I just turned off email on my phone

I’m a huge proponent of GTD. I use it to run my whole business and pretty much all of my life tasks.

GTD is all about removing cognitive load by putting tasks and notes in a trusted system. For me that system is OmniFocus and Evernote.

The thing is that I break my own system way too often by checking email on my phone.

For email on the desktop I use MailPlane and it has a great bridge that sends email links to OmniFocus. That means by highlighting some text in MailPlane I can create a to do note in OmniFocus with a link back to the email.

When I click the link in OmniFocus it opens MailPlane and takes me directly to that message.

It’s easy and means I don’t have to go hunting for email threads.

The thing is that I can’t do this from my phone. Sure I can email myself a to do item and it will show up in the OmniFocus inbox but there is no link back to the message.

Nor can I accomplish email tasks easily from my phone out of OmniFocus since the link goes to an application that doesn’t exist on my phone.

That means checking email on my phone (outside of when I’m out of the office for the day and need to) is a total waste of time.

Not in the system

Checking email from my phone means that I end up with a huge list of emails that are just sitting in the inbox and taking up some of my brain power.

Most of the emails simply can’t be dealt with. They need a server password, or links to multiple things. Maybe I need to look at the PSD file I was just sent. Maybe I need to type a long response that just isn’t suited to phone typing at all.

So they sit in the back of my brain and inbox not dealt with. Taking up valuable focus.

I need that brain power to get other things done.

I need those cycles to be fully invested in my family.

Instead I keep (yes despite best efforts) wasting them checking email on my phone.

So as I write this I’m turning off email on my phone. The simple fact is that if I need email I can toggle a switch and email will be back on my phone and if it’s really an emergency then call me.

For a long time I’ve had all notifications off for email. No badges, or beeps. Now I’ve taken the next logical step.

Do you have a system for email? Do you actually stick to it or do you get back to the habit of checking email in places where you can do nothing about it?

photo credit: PhilipRood.com via photopin cc

Emergency scanning just increases your stress

Oh email…yup I know it’s a pain in the ass for you. It’s like that for me sometimes as well. I’ve been on an email diet for a while, but there is more to dealing with email than a diet.

It all starts with how you handle email.

If you’re a GTD person you’re going to recognize a bunch of this from David Allen’s book. If you’re not that’s where much of this is from, go read the book.

Handling email by not handling it

One of the first mistakes that most of us make with email (even me some days) is just scanning it and not dealing with it. You open your email client and the first thing you see is a pain so you close it.

The email didn’t go away, you just are thinking about it now instead of dealing with the issue at hand. Awesome job, waste that brain power.

Another way we just don’t deal with our email is by checking it from places where we simply can’t deal with it. For me that’s my phone and since I use OmniFocus so heavily and MailPlane I just can’t push things from email to OmniFocus easily from my phone.

On top of that I’m typically just sitting downstairs and was at my desk where I could deal with it. Why on earth am I checking my email from a place I can’t deal with all of it?

Why on earth are you?

How we deal with it

Second up is how we deal with email, typically just picking out the most urgent or easiest items from the list instead of dealing with them in order. First to last or last to first doesn’t matter the practice of dealing with them in order is the important part.

Open your email and start at whichever end you prefer and work all the way to the other side of your email.

Dealing with an email doesn’t mean that you are going to answer it right away, it just means you decide how it’s going to be dealt with. For me that means pushing client emails into OmniFocus to deal with when I’m working on their project for the day. Anything that can be dealt with in under 2 minutes just gets a response.

Taking this approach of dealing with email only when I can actually do something about it and being systematic about how I deal with it took loads of stress of my back.

What’s your email system? Do you even like email?

photo credit: kenjonbro via photopin cc

How I Use OmniFocus

After writing about time batching I was asked to detail how I use OmniFocus. I’ve actually been asked more than once but it’s such a complex subject that I’ve been hesitant to put my system down. It’s time to get it out there and hopefully you can learn from it.

Note: OmniFocus can be as complex or simple as you want. I set myself up way too complex a few times and stopped using OmniFocus before I settled on just the right amount of organization for me.

