“You’re not dying, you just can’t think of anything good to do.” – Ferris Bueller
I’ll not exhaust the story too much, but a couple of months ago, the right side of my body went numb. This was scary, but thankfully, I was diagnosed with migraines (they don’t have to be pain headaches, I’ve learned), and prescribed meds to manage.
Since, symptoms have escalated, and that has led to MRI and more MRI and further testing. Who knows what is happening to me (we’ll figure it out in time), but I do know this:
My productivity has been galvanized like never before.
As I combat wild levels of fatigue, energy is now a very special resource. This means I ask, of all things I do, is this important enough to risk not being able to do the rest of my day?
Peeking behind the scenes a bit more, I’m on vacation from work, which was mostly planned ahead of time and fortuitous in timing since I can’t keep up, so I am lucky to not have to worry about that, but all else I do is done with incredible deliberateness.
“Time management” is the term that I hear most often, but it’s really “action management” (that which consumes time), which is really “choice management” (that which inspires action), which is really “values management” (that which drives choice). Never before have I been so clearly able to see a line so directly connecting my core values to what I am doing in every moment.
That’s probably exhausting too, but it makes me happy to live through.
I don’t know what the takeaway here is, except to say that, where possible, really identifying and then leaning in to core values to drive how one spends the time one has agency over is incredibly rewarding. And hopefully, you don’t have to have your whole body go numb to signal this.
I got a lot of positive comments on my "before" state - thanks, everyone! But it just wasn't great:
That desk? Too small. Every day was a struggle to even decide where my coffee cup was going to live.
That pile of "stuff" on the cabinet? Unsorted and unattractive. Also
A stool is there functioning as a table. That's... not right.
Because I have no desk space, in trays and office supplies are behind me. Spoiler: they never get used properly.
Did I mention the desk is too small? Where do I write?
Now, that said, there were things I did really like:
My equipment is aces. I am very happy with my tech tools.
That corkboard is really useful. I took down content for review and photos, but it's really lovely.
For all the flak I took on Twitter, that chair is super comfy and tall and I love it. So there.
The wall dividers that create a border for my workspace without totally closing me of are pretty, functional, and effective.
So. Time to fix this up.
Knowing I really wanted an L desk, I found a desk being sold from an office that is renovating, and that was going to be what I based all the changes around.
Next step? Reduce. I went through everything I was saving in my delightful piles (not all pictured in the first pics because shame), and filed, recycled, shredded, garbaged it all. I shouldn't be surprised that all that "stuff" was largely unkeepable, but it's still disappointing to know I hung on to what was mostly effectively junk for so long.
Now it's time to look at everything that was left and find its home (or part with it). To really get ready for this, I moved that white cabinet out of my workspace to just outside the divider, ensuring I have access to the storage, but not occupying space. The new desk is much bigger.
I sat in my chair at the empty desk for a few minutes, miming typing and writing. The goal was to determine which way I would face for computing, which would determine a lot of things. Probably unsurprisingly (that's two non-surprises now, for those keeping score), I ended up feeling best about the computer in the corner. This wasn't an immediate slam dunk (I kinda wanted it on the wall side so that I'd have a longer open space on my right for writing), but the option to rest my elbows on the desk "wings" (don't @ me) and the realization that there was still space enough to my right to write sold me. This was also the best use of the amount of depth the desk had.
This single decision made everything else make sense fast. This placed the monitor, to which I added a riser so that the MacBook could live underneath, keyboard, and mouse. The space to my right was for writing, so the now empty in trays and stationery could go there, and my left was becoming sort of a flex space, with just a lot of room. This is cool, because I can lay out index cards for the cork board, or set lunch, or whatever. It makes sense to me.
I placed a Boogie Board Blackboard I have on an extra tablet stand that turned up, giving me a spot for ephemeral messages to self (this sparks joy), and I used my Roost stand to elevate my iPad on Magic Keyboard as my second screen/device.
I worried that this would all feel cluttery, but it isn't. Everything has been deliberately chosen, placed, and used, and I think it's that deliberateness that makes all the difference. Everyone has a workflow; the big question is how much of that workflow exists because it was designed purposefully compared to how much was fallen in to because of habit or assumption.
Update: The links for the Get To It and Dashboard widgets have been updated with fixes (addressed an error if no matching OF tasks in Get To It and changed iconography alignment for calendar events in Dashboard). Enjoy!
Home Screen fever calmed down a bit as iOS 14 wove its way in to my every day. I had settled in to my routines and was living my best widget life.
