Friday, March 29, 2013

Taken to task

You don't see this but I get eleventy-billion spam messages per minute on this blog. I don't see them either: the blog gods let you through and shove the rest into a penalty box until I have chance to review them. I never review them.

Except, I did.

And I've had two genuine, non-spam comments from people saddled with the unfortunate name of Anonymous. It's the parents I blame. One of them wanted to know about a Lark Rise to Candleford film I shot untold years ago. We've nattered now and I've told her all I can.

The other Anonymous – apparently no relation, though you're suspicious, aren't you? – wanted to take me to task about a blog I wrote in January 2012. That feels like the eleventh century, but datestamping doesn't lie: Done To-Do, What's Next? was January last year. And I tells you, I thought it was the definitive rave about OmniFocus, a to-do tasky manager thing that runs on Mac, iPhone and iPad. (No PC version.)

But Anonymous wasn't happy. He or she uses another app I mentioned, Appigo's ToDo, and is looking at me.
What is it about Omni Focus, $$ that it is, that makes it work for you?
It wasn't clear from the column! You mentioned one view, Forecast that shows today, but I'm not sure why that's anything better than ToDo. 
Perhaps you can write another column to help those of us who are using ToDo , but frustrated with it (and Appigo's repeated upgrades that duplicate, destroy, or otherwise create headaches for the user).
If I could find a way to contact Anonymous the way I did Anonymous, I'd contact Anonymous. But I can't so I haven't so I shall tell you too. But by marvellous coincidence – have you got a cup of tea yet? sit yourself down – OmniFocus this week released something that makes me happy. Lots of things make me happy. You do, actually, though I also worry about you. Are you still getting those pains?

It's the concept of OmniFocus that's the tricky part. It's not the same.

Previously on To Do apps

With all To Do apps, you make a note of what's on your plate and then a man's gotta do what a man's got on his To Do list. You do it and then tick, it's gone.

Only, you don't do it. It's the end of the day, you're outta time, it ain't getting done. So you go through your list and think about it all, deciding what you have to do first thing tomorrow, what can wait a bit, what you can delete forever because nobody's looking.

All To Do apps have tools to help you. You can set this task to be Priority Level: Shrug while this next one is Priority: Eeek. You can use tags – I'm going to have to guess a bit here as I never got around to tags – where, I don't know, this task has something to do with when you're wearing your Rudolph the Whisky-Drinking Reindeer jumper on.

It is immensely satisfying to open your To Do app and tick done. Cor.

Except, you find you keep coming back to the app: do something, tick it off. And then there's the next thought where you go, er, right, what's next? Pick something at the top of your list: is it Priority: Eeek? Can you actually do it now or do you need something first? Do you need someone else first? Has Bert finished his bit so you can do yours? Do you need a spanner and if so, why didn't you look at this when you were at the bleedin' hardware store picking up replacement light bulbs for your Christmas tree?

Is the task something like "Write a book" where that's all very nice but, seriously, are you going to get around to it and will you really be able to tick done by 6pm tonight?


Anonymous mentions the Forecast view in OmniFocus for iPhone and iPad. It is very good. Anon's point is that it sounds like every other To Do app's daily list of things.

It isn't.

It's what has to get done today. Plus what you have to start doing today. That's all. But in doing that, in nudging you to use it like that, you slowly transform how you even see To Do lists. When you start using OmniFocus, it is like every other To Do app with its badge of many tasks whose number never goes down. After a little while, you stop having a thousand tasks today, you have maybe four. And you can do four. You will do four.

Instead of chipping away at the ice, you're knocking blocks off your To Do list and you're coming out at the end of the week with a substantial amount done. And it's at least a big way down to how OmniFocus doesn't show you the thousand tasks you've got left on your list, it shows you the ones you can do now.

Follow. I have to deliver a series of radio interviews to a client tomorrow. I've known that for a month so in the old way of things, I'd have put that on the list and it would've sat there for a month. Every time I opened the list, there it would be, lost in a sea of tasks but still there and part of me would see it and actually think for a beat, is it the end of the month yet? That task is not on my OmniFocus list.

But it will be tomorrow.

OmniFocus will automatically put it there for me tomorrow.

Now, I can do that because I also put in tasks for each of the interviews and I've ticked those off as I went, but right at the start I said no. As I popped in the task Deliver Audio, I set the due date for tomorrow – and that's where it stayed. In tomorrow. I could look ahead in the forecast and see it, and I did do that each time something came up and I wanted to judge how busy I was going to be on Saturday, but it wasn't on my list each day.

Every task manager does something of this sort but then there's also this little companion feature: as well as due dates, OmniFocus gives you start dates. So, strictly speaking, I didn't get this radio job a month ago, I got it about five weeks ago with the knowledge that I couldn't start it for a few days. So I put the due date in for Saturday 30 March and I put the start date in for Friday 1 March.

So all that week at the end of February, I didn't give these interviews a thought. I didn't have to, and my To Do list didn't make me. It gets it out of your head and you know that you won't miss anything because there it will be when you need it.

Now, I don't always do that. You don't have to do start dates. I've come to do a lot of start dates and actually very few due dates: unless it really is due on a day, I don't go making up deadlines anymore.

