Drawing on Experience

by Derek Reiff on September 20, 2012

OmniGraffle’s drawing tools have changed! In a great, really-saves-you-time kind of way.

You’re no longer entering a “mode,” per se, but rather enabling an additional set of drawing tool buttons.

The big change here is that we’re moving back to a more desktop-esque experience and away from our first assumptions about touch. At least for the drawing tools.

Joel, OmniGraffle’s PM, wrote a post about this when it was first implemented:

The interaction model is very quickly moving towards the established behavior on the desktop despite being a touch interface — Mimicking the desktop behavior is proving to be a huge win most probably due to its familiarity. While some may say that thinking of finger touches and the like as if they were a mouse click is flat-out wrong on a touch device, maintaining expected results here is more important (emphasis added), in my opinion. It’s the same application on two different platforms, and should act in similar fashion to itself unless completely warranted by the features of the platform it’s running on.

It’s very easy to use, even if you’re unfamiliar with OmniGraffle for Mac:

  • You’ll see the new Draw button in the toolbar, far right; tap it.
  • Tap the tool you’d like to use; tap again if you’d like the tool to stay active.
  • The tool inspector button lets you style the tool you currently have selected, before you draw the next shape, line, or text.
  • You can collapse the Draw Toolbar whenever, or select the Selection Tool to modify objects without closing the toolbar.

We put together a quick video, too.

20 years of omnigroup.com

by Ken Case on September 9, 2012

20 years ago today, omnigroup.com was born.

At that time, the five of us—Wil Shipley, Tim Wood, Len Case, Mose Wingert, and myself—were still working out of our homes (or sometimes in NeXT’s local sales office, before they exited the hardware business and closed its doors). We were collaborating together on several projects, but we were paid independently—and when those projects ended it seemed somewhat likely that we might scatter to the four winds, possibly joining NeXT’s DBKit team or Lighthouse Design when our current contracts were up.

Fortunately, Tim kept reminding us that we should really form a company. (He said later that he partly did this because he thought it was an excellent idea, and partly because he didn’t know the Lighthouse/NeXT people and didn’t want to get left behind while we worked for them.)

So on Wednesday, September 9, 1992—the day after NeXTSTEP 3.0 shipped—our omnigroup.com registration came back and I set up uucp and SLIP over 14.4Kbps modems to link our home workstations together. (They were all NeXTs, of course.) We started giving everyone our omnigroup.com email addresses, gave the “NeXT Programmers” mailing list (“next-prog”) a permanent home, and started establishing a common reputation and identity.

We’ve seen a lot of changes over the last 20 years, as we transitioned from working on consulting projects to shipping commercial products, from a team of 5 to one of 52—and trying our best to contribute to the platform as it evolved from its humble (but ambitious!) NeXT roots to the wildly successful platform that is now Mac OS X and iOS.

But in some ways, that first change was the biggest: the day we decided to stop investing in our individual identities and start building our collective identity. And after 20 years, I’m still privileged to be able to work each day with smart and talented people who are passionate about creating great software—while treating customers with respect, making a living, and having fun!

OmniFocus at School: Reviews

by Curt Clifton on September 7, 2012

This is the final post in a series on how students can use OmniFocus to reduce stress and improve results. Previous posts covered how to use OmniFocus to collect all your tasks in one central location, arrange those tasks, and pick the best task to do in the moment. This final post will talk about using OmniFocus to review your progress.

A Life Examined

In my previous post, I talked about using OmniFocus to look at just the next task that you need to move each project forward. Focusing on a particular context and viewing next actions is a great way to narrow your list down to just the most important items that you can work now. Today I’d like to talk about the tools OmniFocus provides for making sure that you’ve set up a useful next action for each of your projects.

For each of your projects, OmniFocus stores a next review date and a review frequency. OmniFocus for iPad and OmniFocus for Mac each provide a view where you can see just the projects that are due for review.

There are many different ways to use the review features of OmniFocus. I’ll talk here about an approach that works well for me, and that I think is great for students. You can also explore our forums to see what others are doing.

