omnifocus

Task Planning (In)sanity

Not a week goes by that I don't receive an email from some reader or listener asking about the problem of overwhelming task lists. Specifically, they explain that every day they spend far too much time dealing with an obese task list, for which they complete two or three items and fret over the rest. Then they spend hours fiddling most of their tasks into the next day only to start the vicious cycle again tomorrow. The whole process is demoralizing. Every morning feels like a quiet testament to your own personal failure. I know about this because I have experienced it. Not only does this wreck your faith in yourself, it makes you look like a flake to everyone else. You become the guy who says "yes" but never actually delivers.

Just because you can plan and track 10,000 tasks with your computer, doesn't mean you should. I know that sounds obvious, but at a certain level, it is not. We use powerful tools, like OmniFocus, that make the structuring and organization of our task lists a breeze. It is so easy to add another forty tasks each day. Why not?

The cure is a bucket of intellectual ice water. The first step is just awareness. Be conscious of the growing monster. If you routinely open OmniFocus to find yourself facing 200 tasks every morning, you're going to spend a lot more time organizing than actually doing. Don't fall into that trap. Instead, use the forecast mode and start dates to push tasks out until when you can reasonably accomplish them. Be aware that despite your best intentions, tomorrow will not be a 100 hour day. Some projects may need to go out several days, weeks, or months. (If you think a task needs to get delayed years, it actually needs to get deleted.) Start each day with a small manageable list and get to work.

Future planning, however, only goes so far. Some of your projects must die. You will find that even with smart future planning, the list is still too long. At that point, you're going to have to accept reality and start killing projects. This really isn't the loss you think it is. If you are overwhelmed with tasks, several of the projects on your list are already dead. Deep down, you already know you won't do them. You overcommitted yourself and it is time for the ice water. Be honest with yourself (and the world) and delete them outright rather than let them die a slow painful death, wrecking your faith in yourself (and other people's confidence in you) in the process. This step is empowering. It puts you in control of what you do and afterwards it feels great. Put on your big boy pants and start killing projects today.

Taking back control takes some time. Use as much time as it requires. It is worth it. Until OmniFocus 2 ships, I find it easiest to pull this off on the iPad, where you can use the forecast mode, start dates, and the delete project button to wrest control from the universe. If you are using a start date type planning method, you're still going to be hit with surprises over the next few weeks as previously delayed start dates show up. You'll have to be equally vicious with those where appropriate.

The payoff for this bloodletting is immediate. You will find every day that you have a much more manageable list of tasks and the quality of your work will improve. Moreover, that underlying sense of angst that comes with an impossible task list will go away and you'll feel a lot better about yourself.

You aren't out of the woods yet however. Taking on too much is not a habit easily broken. Even after you complete this purge, your task list will build up again. Constant vigilance! It is up to you to be on guard that you don't sink into the morass again. I'd like to say that I have mastered this skill. I have not. As I look at my own task list today, it's obvious I need to take out the machete once again.

The OmniFocus Setup and Debut

People often ask me how I manage pull off a day job and all my MacSparky stuff. The simple answer is that I love everything I do, which makes it much easier to get out of bed early and keep cranking widgets.

However, I also need a system, not only to manage all of this but also to help me decide which of this stuff makes the cut. I would not be able to do this without OmniFocus. I love OmniFocus so much that I made a lot of screencasts about it.

This year during Macworld, the Omni Group is having a special couple of events surrounding OmniFocus. The first is called the OmniFocus Setup, where you can get hands-on assistance getting up to speed with OmniFocus. The event is taking place during the afternoon at the Cartoon Art Museum on January 31. In addition to the hands-on help from the Omni Group's own staff, there will also be a small presentations and a panel by some really smart people like Merlin Mann, Kourosh Dini, Sven Fechner, and others. (They are also crazy enough to give me the mic for a few minutes.)

That evening, there is an additional event, the OmniFocus Debut, where Ken Case, Merlin Mann, and I get to show off OmniFocus 2. Ken has already written about how the new version will incorporate many of my favorite iOS features like forecast and better review. There is more. It is spectacular. Don't miss out if you are in San Francisco.

The Omni Group is an amazing collection of people dedicated to improving your life with superior software. I often talk about how much I not only love the Omni Group's products but also the people that make them. Now is your chance to find out why this is true. I'm going to be there for most of the event so if you stop by, make sure to say hello.

