Workflow Changes with OmniFocus 3

by default 2018-09-11 at 10.38.46 AMMultiple tags first came to OmniFocus 3 for iOS in May of this year. I hoped that multiple tags would mean drastic improvements to my workflow, but with most of my Omnifocus work done on a Mac, I was stuck waiting until tags also came to OmniFocus for the Mac.

As of last Friday, I was invited to test the beta version of OmniFocus 3, so my wait is officially over! For the rest of you, it should be out later this month.

Looking back to my initial tag list for OmniFocus for iOS, much of my tag system is still intact.

Part of this because I restrained myself from going crazy with tags and opted to stick with tag groups that mapped to David Allen’s four criteria for determining priority: context/location, energy available, priority, and time available. (Note: For Time Available, I use Omnifocus’s estimated duration field, not a tag.) I also have two “On Hold” tags for tasks I’m “Waiting for” or any “Someday/Maybe” tasks I’m considering.

In addition to traditional GTD tags, I’ve also added a few additional tag groups related to people (e.g. boyfriend, boss) and actions (e.g. call, email, read), as well as, one called “Today,” which I’ll discuss in more detail later in this post.

To be honest, my hopes of tags significantly altering my Omnifocus workflows and therefore supercharging my productivity didn’t really pan out.

Despite all the improvements to custom perspectives, there still isn’t a way to create the perspectives I was hoping for. I had hoped to create perspectives that show any tasks I can accomplish at a specific location (e.g. Home, Work, Errands) but also have them grouped by another tag group (e.g. by Energy Level or Priority).

Unfortunately, there is no way to filter by some tags and also group by another. A perspective that shows tasks tagged with Location:Home or Location:Anywhere and also tagged with Priority:High or Priority:Low doesn’t give you a list of tasks sorted by priority. Instead, it gives you a list of all tasks grouped by ALL tags given to those tasks meaning you actually end up with groups like “Anywhere, Today, Read” and “Home, Today”) which actually isn’t that helpful.

Because of this limitation, most of how I use OmniFocus has remained relatively the same. Multiple tags simply provide additional ways to filter my tasks within my existing custom perspectives on an as needed basis.

There is one aspect of my OmniFocus workflow that tags did change for me though.

I’ve mentioned in past posts that I work from 4 main perspectives (Today, Work, Home, and Errands). These perspectives show me any tasks I need to work on based on where I’m working from. With Omnifocus 2, this meant a perspective that showed any due or flagged task within a certain set of contexts grouped by project.

With Omnifocus 3, my 4 main perspectives now show any available tasks that are due, flagged, or tagged “Today”, grouped by project and sorted by flagged. Essentially, the Today tag has replaced how I was previously using flags, leaving flags open to be used for what they’re truly made for, denoting importance. Sorting by flag means my most important tasks are at the top of every project. Using flags to denote importance also means I can look over my perspectives, and quickly see what’s most important (e.g. flagged and or due soon).

So the jury’s still out on Omnifocus 3. I don’t plan on switching applications any time soon, but until perspectives can be customized at the level I’m looking for, I probably won’t be seeing any of the drastic improvements I had been hoping for.

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Keeping Track of Meeting Notes with Agenda

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I love finding apps that make my life easier, but somewhere along the way I also developed a habit of trying to consolidate apps. Purpose-built apps were abandoned in favor of apps that could be used for multiple things. In doing that, I ended up with fewer apps that did most things but not all of them did everything all that well.

My desire to eliminate purpose-built apps went away after reading Take Control of Your Productivity by Jeff Porten. In his book, Porten mentions that it’s perfectly acceptable to use multiple purpose-built apps as long as you feel they’re the best tools for the job. After thinking about that point for a bit, I realized I still use plenty of purpose-built apps (OmniFocus for tasks, 1Password for logins, Paprika for recipes, and Pocket for long-form reading, etc), and they’re essential because they serve their purposes incredibly well. The key is not finding that one app that does everything but tying all of your best apps into one cohesive system.