What goes in OmniFocus

The first stop is to decide what goes in OmniFocus. At one point I’d put all of my book lists (books I wanted to read) in OmniFocus. While that could be a valid use of OmniFocus it always felt like a cognitive burden to me.

I don’t use OmniFocus for lists to track random things. That would normally be the ‘tickler’ file for you GTD zealots.

OmniFocus is also not for projects I ‘might’ do. When I have a great idea for a new business product/plugin/mudpie recipe I don’t put it in OmniFocus. I found that it gave me a bunch of projects to deal with during my review process that I knew I wasn’t really going to do. I just thought they might turn in to something someday so I tracked them.

Now all my lists and ideas go into Evernote. Only once I’ve decided to dig into a project for real do I put it in OmniFocus with proper action steps. Until I’ve decided to dedicate time it’s just an idea that has no place in my OmniFocus workflow.

Walk Through

OmniFocus has a bunch of features and I’m not going to talk about all of them. There are great books on the subject that you can purchase to get a technical run down on all of the things inside OmniFocus.

I’m going to walk you through 4 scenarios and how I use OmniFocus to deal with them.

Client Follow Up

Staying on top of clients and remembering to email them (just to stay on their radar) is crucial to keeping a healthy business. If you don’t follow up with old clients and remind them you’re around your business is always going to be jumping between paychecks.

For my business I have a whole project set up in OmniFocus relating to ‘Client Follow Up’. I put every client I want to follow up with into that project along with a link to the last email we sent with each other.

MailPlane and it’s OmniFocus integration is a huge help here. By highlighting the words (or whole email) I want and then pressing “⌘-^-Y” I can add the text to an OmniFocus action and that action automatically contains a link to the email thread.

When I send an estimate out to a client I highlight the email (since I have FreeAgent email me a copy) and pass it to OmniFocus with a note to follow up in 2 days. I put it in my Follow Up project with the context of email.

When it comes up on my list for the day I follow up then usually bump the item off for 5 days. If it comes up and I’ve heard back from the client already I mark it is as done.

At times it’s not uncommon to have 3 TODO items for one project to follow up. If the client responds to the first estimate with a question I will answer it and then highlight my text to make another reminder in 2 days.

Since each reminder is attached to an email thread it’s easy to jump in and see what has/has not been said and it’s always been easy for me to remember if I’ve had more interaction with clients around a project.

Another thing I do is put all of my good clients in here to keep warm every 2 months. That means when an eCommerce client comes up I’ll probably send them a message asking how things are going and a resource I read recently that could help them increase their conversions. Once that’s done I bump it off for 2 months again.

Taxes

My wonderful wife deals with 99% of the paper receipts I have in my business so my tax workflow only deals with any email items and my business credit card.

It’s fairly similar to my client follow up process. When a new item comes into my email I highlight the text (make sure you get that PayPal transaction number/link) and push it into OmniFocus.

The benefit of getting the PayPal (or Stripe) transaction link is that I don’t even have to go into MailPlane I can just click the link in the OmniFocus notes field and it will take me right to the transaction in PayPal so I can get the PayPal fee and add it to my business write off for bank fees.

All my tax stuff gets done on Friday. If it comes in after I’ve done my taxes on Friday then I push it off to the following Friday. The cost of context switching to get back to my taxes is just too high to bother adding single items (unless I happen to have a single item).

Full on Project

In full projects I use OmniFocus to manage my tasks. That means I may also be running a Trello board for a project if there is more than just me on the project (client, sub-contractors, other contractors…).

If it’s just me as the contractor (WordPress theme build say) and my communication with the client is via email then I only use OmniFocus.

Just me really

When it’s just me I use the nested items in OmniFocus to organize things into complete lists.

If I’m on-boarding a new project then the entries will be something like:

  • set up
    • Set site up on Vagrant
    • install WordPress locally
    • install wp-migrate-db-pro
    • sync down wp-content dir
    • pull db with wp-migrate-db-pro

Sure a bunch of those things are easy and won’t take time but you still have to remember them. Keeping things in your head is where the ‘open loops’ come in that just burn up coginitive process and make you less productive.

