Lotus

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.

OmniFocus at School: Contexts and Projects

by Curt Clifton on August 23, 2012

This is the second in a four-part series on how students can use OmniFocus to reduce stress and improve results. A previous post covered how to use OmniFocus to collect all your tasks in one central location. Today we’ll look at techniques for arranging those tasks so OmniFocus can help you pick the best task to tackle next. Future posts will talk about using OmniFocus to focus on the right task to do in the moment and review your progress.

Have it Both Ways with OmniFocus

In my previous post, I talked about using Quick Entry to toss all of your tasks into your OmniFocus inbox. What do you do with those tasks once you’ve collected them? OmniFocus gives you some great tools for organizing your work so you can tackle it without freaking out.

The two main tools for organizing your work in OmniFocus are contexts and projects. You can assign a task to both a context and a project. By doing that you have a lot of power to focus on just the right view of your work.

OmniFocus comes in three editions, for Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Contexts and projects are available in all three versions of OmniFocus. To keep things simple, I’ll talk about OmniFocus for iPad in this post.

Contexts

A context in OmniFocus is a way of recording what resources you need to complete a task. That’s intentionally a little vague, but some examples should help. For some tasks, you might need to be in a particular place. Such “Place” contexts might include Library, Dorm, or Grocery Store. For other tasks you might need to talk to a particular person or group. Sometimes we call these “Agenda” contexts. Examples here might include Mom, your Tech Comm Project Team, or your friend Jessica. Still other tasks might require a particular mindset. For example, you might choose to have separate contexts for Writing and Studying. It’s easy to spend lots of time deciding on a final set. My advice would be to pick a few and stick with them for a while before making changes. Here’s a good starter set for students:

  • Decker Hall (Consider a context for important buildings or areas on campus.)
  • Library
  • Dorm (It’s useful to have a context for wherever you live at school.)
  • Home
  • Mom
  • Jessica (Consider having a context for each of your most important relationships.)
  • Brian (It’s probably worth having a context for your roommate, even if you don’t consider that an important relationship.)
  • Writing
  • Studying
  • Fun (Ideas to waste time, be social, and maintain your sanity go here.)

To create a new context in OmniFocus for iPad, first go to the Contexts view by tapping Contexts in the sidebar. (If Contexts doesn’t appear in the sidebar, you can tap the Home button, , to reveal it.)

From the Contexts view, tap the ‘+’ button in the upper-right corner and choose New Context. Enter a name for your new context and tap Done.

Popover Context

Projects

In addition to a context, you can also assign each task in OmniFocus to a project. A project in OmniFocus is a collection of related tasks that, taken together, help you accomplish some goal. For example, you might have a project named “Arrange financial aid for next year”. That project could have several actions like, “Stop by financial aid office to ask about what records they need,” “Call Mom about getting copy of tax forms”, and “Take forms to library to make copies”. You might have another project named “Finish term paper” with tasks like “Sketch rough outline of three different paper ideas” and “Talk to Dr. Horton about paper ideas”.

Projects With Contexts

Don’t feel like you have to list every possible task that you’ll have to do to finish a project. The important thing is to group tasks into projects and to make sure that each one has a clear next action. You’ll have trouble moving forward on a project if you haven’t thought about what to do next. On the other hand, try to avoid planning out every single detail in advance. Circumstances might change before you get to step 24 of your 81 step plan! Then all your planning would have been wasted effort.

Creating a new project in OmniFocus for iPad is a lot like creating a new context. To create a new project, tap Projects in the sidebar. (Again, if Projects doesn’t appear in the sidebar, tap Home to reveal it.) From the Project view, tap the ‘+’ button in the upper-right corner and choose New Project. Enter a name for your new project and tap Done.

Project Editor

Sometimes you’ll have a task that doesn’t really belong to a multi-step project. For example, “Get quarters for laundry” or “See if Mom and Dad are coming to Parents Weekend” might not have additional steps. You can use a single-action list for these tasks. Unlike a project in OmniFocus, a single-action list doesn’t have a definite end point. It’s just a collection of miscellaneous tasks that you want to do.

To create a single-action list, begin by creating a new project as described above, but before tapping Done in the Project editor, tap on the Type field and choose Single Actions from the popover.

Single Action

Moving out of the Inbox

So now that we’ve added some projects and contexts, how do we use them?

When you create a new task, by default OmniFocus will put the task in your Inbox. You move the task out of your Inbox by giving it a context and a project. To set these in OmniFocus for iPad, tap the Inbox button, then tap the task. The task editor will appear. You can set the context and project from the Info tab.

