~Which Search is the Best Search

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. George Moore

It is in the hope that you will find what you are looking for before searching the world over, at least as far as your GTD is concerned, that installment #7 of An Advanced GTD User’s Paradise is presented.

One of the deficiencies of my early forays into GTD applications was the ability to locate information once it had sunk into the depths of my trusted system. This was especially true when I was looking for information contained in a completed project. Consider OmniFocus the “home” in the above quote. Unlike some other implementations of GTD, you really don’t have to leave home to find what you seek.

I sense the need to take on the expected objections at the start, so let me first say that I understand that the GTD paradigm is not meant to be a storage medium for the completed. Its clear goal subsists in the here and now – or pending task, hence its moniker, Getting Things Done, and not Things I’ve Done.

With that being said, and with an understanding that much of what I am about to describe may not follow the letter of classic GTD, lets look at a variety of techniques that can be used to plumb the OmniFocus depths.

Why the Need to Search

There are a variety of reasons that search capability should be included in any complete GTD application – here are but a few.

  • Your boss or project manager asks you when a particular task was completed.
  • You need to locate some reference information that you previously stored in your GTD – the topic of last week’s post entitled, What To Do With All That Information.
  • You need to repeat a project similar to a project completed at some time in the past, and want to see the task list and timeline for planning another project.
  • You need documentation and details about a completed task or project.
  • You need to provide a list of tasks or projects completed during a specific range of dates.

Search and Destroy

For many years before GTD, I was a Franklin Covey planner user. Not the electronic version mind you, but the “two page per day” paper planner that was in vogue during the last few decades. This provided me an area for my daily task lists and a journal, and worked, but when I needed to find something I had done in the past, it was a painfully arduous task. In fact, at one point I began keeping a worksheet in Excel with all the tasks that I thought I might need to find later. Talk about destroying time with your planner. I think that is much of the reason I love GTD, its always there, and given the right application, it is searchable.

So how do I search with OmniFocus. For Mac users, we expect to be able to search via a search box located in the upper-right corner of the main window in just about any application, e.g. mail, calendar, address book, browser, etc., so it isn’t surprising that OmniFocus provides the same functionality, and in the same place.

Searching for Projects

The first step, before beginning to type in the search box is to set the context for the search in the main outline window. Do you want to search “active” projects within your “work” area for both incomplete and complete tasks? Follow these steps.

  1. Select Active from the Project Filter at the top of the sidebar.
  2. Click on your Work Project folder in the sidebar.
  3. Change the Status Filter in the view bar to “Any Status”.

Now you should be looking at both completed and uncompleted tasks for the active projects in your Work Project folder in the main outline window. Just start typing search text into the Search box, and a few seconds later, only projects containing the search text will be displayed. Be careful to understand that all tasks for a project containing the search text will be displayed, not just tasks containing the text.

Find and Seek

So how do you quickly locate the search text among all of those projects, notes and tasks. Use another feature that should come as no surprise, though you may not have used it in OmniFocus. Pressing the key combination, CMD+F will bring up the Find and Replace box. Enter the same text into the box and click the Next and Previous buttons to navigate to the search text. The text will be located in complete or incomplete tasks, and when used in project titles and any project or task notes. Here is an example.

search and find

Weh, that was a lot of steps. But of course there is a quicker way. Can you think of it? Yes, that’s right, the perspective feature of OmniFocus comes to the rescue once again. I have created a perspective called “Search All” and assigned it to a toolbar button. So all I have to do to search is click the button and enter text into the search box. If there are a number of projects displayed, I just press CMD+F and start navigating through the hits.

Search All Perspective

Here are the settings for the “Search All” perspective so you can build one of your own.

  • Project Filter (sidebar) = All Projects
  • “Library” folder selected in sidebar
  • Status Filter (viewbar) = Any Status

This perspective will search all projects, including completed projects, so it may take a few seconds to load. This perspective has helped me find information that would have otherwise been impossible to locate, or not worth the hours of effort demanded by my earlier planning systems. Thanks OmniFocus for giving us the ability to locate all of the information we have entered into our trusted system, even though it may not be perfect GTD technique.