I originally heard about Agenda and its new take on notes on Macstories around the time I was experiencing Note-Fail, so I decided to try it. I tried it a few times actually, but I had a hard time figuring out why I should use it instead of one of my other apps. Then I realized I was thinking about Agenda all wrong.

Agenda isn’t there to replace your everything bucket apps like Evernote or DEVONthink. It’s not there to replace your notes app, your calendar, your task manager, or your email either. Instead, Agenda is there to live on top of all of them as the glue holding your projects together. It compiles the narrative of a project from beginning to end, making sense of all the notes you’ve taken, meetings you’ve endured, tasks you’ve completed, and emails you’ve sent and received. With this shift in thinking, Agenda not only made sense, it became essential to my organizational system.

Browsing Agenda’s forums, it seems I wasn’t alone in my struggle of using the app, so with so many people trying to figure out how to use Agenda, I figured I’d share how I’m using it.

First off, Agenda’s primary function is to store what else other than my agenda notes. There are short dated bulleted lists and action items I take while in meetings. I’d already been keeping them separately within my organizational system for a while so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to move them to a separate app.

Within Agenda, I created 3 categories: Personal, Work: Current Projects for current one-off projects I’m collaborating on, and Work: Ongoing for regularly scheduled meetings pertaining to my roles at work.

Each category holds projects containing a collection of notes. In my old system, I’d either append my meeting notes to a single running document for recurring meetings or create individual notes for project-based meetings. With Agenda, every meeting gets recorded as its own note.

Within each project, I also have a pinned note at the top (a premium feature) titled Resources that holds links to related files and other items such as shared running agendas in Google Drive, corresponding projects within Omnifocus, or groups of resources in DEVONthink. Having the pinned Resources folder really helped me see Agenda as the central hub of my organization system that ties projects together rather than just being another spoke on the wheel of tools.

It’s also worth noting I use linking throughout the meeting notes I take, linking to Google Docs, resources archived in DevonThink, emails within Airmail, and data in any other app that supports linking in that way.

Now know having a project with linked notes isn’t particularly game-changing. I could easily have used Omnifocus’s notes field or a note in DevonThink to link everything together, and to be honest, I do just to make my life easier. but what sets Agenda apart is the ability to tie notes to a calendar event. Not only are my notes chronologically ordered within each project, I can also see my notes chronologically ordered across projects (e.g. view all my meetings on August 3rd). Agenda also supports tags, meaning I can type @NameofPerson to tag someone in a note, and then later find all notes with that person. When you’re working with people across projects, this is incredibly helpful.

Another feature of Agenda is a section called “On the Agenda”. You can set Agenda to add any new note to this section automatically. I use this more like a flag to keep notes on my radar until I’ve had a chance to copy any action items into OmniFocus.

In moving my agendas outside of DEVONthink, the only thing I needed to figure out was what to do with one-off projects once they’re completed. Typically I archived them into a Reference folder within my note-taking app, but Agenda does not have any archiving feature at the moment (although they say they’re working on it). I didn’t want to just delete everything either. Thankfully, Agenda makes it easy to export content. When a project is completed, I simply export the entire project as a single Markdown file (another premium feature) and import it into DEVONthink. Quite nicely, the exported Markdown file preserves all the links and even tags allowing me to open the file in an app like FoldingText maintaining all its functionality.

Photo by Thomas Martinsen on Unsplash

An Experiment: Migrating from Evernote to Apple Notes

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The other day I got a crazy idea to migrate everything in Evernote over to Apple Notes.

Why you might ask?

Having my shared notes in Apple Notes while everything else lived in Evernote really bugged me – probably more than it reasonably should have, but such is my life.

The other issue nagging at me was having to pay for Evernote Premium. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind paying for the service if it weren’t for their 2 device sync limit seeming like a total cash grab. Also, I’m already paying for the iCloud storage so why not use it.

Making the switch was a bit time-consuming, but I really didn’t have to give up as much as I thought I would. In fact, in some cases, Apple Notes has actually turned out to be better.