After playing with the colours of Charty and placing it in the middle of my Home Screen, I thought, "Huh. That screen looks like part of an app." So I opened up WidgetPack and worked more on creating a header widget to lead my screen with, and a revamped widget with OmniFocus actions.
I figured if I can visualize and list my actions, what else could I do? I needed ways to not just see things, but an interface to do things. That led me to adding buttons to the header widget, and then more buttons to run the Shortcuts to refresh the data of these widgets.
Saddened that I couldn't have a calendar widget that suited my needs and aesthetic, I started imagining a second screen that would show upcoming events, as well as counts of and access to more things.
I'm really happy with the result, both in form and in function.
To break it all down, the rest of this post will go widget by widget, sharing just how each is built and what all each does, and giving you the tools to do this, too. Hopefully, this can help you either customize a similar experience, or just plain implement what I've made. Enjoy!
This was pretty purpose built for me, so substitutions and edits of what I share here may/will be needed. The apps I use to make the widgets are:
I'll also note that my intent, like I said, was for this screen to feel like an app. As such, I employed a black wallpaper and designed the widgets as white on black. A white Home Screen, even with the intent to feel app-like just felt like too much.
Obviously, this WidgetPack widget shares the day and date, which I had originally pegged WidgetSmith to do, but I wanted to add functions, which is what those four circles are:
Add new item to OmniFocus
Start new draft in Drafts
Refresh the OmniFocus Get To It widget below
Refresh the Charty chart
To make sure it's current, the Shortcut has an automation to run every day at 00:00, which I highly recommend.
I use a Toolbox Pro action here to return home at the end of the flow (this is true for each of these Shortcuts, actually), just so that if I run it, I end up back at it, but this is optional (though you should still support Toolbox Pro for many reasons).
Charty Omni Rings Widget
This is the crown jewel of the design, and creates three rings with Charty to show progress based on tasks in OmniFocus:
[tasks completed today with a due date before 11:59pm] / ([available tasks today with a due date before 11:59pm] + [tasks completed today with a due date before 11:59pm])
This is a great visual of my day and its state. One gotcha, though, is that this is a beta, and so doesn't handle zero values elegantly yet. For example, if you have zero flagged tasks, it substitues 100 for the denominator and reports 0/100 complete. I think I'd like to see a closed ring for 0/0 done, but we'll see how this develops.
The Shortcut does require a particular colour scheme, and I've linked to it below.
For the widget, I chose to set the left background to 000000 for both light and dark, and the right to 0F0F10. I turn off the title and legend, and the chart takes care of the rest.
To keep the chart current, one might want an automation set to run the Shortcut on particular intervals or events. I tried doing it each time OmniFocus is closed, but I trigger many Shortcuts from OmniFocus tasks (as URL schemes), and found that exiting OF to run one Shortcut but automation trying to run another produced less desirable effects.
Like the Charty widget above it, this grabs available actions that are either due, flagged, or forecast-tagged, but then colours the checkbox indicator for each accordingly to match the Charty colour scheme.
Each action in the widget links to its OmniFocus task, and if there are more tasks that can be shown, the "and x more" line links to a particular perspective.
Unlike other iterations, I specifically designed this widget in these colours, or responding to light/dark mode. I have an aesthetic I wanted, and so that's baked in, but it would be possible to edit this otherwise.
Run the Dashboard Shortcut (to refresh the widget's contents)
Run the Charty Omni Week Widget (to refresh the chart below)
Lastly, I struggled with the best way to see calendar events. I don't like the design of the stock Calendar widget, and it can't be forced in to dark mode to match the rest, so what the heck, I made my own.
Events are shown for the calendar day the Shortcut is run on, but only ones that have not yet occurred/started. As with OmniFocus tasks, each event in the widget links to its event in Calendar (by way of a separate Shortcut, since the Calendar doesn't have a lovely URL scheme of its own). If no events remain, the widget will say so (with a moon, because moons are relaxing).
I've shared this before, but I wanted to have this on my screen as a clear visual of my accomplishments. This Charty-based widget shows the count of OmniFocus tasks completed today and on the six days prior to today, giving me a sense of my wins.
At my work, we develop goals on a quarterly cadence, and we do so pretty thoughtfully in order to limit our focus on what the key achievements we’re striving for are.
This works great for me; Rosemary Orchard and I have spoken numerous times of the twelve week year on Nested Folders. What gets me every time, though, are the all-the-other-things: projects that might be needed or wanted, but which aren’t in service of my goals.
I think a lot about how full everyone’s days are. We consume content and ideas in all our waking hours. Anything we do is not just a thing we have chosen, but also a signal of something we have forgone. Silly finite time.
