Sometimes life gets so hectic that you're forced to ignore your carefully defined productivity system and just go with your gut.
This happened to me last month. Instead of my usual morning routine (coffee > OmniFocus > Evernote > work), I had to drop my planned tasks to go put out some unexpected fires for several weeks. I missed 3 weekly reviews and didn't open OmniFocus once during that time. I knew what had to be done, so I just did it.
The fires were eventually sorted out and everything was back to normal. Or so I thought. I opened up OmniFocus to find over 50 overdue actions, a handful of unfinished projects, and an Inbox full of unprocessed stuff.
That, my friends, is seriously overwhelming.
Fortunately, I keep most of my commitments organised using a combination of OmniFocus and Evernote, so getting back on track required nothing more than a clear head, several espressos, and a few hours going through those two applications.
Here's how I use OmniFocus and Evernote together as the core of my productivity system.
OmniFocus manages Projects and Actions
At it's core, OmniFocus is where I keep track of my tasks. It gives me a quick way to decide what I need to do at any given time. But I don't just dump every task in, I could use Apple's Reminders for that. No, I'm a bit more methodical.
At the root level, I have a folder for each area of focus. These are the high level themes that are most important to me and I've chosen to actively keep an eye on.
Inside each folder are the relevant Projects, which in turn hold Actions. That way, I can quickly zero in on anything I need to focus on at any given time.
For example, when I'm working on a strategy document for a specific client, I can quickly find all relevant tasks by opening the Career/Work folder and clicking on the relevant project. Or if I'm planning an upcoming SCUBA diving trip, I just need to go to my Recreation folder and there it is.
As a side note, once I find the project I'm working on, I just hit cmd-ctrl-F (or hit the Focus button in the Toolbar) and everything else disappears. That's one of the beauties of OmniFocus. It's great at letting you, well, focus.
So that's what goes into OmniFocus. But what's arguably more important is what I keep out of it.
Evernote manages Reference Material and relevant Notes
If it's not an actionable task, it doesn't make it into OmniFocus. Ever. If it's not something I need to do, but I want to keep for some reason, it goes into Evernote. Conversely, if it is an action, I won't put it in Evernote.
In order to maintain consistency across both applications, I have a notebook (or stack) in Evernote for each Area of Focus, mirroring the structure in OmniFocus.
Essentially, Evernote is where I keep all reference material and project related notes.
Using OmniFocus and Evernote together
Smarter people than me have figured out ways to automate certain aspects of using OmniFocus and Evernote together, but I like to keep it simple. I don't use any additional software or scripts to connect them or any fancy stuff.
For me, it all starts in OmniFocus. If an action needs to refer to anything that's in a note in Evernote, all I do is paste a link to it in the notes field of the OmniFocus task.
This way, when I'm looking at the task in OmniFocus, all I have to do is click on the link and Evernote fires up and opens the specific note.
To get the link, just select the note, option-click (or right-click) and choose Copy Note Link, then paste it into the notes field in the OmniFocus task.
Examples of using this OmniFocus/Evernote system
I have a notebook in Evernote for this site. It contains all sorts of notes that relate to disturbancesinthewash.net in one way or another. One note is a list of article topics that I want to write. Every time I have an idea for a post, I add it to the list. In OmniFocus I have a recurring task that just says "write article for ditw" with a reference link to this note.
When the task becomes available, I click on the link and go through the list in Evernote, pick one, and write the article. When I finish, I remove it from the list in Evernote and mark the task as complete in OmniFocus.
Once upon a time, I used to create a new action in OmniFocus every time I had an idea for an article. At one point I had hundreds of these action "tasks" that were only ideas for posts. Nothing actionable in itself. It quickly got out of hand and became just noise. To the point that I ended up ignoring everything because it was too much.
Another example is SCUBA diving. It's one of my hobbies. I have a Notebook in Evernote dedicated to SCUBA diving that holds notes about places I want to go diving, equipment I'm researching, manuals of dive computers, and pdf's of underwater signs, among other things.
Most of these notes aren't related to any OmniFocus tasks, but some are reference material for when I do have an active SCUBA diving project.
As you can see, these two apps work great together and are arguably the best at what they do. The trick, for me, is to use each for what their best at in a complementary way and not to fall into the trap of mixing uses across both.
By the way, the best and quickest way to learn Evernote in depth is Brett Kelly's Evernote Essentials ebook. I highly recommend it.
I'm a regular listener to the podcast, but these specific episodes were published when I was away on holiday, so I missed them at the time. However, I saved them for when I had some time. Finally, I listened to them all and I'm glad I did. They are full of great information and as usual, Merlin delivered a lot of quotable pieces of wisdom. I wrote down a bunch of them and I'll be posting them here so I can refer to them later. Here's the first one:
I love it. More to come in the next few weeks. If you haven't listened to these episodes and you're in any way interested in GTD, go check them out now.
