My takeouts from an OmniFocus Setup presentation by Michael Schechter & Thanh Pham

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.

Michael Schechter writes at A Better Mess and Thanh Pham writes at Asian Efficiency.

My takeouts from The OmniFocus Setup presentations

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.

David writes at MacSparky and hosts the podcast Mac Power Users.

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.

Merlin hosts the podcast Back to Work amongst many other endeavours.

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.

The best thing I've read on priorities

Merlin Mann:

I'll figure this out tomorrow. Or Monday. Or later. Tonight is Daddy-Daughter Night. And, no fucking way am I missing two in a row.

This has got to be the most inspiring thing I've read in a long time. It's exquisitely long. Almost too long, but not quite. Which makes it ideal. It's about something I'm sure many of us struggle with every day:

Perspective.

Sometimes things seem more important than they really are, but they're not. Sometimes we invest our time in said things that seem important, but we shouldn't. Deep down we know, but often we choose to do the wrong thing. Maybe it's out of habit or just plain fear. We should never fall prey to our habits and we should never give in to fear. The best things in my life have happened when I've pushed through fear and done something different.

Please go read Merlin's rant. It's worth your time.