After that organization depends on the project. For a recent site I was fixing there were issues in the WordPress admin and on the frontend of the site so I broke it up like:

  • admin
    • DB upgrade notice won’t go away
    • upgrade Gold Cart
    • remove old plugins
  • frontend
    • get the buttons aligning again
    • AJAX product submit not working
    • Archive view grid not right
  • checkout
    • form has extra fields we don’t need
    • make sure that button alignment covers these buttons

Many of the items contained links back to the specific email paragraph with the bug report. That meant if my short form explanation wasn’t enough 2 days later I have the exact words the client used to describe the problem right there in the notes field in OmniFocus.

No opening email and hunting it down. Didn’t even have to open my email and click on the link in the notes field unless I really needed to read it in context.

Collaborative Projects

When I’m on a collaborative project I still use OmniFocus as my daily reference to manage tasks. While I will talk about it as if you are using Trello the basics transfer to Basecamp or Asana or any project management app I’ve encountered.

In Trello each main item has a card and often some individual tasks assigned to the card.

For me that translates into a main task and sub-tasks just like I use when I’m only using OmniFocus to manage a project.

Each Trello card has a link so the notes field in OmniFocus will contain a link to the matching Trello card and any conversation inside the card that may explain the meaning of the task better.

Putting the link right in the card means I don’t have to hunt for it later which saves me manual work. Including any relevant conversation also means that I don’t have to go searching for the card to get any more information. Everything is contained in one spot.

Once I check off a few of the tasks I’ll open the corresponding card in Trello and add any updates that are required.

Yes this means I’m running two systems but it doesn’t mean I’m less productive. I find that I’m more productive.

When you have that big system to log into it’s easy to make a few updates, check on a few tickets and really just shuffle papers. It’s unlikely that your most important task is to shuffle those items so all that is happening is that you feel productive.

Email does the same thing to us. We jump in for just a second then when we look up 2 hours later we have done nothing important in our day even though we feel productive.

Running my tasks in OmniFocus means I sit at my desk and do my most important things first without distraction.

Since I establish my most important tasks the night before it’s very rare that a morning ticket update really changes anything that I do first. I’ll check the main project management system around lunch and then again before the end of the day.

Diving into it more than that is just shuffling papers for most developers and designers. Makes you feel good but really doesn’t get anything useful done.

General Life

OmniFocus can be more useful than just a way to organize projects for business. I use it when I have shelves to paint or groceries to get or a few things to pick up at any store.

If it’s a more involved project (like the shelves) then I make a full project for it and map out each little step.

  • get paint out
  • get extension cord out
  • get sander out
  • sand/prep shelves
  • 1st coat
  • get out drill
  • put drill on charger
  • 2nd coat
  • 3rd coat?
  • get out blue toolbox
  • mount shelves in bedroom

See I map out each little step. Not doing that just means that you can forget one, like the sander and then realize that you’re painting and forgot to properly prep the shelves. Or how about the cordless drill I don’t use enough and it’s always dead. Writing out part way through that I need to get it out and make sure it’s charged means that I have a whole round of painting with the battery on the charger.

So it’s not dead when I need it.

For general errands (right now I need new tent pegs) I have an errands context. It’s October so I don’t need the tent pegs today just before we go camping again.

When I visit a store I open the errands context and see what’s there. When I get to a store that I can get my tent pegs at I’ll just get them and then check them off the list.

It’s unlikely that I’ll open the tent next summer and realize that I forgot to purchase tent pegs since I’ll have so many opportunities to purchase them in the coming months.

Reviews are so important

I said at the beginning that OmniFocus dropped of my radar more than once and it was because I just got way too complex with my setup. While that’s true another major contributing factor was that I didn’t do reviews.

Neglecting reviews meant that I was never 100% sure what was going on with each project. In GTD parlance, it left way to many loops open and thus my brain had to think about them. Getting your brain out of the way is the whole purpose of OmniFocus and a proper GTD system.