What I’m Liking:

  • Sharing Things to Notes – It’s no surprise that Apple has baked ways to add things to Notes into just about every part of MacOS and iOS, with one notable exception which I’ll discuss a bit later.
  • Sharing Notes with Others – Sure Evernote allows you to share notes, but none of my friends or family use Evernote, so the feature was lost on me, and a big reason I was stuck using Apple Notes.
  • Simplicity of Design – I really started to notice the feature bloat of Evernote. (Evernote, if you’re listening, please let users with only one account hide the account switcher in the sidebar.) Apple Notes brings me back to a much more minimal design.06_20_18 at 12.11.23PM
  • Folder Hierarchy – I don’t need crazy folder structures for my notes, but Evernote’s insistence on a two-level hierarchy forced me to adopt some weird workarounds including prefixing my notebooks and using tags as a way to add additional levels. As long as you’re adding folders from a Mac, Apple doesn’t seem to care how many levels you want to have.
  • Apple Pencil Support – Evernote claims to have Apple Pencil support but it’s horribly laggy and a real pain to use. As a result, I was already using other apps, including Apple Notes to do any sort of Apple Pencil work.

What I’m Missing:

  • Searching Notes – You’d think searching notes stored in the stock notes app would be easy for a Mac, and if you use Spotlight, it is. Unfortunately, I use Alfred, and for whatever reason, Apple has chosen to store notes in a database that seems to be ever changing preventing any Alfred workflows from keeping up. For now, I’m searching my notes using Spotlight, which means remembering a separate keyboard shortcut. (The fact that Apple’s storing these notes in a database could also be a real pain if I ever need to get my notes out of Apple Notes, but I’m going to choose not to think about that right now because Evernote’s no better.)
  • Evernote’s Web Clipper – It’s really hard to come anywhere close to Evernote’s Web Clipper. Apple Notes can only save links to websites not a full page unless you do a web archive or save it as a PDF which requires a few additional steps. That being said, I was noticing Evernote’s Web Clipper had been doing some odd things to some of my clipped websites, so maybe not all is lost.
  • Note Links – I like to include links to other notes in my notes, as well as within Omnifocus tasks and projects. With Apple Notes, you can’t actually get a link to a note unless you pretend to share the note with someone.
  • Saving Email Content – My mail client of choice, Airmail, has native support for sharing content to Evernote, but surprisingly not Apple Notes. I frequently save important emails for reference, so this is one of my most frustrating features to lose. Surprisingly, Apple’s own Mail apps also lack any ability to share to Notes.
  • Tags – I didn’t use tags extensively in Evernote, but they were helpful in grouping things by topic without having to create a full-blown notebook. For now, I’m dealing with this by sub-folders, but I hope Apple considers adding tags in the future.

There are a few scripts and tools to help you migrate from Evernote to Apple Notes, but I opted to migrate most of my notes manually unless they were purely text-based, which meant this was a pretty time-consuming experiment. (Thankfully, it seems to be a successful experiment.) I’m nearly done migrating the last of my Grad School notes, but already I’m feeling a lot better having one single place for all of my notes.

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Omnifocus 3 and Multiple Tags

IMG_3E109ED9355A-1Omnifocus plays such a major role in my life, so with Omnifocus 3 for iOS being released today, it only seemed fitting to write about it. I’ve only had a short amount of time to play with it, but I’m already envisioning new ways to improve my workflow.

Arguably one of the most sought-after features of version 3 is multiple tags. One of the first new tags I added was a “Today” tag. I foresee this Today tag replacing flags in my workflows, but until multiple tags are ready in the Mac version, I’m stuck using them to maintain my custom perspectives on the Mac.

I knew the lack of feature parity between version 2 on the Mac and version 3 on iOS would limit how much I got out of this release, so, for now, a lot of the benefits I’ll get out of the new features will have to wait.

So far, I’ve just started playing around with reorganizing contexts to fit within the new tag scheme. So far my list is broken up into the following:

  • Location (note this section is my existing context breakdown)
    • Campus
    • Home
    • Anywhere
    • Errands
  • Status
    • Today
    • Routine
    • Waiting for
    • Someday/Maybe
  • People
    • Coworkers, family members, etc. will be listed here as needed
  • Energy
    • High Energy
    • Low Energy
  • Activity
    • Read
    • Email
    • Call

This list will likely change and evolve as I get my hands on it more, but I can already tell how powerful tagging will be over contexts.

