HACK / MAKE

Why I Switched From Things to OmniFocus

It’s about trust.

The core of GTD is about capturing things into a trusted system. It has nothing to do with the software, it’s interface, or who endorses that app. If a paper list is what you trust the most, that’s what you should use.

Trust is why I switched to OmniFocus.

A few weeks ago, I jumped into a pretty big GTD system overhaul. The time had come. I wasn’t using my system to it’s full strength and my output was suffering because of it. It began with trying a different approach to how I used Things. I set up some more effective contexts and tried to streamline my capture and process methods. I wrote Applescripts to help with this and made a pact with myself to capture open loops better. None of this helped.

A few times in the past, I had considered switching from Things but ultimately decided that was counterproductive. I just stuck with it because Things was what I knew—it was what I was comfortable with. But it wasn’t what I trusted.

As I thought about investing the time into a major change, I realized part of what had kept me from truly trusting Things. I had doubts about it. I had doubts about it’s development. I had doubts about it scaling. In the racket of GTD, the people I trusted trusted OmniFocus so I was always wondering what I was missing out on. Some of the features they talked about sounded pretty cool but what really intrigued me was how much they believed in it as their outboard brain. For me, Things was a great tool but I didn’t believe in it enough to make it as deeply connected to my life as it should be. Every time the thought came to mind about giving OmniFocus a try, I was subconsciously sabotaging my commitment—not to Things, but to trusting my system.

After less than a week using OmniFocus, I truly trust it. It’s interface can be complex to a newcomer and implementing Perspectives can be overwhelming. It’s power, though a learning curve it surely has, is what means it can grow with you. Projects and Contexts are just dumb buckets you put stuff in but Perspectives are what builds trust. I know that whatever dumb tasks I put in some dumb buckets, I’ll be able to mold my Perspectives, over time, over career changes, and in pursuing different projects, to give me the outlook I need on the things I have to do. OmniFocus will be able to evolve as the things I need to get done evolve.

And that’s a trusted system.

OmniFocus Contexts, Folders, Perspectives, and Tasks in Launch Center Pro

Tight integration between OmniFocus and Launch Center Pro is continuing to unfold. Michael Schechter posted about some really fast ways to capture tasks using using the [prompt], [clipboard], and canned text in the action URL. Genius. I rushed to set this up and am really loving it.

But it gets better. I saw Justin Lancy link to this series of tweets from Ken Case, CEO of Omni Group, talking about URLs for contexts, folders, perspectives, and tasks to deep link into the app.

If you’ve played around with Launch Center at all, you’ll recognize omnifocus:///add, which allows you to add a new task. Ken mentions URLs to open a /context, /folder, /task, and /perspective, and all of these work with Launch Center Pro.

Here’s the man himself explaining how to get these URLs:

Context, folder, and task URLs can be generated from the Mac client by selecting something and using Edit->Copy As Link.

When you copy the link from OmniFocus on your Mac, you’ll end up with a URL that looks something like this for a context:

omnifocus:///context/ivk7b-f4OSH

And this for a single-action list:

omnifocus:///task/ffnCm4uVOEm

Perspective URLs use the perspective name rather than an internal id: “omnifocus:///perspective/PerspectiveName

A note here: you’ll have to encode the spaces in a perspective names with a %20. The URL for my Next Actions perspective looks like this:

omnifocus:///perspective/Next%20Actions

I set up some @contexts that make sense to be quickly accessible on iPhone, like @errands, @phone, and perspectives I’ve set up like Next and Daily.

Seeing this type of workflow ninja stuff (finally) on iPhone really excites me.

Favorite Things: Summer 2012

First, recapping “Favorite New Things of 2011”:

  • Field Notes
  • Raw denim jeans
  • 5by5
  • Traditional wet shaving
  • Merlin Mann
  • GORUCK GR1

Now onto the new stuff.

