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 4.

OmniFocus for iOS
I’ve been using OmniFocus on and off for years. It’s such an amazingly powerful platform for task management, but it comes with a learning curve. But once you get it, it’s seriously transformative in how you think about your time.

The Omni Group has been going through a process of making all its apps universal and OF got the treatment last week, bringing feature parity to iPhone and iPad. This new version of the app is absolutely fantastic. It adds some new customization abilities, and if you go Pro, you can do some seriously advanced stuff from anywhere now, including your phone.

The company has also been terrific and transparent about assisting with upgrades, free Pro unlocks for previous users, and rebates for folks who’ve already purchased parts of the suite. The people at Omni truly care about their users, and it shows in every interaction, and shines through in the choices they make for their software.

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

Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi
I’ve written about how much DCFC’s Plans means to me. I love many of their other recordings, but some didn’t quite land with me in the same way. Could be a product of timing, mood, or almost anything else, but I don’t love everything the way I love Plans.

Kintsugi has some potential. I’ve listened to it a few times since picking it up last week, and I keep coming back to it. I’m still in the phase where I’m listening for patterns and things I like in the music more than the lyrics, but it’s good. Really good.

Plans / Kintsugi on iTunes

Things I like this week, volume 2.

Here’s a few things I’m enjoying this week.

MacID
I’m usually very skeptical of utilities that allow you to do something with your Mac’s login, but this one is solid. MacID lets you configure your computer to unlock via Touch ID when your iOS device gets a notification. You can auto-lock it again when you walk away, and it also does proximity unlock when you come back–as well as clipboard sharing and audio controls. I’m only currently using the standard unlock without the other stuff, but it works really fast, and if you have a crazy password (I do, surprise!) it does save a ton of time. Plus, it’s pretty fun. Learn more about it and download the companion app here.

Fantastical 2
This one’s a biggie. Fantastical has long been one of my favorite apps on the Mac and iOS. This new Mac version was released yesterday and blew my mind. Formerly a calendar accessory, F2 is a full calendar replacement. Adding some impressive new functionality along with a beautiful Yosemite interface, this app merges simplicity and power in a great way. You can buy it direct from the Flexibits website or find it in the Mac App Store. It’s on sale for the launch event (20% off).

Using Drafts as an Alfred replacement on iOS.

Lately I’ve enjoyed working from my iOS devices more than ever, due in large part to the great changes in iOS 8. But every day, I still do a great deal of work from the Mac as well for reasons of control and speed. I use Alfred for a ton of functionality, for everything from launching apps and quick searches to basic calculations and defining words. It is a single point of entry for so much of the data I interact with on a daily basis, and I love both the quickness it employs and the flexibility it affords me. I can extend it in completely new and crazy ways with workflows and create chained events to perform actions in the background. If you’ve never tried it, you simply must, and shortly thereafter upgrade to the Powerpack because it completely changes the way you can use your Mac.

Due to the essential nature of how iOS works, something like Alfred simply can’t exist in the same way. The company has released a companion app called Alfred Remote, which is interesting, and allows you to create a palette of quick buttons to launch actions on your Mac. But it’s far from an analogue to the functionality you’d find on the desktop. iOS silos its data for a variety of reasons, and even with the great strides iOS 8 brought to developers, the idea of an always-running, ubiquitous utility ready to assist you from anywhere you find yourself simply doesn’t exist. Even Apple’s own Spotlight implementation, while providing some of that functionality, doesn’t run everywhere–it needs to be invoked from the Springboard.

With these constraints in mind, I began to think of how I could replicate the tools I enjoy with Alfred in an iOS environment. Since getting the iPad Air 2, I’ve attempted to set it up as closely to my MacBook Pro’s app/service configuration as possible, so that I can truly work from either device. I’m also going through a process of discovering how I can slim down the number of individual apps I have installed by replicating functionality in other apps like Workflow and Launch Center Pro. It’s a fun way to pass some time, and I always like consolidating things. Sometimes it’s a little puzzle I want to solve, and sometimes the answer is to just use a dedicated app because the experience is better. But the process leads me to examine how and why I do things, and you know how I like gratuitous self-reflection. Ahem.

