Aug. 31st, 2015

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As some of you may know, but most won’t, I’ve been a user of Omnifocus through various versions for several years now. At a superficial level, it’s a to-do listing app that cloud-syncs across Macs, iPads and iPhones, so your to-do items can follow you from device to device. Integration with Siri on mobile devices also works out nicely, letting you say ‘Siri, remind me to buy the cat a new Ferrari,’ which will automagickally create a reminder to bat the car a new ferrite, or something.


If you look at Omnifocus as ‘just’ a to-do list app, you’re not quite getting the point. For me, I’m way over my head on multiple projects at once much of the time. I literally have so many to do items that it’s impossible to remember them, let alone track them, and am well into the territory that makes a linear list long enough that finding anything isn’t really feasible.


Yes, I’ve read Getting Things Done, by David Allen. I found many of his ideas really interesting, and I think I’m now using most of them.


So what’s this GTD thing all about?


Well, the basic idea is that it isn’t sufficient to just divide your to-do items into projects — rather, you also divide them into contexts, giving you a second view into the mess of items. What’s meant by a project is pretty obvious — something like, ‘Remodel the kitchen’ would be a great example. Individual tasks should be things like, ‘Order a new stove,’ something that is essentially a single thing that needs done that doesn’t break down finer than that. Importantly, tasks should not be split up between personal and work — the system really works best when you glom all of your tasks into it. Contexts indicate where the task is to be carried out (with a loose definition of ‘where’). Email, Home Depot, In The Garage, At Work, etc., are simple examples of contexts. I like to break down both projects and contexts hierarchically. Breaking down projects makes immediate sense, e.g.:


Home : Kitchen Remodel


Work : Project Alpha : Presentations : How to Pickle your Ooblefetzer


Some real(ish) examples of broken-down contexts would be:


Computer : Internet : Facebook


Work : Bldg 123 : Conference Room 6


Computer : Purchasing : Amazon


Outdoors : Mall : Home Depot


Outdoors : Mall : Safeways


What this lets you do is things like deciding to head to Home Depot and then easily pick up a list of everything you need to do while you’re there, even if those things are spread across many projects. That’s the Getting Things Done level. But you can kick it up a notch — if you are going to the mall, you can easily see everything that needs doing under every context that derives from that. Really, GTD and GTD-like systems can’t ever make time where none exists, but they are brilliant at not forgetting things and avoiding wasting time repeating things that didn’t really need to be repeated.


Another thing GTD is awesome at is C. A. R. Hoare’s concept of ‘waiting faster.’ Everyone hates waiting — I’m sure I, like most people, feel like I waste half my life waiting for things: stuff to be delivered, other people to reply to emails, applications to be processed, etc. Tony Hoare (admittedly in the context of the mathematics of concurrent processes, but hey, I’ll steal anything that works!) suggested that by waiting for as many things to happen at once, then acting on whichever one completes first, you end up waiting as little as possible and being as efficient as possible. I use Omnifocus to track everything and everyone I’m waiting on, which means that I don’t need to get stressed out by asking lots of people for lots of things all at once. The difference this makes to my effectiveness is pretty surprising.


Omnifocus also lets you tag every task with your estimate of the time it will take. This takes a bit of work to maintain, but it gives you a very important third route into the data. I use this to create a ‘Fast Attack’ view of my to-dos, which cuts across all my projects and contexts, limited to tasks taking no more than an hour and sorted so that the fastest things happen first. With this, if I’m told I have half an hour before a takeaway shows up, for example, lets me rattle off a few emails or update my timesheet or whatever with time I’d otherwise probably spend staring mindlessly at Facebook.


Setting deadlines on tasks is really important. It’s a GTD principle, but Omnifocus does this really well. You can defer a task, which means that it will be hidden until a specific date and time, or set a due date, which will start warning you when it’s coming up and nag you when the date has passed. From personal experience, I have learned only to ever set due dates when there really is a due date for the task — if I ever get carried away and start creating a schedule for myself, all that happens is that everything gets out of hand and nothing really gets done, and I’m too scared to open OmniFocus because there are 58 red tasks staring me in the face. No, don’t do that. If it’s something like a paper that’s due on a particular date and time, go for it. That’s what this is for. But don’t ever use due dates when there isn’t really a hard deadline, or you’re missing the point of the system. Omnifocus has some very nice features for creating repeating tasks — I can, for example, have it remind me to suggest going to see a film. If I check this off, the reminder goes away for 2 weeks, then starts popping up again. The other kind of repeating tasks have a hard interval, so I have reminders to submit my time sheets, do my weekly and monthly reporting, pay my rent, etc.