In consideration of all of this, I now have two root folders in my task management system:
Obviously, goals contains the (small) number of projects and their associated tasks that map back to my goals. Everything else goes in Distractions.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t work on projects or skip taking action on tasks inside the Distractions folder. I’d love to, but that isn’t practical.
What it does mean, though, is that I am reminded at every turn that a step towards project in Distractions is a step away from outcomes in Goals.
Choices have consequences, and I need to make sure I remember that. It might seem harsh to call critical things distractions, but left unchecked, the urgent and the critical will eat my goals for lunch.
Processing my OmniFocus inbox is critical for me, because I capture like a maniac, but because I am also easily distractible, processing the inbox can become hard for me, not because any single thing there is tough to deal with, but because it can be hard for me to stick with something long enough to get it done before I’m looking at the next thing.
To combat this, I’ve developed a workflow that I am finding super helpful for myself:
Create a parallel project called Triage
Move all actions from the inbox to Triage
Use this perspective to process Triage:
Now, yes, I could use a sequential project to do this, but I like to be prescriptive about when I employ that, and there are times or moments when seeing the whole project is valuable (scanning the list) so one perspective to see just one thing at a time and then the plain project view (with all its actions being available, just in case) suits me very well.
Now that Agenda supports both re-organization of sidebar items and the creation of projects via URL scheme (woohoo!), I have aligned my project structure between it and OmniFocus, allowing me to have consistent ways of reflecting reference and action material.
For my own absorption of what I’ve done and in hopes that it inspires ideas, I thought I’d share my folder structure here. I’d love to know what everyone thinks!
This folder houses a project for each of my 2020 goals (Horizon 3, or the 30,000 foot horizon in GTD speak), ensuring that I am regularly looking at, reflecting on, and creating actions about my goals and themes for the year. Having this folder at the top of the pile is also helpful to me in ensuring that I’m considering my themes in everything I decide to take on (or not).
This folder holds projects at my work that are highly visible, highly important, and highly strategic. In other words, these are the projects that need particular attention, because they are the ones that I can use to elevate my brand and career.
Also for my work, these are projects my team has taken on in service of internal client needs. Most of these are production-oriented, as my team designs and builds intranet experiences.
Again, for my work, this is for projects that have definable outcomes but that didn’t come from clients. These projects tend to be enablement-oriented, perhaps around process design, consultation, or strategy development.
More projects for my work! These ones are projects in that they are containers for actions, but do not have outcomes. They are single action lists in OmniFocus, with each “project” representing a different web application, site, or property that my team supports.
The last of my professional project folders, this one again homes never ending “projects” that represent areas of focus at work (Horizon 2, or the 20,000 foot altitude in GTD speak). There is a list for each member of the team I support, and lists for administration, reporting, budget management, networking, etc.
This folder has a mix of outcome and neverending projects related to this blog, the Nested Folders podcast, and several web sites I build and support. As this area of my life grows, I could see it breaking out into several folders over time, but for now, it can be contained in one, and I like seeing the totality of this aspect of my life when I look at projects there.
Relating to my personal life, these are outcome projects relating to my home, family, and self.
This is kind of the personal equivalent of Domains above, a group of never ending projects/single action lists that relate to the 20,000 foot level of my life. This would be lists for my wife, and each of my kids, home and household, car, finances, health, friends and family, and so on.
This is for lists that have contain items more than actions. Some examples are lists of books to read, gifts to consider, things I might want to buy myself, foods and wines to try, and so on.
And that’s he breakdown of my folder structure! I like that it is flat, because I feel it is manageable enough that way, and helps me look across all my things easily.
I’m interested to hear if this resonates or inspires, and thank you for taking the time to read this through!
One thing Rose brought up was the importance of meeting notes and sharing them, so I thought I’d post about how I do this with Shortcuts and Ulysses.
I have two Shortcuts that I use. The first (aptly called Start Meeting) sets me up with a Ulysses sheet that guides me to take notes, capture actions, and record agreements.
The second (reasonably called End Meeting, and run by sharing markdown text from the Ulysses sheet) takes those notes and sends them to the attendees, ensuring everyone has access to my perspective of what just happened, and might also share theirs.
I'd love feedback or improvement ideas for these Shortcuts and this workflow!
We didn't really answer the question, but I think we shared a lot that one could think about when considering the prospect of automation. Also, I wanted to share the couple of Shortcuts I have that take care of my favourite annoyances.
Strip Formatting: this shortcut takes the clipboard, gets the text (only) form the input, then copies that text back to the clipboard, thereby removing any formatting.
