omnifocus

"Looking Forward" OmniFocus Perspective

There is a growing thread in the Mac Power Users forums about custom OmniFocus perspectives. Since it’s Sunday, I though I’d share one of my favorite Sunday perspectives. While I don’t use a defer-date management system for my tasks these days, I do use defer dates on flagged tasks. This perspective shows me all of those tasks on their defer dates going forward. It’s a great deal for a little weekly planning on Sunday.

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OmniFocus 3 for iPhone and iPad

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This week the Omni Group released version 3 of OmniFocus for iPhone and iPad (with version 3 for Mac coming later this summer). There are few applications I use more than OmniFocus. I started with the beta before OmniFocus version 1, and I’ve used it continuously since then. While I’ve flirted with other task management applications, OmniFocus is my one and only, and now it is up to version 3. So what’s new? Quite a lot.

Tags, Baby!

Traditionally, OmniFocus had three ways to index a task: by project, by context, by flag status. With the new version, context has been replaced by tags.

The benefit of tags is that it adds a lot more dimension to ways you can slice and dice your tasks. Traditionally, following GTD cannon, context was used to put a task in a certain place or with a certain person. For example, some tasks can only be done on your Mac or with a certain co-worker. However, with traditional contexts you could not qualify a task by both a person and a location because there was only one dimension of a context.

That’s not true anymore. You can now put any number of tags on a task, giving you much more power to filter tasks. Using the above example, I can put a task that has both the “Home” and “Daisy” tags applied. I could then create a custom perspective based on those two flags so, when Daisy is around at home, I can filter down to all tasks holding down those two tags.

This isn’t, however, limited to just locations and people. You can add tags based on any criteria. I’ve been experimenting with tags based on energy level, so when I'm in the afternoon doldrums, I can have OmniFocus show me just a list of “brain dead” tasks I can check off without needing to concentrate. I'm also experimenting with certain classifications of work. For example, I’ve created a tag that relates to a very specific online corporate filing I do for some of my legal clients. It’s a massive pain in the neck to get logged in, and that process started so now, with a tag, I can easily get a list of all those filings (regardless of project) once I do log in to the creaky government flash-based website and batch the filings all at once.

Another use for tags in my experimentation so far is to get much more granular with location. This workflow really combines two new features, tags plus granular notifications. With the new version of OmniFocus, you can set a per-tag notification. You can also set specific geographic locations to tags. This opens up the use of locations in all new ways. 

For example, when I was finishing up the iPhone Field Guide, I had a long list of pictures and video to add to the book. I decided Disneyland would be a better subject than my home, so I created a tag in OmniFocus 3 based on the Disneyland location and then set an alert based on the geo-boundary. Then, as I was walking into Disneyland with the family, I'd get a notice reminding me to take a few pictures for the book. It worked great.

I’ve been adding more locations tags with places I go often like the grocery store, the post office, Target, and the hardware store so whenever I go in, I get a notification and can take a look at my list. Because this is tag based, it can pull items tagged to my location out of any of my projects.

A lot of folks like to set their tasks in an A-B-C priority order. You can do that. You can do whatever floats your boat. Make tags for tasks you just want to perform in the morning. Make tags for tasks you’ll only perform while drinking tea. You can even tag tasks that are only relevant on a full moon if that floats your boat.

Tag implementation in OmniFocus is easy. You just tap the tag button and then tap on an existing tag or type in a new one. From the tag view, you can set tag status, location, and how notifications trigger. For example, my Disneyland notification tag triggers when I arrive. I could alternatively set a different notification when I'm leaving. All of your tags will work inside custom perspectives, or you can go to your tag list and look through them.

What About Projects and Flags?

So what about the other two traditional OmniFocus task sorting criteria, projects and flags? They’re both still there and for good reason.

Projects are a completely different way to think about and organize your tasks. While you could abandon projects and use tags instead, that’s a bad idea. Projects are often hierarchical and even with an extensive tagging system, a separate sort by project still makes sense.