Aeropress

Up until recently, I bragged about getting through college without a dependency on coffee. I’ve since found out that I was a sucker because coffee is awesome. I realized it wasn’t that I hated coffee, it was that I hated bad coffee, which apparently is abundant. I got started at a local coffee shop that I’d go to write at. It smelled so good and I had to try. Since then, I’ve set myself up with some gear, mainly an Aeropress coffee making dingus. You can see how it works—and the resulting effect—in this video by lonelysandwich. The Aeropress makes some of the most delicious coffee and is only about $20. It’s simple and fun to use, is really fast, and there’s practically no cleanup. I probably don’t need to explain the benefits of caffeine in the morning, so here’s why it’s now important to me, beyond the jolt: it gives me something to look forward to in the morning, which helps pull me out of bed. This leads me to my next favorite thing.

Waking up early

OK, so, I’m still learning to love mornings but they are becoming an important part of my life. I’m not up at 5AM—the ass crack of dawn—like some zen minimalist monk dudes, but 7AM has been giving me enough time to get my day started the way I want it to before getting into work around 10AM. Here’s why I pull myself out of bed early (most of the time1) when my body doesn’t want to: I get to set the tone for each day. I get quiet time every morning where I can do what I want, before I check email and twitter and get into work. My day doesn’t begin with someone else’s beckon. The way I define my mornings sets what’s important to me. I start my days writing, reading, preparing, planning, reflecting, meditating—and drinking coffee. What they aren’t: rushed, commanded by other people, complex. I start my day with my projects and what’s important to me. I’m defining how my day is shaped by putting those things first.

Roderick on the Line

Hosted by Merlin Mann and John Roderick from the band The Long Winters. Roderick on the Line is a collection of stories from touring the world as a rock musician, philosophies about life, and exploring John’s perspectives about everything, usually shaped in the form of “Well, here’s the thing about ______.” I love it because it’s hilarious, while pseudo-philosophical, and slightly make-believe. John’s road stories have a grandeur about them that tempers my wanderlust. His insight, wrapped in cynical tinfoil, will have you wanting for the next episode.

OmniFocus

This tool for Mac, iPhone, and iPad is a powerhouse. That’s not news for many people but after switching to OmniFocus after using Things for years, I know this now. You can read here for the full why but the gist of it is this: your brain sucks at remember things, and you need an outboard brain to keep track of all the things your brain can’t. You need to be able to trust this outboard brain enough to commit to it and to capture into it. I trust OmniFocus. If you’re serious about getting your work done, get OmniFocus.

Launch Center Pro

This is a new tool in the App Store and I like it a lot. I’ve written about Launch Center Pro and the cool things you can do with it a few times. It uses URL schemes to quickly launch actions within apps so you don’t have to flip through home screens and folders, then open apps and dig around the interface to do a thing. It has great support for OmniFocus and other productive apps like Due, 1Password, and Wikipanion. This app brings a novelty to my iPhone once again and has made capturing to my inbox and writing into text files a dream.

Noise

I work in a pretty loud office. Sometimes it’s so loud that, even with good closed-back headphones, music doesn’t cut it. I’ve been using a track of pink noise to help mask the sound of voices which helps me concentrate. Pink noise is similar to white noise in that it’s… noisy—that hiss you think of when the radio station goes out of range—but pink noise registers more in the 2 - 4 KHz range, which is in the range of human voice. Thus, it does a better job covering it up without needing higher volume. It takes a minute or two each time to get over the fact that the noise is a little annoying but once I stop thinking about it, it helps me to really focus in on what I’m doing—like really focus. It’s kind of like the drug that guy takes in the movie Limitless. I don’t know if it’ll work for everyone but it’s worth a try if your in a coffee shop or somewhere with audible distractions and need to get things done. Here’s the 10 second audio file I listen to on loop.

I like writing these posts because it makes me think about things that I really care about, use a lot, and that contribute to making my days a bit, or a lot better.


  1. I struggle here often. It’s too easy, and has very little consequence for me, to turn over and go back to bed. I’ve done a few tricks to help me get out of bed but nothing works like just plain determination, which I need more often here. 

