set up a project template in omnifocus

No matter how varied our lives, most of us can probably think of a series of tasks that we need to repeat from time to time. This could be a standard process for providing information or a service to customers, the steps required for making your favourite recipe, or even just a list of things to pack for your next trip or holiday. A ‘project’, after all, is nothing more than a group of related tasks.

In this post I want to show you how easy it is to set up a project template in omnifocus. Once you have mapped out the tasks that make up your project, you are only one right-click away from turning it into a template that you can use over and over again. Continue reading

what do you want from a to-do app?

Fools rush in, they say, where angels fear to tread. I thought I would create a diagram, using XMind, a free mind-mapping program, to ‘shortlist’ selected task management programs from a couple of user perspectives.

There are no winners: most of the listed apps have the capacity to boost your productivity enormously. Choosing a productivity app is largely a matter of personal preference – you have to feel comfortable with how data are entered, with the views on offer, with the workflow and the colour scheme. Some of that takes time; an app that dazzles you in the first week may feel suffocating and uninformative once it needs to handle a couple of hundred tasks.

You can question many aspects of my diagram. For example, most of the listed apps support various degrees of customisation; I have only listed omnifocus, gqueues and toodledo as being extraordinarily versatile in that area. For ‘bug free’ I have set the bar equally high.

There are also gaps in my diagram. I have not included apps that I have never explored (call me traditional), nor apps that are primarily geared towards note taking (such as evernote, that swiss army knife of productivity) or team collaboration (such as basecamp or flow). I have not included other parameters, such as whether file attachments are supported. There is only so much that will fit on a page.

My aim in posting this is not to provide complete or authoritative advice, but to provide a couple of pointers for people who are trying to find a task management app that may work for them. I would appreciate constructive feedback!

eloping with firetask

Firetask is a promising GTD-based productivity app with the simple ‘feel’ of a traditional to-do list. It has a well-designed beautiful interface and enough functionality to give well-established apps like things and omnifocus a run for their money. I have reviewed the mac desktop and the ipad apps (both version 2.2); there is no windows version.

While firetask is not perfect, it has almost done the unthinkable: prised me away from omnifocus. It has been like a suitor in a jane austen novel: maybe not the most sensible and respectable choice, but irresistible because of its colour and freshness. I want to spend time in the app, and that is a feeling I haven’t had with omnifocus for a long time. So, after a brief stint with the trial version, I decided to throw caution to the wind and to elope with firetask. Will it end in tears? Continue reading

nozbe launches desktop versions

Today marks the launch of new desktop versions for windows and mac of the nozbe productivity app. This post is a fully independent review of version 1.00 of the mac desktop version, which I am running on os 10.7.3  (lion).

Nozbe is the brainchild of michael swilinski of apivision, whose website describes the software as a ‘web-based time- and project-management application for busy people and teams’.

Nozbe has been available as a browser-based app for five years. More recently, the company released apps for the ipad and the iphone. The desktop version can be downloaded for free from the nozbe website. It works faster than the browser version and lets you work offline. Continue reading

integrate evernote with your to-do list

Most to-do lists nowadays provide the capacity to attach a note to a task. These notes can vary from a couple of lines to extensive web clippings or file attachments. The gold standard these days seems to be whether the productivity app provides integration with evernote. I will look briefly at four that do: omnifocus, nirvana, nozbe and zendone – although ‘integration’ seems to mean something quite different in each case.

A word of warning: this is a rather dry, technical post and if you would rather bail out now I am happy to direct you to a very funny post by a fellow blogger who recently shared his anxieties about niches, target audiences, flagging readership and the like. I can relate to that – my WordPress country stats show me I am yet to make headway into South America, China, Africa and Iceland. Most places, actually. Where are you folks?

If you are still here, thank you. Here we go: Continue reading

ozengo’s productivity principles

Zen is not commonly associated with productivity. However, as a western buddhist working in a large organisation I was able to draw on the clarity, simplicity and integrity that  characterise zen in refining my work habits. Other sources of inspiration over the years were stephen covey’s seven habits of highly effective people (1989) and david allen’s how to get things done – the art of stress-free productivity (2001).

