OmniFocus Reimagined

Who is this for? Those who want to dive into the mind of someone who not only uses OmniFocus, but admires its design and utility so much that they want to share their thoughts on how to make it even better.

Chris Sauvé has put together an excellent two-part series called “What’s Eating OmniFocus?” where he breaks down some of the things that bug him about one of the most powerful task management apps out there. Then he went ahead and designed some concepts that may solve some of those concerns.

Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here. If you’d like to see his full re-imagining of the OmniFocus iPhone app — complete with over 70 screenshots — go here.

Information vs. User Disarray

Who is this for? Those struggling to determine the ideal number of tools to use in their workflow.

From Devir Kahan at BitQuill:

Over the last few weeks a problem that has only gotten worse with time started to bug me more than ever before. I call it “information disarray” and it is the issue of all of the important organizational bits of your digital life being scattered throughout a variety of different apps and services. Your todos are in one app, articles ideas in another, things you want to buy in another, movies you want to watch in another, appointments in another, and lists in still another. Everything is everywhere and you have no idea where to look to find something.
 
There was a time when there was a single application you could go to and see everything you needed to worry about or take care of that day/week. Now things are spread out all over the place with highly specialized apps each claiming little bits of information for themselves. I can never find a specific item that I want, and I have, more than once, missed important information because I was not in the right app at the right time.

We’re now offered an array of tools to help us manage our day-to-day, many of which overlap. It’s far too easy to take on too many of them and find yourself lost in the very tools you hoped would save you. That said, I also think trying to structure one tool to do it all (or aggressively minimizing tools for minimizing’s sake) to be an equally inefficient solution. Let’s face it, the lack of ever having a single application where you could go to see everything you needed is what led us to branch off and find more focused alternatives in the first place. 

While I agree that there is a very real concern about having too many tools doing too many things, I’m not sure I agree that this is a technology issue. To me, it’s strictly a user issue. I avoid highly specialized apps as they tend to lead to the kind of confusion Devir warns against. Rather than using a grocery app, I stick to a general list app (Listary is my current choice, but Silo is coming along nicely). This means that anything that would belong on a list, from hardware store needs to books I’d like to read, all live in one place. I may not get the advantages of more focused apps (such as Recall for book, TV and movie suggestions), but I never wonder where anything belongs.

Rather than obsessing on a single app or even the app count, I always find it’s better to think of these tools as part of a single workflow that’s meant to provide the clarity needed to get through the day, week, month and year. The solution, at least for me, digitally is the same as in my home: a place for everything and everything in its place.

I’m intentional about the tools I use, but I’m even more intentional about the way I use them. All written text goes into nvALT, reference materials go into Evernote, tasks are in OmniFocus, lists are in Listary, reminders are in Due, appointments are in Fantastical/Google Calendar. By the way, these tools are not mutually exclusive. If I need to get a piece of writing done by a certain date, there’s a task for it in OmniFocus with a link directly back into that piece. If I have a meeting, the reference material gets the same treatment in OmniFocus with a link back to my notes for the meeting.

In Devir’s case, he is trying to use Things to handle more of his workload. This may very well work for him, but if I tried to keep my daily tasks, my writing wants, my shopping lists and more in once place my system would implode in on itself. The clarity my system provides me would diminish and ultimately it would help me get less done. Between managing my home life, my work life and my personal projects, my task list is overloaded enough.

This may seem insane to some, it may even create some friction, but I never wonder where anything goes or where I need to go when I need something, I know. Is there still disarray in my day? Absolutely, but very little of it tends to come from my technology and if used right, I don’t think much of it will for you as well. It just requires taking the time the time to decide what to use, discovering the best way to use it and then having the discipline to actually use it that way. It isn’t always easy, but I’ve found it to be an effective tool for eliminating a fair amount of my daily disarray.

The Thing About Focus

Who is this for? Those who are worried about keeping focused on the right things versus the wrong things.

We’ve been pretty silent here at Workflowing for the past week and a bit.

Schechter and I have both been traveling, and with plenty on our plates before and after said travel, our focus has been split … somewhat. The reason I consider it “split … somewhat” is because we had an inkling this would happen. We knew that when we started develping Workflowing in public that in its early stages there would be other things we’d committed to that would keep our focus elsewhere for periods of time.

