Folders are great helpers and a curse at the same time. While we work with them naturally on our computers, we need to appreciate that they originate from the days where huge amounts of paper had to be organised in such fashion that retrieval was fast and easy while storage space was kept to a minimum.

The time it takes to file documents and find them back is determined by the complexity of the filing system, i.e. taxonomy and structure, the ease of filing, e.g. registration or labelling required, and of course the size of the storage area and how far you need to walk to get to the right shelf. When folders were brought to the computer they have been used very much the same way.

There are people who have developed the most complex hierarchies for their documents or emails, others follow a strict regime when naming their folders and there are also individuals that use different icons or labels to distinguish the places where they store stuff. It is a personal choice, but be aware of the time you will spent to define, implement, refine and maintain a complex filing system. It is seriously questionable whether efforts like these make filing any faster, more convenient or even more fun. Especially in days of powerful desktop search engines like Spotlight.

Principles for Folder Structures

That is why in OmniFocus (and for files, emails or RSS feeds for that matter) you should strive for the most simple, but still effective folder hierarchy. To paraphrase Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "Perfection not achieved when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away". Using this philosophy your folder system in OmniFocus should allow for

  • Fast access for filing and retrieval
  • Low barriers to file things into the right place
  • A logical and memorable structure

There is, as usual, no one-size-fits-all approach and you need to work out what works for you and your individual workflow. However, there are a few rules I suggest you apply when creating filing systems, i.e. folder hierarchies, be it in OmniFocus or elsewhere:

  • A flat folder structure (one level of folders) is typically sufficient
  • At times you may need one more level below the root level
  • If a folder contains only three or less items, you may not need it at all
  • Think about how you search and look for stuff and adjust your structure accordingly
  • If in doubt use search

Even if you think that your job and life is too complex and has so many aspects that you cannot do with such simple structures, I can testify that it is perfectly possible. Working in a large corporation with lots of customer projects, internal initiatives, planning activities and regular meetings/calls while also enjoying many spare time activities with friends and family, I have a very simple filing system for everything, including OmniFocus Projects.

Typical Usage of Folders

When I queried my Twitter followers I consistently got the answer that they use folders in OmniFocus to organise Projects by Area of Responsibility. For those not familiar with the concept of Areas of Responsibility: They represent areas of your job or private life in which you play an active role and hence have responsibilities, e.g. "Marketing", "Development", "Kids" or "Health". But Folders are also used to separate regular and maintenance Actions, Templates or inactive items from true Projects.

Areas of Responsibility

Areas of Responsibility can be quite detailed and high in number. The below mind map (done in MindNode) represent a typical set of Areas of Responsibility divided into job and private. Any major side projects like writing, designing or funding your own company may represent a separate main branch. Let the importance of your side projects determine its position in the map: You can do regular exercising for your health & fitness, but you can also train to complete an Ironman Triathlon. The latter would likely become its own main branch in the mind map.

aor-mindmap

If you end up with +/- 20 Areas of Responsibility when completing the mind map you will be pretty much in the range that also David Allen indicates in his Getting Things Done® book. Some of them have active Projects at present while others do not. You should only have Projects in an Area of Responsibility if there actually is something to do or you are genuinely unhappy with the situation in this area.

You will find that some Areas of Responsibility may have as many as six concurrent projects while others have only one. This imbalance is the reason why it is not necessarily recommended to use a 1:1 representation of your Areas of Responsibility in your OmniFocus Folder structure. There is simply no sense in having a Folder if you have only one or two projects in it at any given time.

aor-foldersConsequently you can radically simplified your Folder structure, very often down to 10 or less folders. It can be as simple as having one "Customers" Folder for all active customer projects, one "Company" Folder for all your work internal projects, initiatives and administrative tasks and finally a "Personal" folder containing all things you are engaged with outside of your regular work.

Personally, I am very diligent setting Projects "On Hold" or defer them if they are currently not “happening”. Hence you will find the 32 projects across my 10 Folders are those I am truly working on at the moment. If I would use an exact representation of my Areas of Responsibility I would have 32 projects spread across 27 folders. You can do the math yourself and will surely conclude that this level of granularity would add complexity instead of clarity.

Maintenance Tasks & Templates

maintenance-foldersWhat people use Folders in OmniFocus for as well is to keep their repeating Actions and Projects in a single place. We all have things we do again and again on a daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly basis. At times these are just small tasks, but there happen to be also larger Projects that need to be done repetitively. Maintenance activities like running backups or doing your Weekly Reviews fall into this category. In my post about leveraging Single Action Lists in OmniFocus I go into some level of detail on how to organise your regular tasks and activities. In short: You will find that grouping them all into Single Action Lists that live inside a "Maintenance" Folder helps managing better.

Whether you call it "Templates" or "Checklists" there is also a case for a Folder which contains templates for Projects or Lists that you duplicate and move to another Folder as and when you need them. Templates are very handy for reoccurring events that do not follow a fixed frequency. You can have templates for updating your (work) passwords, a checklist to go through when you go on annual leave for a longer period of time or a packing list for longer business trips.

Someday/Maybe

someday-maybe-foldersSeparating active Projects from Projects that are "Stalled"/"On Hold" for whatever reasons and from (ideas for) Projects that you might want to take on one day is, as said before, best practice. This is where the "Someday/Maybe" Folder comes in.

It is actually the only Folder in which one more level of Folders is highly recommended. Someday/Maybe items are diverse by nature and you can and should group them for better overview. Next to various Single Action lists which you can use to put ideas and thoughts into "themed buckets", created two more Folders to help you organise other items better. The "Stalled Projects" Folder, for example, can be a place where you move Projects that you decided to put "On Hold" (before, in many cases, dropping them altogether) for whatever reason. It is good practice to move things out of immediate sight once you realise that you will not be able to or simple so not want to action a Project anymore. If you believe the Project may still make a comeback the "Stalled Projects" folder is a good place for it. As you should review the contents of this Folder on a regular basis (at least once a month), you can still delete Projects that became totally obsolete or irrelevant.

Another example, if you travel a lot, could be a Folder where you store Lists for ‘Next time in…’ occasions. Keep a List for each location you travel to on a more or less regular basis and put down restaurants you would like to have dinner at or friends to meet up with. Someday/Maybe is a good place for these kind of lists as well as you may not know when you will be travelling to any of these places again.

Folders & Focus

The one occasion you want to make more use of Folders in OmniFocus beyond "just" organising stuff is when you want to focus on certain projects. Use Perspectives or do it manually whenever required, but you can select a Folder and focus on it (Menu → View → Focus on… or ⇧⌘F). Homing in on work or personal Projects only is one, although a classical example.

You could also create a "Hot" folder into which you drop any project that needs your attention over the next few days. This way you can isolate your most important Projects in times of trouble and overload from Projects which are less critical. If a Project is not on flames anymore, you can drag it back to its original folder. While Folders can help you keeping Projects and Lists under control in OmniFocus, it is highly recommended to not overdo the structure. Browsing to a Project or creating a new one by dropping something from the inbox into the correct Folder into the sidebar needs to be easy. You do not want to traverse four levels of Folders to find a single Project at the end.