Automating the Basic Things

Automate the basic things in your daily life. By doing this, you free up some attention to focus on something that matters more.

Automate paying bills and transferring money to your savings account. Use Amazon subscriptions to deliver household items you often need. Make use of recurring, scheduled tasks in OmniFocus. Form habits around doing these things so it becomes automatic that you do laundry on Thursday and pick up groceries on Mondays. Use Due for iPhone to nudge you to do things you want to become habitual.

Be OK with running some things on auto-pilot. You might be a bit obsessive, like me, and want to do everything with our fullest attention. The truth is you can’t, and no one at the grocery store cares if you’re on cruise control through the aisles.1 By automating these menial things, you keep more attention in reserve for the things that matter.

Create structures so you not only won’t forget, because it’s in your system, but you remember to do it because it’s just a thing you always do.


  1. As long as you remember to keep moving and get out of the way

Teaching “Be Productive: An Intro to Getting Things Done” Skillshare Class

I’m happy to announce that I will be teaching a Skillshare class on the GTD method next month, in New York City. Skillshare is a great community of teachers and learners covering every topic imaginable.

The class is an introduction to the methodology taught in David Allen’s Getting Things Done and will cover the basics of capturing, creating a trusted system, defining Next Actions, and more.

Read more about this class on the Skillshare page.

Here’s what you’ll leave this introduction class knowing:

  • Why your brain or email inbox isn’t the best task list
  • How to capture all the things you need to do
  • How to build a trusted system for keeping all of these things
  • How to organize your to-dos so that you know exactly where you need to start
  • Some tools that might help you along the way

And most importantly:

  • The confidence to start digging into that pile of projects

The class is on Tuesday, August 21st in New York City and only costs $20. It’s going to be a small class of 15 people. You can sign up, or tell a friend about the class, using this link to save 15% in fees: http://skl.sh/O9lAZ5

I’m looking forward to the experience of teaching this class and will write more out the experience here as it unfolds.

The English Language and Your Ideas

Words are powerful. Mastering the English language will make your life easier. Where it’s common for language to be filled with ready-made phrases, or business speak — “Let’s touch base later so we can drill down on this”, or “Going forward, I think we need a paradigm shift to really get some synergy”—speaking clearly is necessary to get projects done.

The problem with this broken communication isn’t new. George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language (first published in 1946), outlines these issues while relating them to the presentation of political ideas. Whether its political speeches or your blog post, you need to put in the effort to get your ideas across. Even with clear communication, it doesn’t mean your idea will be well received, but, Orwell believes:

You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

Success in communicating your ideas comes from truly understanding what you’re trying to accomplish so that you can translate it into things that can actually be said or done.1 The higher altitude something is, the harder it is to explain.

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.

Having a clear, concrete idea allows you to find the right words to express it.

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.

So you start with the idea and let that choose the words. Dumping meaningless words and phrases from your vocabulary is a start but how do you shape your words into something concise? Orwell offers some steps to form clear sentences:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Relentlessly desire to express your ideas clearly. Put in the effort to remove abstraction from them and constantly edit your ideas and words. It will take more time and way more effort but by doing this, you will gain the trust and understanding of the people around you and grant yourself the permission to do cooler stuff.


  1. It’s not coincidence that this is a trend in the things I write here. 

Concrete Ideas

More on concrete ideas while talking about them in The English Language and Your Ideas:

It’s not novel that success is in the execution not the idea. Proper execution comes from turning the abstract into concrete and being able to form the imagery of an idea into something “actionable”—then doing that. Developing ideas in written word can make you familiar with the process needed to complete other projects. Both start with creating a concrete idea, or in GTD terms, determining the desired result and then working from there. Without concrete ideas, you will struggle writing the next paragraph (or even the first one) or finding the next action for your project.

Embrace the constraints of writing to practice solidifying ideas into something concrete.

