Getting Things Done: OmniFocus

I like tools. As a technologist, you might say tools are what I do.  Not all that I do – but it’s an important part.  In the hope that some of the great tools I’ve found might be of interest, this is my first post about some of the most important tools in my bag.

In 1986, working as a consultant, I purchased a seemingly overpriced small notebook that promised to help me manage my time and become more efficient.  This system, called “Time/Design” occupied the same market as the “Filofax” and “Franklin-Covey” planners; T/D was from Europe and was being heavily marketed by one of those companies that I think of as “Sharper Image” wannabes.

It was rather expensive, as I recall, and of course once one purchased the “system”, well, it wasn’t going to update itself for the next calendar year.  But the people in the pictures looked “productive”, and I needed something, so I bought in.

Somehow, a few months later, I learned of a seminar on the system.  There was a workshop being given in Newton (Mass.), right down the road.  It also wasn’t cheap, but it seemed like it would be worthwhile and so I signed up.

That was my introduction to David Allen, who has gone on to write a number of books, starting with Getting Things Done and a practice called GTD; over the years he has refined the thinking and processes and spawned significant interest in implementing these techniques in software.

Initially, much of the work was to answer questions like “how do I use Microsoft Outlook/Lotus Notes to help me” in the context of GTD workflows.  However, several years ago, standalone applications started to arrive to serve as the framework for what you could casually call your “To do lists”.

The first one that I worked with extensively is one that I adopted, called OmniFocus, developed by The Omni Group.  The core of the product was initially developed as a set of scripts and templates for Omni’s OmniOutliner, itself a pretty neat tool for creating documents that are best expressed in an “outline” with a hierarchical structure.  As of today, OmniFocus is available for the Mac and iOS platforms, there’s robust sync technology across devices that I’ve come to rely on.

Why OmniFocus?  I’ve become enthusiastic about several OmniGroup’s products.  The principal reasons have to do with design, both the thought and care that have gone into workflow (especially for OmniFocus), but also because the same level of effort brought to the visual design of the applications.  I’ve learned that I’m a visually-oriented person; this characteristic seems to be echoed in Omni’s products.

What I think of as the core tenets of GTD are:

  • A focus on determining the next action (physical) to move a project or task towards it’s goal.
  • “Capturing” those tasks, the projects or goals they represent, and the commitments that underly them – out of your head and into an external, trusted device/place/list/system.
  • Acknowledgement that we’re really not that good at multitasking; we’re best off concentrating on one thing at one time by delegating all of that “on our mind” to whatever system we have.
  • A practice of periodically reviewing our goals, projects, and what we have completed.  Re-figure that next action for each of our goals and projects, and add it to the system.  Experience that little flash of satisfaction of checking off that “done” box.  Allow some creativity to creep in envisioning project outcomes.
  • Understanding that there are contexts for taking those next actions: either location, the availability of certain tools (like Internet connectivity, or a phone), people, etc., and being able to figure out what can be done in the current context (I’m in the North End, what can I get at the store here?).

OmniFocus supports this process.  It makes it pretty easy to capture stray thoughts, roughly order things, assign contexts to tasks, review, and maintain a level of comfort that it’s all in there, safely.

I’ve found that there are a lot of people who will read a description of something like this, and think that it’s either unnatural, too much work, too contrived, or inessential.  I certainly respect those opinions; you might even make the analogy that there’s a certain level of faith in this approach and if you’re not feeling it – then none of this will be of any help.

However, for me and many others, this process has been useful.  Set aside, if you wish, the technology; the implementation is an individual project.  And GTD is not perfect, I have my own difficulties with it and keenly experience some of its shortcomings – but if this catches your attention, you might find it – and apps like OmniFocus – well worth your time to research.

References:

  1. David Allen, DavidCo website.
  2. Getting Things Done, Amazon/Paper, Amazon/Kindle
  3. OmniFocus from The OmniGroup.
  4. Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders site.
  5. GTD Times site (“The hub for all things GTD”, from David Allen).
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