Making OmniFocus work more like the Things app because reasons

I’ve been on OmniFocus for three months now and so of course I am feeling the compulsion to switch task managers. It’s a curse with me. I keep thinking the next one will solve my productivity problems. For a couple of years I’ve switched back and forth between OmniFocus and Things.

All this switching back and forth is a complete waste of time.

This time around, rather than switch, I’m trying to identify what it is about Things that attracts me. There are two elements I can think of:

One problem is addressed here: Things makes it easy for me to quickly search to see whether I’ve already added a task, before I’ve added a new one. That’s also do-able in OmniFocus, but it requires a modicum of keyboard shortcut fanciness.

The second thing I find appealing about Things is that it’s organized around the idea of a a “big long undifferentiated list of things that you need to get done.” Things makes it very easy to look at your inbox, decide whether you need to do something right away, decide “no I do not,” and move that task to your “Anytime” list. If you decide you need to get to an item soon, but not immediately, you can easily add a star to it. I’m working on figuring out a way to replicate that functionality in OmniFocus. Even with Version 3, OmniFocus still wants you to think in terms of projects, and that’s just not how my mind works. For 90% of what I need to do, I just think in terms of “here are the things I need to do.”

It may have been a mistake for me to switch from Things to OmniFocus in August, but that’s done and I am trying to resist the impulse to switch back. The compulsion is strong though – surely if I just switch this ONE LAST TIME I will have found the perfect task manager and my life will be completely organized!

Back to Evernote

I’m getting back into using Evernote more. Primarily for interview notes and research materials for articles. I haven’t found anything as good for mixing media types (plain text notes, PDFs, and images), and I like the synch between multiple platforms. The recent price increase doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t look like much money, frankly.

I had nearly abandoned Evernote in 2014 or so because it was bloated and slow on my then-primary computer, a 2010 MacBook Pro. And I really didn’t like the public statements by then-CEO Phil Libin about the way the company was going to go. It looked like Evernote was going to get worse, not better, adding more useless features in an attempt to steal Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information.

I’m encouraged by comments by the new CEO that they’re looking to refocus on note taking, rather than being a company that sells socks and software to take food selfies. Maybe they’ll even kill work chat, which nobody likes.

I’m still writing in Ulysses, though I’m not using it to take notes anymore. One thing I liked when I was taking notes in Ulysses was that the notes and article would be together in a single folder. My solution now that I’m using different apps for research and writing: Tags. I tag each article, starting with the letter n to be sure all the tags are grouped in the list, followed by company name or keyword, short code for day of the week, followed by the date I start work on the article. Example: “n Microsoft Thu 2016-06-30”. I use the same tag for every document, Ulysses sheet, and Evernote note related to that article. Seems like that will work. Ask me again in a year.

I found a note in my journal from three years ago saying I’m getting back into Evernote. So this is not my first turn on that merry go round.

I give this study a standing ovation

Standing desks boost productivity, not just health, study finds [Megan McDonough – The Washington Post]

I’ve been using a standing desk more than five years. My set-up – and all standing desks that I’m aware of – should really be called a standing/sitting desk, because I do spend a lot of the day sitting at it. I’m sitting right now. I use a tall stool. But I spend more than half my time standing at the desk.

It’s perfectly comfortable and I don’t plan to ever go back to a sitting desk.

Do not spend hundreds of dollars on a convertible standing desk. All you need to do is elevate your desktop by about 18″. Putting a coffee table on top of your desk works nicely. I think the piece of furniture I’m using started life as as console for a widescreen TV. And get a tall stool for when you want to sit.

10 productivity rules that don’t work

10 productivity rules that don’t work

Addresses one of my favorite unrealistic productivity rules: Don’t check email first thing in the morning. Or even: Only check email a couple of times a day.

I’m in the news business – interruptions are what I do. Also, I’m based in California for an international organization. By the time I get in, the day is half-over for my colleagues in the UK. I need to check email first thing.

Nesting TextExpander snippets

For extreme Mac productivity nerds: Brett Terpstra describes nesting TextExpander snippets. For example, if you’re a software developer with a product priced at $X, create a separate snippet with the price and include that snippet in other snippets. Then when you change the price it automatically changes throughout all your boilerplate. Neat.

“Habits are things you get for free”

“Write every day. When you write every day, it becomes a habit and you do it automatically. Habits are things you get for free.” – Cory Doctorow, in Lifehacker

Fantastic insight. I think of it often. And it applies to everything, not just writing.