Likewise, flags deserve to survive. Flags are the easiest designator to apply to a task. On the Mac, it’s one click of the mouse (or even easier, one keyboard shortcut Shift-Command-L). On iPhone and iPad, applying a flag takes just one tap. Applying tags takes at least two taps and a little scrolling if you’ve got a long list. Flags needed to stay.

There is no limit when it comes to tags. That’s the blessing and the curse of tags. When I say you can go nuts with tags, I mean that in the you-can-make-yourself-crazy sort of way. The trick to this will be to figure what tags work for you and try not to go too far past that. After all, you should manage your task app, not the opposite.

I wasn’t initially on the tag bandwagon because I thought it could become too fiddly. But in hindsight that was short-sighted. Tags are only as fiddly as you want to make them and they are a nice, powerful addition to OmniFocus 3. Best of all, the implementation is painless. It feels just like old contexts, but there are more (or less) of them depending on your preference.

Notification Improvements

As mentioned above, notifications are also now much more powerful. You can set notifications based on location, tag, and even set custom notifications on a per task basis. One of the things I like best about the new notification system is that allows you to get granular with a few of your tasks, without getting granular with all of your tasks. I'm using this new features, but carefully. Selective use of this new feature can make a big difference in getting you the notifications that are important to you without overwhelming you. 

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Batch Editing

One traditional feature gap between iOS and the Mac version of OmniFocus for the longest time was batch editing. On the Mac, you can select multiple items and, using the inspector, perform actions on them. If you want to take the rest of today's tasks and push them to a deferred date of next week, you can do that easily. Historically, however, you could not do that on the iPhone or iPad. 

Instead, you had to select each individual task and make the adjustment on a per-task basis. That is not true anymore. Now tapping the "edit" button, you can select multiple tasks sequentially or out of order. Once you've made your selections, tap on the Inspector button, and then you can make any changes to the selected tasks just as you would on your Mac. This, combined with the customizable inspector covered later, makes this new version of OmniFocus, particularly on the iPad, a powerful tool for managing long lists of tasks at once.

I am not, however, entirely sold on the interface for batch edits. Once you are done with your change, you must remember to tap on the “done” button. If not, your selections remain selected, and further actions will change them yet again. A few times during the beta, I'd batch edit one group of tasks and then select a second group of tasks without first tapping the ‘Done’ button, resulting me in making the second group changes to both groups. You don’t make that mistake many times without remembering to press the ‘Done’ button in the future, but I think this could be a bit more idiot-proof.

Regardless, I often batch edit tasks, and at this point, the ability to do so on my iPhone and iPad is a significant improvement to my OmniFocus workflow.

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Flexible Inspectors

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A common mark against OmniFocus is its complexity. This is a powerful application a lot of tools to help you get your work done. While the OmniFocus tool chest is big, you don’t need to use them all. If all you need is a hammer, it has a hammer. For example, one option that OmniFocus includes is the ability to attach time estimates to tasks. Time estimates can help you budget your time and keep you more realistic about the number of tasks you’ll complete in a day. It’s a great feature that I never use. 

With version 3, I can customize the inspector and, essentially, hide the time estimate field in the inspector so I don’t have to look at something I'm not going to use. I can also re-order the inspector items. Maybe you rarely use flags but want the occasional ability to use them, put it at the bottom of the visible inspector. Perhaps you use flags every day, put it at the top. The custom inspector lets you make the app give you precisely what you want and how you want it. No more.

Easier Repeating Tasks

OmniFocus has always supported repeating tasks. The trouble is for the app to figure out exactly what kind of repeating task the user needs. Do you need a certain task to show up every Thursday or do you just need a task to repeat ten days after the last time you marked it complete? With version 3, the Omni Group rethought the interface for setting up repeating tasks. It kept all the power but made the feature significantly easier to use showing you, again, only as much complexity as you ask for.