I had to examine what I do with Alfred on the Mac, and distill it down for iOS. There would obviously be sacrifices and redundancy in some cases, so I’d need to account for that. For instance, there’s no way I can toggle Wi-Fi or Bluetooth with a key command or a keyword on iOS as I can on the Mac, and between Spotlight and Launch Center Pro, my app-launching needs are more than taken care of. (Although, now that I think about it, you’d probably be able to build a simple app launcher into an action group if you really wanted to. Maybe I’ll give it a shot to see how it feels.) That left the core of what I do with Alfred.

Drafts is an incredible app that I’ve been using since it arrived on the App Store, and one that I’ve spoken about before. At a glance, it’s a notepad, ready to accept input as soon as you launch it. But anyone who’s used it can tell you it goes way further than that. You can send that note to a variety of places, perform actions on that text, even script additional functionality to interact with it. There is a vibrant community around the app and the Action Directory is evidence of that. I don’t have the capacity to explain how truly interesting and powerful this app is in the course of this piece, so go see it for yourself.

Thanks to its robust handling of text-based information, Drafts became my surrogate for this experiment on iOS. Through its Notification Center widget, it’s actually accessible from anywhere on my device (can’t say that for Spotlight), so I can always pull down and jump directly to it. It would be the single entry point for text, and I would apply as many different actions as I could to it to emulate my flow with Alfred. I took screenshots of Alfred’s preferences on the Mac as well as the individual workflows I had installed on top of that, and built a list of what I needed to do.

(Note: I’m not going to cover every single action in this post, but apart from the obvious things like controlling Wi-Fi, I’ve pretty much covered this list or I’m working on something that will. Or I’ve decided to ignore something and use a separate app. Whatever.)

First, the basics. The stuff I use that’s built into Alfred.

  • App launching
  • Search (internet/file system)
  • Basic calculations ️
  • Tools/functions
  • Definitions ️
  • Direct file system access
  • Contacts
  • Clipboard history/management
  • System commands

Then, my custom workflow additions.

  • Send to Todoist
  • Send to Due
  • Post to Twitter
  • Append/prepend text files
  • Wi-Fi/Bluetooth toggle
  • Basic conversions
  • Down for everyone or just me
  • Whois lookup
  • Force empty Mac trash
  • Forecast.io lookup
  • Giphy search
  • IMDb search
  • iTunes Store search
  • Determine current IP
  • New calendar event
  • New text file
  • Open current Safari tab in Chrome
  • Random password generator
  • Custom search (Box files)
  • Custom search (Dropbox files)
  • Pinboard search
  • Quick access to Transmit favorites
  • VPN toggle on/off

Many of these can be handled deftly in Drafts without much, if any tinkering. Some of this can’t be handled at all. Some of it just takes a little finesse. Here’s how it looks.

I created action groups: “Actions”, “Search”, “Notes”, and “Tools” based on the type of functionality I was looking for. With Alfred, it all kind of ends up in one big pool as you are able to winnow down what you’re doing contextually as you type–it’s one of the things that makes the app so cool. In Drafts, you need to browse a little. Different, but not terrible at all. Hey, it’s still iOS.

So, the actions. Anything dealing with plain text/notes–nailed. You can create, append, prepend, modify, and pretty much anything else you want to do as long as it’s text and your destination is somewhere Drafts supports. So all my Dropbox actions are buttoned up. Drafts can write to iCloud Drive as well, so that’s an option too for quick zaps between iOS and the Mac.

Same for quickly adding to apps like Todoist, Due, and Calendar to create new items. As long as a URL scheme exists or someone’s built an action and posted it, you can probably do it. Drafts has advanced clipboard handling, so that’s in there too, as is posting to Twitter.

In as many cases as I could, I applied URLs to these actions to open in a browser. Obviously, this makes sense for things like searches, especially since a lot of local apps don’t support any kind of URL scheme beyond opening. In some cases, I preferred native app integrations to web actions, though. It’s much better to open the Twitter app to do a search with its new deep integration than have to boot over to the mobile web, which frankly, sucks. I created a Pinboard web action for searching my own archives, since the app I like to use (Pinner) doesn’t support a search from outside currently. It’s a great app, but it just doesn’t do this one thing I want it to. I also repurposed some of my focused Duck Duck Go searches here, creating a master list of all the places I might want to hit, as well as a few app favorites (like 1Password).

