Kanban and OmniFocus

Lee Garret has put together a neat Kanban type system in OmniFocus using a series of perspectives.  Check out his post here. He first mentioned it in his session at Learn OmniFocus, which you can check out here.

A Kanban system is one in which one establishes a series of nodes for work. Work passes from one node to the next, be that physically or digitally.

The Three Principles of Organizing and its Practice

When we organize, what are we doing?  Do we put things into nice orders?  Make them somehow aesthetically pleasing?

I define organization as:

Organization is the process of clearing and supporting paths for the development of things we find meaningful.

To clear and support paths, there are three components:

  1. Accessibility
  2. Avoidability
  3. Awareness

Accessibility refers to how easily we can get to something when we need or want it.  Ideally, it is instantly accessible. When we are truly skilled at its use, we may barely even know we are using it.  For example, we can consider common words of our primary language as instantly accessible.

Avoidability refers to how easily we can avoid something when we do not need or want it. Ideally, it is invisible.  For example, a coat in the closet during the summer months is generally invisible and quite avoidable.

Awareness refers to how are we are of whether something is supporting us or in the way.  It directly correlates to accessibility and avoidability, respectively. Ideally, we should be instantly aware of whether something is supporting us or not.  As an example, if I want to know when the next bus arrives, if I am unaware that an app exists to tell me that information, that app is, in a sense, not organized.

The reason I bring this up, and the reason I bring up such varied examples, is to demonstrate that these principles exist in all media, including our task systems.  We wish to be aware of a relevant task when and where it is important to be aware of it, and not at other times.

Further, the skill of organization is a practice. Too often, people label themselves as “organized” or “disorganized”. The above set up removes such state-like descriptions and instead makes organization itself a relative thing.  If you live in what others would call messy but it still supports you well where you find things to be meaningful, then you are organized.  If you wish to make things more organized, you need to then consider,

  • How can I be made more aware of something when and where I need to be?
  • How can I make something more accessible/useable?
  • How can I make something more avoidable when I don’t need it?

To practice organization, I could suggest the following:

  • Create a repeating task in OmniFocus. Consider using the Defer Another function set to daily.
  • Title it: Organize one object.
  • Flag it or give it a context in which you would see it daily.
  • Copy and paste the 3 questions I’ve listed above into the note field.

When the task arrives, choose one item nearby that you haven’t used much lately, but is still hanging around–some piece of clutter–and ask the questions.  While the practice does gradually help you organize one piece per day, the practice itself begins to build a certain skill that you can use throughout your days.

For more detail and practice with organizing and its principles, consider Workflow Mastery: Building from the Basics.

Handling Deadlines and Multiple Projects – with OmniFocus and MindNode

Introduction

Juggling multiple deadlines, knowing what to start and when, and knowing what we will be able to take on a few months from now is not a simple matter. Each project we take on will likely last an unclear amount of time, and we’ll have other responsibilities to take care of in the meantime.

In this post, I’ll describe how I’ve been planning and setting up several long term projects using a combination of MindNode and OmniFocus.  In the course of developing this post, I also created a video version more streamlined to the exercise of planning the start of projects. The video is posted above.

The end goal is the same as always: a centralized, simple list that I trust to present the things I want to do during the day. I want to see something like the following:

Prerequisites

The core concept of this post is simple:

 

 

 

Plan the beginning of your projects.

 

 

 

However, how I present things may still fall under advanced use.

You’ll need to have some functioning task system, and a system of setting project On Hold and Active.  Using OmniFocus, I’ve developed the Land & Sea project (link 1, link 2, link 3.  A more detailed, though earlier version, is described in Creating Flow with OmniFocus, page 706) to this end. It is a complex table-of-contents-like project that helps me navigate several of my ongoing projects.

In addition, you will need a sense of what I call The Workflow Fundamentals. In short, these are the practices of:

  1. Deciding on a piece of work,
  2. Sitting with that work, and
  3. Then doing so regularly.

These sound simple, but as anyone with a tendency to procrastinate can attest to, they are not. (For a full study, I refer you to  Zen & The Art of Work).