I have literally spent decades of my life wishing I did creative writing every day. Now I do it. It has gotten to be a habit. I do it even when I’m insanely busy with other things, or I’m completely wiped out from work. Just 20 minutes a day, as Cory has said elsewhere. Sometimes even less. But every day. It adds up. For me, it has added up to several short stories, and three novels (one complete, two complete drafts — if you’re an agent or a publisher and want to see them, let me know: mitch@mitchwagner.com).

Same thing with exercise. I went for decades wishing I was the kind of person who exercises every day. Now I do it. I take a moderately-paced walk, every day, even when I’m insanely busy doing other things, or wiped out from work.

Same thing for eating. I used to eat a lot of junk food. Now I eat more healthy foods. I eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. When I’m hungry for a snack, I reach for a piece of fruit, or nuts, or carrots, or yogurt. It no longer occurs to me to reach for potato chips. (I do enjoy my nighttime snack of chocolate cookies — but that’s OK. Treats are part of a healthy diet.)

I don’t say these things to brag. I’m just pointing out the power of habit. If you cultivate good habits, they’re automatic. You know longer have to think about them.

Habits are things you get for free.

I have plenty of bad habits too. I’m a slob. I’m sloppy about personal finance. And even my good habits fall away when I travel: I don’t do creative writing. I don’t exercise. I eat a lot of crap. I’m working on better habits.

I’m still liking TaskPaper after a day

That’s already a breakthrough. Sometimes I spent a few hours on the weekend configuring a new productivity app and it fails to survive even an hour on a workday.

Here’s a big thing I like about TaskPaper: Because it’s plain text I can just arrange things however I want. Put tags at the beginning of a task. Arrange tasks into projects or not. Change the order however I want. Go crazy.

Two significant drawbacks: It doesn’t automatically support dated tasks. I mean, you can add a date to a task, but it won’t automatically stay hidden until the appointed day and then magically appear in your task list when it’s time. I knew that when I started trying it. There are workarounds, and I can live with it.

The second drawback is more significant: Because my task list is just a text file that syncs with Dropbox, if I walk away from my desk and make a change on my iPhone or iPad, that change will likely result in desktop conflicts. The only workaround is like the old joke: “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” “So don’t do that.” I need to remember to close Taskpaper when I leave my desk. That’s too easy to forget. I can think of a couple of workarounds: Keep a separate “errands and chores” list for things I need to remember to when I’m away from my desk, and keep a separate inbox exclusively as a place to add tasks as they occur to me when I’m out and about.

Day two with TaskPaper is Tuesday.

On the value of keeping a “spark file” of partly baked ideas, and reviewing it every few months

Steven Johnson:

The problem with hunches is that it’s incredibly easy to forget them, precisely because they’re not fully-baked ideas. You’re reading an article, and a little spark of an idea pops into your head, but by the time you’ve finished the article, you’re checking your email, or responding to some urgent request from your colleague, and the next thing you know, you’ve forgotten the hunch for good. And even the ones that you do manage to retain often don’t turn out to be useful to you for months or years, which gives you countless opportunities to lose track of them.

This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy–just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.

Now, the spark file itself is not all that unusual: that’s why Moleskins or Evernote are so useful to so many people. But the key habit that I’ve tried to cultivate is this: every three or four months, I go back and re-read the entire spark file. And it’s not an inconsequential document: it’s almost fifty pages of hunches at this point, the length of several book chapters. But what happens when I re-read the document that I end up seeing new connections that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around: the idea I had in 2008 that made almost no sense in 2008, but that turns out to be incredibly useful in 2012, because something has changed in the external world, or because some other idea has supplied the missing piece that turns the hunch into something actionable. Sure, I end up reading over many hunches that never went anywhere, but there are almost always little sparks that I’d forgotten that suddenly seem more promising. And it’s always encouraging to see the hunches that turned into fully-realized projects or even entire books.

This seems like a profoundly useful idea, and not just for writing — but for life.

It’s a variant on the someday/maybe list in GTD, which I’ve never really understood the purpose of until now.

The Spark File

“As employees we may be suffering but as consumers, we live like kings.”

We can fly to Dubrovnik for £22, £500 will buy us more computing power than NASA had when they put a man on the moon, Tinder makes hooking up a breeze. Our life expectancy is higher, we eat better, dress better, have more entertainment options than any humans in history. Within living memory, an orange was an acceptable Christmas present. Today even people in council estates buy each other electronic toys that would have amazed James Bond fifteen years ago.