And we were okay with that. Why? Because in order to have focus, you need to accept that you will have to put things aside.

That doesn’t mean you can let things slide – especially if the expectation is that you’ll give those things some of your focus. For example, I had writing assignments that I couldn’t let slide – as outlined in a post earlier this week on Productivityist – but I prepared accordingly so that I could give those assignments the focus they deserved when I could afford to give them that focus. The result was that I delivered as promised and no one was let down in the process.

By being up front about how this site was a “work in progress” (so to speak) and then taking that one step further and broadcasting that on Twitter, we gave this site the focus it needed before we shifted focus to the other things we needed to focus on. So we didn’t really split our focus at all. We shifted it – and we did so accordingly.

This week on Mikes on Mics we talked with Julien Smith, who recently unveiled what his new company, Breather, was all about. During the discussion, we talked about “zooming in” and “zooming out”, and Julien makes a point of saying how he couldn’t focus on being a founder of a brand new venture if he was focused on being a best-selling author at the same time. Making that distinction – and that decision – is going to have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your workflow. Admitting that you can’t be everywhere all the time despite having access to everywhere most of the time is huge.

We did that over the past couple of weeks – and we’ll do that again. Maybe not in the same way, but we’ll still do it so that we can shift our focus rather than split our focus.

Did we have the tools to do this with us? You bet. Would it have been done well? No. Neither would the other things we had to do. Going forward we’ll need to figure out what happens when neither one of us can be here to man the ship because clearly it will happen. As I mentioned in an exchange over on App.net with Kevin Rothermel, while the Internet is everywhere, our focus can’t be.

The takeaway here is that it is perfectly fine to pay attention to what needs attention rather than all that needs attention. That’s how good work becomes great work – which is the kind of work we all should be striving to do.

The Right Note at the Right Time with Evernote Reminders

Who is this for? Those looking for a better way to recall important reference materials at a specific time or date.

From the Evernote Blog:

Reminders are here. Our three most requested features rolled into one small package:

  • In-app and email Alarms
  • Quick note based to-do lists
  • Pinning notes to the top of your note list

The Reminders feature is currently available on Evernote for Mac, iOS and Evernote Web.

The list features will likely only appeal to power users of the application, but there’s a lot to be excited about with the addition of in-app and email alarms.

Applications like Mailbox make it possible to have an email return at a specific time and the powerful search in Evernote makes it possible to find a well named needle in a haystack, but there’s never been a seamless solution where your tools remind you of essential information at the exact right moment. Especially if you tend to store that information in Evernote.

When someone emails me a meeting agenda and relevant attachments, they all go into a note in Evernote. In the past I’d then create an OmniFocus tasks that links to this, but the new in-app or alarm feature significantly streamlines the process. Now when creating the note, I can set a reminder and have the information I need return to me at exactly the right moment.

Reminders only currently exist within the Evernote applications themselves. I hope we don’t have to wait too long to see this functionality make its way to the Evernote web and email clippers. More often than not, the types of notes that warrant a reminder are created in my web browser or email application, so it would be helpful to set an alarm without ever having to enter Evernote.

Regardless, Reminders is a great new addition to an already powerful and useful tool.

Essential OmniFocus Scripts and Workflows

Who is this for? New or beginner OmniFocus users looking for best practices and basic tricks.

Note: This post is a running list and will continue to be updated with new options. There will also be another list for geeky workflows coming soon.

OmniFocus Walkthrough Videos — MacSparky

This video series from David Sparks is the single best place to get started with OmniFocus, even though it clocks in at four hours (spread across three videos) it is well worth the time and gets you started on the right the right foot. If you don’t think it’s worth the time to watch these videos, you probably don’t need OmniFocus.

OopsieFocus Script — Shawn Blanc

A task manager is only as good as it is reliable. If you close OmniFocus, it won’t react when you use the quick entry or clipper. Thankfully Shawn Blanc solved this problem with a single script. Once installed, OmniFocus will respond every single time you call it.

Templates.scpt — pxldot

There have been a few ways to create templates for frequently created projects in OmniFocus, but this is by far the best and most robust option.

How to get all of your crap into OmniFocus

This post and screencast from yours truly will give you an overview of just how easy it is to create tasks from text, websites, files, emails and Evernote notes.

