omnifocus

“Considered” and “Planning” in OmniFocus

One complication that comes from using powerful tools is that we can spend more time tinkering with the machine than making widgets. Kourosh Dini wrote an excellent post about the “Considered Task”. Specifically, he will insert the word “Consider” in front of a task to give himself that ability to weigh a task or project before committing to it. It makes a lot of sense and I’m going to start using it. Read the entire post for a more detailed explanation. (I also have to admit I just enjoy Kourosh’s deliberate, paced, writing voice.)

I use a similar (but not as clever) trick for planning projects. Once I’ve committed to a project, I need to plan the necessary steps so I can get to that cranking widgets mindset that releases all of my happy chemicals. The trouble is that quite often the moment I commit to something is not the best moment to do that planning. So at that point, I’ll make a task “Plan Death Ray project”. If the planning is going to take a lot of time, I may even schedule time for planning the project. Planning to plan sounds pedantic and I’ll admit it is a a bit of a cheat but I’ve found it does give me the necessary motivation to actually plan the project and gives the project itself a much better chance of actually proceeding.

The Problems You Don't Know

I’ve been running pretty hard the last few months between the day job and finishing up the Email Field Guide. In the process, I’ve fallen off the wagon a few times with my OmniFocus task management discipline. Everybody probably knows that feeling of seeing the red badge of “Overdue” show up on the icon and know that it has been several days since you opened up the application and sorted through things. You know there is ticking bomb under your kitchen table and part of you would rather pretend it’s not there and keep eating Cheeze-Its.

I’m here to tell you to put down the box of delicious cheese-flavored crackers and instead cut the red wire. If you are using some of the tricks I showed in my OmniFocus Screencasts, it will not take that long to quickly get through your task list. Even if that means pushing 95% of your tasks off until next Monday, that 5% left is manageable and just think how much more time and money it will cost to rebuild your kitchen if you let that bomb go off.

Here is how I did it under fire the last few weeks.

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1. Enable A Clear Perspective

I have a special perspective to help me sweep the decks. It removes all project distinctions and instead just gives me a long list of all active tasks. This makes it really easy to grab big fat chunks of them using the shift or command keys while selecting.

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2. Use the Inspector to Process Multiple Tasks

On the Mac version of OmniFocus, open up the inspector and move the start date to some safe date in the future for large swathes of your selected task backlog. Set a record for how many you move with one selection.

3. Defuse the Bombs

There will be a few important things left. Deal with those and get back to the big project that put you behind in the first place. Remember, this too shall pass.

The thing is there are the problems you know and the problems you don’t know. It is the ones you don’t know that will get you every damn time.

OmniFocus for iPhone 2.0

Today the Omni Group released OmniFocus for iPhone, version 2. I’ve been in the beta and using my iPhone, nearly exclusively, for the past weeks to manage my OmniFocus data. Today the new version is available for purchase and I wanted to share my thoughts following a few weeks of intensive use.

THE Redesign

Version 2 has a ground-up redesign. The Omni Group put every aspect of the app under the microscope and produced something quite different from the original. The new version looks nothing like the old version. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the home screens for version 1 and version 2.

The new start up screen puts everything you need on one iOS 7-friendly screen. Forecast is across the top of the screen along with a live count of due items for each of the next seven days. There are also large buttons on the home screen for the Inbox (including an inbox count), Flagged items (also with a count), Projects, Nearby, and Contexts. Finally there is a list of perspectives at the bottom of the screen. Like before, you can star individual perspectives and they will show up on this screen and you can access all perspectives by tapping on the Perspectives button. (You can also set the order in which they display.)

When you select an item, like tapping the Projects button, the screen splits at the button you select and animates the two halves to the top and bottom of the screen displaying your selected view. The animation is a nice touch and fast enough that it doesn’t feel a hinderance.

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Missing from the interface is the big plus sign to add a new task. Instead, there is a floating Inbox button in the lower right corner of the screen that is nearly always present. Tap that button to add a task from just about anywhere.

Also missing from the home screen are buttons to sync my data, adjust settings, and search my database. To get these, drag the screen down, like you do to get the search bar in the iOS 7 Springboard or update just about every Twitter app on the platform. This displays a grey bar across the top of the screen with all of these options. The new design does a great job of just showing you what you need 90% of the time and placing the other stuff in easy reach.

One of my favorite features is the forecast view right across the top of the screen. The new version gives a summary listing the per-day deadlines right on the home screen. I can tap on any day and see all tasks due that day and all tasks I’ve deferred to that day. This view also has all calendar items for that day. Pulling down for the toolbar in Forecast view, the Settings icon is replaced with the View icon. From there you can customize the Forecast view for due and deferred items, and specify which calendars appear. Forecast is one of OmniFocus’s premier features and I’m glad to see it get so much prominence in the new application.

Selecting Projects or Contexts gives a list of Project folders or Contexts with a visual representation of the number of items represented as dots. Tapping these drills down into sub folders or contexts until it hits a list of tasks. If there is anything over due (or nearly due) in any list, the grey dot is replaced with a red or yellow one. This is a great way to get a handle on how you’ve got your work spread out.