The OmniFocus Mail Drop

The last few days there has been something of a coming out party for early beta testers in Omni's Mail Drop Service. So at this moment I can't help but stand up and say, "My name is David, and I'm an Omni-holic." The kind folks at the Omni Group let me start testing this quite awhile ago and it has been absolutely killing me that I couldn't tell anyone about it. The way this service works is really simple.

1. You get a special, super-secret, email address and add it to your address book.

2. You forward any email worthy of an OmniFocus task to that address.

Screen Shot 2012-12-08 at 8.41.13 AM.png

3. You move on with your day. At some point you'll find yourself back in OmniFocus and you'll find an new inbox entry with the text of the mail in the note. It actually happens in just minutes.

Screen Shot 2012-12-08 at 8.52.34 AM.png

I've been using this for months and it works exactly how you'd expect it. The only downside is that it doesn't give you a one-click link to jump to the mail message the way the Clip-O-Tron does on the Mac. Having used this for awhile though, I can say I miss that feature far less often than I thought I would.

Moreover, the ability to send emails to OmniFocus from my iPad and iPhone with nothing more than a forwarded email feels like nothing short of magic. You'll need to be syncing your data through Omni's servers to pull this off but, frankly, you should already be doing that anyway. At this point I recommend running here and getting in. It will change your game.

iOS OmniFocus ♥ TextExpander touch

Today's iOS OmniFocus update is a doozy. The headline feature is the addition of iOS TextExpander support. As I've explained before, I aggressively use TextExpander snippets when creating tasks in OmniFocus. I even made a screencast about it. Now they work on the iPhone and iPad as well. I love that.

You can download a few of my OmniFocus related TextExpander snippets right here. In order to get them on your iOS device, install them in TextExpander on your Mac and use the Dropbox sync to transfer them over. If you don't own a Mac, just create them manually in TextExpander Touch on your iOS device. These are really just a sampling. Once you get the idea, customize for whatever works for you.

While Apple added Keyboard Shortcuts with iOS 5, they are inferior to TextExpander shortcuts in several ways. First, they don't synchronize. You have to add them manually to every single iOS device you own. (UPDATE: I'm told iOS 6 remedies this and Keyboard Shortcuts will sync between iOS devices.) TextExpander syncs to Dropbox and takes that tedium away. I find I create very few TextExpander snippets on my iOS devices and instead create them on the Mac and let Dropbox take care of the rest.

Also, there are some strange behaviors using the iOS Keyboard Shortcuts. Specifically, they need to be typed with no trailing characters. If you copy and paste text into a new OmniFocus entry and then move the cursor to the beginning of the pasted text to add a Keyboard Shortcut, it won't work unless you add an additional space and then, using your finger, move the cursor back yet again another space before typing the Keyboard Shortcut. I found this vexing. With TextExpaner snippets in OmniFocus, the snippet fires whether or not there is an additional space. This makes a difference.

Another part of today's iOS OmniFocus update is an improved synchronization with the native iOS Reminders database. This makes it much easier to synchronize these lists. The power tip here is that it gives you the ability to dictate with Siri to Reminders and have that automatically move over into OmniFocus. I use this feature every day and quite often. Again I made videos about this. However, the setup is simpler now than shown in the video. The Siri command I use when adding items to my OmniFocus list is as follows:

"Add [task] to my reminders list."

i.e., "Add fumigate DeathStar garbage room to my reminders list."

OmniFocus watches the Reminders list titled "Reminders" (I appreciate that is confusing) and, once you open OmniFocus on your iPhone, incorporates any items found in the "Reminders" list to your OmniFocus inbox. This does not prevent you from having separate Reminders lists for other things. I, for instance, have Reminders list for Target, Groceries, and other running list type matters.

Overall, the addition of TextExpander support in OmniFocus is huge for me. I've been running the beta for a few weeks and couldn't imagine going back. I'm guessing I'm not alone.

Create OmniFocus Tasks with AppleScript

Sometimes efficiency becomes the enemy. Because I'm now a believer in automating document filing via Hazel and OCR, I sometimes get myself in trouble. A case in point is my life insurance bill. It arrives every quarter. I used to scan it and then name it in my Action folder with a TextExpander snippet, which resulted in it getting sent off to a nested folder somewhere. At the same time I'd record an OmniFocus quick entry to pay the bill. It was all second nature. These days, I use a Hazel rule that looks at the contents of this invoice and names it and files it without me having to trouble to rename the file manually. Put simply, once I scan it, I never see it again unless I go looking for it. The problem is I keep forgetting to create the OmniFocus entry to pay the bill. That's bad. (Especially if I get hit by a bus, which would only add one more problem to cascading badness.) We can't have that.