I’ll also use both OmniFocus (for task management) and MindNode (for outlining).

Calm Juggling

The video displays a set of the projects that I have been working on over the past several months or so.

Throughout all of these, I’m also seeing my clients, managing their therapy and medications, practicing piano, meeting family obligations, doing the dishes, taking out the garbage, and even reading, helping the kids with their homework, or playing video games in the evenings.

That sounds overwhelming.  And, if I were to have some omnisience of how my work days would turn out, and then and attempt to work from this blueprint, I bet I would fail. This thing is overwhelming to look at.

It would be impossible to work from here. But this is how we often try to plan. We think we should know all the steps before doing something. But this approach can instead be paralyzing.

Creativity is an act of discovering something as we make it.  The act of choosing which projects to take on and when can itself be creative.

And while I do have days of stress, they are not from a sense of inability, so much as they are about my dealing with the arrows reality has decided to sling in my direction. I maintain focus, clarity, and often calm.

I never feel overwhelmed because I know how to adjust the throttle and still meet obligations. When I have that sense of guidance, work is no longer an inevitable chore.  It is something I decide to take on at the pace I believe would work well for me. I can plan, and I can always change my plans.

A Set of Upcoming Deadlines

Recently, I’ve been in the midst of preparing several public talks. The presentations themselves are meant to be anywhere from 1-3 hours each. Essentially, each talk is a performance.  I need to put together a set of ideas, some of which I’ve formed in advance, many of which I haven’t. Then I need to practice them, so I can simultaneously stand in front of a bunch of people, say something that is hopefully meaningful to them, and hopefully not fall on my face.  And, since they are performances, I can’t just have them ready months in advance. I also need to practice them in the days leading up to the presentation.

My general system of work is to start a project early, preferably as soon as its assigned, and then sit with it daily. However, this is not possible for 6-8 projects simultaneously. Using the Land & Sea Project I limit myself to doing about 3 projects simultaneously. Meanwhile, the odds and ends of other projects find their way into my File & Flow perspective or in Communications (old link, but still relevant). The 3 Land & Sea projects also need to include work that is not about speaking gigs. Besides, I don’t really want to work on several talks simultaneously, so I can better concentrate on them individually.

Planning in MindNode

Starting a few months ago, I began a sketch of the talks that were on my mind:

Capto_Capture 2016-12-01_06-21-48_AM.png

As I planned, I used MindNode’s ability to create tasks (Shift-Command-t) to list the presentations and some of their dates. Later, I added  tasks about planning itself to the top to keep them separate from the rest of the tasks:

Using MindNode’s task system, as opposed to that in OmniFocus, allowed me to stay within MindNode itself. However, I still use OmniFocus as my central hub of task management.

While I was planning, I realized that I wanted to spend several sessions doing so. Therefore, as I was in this initial planning phase, I added the task to continue planning in MindNode to OmniFocus, like so:

That way, I could spend a session planning, then mark the task complete, and it would show up again the next day.  I deleted the task when I was done outlining.

As I continued planning, some tasks would easily be completed and never find their way into OmniFocus.  These would mainly be about planning, like those listed above. Other tasks, though, would be better suited to my overall system, like communication tasks or really anything that needed to be called out outside of the planning process (examples circled below):

Capto_Capture 2017-02-05_06-29-27_AM.png

These tasks that do not refer to planning within MindNode itself are better suited to OmniFocus. While there is an export option in MindNode to send tasks to OmniFocus, I prefer to make the transfers manually. That way, I can distinguish between those that are embedded in MindNode and those that I want in OmniFocus.

When transferring a task, instead of marking the task as completed, I use the strikethrough option (Option-Command-u):

Capto_Capture 2017-02-05_06-37-14_AM.png

to indicate that they’d been transferred.  That way, I could leave them in MindNode as I continued planning and knew what had been transferred.

