How to pick the right To Do app for you

Let me do the joke first: if you have a Mac, iPhone or iPad, buy OmniFocus. That’s it, we’re done, thank you for coming, I’m here through Friday, two-drink minimum, see your waitress for details, try the veal.

OmniFocus is so good that I’ve been asked whether the makers pay me to say that. And I really would offer it up as the one-stop, suits-all solution except that you can’t just stop once and it doesn’t suit all. It’s pretty close. Two things held me back from recommending it universally and one is that the Mac version has been hard to use. I’m sure I can’t say anything in detail about the beta release of OmniFocus 2 for Mac but I will certainly tell you that it is really good and much easier to use than it was. I’m saying easier, I’m not saying easy. But OmniFocus 1 was always worth the effort it took to learn it, OmniFocus 2 gets you its powerful features much more readily and clearly.

The other thing that has held me back from universal recommendation, though, hasn’t changed. And it won’t change. OmniFocus only runs on Macs, iPhones and iPads. There’s no Android, Linux or Windows versions and seemingly there never will be. I’m fine with that. Better the company stays great on one platform than it becomes okay on a few.

But it does mean I have difficulty recommending To Do apps. Actually, I won’t blindly recommend specific ones – not even OmniFocus when it comes down to it – because everyone is different and the best I can do is point you to some great and good To Do apps. In my latest The Blank Screen workshop, I discussed specific To Do software and hit a snag. To Do apps for iPhone: legion. To Do apps for Android: myriad. To Do apps for Windows Phones: hello?

Try this yourself. Do a google search on “best to do apps for Windows Phone”. You will get many results and several will be articles that state they include such things as To Do apps – but they don’t. I’ve read many top tens, top twenties, top something else and found not one single To Do app in there.

At the other end of the scale, if you have an iPhone, you’ve already got a good To Do app. It’s called Reminders and it’s very basic but what it does, it does very well. Reminders invented the Location Reminder idea – the way that when I leave a certain client’s office, my iPhone will tell me to send them an invoice – which I think should be mandatory now for all To Do apps.

Mandatory is a hard word. To Do apps are also a great example of when the word specifications is bollocks. I do recommend that you try many different apps but if, in so doing, you decided to write up a spec sheet of what they all did, it wouldn’t help you. Remember the Milk would score high for being on the web as well as Macs and iOS; OmniFocus would score low for being limited to Apple’s gear. Yet Remember the Milk isn’t right for me and OmniFocus is. Though I love the name Remember the Milk.

You can’t quantify experiences like using the right To Do app. But you can try.

Picking the right To Do app for you means testing out a lot. But you can limit how many you have to try or buy with this one simple thing: don’t look at a To Do app for mobile phones and tablets or for desktop Macs and PCs or for using online, if it doesn’t have Start Dates. These may be called something else like Defer Until (that’s what OmniFocus calls them and I don’t like that). But when you enter or edit a task, you must have the ability to prevent yourself seeing it until you need it.

Follow. I’m doing The Blank Screen at the Stratford Literary Festival in May. I do not need and I do not want to see that on my To Do list until it’s time to prepare for it in about mid-April. So I don’t. “Prepare presentation for Stratford” is in my To Do list but it has a Start Date of 15 April and until that day, I won’t see it. I can look for it, I can see it when I review all my tasks, but each day as I look to see what I’ve got to do, Stratford will not be one of them – until it’s supposed to be.

Start Dates are as vital as Due Dates and if you use them, they are gold. But even if you don’t and never will, the fact that an app has them is a good indication that the app is powerful. Maybe you don’t need powerful features, probably you do, but it’s better to have them available, isn’t it?


Best news all day – OmniFocus 2 for Mac confirmed for June

What’s more, the beta test version is available right now. Or at least, it is to those of us who were on the beta last year and who haven’t forgotten their login details like I have. I’m working on getting those back so I can spend the evening playing with this – seriously, I’m not ashamed to say that to you – and if you haven’t beta-ed before but want to, you can sign up to be added to a list.