I decided to create an AppleScript that automatically creates an OmniFocus task when this Hazel rule triggers. After a lot of head scratching, trial and error, and even some help from friends at the Omni Group and Ben Waldie (my AppleScript Sensei), I've cobbled one together. Here is a screenshot and the AppleScript code.

Transient
-- Lovingly crafted by David Sparks, The Omni Group, and Ben Waldie -- macsparky.com

set theDate to current date
set theTask to "Pay Life Insurance"
set theNote to "Lovingly Scanned by your Mac on " & (theDate as string)

tell application "OmniFocus"
tell front document
set theContext to first flattened context where its name = "Tech"
set theProject to first flattened project where its name = "Finance"
tell theProject to make new task with properties {name:theTask, note:theNote, context:theContext}
end tell
end tell

To test the rule, open AppleScript Editor and copy it in. You need to change the context and project names to something that is in your OmniFocus library. Once you trigger it, AppleScript will create a new task in the designated project with the designated context. The task also gets named and the Note field will include the text "Scanned on {today's date}". This just happens. Don't believe me? Go look in your OmniFocus project afterward.

I use this script directly in Hazel. Specifically, when I've got a scan that requires future action, I add an AppleScript Hazel action at the end to run this script. After Hazel gets done naming and filing my document, it creates a handy OmniFocus task. Below is my life insurance Hazel rule screenshot to demonstrate.

Transient

I've modified several versions of the script to handle the variety of documents I scan and OCR that require an automatic OmniFocus action. Creating an OmniFocus task with a script is damn useful. You could use this in a lot of contexts outside of document filing. You're welcome.

Below is a download link for the Hazel rule. Go nuts.

Download Sample Hazel Rule

OmniFocus Forecast and Start Dates

A surprising number of attendees at my Macworld talk about OmniFocus were not aware that you could show start date items in the iPad version’s Forecast View. This is super useful. Here is the setting.

I use this every afternoon as I clear out my current day and look forward to the next. I also use it on Sunday to take an overview of what I’m up against in the following week. If I have days that are full of appointments AND 60 tasks assigned to the day, I make a decision and either move tasks, appointments, or both. Go nuts.

OmniFocus iPhone Update

If you use start dates to manage tasks in OmniFocus, you are going to like the most recent iPhone app update. You now can view tasks by start date in the forecast view. This matches the feature currently available on the iPad version and explains why I do most of my OmniFocus planning these days on iOS devices.

OmniFocus and Windows

A lot of people ask me how I get by using OmniFocus when I spend time every day on a Windows machine. I’ve never clamored for a Web-based or Windows version of OmniFocus. I’ve always viewed the Windows computer as a device to accomplish very specific tasks, none of which involve managing my task list. This became even more pronounced with the iPhone and iPad versions letting me view my OmniFocus data while sitting at the Windows machine. Indeed, the iPad has become my primary window to my OmniFocus data. I use it more than the Mac. Anyway, there is no need for me to write a long post about Windows and OmniFocus anymore because this morning, Eddie Smith nailed it.

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OmniFocus for iPad 1.3, See Tomorrow Today

I heard this update was coming last week and have to admit I’ve been checking the iPad App Store several times a day lately. iPad OmniFocus version 1.3 warms the cockles of my heart. It was just a few days ago that I wrote about the Omni Group and iteration. Well let me just say that The Omni Group just iterated the hell out of iPad OmniFocus and now it is available for download.

The new version takes the already useful Forecast view and turns the dial up to 11. The new Forecast mode adds a calendar bar to the bottom of the screen so you can see calendar items in the forecast view. Also, you can toggle it to also include tasks with start dates on the forecast days. If you lasted through my 2 hour screencast deathmarch of OmniFocus ninja tricks, you already know I use start dates extensively to manage my tasks. Now I can see what is up tomorrow, or three days from now, along with the calendar items for that day. I’ve been asking for this feature for years and the implementation is great. With this update, iPad OmniFocus becomes even more prominent in my task management workflows. Good times.

There is a lot more to 1.3 including full screen note editing, better badge counts, gestures showing up when mirroring, and other improvements. The Review sidebar is also now sorted in Library order, which is an improvement.