I eventually came up with a series of potential start dates for preparations, usually at least a few weeks or a month beforehand:

Capto_Capture 2017-02-05_06-40-47_AM.png

Transfer to OmniFocus

When done, I then transferred dates of when I wanted to start each preparation to the Land & Sea project.  Here is a screenshot of a more recent Land & Sea project:

The top section, labeled “Navigation”, is relatively new:

Essentially, it is a set of reminders to make adjustments to the Land & Sea projects based on my plans. The group is set to parallel:

Plan in Action

In the end, I maintain a simple presentation of tasks in my day to day:

Capto_Capture 2017-02-04_09-12-30_AM.png

When the date for starting preparations arrives, that particular task appears in the simple list of the Dashboard (link 1, link 2) shown above. I can then make arrangements, removing something else from being active in Land & Sea and replacing it with what I want to begin.  Meanwhile, if I finish preparations for something early, I can always move something from inactive to active earlier.

I can also leverage the Forecast Perspective to keep my eye on the horizon. I can:

  • Select the Land & Sea project
  • Focus with Shift-Command-F, and
  • Open the Forecast Perspective (Command-4), with deferred items shown

to present the upcoming month without interference from the rest of my project library:

Capto_Capture 2017-02-04_08-23-12_AM.png

Certainly there are other ways to plan ahead. But this has been nice for me. Once I had it set up, I really could just run on autopilot, sitting with the work in my daily list of tasks. In general, using the start-early/sit-daily method of work I described above, I tend to be done with projects well in advance of any due dates.  I can always re-add a project in the days approaching the talk to get the material fresh in mind for the talk itself.

I never force myself to work. The point of will is being with the work.

Using Tabs in OmniFocus

Introducing Tabs

 

OmniFocus’ recent builds (beta test build version 2.8 as of this writing) have introduced tabs, much like we find in our Internet browsers. Here’s an example:

omnifocus-tabs-introduced

I’ve been experimenting with using the tabs to organize how I approach work by sessions. Notice the above arrangement. When working, I do so from right to left. On the right are the project tasks:

focus-on-tabs

I can work away, adding thoughts to the Inbox as needed via Quick Entry. When I feel that I have done enough work in the session, I close the tab with Command-w.

Using the above structure, this brings me to the Inbox, where I can process it as part of closing the session.

inbox-in-tabs

When I’m done processing the Inbox, and I feel that there is nothing more about the session that comes to mind, I once again close the tab with command-w to return me to the Dashboard:

dashboard-remains

… where I can mark the “Develop: Blog post on tabs” task as complete and once again decide what to do next.

Menu Options

There are 6 menu options related to tabs that are scattered throughout the menu bars:

  • File > New Tab
  • View > Show Tab Bar
  • Window > Show Previous Tab
  • Window > Show Next Tab
  • Window > Move Tab to New Window
  • Window > Merge All Windows

The last one, “Merge All Windows” takes all of your open windows and converts them into a single window with multiple tabs.

Using Shortcuts

Using Keyboard Maestro, I’ve added shortcuts as follows:

  • New Tab (Command-t)
  • Show Previous Tab (Control-Option-Command →)
  • Show Next Tab (Control-Option-Command ←)
  • Merge All Windows (Control-m)

The “New Tab” function already has a built in command (Option-Command-t), but I prefer the same key command as I find in Safari.

Using the Go To Link Script

Jesse Hollington created a script that takes you straight to a link from a task in a note field using a Key Command. A neat side effect is that, using the command opens a tab. (If it just opens in the same window for you, see the footnote below.) 1. So, for instance, here I select a session I want to work on:

launch-task

I’ve opened the note field to show the Copy as Link pasted link in the note field. However, the note field does not need to be opened for the process to work. I then type my assigned key command (Command-g) and a new tab with my desired project opens:

blog-post-project

The system is not perfect as no system is, but it’s been fun to play with.  There are still some variations I’m entertaining, too.