Omnifocus implements GTD’s recommendation to regularly review your task lists. You can set, per task, an interval over which you want to review everything. Some people like to set this to 1 week, but I actually like it do it daily. If I don’t have time, it can wait until tomorrow, but by going through my task lists even very cursorily once a day, ruthlessly putting projects on hold if I can’t work on them yet, deferring tasks until later when I can, fixing things up as plans change, is really the only way I can keep everything on track.


So far, this is all standard(ish) Omnifocus and GTD. I have some of my own tweaks and brain-hacks, however.


My Omnifocus Kanban hack


One other feature I’ve had a love/hate relationship with in Omnifocus is flags. You can flag an item, which visibly shows its importance, and can be sorted against or shown in its own query. I find this psychologically bad — if I have flagged items, it stresses me out, and I also don’t necessarily make good decisions about what to work on if something is nagging at me. Flags are an invitation to procrastinate, in my opinion. Instead, I abuse the flag system for something completely different — Kanban. The Kanban idea comes from manufacturing, where the idea is that you have a table with (nominally) 3 columns — the left column is things to do, the right column is things that are completed and the middle column is things that are in progress. So much so obvious, but Kanban’s magic special sauce is that only a fixed number of things at most are allowed into the middle column at once. The idea is that this stops manufacturing processes from getting gridlocked or producing lots of stuff that isn’t really needed yet. Omnifocus doesn’t really support Kanban, but it’s possible to abuse the flag system for it. Basically, if something isn’t flagged, it’s in the ‘left’ column. If it’s flagged, it’s in the middle column. If I’ve already checked it off, it’s in the right column, logically speaking, though I never actually get to see something that looks like a traditional Kanban board. So basically, I let myself flag 3 to 5 things I’m ‘doing’ at once. Even this is really too many, but what it does is give me a one button view of the stuff I Really Am Getting On With Right Now. My ‘Fast Attack’ query covers all the little faffy short tasks that aren’t really even worth flagging because they get done really quickly anyway. Between those two, and just these two, I know what I should be doing, and don’t forget anything. Psychologically, this really helps, because these lists never have more than 4 or 5 items in the Flagged/In Progress view and maybe a couple of dozen in the fast attack view, so it doesn’t get overwhelming.


The Input/Output Hack


This one is due to me personally as best I can tell. I had 3 or 4 false starts implementing GTD which kind of worked but always ended up failing. In a couple of cases, the amount of stuff just got out of hand and I couldn’t really cope with it, to the point that the system just fell apart. In a couple of cases, it worked so well that I ran myself into physical exhaustion that took weeks to recover from. This is the most recent version of my personal system that, so far, seems to be working really well for me.


I have a very strong work ethic. In work time I tend to do work stuff. That means that I tend to prioritize things that I need to deliver to someone or do for someone extremely highly, to the extent that this dominates. In extremis, I’ve found myself working crazy hours on a project and literally only eating, sleeping or doing work directly on that project, never allowing myself to prioritize anything else. As a consequence, I tend to build up what I have come to call infrastructure debt. By never really allowing myself time to build infrastructure — to do the things that you need to do that allow the things to get done, I’m always way more stressed than is OK, and tend to be cobbling together ways of working rather than having everything to hand. It occurred to me that I needed a brain hack to fix this, and it was going to take something like Omnifocus to pull it off. Thing is, I have no difficulty figuring out what needs done to put all this infrastructure in place, it’s just that, normally, I was not allowing myself to spend any time on it. The mythical ‘free time’ never actually occurred, because I was either working or flat out exhausted.


Here’s the hack. I think it’s pretty cool.


I now divide all my projects, without exception, into the following four categories:



  1. Always. These are the things that always need to be done, regardless, because a wheel will fall off my life if they don’t. This includes things like paying the rent, regular paperwork that can’t be delayed, etc. This category should be used very sparingly.

