External Triggers in OmniFocus

In OmniFocus, and in other GTD systems I’m sure, there is the concept of a sequential project. A sequential project is any task with two or more steps that have to happen in a specific order. You can’t move on to the next step until you’ve completed the first step.

An example that’s currently on my plate is a project called “Return Remote Control to Amazon”. I can’t “Drop-off package at UPS Store” until I “Print off and affix shipping label”.

This is a very powerful productivity weapon because it allows you to fill up all of your sequential projects with tons of tasks, knowing they won’t become a distraction or source of anxiety since your Next Action List will only show the one task you can actually do at a time.

In most cases, sequential projects cover my needs because they are comprised of tasks that I’m personally responsible for and have control over. But occasionally there are two other types of dependent actions that I find I need to handle differently because they are outside of my control. They are

  1. Tasks I’m waiting on other people to complete.
  2. Tasks that I’m waiting for some external event to happen before I can proceed.

I’ve already written about how I handle tasks that involve other people. Today, I’d like to write about that second type of situation.

In my head I think of these types of tasks as waiting on an external trigger. What I mean is, they all can be written as When This, Do That. I have a task I need to do, but not until something else that I don’t have control over occurs.

Here’s an example.

My friend Karen recently told me that she’s looking for a new job. Once she finds and starts that new job, I would like to send her flowers. The problem with this task is that I can’t simply add it to my todo list since it’s not something I can currently accomplish (because she hasn’t gotten a new job yet). It’s also not a task that I can just assign a future due date because I don’t know when it will be due. It could take her two weeks or six months to find a new job. I suppose I could assign the task a waiting context titled @Karen, but that feels a little odd because the task isn’t really something I’m waiting on her to get back to me with.

Another example that’s currently in my OmniFocus is “Setup a meeting with our financial advisor once our credit card debt is paid off”. Again, like the other task, that’s not something I can just assign a due or defer date to because I don’t know when exactly our debt will be paid off (although I do have a rough idea).

I’ve learned to identify tasks like these because they all follow the form of When This, Do That.

GTD enthusiasts will probably recognize tasks like these as being good candidates for a tickler file. I thought so at first, too, but now disagree. If I were to add the send flowers task to a tickler file to be dealt with two months from now, Karen could get a job later this month and I’d completely forget that I wanted to send her flowers.

What I need is a simple place to park these tasks that I’ll remember to regularly review. The solution I came up with is hardly groundbreaking. It’s just a bit of common sense that finally occurred to me once I became aware and identified this recurring problem.

In OmniFocus, I keep a project on-hold called “External Triggers” with a setting to review it every week.

Inside this project I add all of my tasks that fit the above pattern. When This, Do That. I don’t bother sorting or separating them based on area of focus. All of my tasks from across all of my areas get dumped into this project. And they all follow the same title structure. For example:

  • When Karen gets a new job: Send flowers
  • When debt is paid off: Follow up with Edward Jones about reallocating savings

Then, each week during my weekly review, I have a recurring task that reminds me to look through this project for any actions that have become available. Titling each task in a consistent manner lets me quickly scan the list. Also, keeping this project’s status as on-hold is key, as that keeps all of these tasks from cluttering up my list of available actions when I do my planning.

Like I said, this isn’t anything groundbreaking. But it is a strategy I’ve learned that helps me deal with tasks I might otherwise forget, while keeping them from cluttering the list of stuff I can actually do.