Turning Tasks Into Projects in OmniFocus

Who is this for? Those looking for a step-by-step process for expanding a single task into a fully fleshed-out project in OmniFocus for Mac.

Robert Agcaoili shared an excellent post from Gabriel Ponzanelli. Gabriel uses a friend’s desire to go SCUBA diving in Mexico to demonstrate a common tendency to capture projects as unclear tasks. In his post Gabriel takes the single-worded task “Mexico” and contrasts it to a properly structured project.

Gabriel does a wonderful job of showing how you should approach project planning, but like Robert:

I have and still do enter supposed projects into OmniFocus as a 2–3 word task. The reason is that when that project idea comes to mind, I don’t really have the luxury to stop what I’m doing, flesh out the project, and make sure the flow and the metadata is correct in OmniFocus.

Properly Capturing a Project

It’s rare that an idea for a new project appears when you have the time to thoroughly flesh it out. What I do in these cases is quickly capture the task on my Single Actions list (the Inbox would also work). I make sure to at least capture a clearly structured task that will remind me to plan this out later (e.g., Plan: Go on a SCUBA trip to Mexico). I give the task a proper context and assign it to my Single Actions list (this is obviously not needed if you plan to use the Inbox). If planning this out is urgent, I assign a Due Date to ensure it gets thought through in time. If time allows, I create a note which states my desired outcome for the project and includes details that might help later on. This last part happens less often than it probably should.

Expanding During The Weekly Review

Unless the project is urgent, I wait until my weekly review to convert these tasks into fully fleshed-out projects. When I sit down, a key step in my review process is to search and expand any project that starts with Plan: (you can use CMD-OPT-F to search for these if your list is overwhelming). If it’s too early to think about a specific task, I might add a few notes and set a Start Date. Everything else goes through the following process.

Converting Tasks into Projects

Initial OmniFocus Project

The first thing to keep in mind is that you need to be in the Planning Mode (you can get here by hitting CMD–1) and not the Context Mode. You’ll know if you’re in the right mode when you attempt to take the first step. Speaking of, here are the steps you’re going to want to take once you’ve selected your Task/Project-to-be:

  • Hit CMD-[ to convert your task into a project (if this isn’t working, hit CMD–1, find your task and try again).
  • Hit Tab to rename the task (or at least remove “Plan:”).
  • Hit CMD-’ and add a clear desired outcome for your project into the notes field (e.g., Goal: Plan a trip in mid-July to go SCUBA diving in Cozumel).
  • Hit CMD-’ to close up your notes field.
  • Add any Start Dates or Due Dates for the project.
  • Press Enter to add your first task.

From here you’ve successfully taken a task and converted into a project, but we’re far from done. Now, we plan.

Planning Your Project

Creating Your Sub-Projects

Sub-project in an OmniFocus project

Once I’m ready to plan, I like to break the project into logical sub-projects. For example, in Gabriel’s post, he had sub-projects for Learn to SCUBA dive, Learn Spanish and Organize trip to Cozumel. To do this, just start typing these sub-projects as tasks. You can also enter goals for each one of these if you feel they will help and add any Contexts, Notes, Start or Due Dates as needed. Once you do, press Enter twice to add the next sub-project.

Before moving on to planning out each sub-project, there’s one last thing you need to determine. Should these sub-projects be done sequentially or in parallel? In other words, do you have to finish the first sub-project before you see the next one or do you see them all? At this level, I tend to always choose parallel (this is the default), which allows me to see all of my major sub-projects. You can change this by clicking on the parallel arrows that appear before the Start Date field.

Adding Tasks to Sub-Projects

Project in OmniFocus

Once my main Sub-Projects are setup, I add individual tasks to each. I start from the first task, determine all of the steps needed to accomplish my goal and work my way through each sub-project until its conclusion. To do this I:

  • Go to the first task. You can either use the up arrow if you’re still in tasks, or just click into it.
  • Hit enter to add a new task between your first and second project.
  • Hit CMD-] to create a nested task.
  • Enter all tasks with any necessary Contexts, Start Dates, Due Dates or Notes
  • Press Enter twice to add the next task.
  • Once you’ve entered all the tasks needed to complete your sub-project, press the down key to move onto the next and repeat these steps for each one.

With each sub-project you once again need to determine if they should be sequential or parallel. At this point, I often choose sequential so that I’m not overloaded by tasks. When I finish the first task, the second appears. Most times the tasks within a sub-project need to be completed in order, so it’s worth clicking this. It avoids overwhelm and keeps you focused on the next possible step. There are also two best practices you’ll want to consider.

  1. You can go as crazy as you want with the nested tasks. Just keep hitting CMD-] and you will see. I don’t like to go below this level (Project, Sub-Project, Tasks) as I think things tend to break down and get confusing, but see what works best for you.
  2. Determine how detailed you need to get. If you’ve read Gabriel’s post, you’ll notice that he included a task to add the certification course to his calendar. This is overkill for me. It will take a little trial and error, but over time you’ll get a sense of what needs to be captured and what doesn’t. Some people are extremely granular and that’s fine. Just figure out what works best for you. If there’s the smallest chance that something would keep you from achieving your goal, add it. I just know that I’d never schedule an appointment without adding it to my calendar, so the task is superfluous for me.

As Gabriel rightly points out, a properly thought-out project has a far great chance of success, but—and I hope he’d agree—it’s not always possible to do this at the time when you decide to take on a new project. Capture projects when they occur to you, expand on them in a timely manner and you’ll have a far greater chance of getting them done.

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