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.

Great App for Ideas; No iPad Version Yet

Although it currently lacks an iPad version, there’s a wonderful software application called Curio 8 that offers a remarkable combination of fully integrated features related to the world of ideas. I discovered it recently, and I’m just beginning to understand how useful Curio 8 can be.

Basically, Curio 8 combines these functions in a single package:

  • Note taking
  • Brainstorming
  • Mind mapping
  • Task management
  • Presentation

It’s a little bit OmniGraffle, a little bit Evernote, with some of the functions of Keynote, but it’s also a drawing program that’s also useful for presentations. Although it’s awkward to describe Curio 8 in terms of other software applications, this particular application more than holds its own in each of these categories (and more).

As in Keynote (Apple’s answer to Microsoft’s PowerPoint, very popular on iPads), you begin by choosing an “Idea Space” (in Keynote lingo, a “theme”). You can then drag documents (PDFs, RTF word processing files, image files; also, web links) into the Curio 8‘s Organizer, and assign properties to each of these items. For example: notes, metadata, color, style, size, color. In addition, as you would with Things or any of the GTD apps (“Getting Things Done,” a fancy to-do list), you can assign filters (“hot”,”under peer review,” etc.) You can also assign the name of an Evernote Notebook or an Evernote Tag because there is deep integration between Curio 8 and Evernote.

That’s only the beginning. Once the Curio 8 “project” is established, you can add any of these and more:

  • Basic shape, styled shape, stencil (all similar to OmniGraffle)
  • A list, such as a to-do list (complete with iCal syncing) or a bulleted list
  • A mind map (similar to XMind or any number of other mapping apps)
  • A table
  • An index card (similar to Corkulus)
  • An screen snapshot (similar to Grab)
  • An audio or video recording

Curio-ScreenThese audio and video recordings must be made live–there’s a built-in recorder. In this version, Curio 8 does not support, say, .mov files, but you can paste the link to a YouTube or Vimeo file (requiring Curio 8 to be used with an internet connection in order to see these files).

But wait! There’s more!! The next set of features allows various sorts of sketching, drawing and painting with a variety of pens and brushes.

You can export the Curio 8 project as a .tiff, .jpeg, .png, .PDF, .html, and for selected items, you can export, for example, a .csv file from a table.

Assets used in one Curio 8 project can be easily accessed for use in another (gee, I wish this was a common feature in Pages and Keynote).

In addition, there’s a bit of scripting that will recall, for example, FileMaker. You can assign an action to a specific asset within a project. Click on a shape and Curio 8 will automatically set up a new email message, or open a URL, or open a specific file.

Curio 8 is the work of a very creative guy named George who lives and works in North Carolina. His company is called Zengobi, and so, you can find out more about Curio 8 by visiting In case you’re curious, Zen is, of course, a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism “that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation” and Goby is a small fish that swims in the shallow waters near North Carolina.

Often, George reports to his users via his blog. On March 13, he boasted about the addition of “the #1 requested mind mapping feature: mind map relationship lines.” On March 4, he explained the difference between a Concept Map and a Mind Map (the latter allows only one parent diagram per child). Lots of detail, all very useful and all wonderfully focused on the customer’s needs.

ScrivenerThis is the joy of working with a small software company: the product is terrific, and the company is highly responsive to customer needs. The same can be said about Literature & Latte, makers of the equally useful Scrivener word processor for authors, academics, screenwriters and playwrights.

The frustration, both for the company and for the user, is the amount of time required to build applications. In both situations, users have been patiently waiting for an essential tool: the tablet version of the software. Both of these programs are feature-rich. They have set a very high standard and they now serve a very specific niche customer base that expects an extraordinary feature set and a supremely reliable product.Typically, a small company is doing all it can to manage a Mac version (Literature & Latte recently released its first Windows version, but Zengobi has not). Add an app, and not just an iPad app, but a fully functional Android app as well, and the resource tug becomes uncomfortable.

And so, Curio 8 users do precisely what Scrivener users have learned to do. Be happy with the Mac-based product and its evolving feature set, and wait, patiently, for the inevitable release of the iPad app. In both cases, it’s coming soon. Even larger companies must take their time with app development–learning a great deal from every iteration. I’ve become a big fan of the OmniGroup products, happily using OmniFocus to manage my daily affairs, but only on the iPad and iPhone. Turns out, those apps are now so good that the older Mac app is so far behind that I don’t really understand how to use it. So what is OmniGroup doing? Redeveloping the Mac app so that it works the same way as their iOS apps.

We’re all learning a lot from this new wave of software application development. And, mostly, we’re discovering that this is all a very new way of thinking. Getting it right takes time.

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