 

  1. Well, this works sometimes. Sometimes it opens a new window instead of a new tab. If that happens, I type Control-m to merge windows. I haven’t figured out what I’m doing differently to create the inconsistency yet.Also, you need to have the “Open in a New Window” option checked in the Open Panel (Command-o) for this to work, too:open-in-new-windowOtherwise, it just replaces the current window with the linked window.↩︎

Reviewing Large Projects

Large projects can be difficult to navigate for any number of reasons. When I refer to large projects, I mean those that span at least several OmniFocus projects and possibly several folders of projects.1 Here is an example from Zen & The Art of Work which had 16 video modules and other projects within several folders:

zen-and-the-art-of-work-omnifocus-projects

One reason large projects can be difficult is that there are so many tasks. It becomes hard to quickly know what a most efficient or impactful next action might be.

One means of addressing this is arranging the tasks in a project, perhaps setting priority tasks higher in the project itself. That way, if you are visiting the project or using a perspective with a “Sort actions by:” setting at “Project”, you will see those higher priority tasks up top.

However, when tasks are sent to projects from the Inbox, they are only added to the bottom. While it would be nice, it is not often practical to follow up each and every task to make sure it is well placed within its respective project, as it is processed from the Inbox. Unfortunately, when we later get to the project itself, there can feel like little rhyme or reason as to the order.

For example, while working on one module of the Zen course, I would have ideas about what to do with other modules, which I would dutifully add to the Inbox or even directly to their corresponding modules. After a while, though, there would be a slew of tasks added throughout, without clarity as to what had priority or what the relationship of tasks might be to each other.

Certainly, review is helpful, but I did not want to review each of these projects every day or even weekly. It would just be too much. Setting them to monthly was useful, but their reviews would easily become staggered.

Instead, a tactic I found useful was to deliberately change the review date of these specific projects to “today” on the day that I felt ready to do a solid review. In other words, using Shift or Command, I would select all of the projects I wanted to address:

selecting-all-projects-to-review

then go to the Review section of the Inspector and enter “today” as the next review:

review-set-to-today

Of course, this works best when I am on top of my reviews so that there is nothing else in the way:

review-signal-change

Leveraging the default OmniFocus review system, I could then sit and review each project in my own time:

ready-for-review

If I reviewed a few projects and then set it aside, that would be fine.  I could always pick up the process later. Meanwhile, I left the default review frequency for these projects at monthly.


 

  1. I would like to come up with a term that means large project without using the word “project”, but have not been able to come up one that feels satisfying. I’ve thought of “endeavor” and “craft”, but they don’t feel right. Any suggestions? ↩︎

Quick Entry & Inbox Settings in OmniFocus

An Inbox is integral to any solid task system. Whether we decide to use a piece of paper for a single session of work or a task manager to orchestrate many sessions, we need some way to set thoughts aside while focused.

There are several important properties of an Inbox are that it:

  • Can be called quickly,
  • Will remain until dismissed, and
  • Can be sent away quickly.

When we can call it quickly, ideas can be written without fuss.  When it stays until dismissed, we can better settle with the sense of having addressed the interruption. When we can move it out of the away quickly, we can reduce a tendency to be distracted by whatever we’ve put in it. Together, these properties allow us to field interruptions, whether they come from our own ideas or from outside demands while we maintain a chosen focus.

Problematic Inbox Use

However, we can still use an Inbox problematically by assigning a task more characteristics than are necessary to simply setting a thought aside.

For example, while I work on Project X, an idea comes to mind about checking on a file upload I had started earlier. I might then write, “Check on file upload”, assign it to its own  project “Build Flying Saucer” and also assign it a context “@Laptop”. I then decide if that is enough information for me to see the task when and where it would useful to be seen. Perhaps I add a defer date, due date, or flag, too.

