The OmniFocus “Switch” Button


I’ve received several e-mails and comments concerning my discussion of the “Switch” button in OmniFocus during the task management episode of the Mac Power Users.
This button is among those available in the “Customize Toolbar” menu.

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Simply drag it on your toolbar and you are set. Here is my OmniFocus toolbar.

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The “Switch” button becomes useful when working through your list. I work most of the day in the context view. So, if I’m working through the phone context and perform a task like, “Call Rumpole regarding trial” and decide I need to add a task to that project after the call, I do not need to go digging through the project list for it. I simply press “Switch.” Then, using some strange dark magic, OmniFocus drops me right into that specific project for me to fiddle with to my heart’s content. When done, I simply press the “Context” button again and get back on my merry way.

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Things Reviewed

I’ve been drinking the OmniFocus Kool-Aid since it was in Alpha. That application has become such a part of my daily routine that losing it would have a similar emotional reaction on me to burning a 3-year old’s favorite blanky in front of him. Nevertheless, I’ve been hearing a lot of positive things about the new kid on the block, Things. Several readers have happily switched over to Things saying it is not as complicated as OmniFocus. I use the hell out of OmniFocus so I’m not sure I could give up those advanced features. Nevertheless, for those interested, there is an excellent review of Things right here. Thanks to reader Landya for the link.

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A Lawyer’s Take on Macworld

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In addition to my job at Macsparky (the business card really does say “Chief Slacker”), I have another job that actually pays money as a business attorney. So every year in addition to looking for things new and geeky at Macworld Expo, I also take a look for tools useful in the practice of law. Here is this year’s take:

Daylite Touch

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Marketcircle’s Daylite has become the “go to” applicaiton for running your law practice. This year they had a strong presence at Macworld including numerous demonstrations, presentations from the David Allen company, and previews of their soon to be released iPhone client. It supports full synching with your Daylite database. This is excellent news for Daylite users.

Livescribe Smartpen


Livescribe’s Pulse Smartpen is coming to the Mac. This is, essentially, a computer in a pen. It records all pen strokes and then recreates the pages on your screen. It also records audio while you are taking notes and indexes it to your notes. You must use their paper (printed with the required microdots to give the computer context) but I could use this every day in my practice. This could also be a nice gift for any university students in your life.

FileMaker Pro 10

The new version 10 of FileMaker took several lessons from their consumer product, Bento. It still uses the same file format so the upgrade should be relatively painless. With features and improvements such as persistent sorting, dynamic summary reports, and editable table views, it is clear this upgrade is all about the user experience.



MacSpeech has now been with us a year and the software is showing its maturity through increased stability and additional features. Speaking with the developers I was most impressed with their sense of urgency. These guys are working hard to leverage the Dragon engine on your Mac. If you are practicing law without this tool, you are missing out. Give your fingers a break and check this one out. You can read my full review here.



The Mac software community has exploded with task management applications. I have been running my practice out of OmniFocus now for a year and a half and consider it the best tool for the job. It allows management of tasks by both project and context, allows for easy capture of new tasks from anywhere on your Mac, and includes a robust, syncing iPhone application. Furthermore, it is fully supported by a reputable Mac developer, the Omni Group. The cost for both a desktop and iPhone license is under $100 and while there are cheaper solutions, I’ve not seen anything better. You can read my full review here.

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Omni Booth at Macworld 2009

Microvision Projector


One of the most notable new technologies was Microvision’s laser based projector. This tiny projector (about the size of an iPhone) easily fits in your pocket and projects at 10 lumens. Because it is laser based, it focuses at any viewing distance. It looks really sharp and you can get 2 hours of projection off the battery. The unit is expected to be available this summer in the $500 price range.

Timeline 3d


While Timeline 3d has been out now a few months, BeeDocs’ presence at Macworld should be noted. The developer continues to refine and polish this excellent timeline application that is extremely useful in presentation work. You can read my review here.

SMART Digital White Board

These digital white boards combine the benefits of your analogue whiteboard with the technology of your Mac. This could be useful both in the conference room and the courtroom.

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Who wrote that?

iWork 09

While a lot of people still refuse to look at iWork as a serious business tool, I continue to make other attorneys look bad using Keynote. It just about 10 years ahead of PowerPoint. The new improvements, particularly “Magic Move”, will save me hours of fiddling. The increased mail merge hooks between Numbers and Pages will increase your ability to set up forms. I still must admit I do all of my serious writing in Scrivener (review here). Regardless, for me Keynote is worth the price of admission.
While Apple appears to keep focusing its energies toward the Mac as a consumer device, the third party developer community continues to develop excellent resources allowing you to get the edge in your practice with your Mac.

