Week 9: Printing, Dropbox and Task Management

To print or not to print

Greg Needham wrote a great article titled Print More over on Medium where he explains why he committed to printing more of his photographs in 2014. He says:

When we view photographs on the web, there’s always another photo right below the one we are looking at. Or there is a thumbnail gallery to the right, beckoning you to come click, see another, move on through the line. Consuming is fast and quick.

This is painfully true. The way I perceive a photograph in a book or a print in my hand is so different than looking at it online.

I recently noticed this while searching for John Loengard's work. I own a beautiful book of his called Pictures Under Discussion that I was reading a few weeks ago. After a while, I jumped online to see if I could find more of his photographs and I quickly noticed that while reading the book I stopped at every photograph for several minutes. I took it all in. I read the accompanying story. I immersed myself in his work. But online each picture got no more than a few seconds of my attention.

I'm going to join Greg and print more of my photographs this year. I want to create a few books as well.

Dropbox Terms of Service changes

Dropbox announced a change in their TOS last week. I'm not a lawyer and honestly don't understand exactly what it means to me. And since I'm in Australia it's even more confusing. I find these things extremely boring but people who's opinion I value have made negative comments about this change.

Here's how Sam Glover at The Lawyerist explains it in simple terms (in the comments):

Unless you opt out, you cannot sue Dropbox in court. Instead, you have to go to arbitration. Arbitration on its own is not necessarily horrible. But forcing every dispute into arbitration, where the arbitrators are mostly paid by the corporation, is generally regarded as anti-consumer.

Forcing you to waive class actions means that consumers will have no recourse as a group against Dropbox. Dropbox obviously likes this because, given the relatively low fees it charges, individual actions are not likely to be financially viable. Class actions are probably the only way consumers would be able to go after Dropbox.

You'll have to make your own mind about what it means to you, but if you want to opt out of the arbitration process you can do so here.

The Beginners Guide to Task Management

Very good article by Michael Hyatt on task management. I use a combination of OmniFocus and Evernote for this, whereas Michael uses Nozbe. But the principles he explains are applicable no matter what software you use.

Speaking of task management software, I've used OmniFocus for years and it's worked well for me. But I'm not sure what happened with version 2. A beta version was shown over a year ago when they did an event during Macworld but they put it on hold or changed direction shortly after that. I don't know what's going on and this article from Michael has me looking at Nozbe. It looks good so far. I've created a free account (up to 5 projects) to test it out.

On the effort to turn tasks into project in OmniFocus

Robert Agcaoili from gridwriter.com, in response to my article on turning tasks into projects in OmniFocus, wrote:

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 to plan a SCUBA diving trip to Mexico in OmniFocus

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?

Him: Dunno.

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.

Update: @jaheppler asked me about the icons in the screenshots. I should've included credit and missed it. The icons are by Dryicons and they're awesome.

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.

On using multiple task management apps

Ben Brooks reviewed Clear, a new task management/to do app from Realmac Software. The app looks interesting and the review is, as usual, very thorough, opinionated and with a personal touch. I very much enjoy Ben's reviews.

One thing I found interesting in his review is what Ben is using Clear for. He uses OmniFocus as his main task management application (as do I), but now keeps certain lists in Clear because it's much faster to enter new things into Clear.

I agree completely and since Reminders came out I've been using it for a very similar set of lists that I used to keep in OmniFocus.

Most of these lists don't need start or due dates, aren't really part of a project, and the context can easily be the name of the list itself.

In Reminders I keep:

  • Stuff to Buy (Online): This is a list of things I want to buy online. Anything from places like the Mac App Store, Amazon, or anything else really. Today I bought a glif and ticked it off this list.
  • Stuff to Buy (Offline): Anything I have to physically go to a store to purchase.
  • Blog post ideas: Quick entries for posts I may want to write.
  • Random Stuff: Things I want to remember but don't need to action. I review every few days/weeks and delete what doesn't interest me anymore.

One list that Ben uses is "To OmniFocus", where as he explains:

is pretty simple, but why not just input into OmniFocus? Clear is faster, so if I am in a meeting and want to input a lot of things fast, Clear is going to be a better option. I also can’t get distracted by adding due dates and contexts and creating projects. I can do that later on my iPad, for now let’s just get the tasks down.

I hadn't thought of that, but it's a great idea. I sometimes write tasks down in a piece of paper because putting a single isolated entry into OmniFocus is slow. This is a much better solution. I think I'll poach his idea and create a "To OmniFocus" list in Reminders for this purpose.