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There’s More

There are a lot of additional nice touches in the newest version of OmniFocus:

  • Calendar Integration in Forecast View
    The Forecast view places your calendar events into your task list in relation to their times. For example, if you have a meeting at 9 and a task deferred until 10, the meeting shows up first. Seeing this for the first time is one of those “aha” moments where it becomes obvious that displaying calendar events and tasks together should have always been like this.
  • Forecast Tags
    You can also now select a specific tag to show up in forecast view. If you want to assign specific tasks to a “today” tag, this is a great way to selectively see them in your forecast.
  • Task Re-ordering
    You can now manually reorder tasks within a specific tag. Nice.
  • Better Filtering
    With the pro version, you can use simple logic, like “all”, “any”, and “none” when filtering tasks.
  • Tags on Mac
    While we wait for version 3 on the Mac with full tag support, the Mac currently sees the first selected tag as the context. This has not been a problem for me at all throughout the beta.

Power and Simplicity

When I first heard about the significant changes coming with version 3, I worried that OmniFocus was in jeopardy of losing touch with its essential essence. With an app as robust as OmniFocus, change for the sake of change and not necessarily improvement is bad. Spending time with OmniFocus 3 throughout the beta, I'm happy to report that is not a problem. The changes made to version 3 all seem to simultaneously focus on making the application more natural to use while at the same time adding even more power. Version 3 is an improvement over version 2 without sacrificing the things I loved about version 2 like easy capture, review mode, custom perspectives and all of the rest of the OmniFocus goodness. My congratulations go the OmniFocus team. My favorite task manager just got better.

What about the OmniFocus Video Field Guide?

There will be a new version of the OmniFocus Video Field Guide as soon as the Omni Group releases OmniFocus for both iOS and Mac. I'm going to call it version 3 to match the OmniFocus release and avoid a whole lot of confusion. I'm already neck deep in the outline and looking forward to starting recording as soon as the Mac version gets closer to shipping. 

This will be a new purchase because I’ll be making an entirely new screencast from scratch. It’s going to include all of the version 3 goodness and several new workflows for task management that I’ve been experimenting with. If you buy the current video during 2018 and send me proof of purchase (Vimeo doesn’t tell me who buys), I’ll send you a free code when version 3 releases.

OmniFocus 3 and the Next OmniFocus VFG

The Omni Group has been hard at work on OmniFocus, version 3, for some time now. The new version is going to include a lot of new features, including tags, manual sorting, better notifications, and more. It's a big update, along with visual changes, and a bunch more.

I'm already setting up the OmniFocus Video Field Guide, version 3. It's going to release with (or shortly after) OmniFocus, version 3. It's a big project and it is going to be a new purchase. Anyone who buys the current version of the OmniFocus VFG in 2018 will get a free version of the new edition. Now let me get back to work on this outline ...

Backing Off Defer Dates: An OmniFocus Experiment

For years, I’ve been using defer dates to manage the flow of work in OmniFocus. I’ll often push projects out days, weeks, or even months so they disappear from the radar until a later time. Using this method, I've generally been able to keep my daily task list to something manageable while at the same time knowing all that other stuff is managed. 

With lots of little projects, managing those defer dates can get tedious. It’s the end of the year, so I'm doing lots of small corporate compliance-type projects for legal clients. As a result, I realized I'm spending more time than usual managing defer dates in OmniFocus. 

So I decided to a little experiment where I'd stop using defer dates for awhile. Over the last few weeks, my list of available tasks in OmniFocus has swelled to hundreds of items. For this experiment, I'm accepting that I'm not going to finish that long list any particular day. Instead, I'm simply flagging the priority items as they show up. (I’m trying to keep that to 3-5 tasks a day.) Once I knock out the flagged tasks – hopefully before lunch – I'm then just working contexts, projects and the other ways OmniFocus can slice and dice my task list until the end of the day.

