Maintaining Clear Focus, Setting Priorities, Not Forgetting

Every once in a while, a tool becomes an indispensable part of everyday life. We’ve certainly experienced this phenomenon with smart phones, then tablets, email, web browsing, and for some, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking activities. During the past few months, I have retrained myself so that all notes are dated, tagged, written and stored in Evernote. And every task, every to-do, every reminder is logged in a capable, well-designed software application called OmniFocus. I no longer make random lists (well, almost never). When something needs to get done, I enter it into OmniFocus.

What I like about Evernote, I like (or will soon like) about OmniFocus. I’m busy, I jot down a note or reminder on my iPhone, and I can fetch it, adding details or changes as I wish, on my iPad, or office iMac. (The one thing that I like even more about Evernote is that I can also access everything via any web browser, but that has not been much of an issue when I use OmniFocus because I always have a OmniFocus device with me).

OmniFocus-for-iPad-sync-new-iconsSo what’s the big deal about OmniFocus? There are dozens of to-do and reminder apps, with sync, available for far less than OmniFocus. Wunderlist is free, and so is Appigo’s To Do (available in Pro edition for $19.99 per year); Things for iPad costs $19.99, and OmniFocus costs twice as much.

For me, the key to OmniFocus and its value is a view of tasks by date. Sounds like every other task management software, like every GTD (“getting things done”) app, but that assessment is not quite right. Allow me to run through a task, an illustration of how OmniFocus is used to run much of my life.

OmniFocus entry screenAlthough it is possible to make a quick task entry, the more complete entry panel is more useful. After naming the task, I select a context from my own list that includes: Awaiting Response, Call, Create, First Contact, Followup, Just Do It, On Hold, Purchase, Research, Schedule, Visit Web Site, and Write. Then, I select a project, again from my own list that includes: Art, Books, Digital Insider, Home, Music, Software, Travel, Web Site, and various, specific work-related projects. I can stop there, deciding to add a flag to any high-priority tasks, but I prefer to add a due date to every task (start dates are also an option, but I don’t work that way). There’s a nice big note field, and I use hat to capture URLs, reminders of the most recent attempted contact (left phone message on 3.13.2013; sent reminder email on 10.12.2012). I can add a photograph, .jog, .gif, .png, or record an audio message.

That’s how I compose each task. Note that there are no priority levels (three stars for most important, two for moderate importance), and no color coding for each category (Music is red, Books are purple). I used these often when Appigo’s To Do was my management system. It looked pretty, but I seemed to spend more time futzing than actually, you know, getting things done.

So, that’s half of the story. The other half us a very reasonable view called Forecast. On the iPad, along the top, there are a series of boxes, each with a date and a number of due tasks. I click on Saturday, May 4 and I see the four tasks that are due on that day. I click on Monday, May 6 and I see the list of 13 tasks I have assigned to that date. Each task is clearly identified by its context (Digital Insider, Home, Music, etc.) In addition, down at the bottom of the screen, I see a quick view of my day’s calendar (among my few criticisms: I would be happier with even a hint of what meeting was represented by each of the schedule bars). Still, in a single screen view, I can assess my entire day and make way through all that I intend to get done. I’m surprised that so few task programs also offer this calendar feature; in fact, this was the single feature that initially drew me to OmniFocus.

This is a slightly truncated version of the iPad view. I have eliminated part of the (empty) middle section to draw your attention to the task list on the top and the calendar blocks on the bottom. In real life, few of my days go by with just two tasks. (Yours too, I suspect.)

This is a slightly truncated version of the iPad view. I have eliminated part of the (empty) middle section to draw your attention to the task list on the top and the calendar blocks on the bottom. In real life, few of my days go by with just two tasks. (Yours too, I suspect.)

Apple includes a geo-location feature in its Reminders app, and OmniFocus does the same. Of course, I can survey every task by looking at a context-based organization of the tasks on one screen, or a projects-based list on another. This is sometimes useful, but I much prefer the date view (I guess I think in terms of what I want to do today, not what I want to write for Digital Insider over the next few weeks). I find myself sending tasks from Safari, but some bookmark manipulation is required to do so (common among Apple and iOS products, a silly misstep on Apple’s part; I don’t know about the Android equivalent, but someone might comment on that question).

Apple (and other users) are accustomed to seeing tasks organized not only by time but by place. In OmniFocus, this feature is especially well integrated.

Apple (and other users) are accustomed to seeing tasks organized not only by time but by place. In OmniFocus, this feature is especially well integrated.