If I can impress one thing on you as you try out OmniFocus it would be do your damn reviews weekly. Even as I’m fully invested and realize that I need to do reviews I find myself making excuses and not getting to them.

If I’ve missed a review I notice a 5% drop in billable hours. I’ve got about 6 months of data that show me the drop.

That’s how much time open loops cost my business. 20 minutes of review time would usually bring me 5 hours of billable time in the next week. It’s simply a bad business decision to skip my review time.

I hope this has given you some insight in to how OmniFocus may be helpful to you. Don’t start with my method, just use it to inform your method. Start with the easiest setup you can and only add complexity when you hit an issue more than once and only if adding complexity will fix the issue.

Adding useless complexity will only ensure that you stop using OmniFocus (or your system) and then all hell will break loose.

OmniFocus links

On The Topic of Tech Serving You – What Does it Say About You?

After recently talking about your Tech Getting in the Way here is another post about your ‘dock’ showing what is a priority with the usage of your phone (obviously only phones with docks).

The Dock. That little area on your iPhone or iPad that contains a handful of apps which are available on every screen. It says something about what you’re about and what you want to achieve.

Assuming the above is true, lets have a look at the dock on my iPhone.

Curtis' iPhone Dock
Curtis’ iPhone Dock

So the 4 items that made the dock are.

  1. Rdio
  2. Phone
  3. OmniFocus
  4. Agenda

90% of the music I listen to daily is in Rdio, so it’s there. In all honesty, I actually listen to more podcasts with my iPhone than music. I use Instacast to do that because it sync’s between my iPad and iPhone.

Second up is the stock Phone app on the iPhone. I rarely make calls so I am not even sure why it’s there. I think it’s a stock application (at least in the dock) and I’ve just left it.

Now OmniFocus has an earned spot. I use it for all my task management on [Mac][mackof], iPad and iPhone. I open it daily on each device so it has to have a spot in my dock.

Finally is Agenda, which is the most useful calendar application I’ve found for iOS. I check it fairly regularly, maybe once or twice a day.

So I may not really fit the idea of the post, my most used applications are not in my dock. In reality I use Instacast, Sparrow, Tweetbot, WordPress, Reeder, OmniFocus and Path the most. I think the real difference is that I use my phone differently. Most of those apps (Reeder and Path being the exception) are on the home screen in much the same spot they have been since I had the phone (I did replace Mail with Sparrow but it’s the same function in the same icon position. I’m almost never on the second page of my phone, it’s reserved for things like the Keynote Remote, Meetup, Speedtest and the Apple Store App. These second page things are accessed infrequently so I really have no need to change away from my first page, which lessens the importance of the applications in my dock.

My dock does still say something about how I use my phone though, just not about which applications are the most important ones.

Using Omnifocus Appropriately

For a long time I’ve been an OmniFocus user that drank the coolaid and put everything in to Omnifocus, no matter how small the idea was. Inspired by a Mac Power Users episode with Merlin Mann I’ve recently spent a bunch of time pulling information back out of OmniFocus though because it was just a bad idea to put everything there.

In the episode they talk a bunch about using text files for storage of items and it made me realize (maybe it should have been obvious) that OmniFocus is really only for items that are actionable. Storing random ideas for application reviews, which often only consist of the name of the application, is not a good use of OmniFocus. I can’t do Wunderlist so it’s not an actionable item and why is it in OmniFocus?

I certainly want to capture my idea to review GTD/TODO applications and the titles that I find as I’m reading the web but until I’m actually ready to sit and write the post on an application it’s not an actionable item and should be stored somewhere else.

Enter the Text File

With the above relvelation around I moved all of my ideas for any blog post in to text files with the following format ‘blog-ideax-{blogname}.txt’. Again going back to the MPU episode ending with an x makes sure that any type of searching I do will only result in the 3 blog idea files I have and not random other files with the words blog-idea in them.