Where things get pretty interesting is within Drafts’ advanced tagging system. It allows you to logically interpret certain things like dates, times, and even latitude and longitude–which came in really handy with the Forecast.io action. If I want the lookup for where I am right now, I don’t even need to enter text, since the URL adds the location tags independently. If I want to search a different location, I can type in “Austin, Texas” and run the Google weather search, which will take me straight to a page with a small weather module right at the top. I asked Greg about doing simple calculations right in the app, and he told me that’s supported as long as it doesn’t get too complicated. In addition to the action, there’s a script key add-on that does the math without needing to pull the drawer out. Hot.

Other cool things:

  • Giphy search goes right to the excellent custom UI in Launch Center Pro
  • iTunes Store search uses fnd.io which is fast and covers the entire store in a nice UI
  • Down for everyone and whois lookup use clipboard contents, and current IP is just a text-less action that runs, similar to the Forecast action

The things I can’t do at all? Well, as I said, toggling system states (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, VPN) is out, as is direct file access and search on iOS. What I discovered in my experimentation, however, was that while the Dropbox iOS app seemingly has no deep URL hooks, the mobile site supports a direct search as part of a URL string! So I’m able to pass a search term from Drafts to the mobile site, and after a few seconds (in my testing, under 15-20), I get a list of results, which I can then link to, or open in the native app. It’s not the real-time file access/search that Alfred provides, but it’s pretty damned cool for an iOS device, since my entire file system is based in Dropbox. Is it quicker to just open the native app and pull down the UI to search right there? Probably. But for the purposes of this experiment, this was a fun discovery.

As an extra bonus, I discovered that my WordPress site supports search in a similar way, so now I have a super fast path into my posts if I want to find something I wrote in the past to share with someone, which is something I do frequently.

Overall, it’s a big change in how I use my devices. I’m not sure if this will stick, but I wanted to try it, and see if I could map my Mac mental model of entry field-data-action to iOS. There are limits, but there are also cool things iOS can do that the Mac doesn’t. It’s interesting to me that on the Mac, my information flow out of my head to an action is so different than on iOS, based on how the environment differs.

It did get me thinking about what could be possible, though. I think that someone could definitely build something like Alfred for iOS and have it be as close to the Mac experience as possible, by which I mean that it would require some serious pre-configuration on the part of the user, and you’d still be limited by the iOS filesystem constraints, but between URL schemes and extensions, something really compelling could exist. I think you could build a UI on iOS that intelligently provided target actions based on what you type. I’m sure it would be a ridiculous power user tool, but I think it could work. I have no idea about what potential market this kind of app would find, but I’d love to see someone try. If it was done well, I see no reason why it couldn’t be sold at a premium to people like me who want to get every bit of power and functionality out of their devices.

In the meantime, this has been a really fun experiment for me and I figured out some cool things both about Drafts and how I can modify basic existing URLs to become more action-oriented. As our iOS devices gain more abilities, I look forward to seeing this process evolve. If you have any questions, you know where to find me.

Siri, SMS, IFTTT, and Todoist.

When a lot of us started checking out Todoist after Federico’s comprehensive review, one of the things I noticed I’d be giving up was the Siri integration that I’d come to rely on with OmniFocus. OF has a nice feature where it would watch your Reminders for things you added, presumably using Siri, and pull them into your inbox within the app. Todoist is insanely flexible in so many ways, but there’s not currently a direct parallel for this feature.

I started looking to IFTTT for a solution to this. I noticed some recipes that attempt to do the same thing, as IFTTT can monitor your iOS Reminders as well. But since it needs to occasionally be brought up from the background, if you don’t jump into the app regularly, the reminders may never show up. Which defeats the purpose of capturing this way.

I had forgotten that IFTTT can process incoming SMS data as a trigger as well as use it as an endpoint. So today I looked into pushing text messages to IFTTT and having them then get redirected to Todoist. Since both services talk to one another directly on the web (one of the most interesting parts of Todoist in my opinion), this actually works incredibly well, and way faster than I’d anticipated.