Omnifocus 3 brings with it many other major changes but tagging is on my mind most right now.  I can’t wait to get my hands on the Mac version so I can really take advantage of them fully.

Shiny Object Syndrome and Task Managers

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With all the tasks managers out there, it’s easy to get lost in shiny object syndrome. That new app comes out, and suddenly it seems like it will solve all your problems, making you an instant productivity guru. Oh, how I wish that were true!

I’ve been using OmniFocus for years, but I can’t say apps like Things 3 don’t tempt me. Over the years I’ve started keeping a few tricks in my back pocket to keep me on track and avoid going overboard.

  1. I don’t fight myself wanting to try a new app. Most apps offer a trial, and I enjoy playing around with software, so I give myself some time to play around with major new releases like Things 3. I also find trying new apps are a good chance to periodically reconsider how I organize my tasks, so not all is lost by trying an app.
  2. The keyword is TRY. Don’t spend days tirelessly transferring your tasks. Pick just enough that you can try out features, but don’t go overboard. I like to pick a single area – all of my personal tasks, for example. Those are usually plenty of tasks for me to quickly find what doesn’t work.
  3. Make a note of what doesn’t work for you. If I come across a feature I don’t like, I make a note of it in a comparison chart of sorts that I keep in Evernote. This has been a lifesaver. If I start getting restless with OmniFocus or a new point release for an app comes out, I can save myself the wasted time of trying the app again because I already know where the pain points are and whether or not another app will help. Of course, if a new release introduces a feature solving one of those pain points, I can update the chart and decide whether the pros outweigh the cons, but thus far, OmniFocus is well out in front, so I don’t anticipate that happening any time soon.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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Archiving Notebooks in Evernote (and a few thoughts on Tags)

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I’ve discussed how the way I organize Evernote has evolved recently. One of those more recent additions is that I’ve started creating notebooks for active projects, but I hadn’t come to a decision on what to do with them once they were no longer active.

Having just returned from Ireland, making my “Trip to Ireland” project inactive, I had a decision to make. That decision was that notes from inactive projects would get tagged and collapsed into their respective Reference notebook. In the case of my “Trip to Ireland” notes, I tagged them all with Ireland and moved them to my Personal reference notebook. They’re all still easily accessible in case I get the opportunity to go to Ireland again or someone asks about it, but otherwise out of the way.

Interestingly enough, shortly after I made my decision, Stacey Harmon came out with a post suggesting that very same thing:

Collapsing or archiving notebooks. If you’re regularly managing your notebooks (see above), you can use tags to convert your Notebooks to tags when you’re no longer using them. Simply tag all the data in that Notebook, and put it into an Archive notebook.

Her post is a great read if you’re having trouble with deciding how to organize Evernote. While I don’t follow her method, I do agree with her on why tags shouldn’t be your primary way of organizing Evernote. That being said, what I find most interesting about the Evernote community though, is how quickly and adamantly the user base divided into two camps: using tags is the only way to go or using notebooks is the only way to go.

My system has developed from a mix of ideas from GTD, Tiago Forte, and Stacey Harmon. New items go to the inbox (GTD) where they’re then filed away in their appropriate notebooks based on how often I’ll need to be using them (Forte and Harmon). Tags are used to identify overarching themes or topics (e.g. Buddhism, Ireland, accessibility, quantified self, etc.) allowing me to browse by topic if need be, but Evernote’s search is always my first instinct. It works without all the fiddly effort of managing a complex tagging system.

My Grad School Notetaking Workflow

Now that I’ve had my iPad Pro for a while, I’ve finally settled into a routine for managing my course notes. I rely on two main apps (Goodnotes and Evernote) and both my Macbook Pro and iPad Pro.

Setting Up for the Week

Each week before class, I duplicate an existing copy of my weekly course notes to save time typing out my preferred format. It’s broken down into Administrative (typically action items or important information about the course), a list of assigned readings, an area for taking notes during that week’s lecture, and a place for the lecture slides.

