Software Worth Knowing About: OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle

There are two powerful software applications that every Post Producer should know about: OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle. Both of these apps can help you communicate your ideas with more clarity and help you manage the creative process more effectively.

OmniOutliner

OmniOutliner is for writing with structure. What it brings to the table are a unique set of tools for organizing, visualizing, and styling your text with ease. Writing with structure is especially important when you are trying to communicate complex ideas that multiple parties need to ‘buy into’; like your show’s post production workflow.

Here is an example outline I created for a heritage XDCAM workflow:

What I like about outlining is that it imposes a structure on my writing. In my example above the process forced me to consider the entire workflow. In effect it influenced my thinking and made sure I was covering all aspects. The advantage of using OmniOutliner is that it enables the user to move things around quickly and create more readable documents.

OmniGraffle

If a picture is worth a thousand words then a good diagram is worth two or three thousand at least! OmniGraffle is a tool for creating diagrams.

One of a Post Producer’s most important responsibilities is communicating problems clearly. In my experience teams default to wordy emails too often. When things get challenging you’re often better served by turning to high bandwidth form of communication like in-person or phone calls. If you have to send an update via email, a good illustration can often explain things much more clearly then a dozen paragraphs.

Earlier in my career one of my shows had a dubbing problem. After uncovering the problem with the Posthouse’s Tech, I had to explain the cause of the problem to the EIC. I spent hours agonizing the best way to explain why the audio and video didn’t match on the DVD dubs. It seems obvious in retrospect, but explaining what specific wiring issue transpired proved to be challenging, until I remembered ‘the Graffle‘.

Coda

The creative process is messy by design. Creating something new isn’t a linear exercise. It’s filled with false starts and wasteful explorations. Managing the chaos is a Post Producer’s job and the best way to do that is through more effective communication.

Keeping a Work Journal

Notebook Recap

My primary requirement for the support staff is that they carry a notebook and pen at all times in the office. Too much gets thrown at us too quickly to rely on electronics. On my way to the water cooler; I’ll be confronted by an editor who experienced a payroll problem, a producer who needs a multi-group looked into, and the E.P. telling me that a cut delivery is going to push. All of these items get written down in the notebook immediately, or otherwise they’d be forgotten by the time I made it back to my desk.

Your Notebook == Institutional Knowledge == Job Security

Over time your notebook becomes a valuable repository of institutional knowledge that can be referred back to, which helps keep your job secure. An Assistant Editor I used to work with took this advice to heart and has a small book shelf dedicated to her old notebooks. A few years back, after she had moved on to editing, I needed help locating some old XDCAM discs from a past season. I reached out knowing that she’d be able to find the information we needed in one of her old notebooks. Shortly after I received an email with pictures from her notebooks with the exact information my team needed. Her notes saved my team hours of work. Talk about building good will!

What is a work journal?

A Few Work Journals: Old & New

A Work Journal is a place that you keep your thoughts and feeling about your work. Keeping a work journal is like a ‘next-level’ notebook. But instead of capturing things you need to do (or have done), your work journal is a place to create records about your work for your future self. Here’s an entry I wrote near the start of my Post Supervisor career in NYC:

From Tuesday, May 10, 2011: I need a better handle of what I’m doing, what the coordinator is doing, what the Lead A.E. is doing, and what tasks the Post Department is doing at any given moment. Story Producers are always crying wolf and creating a false sense of urgency. It is my job to determine what problems actually need the department’s resources.

Rereading my early Post Supervisor entries I can see myself struggling to understand what the position is about and how the responsibilities differed from the Post Supervisors I had worked with in Washington, DC.

Why keep a work journal?

The positive effects of journaling have been documented in numerous studies. My process is to spend about ten or fifteen minutes writing down a few key thoughts about the major events of the day before I leave the office. I’ve previously used Moleskine cahier journals, but now I recommend Pitch Black Notebooks by Field Notes or the Evernote App if you want to go digital.

Keeping a work journal has allowed me to look back and spot patterns or inconsistencies of logic in thinking about my career. Here is an entry I wrote in 2009:

August, 2009 – Today was proof that my current career is at the end of the line.

This morning I came into my client’s office to restart their Xsan. It had to be shut down over the weekend while the building’s electrical panels were replaced. When I came in Monday morning, I turned on the power supplies, the switches, the drive arrays, and mdc servers as I was supposed to. However, I was unable to get the SAN volumes mounted.

I knew the problem was most likely network related, something from when the old router was replaced and new firewall installed, however my networking knowledge is limited. Instead of digging into the forums and figuring out the solution myself, I called our integration engineer. He ‘remoted in’ and solved the problem, not me.

At the time I beat myself up for not being able to solve the problem, but when I revisited that entry three years later I realized that it was the first instance of me recognizing myself as a producer and delegating responsibility.

