Tools for knowledge work, part 1
This newsletter, I’m talking about time and task management tools I use as a freelance writer and editor. In another issue, I’ll tackle note taking and writing tools.
I got the new release of OmniFocus recently, OmniFocus 3.
If you don’t know about it, OmniFocus is ridiculously over-priced, ridiculously over-featured Mac-only task management software. I’ve been using it on and off since around 2006, and it’s one of the reasons I still remain locked into the Mac ecosystem, despite my growing dissatisfaction with Apple’s price gouging.
Although OmniFocus has a steep learning curve and an abundance of features I will never need, it’s well supported and there is an active community of users. It’s got a clean interface, and it syncs seamlessly between all my devices, including my phone and my calendar. And I’ve kept coming back to it for 12 years.
OmniFocus was developed in part as a software implementation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. So it’s all about:
- capturing information about what you need to do
- breaking tasks down into discrete actions (with a particular focus on the next available action you need to perform to keep the task moving)
- sorting actions into projects and contexts — which I’ll get into in a bit, and
- hiding the whole mess from you, so you only ever see what you need to be working on right now.
One of the things I’ve always liked about OmniFocus is the way it uses the GTD concept of contexts. This means that as well as sorting your tasks into projects broken down into specific actions, you can also assign those actions to a particular context.
Contexts can be anything you want, but I think of them as the ‘where’ of a task, while a project is the ‘what’. For example, contexts could be:
- the place you need to be to do the task, like ‘home’, ‘office’, ‘supermarket’
- the mindset you need to be in to do the task, like ‘phone calls’, ‘email’, ‘invoices’
The cool thing about using contexts is that you can batch tasks from different projects into the most appropriate block of time. Like, I hate making phone calls, so if I batch them all into a ‘phone calls’ context, I can work down the list of calls when I’m in the right mental space for talking on the phone, regardless of what specific project each call relates to.
OmniFocus 3, however, does away with contexts. Instead, it uses tags, which provide a much more flexible approach that lets you assign multiple tags to your tasks. This means you can also set some broader governing tags to assist in your planning. So as well as the usual contextual labels, I’ve been trialling three additional planning tags for ‘this month’, ‘this week’, and ‘today’.
These three tags are now driving my planning and doing processes in really helpful, functional ways.
- The monthly tag is the big picture view for the month, the major goals I want to tick off.
- The weekly tag is the mess of task-level actions I know I have to get done this week.
- The today tag is where I live — I pull actions from the weekly list, and only ever focus on one or two at a time.
I’m finding I hardly ever look at my ‘batch’ style tags anymore. It’s all about that ‘today’ tag: what do I need to be focusing on right now? What is the best use of my time and attention in this particular block of time right in front of me?
Although OmniFocus lets you set deadlines for tasks, I try to avoid this unless it’s a hard, external deadline that someone else is depending on. There’s nothing worse than seeing a bunch of red notifications popping up for trivial things that get rescheduled indefinitely. Much better just to scan that weekly and monthly list, and pick the one or two things that really matter.
In summary, the thing I like most about OmniFocus is that it’s a trusted system I can dump all of my anxiety into, and hide tasks from myself until I need to focus on them. Instead of waking up at 3am worrying about all those undone tasks, I know that information is safely stored in OmniFocus, waiting for me to review it at the right time. And when the right time comes, I only ever need to look at the ‘today’ tag to see the single most important thing for me to be doing right now.
One of the David Allen’s tenets for GTD is that your diary defines your ‘hard landscape’ — you only ever put something in your calendar if you have to be at a certain place at a certain time.
I have mixed feelings about this approach. As a work-from-home freelancer, my so-called hard landscape is actually pretty soft and malleable, and I rarely have to be anywhere at set times. On the other hand, my biggest challenge is managing my time so that I’m not either overbooked and stressed out, or turning down work when really I had the capacity to take it on.
I’ve tried a few different systems over the years, including a gridded white board at one extreme, and just winging it at the other. What I’ve settled on for the last couple of years is blocking out time associated with different projects in iCal. So when I get a job that I’ve quoted eight hours on, that eight hours gets assigned to a block in the diary.
I often shift blocks around when things change, but the great thing about it is I can see at a glance what my capacity is like over the next few weeks — taking into account weekends and downtime — and I’m not tempted to overbook myself. Time that I’m paid for is my hard landscape, and it goes into iCal. I work the rest of my life around that.
I got the idea for using iCal like this from this implementation of a team-based lego calendar system. I thought about doing this just for one person, using lego blocks to represent time assigned to specific projects — before I realised that I have this ultraflexible time-block application built right into my computer called iCal.
It’s also worth mentioning in closing that OmniFocus syncs nicely with iCal, and has a pretty useful ‘Forecast’ view, which lets you see what you’ve got coming up in your diary, alongside all the tasks you’ve got on.
Next time, I’ll talk about my ‘zettlekasten’ system for note taking!