Info Popover

Tap on the Context field to set the context. You can choose one of your existing contexts from the popover that appears, either by choosing from the list or by first typing a few characters in the search field to reduce the number of possibilities.

Assigning the task to a project works similarly.

While you’re thinking about the task, this is also a good time to set start and due dates if they’re called for. You do that on the Dates tab. Set a start date on a task if you want to hide it until that date arrives. Suppose you know that you’ll have to re-write a paper after you get it back from your instructor. She’s promised to return your first draft on Monday. You could set a start date for Monday and not have to worry about the paper until then. You can also set a due date on a task.

It’s tempting to put due dates on everything. I recommend only putting due dates on tasks that really have a deadline. You have enough deadlines as a student. False urgency just creates stress!

Date Editor. Ignore the Repeat section, we'll get to that.

Once you’ve set the context and project, and perhaps dates, tap the Done button. The editor will close and OmniFocus will automatically move the task out of your Inbox.

Where did it go?

After you’ve moved tasks out of your Inbox, OmniFocus for iPad provides three main ways for viewing your work: Project, Context, and Forecast views. Tap Projects or Contexts in the sidebar to switch to the corresponding view.

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, wait for it, context. In this view, OmniFocus will list every available task in each context, regardless of project. For example, suppose you’re getting ready to call your Mom. You can look in your “Mom” context and notice your task “See if Mom and Dad are coming to Parents Weekend” from your single-action list along with “Call Mom about getting copy of tax forms” from your financial aid 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. This is a great view when you’re trying to decide whether you can make that weekend road trip or need to buckle down and get some work done.

Forecast View

In the next post I’ll talk about using OmniFocus for choosing what task to work on next, including some more advanced features of projects and contexts.

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.

A Unified App Icon Style

by William Van Hecke on August 22, 2012

Software design is pretty much dead-center between being an art and a science. Or as Jobs said, at the “intersection of technology and liberal arts”. This means that while some decisions we have to make are logical and can be satisfyingly backed up with evidence, other decisions are thrillingly, maddeningly subjective matters of taste.

So… App icons! They’re way over on the subjective side, and are at least as much marketing as they are user interface. Over the years, we have taken a few different stabs at developing a distinctive style for our app icons, but the realities of shipping software made it so that we were never really poised to release a major upgrade to everything all at once. So instead we made staggered incremental changes across our suite of apps, making for this diverse crowd.

Diverse crowd of app icons

But during the course of pursuing our iPad or Bust initiative, we decided that we would never have a better time to make our app icons more consistent. Better to change all the icons at once than to wait for each of our five huge productivity apps (spread across three platforms) to reach major versions, updating the icons one by one. So we got to work on coming up with a consistent style. Here’s the final result:

Unified icon suite

This new suite of icons emerged from an extensive list of demands:

Each product should have a distinctive emblem with a strong contour. The emblems are simple figure/ground shapes. They don’t depend on colors, gradients, shadows, or other effects, so we can use them in a variety of treatments: flat logos, outlines, cut-outs, and so on. Joel forged these emblems in OmniGraffle as purely positive/negative-space shapes.

Each product should have a consistent look across platforms. The emblems and theme colors identify the products from Mac to iPad to iPhone. (Relying primarily on color would cause problems for folks who perceive color differently!)

Each platform should have a consistent look across products. iOS apps get a colored slab with the emblem cut out, showing the black slab beneath (or white, for our iPhone app). The Mac variants are the same, but with the slabs rotated and tilted slightly away from the viewer. We go way back on Mac OS; that composition is a bit of a callback to the classic angled-document app icon style.

The icons should have a sense of being part of a unified set. This was a big one, and it took a while to get right. We didn’t just want them to look unified, we wanted them to look unquestionably Omni — we don’t have it as bad as Panic, but our icons have been stolen from time to time. It was hard to think of how to do this other than slapping a huge Omni logo on each icon. So instead, Joel had the idea of slapping hundreds of tiny Omni logos on each one. In doing so, we were even able to evoke our old brushed-metal motif.

The colored front slabs bear a carbon-fiberesque pattern of Omni logos, and the back slabs bear a prime-number-based marble pattern of Omni logos:

Close-up of OmniFocus app icon textures

Lots of people here at Omni put a ton of work into this project, but Joel was the main dude. Many cheers for Joel! I did the final art for the iOS variants in Photoshop, and for the Mac variants in Modo. I’ll leave you with a shot of the OmniGraphSketcher icon from when I was zoomed in to scrutinize some tiny detail; Joel looked over my shoulder and immediately declared, “Oooh, I wanna play an FPS in there!”

