After writing 17 Reasons I Hate My To-Do List in late march, a couple of very nice folks (Thanks Sam and Alex P) suggested I look into OmniFocus + GTD (Getting Things Done). In the several weeks since then I have read most (I think all the relevant parts for me) of David Allen's book, Getting Things Done, and begun using OmniFocus to manage my time. I can happily say that these approaches and tools address many of my grievances with my to-do list and have already allowed me to be more focused and productive.
David Allen is a very practical guy presenting a very practical framework for time management. He brings no big agenda or overpowering philosophy, just lots of little things that, taken together, can make a big difference.
OmniFocus is a well-put-together application for OSX and iOS that generally follows the philosophy of GTD, although it certainly can be used in other capacities.
Here's way to much information on how GTD + OmniFocus has helped me address my issues with my to-do list:
1. Stress. David Allen refers to incomplete tasks floating in our heads as "open loops". His theory goes that as long as there are incompletes floating around in your head (subconsciously or consciously), you won't be performing at your best. The way I was using my to-do list compounded this, reminding me of all my 'open loops' throughout the day. Allen's first big step in getting things done is to "capture" all this "stuff" floating in your head and around your life. I can genuinely say that this process alone, emptying my head and environment of all the things I was keeping track of, was immensely helpful, and immediately create more head space for creativity.
2. Variable Task Types. GTD generally addresses this issue through the processing of "stuff" from the "in box". If GTD was summarized in a single figure it would be this one:
This organizational scheme is a great tool for dealing with the inherently inhomogeneous tasks we must all deal with. OmniFocus provides some great tools for this as well, all tasks can be divided across projects and context, and you can choose to show tasks from only certain projects or certain contexts. Context can be all kinds of things, such as "errands", or "at work". One context I created that I'm enjoying using is "creative". I generally prefer to do and am only really effective at creative work when I have at least 3 unobstructed hours in the morning to work, this is when I can switch on my creative context on OmniFocus, and all my other shit that doesn't fit in this context isn't there to divide my attention. I love it.
3. Binary Outcomes. According to my to-do list, a task has either been completed or not. This really sucks for tasks with dependencies, multiple steps/stages, or where I'm waiting on someone else. The GTD philosophy deals with this pretty gracefully by making any to-do list item with more than one step into a "project". Allen emphasizes identifying the next action for the project, claiming that not knowing the next action means that the project isn't well defined yet, and the "open loop" in your head won't be closed until you do this. OmniFocus also includes a great "on hold option", and you can choose to defer tasks until a certain date - super handy!
4. Variable Task Lengths. Some things I can knock out in five min, some five hours, some could take all week if I allowed them to. GTD + OmniFocus handle this well through the creation of projects. Projects are nice too, because it's not immediately important to establish all the steps to complete a project - just the next action - I really like this.
5. Priority. OmniFocus allows you to "flag" tasks. Although I haven't really found this useful up until this point, I've dealt with relative task priorities by deferring the due dates for less important tasks. This seems reasonable effective.
6. Timing. Some tasks need to be done at certain times, and OmniFocus provides due dates and defer till options for each task. I cannot tell you how nice it is to now see or think about stuff that's a few weeks out, this really clears up space for me to focus on what needs to get done now.
7. Scheduling. My to-do lists lives separately from my calendar, which is fine for some tasks, but not optimal for bigger things. OmniFocus does not totally solve this problem, but does partially integrate with iCal, which is handy. I'm still manually "scheduling" tasks that take larger chunks of time - so some tasks are redundant (on my celendar and OmniFocus), which is a little annoying, but not really a big deal.
8. Deadlines. OmniFocus makes deadlines easy.
9. No Connection to Long Term Goals. This is still something that requires a lot of hands on attention- as it should (it's probably a good idea to be "hands-on" with the direction your life is going). GTD suggest a "review" for each project on a weekly basis - which I think is a great (hopefully achievable) idea, and generally helps ensure that daily actions push me towards where I want to go. Something that really resonated with me comes from page 52 of GTD:
I really like the idea of "doing my homework" ahead of time, when I'm in an alert and positive state, and once I have my priorities set and organized, trusting my subconscious and conscious to make good decisions.
10. Don't Take Switching Penalties Into Account. I incur a high switching penalty when moving between complex tasks. My brain really needs at least a few hours on one task to do good work. I didn't see a mention of this in GTD, but using context in OmniFocus can help here - and OmniFocus can generally help me not be distracted by the short term shit I have to get done when I'm working on long-term, creative, and fun things in the mornings.
11. Overly Ambitious. My lists are often too ambitious and not-realistic, resulting in more stress. I think this is more of a personal issue than an OmniFocus + GTD problem!
12. Uncomfortable Things Get Avoided. To-do lists make it easy to avoid uncomfortable (which typically means important) tasks and kick them down the road from week to week. Again, I think this is more of a "me" problem to work on - although, weekly reviews of projects could help with this.
13. Reactive, not Proactive. With to-do lists, it's very easy to adopt a reactive mindset - "these are the things I have to do this week". The GTD Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage methods definitely help here - sometimes I find myself reacting to and trying to work on "stuff" at the same time, OmniFocus gives me the nice option of throwing it in my inbox and processing it when I'm ready.
14. Unbalanced. Some tasks are creatively restorative, while some are taxing. Writing code and running are very well balance activities for me. I'm working on figuring out ways to use OmniFocus to create more balance in my life.
15. No Sense of Time. No daily, weekly, monthly demarcations. OmniFocus clearly overcomes this limitation of To-Do lists.
16. Created and Executed in Different States - At the beginning of the week I'm too ambitious, by the end I’m just trying to get shit done. For example, last week Monday-Thursday we're well paced, wonderfully productive, and relatively low stress - and then Friday hit and I suddenly had 18 tasks that day. I think just seeing that list set me up for a less focused day - and the prophesy fulfilled itself - I didn’t nearly get done what I had hoped. I think the way GTD suggests dealing with this is weekly reviews - you want to review your projects when you're level-headed, not buried. And when you are buried in the middle of the week, you have the "map" you made yourself to rely on. This is area I could definitely improve in, too often I become overwhelmed and change course in favor of dealing with short-term things.
17. No Room for Multiple Approaches. Often, the first way I try to achieve a result doesn't work. Only though trial and error, and changing my strategy do I get where I want to go. The GTD method of clarifying and determining what the next step is, while not actually doing the step, before hand ("homework"), is really useful here. Multiple approaches are fine, but it's better to sort things out a bit in advance, and not while distracted by the work itself. Processing task and prioritizing time is a project in itself, and should be given the full attention it deserves!
GTD + OmniFocus will not solve all your problems, but are excellent tools based on sound and simple principles. Thanks again to the readers who recommended them!