GTD and the Power of Defer in OmniFocus

06/20/2020 by Jason Atwood
A look at how to combine four different GTD® principles into a practice using OmniFocus and the power of deferring.

One of the many things I love about OmniFocus is that it can take your GTD practice to a new level, bringing core concepts into simple features. One of those incredible features is using the Defer date on projects.

GTD Concepts

In GTD we have four concepts that are key to being clear and properly engaged with our life and work. The first concept is Someday/Maybe and that is the ability to capture something you are thinking about, but haven't fully committed to but don't want rattling around in your head all day. In GTD you throw this on a Someday/Maybe list and review it occasionally, activating it when you want.

The next principle is the 43 folders or "Tickler" file folder system. This is where you take something that you don't need to take action on now, and put it in a folder for the future. When that date comes up, you un-folder that item and take whatever action that needs to be taken.

The next two GTD principles are Next Action and Natural Planning Model which go together very well. In the Natural Planning Model you deal with all your captured commitments (Projects) by using your imagination to get to the desired outcome. From there, you work yourself back to the very next physical, visible action to take on that project to move along. You don't need to capture every single action to get there, but just the very next action which goes on your list of things to do.

Now let's take all four of those key principles and use a few simple features of OmniFocus to embrace them. For this example I am going to use a fictional example of "Shirlene's Wedding".

The Wedding Example

The scenario would be that my fictional friend, Shirlene texts me the great news that she got engaged over the weekend. After a few congratulation gifs, she says that I will be invited. Since I want to go, I see this as a commitment so I open up my OmniFocus and capture "Shirlene's Wedding" into my inbox and go on with the rest of my day.

The next day I notice that there is something in my OmniFocus inbox on the desktop because of the small gray highlight.  I open it up with a quick key command and see the task "Shirlene's Wedding" just sitting there. Oh, right. Now I gotta do some thinking. Am I still committed to going? Yes. So let's make this a project as I drag and drop it onto the Projects perspective icon. Bam, now it is a project. I throw it into a "Friends & Family" folder in OmniFocus and ask myself what the next action is. Well, since there are no dates, times, invites or anything the next action is to wait for more information so I capture "Details about wedding @ Waiting For" onto the Project so it now has a next action.

Here is where the power of deferring comes into play. The issue is I don't need to see this project every single day in my views. I also don't need to review it weekly in my Weekly Review. The next action is set, and really it is far far away. So, while I have all my projects Perspectives in OmniFocus set to "Available" so as not to see pending or on hold things. I go to the project and in the "Defer" field at the Project level, I put in a date in the future, maybe two months out. This is when I want this project to come back into my view again so I can see if there is something to do. As soon as I put in the date, the project disappears from my view. Since OmniFocus is my trusted system, I know it will come back when I need it.

Fast forward two months later and lo and behold this project pops up in my view "Shirlene's Wedding." Oh yeah, we have been texting a little about it and they are trying to set a date and location. Still don't have it but they are thinking about late fall, around Dreamforce. No change in next action, still don't need to do anything so let my change the defer date out another 45 days. The project goes away again and I move on with my life.

When it pops up again in the summer, I send another text to Shirlene "How are the plans coming? Anything concrete?" and she replies, that yes, just last week they picked the date and the location. Ok, so now I have more information. I open up my calendar to check the hard landscape and see nothing around those dates so put in an all day calendar event "JMA/SHA: Shirlene's Wedding (TBD)" into our family calendar. Now my partner knows (See Family Calendar) about it and if some other plan comes up we can discuss. I mark the first task as done and come up with the next action for the project which is that I need the actual invitation "Invitation for wedding @ Waiting." and since that might not be for a few months, once again defer the project.

The project comes up in the middle of the summer and I already have the invite. I remove the TBD from the calendar invite, add another one for multiple days since we will have to travel, and go have a discussion with my partner. The invite includes the hotel so I make those reservations but decide since it is late fall, I want to buy flights closer to the date as to maximize points and lowered costs. I mark off the existing task of waiting for the invite, add another to buy the flights about 50 days in advance and once again defer the project. The project once again disappears into the future. Time machine set. Heading to 88 miles per hour.

After the project has come back into my view, I go through a lot of actions. I buy flights, check the hotel reservations and find something nice on the registry. This time I don't defer the project because it is now close enough that seeing it daily is a good practice. That way as little reminders of things to do, or to pack come up I can capture them to right to that project. Some might have dates on the tasks like "Pack for trip @ Home" others might just be things to do after the wedding. The project stays in my OmniFocus until after I am back from the wedding. I send a bunch of pictures to her that we took and update her contact card with her wedding anniversary date so I can congratulate her next year. I can think of no new next action so mark "Shirlene's Wedding" complete by hitting the spacebar. Done and done.

This process has worked for me for all kinds of projects over the years. It is a great way to capture internal and external commitments from work or home life but not to be overwhelmed with seeing them on daily or weekly basis. It allows you to throw things into the future, trust that they will come back to you and know that they are not lost. This works for everything including races, vacations, weddings, work trips, conferences, bucket list items, family events, and supporting friends through difficult events, ask me about my "Justin's Surgery" project in a few months.

Do you have ways of mastering the defer function in OmniFocus? Let us know in the Trailblazer Community or directly @JasonMAtwood