Another useful feature, which I ought to use more often, is called Review. It allows management of categories by group (for example, I can de-activate Art for a while), or place a group of items on hold. I prefer to work at the individual task level, but I probably could save some time and operate even more efficiently by using Review.

On the iPhone, I get just about everything that’s available on the iPad version. In fact, the day’s schedule does list specific events, a feature not available on iPad (yet?). How about the desktop version? Well, it’s available, but the current iOS versions are so good, OmniGroup is redesigning the desktop version to match the feature set. Apparently, the Beta testing is going quite well; from time to time, the publisher offers an update on the company’s blog. The new release will be tied to a fresh syncing approach called OmniPresence, also described in the blog.

With all of this positivity, I supposed that you should know that OmniGroup is a leading developer of Mac and iOS products, but these products are not available for Windows or Android. That’s too bad, and, I suppose the company’s executives keep wondering whether to continue to excel in the Apple world, or whether to expand so that their good work can be appreciated by users of other systems. In fact, this is the second Omni product I have written about in this blog (OmniGraffle was the first; it’s a diagramming program that I use all of the time), and I’m anxious to write about another one, OmniOutliner, another product being redesigned for desktop because the mobile version has been so warmly received.

Would I change anything about this program? Well, just a few things. First, I think I would offer flags in at least three colors, just to add a bit of additional “hey this is pretty important” highlighting (priority levels would only confuse an elegantly simple approach, so I would leave that alone). And, I wish I could see the names of my appointments on the iPad as I can on the iPhone. A means of web access would be nice, but it’s hardly essential.

Overall, based upon daily use for months, I wholeheartedly recommend OmniFocus to people who (a) tend to be very busy, and tend to manage many of their own tasks; (b) believe that good organization and clear task lists make it possible to get things done more efficiently and effectively (if you’re not a believer, there’s no point in any of this), and (c) require a more professionally-oriented system than most products in App Store provide. If you’re just working out shopping lists, OmniFocus can do the job, but so can a lot of other software. If you’re attempting to manage a business life, or a busy personal life, OmniFocus is probably a wise choice.

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Avoiding Long-Term Commitment: The New Job Market

I was surprised to learn that most college presidents last about six years before moving on. A friend, who consults in the space, explained, “in many institutions, it’s just an impossible job.” Browsing through my LinkedIn connections, my first connection (his last name begins with “A”) is Len, a PR guy. Len has occupied nine different jobs since 1986; his longest stint was 6 years, and in today’s marketplace, that seems to be both (a) rare and (b) a long time. The February, 2012 issue of Fast Company ran an article entitled “The Four-Year Career” and declared “career planning” to be “an oxymoron.” The article points out that the average U.S. worker’s median level of job longevity is just 4.4 years.

The job market can be enormously frustrating, but deep down, most people understand that the economy is shifting–and that companies require employees for a period of years, not decades. In five years, Facebook has increased its her base from 10 million to 800 million; the first million Palm Pilots sold out in 18 months, and the first million iPhone 4s units sold in 24 hours; eBooks accounted for 1% of consumer trade books sold in 2008, and now, the number is over 20%. As the pace of change accelerates, the need for the same employees in the same seats evaporates. And, to counterbalance, as the pace of change quickens, the reasons why an employee would want to remain in the same seat for, say, five years, become less compelling for individuals in pursuit of active, productive careers.

But wait! There are at least two more pieces to the puzzle.

Cheryl Edmonds, featured in the Fast Company article about Four-Year Careers. To read the article, click on Cheryl’s picture.

The first is career switching. Not job swapping, but wholesale shifts in careers. Returning to the Fast Company article, Here’s Cheryl Edmonds, age 61, who shifts from engineering (1977) to a retail art business (1988) to corporate marketing at HP (1995), then heads to China to teach English (2009) before landing a fellowship with Metropolitan Family Services in Portland, OR (2011) in hopes of finding a new career in the nonprofit sector. Whether the person is 30 or 60, we’re seeing lots of these stories–people navigating the career marketplace as they might choose their next dog (whose longevity is likely to be longer than any current job), or vacation.

The second missing puzzle piece is formal education. Old thinking: go to college, train for a career, get a job, go up the ladder. Now, not so much, certainly not for a large population of liberal arts majors, and nowadays, even law school graduates are encountering a much-changed market for their trained brains. How to provide a proper college education for the likes of Cheryl, above? Marketing major? Engineering major? Liberal arts major? Get a degree, work for a few years, get another? I know a young woman whose college debt exceeded $100K, paid off half of it by taking a corporate job in supply chain management (thrilling!), hated it, sold real estate for a minute-and-a-half, then ended up in nursing school where she picked up a new $50K in debt to add to the unpaid $50K from her first degree. So here’s a system that’s not working very well at all.

