Prioritizing tasks in OmniFocus without tagging

Prioritizing tasks in OmniFocus without tagging

(Wilson Ng) #1

photo courtesy of

Many task manager apps have this powerful feature called tags. It is a cure-all or shortcut to assign easy-to-read descriptors. I’ve been contemplating using tags in OmniFocus 3 to represent priority labels high, medium, and low. But after a period of reflection, I’ve decided to reign it in and keep my tagging system simple.

I’ve been experimenting with multiple tags in the OmniFocus 3 for iOS TestFlight app. After a few weeks playing with tags, I’ve noticed one trend. I wanted to use tags to fix everything. Tags can easily become a mess when I created too many tags. I can also create tags for one-off purposes. The less tags I actively use, the simpler my setup stays. The more tags I am create, the more complicated my setup becomes.

One common practice in task managers apps is to apply priority labels to your tasks. But I’m going to stay away from that practice for now. A task is either “urgent” or it’s not. I’ve come to the realization that my task manager already has multiple priorities included. It’s done by using Due Dates and Flags.

I group many of my tasks in OmniFocus based on four distinct conditions.


  1. Overdue tasks - red status circle indicating tasks whose due date and time has already passed.
  2. Due Soon tasks - yellow status circle indicating tasks that will be due soon.
  3. Flagged tasks - orange status circle indicating tasks that have no due date but it is something I want to work on today or in the next two to three days.
  4. Unflagged and/or Not Due tasks - gray status circle indicating a task that has no urgency.

Assigning a due date to a task will automatically elevate it up the priority chain as the due date approaches. If the due date is not within the Due Soon setting (in this case, seven days), the task retains a gray status circle indicating it is a low priority item.

This task is outside of my seven day window of concern.

This is a “normal” task. I am not very concerned about this task today because the status circle is a gray color. The task’s urgency is outside of my OmniFocus Due Soon setting.


As the due date approaches, this task automatically escalates to a higher priority by changing colors. When I open my Mac on April 8, 2018 (seven days before the due date), I will see the status circle change to yellow indicating this task is within my range of concern (something that needs to be done in the next seven days). I know I should be working on this task today. This task has automatically escalated in priority from low to high because it is now within my Due Soon range.


If I see the red status circle, I know I’m late because the task is now overdue and it becomes urgent. This is the highest priority task that I need to work on today.


I use visual cues with the status circle to tell me what I really need to work on. I don’t need tags to tell me what is high, medium, or low priority. In this case, I eliminate as many red status circles (overdue) as possible. Then I get to work on yellow status circles (due soon). I will rarely do any tasks that are not red or yellow unless it is a quickie task that can be accomplished in 5 minutes or less.

Once a day in the morning, I’ll review a list of all available tasks in my Available custom perspective. I’ll flag tasks here to elevate low priority tasks (gray status circles) to medium priority (orange status circles). I won’t assign a due date to a flagged task if it doesn’t have a real due date.

I will always prioritize working on red tasks first, yellow tasks second, and then orange tasks third. I’ll never work on gray tasks unless it’s a two minute task that can be punched out quickly or I just need a break from my crazy work on due tasks.

When I’m working, I’ll look at my Due custom perspective first. Here are the settings.

My Urgent priority tasks are located in the topmost groupings. In this screenshot, I should be working on tasks starting from the top and going down.

I have a task due yesterday and today with a red status circle. These are my Urgent priority tasks that I should be working on first.

Tasks that are due in the next seven days will have a yellow status circle indicating high priority tasks that I should work on next.

Tasks that have a gray circle indicates a task that is not yet due soon but will start going up the list as the due date approaches. These tasks are low priority items that I can work on if I can finish the tasks above it. I am not concerned with these due tasks yet because they are outside of my seven day window of concern.

If I want to work on tasks that I have flagged as important but do not have a due date (medium priority), I can visit my Flagged perspective and work on tasks there. I will often start on flagged tasks in between the Due tasks that I have scattered throughout the day. Sometimes it helps to break up the variety of tasks between due tasks and flagged tasks to keep life interesting.