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(Note in the screenshot above I have two reminders listed in the sidebar. They serve as a workaround to pin notes to the top like Apple Notes. Until Evernote decides to add the feature, this is the next best thing. I just turn off notifications so I’m not pestered by dates.)

Next, I download the assigned readings for the next week as well as the lecture slides from the previous class from the course site on Blackboard. Newly assigned readings get put into Goodnotes on the Mac. While I’m in Goodnotes, I also export any readings from the previous week to PDF and delete the previous week’s category.

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Back in Evernote, I create notes for each of the new readings and link to them in the weekly note using the Copy Note Link feature. I used to include my reading notes directly in the Weekly notes, but after noticing a few of the assigned readings were papers I’d already read for another class, I switched to keeping my notes directly with the papers themselves, linking each class to the single note for the paper. It makes noticing connections a lot easier.

The last step in preparing for the week is to create tasks in Omnifocus. I typically prefer to have all the assignments plugged in at the start of the semester, but for this class, it’s easier to enter them on a weekly basis.

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Reading

With set up done, I switch to my iPad Pro for reading and annotation within Goodnotes. If something seems particularly noteworthy I make note of that in the stub note in Evernote, but for the most part, the annotation is sufficient.

In Class

During class, I use my iPad Pro to switch between typing notes into Evernote and making additional annotations in Goodnotes.

Tidying Up

The day after class, I make sure my weekly note for the previous class is complete by adding the final annotated copy of the readings into the stub notes I created for them (they’re already linked to the main weekly note), adding the lecture slides. I end up with something that looks a bit like this.

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And then it’s time to start this whole process over for the next week!

 

A Few Improvements to my Evernote Organization

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

 

A few months ago I wrote about how I’m organizing Evernote. Have no fear! I’m still loving my basic set up, but I have made a few additions to keep important information at hand.

I’m not sure which podcast introduced me to Tiago Forte, but in the weeks after learning of him, I spent hours reading into his P.A.R.A. method – a “universal system for organizing digital information.” His idea is simple – The tools you use aren’t important as long as you have a system to organize things. Of course, any mention of systems has my attention.

I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but P.A.R.A. stands for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. He has a 4-part series if you’re interested in learning all the details. Unfortunately, the posts are now behind a paywall though, so here’s an interview he did with Evernote that goes over the basics.

I’ve not adopted his system fully, but I did walk away with a few insights.

Take Away 1: Projects vs. Areas of Responsibility

Coming from a GTD mindset, projects and areas of responsibility seem fairly straightforward, but I was surprised to discover I was mixing them up just as Forte mentioned. He describes a project as “a series of tasks linked to a goal with a deadline,” whereas an area of responsibility is “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.” Projects can be completed. Areas of responsibility are ongoing.

Forte argues that when you mix the two together, it’s difficult to see everything you’ve committed to, and I couldn’t agree more. Clarifying the commitments required by my ongoing areas of responsibility has given me a better understanding of just how feasible taking on that extra project might be.

Take Away 2: Make Most Used Information the Most Accessible

It’s no surprise that information isn’t equal. Some notes are used more than others. Part of Forte’s P.A.R.A. method includes keeping your notes organized hierarchically so that your most used information is easily accessible. More actionable information flows up to the top Project level, whereas lesser-used information flows down to Archives.

Forte suggests moving everything into Archives to start. As you need to use notes, move them to their appropriate level, and they will gradually end up in their respective areas. I actually tried this, but quickly found his distinctions between Resources, Areas, and Archives too arbitrary for my needs.

Instead, I settled on a simplified system. I created two stacks – one for Current Projects and one for everything else, Reference. Like, Forte suggested, I just moved my existing notebooks into a Reference stack. For any projects that require supporting documentation, I create a notebook under Current Projects. Once completed, their content will be archived to their respective area under Reference.

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(Side note: I’ve also made two other changes: Agendas now live in their own notebook for easier access, and I created a separate Reference notebook for book highlights.)

