One Weird Trick: Omnifocus

Kole here.

In my last entry, I bemoaned how complicated it is to balance podcasting and the rest of my life. The conclusion was that if you're given three options: Work Life, Creative Life, and Personal Life, you have to choose two. One will always suffer. But there are some things you can do to suffer less. That's why I want to take a quick moment to tell you about how I use Omnifocus, which is my to-do manager of choice for Mac OS X and iOS.

First, a couple of caveats:

  1. I am not being paid to talk about this commercially available product. I'm using it for this post specifically because I lean very heavily on it to manage the work I do for the network.
  2. This isn't for everyone. I'm not saying this is the ideal way to handle things. I'm saying this is what works for me.

Omnifocus is very powerful software designed around the Getting Things Done methodology by David Allen. GTD is a big fancy way of saying "write shit down so you can get it out of your head, then organize it in a way that lets you know what work you should do right now, and what work you can ignore for now." It's advanced common sense. It gets more involved than that, but it's a wonderful system in that you can adapt it to how you live your life and do your work.

EDIT/UPDATE: I forgot to mention this in the initial draft of the article, but I have done work for David Allen and the David Allen Company in the past. I apologize for any apparent conflict of interest here.

Rather than giving you a grand tour of the program, let me tell you about my three favorite parts of it: The Inbox, Perspectives, and Forecast View.

The Quick Entry pane is your best friend. Use it with wild abandon.

The Inbox is the holding pen for any tasks that enter the system. I primarily use the Quick Entry box (pictured), but you can also email tasks to yourself or use bookmarklets and extensions. Having this available on my computer, phone, and iPad means whenever something pops up I can add it quickly before I forget about it. I can then process the Inbox in one big sweep, placing tasks in their associated projects. Separating "Capturing" from "Planning" from "Doing" is important. Otherwise my mind compels me to do all of them at once.

My Assignment Play Perspective/Context.

Perspectives are filters for viewing just the tasks that are most relevant to you right now. I have three areas of responsibility: Work, Duckfeed, and Personal. When I'm doing client work at Epipheo, I don't want to see Duckfeed tasks. I can also sort by Context. When I have a moment to play some games, I can hit my "Assignment" perspective and see every game I'm committed to play for a show. Pretty neat.

Forecast view in Mac OS X.

Forecast view on iPhone.

Forecast View is new in Omnifocus 2, and it's my favorite addition by far. It shows you all of your tasks and calendar events for the near future. This is where I live most of the time. When I need to see what tomorrow looks like, I whip out my phone and check this screen. You can highlight tasks and defer them or change their due dates, so your outlook for the next few days will always be as accurate as possible.

Not everything lives in Omnifocus. For a weekly show like The Level where everything happens very predictably, Omnifocus doesn't come into play. It's redundant: I always know that we're recording on Tuesday, that I edit on Wednesday, release to Patreon backers on Thursday, and release to the public on Friday.

I rely on Omnifocus a lot when I'm planning my approach to a given episode of WOFF! or Bonfireside Chat. Those are complicated shows to prepare for and release. I also have a tendency to procrastinate when it comes to playing assignment games. So let me walk you through my planning process for a game like Resident Evil.

Everything begins when we decide to add Resident Evil to the schedule. I have a big spreadsheet with a roster of all of our upcoming episodes and their release dates, so I know my deadline for beating Resident Evil and writing up the episode outline.

There are roughly 6 steps to getting this thing out, framed up as a Project in Omnifocus.

  1. Get the game.
  2. Play and beat the game.
  3. Write the episode outline.
  4. Record the show.
  5. Edit the show.
  6. Release the show.

Let's take a quick walk through this.

Get the game. I already own Resident Evil. If I didn't, I would make a note in Omnifocus to hunt down a reasonably priced copy of it online. Since shipping time might be a factor, this is something worth planning around. I create a task for this without a due date, but with a context of "Shopping" so I will see it the next time I'm buying things.

HowLongToBeat is a great resource.

This is what "Beat Resident Evil" looks like in my project.

Play and beat the game. A big task is easier to handle if you bust it up into smaller chunks. It's easier to budget my time if I know how long a game is and if I can divide it up into a scheduled list of things to accomplish. I use resources like and GameFaqs to determine what discrete chunks I can divide a game like Resident Evil into. I then assign each area a due date in the Resident Evil project. I lay these out well in advance so I know I can have wiggle room to beat the game and still have time to assemble the outline. It's incredibly gratifying to mark off chapters of the game as you complete them... and if I get ambitious and work ahead, all the better.

Assemble the outline. This is about two hours worth of work, and it often happens on the day before we record. Since that day shifts around a bit, I want to get it into the system so I can plan for it. This also affects when I put out the call for listener responses, since gathering and editing those is a big part of this task. This becomes a task that's due a day before we record.

Record the show. This isn't actually a task, it's a meeting. It lives on a calendar because it has to happen at a particular time on a particular day. I mention it here for clarity.

Edit the show. This takes about 3 hours and has to be done by the Tuesday before the episode comes out.

Release the Show. Releasing an episode is a complicated task. I have to find the show art, write the post in Squarespace, upload the audio file to Soundcloud, double check that it published okay, then publicize it on Twitter, Facebook, and Patreon. I don't represent all of these as individual tasks, but I set a single "Release WOFF 85 (Resident Evil)" Task as being due on the release date so I can plan around when I'm going to do it (usually in the morning before work).

Right now you're thinking: "Kole, you massive nerd, you just turned playing a video game into a painful ordeal." Yeah, you're right... but after several years of flying by the seat of my pants and beating games in a panic at the last minute, this is far more preferable.

We talk a lot about how playing games on a deadline can color our impressions. Rushing to beat a game contaminates my experience and hurts my ability to talk about games in non-pissed-off fashion. It looks elaborate, but all of this is about 15 minutes of work that happens about once a month. It doesn't get in the way of otherwise productive work.

Omnifocus is a powerful tool, but the secret is that all of the magic and planning happens outside of it. It's an object of focus for the way you think about the way you do your work. It's a place for planning to live. Once the information gets into it, Omnifocus becomes a trusted system that helps mitigate the chaos. It doesn't keep me from dropping the ball, but it helps me get better at holding onto the ball.

Let me reiterate: This isn't for everyone. What I laid out is a small example of a project/situation that's very specific to my particular life circumstances. If you don't feel the pain that this addresses, feel free to laugh at how neurotic I am. If you're at all curious about how this might fit into your life, then I encourage you to investigate further.