Telescrum: my team at work works in agile, and we sometimes conduct our daily scrum via Slack if there are conflicting events or only few of us around. This shortcut grabs my calendar for the previous work day and today and creates a list on my clipboard that I can paste in to our channel (no direct Shortcuts to Slack integration yet). This probably needs some editing to work for you, but is hopefully inspirational.
I'm looking forward to sharing some more Shortcuts soon, just as soon as soon as a few app updates ship publicly. 😉
Reflection Friday: doing the Getting Clear portion in its entirety, and then doing the calendar review parts of Getting Current to ensure all things I might capture in my system are well-inventoried. The goal is to make sure I have a current capture of all the things.
Executive Monday: inspired by David Kadavy's Prefrontal Mondays, this part of my review completes Getting Current and Getting Creative and Courageous by taking a more executive-level view of lists, projects, and actions to decide what I do about all the things I've captured. This is 100% decision-makign time about what I focus on, defer, delegate, delete, rename, adjust, etc.
This has been hugely helpful for me - what are your practices?
I also want to quickly give a shoutout to James Dempsy and Jean MacDonald and their The Weekly Review Podcast, which not only gave this an anthem (I hear the song every time I say the words), but also a lot of awesome and robust thinking on this topic. Great stuff!
This is where some of my favourite lists come in. I thought I’d share them here, along with how I use them:
Books to Read: I always include the reason why this is on my list (where I saw it, or who recommended it), and why I thought it would be a good go-to. This keeps better context about why it's on my list, and who to thank/blame later.
Curiosities: Articles of interest, YouTube videos, or other bits of media that I think would be of interest or good to learn from in a time-killing kind of situation.
Ping: A group of recurring actions to remind me to reach out to people I don't interact with regularly to keep our connections going. Catching up with friends is a great way to be unproductive.
Those are some of my favourite “unproductive“ lists; what are yours?
After several months of discussion, planning, preparation, and writing, I am so proud to announce that I have partnered with the wonderful and talented Rosemary Orchard to co-produce the Nested Folders Podcast!
We’ll discuss all manners of productivity topics, mostly centres around philosophies, techniques, and approaches, so that listeners can benefit from our experiences, regardless of apps or systems they might use.
We’re just starting out, and no doubt we’ll iterate and improve, but I am very excited to share and learn through this new podcast, and would love to hear any and all feedback from everyone!
Also, a huge thanks and shout out to Josh Hughes for the amazing cover art. Love this!
My system has been broken. Not broken in the way that the mechanics of it don’t work, but broken in its content. Here’s what happened:
I had an OmniFocus inbox of about 40 items. For a week. And I didn’t touch them. Why? Because 40 is a lot. 40 is many. And like everyone, I have a lot to do, and getting to clarifying and organizing that stuff just couldn’t make it to the top of my attention. But I hate baggage like that.
Finally, on our about day 8 of this inbox (now more like 50), I rolled up my sleeves and I got to sorting it out. And a funny thing happened.
As it turns out, all of the actions here were totally valid things I could do, and maybe even some I ought to do, but in reality, none of them were meaningful enough to actually do.
The good news, then, is that I made good choices by ignoring this pile that had been yelling at me. The bad news is that I let that pile exist in the first place.
I think the problem is that, with digital systems in particular, it’s easy to add content. There’s no significant time involved to add items (heck, I can automate the creation of many), and there are no real storage limits. With no cost or barrier to entry, it’s really easy to pick up “I mights” and “maybes”.
My solution? Digital bankruptcy.
For a period of about a week, I went back to paper. Not because I don’t love my digital tools, because I do, but because I wanted it to be hard to take on work. If I wouldn’t be willing to write it down, why would I be willing to do it?
This really worked. I have taken on way fewer things, and done more and better with the really important stuff. Having a greater sense of what this should feel like, I am moving back to digital, but carrying with me some of the analog parts to keep inbox down.
I should say, too, that I discovered this wasn’t just an inbox problem. I was allowing way too many bodies of work in to my world, thinly spreading my attention across many projects, being massively distractable, and less available to others. I don’t blame the tools, this was a discipline problem, and I needed help to regain that discipline.
I unhesitatingly recommend The Bullet Journal Method, by Ryder Carroll. If you use a paper system, this is a fantastic approach. If you don’t use paper, the philosophies, ideas, and ways to approaching work and life are valuable for consideration in any tool sets. I’ll be rapid logging in a notebook rather than pouring everything I might passingly want to do into my action inbox, for example.