You’ll need to set up a recipe in the following way:

  • Start with the SMS channel, and choose either the plain incoming SMS option or a tagged one if you prefer (my suggestion would be to keep it simple, since we’re relying on Siri to do the work and you want accuracy).
  • Then choose the Todoist channel (activate it if you haven’t already) and have the task sent to whatever project you like. I always use inbox, as it’s just for general capture anyway.
  • Once the recipe is made, you can tap to edit certain parameters of the Todoist action (priority, task content, due date1, and note for premium subscribers).
  • I created a contact simply called “Inbox” on my iPhone, again to keep things simple for Siri.

So now, I just say: “Send a message to Inbox that says remember to follow up with the team” and Siri parses it as you’d expect, and sends the message2 directly to IFTTT. Seconds later (it’s shockingly fast in my experience) the task is in my Todoist inbox. It’s way faster and more reliable than hoping the IFTTT app is running often enough to pull reminders directly, and since sending text messages is one of those easier Siri things that works more often than it doesn’t, it’s pretty solid.

Todoist’s web core makes it an interesting way to funnel things into your task list. I’m so glad I thought to do this, because it makes that instant capture I was missing totally achievable again.


  1. I noticed one weird thing related to applying due dates to Todoist via IFTTT. I have my Todoist account set to add a reminder notification to any task that has a date and time associated with it. However, while tasks with times were added correctly, the reminder notification was not. I reached out to support about this and was told that this connection probably isn’t currently supported via IFTTT. If you’re just collecting inbox items this way and processing them later, it’s a nonissue. If you edit the recipe to add dates/times however, just be aware of this potential limitation. 
  2. You can do this with Siri and email too, using the subject line as the task item and the body as the note (if you’re a premium subscriber). But I found that since I’m usually only doing the name of the task anyway, as it’s the bit I need to think about and SMS is so fast and easy, it’s preferable to email in this case. 

Workflow: Annotate Screenshot and Delete.

One of the things I’m always trying to do is reduce the number of apps I need to use to accomplish certain tasks. In the absence of Yosemite’s Markup feature on iOS, I’m using Skitch, and have for a while. It’s good, but I almost never open it unless I need to draw an arrow in a picture for some reason. And then I send it somewhere, and then I have a screenshot I don’t really want, and a second version with an arrow. Both of which I want out of my Camera Roll.

So I built a workflow to do just that. Here’s what it does:

  • Looks for your most recent screenshot
  • Opens that photo in the editor so you can do whatever you want to it
  • Copies the edited photo to the clipboard
  • Launches the Share sheet
  • Provides the option to immediately delete the original screenshot after sharing is complete

Instant editing, no messy screenshot leftovers. Unfortunately since the image editor can’t currently run as part of an extension, you need to launch it by itself. If that changes, this is going to be awesome.

Get it here:

Annotate & Delete

12-14-2014, 9:24 PM
Phillip Gruneich over at One Tap Less (one of my new favorite places on the internet) took this and improved on it, bypassing the clipboard entirely. I’m still getting the hang of variables, so any time someone can take my initial idea and make it better, I’m all for it. Check out his full post here, which has a few other gems as well.

Oh, and it was brought to my attention that the ampersand in the workflow name causes trouble if you try to use it in Launch Center Pro. Just change it to ‘and’ to avoid that. Didn’t occur to me. I just liked the way it looked.

Some new time-saving Launch Center Pro actions.

I made a couple of cool Launch Center Pro actions in the past week or so and thought they might be useful to others, so here they are.

Update TextExpander Snippets

I make changes to my TextExpander snippets constantly on my MacBook, and while they sync via Dropbox, you still need to manually refresh apps that can take advantage of this feature if you’re not using the keyboard extension (I do a bit of both). I was always forgetting which apps can do this, so instead of keeping a list I had to refer to, I put them together here.

TextExpander Snippets

Now I can tap once to launch TE, making sure the newest snippets are on the device, and then return to LCP, tap to go to the other apps and quickly make sure they’re all up to date too. It would be amazing if I could go right to the “refresh snippets” option in each app, but that’s just not possible, so this is as close as I can get. Pretty good, and saves me time and aggravation.

Amazon Re-Orders

I know you can subscribe to products on Amazon and have them delivered on a regular schedule, but there are plenty of things that we buy repeatedly, but not with a specific timeframe in mind. I used to go to the Amazon app, scroll through my orders, find the thing I wanted to re-buy, and add it to the cart.