Rewritten – August, 2012 – Today I delegated responsibility for the first time, and in the process reinvented myself.

This morning I came into the office to restart the Xsan. However, I was unable to get the SAN volumes mounted. I knew the problem was most likely network related, however my networking knowledge is limited. Instead of spending my time figuring out the solution, I called our integration engineer. He solved the problem in a couple of minutes.

The lesson I learned was that my time is valuable, and I need to pay careful attention to how I’m using it. Spending hours trying to solve a problem that an expert can solve in minutes is wasteful. The balance between what I’m supposed to do and what I’m supposed to delegate is a fine line. But that line is why I’m trusted as a Post Production Supervisor in the first place.

“The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

Lee Iacocca

I’d like to say that the Iacocca quote has been true for me, and it has been true in a way. Not in an overt “write something down and it will happen tomorrow” way. But as a place to state your goals, analyze your intentions, and track your progress.

You carry a notebook if you care about your job. You keep a journal if you care about your career.

OmniFocus Update: The Media Composer of Productivity (Producer Productivity Series – article 5)

OmniFocus is generally considered the most powerful personal task manager on the Mac and iOS. Despite its bulky capture process and confusing projects types I want to give this venerable app the time it requires before passing judgment. I’m approaching OmniFocus as I would the new version of Avid Media Composer; writing it off too soon would say more about me as a user than the software itself.

I’m still struggling to create meaningful tags. Adding items without tags makes it difficult to use OmniFocus’s standout feature: Custom Perspectives. This block convinced me that I needed to expand my learning beyond the app developer’s resources.

I came across the recently published Build Your OmniFocus Workflow. This excellent book does a good job of explaining the software’s plethora of settings in the context of real world productivity workflows. But it’s also filled with advice that can be applied to any productivity methodology such as:

  • Write [titles] as though you were leaving instructions for someone else.
  • A good rule of thumb for creating actions is to remember that it’s an action. This implies that something is going to be done and as such the action title should begin with a verb (write, download, buy, make).
  • There’s also a category of task we all have: the one we will never complete. … With the last group of tasks I often try to make myself do two minutes of work on it, if after those two minutes I decide this task is still not important enough for me to complete it then it gets removed.

That last bit of advice “if after those two minutes I decide this task is still not important enough for me to complete it then it gets removed” has been a game changer for me. As I previously mentioned, I have about 2 – 4 projects that I can’t decide whether to quit or not. Instead of giving them up entirely I’ve broken them down into the smallest very next step I could complete and decided that if any of these zombie projects staled I would ok to finally give them up. Instead the opposite has happened, and like Lazarus these projects are newly revitalized!

Anyway, our journey into productivity will continue soon as we dig into Contexts and knowing which tasks to work on next.

Clarify Part 2 (Producer Productivity Series – article 4)

If you’re anything like me, you probably find yourself taking on a lot of responsibilities. It’s part of being a Producer. The combination of starry-eyed dreamer and super ambitious administrator. Therefore one of the most important parts of implementing a personal productivity system is taking the time to figure out your areas of responsibility and projects. You can’t really be productive until you know what you’re saying “Yes” to.

After you’ve captured everything on your mind into your productivity inbox, the next step of GTD is to clarify what all of the “things” mean. Producers can think of Clarifying as three components:

  1. understanding what is your responsibility and what needs to be delegated.
  2. writing actionable next steps for the things that are your responsibility.
  3. creating reliable nudges for your delegated tasks.

One: Roles, Responsibilities, and Delegation

You’d think it would be fairly straightforward to know what is your responsibility and what is someone else’s responsibility. But our industry notoriously lacks standardization. Therefore every show requires a little bit of ‘reinventing the wheel’.

Effective productivity requires clear boundaries and that’s why I spend a lot of time with my team at the beginning of every shows discussing roles and responsibilities. Make sure everyone on your team has a clear understanding of their responsibilities. An added benefit of taking the time in the beginning is that people will spend less time ‘searching’ for the right person (“Who handles the music cue sheets?” “Who sends audio out for transcription?”) when things get busy and time can least be spared.

As a recent example: on my current show both the Production team and Post Production team order expendables from the same vendor in Burbank. The Line Producer will approve all of the invoices created by the Production Team and I’ll approve all of the invoices created by Post. What inevitability happens is that production wraps and a silly $10 dollar invoice will slip through the cracks, and I’ll have to handle it. It’s not a big deal, but I just have to make sure that I remember to keep in mind that after production wraps an unfamiliar invoice will probably cross my desk that I’ll have to research and approve.

If you want to ‘Productivity Together’ then Todoist is worth a try.

Todoist has a leg up on the competition when it comes to delegation because it has collaboration built it. If your production springs for the business plans, Todoist enables you to create tasks that can be assigned to other people. I’ve used similar systems in the past with mixed results, but your results may vary so give it a try!