When we unveiled our plans for OmniFocus 2 for Mac last year and invited you to try our test builds, it was so we could learn from you which parts of the design were working well, and which parts still needed improvement. We didn’t know what to expect, so we weren’t sure how close we might be to setting a ship date.

The feedback you provided was generally positive: the new design was easier to navigate, and the new Forecast and Review modes were making it much easier to stay on top of all your projects.

But listening to your feedback, we also learned a lot about ways we could make the app even better—and we were further inspired by Apple’s latest designs when they unveiled iOS 7.

We paused our test builds and went back into heads-down mode to focus on the hard work of another round of design and development. Since that time, our team has been working tirelessly behind the scenes on a fresh design that preserves the best features of their original work while adapting to the latest changes to the platform.

With this new design in place, I’m thrilled to announce that OmniFocus 2 is now ready for its final round of testing.

The Omni Group – 26 March 2014

Update – I’ve got my login details back. I’m not kidding: that’s my evening sorted out. Man, I must love this software.

Do go read that full Omni Group blog because it has much more specific detail about what they’ve been doing.

Update 2:

21:01. It’s gorgeous. All the power of the old Mac version but even more of the gorgeousness of the iPad one. I used to hesitate recommending OmniFocus (you couldn’t tell I was hesitating but I was) because the Mac one was hard to learn. It was worth it, but it took effort where the iPad and iPhone versions were straightforward. Now I think the new Mac version is going to be the best of the three.


Pick yourself up and have another go

Productivity is supposed to just be a handy single word to cover all the things we want to do. But it becomes a label and then it becomes an ideal and you can see people for whom the word itself has become a cult. If you spend more time thinking about productivity than actually doing anything, you need help.

Hello. My name is William.

(Hello, William!)

The ease with which we can get caught up in shaving a few seconds off those tedious emails, in making sure our work is everywhere we are so we can get right down to it and finish that vital paragraph on the train, in writing sentences so long that you’ve forgotten the start… um… The ease with which we get caught up like that is one reason I think it feels so bad when we stop. When you fall off the productivity line, it’s rarely because you’ve made a conscious choice to get a life. It is usually that you didn’t keep up the effort. That feels bad enough but then these things snowball and you just see all the jobs you’ve got to do mounting up and mounting up. Perhaps because you have been on top of it all, you can see how big that mountain really is and that makes it even harder to get back going again.

Bollocks to mountains.

Do you know the phrase ‘sunk cost’? It’s the money you’ve already put into something. If you’ve invested £50,000 in something that isn’t working, it’s ferociously hard to forget that £50,000 and move on. Of course it is. It’s bleedin’ £50,000. Yet sometimes you should weep now and move on, sometimes it is a sunk cost. Because we are so wired to feel the loss of that £50,000 that if someone says you just need to do this simple thing – oh, and it only costs £20,000 more – we think about it. So we should: I’m not saying investors should bail out early, though you know how every website gives financial advice like that and then says, by the way, nobody here knows anything so you can’t sue us? Seriously, I know nothing about investing. I’m making an analogy. You knew that but I had to say it. Anyway. This £20,000 more lark: we don’t see the £20,000 because we’re still blinded by the enormity of the £50,000 we’ve lost. There’s a very good chance that we will spend that extra £20,000 because of it.

And then we’re out by £70,000.

Sometimes you must, you must accept that the money and the time and the sweat you put in to something is gone, it is this sunk cost and nothing you do will bring it back, maybe everything you can do will make it worse. Except moving on.

If you’ve fallen off the productivity line, forget everything that’s behind you. Yes, you failed to complete this important thing, yep you should’ve done that other vital thing. But you did fail and you didn’t do what you should.

Let it go because it is already gone.

Bollocks to all of it, there is literally nothing you can do to fix it so move on and put all that energy into doing the next thing instead. Some problems will cause you damage forever but not actually that many and most things you didn’t do today will be forgotten by everyone else by tomorrow, so join them. Forget it. Move on.