This experiment has been interesting. On the plus side, I don’t feel compelled to spend as much time managing defer dates. I still use defer dates but now only where they make sense. For instance if I'm going through the big list and see something about paying a bill next month, I’ll defer that task to next month. Before this experiment, going through that general finance project, I'd defer everything except for those items I intended to finish that particular day. Another advantage is that you don’t feel lousy at the end of the day if your task list looks untouched. Micro-managing defer dates, as I’ve historically done, can make you feel miserable if you set up your tasks carefully in the morning only to get none (or very few) of them done during the day. With this alternative system, it doesn’t work that way. I'd argue a third benefit is that this system is a little more forgiving for flow and energy. My prior system of limiting the daily list to just a few items can at times be artificial and the projects that you ear-mark in the morning may turn out to be the wrong projects for you 6 hours later. Being able to snipe through my big list at will can feel more productive and more consistent with how I'm feeling at the moment.

While you may think this new method takes less time to manage (since you aren’t constantly juggling start dates), I'm not sure that’s true. You still need to manage your tasks. This requires you to be double sure nothing important gets lost in the noise. If I don’t flag or set a deadline for a task, it can easily get lost among its hundreds of brethren. Taking the time to properly read through what is out there is important. I think working this way also makes having a reliable project review practice important. Additionally, with this big list system, you lose that ability to see a list of 15 just things in the morning and the satisfaction of knocking them all down by the end of the day.

I'm only a few weeks into this experiment but it nice to mix things up every once in awhile and I can report at this point that the experiment isn’t an abject failure. I'm finding things I like about this method and other things I don’t. At this point, I'm extending the OmniFocus experiment until the new year to see how things go. I’ll report back then.

Sponsor: OmniFocus and the Review Feature

This week the blog is sponsored by my friends over at the Omni Group and their best-in-breed task manager application, OmniFocus. There is so much to love about OmniFocus. It's a powerful task application that works with you to not only check off your boxes but make sure you're on track with your own priorities and goals.

OmniFocus represents a lot of rethinking about what a task management application should be and as a result, there are several unique features. One of my favorite unique features is its ability to review projects over time.

OmniFocus allows you to set a review period for all of your projects. It is user customizable on a per project basis and that is part of the reason it's so powerful. By tapping the Review button a few times a week, you can take a look at all of your projects that are due for an independent review. For a corporate client that I don't do much work for, that review time may be every six months. For an active project where, perhaps, the client is acquiring a competitor, I may make that review period every four days.

Because I've taken the time to set up these review frequencies appropriately, when I tap the Review button I just see those projects that truly require my attention. I've made this a regular practice and it has paid great dividends. Using the OmniFocus Review feature I have:

  1. Found projects that fell off the wagon, allowing me to get them back on track and not look like a fool.
  2. Discovered additional work that needs to be done for clients because I took a moment to sip some tea and think about their project in the abstract.

Best of all, a regular review routine gives me peace of mind. Knowing that I'm keeping track of projects lets me know that I'm doing my job and allows me to sleep easy at night. Whenever I feel a little frazzled, it is because I'm behind on project reviews.

Review is just one more reason why I love and use OmniFocus. To learn more head over to the Omni Group and check out OmniFocus.

 

The OmniFocus Video Field Guide Gets Streaming and Closed Captions

When I first started distributing the video field guides, I wanted to make it as simple as possible. Customers pay and then download a video. It worked great originally but lately I've been getting emails from customers that just work on iPad and iPhone. For them, getting a 2GB video file onto their device is not trivial. 

For those customers, streaming the videos makes more sense than downloading. So I've been looking for a way to distribute the videos that lets customers stream, download, or both. Vimeo gives me that so new customers will now get the OmniFocus Video Field Guide through Vimeo where they can stream or download.

I'm pretty happy with this new distribution method. It gives customers more flexibility and allows me to update small portions without requiring everyone to download the entire video all over again.