OmniGraphSketcher as an FPS map

OmniFocus at School: Quick Entry

by Curt Clifton on August 16, 2012

OmniFocus is a powerful task management app. It’s available for Mac, iPhone, and iPad. This is the first in a four-part series on how students can use OmniFocus to reduce stress and improve results.

  • Today we’ll cover how to use OmniFocus to collect all your tasks in one central location. OmniFocus provides Quick Entry tools that let you capture every item that you need to work on.
  • Once captured, you can use OmniFocus to sort your work in ways that let you concentrate on just what matters now using the powerful, built-in organizing features. The second post in this series will talk about organizing your work into projects and contexts.
  • You can quickly view your tasks using a variety of built-in views in OmniFocus. Or you can take advantage of more powerful view settings to see exactly what you need while hiding the rest. The third post in the series will show you how to become an OmniFocus power user and take more control over what you see.
  • Finally, using Review mode in OmniFocus, you can make sure all of your projects keep moving forward. You’ll sleep better knowing that you aren’t leaving anything behind. The final post in the series will discuss strategies for reviewing your projects.

Don’t let anything slip through the cracks

As a student, one of the biggest challenges is keeping track of all the things you have to do. You might be a full-time student with four or five separate classes, extracurricular groups, social activities, and a part-time job. Or maybe you’re a practicing professional juggling work and family obligations while taking a night course or two to advance your career or broaden your horizons. Either way, your instructors aren’t likely to be consulting with each other, your boss, or your social calendar about the number of things already on your plate.

One of the keys to staying calm and productive amidst that onslaught is keeping a list of all the things that you have to do. With Quick Entry at the ready, OmniFocus is here to help!

OmniFocus comes in three editions, for Mac, iPhone, and iPad. All of them have great features for quickly jotting down new things that you have to do. I’ll describe some situations where each might be most useful. That doesn’t mean you need to buy all three versions. They’re a great trifecta, but any one of them will help you. (Editor’s note: Check out the end of this post for information on special promotional pricing.)

Suppose you’re sitting in class taking notes on your iPad. (By the way, we have a great app for that too.) Your instructor mentions that the role of anarchy in the English Civil War will be on your test. Just press your iPad’s home button, tap the OmniFocus icon, then the friendly, yellow Quick Entry button.

OmniFocus for iPad's Quick Entry button

Write “Study anarchy in English CW for history exam” and tap save. There’s no need to fill in all the other details. You can update those later. For now, be confident that you’ve added the task to your list. When the time comes, you’ll totally ace the anarchy question.

Just tap save when done

Or maybe your Modern Music History prof thinks the end of the class period doesn’t apply to him. You’ve thrown everything in your backpack so you can dash off to your next class when he announces “one more thing”: a three page essay on the evolution of punk rock in the U.S. and U.K., due on Monday. This is a great time to use OmniFocus for iPhone: tap the OmniFocus icon, tap the Inbox button—you don’t even have to wait for the app to finish loading—enter “Write punk rock essay”, set the due date for Monday, and tap Save.

Add to the Inbox in OmniFocus for iPhone

That night you’re at home listening to the Ramones on your Macbook Air while you do some background research for your essay. You get an email from your math instructor with the problem set for next week. OmniFocus for Mac’s clipping service is great for pulling tasks out of email messages. Select the problem numbers in the email, then from the menu bar choose Mail → Services → OmniFocus: Send to Inbox. Double-check the information in the Quick Entry window and click Save. (You can also set up a keyboard shortcut for Clipping in the OmniFocus Preferences for even quicker entry.)

"I can tell this is a fake screenshot because Prof. Pritchard would’ve used an Oxford Comma"

You’re about to call it a night when your friend IMs about a concert next weekend. (It’s a Clash cover band. What a coincidence!) You decide to go and you volunteer to order the tickets… but not tonight. Just hit the quick entry hot-key on your Mac—by default, that’s Control-Option-Space—type “Buy concert tickets”, and click Save.

The quick entry power of OmniFocus can also be a lifesaver on those nights when you go to bed exhausted, the remnants of that second liter of Mountain Dew still coursing through your veins, but your brain refuses to rest. Instead of letting that rolling list of worries just keep you awake, grab your iPhone and add the tasks to OmniFocus. Perhaps in the morning you’ll decide to delete half of them as unimportant, but if you’re like me, you’ll find that just writing them down helps you let go and fall asleep.

Once your tasks are out of your head and into OmniFocus, you can stop worrying and focus your mental energy on the actual material you have to learn. All the tasks are safe in your OmniFocus Inbox wanting for you to tackle them. In the next post, I’ll talk about ways to use OmniFocus to organize your work into projects and contexts so you can focus on what to do next. We’ll also look at some simple techniques for regularly reviewing your progress to keep everything moving forward.

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.