If you really are in a bad place and it really does seem like a mountain that is resting on your chest, do take a look at Bad Days in my book The Blank Screen (UK edition, US edition).

But also just take a breath. Look at what’s in front of you right now and see what tiny bit of it you can actually do, right now.

Don’t look down, don’t look up, just chip away in small moves and I promise they add up to mountains. And if that’s too Hallmark Card-like for you, think of it this way: maybe small moves don’t add up very quickly or to very much, but they add up to a hell of a lot more than your sitting there doing nothing but regretting mistakes.

Pattern Weeks part 7 – yes, well, maybe it was a good idea

Previously on previouslys…

Previously… in an attempt to get more done in huge week, I’ve scheduled some important slots. I’ll do certain things for certain projects at certain times so that they are done and I know they are done and they are always progressing instead of ever coming to a pause. I call this schedule the pattern for the week and it’s named after the term ‘pattern budget’. That’s the money you’ve got to spend on each one of many things, like episodes in a TV series. In practice, you shovel that cash around so your first episode can be really big. You just save the money later and it works out. Similarly, my pattern weeks get disrupted by other events: if I’m booked somewhere for a day, the people who booked me get me for the day. I don’t go off taking meetings or phoning other people.

Pattern Weeks part 6 – Not So Much – The Blank Screen, 16 February 2014

Week 7 has been a long time in the making, hasn’t it? The six-week week has gone sporadically dreadfully and occasionally okay. I find I have rarely looked at my plan wallpaper yet just seeing the edges of it peek out have meant that I’ve stuck to certain parts of it.

Specifically the part where I told myself to make phone calls during these times. Oddly, that’s the one part that I found most hard before and it’s the one part I really created all this to make sure I did. So, er, success, I suppose. Bizarrely, I’ve found I’ve still fallen behind on my OmniFocus reviews, though, and that’s something I actually enjoy doing.

Especially today when I did it and found I only had seven projects to review. (Because all the rest were reviewed recently enough that I didn’t have to check them again.) That mean the review took 15 minutes instead of an hour so I went off to make some more tea.

I definitely like pattern weeks when they involve tea.

Gaming productivity

I’ve written before about using a mad-dash hour to get over problems. If you’re feeling low – like I have a cold coming on at the moment – or you’re just overwhelmed, agree with yourself that you’re going to spend an hour working. Just an hour.

And then list ten things that you want to get done in that time.  That’s what I wrote about in New Hour’s Resolutions – Not Year’s, Hour’s (2 January 2014) and that’s what I did:

Consider this a live post: as I write to you now it is coming up to the top of the hour and from that hour I am going to do ten things. I can’t tell you what they are because they’re specific and they involve other people who don’t know you and I are talking like this. But I took a shower, decided on this overall idea of ten things in the next hour and realised that if I do it, I’ll feel I’ve got somewhere today. And usually that’s all I need to keep getting somewhere each day.

I wrote down a list of eight things immediately. Had to check my OmniFocus To Do list for the other two and got a bit bogged down because there was so much to choose from. But the point of ten is that it’s not easy but it is achievable. Whatever you’re working on, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that there are ten really fast things you could do right now if you put your mind to it.

And I bet at least one of those is something you don’t want to do.

It’s getting on for three months later and I haven’t had need to do that hour again – until today. Today my head is just tilting into a cold and, moreover, for some reason I have things on my list that I kept putting off. I truly don’t know why: it was just an email I had to send someone. I think maybe part of it was that I couldn’t remember why I and to email them. I’d written the task in OmniFocus as “Email XXX about the YYY event” but honestly went blank on what that YYY event was. At least, blank on enough detail that I could coherently tell the fella about it.

Thirty-one minutes ago, I started a mad-dash hour with ten new things including that email. I made that email the third thing on the list after two other items I wasn’t especially looking forward to but would at least be quick. And when you start quickly, I’ve learnt that writing down the time you did it next to the item really motivates you to bound on to the next. Where I am guilty of thinking I’ll just make a mug of tea now, for this hour with that list and those times, I don’t.