Automating OmniFocus Task Entry

Since publishing the first screencast on capture, I’ve received several e-mails asking for a way to automate task creation based on a text list. The idea is making a task list in a text file and having your Mac convert it to tasks. While I haven’t looked into this, Josh Betz did and came up with this nifty AppleScript.

Despite Josh’s scripting prowess, I’m still adding tasks from a text list manually. I do this because quite often something that seems like a good idea when I peck it into a text file, like perhaps running with scissors, doesn’t pass the sniff test when it comes time to add the tasks to OmniFocus. Moreover, it really isn’t that hard to add new tasks to OmniFocus directly on your Mac, iPhone, or iPad.

OmniFocus Screencast Follow Up

Thanks everyone for the comments and questions about the second OmniFocus Screencast.

There were a few questions in the feedback here and at MPU. I’m responding to them with this post.

What no single action lists?

I didn’t cover it but I do occasionally use single action lists. I generally think in terms of projects.

I wonder how many tasks you manage in OF, and how many NA’s you have on your plate on a regular day?

Currently: 197 Projects, 1470 Actions

A lot of the projects are sequential. It takes me about 20 minutes to clear the inbox in the morning and it ranges between 30 and 80 actions. The actual daily list is usually about 30. These numbers are skewed however. I’m an attorney. I run a nerdy blog and podcast. I write books. I’m a dad. I’ve got tasks telling me to pick expert witnesses in nine months and reviewing corporate strategies with clients in two years.

And do you really abandon the use of contexts (given your Day Start perspective, which is grouped by project? And what makes this in your opinion different from a Project View?)

I don’t abandon context view. That comes in Episode 3 but I use context mode all the time during the day (usually on the iPhone and iPad) to knock tasks down.

How do you manage tasks you keep putting off? (When do you kick them out/alter them/etc.).

It’s all about the review. Be brutally honest. If it is not going to happen, kill it. Stay tuned for episode 3.

Do you create start dates for both projects and action items?

Action items: Usually.

Projects: Not usually but on occasion. When I do set them, they are normally with repeating projects.

Do you use the same methodology for “due dates” [use only if 100% necessary] for your calendar too? Picking tasks every morning seems reactionary and less intentional then scheduling out important projects. How do you schedule a meeting in OF / sync up your calendar?

I don’t schedule a meeting in OF. I set meetings in my calendar. I may have some tasks for an important meeting that requires preparation. Those tasks normally have a due date the day before. I think I talked too much about the peril of due dates. I use them all the time. I just don’t over use them so I don’t ignore them when they show up. Before I figured this out, I’d have 20 due items and OmniFocus felt like the boy who cried wolf.

If there is an item in your inbox that is less than 2 minutes to complete (for example: write quick email to David), do you simply punch it out and check it off as you are processing inbox?

Small items like that don’t even land in OmniFocus. I just do them.

The idea of Someday/Maybe lists is to have a place to park things that are grabbing your attention…but that you don’t have a specific commitment around. It sounds like you’re already doing this in a sense and are creating a reminder for yourself to revisit these items within a finite amount of time (e.g. 3 months). An alternative would be to revisit these items as part of a weekly review…or even once a month in some cases.

Touché

Do you use OF to keep lists of books to read, videos to watch or is OF not really ideal (ironically) for lists of potential items?

I don’t use OmniFocus for this. I used to do it in Zenbe Lists. About a year ago I moved the lists to Simplenote.

I am using Projects for my clients and am curious why you use Folders instead. Thanks again.

Often I’ll have multiple projects for a single client. (i.e. Apple Corporate General, Apple v. Samsung, MultiMillion $$ MacSparky Acquisition)

The Next Episode

The next episode should publish on the weekend of May 14. That episode will focus on getting tasks done and review. I’ll also do some follow up if there is time so get your questions in.

OmniFocus Screencast Update

I’m getting lots of e-mails on the promised screencasts. The first one is nearly done and should go live next weekend. Two more will follow up in two week increments after that. They will be in the Mac Power Users feed, among other places. I’m having a lot of fun making them and they are looking great. I can’t wait to share these.

Do Stuff

The above is one of my favorite slides from my OmniFocus presentation at Macworld. A little known secret about me is that in addition to being a computer nerd, I also enjoy woodworking.