I took this further when working with my DVD’s. I’ve been in the process of ripping every physical disc to my computer. I’ve done about 230 and have a few items left like double discs and TV shows. Previously I had a list in OmniFocus that had all of the names of the DVD’s in it. Sure I can ‘rip’ each of these titles but again it just seems like too much overhead to me. All of the titles moved in to ‘todox-dvd-rip.txt’. So when I want to sit down and rip a few new discs I can put in an OmniFocus task to rip some DVD’s and use the list to strike out the ones I’ve already done.

I’ve sat with this new scenario for a few days and I think that I’ve reduced the number of items I need to review/sort in OmniFocus without loosing track of things I want track. Since I’m syncing all of these files with Dropbox (affiliate) I also have the ability to easily add items from my iPhone with any one of the number of text based applications out there. Sure there is an OmniFocus iPhone client but to drill down in to a project then add a new application that I want to review always felt pretty cumbersome from the iPhone and dealing with it a second time from the desktop felt like a waste of time.

####Disclaimer

I paid for all of the applications myself but most of the links above are affiliate links.

OmniFocus Speed Tips

I’ve blogged about key commands and time saving tips for TextMate. Like most programmers my day is spent in my code editor primarily but I also make heavy use of OmniFocus to organize the days tasks and I hate having to grab my mouse (the keyboard is way faster). Here are some of the things that make my navigation around OmniFocus fast.

Switch Columns

If you’re navigating between the columns lots then ⌘4 is your friend. It jumps keyboard focus from the left panel to the right panel and back again.

Tasks and Sub-tasks

Projects are best organized by breaking items down into bite sized chunks, this is where tasks and sub-tasks come into play. You create a new task by pressing enter and if you want it to be a subtask press ⌘]. If you want it to not be a subtask press ⌘[.

Sync

OmniFocus comes on more than just your Mac, it’s available for iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad. Of course it’s silly to sync them by hand so OmniFocus offers multiple sync options. I’ve found the most reliable way is with MobileMe. You can sync all your changes with ⌃⌘S.

Notes

I love the notes but feel they should be displayed all the time (how about an option OmniGroup). If you want to toggle all your notes then ⌥⌘’ will do it for you. If you’re editing a note then using ⌘’ will allow editing of a note. This is also a good way to see the contents of a note for a single TODO items when it has focus.

Switch Your Mode

Typically you’re going to use one of 2 views on the desktop, Planning or Context. Getting the mouse out to switch is a waste of time so get familiar with ⌘1 and ⌘2. They’ll change from Planning (⌘1) and Context (⌘2) modes.

=== Focus

Getting focussed on one project from the Context view is an integral part of how I use Omnifocus. I do want to see everything I have to do that day but while I’m working on stuff for one client I just want to see the items I have due for them. Using ⌃⌘F will jump you right in to focus mode and repeating it will let you see everything you have to do that day again.

=== Date Entry

Everyone knows that you can use day abbreviations in the ‘due’ and ‘start’ fields of the quick entry box, but how can you make it for next Tuesday? OmniFocus makes it easy just use ‘next Mon’ or whichever day of the week you’re aiming for an OmniFocus will skip the first occurrence of Monday and use the following one.

OmniFocus quick entry - skip the next Monday
OmniFocus quick entry - skip the next Monday

Adding to that is setting the time of an entry. You can simply use ‘Mon @ 10a’ to set a TODO item for Monday at 10am. No more hitting that terrible info menu for an item to set a specific time.

Disclaimer

I paid for all of the applications myself but most of the links above are affiliate links.

Review of The Hit List: It came with a Bundle

In Episode 2 @iKitty mentioned that she was using Things as a GTD/TODO app based on a recommendation from me. I used to use Things as my choice for quite a while but have now switched over to The Hit List and thought I’d give you a run down of the features. While this started as a case for The Hit List read the conclusion for my thoughts by the end of writing this article.

It’s Beautiful

Yeah the first item that makes it work for me might be a bit vain but the reality is that I like beautiful things and The Hit List is very well designed. The interface is simple to understand right away. Even when you start digging and reveal the features of the application nothing ever seems cluttered or out-of-place.