Amazon Orders

Now, I have a list of the things we re-order frequently, I can tap one, go to Safari (where I’m already logged in to Amazon) and add it in one tap. When I feel like closing out my cart, I can do it here or hop into the Amazon app itself to do so. It’s nice to have a list like this, and it’s very quick to get to the products we like.

I love thinking of stuff like this that makes little chores easier.

Reassembly.

Part 2 of 2

As I said in my previous post, I stopped using Todoist after a week, and it has nothing to do with the tool. I still think it’s totally amazing, and may absolutely go back to it. Which is the point of what’s to follow.

Since transitioning from client work with Nickelfish to product work with Derby, the demands on my time are radically different. I no longer have dozens of meetings and calls a week, and my time is not double- and triple-booked. I can manage things in a very different way, and honestly, it’s been a very nice change. As a result, I’ve started to pay less attention to things in certain capacities. Since my calendar isn’t packed, I barely look at it. Which made me forget that my wife added a doctor’s appointment that I agreed to be present for earlier in the week (baby stuff, you know). Not a problem, as I remembered the day before and didn’t miss the appointment, but it brought an issue to light: I missed something.

I’m not someone who likes to miss something.

Similarly, my task list is different. I used to have multiple deliverables for many projects tied to me at any given time and I needed to manage my time in a super granular way. That’s not currently an issue for me, so I have lists of tasks I’d like to accomplish for my new projects that aren’t pressing, and hence aren’t always getting done. Which is not to say I’m not getting things done, I’m quite good at getting plenty done, but even with weekly reviews and my insistence on checking those lists, I’m usually focused on a “Today” view, which I’ve come to rely on. Fine in most cases, but I’m feeling like I could be doing more, because once “Today” is wrapped up, I’m celebrating and not necessarily looking for more to do.

Prior to this week, I put everything I had into one system (OmniFocus, then Todoist). This included all personal and work responsibilities, recurring reminders, one-off items, anything. One place for everything. Nice. Except that since there was always something (i.e., some trivial recurring task) I felt like I wasn’t “accomplishing” because I could never clear those lists. While this may seem dumb to any person in their right mind, as we always have something we can be doing, it started to grate on me. Just a little, like a single grain of sand you feel after getting back from the beach and can’t quite find.

So I’m burning it down. Zeroing out the dials. I’m going back to plain text. One file, all tasks, neatly written, and always in my face. Here are the specifics.

  • A single .txt file (Todo.txt), in my dock, synced through Dropbox (duh), edited with TextEdit. It’s opened when I start my workday, updatable at any point, presenting all my tasks across my projects. Instead of a weekly review, I’m always reviewing, deciding what I can really do in the next few minutes, moving list items up and down, adding, deleting. No times, no dates, no contexts, just a few grouped lists. These are items that have no particular time component in terms of “due”, just stuff that needs to be done, by me, at some point.

  • Anything that requires a time component gets a reminder in Reminders.app. All recurring items are here now, so they don’t clutter up my tasks. I have four lists right now: Bills, Repeating, Reminders (things due this week), and Future (things due after this week). I may add more, I may consolidate. Point is, they exist somewhere, but I don’t see them all the time, allowing me to focus on what I need to do. Since they exist alongside calendar items, I can now view these secondary items all together in Fantastical, so they’re visible but not prominent. An item in Todo.txt may have a partner reminder, but the point is it’s a reminder, the item still exists as a top-level task item in front of my eyes.

[Yes, I realize I could have done this with OmniFocus perspectives and Todoist filters. I may eventually go back to it, which is the point of the post. This isn’t about switching tools again, this is about understanding how and why I think about my data and how that changes based on where I am and what I’m doing.]

Naturally, with Launch Center Pro, Drafts, and any of the other dozens of apps I like to use, I can interact with this plain text file, appending, prepending (which I do as my “inbox” approximation, just throw things on top, and then move into appropriate lists), etc. It’s very fast, can be done in the background, and is accessible from anywhere, as is the case with my notes now.

So: why the hell am I still doing this to myself?