An argument for tags

Before I think of using tags, I’ll try to see if I can create custom perspectives that don’t require tags. But I have seen the power of multiple tags. It can provide a finer layer of granularity that can’t be solved with using due dates and flags. Tags can be a quick fix if I just want to create a quick list or need a spur-of-the-moment list created quickly in OmniFocus. I just found it interesting to hear people around the blogosphere who claim that “tags” is the answer to everything. I can understand the allure and the ease but I am also wary of over-using tags and it can bog down my workflow. I have limited experience with tags and have sparingly used them in Apple Photos and the Finder. But I might get comfortable with them as I start figuring out ways to use them in OmniFocus 3. I don’t want to go tag-crazy and end up with a huge mess of tags that I’ll have to purge later.

photo courtesy of

I think I’ll be exploring using the Covey Matrix using OmniFocus 3 for iOS in a future post.


But if someone has already created their own workflow using the Covey matrix, I’d love to hear from you! Post your own workflows when you can. I’d love to hear from you.

Creating the Eisenhower Matrix in OmniFocus 3
(Chris Lahn) #2


Thank you for sharing your detailed thoughts on the new OmniFocus 3 tagging system. As I am preparing to get my own hands on the beta release I find it very helpful to get feedback like this so I can prepare ahead of time.

I have a feeling that my own system will end up looking very similar to what you described here.

I too can see how easy it would be to go overboard with tagging. It also seems like one could easily get out of control with creating too many preset views with which to sort and view all these tags.

You approach reminds me of a great quote from Igor Stravinsky and how he would approach composing songs. He would purposefully impose limits on himself (like composing a song with a certain scale in mind) so that he could be freer to find all the possibilities within these constraints.

My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.
Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music

Without any sense of focus, chaos will ensue. Your approach to tagging and prioritizing seems to be a good way to focus the new “field of action” that we will have at our fingertips with tags.

I am still very excited to use tags for specific purposes. As you said, it seems like a great way to quickly search your projects on the fly for a specific filtered view. For instance, I have coworkers who are in a different city than me. When they come and visit me, it would be great to be able to search a tag with their name to see all the various tasks that are associated with multiple projects that pertain to them. This is similar to how I use Evernote. I hope that it translates well to OmniFocus 3.

Thanks again for taking the time to give your thoughts on the beta test!


(Wilson Ng) #3

Thanks for the response and that beautiful quote, I think it’s important to apply just enough tags to get work done and no more. Going crazy with tags creates more maintenance work as we create more lists than we need.

I’ve added many new custom perspectives and tags/contexts but deleted them after realizing that I never really used them. For my limits, I am thinking my tasks will have no more than three tags. Most of my tasks have one tag. Tasks with two tags tend to be agenda based (a workgroup and one individual in that workgroup).

I’ve been using high focus as a tag. I have eliminated brain dead. I try to trick myself out of brain dead mode by doing jumping jacks to get the blood flowing into my brain and then get ready for deep work. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I figure it’s too easy to do brain dead work. When I notice my brain humming in high performance mode, I’ll try to get to some Deep Work tasks that require high focus. Then I look for tasks with the high focus tag.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of using time tags (morning, afternoon, evening) to simulate Things 3 but I haven’t gotten there yet.

I haven’t found an instance that needs 3 tags yet but I’m sure some of the other task management app users have been using 3 or more tags.

If anyone else reading here can shine a light on how they use multiple tags in their task app, I’d love to hear it.

But I am still restraining myself from going tag crazy for now. One experiment at a time.

(Rosario Canino) #4

Dear Wilsonng,
I read the article with great interest. Recently I use omnifocus 3.
I tried to apply what you wrote but the final result is not correct.
All tasks are red, regardless of the due date. I changed in the preferences “due soon” at 1 week.


(Wilson Ng) #5

These tasks will belong to a project. Does your project have a due date that has already past? A task can inherit the project’s due date which may change the color to red.

I just tested it in OmniFocus 3 for Mac. If a task has a future due date but the project has an overdue date, the task will show it as overdue because the project is overdue.

(Rosario Canino) #6

Thank you!
These are tasks that are part of a project such as single actions. I entered a future date and it works correctly.