To review projects in OmniFocus for iPad, go to the Home sidebar and tap Reviews. OmniFocus will then show all your projects due for review in the sidebar. If this is the first time you’ve looked at the Review view, there might be a lot of them! Don’t worry about that. Let’s get comfortable first, then I’ll talk about some strategies for tackling reviews.

Tap on one of your projects in the Review sidebar. The main view will show just that project, similar to what you get when you focus on a project.

At the bottom of the main view are a few additional controls. The box toward the left of the main view shows when the project was last reviewed and the review frequency for the project. You can tap this box to change the review frequency.

Review Every X

A good guideline is to choose the initial review frequency for a project based on the amount of time you’re willing to go without taking action on it. For example, suppose you’re taking a challenging math class and are determined to stay on top of the assignments. You might set the review frequency on that project to every day. Or maybe you have a reading group that meets twice a week. It might make sense to review that project every three days. At the other extreme, you might have some partially developed ideas for projects that you want to be reminded of occasionally, but don’t care to make progress on right now, like Hike the Pacific Crest Trail. For a project like that you might set the review frequency to several weeks or months.

The next set of controls at the bottom of the view shows the project’s status. At first, most of your projects will probably be active. This means that tasks from the project appear when you show next or available actions. When reviewing a project, you might decide that it’s done. (Huzzah!) Tap the happy checkmark to mark the project as complete. Or perhaps you’ll decide that you’re no longer interested in your project to build the world’s tallest plastic cup pyramid. That’s OK, you can tap Dropped and remove the project and its tasks from your remaining actions. (It will still be listed under all actions, in case you decide you want it back.) Or maybe you’ll decide that you’re just too busy to work on some project right now. Tap On Hold; the project and its items will no longer appear when you show next or available actions. Unlike a dropped or completed project, the items in an on-hold project will be included in your remaining actions, and the project will show up for review based on its review frequency.

The final control in Review mode is the Mark Reviewed button in the lower-right corner. This button does what it says. So, when should you tap it?

For Your Consideration

Here are the questions that I ask myself before marking a project as reviewed:

  • Is this project done?

    It seems kind of funny to include this question, but I’m serious about it. Sometimes I’ll catch myself with a project that has a next action, but on reflection, I’ve already accomplished what I set out to do. For example, suppose you have a project to “Form an Ultimate Frisbee team”. You’ve rounded up enough players, signed up with the Intramural Sports office, and you have your game schedule. The last task on your list is “Follow up with Adam again about being on the team”. Adam’s a big boy and can get back to you if he wants. Mark the project complete and move on!

  • Should this project be put on hold?

    If you won’t work on it between now and the project’s next review date, then put it on hold. There’s no sense having its tasks cluttering up your view if you’ve already decided that there isn’t time for it.

  • What’s the next action?

    Every project should have at least one task under it. To keep your project moving forward, make sure you have a clear next action.

  • Is this project still something that you care about?

    Sometimes you might not care much about the particular project, but still care about the outcome. For example, we all take some classes that we don’t find particularly engaging, but if your goal is to earn a particular degree or get into a particularly advanced class, then you can use that as motivation for the current project. On the other hand, if the project isn’t something you care about anymore, and you’re OK with the consequences of that, then you might do well to make a conscious decision to drop the project.

    When you decide to drop a project, consider whether there are any follow up actions you should take. Do you need to let anyone know that you’ve changed your mind, e.g., teammates, club members, instructors, your advisor? Are there course drop forms that need to be filled out? Project review time is when you have a chance to think of these things and add them to OmniFocus. You might even create a new project for dealing with the fallout from dropping the first one. For example, suppose you decide to resign the presidency of the chess club. You might drop your “Lead the Chess Club” project, while adding a project “Resign Chess Club Presidency”. That new project probably includes tasks like “Tell the VP that she’s in charge now” and “Turn in the club president binder”.

  • Is this project stuck?

    Have you been unable to make progress on it? It’s easy to beat ourselves up when this happens, but try not to do that! Instead, notice when you’re stuck and consider this a message from yourself to adjust the project. Often that means coming up with a different next action. Make sure the first task in the project is something small and actionable. “Write first draft of term paper” might be too big or too vague to help you get started. Instead, try something like “Go to library and find two books related to term paper” or “Write very rough draft of first paragraph of term paper”. Coming up with a small but actionable tasks is a great way to get unstuck.

  • Does this project have the right review frequency?

    Once you’ve thought about the other questions, consider whether you should review the project more or less often in the future. For example, you might want to start reviewing a project more often as you get closer to a deadline. Or maybe you have a project that you considered dropping, but decided to keep around. For a project like that you might consider increasing the time between reviews. I think of this as a “soft drop”; I’m not ready to give up on the project yet, but I’m leaning in that direction.

When to Review

Different people have different strategies for when to do project reviews. These days, I usually do a quick morning review over a cup of coffee. As a student, I was allergic to mornings and tended to do reviews in the evening.

Getting started doing regular reviews can be a bit daunting at first, especially if you already have a bunch of projects in OmniFocus. One good strategy is to do all of the project reviews that are scheduled for today, plus one or two of your past-due reviews. This will let you catch up without being overwhelmed. Another catch-up strategy some people try is to have a marathon review session. Don’t do that! Reviews should help you feel good about being on top of your projects. Trying to review too much at once is mind numbing. Personally, I can’t successfully review more than a handful of projects at once. Beyond six or seven I’m not really thinking about the projects anymore; I’m just checking them off.

Reviewing on the Mac

OmniFocus for Mac provides similar review features to the iPad edition, but they’re organized a bit differently. From the Perspectives menu, choose Review to view all of your projects sorted by next review date. To change the review frequency or project status, you can use the Project Inspector. Use the Show/Hide Inspectors toolbar button to reveal the inspectors.

Desktop Inspector Button

Click on a project in the main window, and the inspector will switch to the Project Inspector with controls for changing the project status, review date, and review frequency. To mark the project as reviewed, go to the Edit menu and choose Mark Reviewed.

Advanced Features

At the Omni Group, we want OmniFocus to be approachable and provide useful basic features from day one. Beyond the basics, OmniFocus provides a powerful toolkit for graduate-level task management. I hope this series has helped you see how you might use OmniFocus as part of your efforts to achieve the results you want in school (and in life). We covered the basics and some intermediate level features like focusing on projects or contexts, adjusting the view settings, and reviewing your projects.

There’s still more to explore. To learn about more advanced features like hierarchical contexts, action groups, custom perspectives, on-hold contexts, and more, check out these resources:

OmniFocus is a great way to get a better handle on your projects and tasks. You can download the Mac app here for a free 14 day trial, read more about OmniFocus for Mac, or check out OmniFocus for iPad and iPhone. And be sure to contact our amazing support ninjas if you have any questions.

Editor’s note: Special promotional pricing is available for a limited time on OmniFocus for Mac and OmniFocus for iPad. Don’t forget about OmniFocus for iPhone, either. Students and teachers can also take advantage of every day special pricing on our Mac apps via our own Edu Store.


by Derek Reiff on September 5, 2012

Last week, our friend Lotus came to the office one last time.

She was a cat, with a single-digit employee number, who neared 19 [years old] — that’s just shy of 100 in equivalent “human” years, according to the Cat Calculator.

Lotus, a few weeks ago, enjoying the sun

She came to us via a friend of the company, Sonja, who relayed the “Origins” story:

Nearly 19 years ago I was walking home from the grocery store and this little black fluffy cat started walking with me and whining oh so pitifully. I petted her and gave her attention and she wandered off but in the next few days I saw her again and she followed me all the way home. She knew a sucker when she saw one. I took her upstairs and gave Sean plaintive eyes and so we made up some Found Cat posters. We already had two cats, so an online friend agreed to foster her for a while.

Lo and behold someone called saying this was her cat, her apartment had been broken into and some of her cats had gotten out. Hooray, she arranged with the foster person to get her cat back. Yet, within two weeks this same cat was out again and following me around again. I carried her upstairs and called the owner. She said something to the effect “oh she was acting differently so I didn’t think she was my cat so I let her out.” I was livid. She said something, I think, about how she could take her back if I wanted but there was no way I was going to let that happen.

While trying to find a permanent home for her we realized, oops, our youngest cat, Fnert, was an unfixed male and we better do something about that pronto. But that fluffy black kitty was on to us and, I kid you not, the night before his appointment she went into heat and I was woken up by screeching and howling and walked into my living room to find the deed being done.

Shortly after, the peeps at Omni agreed to take her in, knowing she was probably pregnant. Five adorable kittens arrived.

The rest of her history is with Omni but I have always been proud that this stray I rescued ended up having such a sweet deal. My thanks to all the Omni peeps who gave her such a great and long life.

A few months ago she went into a wonderful retirement home (courtesy of Andrew’s house—thanks Andrew!) and did some sunbathing, meowing, pétanque-playing, day-trading, and White-Russian-drinking. She was never really close to her offspring, so there weren’t grandkittens to spoil.

She had kittens during the 1994 Olympics, each named after a figure skater: Elvis, Surya, Bonaly, Viktor. She’s survived by Viktor, her firstborn, who lives with Ken.

A bit more about Lotus (and loss) at the personal space of Bill, our UX lead.

Thanks for helping with some of our company’s culture, Lotus, and for welcoming us to the office every morning for over 18 years.

Painting by Derek Motonaga

OmniFocus at School: Next Actions

by Curt Clifton on August 30, 2012

This is the third in a four-part series of posts on how students can use OmniFocus to reduce stress and improve results. Previous posts covered how to use OmniFocus to collect all your tasks in one central location, and arrange those tasks. Today we’ll look at how OmniFocus can help you pick the best task to do in the moment. The final post will talk about using OmniFocus to review your progress.

Focusing on What Matters Now

In my previous post, I talked about setting the project and context for a task to move it out of your OmniFocus Inbox. That post also briefly covered using Project, Context, and Forecast views in OmniFocus for iPad to find what to work on next. In this post I’ll describe how to use OmniFocus to view just the tasks you need to see right now. This ability to focus on just what you want to see, while temporarily hiding the rest of your tasks, is where OmniFocus gets its name.

Project, Context, and Forecast Views Revisited

As I mentioned last time, OmniFocus provides three main ways for viewing your work: Project, Context, and Forecast views.

Project view shows your tasks organized by project and single-action list. This view is great when you want to plan the next few steps of a project. It’s also your go-to view when you know that you want to work on a particular project and want to recall what the next step should be.

Context view shows your tasks organized by … context. In this view, OmniFocus will list every available task in each context, regardless of project. …

Forecast view shows your tasks organized by due date. In this view, OmniFocus shows the tasks that are past due, due today, due over each of the next few days.

In OmniFocus for iPad, tap in the sidebar to switch to the corresponding view. On the Mac, choose Projects, Contexts, or Due from the Perspectives menu. On the iPhone, tap Projects, Contexts, or Forecast from the OmniFocus home screen.

A Natural Order

Project, Context, and Forecast views are enough for many people to tackle their tasks with confidence in OmniFocus. When you’re ready to take your productivity to the next level, OmniFocus has some great features for narrowing your view to just the essential items that you can work on now.

To see how more advanced features of OmniFocus work, it helps to understand the difference between next, remaining, and available actions.

The basic idea is straightforward. A next action is the single next step that you can take to move a project forward. Remaining actions are all the actions on a project that you haven’t yet completed. Available actions are the remaining ones that aren’t blocked by something else.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute! What do you mean ‘blocked by something else’?”

You can tell OmniFocus that a project is either sequential or parallel. When you tell OmniFocus that a project is sequential, you’re telling it that the actions in that project must happen in order. This means that the next action in that project is the only available action. For example, you might have a project to write a term paper that looks like this:

A Sequential Project

Tap to embiggen

This looks like a sequential project. You have to check out the books before you skim them. You want to skim them before you read and take notes. You want to have some ideas from your notes before you start drafting your paper. And so on. Checking out the books is the next action and is the only available one. It blocks all the other remaining actions.

In contrast, you can tell OmniFocus that a project is parallel if the order of the actions doesn’t matter. In that case, all the incomplete actions are both remaining and available. OmniFocus assumes that the first action you list is the “next” action—we’ll see shortly how that’s useful—but, because all actions are available, you could work on any one of them.