Sometimes, life gets so overwhelming that it's hard to stay on top of it all. It's one thing to commit to more projects than you can handle. That's bad planning and entirely under your control. It's a very different problem, however, when circumstances around you change so much that you end up with way more things fighting for your time and attention than you can realistically provide.
If you're like me, you have a system that keeps you sane. Maybe a task management application, your calendar, a bunch of post it notes, or a combination of things. Somewhere where you keep your projects and tasks organised so you know what you need to, or can, be doing at any given time.
But when the shit truly hits the fan, as they say, you often need to jump straight into firefighting mode and attend to the immediate issue. And then the next. And the next. And very quickly you realise you've neglected your system and have no idea what's going on.
Overdue items shout for attention. Due items start to create pressure. An inbox left unprocessed collects too many items that quickly start to rot. In no time, the noise becomes so much that it's impossible to decide what is truly urgent, so it's easier to just shut down and ignore everything except for the loudest thing in front of you.
My system revolves around OmniFocus and this is exactly what I've been through lately. Today I opened OmniFocus for the first time in 5 weeks and this is what it looks like:
The past 6 weeks or so have been tough. I've had multiple work and personal commitments. Things out of my control have happened and I've struggled to keep track of everything I need to do and is expected of me. It's happened before.
I dropped the ball on more things than I care to admit. Sadly, work was loudest and what I neglected was mostly personal stuff. It's not a good feeling.
Today I decided it was enough. I can't run around chasing the thing that screams at me the loudest. I need to focus on what actually matters. And the only way to know what matters is to stop, look at the big picture, think, and plan. I need to do my weekly review. Now.
I'll be honest, 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.
This happens to me all the time as well. Turning a loosely defined task into an actionable project is difficult. You need to stop and think it through. You need to ask yourself a lot of questions. It takes time.
It used to be a pain to have to think about this for every ambiguously defined project disguised as a task I had dropped into my OmniFocus library.
However, after listening to Merlin Mann's OmniFocus setup talk, I took his advice and I've found it much easier to deal with. He said something along the lines of "think in the Inbox so you don't have to think when you're doing". This is good advice. I now drop these loose ideas as a single line into my Inbox only. They never get into my library until I've fleshed them out. That means it might sit there for a week, but it'll get looked at during my weekly review and it won't be something I look at, and have to think about, when I'm in doing mode.
My Inbox is where I process ideas/tasks/projects. My Library is where actionable stuff goes.
How many times has this happened to you? You think about something you want to do that gets you really excited, so you make a note in your task manager. It's a half-formed idea, but you're eager to make it happen.
Then you look at your list a few days later and see a task with only one word. You have no idea what to do next. Where do you start? Maybe you should Google something. And you end up down the rabbit hole of the Internet for hours and your project doesn't move one bit.
A close friend had this exact experience last week. I was telling him about the SCUBA diving I'd done over the weekend and that night he had a brilliant idea. He wrote it down in OmniFocus. He wrote a single action titled "Mexico".
To be fair, he's a recent convert to OmniFocus and is still getting his head around it. He tends to drop most things as a task inside a Single Action List and struggles to distinguish between a task and a project.
We had a long chat in which I tried to help him unravel the mystery of his "Mexico" task. I found it an interesting conversation and thought I'd share it here (with is permission). So, paraphrasing a bit while it's still relatively fresh in my memory, here it is:
Me: So, Mexico. That's nice. What does that mean? What do you want with Mexico?
Him: I want to go to Mexico.
Me: OK, so make the title of your task "Go to Mexico", not just Mexico. When do you want to go?
Him: In December.
Me: OK, so make it "Go to Mexico in December" and now you know you have 7 months to organise it. Where in Mexico do you want to go?
Him: Uhhh... Cozumel. You got me excited and I want to go SCUBA diving. I've heard Cozumel has great diving spots.
Me: Ah, now we're getting somewhere. It sounds like you need to sort out a few things to make this happen. It's a project, not a task. The title of the project could be "Go SCUBA diving in Cozumel, Mexico in December".
At this point in the conversation I realised my friend probably knew less about SCUBA diving than I had thought. You see, most people that have done enough dives to consider an overseas trip have heard about Cozumel. Most likely another diver told them about the amazing spots, clear caribbean water, and beautiful weather. My friend was being extremely vague, so I asked:
Me: Have you been SCUBA diving before?
Him: I did a dive in the Barrier Reef about a year ago.
Me: So you don't have an Open Water Certification.
Him: Uhhh... no.
Me: Well, if you really want to get into SCUBA diving, you need to get certified. Otherwise you'll only be able to do the introductory dives, which is what I assume you did. You don't want to fly all the way there and then not be able to dive to the cool spots. The course only takes a couple of days. You can either do it here before you go, or you can do it there.