My OmniFocus Setup

An in-depth look at how I use OmniFocus to get things done. There are several ways to make the most out of this application, this is mine.

OmniFocus Premium Posts by Asian Efficiency

This premium product is a great option for those looking for hand holding while getting started with OmniFocus. It’s ideal for those who want a better way to manage their tasks and projects, but perhaps aren’t entirely married to David Allen’s GTD.

Using OmniFocus by Kourosh Dini

Those who prefer the GTD framework would be better served by Kourosh Dini’s Creating Flow with OmniFocus. It’s well written, very in-depth and there’s also an audiobook option.

The OmniFocus Setup

There are several great videos from The OmniFocus setup that took place during Macworld. If you only plan to watch a few, start with Sven Fechner’s “A Fresh Take on Contexts” and David Sparks’ “Do Stuff!”.

Download OmniFocus for Mac, iPhone or iPad.

Great Resources

Book Review – Workflow: Beyond Productivity

Who is it for? Those looking to take a deep dive into the concepts of productivity, workflow, creativity and mastery that goes far beyond the “how to”.

Kourosh Dini has already written an incredibly useful – if not the most useful – ebook on the popular task management application, OmniFocus, with Using OmniFocus. His latest work, Workflow: Beyond Productivity is very different, and will be increidbly useful to perhaps a very different audience. It dives deep into the realm of workflow and indeed goes well beyond productivity, compelling the reader to really spend some time thinking, fostering, and mastering their own workflow.

The book clocks in at over 500 pages, so it is isn’t a quick read. Nor is it meant to be. This kind of work is something you need to dwell on as a reader, digesting it slowly. Dini calls it an “eTextbook” and that’s an apt description.

The text is composed of five “books”, each of which focuses on a particular element of workflow:

  1. Book One discusses intention and organization. This book is almost like a prologue in that it prepares you for what’s to come by putting you in the right state of mind.
  2. Book Two is where the rubber begins to really meet the road as Dini writes about stations, habits, and sessions. This is where you’ll learn how to start developing the muscles needed to enhance and embrace your ability to develop a solid workflow.
  3. Book Three is all about silence, agency, and decisions. I found that this was the book that asked the reader to work on understanding and developing the idea of mindfulness when dealing with both work – and play.
  4. Book Four focuses on mastery and magic. Once you make it to this point, you’ll start to notice an “a-ha” moment has the propensity to occur. It’s almost as if Dini guides you through all of the ’“front-end work” of productivity to get you to this portion, where workflow mastery – and the magic that comes with it – really starts to kick in.
  5. Book Five is an excellent end point, as it discusses communication, meaning, and action. I found this to be the book where awareness and mindfulness were at the forefront, especially considering that every other phase of workflow had been explored and dissected.

There is more to this book than just the sheer amount of depth, breadth, and care that went into the text. Workflow: Beyond Productivity also comes with flash cards (something I’ve not encountered in this platform before) that allow the reader to review definitions of terms and questions that are asked throughout the work so they can achieve a deeper understanding of them – which will assist in their journey to mastering workflow. There is also accompanying video, which can be used in conjunction with the music section of the text (and most certainly should be to get the most out of that section).

Let me be clear: this isn’t a book that will be for everyone. It’s not only a “how to” book but it is very much a “why to” book as well. I have found that having both elements equally explored can really take your work and life to new heights, and Dini has gone further and deeper with Workflow: Beyond Productivity than I’ve ever read in one collection. It’s an academic work, and it’s something you’ll spend time “studying” more so than simply “reading”, and it is priced as such.

Workflow: Beyond Productivity is a master class in workflow that, as indicated, goes well beyond productivity. I recommend it highly and suggest you buy this DRM-free eTextbook (and its companion materials) for the introductory price of $29.95 through the end of May (click here to purchase). It is one of those rare works that will truly help you in the quest to stop doing things and start doing the right things.

Turning Tasks Into Projects in OmniFocus

Who is this for? Those looking for a step-by-step process for expanding a single task into a fully fleshed-out project in OmniFocus for Mac.

Robert Agcaoili shared an excellent post from Gabriel Ponzanelli. Gabriel uses a friend’s desire to go SCUBA diving in Mexico to demonstrate a common tendency to capture projects as unclear tasks. In his post Gabriel takes the single-worded task “Mexico” and contrasts it to a properly structured project.

