How I Keep Track of My Life

The most successful people I know have a system to organize and prioritize their lives. Some swear by specific apps. Others keep track with pen and paper. This is something we're all trying to improve on over time. That being said, I’ve found a system that is working for me, and it might just work for you.

I follow a two-tier system. I keep track of tasks with Omnifocus and meetings/events with Fantastical.

My calendar is primarily filled with work meetings and recurring events. I try to keep it simple. A work calendar and a personal calendar both viewable in Fantastical.

My task management is where things get interesting. Omnifocus is my tool of choice for following the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. If you're not familiar with GTD or Omnifocus, I've provided an overview below.

What is GTD?

Getting Things Done is a methodology of task management invented by David Allen. It looks something like this.

  1. Get it all out of your head. Write down everything you need to, want to and hope to do.
  2. Answer two questions about each of those things. What do you really want to accomplish? What specific actions will it take to accomplish that?
  3. Organize these actions by the context in which you can accomplish them—at work, with your phone, at home, with your kids, etc.
  4. Prioritize these actions based on life goals. This important step can’t be done well without steps 1-3. You need specific, achievable tasks organized by your current context to most effectively prioritize.
  5. Reassess and reorganize on a regular basis. Our priorities change over time. As they change, so should the organization and prioritization of your tasks.

If you’re interested in a more thorough explanation, read David Allen's best-selling book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity or watch his Ted Talk below.

What is Omnifocus?

Omnifocus is the most powerful personal task manager for iOS and Mac. I stress the word personal because Omnifocus is meant to be used by an individual not a team. If you need to share lists and assign task, Omnifocus is not the tool for you, but if you want to keep track of your life, Omnifocus has every feature you can think of and more.

Omnifocus is flexible enough to work with variations of GTD and completely different methodologies. But because I follow the Getting Things Done methodology, I've explained Omnifocus with GTD in mind.

1. Inbox: The inbox is where I brain dump. When I can’t fall asleep at night because my mind is full of ideas or when someone recommends a book, I’ll add it to my inbox.

2. Projects: The next time I have a free moment I’ll triage my inbox, turning my brain dumps into projects or specific tasks within projects.

I love the projects in Omnifocus because they work like folders on your laptop. You can create project folders and fill them with subfolders. I found this really handy during college. I would have a folder for college courses; and within that I would put a folder for each individual course; and within each course I’d put folders for different types of tasks.

3. Contexts: We all work in contexts. Errands are done when we’re out. Phone-based tasks are done on our phones. And work tasks are done at work (or at least should be). I organize my tasks by context, so I can filter out distractions.

Location-based contexts is a helpful feature of Omnifocus for iOS. When I show up at work, I’m notified with any tasks that I need to do in that context. If I happen to be traveling for work or working from home, I can still get to that info by just selecting the “work” context within the app.

4. Forecast/Flagged: Forecast and Flagged are separate section, but they both align with “prioritization of actions based on life goals” (number 4 above).

Forecast allows me to organized based on due dates and defer dates. A due date is the day a certain task needs to be completed. A defer date is the day a certain task should be started.

Flagged items are what they sound like. They’re things that are high priority. For me, they are typically things I keep forgetting. Maybe even things that I’ve put off for a week. But the flagged section reminds me that I have something high priority to do.

5. Review: The review sections reminds me to go through my projects and tasks on a regular basis. I can set review recurrence for each project, and each time a project pops into the review section, I have a chance to go through the tasks and clean them up.

What are some specific ways that I use Omnifocus?

Life Stuff: I keep track of simple life stuff in Omnifocus. I have a recurring task for things like getting a haircut, shining my shoes and washing my sheets. Yes, I’d do these either way, but since Omnifocus holds all my life tasks, I can use it to more effectively prioritize even the life stuff.

People: I am horrible at remembering to keep in touch with people, especially those I never see. To help with this, I have a project called “People”, and I explained it in a post last year, Keeping Up with Everyone.

Since I’ve been in Houston, I’ve thought a lot about how to keep in touch with my college friends, professors, coworkers, mentors and even family. Looking back, I’m realizing that I’ve never been very good at it. I can see how I’ve let wonderful relationships from my high school years fade away, and I don’t want to do that again.

With this in mind, I came up with a plan. I made a list of 30 people and immediately realized how small this number is compared to the number of people I want to and should be keeping in touch with. But you have to start somewhere, right? So I began by adding these people to my task manager, Omnifocus. If you don’t use Omnifocus, I’m sure you could do this with another task manager or even a calendar. I scheduled each person to a day of the month, and put him or her on repeat (some weekly, some biweekly, some monthly & still others every three months). I am now reminded on a daily basis to reach out to someone that I care about. I’ve already found this practice encouraging to me and to others. I’m continuing to add friends, family and coworkers to my list, and I’m having fun with it. It’s exciting to check Omnifocus to see who I’ll get to chat with today.

My list has grown to 53 people. I struggle to keep up with all of them, but I've definitely found this practice beneficial.

Personal Projects and Work: I also have projects for things like work, personal reading and wedding planning. For example I used an Omnifocus project for building my website.

Dreams: My newest project is called "Dreams". It's really just a bucket list. I put these long-term goals in Omnifocus because if I didn't, they'd never be prioritized.

I’ve been using Omnifocus and some variation of GTD since college. Omnifocus is still one of my most-used and overall favorite apps for iOS and Mac. In my experience, it has been reliable, hugely powerful, rarely buggy and consistently updated. The Mac and iOS apps are meant to be used together. I wouldn’t recommend using only one. They have slightly different but complementing features.

It’s been fun to share how I keep track of my life, but I realize not everyone works the same way. I’d love to hear your process.

  • How do you keep track of your life?
  • Do you follow a specific methodology? GTD?
  • What's your most valuable tool for organizing and prioritizing?

Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @TimothyBuckSF.