The Hit List Interface
The Hit List Interface

Multiple TODO Levels

It’s been a while since I’ve used Things but at one point you could only have single level TODO item depth, though I’m not sure if this is still the case. The Hit list lets you easily create multiple depth TODO items as well as letting you have multiple folder and list levels to organize the project as you see fit.

iCal Sync

I’m personally still deciding about adding this to my workflow but if you want to have your TODO items show up on your calendar it can be done with The Hit List. The control of the sync is also very fine-grained. You can choose exactly how to sync it. If you take it a step further you could also create matching Google Calendars which would let you sync it online then to any device supported by Google Calendar.

Sync The Hit List with iCal
Sync The Hit List with iCal

Multiple TODO Views

I prefer to view my TODO items in the normal list view but if you find that multiple TODO items in your view at once is distracting there is a nice single note card style TODO view. This removes the clutter and lets you see and focus on a single TODO item.

Single note card view of your TODO item
Single note card view of your TODO item

Never Leave the Keyboard

Face it, a mouse is often not something that really adds to your productivity. If your hands are already sitting on the keyboard moving them off to grab some other device and perform a simple function is slow. Luckily The Hit List has a huge slew of keyboard navigation items. You can easily navigate between the sidebar and main window, mark things as done, tag…really you can perform any action in the application from the keyboard.

Keyboard navigation hints can be activated by clicking hints in the bottom menu
Keyboard navigation hints can be activated by clicking hints in the bottom menu

System Wide TODO entry

The extensive keyboard navigation also extends to the entry of TODO items and not only while the application is in focus. You can set the new TODO entry to a keyboard shortcut of your choice and enter a new item whenever you want. Not having to focus back on The Hit List means you don’t break the flow of your work on other applications. You can enter a new TODO item while working on anything from design to coding.

Quick entry box for tasks
Quick entry box for tasks

This is a Nice Touch

While this doesn’t truly contribute to making your TODO management easier, it’s still a pretty thoughtful little feature. If you start running The Hit List outside of your Applications folder it will know it’s not in the proper spot and ask if you want it to move itself to your applications folder. Of course you can also decide that no you want it to stay where it is and dismiss the dialogue never to be seen again.

It’s Missing Stuff Though

Despite the things I love about it there are things it’s missing. As I said in a previous post I think that desktop applications are broken if they don’t sync to something offsite. The Hit List has no online component, though I really have seen few applications outside of Evernote that sync online.

While The Hit List is fully Apple Scriptable which means this could be done, but currently I don’t see anyone that has put the time into setting up LaunchBar so you can create a new TODO item without even having The Hit List open. There do appear to be scripts for both OmniFocus and Things that will allow this integration with QuickSilver.

If you look at older reviews you’ll see that people have been citing the iPhone/iPod touch app as coming soon for a long time. Currently if you look in the application preferences there is an apology for the delay in producing the application but still we see no time frame or promise of a due date.

iPod/iPhone app apology
iPod/iPhone app apology

The reality is that it’s taken way too long for this to come to the market. For many people the lack of a way to enter TODO items into The Hit List from your iPhone/iPod Touch is a big failure. Not all of your ideas for items TODO come while sitting at your desktop so not all can be entered right away if you’re away from it. Unfortunately this also does bring the future of the whole product into question. If they aren’t putting the development time into the iPhone app what is the future of the whole product?

There have been updates to the desktop application but this fact that there is a hanging empty promise does make you wonder about investing in the application.

Conclusion

So at the end of it all I use The Hit List instead of Things. My choice, at the beginning of the article, was based on the fact that I got The Hit List with a MacHeist bundle. Although I have used Things, my former employer purchased it for me so I’d have to buy my own copy.

In research for this article I looked on the Google Group a fair bit to see about answers and notes on the application and it seems that the users of The Hit List are pretty upset with the developer. With the lack of development and the beta expiration issues I’m re-evaluating my decision not to just purchase Things. I certainly don’t want to be in the spot where I rely on a software only to find that the beta expires and I can’t even just keep using it or even view the TODO items inside the application. In fact my plan now is to try Omnifocus and EasyTask. If either application doesn’t suit I’ll move back over to Things. I just can’t take the risk that software I rely on will just disappear.