Him: I guess it's best if I do it before I go?
Me: Yes, I agree. So now you have a sub-project titled "Learn to SCUBA dive" with an outcome of getting your Open Water Diver certification. Where do you start?
Him: I ask you where to do it?
Me: OK, that works. But you should do your own research. Maybe there's a dive shop closer to where you live. You don't want to drive all the way down here if there's a better option for you. The first task of getting your certification is to research dive shops near you. Then find out dates and costs for the course. Then book it.
Me: Where are you staying in Cozumel?
Me: Do you know anything about Cozumel?
Him: Errrr... not really.
Me: OK, so you might need another sub-project to organise the actual trip. Maybe start with researching all you need to know about Cozumel? How to get there, where to stay, how much money you'll likely need, etc. With that info you can start thinking about booking flights and hotels.
Him: I'd also like to brush up on my Spanish. I haven't practiced since high school.
Me: Excellent idea. There's another sub-project that you need to break down into the steps you need to make it happen.
And so the conversation went. At the end, we had the project divided into 3 sub-projects each with a clear next action. Something that was clearly defined and easy to do without being overwhelming.
I find this approach of thinking through each project and action to see if I can break it down into smaller and smaller pieces very helpful. As long as the immediate next action doesn't seem daunting I'll get it done.
In this example, the overall project is parallel, meaning all tasks immediately under the project can be acted upon. They're all visible. But each of the sub-projects is sequential, meaning only the first task is visible since each subsequent task is dependent on the first one being completed. So when the time comes to do stuff, only the first action in each sub-project will show (e.g. the 3 research tasks).
And since these are now defined, that Google search will be focused and hopefully prevent us from falling down that rabbit hole.
Of course, the plan will change often. That's ok. I see it as being refined with the new knowledge from finishing a task. But the key thing to keep any project moving forward is to make the next step as clear and simple as possible.
A few weeks ago I published an article describing my takeouts from The OmniFocus Setup presentations. However, I missed one video by Michael Schechter & Thanh Pham that's a slightly different format than the rest. I found it very interesting as well and thought I'd share my learnings from it, so here it is.
Contexts. A group chat covering oddities and niceties by Michael Schechter & Thanh Pham
Michael and Thanh have a very different approach to contexts. Thanh bases them on energy levels (eg. High Energy vs Low Energy), and assigns the most important tasks for the day to the High Energy context. If he gets through these, the work for the day is done and he can move on to the Low Energy tasks, which are not critical and don't require his full attention. He also mentioned using a Creativity context for tasks that need creative thinking.
In contrast, Michael uses only 2 contexts: Work and Home. These divide the projects/tasks related to his day job and everything else (family, hobbies, his website, etc.).
Initially I thought this would make it hard to find specific tasks, but he clarified by explaining he gives tasks distinct names. For example, tasks that would normally be in an "Email" context, he titles "Email Bill about...", or "Waiting for" tasks he titles "Waiting for Bill to do..." and then just searches for "Email" or "Waiting" to group all similar actions.
I rarely search in OmniFocus, so I found Michael's approach intriguing. I did some searches in my own OmniFocus library and realised 2 things: the search in OmniFocus is amazing and I suck at naming tasks. I ended up spending an hour updating titles to be more descriptive and clearer.
What's clever about Michael's approach is that you can not only search for all emails you have to send or all actions you're waiting for, but also all tasks related to Bill, which would show both in the above example. During the talk, I quickly jotted down this which I think encapsulates it well:
If you're meeting with Bill, search for Bill and all "waiting for" and "to tell him" tasks will come up. If it's something that's going to take about a week, put a start date of about a week so it doesn't show up.
It feels like a good substitute for Agendas. At the moment, I have these tasks separated by an "Agenda : Bill" and a "Waiting For" context.
Interestingly, Thanh has a list of people contexts and list of waiting for contexts that mirror each other (e.g. People>Mom and Waiting>Mom). He created a perspective that shows both People and Waiting to quickly see what you need to talk to them about and remind them you're waiting for.
It's fascinating to listen to 2 very different ways to acheive a similar outcome.
During the Q&A, someone asked about priorities. Their views were also very different. Michael doesn't do priorities (or rather, he uses only one). Something is either a priority or it isn't. If it is, he assigns a due date. If it isn't, he doesn't.
Thanh, on the other hand, follows the ABC style by Brian Tracey, where A-have to get done; B-would be nice to finish, but only after A; C don't need to be finished today.
It's worth watching the video, especially if you're struggling with contexts. And as Michael puts it at the start of the presentation, if you're not, you're lying.
Over the last few weeks, I've been going through the presentations from The OmniFocus Setup, the event the Omni Group held on 31 January 2013 at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. They managed to get a lot of very smart people I admire to talk about how they use OmniFocus.
