Maintaining Focus with Keyboard Maestro

About a week ago, I decided to move Instagram to the second page of a folder on my iPhone. I didn’t really think I had any sort of problem with Instagram. I just wanted to be more intentional with how I used my phone after seeing my weekly Screentime reports. Little did I know, just seeing the Instagram icon (even the tiny one inside a folder) had become an incredibly strong cue to unconsciously open the app whenever I picked up my phone. A week later, and Screentime is already reporting my phone usage is down 36% just by moving the app!

Features like Screentime and Downtime are great for iOS devices, and that 36% is huge, but the 19 hours I spend on my iOS devices pale in comparison to how much time I spend on my Mac. I couldn’t help but not think of how many cues on my Mac were stealing my precious time without even realizing it. For now, there is no Screentime for Mac, but services like RescueTime work similarly to give you a good idea of where you’re spending your time so you can start seeing where you need to cut back.

That being said, breaking bad habits requires more than just knowing where you’re spending time. If you want to actually change those habits, you also need to disrupt your behavior patterns. Plenty of apps can block apps and websites during specific times. Unfortunately, most of the ones I found require subscriptions, and as much as I want to support developers, paying for another subscription is just not in my budget right now.

As I thought through my options, I realized I had already broken a pretty well-conditioned habit of compulsive email checking using a fairly simple Keyboard Maestro macro paired with Marco Arment’s Quitter app. The Keyboard Maestro macro just gave me an alert every time I opened my email client just to remind me I was opening it. Usually, the notification was jarring enough to make me stop and realize what I was doing. The Quitter app quit my email client after 20 minutes of inactivity. Within days, the combination opened my eyes to just how often I was opening my email client throughout the day and also kept me from being pulled back into email when I forgot to close it.

It worked so well that I’ve gotten checking my email down to 3 times a day while at work (8AM, 12PM, and 4PM). In fact, I had to create a new Keyboard Maestro macro that opens my email client at those times because I often forget to check my email. For added fun, I recently added an option to the macro that lets me delay opening Airmail for 5 minutes if I happen to be occupied with something else.

With how well this worked for breaking compulsive email checking, I figured I could apply it to other applications, so I set back to work in Keyboard Maestro. Having recently learned how to incorporate times into my macros, I was able to come up with a vastly improved macro that lets me “limit” certain apps during certain hours. I’m using the term limit loosely because I didn’t want to be completely blocked out of an app if I didn’t need to be. If a predefined app activates during the hours I’ve set, I get a notification reminding me I probably have more important things to do, along with 2 options – to quit the app or accept the notification and open it anyway. More often than not, just as with my email app macro, just the alert is enough to snap me out of my muscle memory.

I’ve only been using it for a week or so, but it’s been working so well, I wanted to share it with you. The macro first sets the variable Time to the current hour. If it’s between the hours set, it will pause briefly to allow the app to load and then prompt you with a notification. Clicking Quit continues to the next action of quitting the frontmost app. Clicking the other option cancels the macro.

by default 2018-11-20 at 1.20.29 PM.png

Of note, instead of referring to specific apps within the macro, I made use of the variable %Application%1% which refers to the front application. I’ve created macros to refer to the “Front Application” in the past, but until recently, I didn’t know you could pass the front application’s name as a variable as well. This lets me avoid hardcoding any of the applications into the macro’s actions and dialogs so that adding new apps just a matter of adding a new application trigger at the beginning.

Have you set up anything on your Mac to keep you on track? I’d love to hear what others are doing.

Advertisements

Saying Goodbye To OmniFocus

eric-rothermel-23788-unsplash

One of the key things for any productivity system is that you have to trust it. For me, the center of that system has been OmniFocus. To say it has run my life over the past 4 years is an understatement, so it was a no-brainer to purchase OmniFocus 3 when it was released for macOS a few weeks ago.

Then the unthinkable happened. I have to be honest, never in a million years did I expect that I’d be writing this post.

I can’t really pinpoint where trust in my system started eroding with OmniFocus 3. Maybe it was the constant threat of tags teetering on the line of becoming out of control, struggling to adapt my perspectives in meaningful ways, or maybe it was just a feeling that my projects were staring me down. Within a matter of weeks, it became overly clear that OmniFocus was no longer a joy to use, and I found myself opening it with dread.

Being a natural planner and someone who’s been using OmniFocus to manage every aspect of my life for years, not trusting that system sent me into a spiral of chaos fairly quickly. Before I knew it, I was 2 hours into setting up a trial of Things 3 on my Mac.

Yes, Things.

I was a Things user before switching to OmniFocus. I actually wrote about it on here many years back. Many of my gripes with Things 2 have been corrected with Things 3, but Things 3 isn’t perfect just yet. There’s a lot to love, but there’s also a lot lacking when you’re used to a task manager as powerful as OmniFocus.

What’s changed?

My experience with Things 3 this time around was a little bit like rereading a book later in life. My life isn’t drastically different. I still have the most of the same responsibilities and projects, with a few more added (Hello, condo and management position), so my needs haven’t gotten simpler. My mindset around managing tasks, however, seems to have. A task manager at its heart should help you accomplish tasks, and OmniFocus had led me down a road of managing tasks instead.

Migrating to Things wasn’t without its challenges though.

First and foremost, my project list had to change.