If you are creative, you can publish your short stories on Tumblr, make a movie on your mobile phone, post it on YouTube where millions might see it. Swedish design that not that long ago was the height of modernist sophistication is now available to the hoi polloi at IKEA. Peasants in Mexico wear fashionable clothes made in China. Peasants in Iraq have satellite dishes and watch the World Cup live. It is schizophrenic: as workers we have few rights and less power. As consumers, we live like gods.

Our unheard of affluence as consumers, our precarious existence as workers both stem from the same source: inexorable productivity increases. Every year, as technology advances we can make more goods and services with fewer inputs of labour and capital. It used to take dozens of men to unload a ship. Today one man on a computer and another on a crane are faster than 100 longshoremen could ever be. When I started in television, producing a broadcast quality news story required a cameraman, soundman, editor, reporter, producer, and transmission engineer. Today, one person can fulfil all of those functions and generally will get paid less than any one of us used to.

Productivity increases boost our societal wealth and so make us all collectively richer but they also make more of us redundant.

Good article, but it falls into the massive misconception that everybody believes nowadays, that “technology” and “productivity” are natural forces beyond human control, like gravity, forest fires, and hurricanes.

Funny how these “technology” and “productivity” forces seem to hurt everybody in the workplace except for the investor class. The rich get richer. How extraordinarily lucky for them.

The central paradox of the 21st Century

People are charging to network over coffee

I’m surprised this is a big deal. If you’re a professional, your time is valuable, and if too many strangers start asking for advice on how to follow your career path, it’s going to eat into your livelihood.

My current pet peeve: Customer satisfaction surveys. I’m getting too many requests for those. I have the thing or service I bought from you, have my money, now go away until the next time.

Why people are now charging to network over coffee

That’s one way of making your death matter

It’s worth mentioning that your live tweets don’t have to be limited to the conferences you attend or the TV shows you watch. In fact, they don’t even have to be limited to organized events. Businessweek recently reported that Lori Kilmartin, a professional joke writer who recently live-tweeted her father’s death, saw a “significant increase in follower count as people have started to follow her updates on her father’s health.” She is also not the first person to live-tweet the death of a parent, NPR’s Scott Simon live-tweeted the death of his mother back in July of 2013; a loving and very emotional tribute.

The art of livetweeting.

I understand the desire to livetweet the death of a loved one. Although I realize the impulse would be alien and abhorrent to people who aren’t social media addicts.

And there are good tips about livetweeting in that article.

But measuring follower count at a time like that? Good grief.

Stop me before I change todo software again

I started using todo.txt this weekend — again — after swearing that I’d stop changing todo managers.

I had previously been using Things from Cultured Code.

I had the insight midway through the change that what I really wanted was to get a fresh start on all my todos. Start from a blank page, so to speak. Copy my relevant to-dos from the old list to a new one and then throw out the old one along with whatever todos on it were no longer relevant. Work from the new, organized list from now on.

So a change in todo managers might not have been necessary.

On the other hand., a plain text to-do list will make me platform-agnostic, future-proof, and make it easier for me to reorder to-dos. And start from a blank page next time I feel the need.

In other news: I had the idea for a character for a humorous short story or novel this weekend. This would be a man or a woman who is obsessed with productivity advice and systems, and is constantly fiddling with software and reading productivity blogs. I wonder if I have the ability to imagine what such a person would be like.

Handwriting helps people retain more information, generate more ideas, research shows

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The physical act of writing things out activates pathways in the brain different from those activated when typing on a keyboard.

I keyboard or thumb-type almost everything. The one exception: When I’m at a conference or doing a face-to-face interview, I write the notes by hand using a stylus on my iPad and the Notability app. Notability doesn’t do handwriting recognition, but it captures images of what I write and saves them as PDFs. However, I had problems with that system at my last conference.

What’s Lost As Handwriting Fades

More on how email makes us unhappier and less productive

But there’s hope.

At Bandwidth, a tech company with 300-plus employees, CEO David Morken grew tired of feeling only half-present when he was at home with his six children, so he started encouraging his staff to unplug during their leisure time and actually prohibited his vacationing employees from checking email at all—anything vital had to be referred to colleagues. Morken has had to sternly warn people who break the vacation rule; he asks his employees to narc on anyone who sends work messages to someone who’s off—as well as those who sneak a peek at their email when they are supposed to be kicking back on a beach. “You have to make it a firm, strict policy,” he says. “I had to impose it because the methlike addiction of connection is so strong.”

Once his people got a taste of totally disconnected off-time, however, they loved it. Morken is convinced that his policy works in the company’s self-interest: Burned-out, neurotic employees who never step away from work are neither productive nor creative.

Are You Checking Work Email in Bed? At the Dinner Table? On Vacation?