I learned a lot from the presentations and thought it'd be valuable to share my notes. The following is what I wrote down while watching the videos, so it's only my main takeout from each. There is much more content and if you use OmniFocus, I urge you to watch them. Your takeouts will be different from mine.
Do Stuff! by David Sparks
Use start dates to manage projects and tasks so they disappear until it's time to work on them. Use due dates only for tasks that are unquestionably due; things of the "the world will explode if I don't complete this by that exact date" type of tasks. If it's an "I'd like to finish it today" kind of task, it shouldn't have a due date.
The trick is to make these decisions up front, so that when the time comes get to work, only what you should do right now is visible. And what's best, the badges in OmniFocus will have an actual meaning. They'll represent tasks about to be or already overdue.
I heard (or read) David explain this some time ago and immediately integrated it into my process. I haven't looked back.
A Fresh Take on Contexts by Sven Fechner
Sven suggests a fresh take on contexts based on time and attention instead of tools and locations. Examples are @Routines, @Short Bursts, @Full Focus.
Getting Things Done, the book by David Allen that started the GTD movement and inspired OmniFocus, was published in 2002. A lot has changed since then and the traditional contexts are no longer relevant to most knowledge workers. We're always online now and Dropbox and iCloud allow us to have access to all our documents everywhere and from any device. Grouping actions by the time we have and the attention we can give them based on our brain power at the time make perfect sense.
I'm experimenting with this approach now and I'm liking it so far. If I only have 30 minutes, it really makes a lot of sense to go through all tasks that can be done quickly irrespective of what tool I need.
Sven writes at SimplicityBliss.
The Creative Task Group by Kourosh Dini
Set up repeating tasks for actions you want to become a habit. For example, if I want to write every day, I can set up a task that repeats 1 day after completion. Each day I see it, I write, I check it off. The next day it'll appear again.
I think it's a great way to establish a habit and I'm going to give it a go. Once it has become second nature I'll remove it from OmniFocus.
Kourosh wrote Using OmniFocus.
Say It, Don’t Spray It; Specific Tasks for Specific Outcomes by Merlin Mann
Think in the Inbox so you don't have to think when you're doing.
That line, right there, says a lot. The inbox can be a dumping ground, but once a task gets moved into a project, it should be fully defined so that when you get to work, you can start straight away. For example, "sort out next holiday" is ok to drop in your inbox, but can't go as is into a project. While it's still in the inbox, define what "sort out" means. Research possible destinations? Choose destination? Define dates? Book travel? Hotel? all of the above? We need to be super specific about each task so there's no ambiguity when the rubber hits the road.
This tip seems so obvious in hindsight, doesn't it? It's one of the most valuable concepts I got from the entire series. After going through my OmniFocus library I encountered way too many ambiguous tasks. I moved them all back to the inbox for proper processing.
Engaged Productivity and the Art of Discardia by Dinah Sanders
A "Today" perspective grouped by "due" and showing only today opened up. Quick, easy, and very useful tip. It's sometimes the little things that make a big difference and this one is certainly one of those.
The perspective I created, based on Dinah's suggestion, shows me only today's items opened up with items due in the past (if I didn't get to them the day before) and the future closed, but only a click away. Less clutter. More focus. Quick action.
Dinah Sanders writes at Discardia.
A More Meaningful To Do List by Mike Vardy
Mike suggests using contexts based on asking yourself "why am I doing this?". For example, a "Practice" or "Mastery" context for something I want to get really good at. Or a "Gratitude" context for keeping a journal. It's an interesting approach although I'm not sure it'll work for me.
Mike writes at Productivityist.
Holistic Productivity by Tim Stringer
Structure your OmniFocus library based on the areas of focus in your life. Start with an analysis of what matters to you. Tim suggests creating a mind map with your areas of focus, which I think is a great idea.
I actually use mind maps a lot and did this a few years ago. It's a great exercise to go through as it clarifies your priorities and what are the areas of your life you really care about. Structuring your OmniFocus library based on this makes perfect sense and helps you filter out projects and tasks that don't matter in the long run. If it doesn't fit in one of your folders, it probably shouldn't even make it to your task list.
Tim writes at Technically Simple.
In summary, I found all the OmniFocus Setup talks informative and worth my time. Each talk had more content than what I wrote here. As I mentioned, these are just the things that resonated with me. I'm sure everyone will take out something different from them. If you use OmniFocus (and you probably do if you've read this far), spend some time watching them.
UPDATE (30/4/13): For some weird reason, I missed one by Michael Schechter and Thanh Pham, which I've written about here.
During the past few years, as I investigated everything from GTD to the Noguchi Filing System, I collected the various schools of thought and rendered all of it down to a system of my own. It’s simple but powerful. Complex but accessible. Chaotic but Zen.
He calls it the WSD Method.
I won't give away the method or what WSD stands for, but go read the article. Now.