If that's all you do in OmniFocus, that's cool. But you can add more and more and more. It's really handy to say that a task is to do with, say, the book I'm writing. So then when I'm working on the book, I don't have to see all the Doctor Who tasks I've got, I can just check off book bits. And you can bother to say that the task is, I don't know, a phone call or an email. I've spent a lot of time waiting on platforms for trains this month and I've been able to say go on then, just show me what phone calls I've got to make. And there they are. Phone. Speak. Tick.

But speaking of phones and speaking of speaking... I spend most of my time with the iPhone version of OmniFocus and it is fantastic to be stepping onto a train and saying to it – I mean actually saying, talking, speaking – things like "Remind me to phone Angela when I get back home". And sure enough, as I walk up our drive, ping, there's my reminder.

Similarly, if I'm walking through a new area, I can look at the map in OmniFocus and it'll show me which of my tasks I can do wherever I am. I've used that for when I needed to get to a cashpoint and when I've known I'll be passing a supermarket.

You can do more and many people do, but I think this is already sounding a mountain to you. It really isn't as you work away and it's specifically designed to stop ever being a mountain because it just shows you what you can do now, not this giant thousand-long list.

It's not a To Do list, it's a Can Be Done Now list.

I'm not even as wedded to OmniFocus as I sound: with previous task managers I'd open them up, pick a task, go do it, come back, tick that off, pick the next. With OmniFocus, I see my list for the day and I just go do them. Might check back, will almost certainly add more, but when I go to tick things off as done, it tends to be in huge batches. And, wow, that is satisfying.

It's also supremely satisfying to review everything you've got to do. Once a week or so, get OmniFocus to show you its review of all your tasks. Do this in the iPad version: it's gorgeous. And you just skip through everything. I'm always surprised how many things I've already done and can tick off, but then you look at this job and work out why you haven't moved it forward, you look at that job and think actually, I'm not that fussed. And by the end of the review, you've still got everything in OmniFocus and out of your head but you feel so utterly in control of what you're done.

I never got a fraction of that with other To Do apps.

And I need it now. Since that January 2012 blog, there's been a storm in my work and writing and life. Yet Angela tells me I seem lighter. It's because I finally know what I'm doing and I can shove all the things into OmniFocus that I have previously struggled to balance and get on with the work that I am good at, knowing that OmniFocus won't let me forget things. It's got my back, that really is how it feels.

So the short fact is that – to answer Anonymous's key question – OmniFocus fits me. It won't fit everybody and I tell you now as I told you before, the Mac version of it is hard to use and the concept of it is surprisingly difficult to quickly grasp. And yes, it does cost $$.

The iPhone one is good, the iPad one is tremendous, the Mac one is hard but extraordinarily powerful.

And this is what the makers, the Omni Group, have done this week to make me happy: I've now got an alpha copy of the next version of OmniFocus for Mac.

You know what beta software is, this is worse. Alpha software is where all the bits have come together, kinda, and probably do most of what they eventually will, but definitely won't play nice together. So it's got functions that don't do anything yet and it is crashing exactly as often as the Omni Group said. You would be mad to use any company's alpha software and you actually have to convince Omni Group that you get it before you get it: that you understand what's really happening. If you're an alpha tester, you are insane.

I'm an alpha tester. And I can tell you after two days and maybe twenty minutes active use of this new version that it is really good. It's going to be really good.

Next week, I evangelise 2B pencils.


Hilary said...

Loved this. Thank you for continuing to write about Omnifocus. I need the encouragement. I've found the Mac version debilitatingly difficult so am really looking forward to getting my hands on this new version. Do please keep going with the updates as much as you can bear it.

Just one thing. You said: "Can you actually do it now or do you need something first? Do you need someone else first? Has Bert finished his bit so you can do yours? Do you need a spanner and if so, why didn't you look at this when you were at the bleedin' hardware store picking up replacement light bulbs for your Christmas tree?"

I fear you may be at risk of having your wrist slapped by David Allen for this. He's adamant that what you list as a task must be the next action, i.e. something you can actually DO, so that if Bert hasn't finished his bit your next action on that project must be 'wait for Bert to get his arse in gear,' or indeed 'buy spanner.' That's what I like about GTD. It forces you to stop worrying about things you can't do yet because you have to do other things first. Or, as is extremely likely, have I misunderstood?

William Gallagher said...

Ah, now, while I completely agree about the benefit of getting things out of tour head, nonetheless I wish to complain: the troublesome Bert was in my pre-OmniFocus days. I'm much better now. Still don't follow GTD religiously but I am hot on making tasks clear and actionable: I do write "Buy spanner" rather than just "Spanner". 

What you're talking about is a sequential project and I can't remember the last time I did one of those. I just add task after task and rely on start dates. But I should really have done that with the radio interviews; I should've made it so that the "Deliver all interview audio" wasn't available until I'd done each of the interviews. I'll think about that for the next time. 

I thought about you when I got the alpha. I do really like it but I'm wondering how much of your problem with it is this conceptual thing that you'll just get through and how much is the fact that the Mac version is hard. This new one, so far, feels quicker and more straightforward and even more modern but I had learnt the old one: I'm wondering if this is really easier or just easier for someone like me who's been through the head-scratching phase for long enough. 


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