Embracing contexts and perspectives in OmniFocus Pro.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been really trying to take my OmniFocus use to the next level. I know that I haven’t been applying the true power of the application to my workflow, and so I’ve been making a concerted effort to learn about and implement the aspects of it that I’ve either not understood fully (defer dates) or underused (perspectives, contexts). What I’ve found through reading and discussion with some friends and fellow users is that (surprise) there’s an entire other world within the application once you embrace some of those more complex concepts.

I’m by no means an expert user, even at this point (I’d give myself “advanced”, though) but as I explore it, I’m often compelled to share things I discover. I think there’s something interesting about this app too, similar to other professional tools like Photoshop or Logic/Pro Tools that encourage users to share tips and flows with one another. As an audio engineer might tweak settings to get something just perfect in Logic and then share that discovery, productivity apps like OmniFocus have a similar base of interest.

Note: before we go further, it’s worth mentioning that in order to create custom perspectives and do the things I’m about to describe, you need to upgrade to the Pro version of the application(s). It is seriously worth it, though, because as good as it is by itself, you can truly make it your own with this additional functionality. If you’ve been holding off making the jump, my advice is to consider it. Also, Omni is a great company full of great people and you should support them so they can continue being great.

The Problem

I manage everything in OmniFocus. Personal tasks, work projects, home renovations, writing activities, et. al. I have tightly organized project structures, but feel that I need to focus on critical tasks in specific scenarios, e.g., I don’t need to know that the trash goes out tonight if I’m standing in my office.

The Process

In order to understand what and how I wanted to see things to ensure I was always performing the right set of tasks without interference, I needed to explore some things I’d avoided, namely flagged items and defer dates. I’ve used contexts selectively in the past, but never managed to make them really stick. By combining all three of these features, I was able to create a set of perspective rules that always show me:

  1. What I need to do right now
  2. Things I need to do soon that require some level of follow up

And to ascertain how to do that, I needed to clarify where and how I think about things:

  1. At work (in my physical office, and during the work day)
  2. At home (any time I’m not in the office)
  3. Any other time (primarily the weekend, since the other time blocks are covered)

The Solution

Three new contexts, three new perspectives, and a clear way to see only the essentials no matter where I am.

First, I created three new contexts: “9am-5pm”, “5pm-9am”, and “Weekend”.

9am-5pm covers my workday. When I’m standing in my office, what are the things that need to happen before I leave? This includes work-related tasks, but is not limited to that. Sometimes I need to call a bank or run an errand at lunchtime. Personal tasks under this context also appear here to be bound within that timeframe.

5pm-9am covers all the time I’m not at work. This includes things that can only be done at home (take out trash, give our kids baths) and/or work tasks to be accomplished after hours.

Weekend is a wildcard. I apply this context to anything that I think I want to tackle on Saturday or Sunday, when I assume (haha, small children) that I’ll have a modicum of free time.

I also made the decision to start using flagged tasks to indicate dated or undated tasks that require a follow up activity either on my part or the part of someone else. (Some people use a “Waiting” context for things like this, but I could never make that stick either.)

Then, combining these new groupings, I created three new perspectives.

See if you can figure out where I’m going with this.

9am-5pm is a perspective that collects:

  • anything in the 9am-5pm context that is due or flagged and available (not deferred)
  • anything that needs to happen as I leave the office for my home in the evening

5pm-9am is a perspective that collects:

  • anything in the 5pm-9am context that is due or flagged and available (not deferred)
  • anything that needs to happen as I leave my home for the office in the morning

Weekend is a perspective that collects:

  • anything in the 5pm-9am context that is due or flagged and available (not deferred)
  • anything dated or undated in the Weekend context

Now, you might be thinking “but… you’re home between 9 and 5 on the weekend, so your whole plan is shot and you’re a shortsighted person who really didn’t think this through” and you’d be sort of correct. But I don’t really care. The main purpose of that context is not so much to bind me to the hours as it is to block the day up the way I need to think about it, primarily during the work week. Certainly I could have called these “Office” and “Home” but it didn’t really feel right to me, since I think about my day in terms of time and not so much location. Location is a modifier on time. I could be working from home one day–in which case I’m not really in the office, but need to accomplish tasks between those hours. It just made sense to me. Also, I realize I kinda contradicted myself in explaining all this, since the weekend time blocks don’t apply, but let’s just keep going. It’s working.

I also made a few other new perspectives to collect all the undated stuff between work and personal projects at a glance, so I can browse them in between weekly reviews if I feel like it. Useful if you find yourself with a little extra time and want to try to accomplish something.

I think the next logical step for me is going to be time estimates. It’s something I haven’t felt the need to do, but as I follow this process to its logical end, I’m going to want to (I assume) get even more granular at points.

Maybe you’re reading this and freaking out because it’s like a bolt of lightning for you. Maybe you’re reading it and rolling your eyes. In the case of the latter, well, I’ve got nothing for you. I like exploring this stuff because as I’ve discussed in previous posts, it keeps my brain happy and is interesting to me. It’s a rabbit hole, and you can certainly waste endless amounts of time tweaking and not doing. But tweaking enough to do more is a truly exciting feeling to a certain kind of person like me and an incredible positive feedback loop. And if you’ve read this far (or any of those other posts), you’re probably that kind of person too.