Next post, I will be identifying all those customized toolbar buttons you’ve seen throughout earlier posts. Thanks for reading – John.

4 thoughts on “~Which Search is the Best Search

  1. Pretty nice follow-up of the last article.

    While I agree that it’s nice to have a project reference inside your GTD system, I also want to mention that you somehow “abuse” OmniFocus.

    The more (completed) projects you have, the slower will your OF database sync with your iPhone. I think this process is already very slow, so I try to do everything to improve it. The archive feature is a nice one, because it reduces the overall size of your database, but also moves your completed projects and tasks into a seperate file out of your main OF database. I do this step every couple of months, but this also means that I “lose” older reference material.

    1. Rafael – I agree that keeping a lot of projects can slow OmniFocus on the iPhone, though in my experience there are actions you can take to “have your cake and eat it too”. I sync to MobileMe and have provided a listing of my current OF document stats below, with the total projects and total tasks bolded. Because some reading this may ask, I have a total of 141 zip files totaling 5mb making up the database. I use OF with three clients, an iMac at home, a MacBook at work, and my iPhone wherever I happen to be. I can honestly say that it is possible for me to open the document on any of these clients within seconds, even the iPhone. Sync times with all clients are equally quick, though the iPhone can take a couple minutes in extreme cases. This is a great improvement that seems to have been brought on by the recent upgrades, before then loading the document took a very long time.

      Now, there is a trick that I use to get this quick response time from my clients. Each night before bed, I sync each client separately (don’t start more than one at a time), usually iMac, then MacBook, and then I wait until turning in and open OF on the iPhone and click the sync button. The iPhone usually takes up to ten minutes to sync, but it doesn’t matter because I’m asleep. The next day, every thing works like a charm. At some point I will undoubtedly need to archive my projects, but I believe I can conveniently keep at least two years of history available, which is enough for me. When that time comes, I’ll most likely copy the document using a different name and store the copy on my MacBook. That way when I need to get to the historical file, I can just open that file in OF instead of the active file (currently you would have to change the name of both the active and copy). Saving copies by years may be the track I take, but I’ve not yet reached my threshold, perhaps I’ll be there by January. Thanks for your comments and for reading, John

      Active Folders: 3
      Dropped Folders: 0
      Total Folders: 3
      Active Projects: 48
      On Hold Projects: 28
      Completed Projects: 84
      Dropped Projects: 13
      Total Projects: 173
      Active Single-Action Lists: 27
      On Hold Single-Action Lists: 1
      Completed Single-Action Lists: 0
      Dropped Single-Action Lists: 0
      Total Single-Action Lists: 28
      Total Actions: 4828

      1. That’s the problem I have. There are workarounds like “sync everyday in the morning (or in the evening)”, but I don’t want to rely on them. While I agree that this workflow works, it’s rather a hack around the painfully slow syncing in OF on the iPhone (I never had any issues with the Mac version). I’m already really bad at organizing myself and everything that could get in the way – like the syncing – is a reason for me to not use a certain system. While OF for Mac saved me tons of time and I would easily spend twice the price, I think that the current OF for iPhone version isn’t worth it. Entering tasks on the iPhone is OK, but it’s still too slow compared to a sheet of paper or a real keyboard. The syncing is too slow to be usable. I process my inbox everyday in the morning and it’s not much more work to enter a couple of tasks I’ve written somewhere by hand. The only great thing about the iPhone application is that you have your tasks with you—wherever you are.

        Currently I have “only” 50 projects and 259 actions (stored in 97 zip files), but a tyipcal iPhone sync takes about 2-5 minutes.

      2. Rafael – I definitely agree with you on entering tasks via the iPhone. I carry a journal with me during the day and it is much simpler to draw a box in my journal for anything that needs to be put into OF. Then, when I’m back at my desk, I use my Macbook to enter everything I’ve recorded during the day that I need to enter as a task. I use the iPhone as you do, as a reference for what is already in OF, though I also will use idle time to check off what has been completed. I just wish they had included the date field in the iPhone app so I could enter the date it was completed if not today. Thanks again for reading and for your useful comments. John

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