I thought about this last night and earlier this morning. As I said previously this isn’t about your typical productivity masturbation, or ‘this tool is better than that tool and here’s why’. This is about my brain, understanding how it works, and more importantly, coming to grips with the fact that my brain will work differently depending on a variety of ever-shifting factors in my life. I’ve written before about giving up and settling on a trusted system, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that my trusted system is me, and I need to allow myself the flexibility to use the right tool at the right time.

I am not the kind of person who enjoys jumping from tool to tool instead of working and getting things done. But I’m no longer going to feel guilty about these explorations because I simply can’t fight it anymore. It’s evident to me now that it’s in my nature to change, as much as I’d like to think I’m stoic and able to calcify around something. I can’t think of anything less productive on a personal level than sticking with a system that isn’t working for you–for any reason. So for now, it’s this. Next week it might be something else. I won’t bore everyone with the details every time it changes, but I think I’m done apologizing to myself for feeling the way I have about it. And that makes me feel good.

Disassembly.

Part 1 of 2

This past month has been a pretty interesting period of reevaluation for me. I uprooted my entire note taking system, finally broke down and bought a Pebble to see what this next phase of computing will look like, and after reading this great post dumped my tasks out of OmniFocus and into Todoist last week, which is super cool.

Which is why it’s strange for me to be telling you that I’ve already stopped using Todoist. Not that there’s a single thing wrong with it in my experience–it’s amazing and flexible and actually fun to use. But as I go through this weirdly intense examination of my current tools, patterns and problems emerge and reintroduce themselves. I’ve been thinking a lot about why this happens for me at different points in my life and I don’t have a great answer.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but when I was a kid, and old enough to manage it on my own, I rearranged my bedroom furniture constantly. It was like, an almost weekly occurrence. It would often happen in the middle of the night. My parents would wake up and come into my room the following morning and find everything totally different but neatly organized (big surprise to everyone, I’m sure), like some anal-retentive college prank. I’d find something I liked eventually and stick with it for a while, but it was always in flux, always up for grabs at any point if my mind changed, because I thought it could always be better somehow.

It occurs to me now, 25 years later, that my room is my computer(s) and I’m still doing it. I mean, as opposed to my actual bedroom which would probably lead to divorce or something. I thought this was a problem I had, one that I needed to eliminate, but now I’m not so sure. I’ll get into specifics later.

This week’s shift began when I forgot about a calendar event that my wife added earlier in the week because I wasn’t paying attention to my calendar over the past few days. Which led me to think about why that was happening, and in turn to how I’m organizing different types of information. I pride myself on not letting things fall through the cracks, so when something does, it means something’s wrong somewhere. And I need to find out what it is.

I’m going to write a separate post shortly about the technical changes in my workflow that arose as a result of this situation. Consider this the preface to that breakdown.

The lead in is: I don’t think I’m as sick as I thought I was, and understanding this allows me to grow in other ways. Follow up forthcoming.

Moving from Evernote to Dropbox.

On this week’s Connected, there was a hearty discussion about some choices that Evernote is making with its product, namely the addition of “Context”. Offered as a Premium feature, the goal of Context is to surface additional useful information to the user as a note is being created, viewed, or modified.

Stephen voiced some very reasonable concerns about the direction in which Evernote seems to be moving, and how this type of feature can feel intrusive. In the absence of more information, Federico shared some of those sentiments, while Myke argued on the side of the business, namely that it’s a seemingly innocuous change that we could have expected this company to have made to increase its viability at some point (and everyone marveled that Google hasn’t done this yet). I don’t know all the facts about Evernote’s investors and fiscal plans, but even before this, I was considering moving away from it for different reasons.

First, let me start by saying I have been an Evernote user since 2008. I am a Premium subscriber. I love the service. I love Phil Libin’s focused and honest approach to the company. I love that it works almost all the freaking time, even when I do something dumb that should have broken it. It’s truly great. But I’ve started to realize that it’s also in direct conflict with the way I want to think about, store, and access my information.

I’ve never been a fan of GMail because I am an old-school IMAP guy. I like making folders, I like using folders, I like taking forethought and putting things in places. I don’t like the “leave everything in the inbox and just search” mentality. It’s never worked for me. And while Evernote allows you to create notebooks and stacks of notebooks around those, I found myself dumping voluminous amounts of information into it, organizing it, and still not really having an idea where my stuff actually is. Luckily, its search is tremendous and I can usually find what I need. But it still didn’t feel right to me, the way my brain works.