Now get to work.

OmniFocus for iOS / OmniFocus for Mac (MAS) / OmniFocus for Mac (Omni Store)

Things I like this week, volume 5.

Twitterrific 5
Since giving the 6 Plus another look recently after using the Apple Watch, I’ve rediscovered how lovely Twitterrific is on the larger screen, especially in landscape mode. My love for both this app and Tweetbot is like loving two children: you just can’t play favorites. And like children, they’re both good at certain things. So I use both, at different times and for different purposes.

Twitterrific is an app with a long and storied history and the latest version has a lot of nice little touches that I really appreciate. The appearance customizations are plentiful, and tiny details like sliding your finger to move the cursor as you’re composing a tweet are surprisingly helpful. (I really wish this was an OS-level function. Once you start doing it, you wish you could do it everywhere.)

One big win is the “Delete and Edit Tweet” option, which allows you to quickly wipe a tweet out and re-post it, which is great for fixing typos. It has an Apple Watch companion app too, which is decidedly stripped down, presenting a summary feed of your interaction activity (mentions, favorites, etc.), and has a glance to roll those up for you in a nice way as well.

Twitterrific 5

Activity App (Apple Watch)
When the fitness aspects of the Apple Watch were presented to the public, I expected them but wasn’t that excited about them. I used a Fitbit for a year before realizing that I wasn’t getting great data because I’d already established healthy habits. So I figured I’d use the Activity app, but wasn’t so pumped about it.

Something about those three rings really hooked me, though. Maybe it’s that the Watch gets great data. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the presentation of that data. Maybe it’s the aspects of it being a little game with myself. Whatever it is, I find myself checking in, setting goals, and paying attention to it far more than I did with the Fitbit. I’m not as concerned with collecting data over the long term, but I sure like looking every day and seeing where I am in comparison to yesterday and the day before.

The Apple Watch does a ton of stuff, and will certainly grow to do even more. Getting me to think about health stuff again was not among the things I thought I’d be doing. And that’s good for me–and everyone else in my life.

Quick tips on using apps with Apple Watch.

In using the Apple Watch for a few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out the best patterns and methods of usage for my life, and how it fits in. I definitely enjoy the device and while I’ve seen people decry it as a superfluous bauble, I’m convinced of the variety of ways in which it can provide simple support on a day-to-day basis. I think it’s extremely important to think about the device in this way–as a support system for small tasks, not a replacement for your primary input, which for most of us is our iPhone.

There’s no shortage of writing on the Watch, and I’ve been thinking about what I want to say about it. I’ve decided (for now) to keep it as pragmatic as possible, since the market on breathless analysis is pretty much tied up. Not that I had much anyway. I’m exhausted with the state of technology coverage on the web right now, and I’m avoiding much of it in favor of exploring some other interests I’ve been neglecting. But I’ll share some things I’ve figured out because I think they’re useful. Maybe you’ll find them useful too.

Get to apps more quickly
Given that the Watch’s navigation is so different from iOS proper, I wanted to find ways to maximize efficiency in moving around the UI. A lot of people seem to feel that glances are the way to go, so you can peek into an app and then tap to jump directly to it, but I’ve found that glances take time to load and I don’t like the horizontal structure they employ once you start using more than four or five. So I’ve limited my glances to only three: Now Playing, Workflow, and the non-removable Settings. Instead, I’ve clustered my most-used apps around one another so that they are all easily tappable without scrolling the magnetic ball-pit that is the Watch’s Springboard equivalent. I found that even when the icons are in a partially-shrunken state, they are still tappable, which makes that first view when you press the Digital Crown so important.

Crown press, one tap, into an app. About as difficult as opening a folder to launch an app on your phone. I know where things are, and I don’t have to wait for a potentially finicky glance view to load first. Glances remain for quick access to infrequent actions.

Create an arrangement that snaps quickly
Although you can arrange the apps on your Watch in a variety of ways, I’ve found that quickly zipping up or down with a swipe is a very easy gesture to pull off. I’ve put a few apps that are less-used but require quick access at the very top and bottom of the arrangement. So when I swipe quickly up or down, the arrangement zips to that point and sticks. I have Workflow at the top and the Apple Remote app at the bottom.

Speaking of your arrangement, make it fit the display effectively
Since the Watch is a vertical screen, and since you can actively tap icons that are in a partially shrunken state, keep the width of your app arrangement tight to the width of the display. You can see here, how the overall number of apps I’m displaying varies between three and four, but doesn’t exceed that, so I only have to move in two directions to see everything (up and down). Once you get used to limiting the dimensions in which you need to move to see things on the tiny screen, actions and choices get smoother and easier.

BONUS ROUND: Flip the body, save the world
The second I put the Watch on, I knew that the Digital Crown would not be comfortable for me in its top right position. I immediately detached the band, flipped the body, and reoriented the UI with the DC on the bottom, and the side button on top. Pressing these with your thumb (if you wear your Watch on the left hand) and anchoring with your index finger is way better. YMMV.