Omni Focus Field Guide, Third Edition Review

I have long been a fan of David Sparks’ MacSparky Field Guides. These originally started out as a series of Apple iBooks that used the unique characteristics of the iBooks format to combine text and screencasts to cover technical topics like Paperless workflows, Presentations, and, most recently, the iPhone. The iBooks Field Guides were brimming with content, often pushing up against the 2-gigabyte maximum size for the format. Along the way, David also started making Video Field Guides, which were shorter, video-only products covering topics like Hazel, Photos, and OmniFocus.

Recently, David announced that given the uncertainty about Apple’s commitment to the format, he wouldn’t be putting out any more of the iBooks Field Guides. Instead, he set up a website at learn.macsparky.com to host video courses. While this was initially populated with streaming versions of the existing Video Field Guides, he quickly added two new ones: the Siri Shortcuts Field Guide and the OmniFocus Field Guide, Third Edition. While these share the all-video format of the Video Field Guides, in spirit they’re much closer to his iBooks Field Guides. They’re truly massive, with over three hours of content in the Shortcuts Field Guide and more than five hours in the OmniFocus Field Guide.

The OmniFocus Field Guide, Third Edition is an all-new product, covering OmniFocus 3 for both iOS and Mac. As you might guess from the length, it’s very comprehensive. That said, it does not feel at all padded out. Instead, it has a clear progression from simple content for users who are new to OmniFocus, ramping up to power user features and in-depth discussion of how to set up a system in OmniFocus most effectively to get your work done.

I’m a long-time user of OmniFocus 2 (and OmniFocus 1 before that), so I’m more on the power user end of the spectrum. However, I’m also just now making my transition from OF2 to the new OF3. I held off on OmniFocus 3 for iOS until the Mac version also became available. It was released last Monday, as was this Field Guide, so it came along just at the right time for me.

David starts with the basics, installing the software, setting it up, and walking through the various areas of the user interface. Throughout the course, he gives fairly equal weight to the iOS and macOS version of OmniFocus 3. If there is a bias, it’s not leaning towards one OS or the other, but that within iOS he tends to spend a lot more time demonstrating the iPad version than the iPhone version.

He doesn’t just confine himself to telling you how to twiddle the buttons, however. As he steps through how to capture and process tasks he’s also introducing the fundamental concepts that drive OmniFocus (and doing a bit of an introduction to the Getting Things Done system that OmniFocus was originally designed to implement).

There’s quite a bit of content on Tags (about 45 minutes by my count). These are a new feature in version 3 of OmniFocus and David spends quite a bit of time talking about how to use them effectively. Making the transition to tagging tasks and projects is going to be the biggest change for me moving from OF 2 to OF 3, so I appreciate the comprehensiveness of his coverage.

He also spends a lot of time talking about various perspectives. Perspectives are a tool that allows you to slice and dice your project and task list using various criteria to pull out specific tasks. They’ve only gotten more powerful and flexible with the addition of tags in OmniFocus 3. This is an aspect of OmniFocus that I know I haven’t been using to its full potential, so I was happy to see it covered in depth. One area David is clearly opinionated about is the benefits of custom perspectives available in the Pro version of OmniFocus. While he talks about how to make good use of the built-in perspectives in the standard version, you can tell his heart is really with the custom perspectives of the Pro version.

One area I thought could have used a bit more depth is review. David goes through the mechanics of reviewing projects and talks about how he customizes the review intervals to suit the needs of different projects. He also talks a bit about “meta-reviews” where he goes through at a higher level and thinks about his system and workload as a whole. Despite this, I do think the course could have gotten further beyond the mechanics of the project reviews to a more in-depth discussion of what you should think about when reviewing a project.

As befits one of the hosts of the Automators podcast, David spends quite a bit of time talking about how to automate OmniFocus. He starts out with very simple automation using tools like Text Expander, or even just copying and pasting templates from a text editor, all the way up to much more complex automations using the Shortcuts app on iOS.

Unlike some other task managers, OmniFocus is not a very opinionated piece of software. While it started as a very traditional GTD app, it’s always been very customizable and amenable to being used in a variety of ways. If anything it’s gotten even less opinionated in version 3, as tags enable even more flexibility (and allow you to get even further from traditional GTD methodologies). This lends a bit of a “do it yourself” vibe to OmniFocus. In some ways, it’s a toolkit for building a task management system rather than a fully-fledged task management system itself.

David embraces this aspect of the software by discussing six different task management systems you could set up OmniFocus to implement. He covers a system built around defer dates, one based on flagging tasks, and one that leans heavily on the new tagging features. He also talks about using OmniFocus 3’s enhanced forecast perspective as the center of your task management (though this is less of a full-fledged system than a technique that could be applied to defer date, flag, or tag based systems). He also briefly covers a system built around higher level tasks (as opposed to the concrete “next actions” of classic GTD). Finally, David talks about his own system, which leans heavily on tags, but also blends in elements of flags and defer dates.

Not just in this section, but throughout the Field Guide, David talks about various ways of using OmniFocus, even if they’re not how he personally uses the software. He clearly has some opinions about the best way to use it, but he realizes that what works best for him won’t necessarily be best for everyone. He does an excellent job of laying out the pros and cons of various strategies.

As with many of the Field Guides, if you’re looking for a laugh, it pays to keep an eye on the example tasks and projects David is using. His OmniFocus database seems to indicate that David is some sort of mad scientist.

If there’s a unifying theme in this field guide, it’s “The Manager and the Maker.” This is the idea that OmniFocus can be the manifestation of our inner manager, organizing what we have to do and getting it out of our way quickly so that we can do creative work, letting out our inner “maker.” Some folks don’t think that OmniFocus or GTD really work for creative pursuits; that they’re just meant for salesmen and CEOs. David seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about this. He uses OmniFocus to manage the creative work of his MacSparky empire, including articles, blog posts, and this very field guide and he makes clear that he thinks OmniFocus is very useful for creative work.

The OmniFocus Field Guide, 3rd Edition is a great resource. I think anyone looking to get started with OmniFocus or get better at it is going to get a ton out of it, whether they’re a new user or a power user. I know that I’ll be totally redoing my system to take advantage of OmniFocus 3’s new tagging features and a bunch of other strategies that I learned from this course (I’ve got an article on my new system brewing too). The productivity benefits of a smoothly functioning task management system and the complexity of my job (and life) make both the Field Guide and the OmniFocus software a real no-brainer. If you’re finding that the complexity and volume of your tasks mean things are falling through the cracks or taking a lot of time to manage, you should check out OmniFocus and the Field Guide.