my own beans.
Will I get fired if I don't roast my own beans? Will I incur some kind of penalty other than the humiliation from my coffee snob peers? No.
However, I do know that I have to pay off my speeding ticket soon (true story). I will definitely incur some kind of financial penalty if I am late with it — so I have assigned a due date on the last possible date I can pay for it. Not a week before. Not 3 days before. The last possible day.
No mind games here, just the hard truth of when the ticket is due. Okay, well maybe not complete truth.
1 Hour "Oh Crap" Mode
If I know what time the task is due (for example, let's say the DMV stops taking payments at 5pm), then I will set the due date 1 hour before — in the case of the example, I would set it to 4pm. Yes I know, I'm sort of bending my belief of only using hard due dates, but there is a reason to this.
While OmniFocus is great at filtering what tasks are shown at a given moment, one thing it does lack (might not be part of their app's philosophy) is alerting you in different scenarios. As of now, the only alerts that I get on my iOS devices aside from geo-fenced ones are the due date alerts. In other words, at the time the task is due.
Even though I try to look at OmniFocus several times a day to make sure I know what needs to be done, sometimes I do forget time sensitive tasks.
So why 1 hour? Because in most situations that I've been in, 1 hour is enough time to do something last minute or ask somebody for a really big favor. Seeing the alert pop up in on my phone while I'm too busy with another task is a great "oh crap" reminder.
Calendar integration is also an option to get earlier alerts, even though it did get funky with Mountain Lion — I just personally do not like that route.
Even though I've assigned roles for due dates and flags, it doesn't address why I used soft due dates in the first place — to force myself to stay on the ball. The way I address this is by giving myself a big guilt trip through daily reviews.
By default, I have every project set to 1 day review times, even the newly created ones. When it comes down to my nightly review, a couple things happen:
Change the Review Time
I make sure that the review time for the project is appropriate. If I know that the project isn't too urgent and is spread out over several months, I may just change the review time to weekly. On the other hand, if I had changed a project's review time to "weekly" and the due date is fast approaching, I might want to change it back to "daily" to avoid dropping the ball.
Read Every Task
It may seem repetitive and boring, but it helps me. Read every task that I have in the project. I read it slowly — without skimming. That way I can:
- Add new project-related tasks if they do come up
- Notice when tasks are out of order, or (important)...
- Notice that there has been a due date assigned to either the project or a particular task, you can update or correct it.
Spend the time to make sure your project tasks are accurate.
The last thing I do during a review is flag tasks that I want to do. My goal is that I flag at least one item for every project during my daily review. If for some reason I can't do any task for a project the following day, I'll assign a start time to a task (more on this soon).
However, I keep in mind that flags are the equivalent to intentions. So sometimes I might choose tasks that are more fun, or maybe even easier. But by combining flagging with reading every task in the project, I become well-aware that I have intentionally skipped a task.
Skipping once is fine, twice is okay. But once I notice myself repeatedly skipping the task and feel guilty about it, I know there's a problem. I know that I really don't want to do the task. At that point I can put the task/project on hold or I can just completely drop it.
So this is how I would typically round all of this up into a nightly workflow.
Open my iPad mini and go to the Review perspective.
Look at the project. Is this a fast paced project or a slow/drawn-out project? Adjust the review frequency if needed.
Read every task and adjust accordingly. According to an email I received, I know that so-and-so is expecting my response by Friday. Set the task "Email response to so-and-so" the be due on Friday.
Is there any other task that I can address with this project that isn't due tomorrow? I noticed I keep putting off the task: "Research Product X and find pros and cons". Starting to feel guilty about it. Flag it or dump it.
Mark project as reviewed once complete.
By keeping due dates honest, realizing it's okay not to complete flagged items, and constantly keeping tabs with my projects with daily reviews, I have rid myself of all dependence with soft due dates. In all honesty, this was the area that I had a lot of problems with. In fact, it was what I usually tinkered with when hearing how others approached it. However in the end, it was my contentedness and acceptance with this approach that ultimately stopped me from tinkering.
Next up — start dates.