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.
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:
understanding what is your responsibility and what needs to be delegated.
writing actionable next steps for the things that are your responsibility.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
One of the core tenets of GTD methodology is to stop wasting mental energy thinking about unnecessary tasks and Capture anything on your mind into a trusted system. While David Allen doesn’t prescribe any specific tool (he values pen and paper, just as much as an iPhone) it being 2019, most of us are going to be looking for an App. Therefore it’s impossible for me to talk about productivity without also writing about software. And those of us in Apple’s ecosystem have a bounty of excellent options. I’m going to talk about three: OmniFocus, Things 3, and Todoist.
Wait, but what about paper?
I’m glad you asked, because everyone who’s worked with me knows that my number one totally immutable rule is:
My primary requirement for my team is that they carry a notebook and pen at all times in the office. Too much gets thrown at us too quickly to rely solely on electronics. More often than not, 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.
What about Apple’s built in Reminders app?
Reminders is hugely popular because its free, works across all of your devices, and it’s fast. It’s also very popular with our group:
The problem with Apple’s built in app is that Reminders can’t create Projects. It lacks basic task management features like putting things on hold, creating or deferring dates, and has no ability to create contexts (We’ll dig into the contexts monster in a later post). Unfortunately, it’s not up to the task of a serious workflow.
#SpoilerAlert OmniFocus, Things 3, and Todoist.
Since this series isn’t meant to be primarily about software let’s just cut to the TL;DR chase and tell you what I think about these apps, so we can focus on the process.
OmniFocus is the most powerful app.
Things 3 is the most beautiful app.
Todoist is the triumph of function over form.
The Feel of the Speed of Thought
When a task that you might have to do comes to mind capturing it quickly is paramount. OmniFocus‘s power is its hindrance in this area. Yes, OmniFocus enables you to create defer dates or set an estimated duration, but look at all of those options:
I found myself spending way too much time thinking about the tasks, instead of getting it out of my mind.
Things 3 has a nifty “Magic Plus” button on its iOS app that looks and feels beautiful:
But its Todoist‘s natural language parsing that wins me over in regards to Capture. What that means is that if you type “Update the family budget Every Wednesday at 8 pm” Todoist is smart enough to create a new task titled “Update the family budget” with a deadline of 8 pm every Wednesday.
As a producer I find myself living and dying by the date of things. So being about type “Follow up with legal by Thursday morning” and having an event created with a 10 am deadline is just so fast. It makes working with OmniFocus and Things 3 feel primitive by comparison.
But wait you don’t use the ‘calendar‘ the GTD way!?
Yes, this is true. While not prescriptive in his recommendation of tools, David Allen takes a hard line approach to the calendar:
No More “Daily To-Do” Lists on the Calendar! … This might be heresy to past-century time-management training, which almost universally taught that the daily to-do list is key. But such lists embedded on a calendar don’t work, for two reasons. … Trying to keep a list on the calendar, which must then be reentered on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time. … Second, if there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do. … The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all.
This makes sense logically, but as I mentioned in my last post, I’m having difficulties structuring my tasks around contexts other than due date. And I’d wager that most of you producers will feel the same way. The idea that certain apps are more oriented around your “day” was most full expressed on the r/productivity subreddit here:
I think OmniFocus is more useful than Things 3 if you’re set on doing GTD: … the way the app is structured you aren’t so much focused on your “day” but what items you have available to you to do. The custom “perspectives” you can use with the pro account is extremely useful for this: at work I use a perspective that narrows down to a work folder containing all work projects and that also only shows me items that I can do while literally at work.
Things 3 is more centered around what your “day” looks like, more like a traditional to do list app. You can star tasks or add dates for it to show up on your “today” list. It has tags that can be used like contexts, but using tags as contexts is a little difficult because it takes a few taps to narrow down to what you want. And since the focus of Things is working down a “Today” list you sort of end up not using Things [tags] the way it feels like its designed, going the GTD route.
Todoist is similar to Things 3 in this way. You create and work down a date based task list because it’s so easy to organize them on the calendar.
There is much more to productivity than efficient capture. Contexts and regular reviews are pretty critical too. But this exercise of working through the strengths and weaknesses of these different apps has made me realize my own over reliance on the calendar. Can I start to think about my work in non-time based ways? In the next post I’ll dig into my roles and responsibilities as a producer and consider how that might be affecting my workflow.
As I mentioned in my last post, it seems like a lot of Producers don’t know about David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system for managing personal productivity, so that seems like a good place to start our journey.
The best way to think about GTD is as a decision making system for all of your tasks. The core components of the system are actually covered in the first three chapters of the book. The system emphasizes a few simple points:
– 2 minute rule: if you remember to do something and it takes you less than two minutes to do it, just go ahead and do it now. – don’t keep “open loops”: if something’s on your mind write it down in a trusted repository so that it doesn’t float around your head and nag at you all of the time. – review your lists regularly: then “do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it” otherwise you will lose faith in the system and it will never work.
Here is a handy flowchart that shows you the GTD ‘algorithm’:
I read David Allen’s book about four years ago and when I put his methodology into practice I immediately saw my own productivity double or triple. In addition, I felt less reactive and more in control of my day. Having more control of my work also increased my job satisfaction and reduced a significant amount of stress and anxiety. This is no small achievement. As a Post Producer it often feels like I spend all of my time fighting fires. Anything that gives me the ability to be proactive is a gift. So what’s changed that I no longer feel as effective as I did just a few months ago?
My role. I’m not the same Producer I used to be. Having more control over my environment means I’ve been entrusted with responsibilities that previously weren’t in my purview. My increased efficiency has also enabled me to undertake projects outside of work. Therefore, one of my first stops on this journey is going to be reevaluating my commitments and defining my desired outcomes in each area.
My goals. As people evolve, it is only natural for their goals to change too. Recently my goals have developed from being the best producer I can be, into sharing what I know with my peers and helping the whole industry be better. This evolution means I need to be mindful of my output as well as my intake.
My tools. I used to work exclusively on my MacBook Pro and iPhone, but last year I was given a top-of-the-line iMac at work. Between the enormous 27″ 5K screen and screaming performance the iMac is my primary computing device (Well maybe second after my iPhone). But using the work iMac means that I’m not able to use apps from the App Store and sync with iCloud, such as Things 3 and Bear (We’ll dive deep into software in a future post).
My contexts. In GTD terminology a context is “either the tool or the location or the situation needed to complete” the task. For example: a context called “Avid” which would allow you to toggle tasks that require Media Composer. The idea being that if you’re not in front of an Avid, and you can’t complete certain tasks, then there is no point considering the task. The problem I think I’m having is that most of my tasks are calendar (i.e. need to be done at a specific time) or ‘Waiting For‘ (i.e. deferred to someone else and my task to check-in with them sometime in the future). Thanks to the power of the iPhone I’m able to get so much work done wherever I’m standing, the boundaries of my tools erode more and more every single day.
This contexts category is real nitty-gritty GTD stuff that we’ll dig into later in the series. Espcially as we look at the extremely power app OmniFocus. In the meantime, the next post will start to dig into the my capture process in greater detail.