  2. Recreation. Things I would like to do when I need to switch off. I list things like, go see a film, go to the beach, watch Netflix, etc. Stuff that gets done both when my brain is turned off and in order to cause my brain to switch off. I don’t include personal projects in this list, because personal projects are still work within this system. By way of an example, I might have a something in this category like, ‘Go play music for a couple of hours,’ but definitely wouldn’t have something like, ‘Finish mastering those last 3 tracks for my next album.’ The decision is brain off or brain on, basically.

  3. Output. An output task is something that is directly needed. These are ‘day job’ tasks, as well as any chores that are an end in themselves rather than enabling something else. Effectively, these are all the tasks I used to obsessively work on in the exclusion of all else. Output tasks create infrastructure debt because they need to be supported.

  4. Input. An input task is something that isn’t directly needed, but that builds the infrastructure necessary to support an output task. Input tasks by definition pay down infrastructure debt. An input task would be something like, install a new piece of equipment, tidy up the lab bench before a new project starts, order and install some shelving from Home Depot to support a remodeling project, etc.


These are the four folders at the top of my project hierarchy. Work projects mostly go into Output. Personal projects that create something also go into Output. Stuff I need to do so that I can effectively work on Output tasks goes into Input. I can use the perspectives feature in Omnifocus (Pro version only, but well worth the $$$) to create myself a set of 3 buttons:



  1. Rest Day. This shows recreation tasks, plus any Always tasks that are currently due.

  2. Output Day. This shows all my Output tasks, as well as any Always tasks.

  3. Input Day. This shows all my Input tasks, as well as any Always tasks.


So basically, on a morning, I can decide. Am I exhausted? Then I should click Rest Day, use that as a suggestion for something to do and a reminder of things that Must Get Done Or Else. If I’m feeling really ‘On’, I’ll click Output Day, which houses the tasks that typically need the most braining. If I’m kind of in the middle, not really feeling focused enough for detailed work, I’ll click Input Day, whose tasks tend more toward the physical. My work ethic guilt makes it hard to hit anything other than Output Day, but I know the consequences of that all too well. In all cases, if I decide to do a task that’s really brief, I’ll do it and just check it off. If it’s something more substantial (more than an hour typically), I’ll flag it and add it to my Kanban-hack-repurposed Flagged list — by keeping this list to no more than 3 – 5 items, it stops me from being overambitious and running myself into the ground with overwork. Also, I know I really suck at multitasking, so the best hack for dealing with that is to only do things one at a time, which is kind of the point of all this.


Summarizing my System


To sum up, the way I work this is each morning, with my coffee, I generally do a daily review of all my tasks, so by the end of that I have checked off anything I missed and have a pretty good idea where I’m at. I mercilessly put projects on hold if I can’t work on them because I’m waiting for something — this is key to keeping things manageable, as is using Defer to throw something forward in time to pick up on again later. By looking at my Flagged/In Progress button, I can remind myself what I’m in the middle of, and add one or two more things to that list from my Input or Output perspectives. If I have a few minutes to spare, I can use my Fast Attack perspective to kick out a few emails or whatever. I capture new tasks straight into Omnifocus wherever possible, but I do heavily use the ability to create tasks via email otherwise, then I file that task appropriately next time I do a review.


Right now, I have 3 concurrent major projects, a fourth semi-unpaid work project, a musical personal project, social stuff and other stuff I wouldn’t mention here all going on at once, and amazingly it’s not really stressing me too much and I’m pretty much staying on top of it all. Considering that I am someone who always regarded themselves as really sucking at this kind of being-organized, this says a lot.


Disclaimers


YMMV. IANAL. I am not your mother. GTD doesn’t work for everyone, particularly if you don’t have much leeway in organizing your time. GTD has a cultlike following, for sure, but I’m not a true believer — I junked it several times before hitting on this approach, particularly the Input / Output hack. I am not inherently awesome, and do screw up sometimes.




Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at http://www.mageofmachines.com/main/2015/08/31/getting-fancy-with-omnifocus/ -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#GTD/Omnifocus, #MoMBlog, #Musings

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