Take Away 3: Review and Improve your Notes as You Use Them

A lot of people seem to treat Evernote as a junk drawer. I’m guilty as well. Forte has a whole system for randomly resurfacing his notes and annotating them. As cool as it is, I simply don’t have time to review and revise notes each day. Moreover, I find his rules for when to highlight versus bold a bit fiddly. Instead, I’m simply trying to make a point to improve my notes each time I use them. As I use a note, I’ll clarify or highlight the portion I used.

With these three takeaways, my notes should become more and more useful over time. I’m sure that the system will evolve, but for now this seems to be a nice blend of simplicity and functionality.

 

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A Simple Solution for Integrating Goals into Omnifocus

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Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash

As each year wraps up, I, like many, start thinking about my goals. What did I set out to accomplish for the year? How did I do? Admittedly, I did pretty well, successfully completing 12 of my goals for 2017.

But there were equally as many that I didn’t get to. A handful of them are simply still in progress or wrapping up, but it was clear the others failed because I just wasn’t tracking them.

This makes me laugh because anyone who knows me knows I track just about everything: tv shows, tasks, activity, sleep, habits, how I spend time on my computer, water consumption… the list goes on…

For 2018, I set out with a plan, ensuring each goal had a way to be tracked. How to track progress on some things were a no-brainer. Tracking my weight is done automatically with Fitbit scale provided I remember to stand on it. Meditating regularly is something that Streaks can track automatically as long as the app sends the data to Apple Health.

It was the larger objectives I was having trouble with – my reading goal, financial goals, interpersonal things. They were things I really wanted to work on, but without some sort of accountability, ensuring steady progress on them was easily forgotten during the day to day activities.

Seeing as I run my life out of Omnifocus, I figured that was the best place to start, but I had a few problems:

  • I didn’t want my goals to get buried amongst my ongoing responsibilities.
  • I didn’t like the added visual clutter of prefixing each project with something like [GOAL]
  • Some of my goals like posting to this blog regularly were just tasks, not full blown projects.
  • I wanted them to live within my existing folder/project/context structure of Omnifocus.

My solution was quite simple. I simply added #goal to the Notes field of each project or task relating to a goal. With that, I created a custom perspective (project-based, grouped by folder, showing any remaining tasks that included the text #goal). The perspective gives me a list of all tasks related to my goals (at least the ones being tracked in Omnifocus) in one list.

I’ve added the perspective to my toolbar, so that whenever I’m in Omnifocus, I can see all my goals in one list. It’s become a valuable part of my daily planning and keeps me focused on ensuring I’m always making progress on my goals.

Trouble with Task Managers

I’ve been using Omnifocus for over 3 years now. It’s effectively become my second brain at this point. But lately, I’ve been running into a few hiccups.

Design

For anyone interested in GTD or task management, I doubt I need to mention how gorgeous Things 3 is. Looking at Omnifocus feels like I’m looking at a complicated spreadsheet now. I’d switch to Things in a heartbeat, but it’s lack of sequential tasks or perspectives are deal breakers. I also find that the sidebar gets quite overwhelming fairly quickly if you use a task manager to the extent that I do. If they’d add the ability to have headers in Areas, I’d be thrilled.

Sharing Lists

Now that I’m sharing tasks with another person, mainly my grocery list, I’ve had to look elsewhere and abandon my wonderfully organized list in Omnifocus. I’m back to using Reminders for now. For a brief time, I explored GoodTask and 2Do which both sync with Reminders, but found GoodTask lacking in features and 2Do just too complicated.

Tags

Testing out Things 3, GoodTask, and 2Do really opened my eyes to how valuable a tagging system could be. While not critical to my workflow, I do think there is value in being able to assign things like energy levels, priorities, or people to certain tasks in addition to just their context. Multiple tags is on the roadmap for Omnifocus 3, but it is yet another thing to be desired in my current set up.

For now, I’ve resigned myself to keep using Omnifocus. Tags are at least on the roadmap, and sharing of lists has at least been hinted at so it seems like my best bet is to keep waiting. Hopefully, the next version will feature a simplified design as well and the wait will be worthwhile. Until then, it seems like I’ll be dealing with a little more friction when it comes to my task management system then I’d like.