How OmniFocus kept my sanity while buying a house

Mobile and desktop apps working in tandem

Months ago I was wondering what happened to the private beta testing for OmniFocus 2 for Mac, part of the task management app suite from some of the best software craftsmen out there. I remember signing up in 2013 and receiving an early build, but it was only in the last months when things started moving very quickly until OmniFocus 2 for Mac was finally launched… without informing beta testers!

OMNI apps are not mainstream. Commanded by a steady premium pricing, investing in a suite for iPhone, iPad and Mac is an important decision. These are, after all, apps living in their own ecosystem without the flexibility of combining your workflow with the Simplenotes and Dropboxes you are accustomed to. Now I had the excuse to dust off the iPhone app without feeling guilty for the price paid and little attention given to it since. I welcomed the news of a new OmniFocus 2 build for the Mac and happily joined the beta testing list. Little I knew this testing experience would allow me to rediscover the iPhone counterpart — never used, hidden in a forgotten folder.

Much like Federico Viticci of MacStories, I relied on Apple's own Reminders solution, not particularly for the joys of the native apps — still wondering how they want to look — but for the relatively safe iCloud backend sync and the integration with other apps I love, such as Fantastical. If you are in this situation, OmniFocus offers the option to import whatever you have on your Reminders list. So there I went, retrieved my OMNI account password, mated iOS and desktop apps and I was ready to go.

The meaning of a task done on time

All these events couldn't have happened at a better time. Starting the long and stressful journey of home buying, for the first time I had a reason to be organised, the need to be efficient, remember everything. It's not like I'm beta testing for pleasure. Missing a deadline costs a lot of money. I'm not trying to redefine my GTD schedule and dropping productivity buzzwords for the sake of it. I need the right tool for this very expensive thing to happen! The property ladder trip is incredibly demanding when you have to juggle it with your everyday adult responsibilities. I'm sorry Apple Reminders: there's no way you would have coped.

I've used OmniFocus in tandem having the iPhone app for adding new tasks to the Inbox and checking what needs to be done next, keeping the desktop app for revisions, tweaking dates and weekly reviews. They have both remained in sync and it has been a pleasure most of the time.

For my house-hunting process I decided to use just one Project, keeping all the tasks in Parallel. This simply means they run simultaneously although in reality, most tasks cannot start until something else has been completed — that's what OmniFocus calls a Sequential type of project. Since some tasks are as simple as scanning a document or making a phone call, I decided to keep it really simple. Looking back, that was probably the right choice. I would have spent a lot of precious time organising those 300+ tasks based on their dependencies.

Items or actions? Note how OMNI uses the terms actions for entries in your Inbox and items for stuff that has been categorised. Or maybe the other way around? I'll refer to both of them as tasks most of the time.

Contexts are people

The second way I sift though all the mess is with Contexts. While the commercial version of the app includes powerful customisation options on the Pro edition, I just used Contexts to define the people or institutions associated with the task. This approach is reminiscent of the OmniFocus implementation of location services on iOS and it really works with this type of project. For example, when I have an appointment with the mortgage advisor, I select the context 'Bank' to make sure I have asked everything I have to ask. Forgetting one single question can be a real headache, adding more pressure to your Inbox in the form of follow up calls with someone difficult to get hold of and unanswered emails. On my Context perspective you will find things like solicitor, estate agent, bank, conveyancing panel, surveyor and some less obvious such as my partner or friends who have already bought their house and are the go-to people to help with some doubts.

OMNI suggests using contexts based on your location or the tool you have in front of you: grouping stuff you can do at home, when you have your email app open, ... I can juggle phone calls and emails easily, so I prefer my context approach based on the person I'll be speaking to.

Scheduling, Calendars and Forecast

Those on the property ladder will know that the one thing more important than completing tasks is completing them in advance. The legalities involved are lengthy, so you want to make sure you are ready well ahead in the game. This reduces delays in the silly back and forth plus the personal satisfaction of knowing you are prepared. For those tasks that don't have a defined due date, I create an artificial one to force me to push, push, push, although it might not be that urgent.

In a similar way, there's stuff that cannot be done now (the sequential type I mentioned earlier) and have to be postponed. In the new OmniFocus version these are called deferred items. I like to combine due and deferred dates, keeping stuff greyed-out and almost hidden until their time has come. The Inspector pane on OmniFocus 2 is particularly good at it, allowing you to change scheduling clearly without the interface elements that may obstruct your view on the iPhone app. You can also see when the item was added and last changed, which helps you to keep your sanity when you see duplicates.

