The Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology and OmniFocus app have been a lifesaver for me for past ten years. Using a task manager has helped me meet my goals, and GTD has been a robust framework for organizing them.
However, I’ve been steadily changing the way I use both in the last year. I’ve found that the best thing about having a task manager is that you can capture everything you want to do in it. This is especially useful for me because I tend to forget about things.
I’ve also realized that the worst thing about having a task manager is that you can capture everything you want to do in it, which makes it balloon into a wish list of tasks and not a carefully considered list of goals.
In the last few months, as I’ve come to accept the necessity of saying “no,” I’ve also come to see OmniFocus not primarily as a way to capture, but as a way to triage tasks.
Why Less Is More When It Comes to Tasks
In the past, the more I captured my tasks, the more successfully I thought I was practicing GTD. Today, I consider that the fewer tasks I have in OmniFocus, the more successful I am at focusing my time.
There are two key reasons for that. The first is the 80/20 power rule, which says roughly 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. I don’t take it as a precise metric, but as a way of framing how a few key tasks are more likely to impact my life than most of them — the trick is to figure out which ones.
The second reason is that tasks can expand out of hand. Two tasks can be described in a single sentence, e.g. “pay bills” and “write review,” but one takes five minutes while another takes the entire afternoon. You can’t figure out the magnitude of every task just by looking at a list, so it’s simply easier to clear the deck for your most important tasks, by letting go of unimportant ones.
How to Focus on Key Goals
My current guiding principle is that whatever I choose to work on needs to be focused on my key goals, and everything else needs to either be paused, dropped or deleted from sight.
This is difficult, also for two reasons. The first is that it can be hard to figure out which goals are the most important, and which can be set aside. When doing my weekly review I’ve found that asking these questions, which I’ve cobbled from various sources, can be useful:
- Which of these tasks, if done, make the rest easier or irrelevant?1
- Which of these goals are important and urgent? Which of these goals are important but not urgent? Which ones of these goals are neither?2
- Which two to three tasks, if accomplished this week, would move key goals forward?
The second reason triage is hard is because it hurts to give up things I truly want to do for things that I truly want to do. Giving up an unimportant goal for an important one is easy, but giving up an important goal for another important goal, simply because you know you cannot do them both, is gut-wrenching.
What focus means is saying no to something that with every bone in your body think is a phenomenal idea, and you wake up thinking about it, but you end up saying no to it because you’re focusing on something else. Jonathan Ive
Focus on the Big Wins, Not the Small Ones
I still find value in what GTD calls the ‘mind sweep,’ getting everything out of your head and onto paper. Like David Allen (the founder of GTD) says, I’ve discovered that I just don’t have the mental space to hold all the things I need to do in my life and do them at the same time.
By offloading that into OmniFocus, I can concentrate fully on work and fully inhabit my personal life, because I can see at a glance what I’m committed to doing and what I’m also not doing.
But I’ve found that without triaging the mind sweep, I lose focus, and tend to mistakenly place as much emphasis on the small wins as well as the big wins. That’s not a wise way to make use of my limited time.
The most important thing is to remember the most important thing. Suzuki Roshi