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OmniFocus Tips – The Omniscient Start Date


I’ve been promising an OmniFocus screencast for some time but it seems the world is conspiring against me lately. Nevertheless, I thought I would share one of my most valuable tips, the effective use of start dates.
If you’re like me, you have a lot of tasks in your database. One of the primary goals of task management is to actually get things done and not be paralyzed with fear when you see a list of 784 items. The trick is to make OmniFocus only give you the tasks you want to see at that moment. In addition to using contexts, another way to accomplish this is through the effective use of the “start date” field. For instance, if you have a particular project for work that you want to start on Wednesday, the start date for the related tasks should be Wednesday. You do not want those items appearing on your task list on Monday or Tuesday. I have some tasks that are not scheduled to begin for over a year. I was reminded of this yesterday when OmniFocus told me it was time to sort out the Christmas card list.
Every morning I do a sort of triage to my task list. Several items appear that weren’t there yesterday. I look at them and realistically determine which of those will get accomplished today. Those that won’t, get rescheduled to appropriate new start date. It’s not that I’m deleting these tasks, I’m rescheduling them. They will appear again and will get done.
OmniFocus makes this very easy. You simply tab over to the start date field and type in a new date. You can also mouse over the calendar and enter the date that way. By far the most efficient and nerdy way to do this is through OmniFocus’s intelligent date system. For instance, if the start date lists as December 8, 2008 and I type in the field “2d”, OmniFocus will automate reschedule it for 2 days, December 10, 2008. If I type “Wed” in the field, it would do the same. You can even combine these. If you type”3w Sat”, it will reschedule the event for three weeks from Saturday. I find it extremely useful and I am quickly able to parse through my task list to show only those events I need to work on today.
If you really want to go nuts, you can also use times in your start date field. If I’ve already blocked time out to do a specific project in the afternoon for instance, I will set the start time to coincide. That way my task list during the morning is not stuffed with items I do not currently need. I also do this for home related tasks. As an example, tomorrow someone’s coming to work on my home and I need to prepare. When I made the appointment last week, I set a task for today. When that task appeared this morning, I promptly rescheduled it to 7 p.m. It will show up tonight but I don’t have to look at it all day. If I were a bit smarter, I would have scheduled the task to “mon 7pm” and then I wouldn’t have seen it this morning. Using this technique, I am able to keep my task list to a manageable and appropriate size. Once I finish the triage in the morning, I click over to context mode and then I’m off to the races for the rest of the day. By the end of the day I’ve either finished everything on the list or advanced it to a new appropriate start date.
I know GTD purists would argue that in doing this, I’m tying my hands behind my back. Specifically, GTD canon holds that if you have free time, you should be able to pull up all of your outstanding phone call tasks and work through them quickly. For me, this just doesn’t happen very often. I think more in terms of specific projects I want to focus on and I’m such a terrible multitasker that jumping around quite often leads to misery. However, if I do find myself with free time, like I did a few weeks ago when the Internet went down to my office, it is a simple matter in OmniFocus to change your filter to show all tasks “remaining” instead of just those “available” and I can see all of my telephone calls.

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So MacSparky Nation, are these productivity posts helpful? Every time I post one I get several complementary e-mails from readers and several not-so-complementary e-mails from people threatening to unsubscribe because I’ve gone off the Mac-centric focus of the site. Let me know.

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Planning to Plan

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Without trying to shove David Allen’s Getting Things Done philosophy down anyone’s throat, one of the very good points he makes is that you should plan tasks, not projects. For instance, a task item called “clean garage” isn’t nearly as good as a set of tasks like “clear off work bench”, “bring old clothes in garage to charity”, and “throw out old holiday decorations”.
The trouble is you need to stop and make time to think out your projects. While this takes a little brain time up front, it can save you a lot of labor down the road. The trick is avoiding the convenience of cheating. I’ve caught myself doing it several times with entries like “increase involvement at kid’s school” or “settle Jones case”. These aren’t tasks; they are projects. The trouble is, when the idea occurred to me to do these projects, I didn’t have time to break them down in component parts so I just put a useless project name in my task list. When I run into such vague generalities while executing my task list, I just shrug my shoulders and push the project off to another day.

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Realizing this habit was getting me nowhere, a few months ago I began a new practice. I “plan to plan.” So instead of listing the project as the task, I now make a task item to plan a project.

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While I may not have time to initially plan the project, I can task myself to do it later. When I have time, I plan the project out and get the satisfaction of ticking off the original “plan project” entry. This way, my task list is not cluttered with white noise but actual items I can accomplish.
An additional use for this hack is when you anticipate a fork in the road of a project. For instance, I often plan projects for my clients where I know steps 1 through 5, but step 6 is contingent upon what happen between steps 1 through 5. In that case, I enter a task as step 6 called “Plan project further.” Again, when that task shows up I will have the information I need to plan further and can do so accordingly.

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For instance, in the above example, the other guy may simply accept my contract, have revisions, or tell me to pound sand. I don’t know what will happen when I start the project, but I will know by the time that task shows up. Then I can plan further as required.
What are your ideas for tackling this problem? Drop me a note or leave a comment.