In addition to this, I have a long-standing affinity and love for plain text. But I also take pictures of things. And scan documents. And create PDFs all the time. How will I find all this? How will I search and have it make meaningful sense? Where is my context?

So I’m shifting gears. This week I manually created plain text copies of all my blog posts from this site. I wanted a local copy of everything, and I did some housecleaning while I did it. I used Editorial, because it was actually easier to do it–my hand to Federico–from the iPad with workflows than on the desktop. And yesterday I began migrating data out of Evernote, one note at a time.

I created this hierarchy in a top-level “Notes” folder in Dropbox:

It works like this:

Audio is for any kind of aural snippet I might capture and not have a specific place for yet. This could include funny things my daughter says, a conversation, a song idea, whatever. I have Dropvox set up on my iPhone to start recording the instant the app opens, and put its files directly here.

House is a folder I share with my wife. In it are ideas for renovation, pictures of interiors and exteriors we like, and documents we both need access to.

Lists is just casual stuff I want to keep track of: books to read, music to download, etc. Managed via Listacular on iOS.

PDF is any file of that type that contains information I want quick access to, or that has no relative home elsewhere (say, in the “House” folder). Evernote allows you to convert notes to PDFs easily, so a lot of things in this folder are series of images that ended up as one PDF. Handy.

Photo contains any kind of photo note I might grab with my phone. Wine we like, the type of paper towels I’m supposed to get, the back of my router. You get the idea.

Scans is for anything grabbed via Scanbot, Scanner Pro, or my ScanSnap. Yes, these could probably live in PDF in most cases, but I like the idea of a separate folder, because I will almost certainly remember scanning something. I do it infrequently enough, although I want to start doing it more. And chances are these are “documents” as opposed to say, the very first issue of Nintendo Power that I have also stored as a PDF, in the PDF folder.

Ladies.

Sketches: any hand-drawn notes via apps on iOS, using whatever app I feel like.

And text is just the library of .txt files that make sense as straight up text. I’m using my longtime favorite nvALT on the desktop, and I found the incredible Jottings last night, which is as close to nvALT on the iPhone as I’ve seen yet.

All my files are named in a readable natural fashion (Wine – Chianti – Birthday Party.jpg) so I can scan for what I want quickly. I use Alfred and Spotlight to find them instantly on my hard drive. I’d tried Alfred workflows for searching within Evernote, but they always felt kludgy and slower than a fast file system search. This feels good.

I’ve set up a great set of Launch Center Pro actions to help with all this too:

They’re all pretty self-explanatory, and they’re working really well so far. “Checkbook” is a little prepend action so I can keep track of the handful of times I actually have to write a check, since I haven’t kept a proper checkbook in about a decade. And I can open the Dropbox app itself and browse all these files really easily. It’s great.

So that’s pretty much it. I’m out of Evernote in less than 24 hours (about 550 notes) and I have an accessible, lightning fast, and extensible micro-file-system. The idea of having a tangible handle on my data, visibility into it, and the ability to move it easily (not to mention switch between apps that handle all these standard file types) is a breath of fresh air. Nothing against Evernote, I still think it’s great, but it was time for a change, and this feels like the right one for me.

11-15-2014, 9:12 AM
A few people on Twitter brought up the idea that I’d be losing rich features like annotation, notes with both text and images, etc. Not really. Notability has excellent Dropbox support and provides a variety of format export options. I have mine set up pointed to my PDF folder, saving in that format. Changes sync to the folder instantly. It’s pretty great.

11-28-2014, 10:17 PM
In using this system for almost two weeks, I’ve added other functionality and condensed some actions within LCP. My notes group has been augmented by a Drafts action to send text to iCloud Drive for quick access from the Mac (this is still in beta, hopefully coming to the App Store release soon!), as well as with NoteBox. It’s a cool app that can merge bits of text together easily, which I learned about from this post on MacStories.

Now instead of a bunch of individual icons, I get this nice menu when I need to perform an “add” action of any kind. Cleans things up nicely.

Obviously, I’ll continue tweaking, maybe forever. Such is my curse. This is how it stands today.