The list below shows what works for me – some steps, strategies and workarounds I have developed for tackling complex projects.

articulate your vision

  • think big, describe what your dream looks like, where you want to be in five, ten years’ time
  • do not let your thinking be constrained by current practices, resource constraints or technical difficulies at this point
  • once you are satisfied with the vision you have articulated, embrace it and and start living accordingly

translate your vision into a broad plan

  • identify what needs to happen for your vision to become a reality
  • start grouping these change areas into domains (for example, research, skills or product development, strategic alliances)
  • identify opportunities for learning and collaboration for each of these domains (for example, online research, formal study, finding a mentor, informal networking)
  • do a ‘skills audit’: can you do this by yourself or within your current team configuration?
  • identify your personal supports: who is already on your side; with whom can you share your progress and frustrations?
  • talk to people – they may come up with great suggestions or point out a ‘blind spot’ in your thinking
  • develop an indicative timeline and costing
  • remember the saying: ‘a vision without action is a daydream; action without a vision a nightmare’

Continue reading

the ten apps of the high-functioning iPad

Over the past few months several colleagues have approached me after they had bought an iPad. Having just shelled out for their shiny new toy, they were in ‘what now’ territory, that electronic no-man’s land between cupertino packaging and a fully customised device. Some had seen me use outliners and project management software (Merlin 2) and they were keen to start using their new acquisition in the work environment. But what to buy; and how to find good stuff on that seemingly bloated app store?

Everyone’s needs are different (truism alert, ozengo), but the following apps would provide a good start for many users who are keen to use an iPad in the workplace. Please note that I am just an ordinary user, not an expert, and that I cannot accept any liability for any adverse consequences resulting from people using any of the apps listed below (such as the IMF accidentally switching to the drachma, or worse).

  1. Dropbox. An online file management system. Key documents uploaded to Dropbox are available across all your nominated computers and devices. Fast, reliable and free (up to 2Gb, with the option of paying for more storage). The most efficient way of getting files on and off your iPad – a must-have.
  2. Evernote. Write notes or capture them in a variety of ways (photo, email, audio, web-clipping). Your notes can be tagged, organised by category and shared across devices. Excellent search function. This incredibly robust and versatile app is another must-have on every iPad and desktop. The basic version is free.
  3. Pages. Apple’s word-processing software, beautifully adapted for the iPad. Use Dropbox and/or email to transfer files back to your desktop. This app handles basic Word documents and costs around $10 – check the iTunes app store for details. A cheaper alternative is PlainText, a beautifully designed free app.
  4. Numbers. Apple’s spreadsheet software, again beautifully adapted for the iPad. The app handles Excel documents (at least the basic flat files that I use) and costs around $10 – check the app store for details.
  5. Keynote. An excellent presentation package. I use it to draft and edit swish-looking presentations  (which I sometimes, reluctantly, have to convert to the drab corporate look). Like the other apps from the iWork suite this one costs around $10 – see the app store for details – and it handles PowerPoint files.
  6. iBooks. This excellent reader, which can be downloaded free from the app store, divides its ‘collections’ into books and pdfs. By going into your iTunes app and selecting ‘add to library’ from the file menu you can upload all sorts of pdfs onto your iPad. My iBooks pdf collection contains manuals, org charts and even a complete Act of Parliament. A favourite trick of mine is to upload my copy of meeting papers as a pdf. More often than not the papers are no longer required after the meeting and I can just delete them, helping to minimise my carbon footprint. If you need the capacity to annotate pdfs, you may want to consider iannotate ($10.49).
  7. You may need a task management app. I recommend Omnifocus (see previous post) if you are a Mac user or happy to use just the iPad and iPhone versions; GQueues if you need a browser-based app alongside your mobile devices or work in a Windows environment. Both apps are reviewed elsewhere on this blog.
  8. I use iThougthsHD ($10.49) as mind mapping/brainstorming software. Nice graphics, powerful yet easy to use and synchronises with Dropbox.
  9. Calling Soulver ($6.49) a calculator does not do justice to this multi-faceted app. It doubles as a currency converter and does all sorts of magical maths stuff that goes far beyond my needs and understanding. However, the most compelling feature for me is its customised buttons for percentage work (such as % of, % off, as a % of and others). You can also save the steps in your reasoning and calculations as neat little files that can be accessed from the navigation pane.
  10. Finally, every working boy or gal needs a good listing app, if only to combat listlessness in the workplace (groan – sorry). I use my checklists to keep track of committee members, meeting papers, recurrent processes, stuff to pack for conferences or site visits and the like. My favourites are Zenbe ($5.49) and CarbonFin ($5.49). CarbonFin is much more than a list program. It is a powerful outliner that can be used as a simple task manager, including basic project management tasks. It synchronises with a desktop version. In spite of this, I tend to use Zenbe more and it is always on my home page. I love them both.

Using the above apps (and MS-Project/Merlin 2) I manage to do all the work associated with three-day site visits for major review projects that I undertake as part of my job, leaving the laptop at home. I do chuck the wireless keyboard in my backpack if I expect to do a lot of word processing.