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Manage Tasks Under Fire

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I write about personal productivity quite a bit. What I don’t do often enough is talk about how much I truly suck at it. The day job has been real busy lately. A looming jury trial and a colleague’s vacation have combined into a perfect storm of anarchy in my life. The last three days I’ve been putting out fires, and completely ignoring my OmniFocus data while watching the unread email multiply like rabbits.
Finally, this afternoon I shut the door, put the calls on hold, and did what I knew in my guts had to be done. I got caught up. I sorted and processed emails. I prioritized and adjusted projects. All in all, it took about an hour and a half. Several of my projects have been pushed back but at least they are done so under my terms. Of course in doing this I found several time bombs which I was able defuse in their last seconds. I am so much less stressed now that I have a handle on what I’m up against and amazed at how quickly things can descend into chaos when you don’t pay attention.
This whole exercise of falling off the wagon and getting back on reinforces something for me. When you have the least amount of time available for keeping track of your projects and tasks is precisely when you need to stop and do it the most. In other words, when the chips are down, you really need to suck it up.

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OmniFocus iPhone Review

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This week I’m going to look at the OmniFocus iPhone application. Unless you fit in that narrow wedge of a Venn diagram including both iPhone owners and OmniFocus geeks, these comments will have absolutely no interest to you. So there you have it. You’ve been warned.
Since the first day I took my iPhone of the box a year ago, I’ve been waiting for iPhone OmniFocus to arrive. It was, and remains to be, remarkable to me that Apple still hasn’t created a native to-do list management system for the iPhone.
Well, with the opening of the applications store, and my willingness to part with $20, my wish has finally come true. I have OmniFocus on my iPhone. I have now been using it a few weeks and thought I’d share some of my initial impressions.
The most impressive feature of the iPhone OmniFocus application is the robust synchronization accomplished without use of a cute little white cord. That’s right, you can synchronize your task list database wirelessly. In order to perform this bit of black magic, you need to upgrade your OmniFocus license on your Mac to the sneaky peek 1.1 version. (You can read my MacOmniFocus Review here.) I know most sane people avoid beta software (I frequently install it with reckless abandon), but in this case it is well worth the trouble. The Mac version of OmniFocus 1.1 allows you to sync your data through your MobileMe or other Webdav account. Once you have trained your Mac application to put your data into your MobileMe account, your iPhone will look at the cloud version and update itself. No cord required.
The synchronization process isn’t perfect. It takes longer than a wired-based synchronization. Also, sometimes it runs into snags. In that case, OmniFocus will ask you whether it wants you to use the server or local version. The bottom line is that if you’re going to do this, you need to respect the syncing gods. There are couple ways to do this. First, you tell your Mac software to backup your data every time you close OmniFocus. That way, you have numerous backups of your OmniFocus data in case the gods become angry. Second, don’t tell everything to sync at once. Technically this is possible, but its really like when the Ghostbusters crossed the streams. Very bad things could happen.
With these precautions in place, syncing is great. The Omni people get a MacSparky thumbs up for the sheer moxy to pull it off. I am certain this process will get even easier and better over time but it is entirely workable right now so long as you take a few precautions.

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So once I have the data on my iPhone, what do I do with it? This is where the current version of the OmniFocus iPhone software comes up a little short. The application allows you to manipulate the data in your iPhone and make changes to your tasks. Making changes is quite often, however, awkward. For instance, moving the start date on the iPhone requires several button taps and scroll wheels. Strangely, the process of changing the date also changes the start time and requires more steps to set right. Put simply, the interface needs work. The Omni engineers have to figure a way to make data manipulation just as easy on the iPhone as it is on the Mac without benefit of a mouse and keyboard. I don’t envy them. I think what they have is a good start. I hope they continue to refine it. I suspect they will.

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The flashiest feature is the location aware function. OmniFocus on your iPhone can look where you’re at and provide you tasks available for nearby locations. This even works on 1st generation iPhones such as mine. For instance, when you are in front of a market, it can give you your grocery list. A lot of people are excited about this function. I get that this is really tricky, but I’ve yet to really find a use for it. When I want to buy my groceries, I go to the market. I don’t need my phone to tell me. Maybe as I use this more, I’ll find a better use for it. If anybody’s got any ideas, e-mail me. I’d love to hear them.

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So despite my gripes about the user interface, I have to say I can’t imagine living without OmniFocus on my iPhone now that I’ve had it a few weeks. Every morning, after I get my daily tasks set up, I sync everything to my iPhone and it is very satisfying knowing that I have that list in my pocket at all times. I can check items off and, with a little work, adjust them on my iPhone and it will integrate with my database on my Mac. I’m convinced this will become even more useful as the Omni gang continues to polish and enhance the application.
At $20, this is one of the more expensive iPhone applications. However, if you’ve made it this far in the review, you probably are an OmniFocus nerd so stop kidding yourself and just go buy it.

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