Gabriel does a wonderful job of showing how you should approach project planning, but like Robert:

I have and still do enter supposed projects into OmniFocus as a 2–3 word task. The reason is that when that project idea comes to mind, I don’t really have the luxury to stop what I’m doing, flesh out the project, and make sure the flow and the metadata is correct in OmniFocus.

Properly Capturing a Project

It’s rare that an idea for a new project appears when you have the time to thoroughly flesh it out. What I do in these cases is quickly capture the task on my Single Actions list (the Inbox would also work). I make sure to at least capture a clearly structured task that will remind me to plan this out later (e.g., Plan: Go on a SCUBA trip to Mexico). I give the task a proper context and assign it to my Single Actions list (this is obviously not needed if you plan to use the Inbox). If planning this out is urgent, I assign a Due Date to ensure it gets thought through in time. If time allows, I create a note which states my desired outcome for the project and includes details that might help later on. This last part happens less often than it probably should.

Expanding During The Weekly Review

Unless the project is urgent, I wait until my weekly review to convert these tasks into fully fleshed-out projects. When I sit down, a key step in my review process is to search and expand any project that starts with Plan: (you can use CMD-OPT-F to search for these if your list is overwhelming). If it’s too early to think about a specific task, I might add a few notes and set a Start Date. Everything else goes through the following process.

Converting Tasks into Projects

Initial OmniFocus Project

The first thing to keep in mind is that you need to be in the Planning Mode (you can get here by hitting CMD–1) and not the Context Mode. You’ll know if you’re in the right mode when you attempt to take the first step. Speaking of, here are the steps you’re going to want to take once you’ve selected your Task/Project-to-be:

  • Hit CMD-[ to convert your task into a project (if this isn’t working, hit CMD–1, find your task and try again).
  • Hit Tab to rename the task (or at least remove “Plan:”).
  • Hit CMD-’ and add a clear desired outcome for your project into the notes field (e.g., Goal: Plan a trip in mid-July to go SCUBA diving in Cozumel).
  • Hit CMD-’ to close up your notes field.
  • Add any Start Dates or Due Dates for the project.
  • Press Enter to add your first task.

From here you’ve successfully taken a task and converted into a project, but we’re far from done. Now, we plan.

Planning Your Project

Creating Your Sub-Projects

Sub-project in an OmniFocus project

Once I’m ready to plan, I like to break the project into logical sub-projects. For example, in Gabriel’s post, he had sub-projects for Learn to SCUBA dive, Learn Spanish and Organize trip to Cozumel. To do this, just start typing these sub-projects as tasks. You can also enter goals for each one of these if you feel they will help and add any Contexts, Notes, Start or Due Dates as needed. Once you do, press Enter twice to add the next sub-project.

Before moving on to planning out each sub-project, there’s one last thing you need to determine. Should these sub-projects be done sequentially or in parallel? In other words, do you have to finish the first sub-project before you see the next one or do you see them all? At this level, I tend to always choose parallel (this is the default), which allows me to see all of my major sub-projects. You can change this by clicking on the parallel arrows that appear before the Start Date field.

Adding Tasks to Sub-Projects

Project in OmniFocus

Once my main Sub-Projects are setup, I add individual tasks to each. I start from the first task, determine all of the steps needed to accomplish my goal and work my way through each sub-project until its conclusion. To do this I:

  • Go to the first task. You can either use the up arrow if you’re still in tasks, or just click into it.
  • Hit enter to add a new task between your first and second project.
  • Hit CMD-] to create a nested task.
  • Enter all tasks with any necessary Contexts, Start Dates, Due Dates or Notes
  • Press Enter twice to add the next task.
  • Once you’ve entered all the tasks needed to complete your sub-project, press the down key to move onto the next and repeat these steps for each one.

With each sub-project you once again need to determine if they should be sequential or parallel. At this point, I often choose sequential so that I’m not overloaded by tasks. When I finish the first task, the second appears. Most times the tasks within a sub-project need to be completed in order, so it’s worth clicking this. It avoids overwhelm and keeps you focused on the next possible step. There are also two best practices you’ll want to consider.

  1. You can go as crazy as you want with the nested tasks. Just keep hitting CMD-] and you will see. I don’t like to go below this level (Project, Sub-Project, Tasks) as I think things tend to break down and get confusing, but see what works best for you.
  2. Determine how detailed you need to get. If you’ve read Gabriel’s post, you’ll notice that he included a task to add the certification course to his calendar. This is overkill for me. It will take a little trial and error, but over time you’ll get a sense of what needs to be captured and what doesn’t. Some people are extremely granular and that’s fine. Just figure out what works best for you. If there’s the smallest chance that something would keep you from achieving your goal, add it. I just know that I’d never schedule an appointment without adding it to my calendar, so the task is superfluous for me.

As Gabriel rightly points out, a properly thought-out project has a far great chance of success, but—and I hope he’d agree—it’s not always possible to do this at the time when you decide to take on a new project. Capture projects when they occur to you, expand on them in a timely manner and you’ll have a far greater chance of getting them done.

One-Press Task Creation in OmniFocus

Who is this for? Those looking to automate the creation of frequently created tasks in OmniFocus (or any task manager with a URL scheme) on iOS.

From David Sparks:

I recently received an email from reader Jonas Bergenudd with a really clever workflow. Jonas has things in his life that occasionally require replenishment, like batteries. So Jonas created stickers with QR codes on them using OmniFocus’s URL scheme to add a new task to his OmniFocus list.

For example, scanning this QR code takes your phone to the following URL – omnifocus:///add?name=buy%20aa-batteries.

David is right that this is clever, but I’m not sure that many are going to adapt this approach. The steps of creating a URL scheme, getting a QR code creator/scanner app, creating a QR code, printing the code and then using it at a later date seems cumbersome. However the seed of the idea is really interesting and potentially useful. Especially when you consider that, rather than going the QR code route, this would also work as a group (or groups) of actions in Launch Center Pro.

A while back, I shared how I use URL Schemes in Launch Center Pro to speed up the creation of common tasks in OmniFocus on the iPhone. These templates always had one or more variables (a person’s name or specifics on the action I’d need to take). I never thought to simplify things and use it to create an entire task.

Rather than creating QR codes, try taking the URL scheme above for batteries and adapt it to your own common tasks (just use %20 to put spaces between words). You can get up to 11 of these in a single group in Launch Center Pro. Much like Jonas’ intent with his QR codes, this would reduce the tiny bit of friction that often keeps us from getting common, yet easily overlooked tasks into OmniFocus.

At the moment, you can only include a task name and note into a task using the OmniFocus URL scheme, so you will still have to manually add a context, project and any Start or Due Dates. Here’s hoping the OmniGroup eventually expands this to include things like Contexts. How nice would it be to hit a single button in Launch Center Pro and get notified to buy batteries the next time you walk past your local store?

For more on Jonas’ QR Code based approach, be sure to check out David Spark’s original post.

Creating an OmniFocus HotSpot →

Who is this for? OmniFocus users looking to automate the process of sending files to their Inbox.

From Thanh Pham at Asian Efficiency:

Here’s a simple yet oh so effective way of getting tasks in your OmniFocus inbox for files you need to review. […]

It works with a combination of an AppleScript, Hazel and OmniFocus. It’s super simple.

I still prefer my Evernote-based approach for creating tasks from files, but this is a nice alternative approach for those looking to conveniently store a file while simultaneously creating a task.

Doing The OmniFocus One-Two Shuffle →

Who is this for? Anyone using both OmniFocus 1 and OmniFocus 2.

From Dan Byler:

OmniFocus 2 isn’t ready to take over my life yet, so for the moment I’m still usually working in OmniFocus 1. Every couple days I fire up OmniFocus 2 to kick the tires a little more and sometimes provide some (hopefully useful) feedback to the good folks at the Omni Group. (And yes, they’re listening.)

[…]

Unfortunately, switching fluidly between the two versions becomes problematic when you bring third party tools into the mix.

The solution? A script, of course! Here’s a script that automates the process of switching between primary versions of OmniFocus. This is what it does:

  1. Checks your applications folder for items matching the name OmniFocus* and asks you which version you’d like to bless2
  2. Renames the blessed version to “OmniFocus.app”, and the other versions to “OmniFocus [version].app”
  3. Launches the blessed version

Like Dan, I’m still primarily using OmniFocus 1 and like Dan, I’ve missed having my primary copy of OmniFocus named properly. This script does a great job of solving this short term problem.