Publish a new calendar for your due items

Another good reason for giving due dates to your tasks is to see them on your calendar app of choice. On OmniFocus 2 you can enable a webcal subscription on Preferences → Notifications → Publish due items as calendar alarms → Subscribe. Like any other shared calendar subscription, you will be able to change the colour, helping you to differentiate the entries coming directly from OmniFocus.

Bring your existing calendar

OmniFocus 2 also uses your existing calendars on the Forecast view to display a summary of events along the tasks due that day. You can tweak this on Forecast → View icon on the toolbar → Day starts at, to see just a fraction of the day or hide unnecessary calendars. If you have enabled the OmniFocus webcal subscription described above, you can hide it now, as those items will be on the forecast view already!

All this can sound like a lot of customisation but it's very easy to set up and it's what brings the Forecast perspective to life. The Forecast view was implemented first on the iPad version and it's only now coming to the Mac, becoming a key element and starting point whenever you use the app. Seeing how different Forecast looks compared to the rest of perspectives you realise the effort that went into its design and its new role. In practice, this means you'll spend less time on the Inbox and more on the Forecast view.

The traditional GTD rules say you should jot down all the ideas quickly and process them later unless they are so basic you can do them now. This is something you are going to be doing on your iOS device most of the time, or if you are sitting at your desk, using the quick entry window. In theory, you should only type the name for the item and save it to the Inbox to process it later. However, if you know the project and a due/defer date already, you can add this information now and it will appear automatically on your Forecast view. You can even speed up the process by creating new entries with a Project view open (works for Contexts too).

A lot of less evident neat stuff

In addition to the basic functionality of collecting, categorising and checking off items from a list, there are some cool things in OmniFocus that have helped me in this property madness project.

  • Export as simple HTML - With a project selected, click on View and select All items to display everything including the items marked as completed. Export the list as simple HTML to keep the nice formatting and email it to your partner and talk through what's been done in the last days.

  • Break down in actions - Something as simple as post a document to the solicitor can be more meaty than what it sounds like. The steps involved could include finding where the document is, photocopy it, scan it, upload it to Dropbox for your records, file the original, get a large brown envelope with some stamps and find the actual address. You might even need to call someone to double-check you have the correct address! Once you have the document ready to go you still need to walk to the postbox. Breaking down a task in smaller chunks required to complete it is the way to go.

  • Postpone a bunch of items - When you have to move the due date of several items, go to the Forecast view, select multiple items using the command key and drag the selection to the new due date on the calendar on the left.

  • Recurring tasks - You can set up repeating actions for quick follow up reminders such as "check if X has been done", "ask if Y has arrived". On the Inspector pane go to the Repeat section and chose how often you want an action to be repeated, day of the week and time.

  • Book time off for self-learning - Unless you have legal background or work in property, you are going to get lost with the stages involved in a sale. One simple requirement described in a short sentence can consist of a dozen documents from different institutions. Don't underestimate the time required to learn about them!

  • Email capture - Set up an email address to add new items directly to your OmniFocus inbox. This can become a real time saver when you forward emails or allow others to send you new tasks. I particularly like to use this feature with websites and documents with links, as these are kept in a nice format on the Notes section of the item.

  • Larger text - Experiment with the different text sizes for your actions' names from the Preferences window. The default is too small for my taste but you can make it much larger without sacrificing screen real estate.

  • Check out the manual - The developer has published a product manual as an iBook that can be a great way to get started and discover the less evident features. The content is available on the OmniFocus help menu anyway, but the iBook is not a long read and it comes with great examples and beautiful screenshots.

My fears when I embarked the project to become a homeowner are completely different from the things that worry me know. Not knowing how a sale works, the amount of people involved and the unexpected bills that keep showing up, the whole thing becomes stressing very quickly. I certainly know more about the intricacies of a property sale but I don't want to lie: I'm a mere spectator trying to do small jobs part of a great scheme of things I don't fully understand.

In the middle of this mess, OmniFocus has been the go-to place to keep my head organised. The perspectives on the Mac app are a great way to see what has been done so far, what is coming up next as well as figuring out how to get to the next step. For the past two months I have completely discarded Apple Reminders, used less and less Fantastical to add new appointments to slowly replace them with due items. And of course, as I began to get good at my new workflow, I started new projects for house chores, reminders for work and smaller personal ideas.

What's next?

Hopefully my story with OmniFocus will inspire you for your next big project. The aim here is not to describe everything the suite has to offer but to illustrate how with some initial setup you can have a strong ally during difficult times.

While not evident when you click the buy button, what you get with a premium app suite is more than a piece of software. OMNI's latest OmniFocus is easy and approachable. It comes with brilliant support and documentation as well as the reassurance that backup and sync are all done in-house. You should not have to worry about the tool you use. Trust OmniFocus 2 to stay on the background, never the protagonist, and give your attention to the next task on that project that means so much to you.