Several years ago a friend gave me an amazing Japanese pull saw. I love this saw. I could spend hours polishing and sharpening it. But at the end of the day, I need to cut wood. The same can be said about a task management application (or any fiddley productivity software). You can spend all day adjusting settings, prioritizing tasks, and setting estimates or you can get stuff done.

When I first started using OmniFocus, I often caught myself using it as a procrastination tool. Rather than actually checking off items, I would spend hours on end organizing and prioritizing my data. Although I can be dense, when I realized that at the end of the day I still had most of the same uncompleted tasks I had at the beginning of the day, I knew there was a problem.

The trick to using OmniFocus (or any productivity application) is to not let it govern you. Use it as a tool. For me, this means I open OmniFocus in the morning for about a half-hour and I set priorities and plan my day. In the late afternoon I go back in OmniFocus and audit what happened and make plans for the future. That’s it. I spend the rest of the day checking off items and doing stuff. The iPhone and iPad OmniFocus apps are great for this. They make it easy to see your tasks and check them off as you go along.

So the next time you catch yourself in the middle of the day wasting hours “planning,” or setting iTunes metadata, or cleaning out your address book, shut the lid and get back to sawing wood.

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Tweaking OmniFocus: Project Template Applescript

OmniFocus is an amazing tool. I need this app like Smeagol needs his ring. If I don’t do my morning task audit, I get the shakes and start blurting out incoherent rambling about blown deadlines and crashing plates.

One feature missing in my precious however is the ability to create project templates. Everybody has some little group of tasks that gets repeated. For instance, I had a set of tasks that got repeated for each chapter of The Book. So how do I use this unsupported feature in OmniFocus? The answer is Applescript, that ubiquitous tool (that almost nobody uses) that lets you add features and bolt applications together like so many pieces of a digital erector set. In this case, I didn’t even write the script myself. Instead, I downloaded from Curt Clifton’s outstanding collection of OmniFocus scripts. Specifically, I’m using the Populate Template Placeholders script.

The download includes instructions but since so many find Applescript intimidating, I’m going to walk through it.

First a word about Applescript

Applescript is Apple’s own natural language scripting language that lets Macintosh applications hook up. You can tell one application to generate data and then send that data to a different application to lay it out, or print it, or post it to the Internet. It enables you to make your good apps great and your great apps awesome. It takes a little bit of time to figure out. The best way to learn it is to buy Sal’s book.

Regardless, even if you don’t want to learn Applescript, you can still use it. People like Curt develop all sorts of useful scripts and then post them to the Interwebs. You just download, install, and use without knowing a lick of Applescript code. This template script is just such an example. So here is how you go about it with my Mac Power Users show template:

Step 1: Install

Download the script and copy the script file to your script directory, located at:

~/Library/Scripts/Applications/OmniFocus

Most likely you don’t have an OmniFocus directory, so create one.

Step 2: Create

Create a project template in OmniFocus. This is set of tasks the Applescript will copy and populate for every new instance of the project.

Starting out, it looks just like any other project you may create except this one is more generic and includes Placeholders (nerd translation: variables). Placeholders are declared by adding them to the last line of the Notes section of the project description. They get surrounded by guillemets, those double-bracket looking symbols «like this». You can create them on a US keyboard by pressing (Option + \) for « and (Option + Shift + \) for ».

Once declared you can add the Placeholders to your project name and task items. As you can see from the example, I’ve created placeholders for the show name and show number. (If you want to prove your geek cred, open the Applescript and change the Placeholder symbols to something else.)

Step 3: Run

You can run the script from the script menu in your menubar. If you don’t see the script menu, which looks like this …

you can enable it in the preference pane of Applescript editor, an application on every Mac found in the Applications/Utilities folder.

Once you trigger the script, Applescript prompts you for the Placeholder variables …

and creates a new project replacing the Placeholders with your supplied data. Once you’ve got the script installed, setting up new templates projects takes a fraction of the time it did before.

Step 4: Drag

Drag the newly created project to wherever it belongs in your OmniFocus Project list.

Bonus Points

If you want to add start and due dates to templates projects, go nuts. The project itself, however, must have a start or due date in order for it work. Alternatively, if you add a line to the Project Template Note (above the Placeholder line) that reads Due date is, you will be prompted to type in your dates when you run the script. While I like start dates, I’m not a big fan of due dates and prefer adding dates (if any) manually later.

If you like the script, send Curt a thank you note for making this possible.

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