the candler blog

OmniFocus and External Lists (plus PlainTasksOF)

Productivity, Technology

I’m perpetually changing the way I use OmniFocus. The only thing I’ve used it consistently for since purchasing it in 2009 is as a grocery list. Otherwise, my workflow is up in the air. When I get into a groove (as I am now) though, it is the best tool to make me get off my tushy and get things done. As it turns out, I also happen to enjoy fiddling with how I use it.

Allow Me to Introduce PlainTasksOF

Enter PlainTasks, Allen Bargi’s todo plugin for Sublime Text 2 that got some attention this week from the Mac bloggerati. Similar in function to Hog Bay Software’s TaskPaper, PlainTasks allows users to navigate a plain text document as if it were a task list, making it simple to nest tasks in projects, move tasks up and down, mark them as completed and add tags to them. As in the case of TaskPaper, users get all the benefits of plain text, namely searchability, speed and platform agnosticity.

Bargi describes the plugin as “opinionated,” which is an understatement. With its legal pad yellow-styling, it feels far outside my box, but there was still something appealing about the idea of a plain text task list to add to my OmniFocus workflow, so I forked the package and got to work.

I made a new theme, tweaked the .sublime-settings, added new scopes to the Tasks syntax grammar and changed the way the package handles tags so that tasks can have more than one highlighted. I call it PlainTasksOF, and you can go grab it over on GitHub. Here’s what it looks like:

I don’t want to detail its installation here, though I’ll gladly field any questions you may have if you want to shoot me an email. Suffice it to say it looks and sorta-kinda works like OmniFocus.1 Why? I don’t view this kind of plain text solution as a replacement for OmniFocus. It isn’t as powerful, simple or pretty. However, I’ve always had an idea on how to use these kinds of external lists, but I wanted a solution that looks similar for comfort’s sake. PlainTasksOF is a start.

Storing Repetitive Tasks

There are many sorts of tasks I don’t like keeping in OmniFocus. Some I’ll put on my calendar while others end up in Due. Filling up OmniFocus with granular tasks can get overwhelming fast, especially if they’re the sorts of things you have to do daily. The idea here is to use OmniFocus as a means of nudging me to do a longer list of repetitive tasks.

Clean the bathroom, for example, is a project made up of many granular tasks like scrub the shower, mop the floor, clean the inside of the toilet bowl, and so on. I don’t always need to do them all and I’d prefer not to set it up as a recurring series of tasks in OmniFocus. Instead, I could have one task for “Clean the bathroom” and link it to a PlainTasks list.

Let me share (what I think is) a better example. I’ve always liked the sentiment behind Curt Clifton’s “Review” task lists,2 but I’ve never really tried adding them to my workflow. In short, Curt shared repetitive lists for reviewing his GTD workflow twice a day, once a week and once a month. It sounds like overkill, but the idea is to give you a basic guide to see what’s on your plate and what you’re neglecting. Here’s my modified version of Curt’s list:

* Process Email
* Review Today's Calendar
* Empty OmniFocus Inbox
* Review active projects
    Step through Active Projects due for review today
    * Any projects to put On Hold or move to someday/maybe? (Be draconian)
    * Any projects that are stuck?
        * Planning/clarity needed?
        * True next action identified?
        * Attach purpose, "success looks like", etc.
* Review Next Actions Lists

It’s basic stuff most of us do anyway, but by writing it out it makes it a bit easier to stay on track. I don’t want to see all of this in OmniFocus, but I do want a task to remind me to check what I have in store in the morning. Keeping it handy as a guide would do the trick. Here’s what the above list looks like PlainTasksOF:

I can tick off items as I complete them by hitting ⌘+d on the current task. When I’m done I can either close without saving (preserving the formatting for tomorrow) or restore an older version of the same list. I can link the file by dragging and dropping it into the note field of a repeating OmniFocus task where it can be double clicked and launched in Sublime Text 2.3

This can be used for all sorts of lists, not just repetitive tasks. I’m working on a list (and task) for films I’d like to watch and books I’d like to read. These PlainTask lists serve as a sort of cold storage for lists I don’t want to bring into OmniFocus, at least that’s the idea.

There are a few more tweaks that make this workflow a bit more viable4 but I’ll end this here. I’d love to hear feedback on this sort of system and hear how others use external list apps in conjunction with OmniFocus (or Things or whatever).

  1. By sorta-kinda I mean it’s sorta-kinda just as easy to add new tasks (hit Return) but that’s where the similarities end.

  2. Review is GTD terminology that basically translates to “Check OmniFocus (or whatever) on a regular basis and make sure it’s still working for you.”

  3. First I had to set the default application for .tasks filetypes to Sublime Text 2, but once that was set the icon is double clickable from within OmniFocus.

  4. I’ve got a hack that involves Hazel and Automator in the works to restore a clean list every day and a means of prettifying the task note so it’s not just a big ‘ol blank icon. All in due time.