OmniFocus lets you organize tasks in a number of ways. For one-off tasks, they give you Single Action Lists (SALs). These most commonly end up being used for tasks related to the ongoing roles of your life (e.g. health). For traditional projects in the GTD sense (a completable task comprised of more than one action item), they give you sequential and parallel projects (depending on whether actions are dependent on each other.) SALs, parallel projects, and sequential projects can be grouped by folders (typically used for Areas of Responsibility). This gives you several levels of hierarchy to organize your tasks.

Things 3 only gives you two – Areas and Projects.

In the past, I struggled to find a way to migrate my project list from OmniFocus to Things because of this. I tried to either abandon my high-level folders entirely (resulting in a ton of areas) or I tried to collapse my SALs into a single area (requiring a ton of tags).

The key mindset shift here is that Things 3 is only loosely based on GTD. As soon as I loosened my definition of a project, I opened the doors for projects to be used as sub areas, just like my SALs in OmniFocus.

There are a few additional benefits to Things’ project lists. Areas can have their own tasks allowing me to get rid of my “General
tasks” SALs. Projects can be organized by headings allowing me to organize my lists in ways I’d never been able to before (e.g. breaking my cleaning list down into daily, weekly, monthly chores). Lastly, projects are denoted by completion pies. Since I’m using projects as both SALs and actual projects, it remains to be seen how useful this will be, but for now it’s a good visual representation of where I’m focusing most of my attention (a more complete Health pie means I’m spending more time on my health than a less complete Car pie).

A second mindset shift was about complexity.

Much like Things’ vastly simplified project list, how you work with your tasks is simplified. Forget stalled projects or tags. Forget setting times on your tasks. Forget action item dependencies. Tasks are available unless you set a start date or set the task to Someday.

In some ways, I miss Omnifocus’s attention to detail. I can’t set my task to take out the trash to only show after 5PM, and projects with sequential actions require a bit more thought. However, thought, in this case, isn’t a bad thing. Omnifocus’s ability to fine tune tasks gave me the option to get fiddly without realizing it. Migrating to Things forced me to reconsider just how bad it had gotten. Most of my sub actions could be removed entirely or accomplished with Things’ barebones sub-action feature of checklists.

My third mindset shift is probably the most difficult – giving up custom perspectives.

I lived out of my custom perspectives in OmniFocus. Being able to easily bring up a list of all my available Work tasks was great. Things isn’t quite there yet, but because I’ve simplified everything so much in switching to Things, I can truly work out of the built-in Today view (filtering by my location tag if necessary). The one thing I can’t do is filter by multiple tags at once (e.g. Office OR Anywhere). Things treats selections of multiple tags as an AND operator, but overall this hasn’t been a deal breaker.

What I’m loving about Things:

  • The interface is incredibly simple. Seeing my tasks in OmniFocus vs. Things is a staggering difference, but now my focus can return to tasks, not the interface.image.png
  • Despite the simplicity, there’s incredible attention to detail. Tasks with deadlines even include a handy countdown letting you know how much time you have left.

What I’m missing (and hoping for) with Things:

  • Dates are just dates. There are no times. The only option to defer to a later time is to set a Today task to This Evening.
  • Task dependencies are a huge loss. Having to set arbitrary dates to overcome the lack of sequential actions is a bummer.
  • I’d also love to see Headers (currently only available in Projects) be made available in Areas or the Today view. Headers in areas would give me the true distinction of Areas, Sub-Areas, and Projects I am hoping for.

Things 3 has been a refreshing switch for me, and I’m interested to see where it takes me going forward.

Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash

Keeping Track of Meeting Notes with Agenda

thomas-martinsen-2443-unsplash.jpg

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

The Lazy Man’s Pomodoro Technique

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The Pomodoro Technique has always appealed to me. I had visions of furiously working away in short bursts with a cute little tomato timer sitting on my desk, but the reality is it has never worked out for me.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Pomodoro Technique, it’s a time management method where you work in intervals. Traditionally, those intervals, called a Pomodoro, are 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break. After 4 Pomodoros you get a longer 15-30 minute break. Those who like it say it helps stay on task and avoiding distractions.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been experimenting with what I like to call the “Lazy Man’s Pomodoro Method.”

Instead of the traditional intervals, I work for 35 minutes and then take a 5 minute break to get up and walk around. When I return from my break I have 20 minutes to do whatever I’d like, and then I repeat.

Much to my surprise, it’s actually been working, and I’ve been getting a LOT more done each day.

So why lazy?

  • It’s a lot fewer intervals to worry about. Pomodoros always seemed fussy to me. With this “lazy” interval, provided I start the interval 15 minutes into the hour, the break to get up falls right at my Apple Watch’s reminder to stand up. Once I get back to my desk after my break, I just need to set a 20 minute timer. (I’ve been using Gestimer on my Mac for anyone that’s interested.) Setting one timer vs six is a win for me.
  • I get rewarded for getting up every hour. I know it’s bad to sit down all day, but even with my Apple Watch reminding me to get up, I still have a tendency to stay sitting at my desk for too long. Knowing I get to come back and check my RSS reader for new articles, or read the book I’m currently reading helps to reinforce getting up each hour and hence keeps me from being lazy.
  • Lastly, I don’t feel guilty about procrastinating. Let’s just be honest, we all procrastinate. Having a time limit on my time wasting things on the internet is good, but I also know another one’s coming in an hour, so I don’t worry about when it ends.

Since I’ve modified the Pomodoro Technique to fit my lazy personality, my to do list in Omnifocus has shrunken considerably, and I feel a lot more productive each day because I’m not wasting my time on things that I shouldn’t be doing. Maybe it might just help you out too.

 

SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave