OmniFocus for Academics

by Curt Clifton on August 2, 2012

Before joining the engineering team at The Omni Group, I was an associate professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. As an academic, I relied on OmniFocus to stay on top of the wide variety of demands on my time and attention. I always found summer was a great time to regroup and gear up for the coming year, so I thought it might be a good time to share some of the OmniFocus techniques that worked for me.

You can get OmniFocus for your Mac, iPhone, or iPad. To keep the discussion simple, I’m going to concentrate on OmniFocus for Mac here.

I want to touch on four areas where OmniFocus was especially helpful to me as an academic: dealing with interruptions, preparing for meetings, tracking projects, and saying “No.”

Dealing with Interruptions

Many of my days as an academic seemed to be a rapid succession of context switches. Between classes, committees, and meetings with students, my train of thought sometimes spent more time switching tracks than moving forward. I found that having a detailed list of the tasks that I needed to finish, including due dates, helped me to quickly choose the next thing to do when I got back to my office or finished helping a student.

I made heavy use of the Quick Entry window for dropping new tasks into my system as they occurred to me. My department chair was a great one for delegating by email, so many tasks made their way into my system through the OmniFocus Clipping Service. I could select the portion of an email that needed additional action, hit my clipping shortcut keys, and add details to the new task in the Quick Entry window.

Quick Entry in OmniFocus

By default, the Quick Entry window doesn’t include due dates. I found that academic work was much more deadline driven than my work in industry—class sessions happen as scheduled and conference deadlines are firm. Because of this, I set up OmniFocus to display due dates everywhere. To display due dates in the Quick Entry window, you can click the gear icon and make sure Due Date is checked in the list. To display due dates in OmniFocus proper, you can go to the View menu, choose Columns, and make sure Due Date is checked.

Adding the Due Date column

Preparing for Meetings

As an academic, I spent much of my time meeting with students or colleagues. I used OmniFocus “Contexts” to make sure that time was well spent. To be prepared for ad hoc meetings, I used an Agenda context. Under that, I had contexts for my advisees and the colleagues with whom I most often met. If I thought of a paper to recommend or a gentle reminder that I needed to pass along to someone, I’d create a task in OmniFocus (Quick Entry again!) and set the context to the student or colleague in question. Then when I met with them, I could check their context in OmniFocus and be sure to cover everything in one meeting.

Agenda Contexts

OmniFocus was also useful for preparing for regularly scheduled meetings. I kept a context for each committee on which I served. A day or two before these meetings, I could review the context for that committee and quickly compose an email with the agenda and reminders of the commitments other members had made.

Tracking Projects

The joys of an academic career come from pursuing interesting ideas and nurturing students. Around those there is a huge cloud of repetitive tasks that we have to complete, like preparing course materials, writing grants, designing exams, and arranging conference travel. Each of these has a familiar rhythm.

OmniFocus is great for managing small projects like these. I kept a folder named “Templates” containing sample projects. For example, here’s a project template that I used for making sure I took care of the necessary details at the end of each term:

  • Wrapped-up CourseNumber
    • Enter final grades
    • Collect final ABET samples for accreditation
    • Backup ANGEL course
    • Post link from homepage to course snapshot
    • Brainstorm list of changes to the course made or planned for next time
    • Respond to course evaluations
    • Post course evaluation response

At the end of a term, I could just open my Templates folder in OmniFocus, copy the project, switch to my Teaching folder, paste in the new project, and tweak its title to include the right course number.

To keep the “originals” of my sample projects from cluttering my to-do list, I set the Template folder status to “Dropped”. OmniFocus keeps dropped folders around, but hides them by default.

Here are a few other template projects that I used as an academic:

  • Had Grader Grade Assignment
  • Attended ConferenceName
  • Reviewed thingToReview for venue
  • Posted Committee Minutes for MeetingDate
  • Administered Course Number Exam Exam Number
  • Prepped week WeekNumber (I kept different template projects for different courses.)
  • Initialized CourseNumber
  • Wrapped-up CourseNumber

A dropped folder with templates

Copying from a Templates folder is great for basic projects. If you need more flexibility, such as setting relative dates for individual tasks in a project or substituting key phrases, I wrote a script that will handle that. You can download my Populate Template Placeholders script, instructions included, from my personal project page.

OmniFocus also has built-in support for basic repeating projects that recur at consistent intervals. I found that my work wasn’t regular enough to use these much, but they might work well for you.

Saying “No”

Working on a college campus is to be surrounded by interesting ideas and exciting opportunities. One of the biggest challenges is learning when to say, “No.” OmniFocus can be a powerful tool to help with that.

By having all my projects and tasks in one place, OmniFocus helped me recognize when my plate was too full for “just one more thing”. Showing a colleague, or a department head, the number of items that I had to finish in the next week was a great way to explain why I had to turn down a new opportunity. And when the opportunity was too good to pass up? The Review perspective in OmniFocus was great for looking over my current commitments and deciding what things I could reschedule or set aside.


As you recharge for the coming school year, take a look at OmniFocus. It’s 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. Academics can also take advantage of every day special pricing on our Mac apps via our own Edu Store.

Alternative Options and Shorter Shortcuts

by Derek Reiff on July 27, 2012

OmniGraffle 5.4 shipped in early June with a new set of keyboard shortcuts to zoom in and out of the current canvas. The new shortcuts follow the iWork suite: ⌘> to zoom in, ⌘< to zoom out. This is a deliberate change, but we’ve heard from a few people who’ve suggested other shortcuts — the biggest being the Adobe CS set.

Dr. Drang wrote about keyboard shortcuts in OmniGraffle a year ago, somewhat in the same vein.

But! You can definitely change things around, if you need to, by adding a few Application-specific shortcuts in the Keyboard pane of System Preferences. (In fact, you could add a setting so that any application that has a Zoom In menubar item follows the same shortcut. Caveats: In OmniGraffle and Numbers, ⌘+ is used for making font size larger; other applications might be using it for other things, too.)

Anyway, how’s it done?

  • Select the Keyboard pane of System Preferences, followed by Keyboard Shortcuts. Select Application Shortcuts in the list on the left.
  • Click the + button and add Zoom In to the Menu Title field.
  • Add a shortcut. In this case, to match Adobe’s suite, use ⌘+. (Side note, this is actually, of course, ⌘=. As far as I can tell, OS X won’t ever show + in place of =, even with ⇧.)
  • Do the same thing (+ button, Zoom Out, and add ⌘–) for zooming out.

You’re done! If you’d like that to be global, leave “Any Application” in place.

Hopefully you’re all enjoying Mountain Lion! Here’s to the early adopters.

Customer Stories: Crafting Interaction with Nick Finck

by Derek Reiff on July 16, 2012

We receive a lot of emails and phone calls every day. Some asking for Feature X, others to report a bug. A fair amount, though, are stories from customers about how they use our applications. Each story leaves us feeling grateful to be in the business.

About a year ago, we decided to bring a few of these to video.

This story is about Nick Finck, Deloitte Digital, and how they’re using OmniGraffle to design user interfaces and information architecture.

The Story

We’ll let the video do most of the talking, but Nick—who is User Experience Director at Deloitte Digital—has been focused on mobile UX and IA over the last seven years. In that time, OmniGraffle has been the tool to design interfaces to “help (people) and make their day better.”


We talked to Nick just south of the Fremont Troll. For more from Nick, check out his blog.

PS: If you’re in the mood for an OmniGraffle poster, Nick created a very printable document of OmniGraffle Shortcuts.

OmniPlan for iPad ready to share PDFs

by Derek Reiff on July 12, 2012

The #1 requested feature customers sent in for OmniPlan on the iPad has just hit the App Store, so go grab it!

Tap and hold a project in the document browser to email a PDF of the Gantt chart (a full canvas, or paginated) or an HTML report (a task report or a resource report for a standalone web page.)

Instead of emailing, you might also send it over to an app like Dropbox to put it in a shared folder.

If you have an AirPrint enabled printer, you can send your Gantt chart there, too.

Head here if you were waiting for v1.1!

OmniWeb and the Early Internet

by Derek Reiff on June 29, 2012

Earlier this week a nostalgic OmniWeb user emailed in looking for release notes from the early days of OmniWeb. Back when we were apparently trying to find the right pixel-width for IFRAME borders. This is all before my time at Omni, but luckily I can still go through our entire OmniWeb mailing list archives.

OmniWeb 1.0 was free to regular folk and $120, per seat, for organizations. It was exclusive to NEXTSTEP and OpenStep and kind of a great value: you could access the internet!

The printed documentation had some blood, sweat, and tears, too.


Documentation Colophon

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