Also, with the move I've also added closed captions to all of the chapters. So if you have trouble hearing or english is a second language, check the closed caption box while watching and you're all set. If you've already purchased the OmniFocus Video Field Guide and want a closed captioned copy, please drop me a note.

Tasks vs. Calendar Events

I get a lot of emails from readers asking me exactly how I distinguish between tasks and calendar items. In a perfect world, a task is an item you need to do and a calendar item represents a place you need to be. However, the way I work makes things a little muddier. 

For example, I like to schedule appointments with myself. This helps me manage big projects. I will often schedule a block of time on the calendar for a big project. Something like, Thursday 10 AM-12 PM, ACME contract review.

So now that calendar event shows up in my calendar but I’ve also got a collection of tasks related to that contract review in OmniFocus. So how do I resolve that? It really isn’t that hard. I will go into the project view in OmniFocus and select all related tasks to the contract review and set their deferred date to Thursday at 10 AM. Then the tasks disappear from my active OmniFocus list until that time and I don’t think about them anymore.

The trick to all of this is being honest with yourself. If you set these appointments with yourself to manage big projects but don’t keep them, you lose faith in your system and the wheels start falling off. Treat those task-related appointments just as sacredly as you would an appointment with your boss. If something comes up that requires you to move that appointment, go ahead and move it but follow all the necessary steps. Reset the appointment in your calendar and move the tasks in your task manager.

Another advantage of setting aside blocks of time for big projects is that it gives you a more realistic view of how much you can actually get done in the day. If suddenly you see yourself completely blocked and there are still significant tasks left on your list, that should be a warning sign that you’ve got a problem.

So to answer the question, I generally am a purist and keep tasks in my task list and calendar events in my calendar. When I do use the calendar to block time for an extensive set of tasks, I will simultaneously move all of those tasks to the designated time and date.

OmniFocus Video Field Guide Update Coming Sunday

I’ve been working the last few months on an update to the OmniFocus Video Field Guide. I’ve updated it for several new features and gone deep on the iOS Automation and URL linking. I'm making final edits and additions over the next few days and intend to publish it sometime Sunday (probably late). The update will be free for people that have already purchased the field guide. However, please note that for new buyers the price is going up to $19.99. So if you want to get in on the current $9.99 price, do so between now and Sunday afternoon when it goes up.

Automating OmniFocus on iOS

I've had my head down a lot lately between the day job and the upcoming Hazel Video Field Guide. One thing that's happened is that I've gone completely mad with automating OmniFocus on my iPad. A few weeks ago The Omni Group released a new version of OmniFocus that can interface with template files to create project templates on iOS.
 
Given the inherent limitations of iOS, it's a pretty elegant system once you figure it out, and I'm going to explain further as soon as I get done with these big projects. Now I prefer to set up project templates on iOS. I didn't see that coming.

Task Management Pain Points – The Overachiever

Because I’ve written and screencasted so much about OmniFocus, I get a lot of email from people about their particular pain points with task management. With this series I’m going to focus on a few of the more common issues and how I solve them.

The Overachiever

By far the most common problem I read about is how some folks get overwhelmed. I hear from readers that explain they need over an hour every day just to sort through their tasks. That’s nuts.

If you are facing a task list that has hundreds of entries every day, you’re doing it wrong. I think the most common cause of this overload is our technology. Back when I used to write my task list every day longhand in a Franklin Planner, I never wrote more than 20 tasks in a single day. I think it was something about the act of using pencil and paper that my brain just accepted the lunacy of overloading myself. However with computers, there is a certain amount of abstraction and that can work against us.

With most modern task management applications, setting up tasks and projects is a snap. With very little time we can build a task management database with literally thousands of tasks in it. Moreover, because of that abstraction, we often give our brains the afternoon off while adding those tasks, telling ourselves we’ll figure out how important all those projects and tasks are sometime later down the road.