Two: Writing Effective Next Steps

“Things rarely get stuck because of lack of time. They get stuck because the doing of them has not been defined”

David Allen

Once you’ve divided tasks into your tasks and delegated tasks, it’s time to think about what you’re doing. If your lists are anything like mine they’re filled with incomplete thoughts like “Update Driver’s License” and “Create Gallery of my Sketches”, or the deeply unhelpful “Producer Interview Podcast”. (That last one is going to happen one day!)

A good productivity system is one that propels action! And all of your tasks need to be actionable. Before I can “Update my Driver’s License” I need to: gather all of the necessary paperwork, find the location of the nearest DMV, and find a day when I can be out of the office for most of the morning. The process of breaking down your goal (“Update my Driver’s License”) into discrete actionable tasks is a practice. And I was surprised to see how much of my productivity inbox was unactionable.

The more I practice writing actionable next steps. The more fun it becomes. I keep thinking about them as the story beats of the screenplay that is my life.

Three: Creating Reliable Nudges

If you’ve delegated a task to someone else you have to remember to followup. (“Did my coordinator get that release form?” “Did the legal team review that contract?”) A key component of delegation is creating a reliable method of nudging yourself and your delegee. And this is where all of the softwares goes to die 😦

Except Gmail! Google recently implemented a snooze feature into its email clients and I think it is the least worst option. I feel this way because my primary method of delegating tasks is via email anyway. When I need to get something done, I send an email; and followup with a phone call or in-person conversation. But email almost always because CYA.

After I send an email I’ll snooze it for two or three days later when I want to be reminded to followup. Then at the predetermined time in the future, the email will pop up in my inbox and I’ll be reminded to followup and nudge. It’s not a perfect system, because now my tasks are split between my email client and task manager. But it’s the best method that I’ve found so far.

Clarifying your responsibilities requires you to see the forest (Your Projects and Areas of Responsibilities) and the trees (Actionable tasks for you and your team). In the next post we’ll dig into Contexts and knowing which tasks to work on next.

Clarify Part 1 (Producer Productivity Series – article 3)

After you’ve captured everything on your mind, the next step of GTD is to clarify all of the “things” in your productivity inbox. If you try to tackle as much as I do (Of course you do, that’s why you’re reading my post!!) this is much harder than it seems because clarifying requires you to have a grasp of your responsibilities.

This series was coming along swimmingly until I reread what David Allen had to say about the clarifying stage because I suddenly realized that the person I was when I started practicing GTD didn’t resemble the person I am today. In the last three years I’ve become a husband and a father; my improved productivity has enabled me to take on more producing responsibilities and become a more efficient delegator. But even the best system has its limits.

Projects ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Let’s just get this out of the way: I don’t like David Allen’s definition of a project and I think OmniFocus errors by following GTD methodology here. Things 3‘s application of “Areas of Responsibility” is the more sensible decision, but we’ll get there.

David Allen defines a project as: Any multi-step outcome that can be completed within one year.

At first glance this seems innocent enough. That screenplay you’re writing: project. Gathering your S-Corp receipts and filing your taxes: project. Even your current show is just one giant multifaceted project.

But I’m a dad and I often have things that I need to do for my daughter, and I HOPE that the father gig will last much more than one year. Being a father is on-going job. But at the same time, I need a place for my fathering tasks to live.

If you use OmniFocus you’re SOL. Ok, not really. OmniFocus has different project types, but I find them deeply unhelpful…

I mean really? It took me a while to realize that the areas of my life that didn’t feel like projects (Family Life, Self-care, Career) were considered Single Action projects in OmniFocus.

Things 3 has projects, but also has the organizational concept of “Areas of Responsibility” which is refreshingly self-explanatory in my opinion. You can nest projects within these areas if you’d like.

Learning to say, “No”.

Implementing a personal productivity system requires you to take a long hard look at all of your temporary and continuing commitments. Some of these commitments will end and you’ll call them projects. Others will be ongoing and you’ll call them “Areas of Responsibility” (or Single Action Projects). But whatever you call these commitments, if you’re honest with yourself and thorough you will probably realize that some of the things occupying your mental space probably don’t fit into your life.

While working through Getting Things Done Chapters 2 & 6 I had to admit a hard truth to myself: I needed to let go of at least two projects. And if I’m honest with myself, two more are hanging by a thread. I need to cull the herd so my other projects can flourish. It’s been emotional.

When I set out to write this series, I envisioned rereading David Allen’s book Getting Things Done and sharing my experience of working through how I’ve re-implemented this methodology in my own life. Clarifying my responsibilities has been eye opening and challenging; and we’re just getting started. In the next post we’ll shift from Projects to Specific tasks.