I’m writing to you because even as I drew up the list, I knew this felt different to last time. I was seeding the list with things I didn’t want to do and – this is the killer difference: I am hiding the list from myself.

I wrote it in Evernote and hit return a few times so that the list vanished off the top of my screen. So now the sequence is: 1) Race to the top of the document, see the next thing, 2) race to the bottom, make a note of it or anything I need to write to get it done, 3) get it done, 4) note down the time next to it. Rinse, repeat.

I put writing to you as the fifth of the ten things so that I could know how it was going this hour, so that I also had something to look forward to if I’m honest with you, and also because it’s not a quick and easy thing, writing to you. I have to think about: I don’t want to take your time up with rubbish. (Usually.) So this was fun but substantive.

And because it’s taking more than the average 7.5 minutes that the preceding four tasks took me, I find that my list was written long enough ago and referred to long enough ago that I truly can’t remember what item six is.

But I’m about to find out.

Tired and tested – how exhaustion helps creativity

Allegedly. I’m writing this to you at 06:15 and I’ve been working for about an hour so tell me about tired. While you’re doing that, tell me about being more creative now. Because the productivity blog Buffer wants to show us that being a wreck is a help to us, creatively:

If you’re tired, your brain is not as good at filtering out distractions and focusing on a particular task. It’s also a lot less efficient at remembering connections between ideas or concepts. These are both good things when it comes to creative work, since this kind of work requires us to make new connections, be open to new ideas and think in new ways. So a tired, fuzzy brain is much more use to us when working on creative projects.

That notion is backed up or at least given a bit of plausibility by some Scientific American research that Buffer links to. Plus the article goes on to many other brain-based issues about productivity and creativity under stress.



Seriously, who are these people? Treehouse drops all managers

This is the company that hires people at full, good pay to work only four days a week. I wrote about this in January:

Ryan Carson of the technology firm Treehouse proposes that maybe we can work four days a week and do more with it. He’s not trying to save money: you get paid your full, normal salary, you just don’t work five days a week. It sounds like he’s a productivity guru looking for a startling yet appealing angle, but the fella has his reasons and he’s put them to work: this is genuinely how his company is run.

– A Four-Day-Week With Pay (The Blank Screen), 7 January 2014

The real kicker for me, the reason to tell you about it, was that this was revealed after many months so the idea was tested. It wasn’t just a theory. Now the firm has revealed that there was something else going on:  you knew there was a catch, didn’t you? No, there isn’t. They were just doing something else and not telling one: they were getting rid of all managers.

If you are a manager and just paused with a biscuit at your lips, they didn’t fire them. They got rid of the role and of the title and everyone who was a manager now works alongside everyone else. Carson says it’s as if they hired six new workers.

Now rather than the standard model of how a business runs, Treehouse has a holacracy: anyone in the firm – anyone – can have an idea and try to get it done. Rally support, get others in on the idea, and if enough do, it gets done. If they don’t, it doesn’t. (Holacracy is a new term to me: if you don’t know it, think of how bittorrent works by spreading the work between many peers instead from a central source. Or think of bees. Carson says it’s like a beehive. And Wikipedia gets serious on the topic.)

Carson says:

It was a bold move and one that not everyone was convinced of. We proposed to change the way the company operated and give all employees 100% control of their time and let them decide what they work on each day. From now on no one would tell anyone what to do, not even the CEO. (Me!) – See more at:

He says that in his blog, The Naive Optimist, where he has begun a whole series of articles about this. You would expect that he’s going to tell you at length how great this idea is and, actually, fair enough. If it hadn’t worked, you have to assume we’d never have heard a word about it and Treehouse would’ve gone back to the old system. So yes, there is a lot about how well it’s working. But it’s fascinating and most especially so when he gets into why it isn’t. Why it fails, when it fails, and what they have to do about it.

Oh, and Treehouse is a firm doing online teaching for coding. Like you cared. You just want your firm to do the same.