On the positive side, all of this tumult leads to a far higher degree of personal control over one’s life than ever before. It also leads to a way of thinking that is counterintuitive for many Americans–if you are going to enjoy this degree of control, you need to think differently about your financial expectations, and about the management of your money. Multiple jobs in a single industry–you can expect to earn more money with every step up the ladder. Multiple careers–you will experience lateral steps, and you may earn less money in the next job, perhaps for a while, perhaps for a long time. (Freedom is not free.) For the entrepreneurs and business wizards among us, the constant jumps present fabulous opportunities to build wealth. For those who do not want their lives to be dominated by work, for whom a 40 hour week is more than enough, the less-fluid government and nonprofit sectors may be better places to work, but even employers are beginning to think twice about the ways they have operated for so long.

Did you hear what I said?

Here’s what I want from a Bluetooth headset: (a) you can hear me, (b) I can hear you, and (c) hassle-free phone pairing. For those of us who rely upon these devices, it’s tough to find happiness. And, it’s difficult to comprehend the experience of the other person on the line, the one who is supposedly listening to the conversation. It’s on item (a) that many headsets fall below expectations, but unless you ask, you have no way of knowing what the other person is (not) hearing.

I decided to experiment with two of the most highly-rated  Bluetooth devices.

Blue Ant's Q2 looks great in any color. It's small, well-designed, and sounded good to me.

Sure enough, I fell in love with its small size and wonderful incoming sound quality of the nifty Blue Ant Q2. Pairing with my iPhone: easy. Noise cancellation: in theory, great, in practice, not so great (even a gentle breeze was a problem). Fit and style: terrific; the device just hooks over the ear and looks sleek. Little button to press when making or receiving a call: sometimes, a bit hard to find, but okay with practice. Several voice control features added to a positive experience: terrific! I can ask the phone, “am I connected?” or to “redial” or to repeat all available menu commands. Finally, here’s a smart device that sounds good, looks good, and works properly. Or so  my great expectations imagined.

When I started asking people how I sounded, the comments were, at best, noncommittal and often, negative. Most often, I was told that the sound was “a little weak” and that they were hearing “some but not all of the words” and that they heard “a lot of background noise.” The more negative comments I heard, the more I experimented–trying different locations, different phones, interior, exterior, quiet, slightly breezy, in cars and trains, out walking the dog, etc. No change in the comments I received.

Since I could hear the other person so clearly, at first, I questioned the other person’s phone system, ears, sanity, whether they were using an inadequate phone or earpiece on their end, and so on. More than a month’s calls led me to the sad conclusion: although I could hear the other person, they could not hear me, not clearly, and, often, not completely.

So, I continued my Goldilocks routine by returning to an headset I had used before with some complaints. I liked the clunky big-battery-behind-the-ear, big-boom-microphone Plantronics PRO when I owned a previous model, but the incoming volume was unacceptably low. For most of February, I’ve been using the newer PRO HD, and found two improvements much to my liking. The first improvement is a better incoming sound system: every call is loud enough, and every call is clear. The second: I like the sensor that tells the headset when it is actually on my ear (if it’s not on my ear, it won’t take the call; if it is on my ear, it will answer calls automatically without requiring me to press a button).

Of course, the big test is not what I can hear, but what you can hear when you call me. I was really hoping for good results on that score–and sure enough, the PRO HD came through. Several people asked me whether I was actually on a headset because the sound was so clear. So far, not one person has complained about sound quality. For me, that’s extraordinary; I’ve been hearing complaints about my Bluetooth headsets for years.

Wind noise? Yeah, that’s still there. Better than the Blue Ant Q2, but a breezy day is a problem for an exposed microphone. On the Pro HD, the boom microphone is long and large enough to accept the equivalent of the wind muffle that location video shooters use–a soft furry condom to catch the wind–maybe that teeny accessory is on its way? And while we’re on the topic of accessories, even the PRO HD is really small, and really easy to lose. I sure wish Plantronics would develop some sort of carry-everywhere accessory to minimize the loss of its $100 device (so far, I’ve lost two of them).

This blog post is already on the long side. I’ll review Blue Ant’s Q4 speakerphone in a separate article.

Links:

Blue Ant Q2

Plantronics PRO HD

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