Here’s an example of a parallel project:

A Parallel Project

Tap to embiggen

Here all of the actions are available. Because you listed it first, OmniFocus considers “Order new running shoes” to be your next action. You can always reorder the tasks to tell OmniFocus that a different action should be the next one for the project.

In most ways, a single-action list is like a parallel project. The only difference is that every action in a single-action list is considered to be a next action.

A Single Action List

Tap to embiggen

Just Show Me What I Can Do Now

Why the detour through next, remaining, and available actions? OmniFocus can filter your tasks to just show one of these groups at a time. Let’s look at how that might be useful.

Suppose you’re really swamped and want to look at the smallest useful set of your tasks. You can switch to Context view, choose just the Context for where you are right now, and narrow your view to just show next actions. For most people that will give you a list of just a few items to choose from. I know for me, that’s a great way to stop procrastinating and make some progress.

Let’s walk through how you would do that on the iPad:

  1. From the Home view of the sidebar, tap Contexts.
  2. In the main view, find the context that you want to focus on, like Studying.
  3. Press and hold on the context until the popover menu appears.
    Tap and Hold Popover
  4. Tap Focus.
  5. OmniFocus will zoom in to just show the tasks in your Studying context.
  6. Now you can filter that list to just show your next actions. To do that, tap the View icon in the upper-right corner. (At Omni, we jokingly refer to this as the eye of Sauron. We’re kind of geeky that way.)
  7. OmniFocus will display a popover that lets you choose between showing next, remaining, available, or all actions. Tap Next Action, and you’ll have a nicely narrowed list of tasks.
  8. Pick a task and get to work!

Eye of Sauron Popover

Why not leave the view set to show just next actions? There are a few cases where you’ll want to see a broader view. For example, suppose you have a context for things to talk about with your Mom. When you give her a call, you’ll probably want to see all the available actions for that context. That way you can take care of everything in one conversation. As another example, if you aren’t feeling particularly pressed for time, you might want to view available actions so you can pick the most interesting thing to do next, rather than just narrowly focusing on next actions.

When you use the View popover to tell OmniFocus to narrow the list of tasks, notice that the text below the context names changes to let you know what sort of tasks are shown. This also gives you an idea of what tasks are hidden.

Popover Effects

OmniFocus doesn’t forget the hidden tasks. Remember that you can always tap the View icon and switch to showing remaining tasks to see the ones that were hidden. (You can even choose to show all tasks if you want to look at all the work you’ve already accomplished.)

The other editions of OmniFocus also have controls for narrowing the tasks and contexts that you see. OmniFocus for iPhone has a View icon in its toolbar that works the same as the one on the iPad. In OmniFocus for Mac you can control which context is displayed by selecting it in the sidebar. You can control the visible tasks using the View Bar, available by choosing Show View Bar from the View menu.

Focusing on a Project

Sometimes it’s useful to focus on just a single project. For example, suppose you’re working with some teammates to finish up a report and prepare for your presentation in the morning. You want to focus on just that project and hide all your other tasks. Here’s how to do that:

  1. For the Home view of the sidebar, tap on Projects.
  2. Find your Finish Team Report and Presentation project in the main view.
  3. Press and hold on the project until the popover menu appears.
    Project Popover
  4. Tap Focus.
  5. OmniFocus will zoom in to just show your Finish Team Report and Presentation project.
  6. Tap the View icon in the upper-right corner and switch to Remaining actions.

Now you can see everything that the team needs to accomplish before that looming 10:00 a.m. deadline. As the team thinks of other tasks you need to finish, you can tap the ‘+’ button in the upper-right corner to add the tasks to the project.

Add action while focused

Work without Worry

By using the View popover and focusing on just the context or project you need at the moment, you can make OmniFocus show you exactly what you need to get your work done without worrying that you’re missing something.

In the next post, I’ll wrap up the series with a brief discussion of using OmniFocus to review your projects and give some links to other resources that will help you move on to graduate level task management.

Editor’s note: Special promotional pricing is available for a limited time on OmniFocus for Mac and OmniFocus for iPad. Don’t forget about OmniFocus for iPhone, either. Students and teachers can also take advantage of every day special pricing on our Mac apps via our own Edu Store.