The way in which the new application displays lists of tasks also received an overhaul. The Navigation bar at the top uses iOS 7-style text “buttons” to navigate. Tasks are displayed in black text on a white screen, always. Each task displays its project name in grey below. Instead of check boxes there are now check circles. The circles do more than just give you a place to check something off. They also convey information about the task. If there is an ellipses inside check circle, it is a repeating task. If the check circle is red, the task is overdue. The date (or time) that the task became overdue is also listed in red. If the check circle is in yellow, the task is about to become due. In that case, the date (or time) it will become due is listed in yellow. The way it uses colors on the check circles instead of the task names makes a lot of sense. It makes the text more readable while conveying the same information. It also provides for a more subdued interface, which I prefer.

The task edit window is also completely new and iOS 7-ified. There are tap-able areas to adjust the project, context, and add a flag. You can set set due and defer dates. Gone is the term “start date” replaced with the term “defer until” which makes more sense with the way I’ve been advocating using start dates for years.

You can also set a task as repeating, move a task, convert it into a project, share, and delete a task from this screen. Several of these options are new to version 2. Notes and Attachments (both pictures and audio recordings) are accessed through text buttons at the top of the list.

As you dig through these options, you’ll see that everything got redesigned. Take the repeat task screen for instance. The new design simply could not exist on a pre-retina iPhone but looks great on my iPhone 5.

Features

The new version 2 isn’t just a pretty face. There are also some nice feature upgrades.

Background Sync

When Apple first announced they were putting a background sync mechanism in iOS 7, the first thought that crossed my mind was “OmniFocus Sync”. The new version delivers on this. Background Sync allows OmniFocus for iPhone to hit the OmniSync server and pull down updated tasks while OmniFocus isn’t the active application. No longer do I need to launch the app and wait for it to connect to the Internet and pull data down. Occasionally, I’ll get an “optimizing” message (which deals with processing already downloaded data and database changes) but usually I just open the application and go. Background Sync isn’t a setting in the new app. It just happens.

Defer Until “Later”

One of my favorite new little touches is when deferring tasks. Sometimes it makes sense to move a task a day or a week or a month. Other times I just want to put a task (or project) out to some time in the future and stop thinking about it for awhile. There is now an option to defer an action until “later”. The selection even includes a pair of dice. Tapping this moves a task about a month or two (it’s random) and gets the task or project off my mind until then. The random element of this pushes a button I didn’t know I had and I use this feature more than I probably should.

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The Price

This is a new version and it requires a new purchase. The price is $20 and, famously, the Omni Group (or any iOS developer for that matter) cannot offer an upgrade price to existing users. I’ve already seen complaints on Twitter about paying for version 2. The logic goes something like this: 1. I paid a lot for version 1; 2. Therefore I shouldn’t have to pay again, ever.

The Omni Group is one of the few companies that has held the line about pricing its software. If you’ve ever owned any of their applications, you probably have a good idea why. The Omni Group is a big software developer with lots of smart engineers, artists, and all the other people required to make something of quality. Moreover, the Omni Group has outstanding customer support. You can call them and get a friendly, knowledgeable human.

This sort of infrastructure costs money. It doesn’t just cost money the first day you buy your app. It costs money month after month and year after year. I remember what it was like having an iPhone without OmniFocus and I don’t care to go back.

I’m pretty sure I paid $25 for OmniFocus for iPhone version 1. That was five years ago. Over the past five years I’ve used the heck out of this app (which ended up costing me $5 per year to own). For the price of one cup of coffee per year I’m more productive and kicking ass with this application. Moreover, the Omni Group did not hold back on updates to version 1. During those 5 years, syncing got really great, OmniFocus became location aware, the Omni Group added an innovative forecasting feature, OmniFocus learned to talk to Siri, the Omni Group built an entire back-end syncing engine for my data, and OmniFocus obtained the ability to add tasks via email. The list goes on. I believe over the next five years, the Omni Group will be just as productive and add more useful features to version 2 that will become equally essential to me.

To those complaining about the price I’d ask you to look back and honestly answer the question of whether the Omni Group hasn’t already given you your money’s worth with version 1. If we, as discriminating users, want to continue to have excellent software, we are going to have to pay excellent developers so they can buy shoes, beer, and Pop Tarts. If you’re really hung up on this, think of it as an extended software license to get you through several more years.

Today I paid $20 and bought OmniFocus for my iPhone without blinking. I’m not trying to be heavy handed about this but we all have an interest in a software model for productivity apps that involves paying an honest price for honestly good software.

Summary

There’s been a lot of speculation that the uniform nature of Apple’s own iOS 7 apps foretold a future where all apps look the same. OmniFocus 2 disproves this. This app does look distinctly iOS 7 but at the same time, is quite noticeably different from the Apple applications. In summary, this redesign reflects a developer that used its own product for several years. It removes friction from the previous design and gives the user something that just flows easier. I’m looking forward to several more years of OmniFocus on my iPhone.

OmniFocus Background Sync? Yes, Thank You.

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There's a new update for iPhone OmniFocus today (version 1.16) that adds Background Sync. So what does that mean?

Start by enabling Background Sync in the application settings. Tell OmniFocus to Add Current Location for your home, work, school, and favorite bar. (You have to do this while at the location of choice.) OmniFocus then draws a geo-fence around those locations. It doesn't use GPS–which drains your battery– so it's a pretty large, vague geofence. Nevertheless, when you leave, OmniFocus updates itself in the background. OmniFocus is not the first app to use this trick but it sure is handy. Every time I leave home, work, court, or Trader Sam's, my OmniFocus database updates itself.

iOS 7 has a less-hacky fix for background syncing but why wait? Enable this today.

 

OmniFocus Template Script - Bigger and Better

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For the longest time I used Kurt Clifton's OmniFocus Template. Today I stumbled into Chris Sauve's updated OmniFocus Template script

¡Ay, Caramba!

How did I not check this out sooner? This updated template script (which pays homage to Kurt's original template) brings it. You can set default dates, folders, listed variable, conditional tasks, and more. It goes on and on. If you do any sort of repeated projects in OmniFocus, take 20 minutes out of your life to set this up and learn the syntax. So worth it.

OmniFocus Task Creation via QR Code

I recently received an email from reader Jonas Bergenudd with a really clever workflow. Jonas has things in his life that occasionally require replenishment, like batteries. So Jonas created stickers with QR codes on them using OmniFocus's URL scheme to add a new task to his OmniFocus list.

For example, scanning this QR code takes your phone to the following URL - omnifocus:///add?name=buy%20aa-batteries.

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Go ahead, hit it with RedLaser. You know you want to.

OmniFocus captures that URL and creates a new task, "buy aa-batteries".

You could create a series of these stickers and place them on things around your house and then zap them when they start getting low. Is it faster than stopping and typing an entry in OmniFocus directly? I guess it depends on how often you need batteries. Is it geekier and cooler knowing you can zap a QR code with your phone and add a task. Most definitely yes.

If you are looking for an app to generate QR codes, there are several in the Mac App store.

Capturing Text Message Based Tasks

When you are sending someone a communication requesting that they do something for you, spend a moment thinking about how convenient (or inconvenient) you are making things for your recipient. To me, text messages are a way to quickly share short spurts of information. They're great for things like telling someone you are running late. Using a text message to ask someone to do something substantive, like write a sales proposal, doesn't make sense. It is too hard to capture big projects out of text messages. If you are assigning or requesting work, I would argue that rather than send a text message, you should be writing an email (or sitting down with someone) where you can provide a more thorough explanation, giving your recipient a chance to better understand the assignment and have a nice easy platform to get it started from. Unfortunately, everyone doesn't think the same way I do and I constantly bang my head into this when someone sends me text message that requires further action.

I'm great at capturing tasks from emails and personal conversations. Whether at my desk or out on the road, I can quickly capture those events into future OmniFocus tasks. Nevertheless, I've never been good at capturing tasks from text messages. Part of it is because I just don't use text messaging as much as some people. Jumping when I get a text message makes me feel like a Pavlovian dog and if I'm busy, I may not read it. But that isn't the only reason. It just isn't easy to capture a text message. Regardless, I often find myself blowing something because someone asked me to do it to text message.

I'm trying to fix that. First, I'm making the pool of messages more manageable. I'm deleting message threads as they become irrelevant. For instance, if I have a thread between myself and Katie Floyd talking about what time we will record a Mac Power Users episode, once that thread has reached its conclusion (e.g., "Let's do it at 8 AM."), I delete the thread. No longer do I have a list of 50 or 60 threads just sitting there. The only threads I have are active ones. If there is task arising from a thread, I deal with it before deleting it.

Apple does not make this easy. There's no way to delete multiple threads with one swipe. Moreover, deleting a thread on my phone doesn't delete the same thread on my other iOS devices or the Mac Messages app. I've got individually deleted it in those places as well (again without the ability to delete multiple threads at once.) As a result, when I first decided to try this, I did a lot of swiping and tapping on all of my various devices.

The next thing I did was change my own personal habits about how I manage text messages. When I read a text message and it requires a future action, I immediately capture it in OmniFocus. How I capture it depends on where I'm at and what I'm being asked to do. I've got Siri, Drafts, or the keyboard. One thing I don't have is the ability to forward a text message to an email address, which would let me use the Omni Mail Drop service. (Update: "Turns out" you can forward texts to an imail in iOS so you can forward a text to the Mail Drop service.)

This new workflow is more work but I'm not blowing it on text message based projects anymore. What I'd really prefer however, is that people stop asking me to do actionable tasks in text messages.

OmniFocus Setup, part 1

The Omni Group just posted part one of the presentations from The Setup. This includes presentations by Michael Schechter, Thanh Pham, Tim Stringer, Dinah Sanders, and Sven Fechner. There are some great ideas in there.

OmniFocus 2 Debut Video

Today the Omni Group released its video from the OmniFocus 2 Debut event. In it Ken Case shares his vision for his amazing company, Liz Marley shows off the product she and her team have poured their lives into, Merlin Mann is charming and articulate as only he can be, and I … talk about peeing my pants. It's amazing anyone lets me out.

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.

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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.

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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.