This leads to waking up with hundreds of available tasks that we then spend hours kicking down the road a day or two, only to drag ourselves through the same mental muck again tomorrow.

Just because computers can track hundreds of projects and thousands of tasks doesn’t mean you can do them all. Indeed, as many readers are finding out, loading yourself up like that can be debilitating. You spend so much time pushing the monkeys around every day that you don’t actually get any of them off your back.

If that is you, don’t beat yourself up. I fall into this trap myself more often than I’d like to admit. You can dig yourself out of this and get back to a more manageable task list. It’s going to require a little work though.

1. Begin by looking at projects

If your task list is bursting at the seems, first start by looking at your active projects. In OmniFocus I’ve set up the Today perspective for precisely this reason. I can easily see the existing projects and how many tasks they’ve got attached. With the color coded check-circles I can even see if any active projects have flagged or due items attached.

The point is that in sweeping through the project list, you need to be brutal. Remember the point is not to have to drag through all of this every day. If you see a project that there simply isn’t time for in the next three weeks, defer it 3 weeks and move on. Don’t refuse to accept reality and defer it just two days so you have to go through all of that again. If you see a project that you’ve now deferred three weeks several times, you should probably delete it entirely or, at least, defer it three months. Stop juggling things you are not going to do. It’s just taking you away from the things you need to do.

2. Next focus on tasks

Once you’ve blown out the cruft of unnecessary projects, bring that same killer instinct to individual tasks. Again defer and delete the stuff that isn’t going to happen so you can put a big spotlight on the stuff that needs doing.

It is easy to fall into this overachiever trap because modern technology makes it so easy to build an entirely unrealistic task list. If you follow these steps however and are truly willing to swing your digital machete at unnecessary projects and tasks, you will regain control of your task list and get rid of that underlying dread you’ve been feeling looking at over 200 tasks every day for the last week.

What is your task list hangup? Let me know.

My OmniFocus Courses at Lynda.com

I recently had the privilege of spending a week at the Lynda.com studios recording screencasts about OmniFocus. It was a lot of fun and now the courses are available for viewing and download to Lynda member. There are two courses:

OmniFocus for Mac Essential Training

OmniFocus for iOS Essential Training

If you are a Lynda subscriber (or know a Lynda subscriber) please watch the screencasts and spread the word. I’m quite proud of them.

Sponsor: OmniFocus

This week MacSparky is sponsored by OmniFocus. We are all busy. We all have multiple commitments. In the modern world, it is very easy to wake up in the morning with a sense of dread and foreboding. You know you have a lot of tasks to do and a lot of commitments to keep. The problem is you don’t know where to start.

OmniFocus solves that problem. It’s a task management application for big boys and big girls. I hear from readers and listeners every day that use OmniFocus to make amazing things happen in their lives. As we are entering the new year, if you are having trouble keeping up with everything, now is the time. All I ask is that you give a half day to learning OmniFocus. Watch my video or watch some of the great materials on the Omni Group’s Inside OmniFocus website. Then download the free trial and spend some time familiarizing yourself with it. Once you understand how it all works, the magic starts.

One of the great things about OmniFocus is that the development team never sleeps. They’re constantly striving to make the application better in all of its iterations. This was evidenced most recently when Apple gave it a “Best of 2015” award for their Apple Watch OmniFocus app.

Learn more directly from the Omni Group. Thank you OmniFocus for sponsoring MacSparky and all the help you give me with my task lists every day.

Sponsor: OmniFocus and New Screencast

This week MacSparky is sponsored by OmniFocus. The gang at the Omni Group has been hard at work at work and recently released an update that adds custom columns. This new feature gives you tons of control over what you see in your perspectives. You can learn more about custom columns from the Omni Group directly. Adding this feature wasn’t easy and the Omni Group developers explain how they pulled it off right here

I like custom columns so much that I made this short screencast. Enjoy.