Update (21 October 2012)

Just a quick note to let you know that Zenbe appears to have gone out of business and that the app is no longer supported.

omnifocus: the holy grail of productivity

I started using Omnifocus in mid-2009 when I moved from Windows to Mac, initially only for one-off personal tasks. At work, in a Windows-based environment, I was already using ToodleDo. While I initially liked the simplicity and versatility of Omnifocus, it started feeling complicated and overwhelming once I added in all my recurrent tasks after a year or so. I was missing a clear ‘today’ view and felt paralysed by the many ‘overdue’ tasks. I bailed out and tried alternatives including (in order of preference) ToDoist, NozBe, 2Do, MyProjects, Things and Wunderlist. I agree, dear reader, none of this made me particularly productive. And as my youngest daughter would say: ‘first world problem, dad’ – and she was right of course. As every other app at some stage confronted me with a deal-breaker, I eventually returned to Omnifocus, delved a bit deeper into the documentation and came to the conclusion that I had been overusing due dates and under-utilising ‘perspectives’. I have since overhauled my Omnifocus setup, brought in all my work tasks and I am now loving it.

The best features of Omnifocus for me are:

  1. It has a built-in review process that encourages you to review your tasks and workflow regularly.
  2. It allows you to specify whether tasks in a project are sequential or parallel.
  3. The availability filter makes it easy to focus on those tasks that you can complete now and a special ‘focus’ button lets you concentrate on a single project or context to minimise distractions.
  4. It allows you to create project templates that you can save for future use. As I am a project manager, this feature, together with nested (i.e. indented) tasks, was a major selling point.
  5. It is incredibly flexible, customisable and robust. Notes added to tasks can be one line or an entire web page.
  6. Data can be entered in a variety of ways including quick entry, email, web clipping and linking with Evernote. The default location for new tasks is the inbox.
  7. The iPad version is fantastic, introducing features like a calendar view and ‘drag and drop’ that complement the functionality of the desktop version and making it fun to review projects (some people say I should go out more).
  8. Omnifocus comes with all the bells and whistles you can expect of contemporary task managers, including nested tasks, location services and a search capacity. It comes with a good manual and is fully compatible with the GTD approach.

I see its limitations as follows:

  1. While Omnifocus is easy to start using, you probably need to invest a bit of time to understand the full potential of this application.
  2. It is not cheap. When I last looked, the iMac version was US $79.99, the iPad version US $39.99 and the iPhone version US $19.99.
  3. The desktop version runs only on the Mac operating system.

I have seen many people ask questions about Omnifocus and other task management applications in online forums. If you are one of them, I hope this post helps you make a more informed decision.

the quest for productivity

Lists. I love them. For years I kept lists of things to do, to pack, to read, to eat. Once I even thought it would be cool to make a list of lists to make. It must be genetic. Call it listlust. Anyhow, when it came to work I used to write my to do list in one of those heavy blue Collins diaries that showed a day to a page. I ticked off, or crossed out, whatever was done, and inevitably ended up transferring many tasks to the next day or the following week. It involved a lot of writing, and a lot of cross-checking to make sure that all tasks had been carried forward. In the early nineties they installed Lotus Notes on our computers at work and the developers had taken great care to make their electronic diary resemble our paper diaries as much as possible. I suppose it was a matter of minimising the shock of the new. Ah, those days of trompe-l’oeil productivity, with pretend ringbinders and fake leather covers.

Over the years, electronic to do lists have developed a format of their own, gradually introducing more functionality, such as the capacity to sort tasks by due date or priority, to create repeating tasks and to group related tasks into categories or projects. They have also evolved from one-dimensional lists to multi-dimensional productivity systems that are sometimes underpinned by a strong conceptual framework. One of the best known of these is probably the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach developed by David Allen. His 2001 magnum opus, subtitled the art of stress-free productivity, has spawned a myriad of applications for desktop computers and handheld devices.

David Allen emphasises the need to adopt ‘a trusted system’, in which you can record every single actionable thought as you go. For me, that trusted system is Omnifocus, having earlier tried Remember the Milk and ToodleDo. The latter two were worthy contenders, especially ToodleDo, which has nested tasks. As browser-based applications, they run on Windows and Mac, whereas Omnifocus comes in a Mac desktop version only, with separate apps for the iPhone and the iPad.

In a future post I will explain why I have decided to go with Omnifocus. I may also introduce some promising new productivity apps, including Asana and ZenDone.