Reducing The Interface of Email

Processing your email and stopping it from commanding your attention is difficult to do. Depending on your job, maybe it’s nearly impossible. Merlin Mann covers processing the demands of your inbox in the Inbox Zero talk and extensively on 43 Folders.

Merlin talks about systems to process email so that the amount of stuff in your inbox doesn’t eat up your time, distract you, and ultimately stress you out. To sum up his talk, processing each email is about “deciding in the moment what you need to do about it, then moving on.”1 Even if you have a good system for that, the interface of email itself can be stressful. It’s designed with notifications, lists of things, and buttons for every task possible. By reducing this interface you can minimize the distractions caused by everything but the messages themselves.

Luckily, I don’t have to deal with high volumes of email but what I do get needs to be dealt with appropriately so I can get back to work. Over time, I’ve managed to develop a pretty good interface system to work with my processing system which reduces distraction and encourages proper capturing.

I use Mail.app. It’s not fancy, but it’s built-in and gets the job done. The things I go over will reference Mail but the theory could be applied to whatever program you use. The “design” of my system revolved around two things: avoiding unscheduled interruptions and reducing distractions while processing and writing emails.

Removing Unscheduled Interruptions

I finally switched Mail.app to only check for new mail manually. Lots of people have moved to it, and as I’ve slowly been transitioning away from notifications on my iPhone, I realized that I could do it on my Mac too. The lesson I learned from doing it on my iPhone was that email is way less urgent than you think it is.2 You’ll still need to process it when the time comes around for you to check it but at least you’ll have some time, uninterrupted, to get work done before you go back.

All the time, I see people tweeting anxiously with screenshots of their Mail dock badge complaining about how much email they have to deal with. Pro tip: Mail > Preferences > Dock unread count: None. You know you have stuff in your inbox, why add a reminder that will distract you anytime you glance down at the dock? If you’re checking manually, this badge has no use—and never had any benefit. It’s helpful to know what your inbox count is when you’re processing, but when you’re doing other work, it’s irrelevant.

Bonus

Away from my computer, I’ve worked out a system too. Plain and simple, I don’t do work email on my iPad. It’s a place for me to read and write and do fun things. On my iPhone, in Settings > Notifications > Mail, I’ve turned off alerts, turned off the badge icon, but have messages show in Notification Center. Periodically, I’ll pull down Notification Center, check quickly at the subject and preview to see if it’s something that needs my immediate attention. If it is, I deal with it. If it’s not (most of the time), I hit the drastically undersized X to hide the notifications. Without the icon badge, the messages aren’t visually piling up prompting me to do something about them but also are marked as unread so whenever I go to check my inbox for real, they are ready to be processed.

Reducing Distractions

OK. So the time rolls around that you have to—reluctantly—check your email. When you’re in there, you have a job to do. Get in, process, get out. Anything in the interface that doesn’t help with that is unnecessary. So let’s remove it.

In Lion, Mail’s design was partially inspired from the iPad. Besides the standard chrome, it has the Mailbox List on the left, the Favorites Bar at the top, and the message list and panel side-by-side. The mailbox list and favorites bar can be useful, but most of their functionality can be accessed with keyboard shortcuts. This way, you remove the visual distraction but maintain the functional components that the interface prompts. The mailbox list’s main functionality is, well, switching between mailboxes. Simply, you can hide this by going View > Hide Mailbox List. See how much better that feels already? But what if you have a lot of folders and need the sidebar to drag your email into some random folder that you think is helping you stay organized. Well, first off? Stop that. It’s not helping. Create a single folder for each account called Archive and let Mail’s archive button or hotkey do the work. You don’t need the extra decision of where to put each email. Move it to Archive and let search do the work finding it if you ever need it again. If you really need access to the sidebar, it can quickly be revealed with ⇧ + ⌘ + M, or even cooler, dragging an email from the message list to the left edge of the window where the list is hidden will make it slide out, let you put your message away, and then slide back into it’s place. Magical.

But if you hide the Mailbox List how will you quickly switch mailboxes? Luckily, the favorites bar does that too but with one benefit: like Safari’s bookmarks, you can navigate to the mailboxes in your Favorites with the keyboard shortcuts ⌘ + 1 for the first favorite and ⌘ + 2 for the second, etc. Knowing these shortcuts also means that once you’ve set them up, you don’t need to show the favorites bar. Drag the mailboxes you need into the favorites bar in the order you want then hide it. For me, position number one gets a Smart Inbox called NULL, something that Merlin talked about on a recent Back to Work, which collects all emails with the subject that is equal to a whole jumble of characters that will never be a subject. The benefit of this is that no matter how behind I am on processing my inboxes, my NULL inbox, accessible at ⌘ + 1, is like my little oasis—an escape—where no one is asking me for anything and there are no support emails complaining about something that’s user error. #2 is my work inbox and #3 is my personal inbox.

Now What?

All of that interrupting and distracting interface has been replaced by keyboard shortcuts. One for archiving, and one for navigating to each mailbox. All of a sudden your Mail app looks like this. Awesome, right? Like some zen buddhist minimalist monastery. (That’s a thing, right?)

When I check my email, it goes something like this:

  1. Switch from NULL to work inbox with ⌘ + 2.
  2. Get new mail with ⇧ + ⌘ + N.
  3. For each email, read, process, archive with ⇧ + ⌘ + A (I changed this from the default in System Preferences > Keyboard > Application Shortcuts).
  4. Switch back to NULL, my oasis, with ⌘ + 1.

Why You Should Do This

Not only is this system much faster to navigate because that’s what keyboard shortcuts are for, but it reduces the amount of visual inputs and distractions. Once you get over the fear of not knowing exactly what’s in your inbox every second, you’ll be able to better focus on the work you need to get done until the time that email is the work you need to get done. When that time rolls around, you don’t have all of this unnecessary interface in your way so you can more quickly get back to producing something meaningful.

Because that’s what you want to be doing with your time.


  1. If you’re already a pro at this stuff, good for you. Maybe go read this instead. 

  2. This gets covered in the Inbox Zero talk too, but until you actually do it, you don’t fully appreciate it. 

New Second Crack Draft from Pinboard Pins

My workflow for writing link posts is rooted in Reeder and Instapaper on iPad. After reading the posts, I want to be able to get them into a draft as easily as possible. What I wanted to avoid was having to copy and paste links and quotes, opening up a text editor, making a new file, and pasting everything in.

I originally set up an IFTTT recipe that took newly pinned items with a specific tag and created a new text file with information that I passed along to it. There were a few downsides to this. I couldn’t make the filename the slug I wanted, so I had to edit it manually after. I often forgot to do this which caused some 404s when I posted shoddy URLs. The other thing with IFTTT was that it only checked my pins and created drafts once every 15 minutes or so. If I wanted to pin something and then quickly switch over to Byword to edit and post, I was out of luck.

So, I made this thing that works much better. It’s a PHP script that runs continuously, checking for new pins on my Pinboard account and creates drafts when new pins with the specified tag are created. The outputted format is perfect, it makes a slug out of the title I give the pin, and best of all, within a second or two, my draft is in Dropbox.

Here’s my flow now:

1) Find a post on Twitter or RSS and send it to Instapaper for further reading. 2) Read the post and look for a pull quote. 3) Select the text I want to quote and in Instapaper, hit Share. 4) Hit Post to Pinboard 5) Clean up the title, add the tag if it’s not already there and, insert a > to block quote the text. 6) Hit Post and within seconds there’s a perfectly formatted draft waiting for me to review and publish.

Markdown Thumbnail Preview in Mountain Lion

A cool little find in Mountain Lion: when you use this Markdown QuickLook plugin, Finder will render the Markdown into a thumbnail that looks like this. Mountain Lion seems full of nice little visual cues and polish.