While it may seem that I am saving future Inbox processing time, I am actually creating several avoidable problems such as:

  • Focusing too much on the interrupting idea, while my chosen focus falls to the side. Since I am effectively skipping the Inbox, I will not see the task until I encounter it through the system, so focus on how and when it will appear becomes important.
  • Incorrectly filing the idea, and then really need to derail myself from my current work to address it.
  • Incorrectly filing the idea and not realize I had done so, thereby missing it later.

Simpler Inbox Use

A better way to handle an interruption is to simply add the idea to the Inbox without assigning it any characteristics. That way I can focus on processing it later as its own session. For example, just writing “Check on file upload for flying saucer” in the Inbox is enough. Not assigning a project is particularly important when a default context is assigned to its project, and the clean up process will whisk it away.

Later, when processing the Inbox, I could just take care of a task if it takes 2 minutes or less. If it might take longer, I could now deliberately focus on how I wanted it to show up in my system. The session is dedicated to processing the Inbox.

Experimenting with Quick Entry Settings

I’ve been experimenting with a few settings of both the Quick Entry and Inbox to streamline their use and have listed them below. I should point out that I use not only OmniFocus’ Inbox, but others as well such as a sheet of paper for certain types of sessions.

Presentation

Quick-Entry-on-OSX.png

The Quick Entry guides me to only enter what is necessary for now. The Quick Entry is simply presented, prompting me only for the task’s title and contact.  The project, defer date, due date, flag, and note fields are conspicuously absent.  If I truly need to add a flag, I can use my key combination (Shift-Command-L) or if I need to add a note, I can use (Command-’).

This way, the task will not be automatically whisked off to projects that have a default context assigned. It is deliberately held in the Inbox for later processing as its own session.

To set your own Quick Entry appearance:

  • Open the Quick Entry panel (I use the default key combination Control-Option-Space)
  • Select the Eye icon in the bottom left corner:

Quick-Entry-on-OSX-prefs.png Which reveals the following:

Quick-Entry-on-OSX-pref-layout.png

My settings are noted above.

(Addendum 2016-11-10:  After some time, I’ve reverted back to including the Project column in Quick Entry:

quick-entry-with-project)

Legacy vs Default Behavior

Secondly, I prefer to use the legacy behavior of the Inbox from OmniFocus 1. In OmniFocus 2, the Inbox disappears by typing Return.  However, I often have several ideas at once, and I would like the Quick Entry Inbox to remain until I am done with it.

If you would like to use legacy, OmniFocus 1, behavior, then enter the following code into Safari[1]:

omnifocus:///change-preference?QuickEntryMultiEntryMode=1

For any setting changed via URL, you can revert to the default value by omitting a value entirely, like this[2]:

omnifocus:///change-preference?QuickEntryMultiEntryMode=

In legacy behavior mode, the following entry methods work:

  • (Return) ends task editing. (Return) again creates a new task.
  • (Control-Return) makes a new task immediately below the currently edited one.
  • (Shift-Return) creates a new task above the current one

When done entering tasks,

  • Use the clean up command (Command-k).

Inbox on OS X

When I process the Inbox, I do so as a dedicated session. I would like to have all resources available. Therefore, I use a fuller set of the preferences to show all major components by opening the inspector (Option-Command-i) as well as having more components available inline:

OSX-Inbox-with-inspector.png

The settings can be accessed via (Shift-Command-v). Here are my own:

OSX-Inbox-Settings.png

Certainly, these are not the only settings possible or potentially useful to you. But the idea remains the same. The Inbox should be:

  • Easy to get to
  • Easy to keep in place until dismissed
  • Easy to remove from sight
  • Easy to process as its own session of work

  1. Note that this sort of coding into Safari is not officially supported by the Omni Group, nor myself.  ↩
  2. I use Keyboard Maestro to hold onto these sorts of codes I’ve gathered:

Quick-Entry-Legacy-KM.png Quick-Entry-Default-KM.png

That way, I just toggle between the modes using the key command Shift-Control-c, and then a number key, as noted above.