Getting Things Done with Tinderbox and OmniFocus

I have used David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology for nearly two decades. GTD has helped me maintain an understanding of the work I need (or want) to do.

One of the less-appreciated aspects of the methodology is Horizons of Focus.

The Horizons of Focus describe six ‘perspectives’ on your’ work’. They are:

  • Ground. These are the tasks you are currently focussed on right now
  • Horizon 1: Projects. Tasks sit in Projects, and this is the set of Projects you have committed to finishing.
  • Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability. Projects sit within some domain that you need to manage in your life. For example, you might define ‘My House’ as an Area of Focus.
  • Horizon 3: One- to two-year goals and objectives and Horizon 4: Three- to five-year vision. These two are about looking forward and understanding where you want your life to be over the middle-term. How are those Areas of focus going to evolve?
  • Horizon 5: Purpose and principles. This is the big philosophical view. The whole ‘what is my life about?’ question.

As you consider your work* each step up through the horizons adds context to the layer below.

Moving through the horizons means asking ‘why’:

  • At the level of Ground you’re doing a task.
  • Why are you doing that task? It furthers some project in Horizon 1.
  • Why are you doing that project? It develops an important Area of Focus in Horizon 2.
  • Why are you focusing on that Area of Focus? It helps you progress toward a goal in Horizon 3 or Horizon 4.
  • Why are you pursuing those goals? Those goals will help you understand what your life is about (as described in Horizon 5)

Moving down through the horizons is about clarifying and specifying what progress means. For example, consider the Area of Focus’ Physical Health’ (Horizon 2). What could you do to progress your Physical Health? You might create a project to join a running club (Horizon 1). Joining a running club will then involve several tasks at the Ground level (research, signing up, etc.)

This ‘work’, i.e. the stuff that’s important to you might arrive at any of those horizons. In the space of a few moments, you may remember you need to get bread on the way home (Ground), and you may also return to a nagging feeling about a career change (Horizons 2 through 5).

Part of the process of GTD is to Clarify what each item of ‘work’ means. Clarification is about answering the question ‘what do I do with this?’

In the case of getting bread on the way home, the answer is clear. For the higher horizons, clarification is often not immediately forthcoming, and you will need to apply additional thought. If you have a nagging doubt about your career, knowing what to do with that idea may take months to conclude what that means to you and what steps you may need to take.

Task management tools

Another important part of GTD (and what is often attractive to novices with it) is the choice and configuration of tools. David Allen has often stated that:

Your brain is for having ideas, not holding them

The implication being you need to store the ‘not finished’ stuff in some external system. In the earliest incarnations of GTD, these systems were paper-based.

Although paper still works, many people (including me) have adopted electronic tools. The obvious choice of tool is a task manager.

Most task management tools are built around the concept of organising tasks. The task manager I use is OmniFocus. This tool helps me organise my tasks into projects and my projects into folders (which represent Areas of Focus).

What is implied by any task management tool is that you are clear about what you want to do. I’ve struggled to use task management tools to generate that kind of clarity.

A tool to help you think

This is where Tinderbox by Eastgate Systems steps in for me. The Eastgate Systems web site describes Tinderbox as:

…a personal content assistant that helps you visualise, analyse, and share your notes, plans, and ideas.

In the companion book to the software, _The Tinderbox Way_, the author (who is also the developer of the software) Mark Bernstein says:

Much of this book emphasises the use of Tinderbox notes to discover what we are actually thinking or to affect our future frame of mind.

I see Tinderbox as a tool for ‘sensemaking’, i.e.:

Sensemaking is the ability or attempt to make sense of an ambiguous situation. More exactly, sensemaking is the process of creating situational awareness and understanding in situations of high complexity or uncertainty in order to make decisions. It is “a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively

I use Tinderbox as a tool for clarificiation.

The core object of Tinderbox is the note. Tinderbox notes have a name and can contain text (much like any note system). They can also contain, or link to, other notes. You can extend notes through either built-in or custom attributes (a little like fields in a database), and they can be visually manipulated to create categories and meaning.

This flexibility means that notes can be arranged and connected in any number of ways. As I think about, then make, those connections and relationships I begin to make sense of what I am thinking and that leads to an understanding of what I need to do.

An example

As I write this, it is the start of the Spring of 2019 (at least in the Southern Hemisphere). In recent years, this has meant I am beginning to think about what my goals for 2020.

I start by creating a Tinderbox file and then creating notes for anything that feels relevant. I’m not trying to filter or categorise. I’m not trying to understand what it means for it to be ‘done’. In the first instance, it’s capturing:

What feels important for 2020?

Some of the things that go in there are:

  • Being a good father
  • Being a good husband
  • Improving the house
  • Financial health
  • Creative Expression
  • Buy a new car
  • Write a book

As you can see, it’s a mixture of things across the Horizons of Focus.

Over time, I return to the file and add things, or shift them around. I cluster together notes that feel related. I create new notes that elucidate some of the higher Horizon notes (e.g. what does ‘Financial health’ mean in 2020). I add text to a note to describe it further.

What I like about this approach and this tool is that nothing feels ‘rigid’ yet. The arrangements and relationships change as I continue to develop my sense of what 2020 might be.

As of writing, I’ve created visual areas (Tinderbox calls them Adornments) which represent Areas of Focus, and I am dragging related notes (potential projects or goals) into those. Some of the things I want to work on span multiple Areas of Focus and it’s interesting to explore those (Tinderbox can create Aliases to notes, so they appear in numerous places).

I don’t expect or want this process to be quick. That said, eventually, the ideas will have developed to the point that they feel like:

  • Something I am ready to commit to, and
  • Clear enough that they can be ‘done’

Then it’s time to ‘move’ the idea from Tinderbox to OmniFocus. I control-click on a note to bring up its contextual menu. From there, I select ‘Copy Note URL’. Then I move over to OmniFocus and create a new Project with the notes field of the OmniFocus Project, including the URL of the Tinderbox note. I also modify the appearance of the Tinderbox note to reflect that it has been shifted to OmniFocus and include a URL to the OmniFocus project.

That works for each item. I also have a weekly reminder (in OmniFocus) to review the Tinderbox file. I am looking for anything that needs further development or to capture any new ideas I’ve had or to make notes about the progress of an idea.

What about other tools?

Tinderbox is, by the developer’s admission, a complicated piece of software. Its power and flexibility come with a steep learning curve. Why not use other tools for this?

In the past, I have tried both mind-mapping tools and pen and paper to do this activity.

The issue I’ve found with mind-mapping tools is the rigidity of their model. The mind-map is a hierarchy. It’s nodes and sub-nodes. This, again, feels like I am prematurely classifying these items. For me, mind-mapping tools don’t encourage experimentation amongst complex relationships.

Pen and paper (or pen and whiteboard), or even index card and whiteboard, gives a huge amount of flexibility. However, they also require that a particular physical object (the paper, a whiteboard) be available for this whole process.

Over time, they also become difficult to edit, and I expect that my 2020 goals will continue to shift and adapt throughout the year.

Closing thoughts

I am yet to read a description of Tinderbox that accurately captures exactly what it is. It is definitely a tool for thinking – but what does that mean? It’s part database, part hypertext document, part mind map, and it’s more than all of those things.

I’ve also read that it’s the kind of tool that ‘clicks’ with certain people. I am one of those people. Like I briefly described above, there are other ways you could work through the Horizons of Focus and clarify your thoughts. For me, Tinderbox’s power, flexibility and philosophy feel like a perfect fit.


* work isn’t just about the stuff you get paid for – it’s all the stuff you need or want to do

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