So this is my summer theme now, almost a little Jerry Maguire: fewer projects, more attention. Few people get remember Ed for the many things they did; it’s the things they did really really well that leave a mark.
A weekly status review on projects with one’s boss tends to be part of having a job, and I was recently asked about how I use OmniFocus and Agenda for this process. It was a great question, because it made me think about my workflow so that I am optimizing for both:
Simplicity - having the right amount of detail and ease of execution
The audience - making sure my workflow makes it easy for my boss to consume the content I’m offering up
This isn’t super tricky, but it does require some thoughtfulness to make sure that I’m not optimizing for one at the expense of another.
Convert this OF list into a text list: I use this iOS Shortcut, into which I paste the copied OF into for conversion to a nice text list (copied to clipboard). It includes only project names, as I’d like the discussion to be what shares appropriate detail, and not the list itself. I just want this to be a stage-setting of topics.
Paste this new list as an agenda into the meeting calendar event: By putting this content in to our calendar meeting request, I can be assured that the content is in the most appropriate place for both of us to reference before and during our meeting.
Create a note in Agenda: I create a new note in Agenda and link to the meeting with my boss. This gives the note the appropriate time/date, a bit of a temporal audit trail, and sucks in the agenda (pun) that I put in the calendar request as a framework for me to take notes against.
We hold the meeting: I refer to my OF perspective with the projects worth talking about, using those projects’ actions as context (ha) for the discussion. I make notes of what we talk about in the Agenda note, and identify follow-up actions in the note as checklist items.
I process the meeting: Running my favourite iOS Shortcut, I process the notes I took into OF as actions to follow up on and into an email to my boss so that we have a shared understanding of everything discussed. It also gives my boss an open platform to correct anything I might have missed or misunderstood.
I do the actions I said I would: Because commitments.
That sums up my process, bit by bit and piece by piece. Interested to hear from comments how this could be improved, or what you’ve found really works for you!
We’re well in to January, but it’s still resolution season, right?
Every year, around this time, I resolve to lose the weight I’ve gained since my twins were born, and every year I… don’t. This year, things are different.
Sure, it’s easier to focus on me now that the twins are almost ten and the little guy will turn five in the spring. Really, though, the eight years of not accomplishing this goal means experience has taught me some things about goal setting:
Habits are hard and take time
Goals are ideas, not actions
Success can’t be measured annually
In the past, I’ve had this notion that in a year, I could lose fifty pounds. Failing that, I tried reducing my goal. Regularly. With the result being zero each year, it became clear that the goal wasn’t the problem.
So what was holding me back?
Action. Like, real planned action.
I have realized that an annual goal or ambition is too vague. It doesn’t mean anything here and now. It suggests I could get to it more next week. Or next month. Or whatever, I’m hungry.
My answer: fifty-two projects. Not one epic year-long project to attack this monolithic goal, but a project for every week.
Why? Because action.
Thinking of what I want to be at this year’s end might be great visualization, but it doesn’t tell me what I should be doing right now. A week long project, however, does, especially if each week has its own success criteria.
Seven days isn’t that far out, and having fifty-two goals instead of one forces me to think about what I can really do, and what choices and plans I can make to be successful.
Every week spells a new project in OmniFocus (but any task management system will work, if it works for you). I don’t make a repeating project, because I need my actions to be purpose built for and achievable in a specific week. If I have more meetings or am away or the weather is going to suck, I have to design actions that will fit.
The only repeating action is the weigh-in at the end of the week, and the updating of a spreadsheet to measure the overall.
The spreadsheet identifies:
my starting weight
my goal weight for the week
my actual weight at week’s end
a five star rating for the previous week’s activities I might typically do
a column for notes looking back at the week to track lessons learned and insights
This short cycle planning means I honour each week’s constraints, target each week’s goals, and plans and execute specific actions.
In action, I’m doing more than I’ve ever done before, so I expect the results will follow as I keep at it. If nothing else, I’m measuring and learning all the way.
I was recently asked by a colleague how I approach the development of new strategies or processes or products. Essentially, how do I start to create a something that isn’t an evolution of something that is, but that is new?
In business, this is a tricky one, because not only would I need to solve this for myself, I’d also need to know how to convince others of what I’ve come up with and recommend. Going from “what if…” to having an actual plan about that is not a simple play.
Research is obviously the first part. Who wants this? Why? What have others done elsewhere that’s maybe similar? Who can I talk to about about this? And so on. But I think we intuitively knew that already.
The complicated part is approaching what to do with the massive onslaught of information that research will provide. Finding information is going to be easy, but managing it into a proposal or an idea or a story? That’s complicated.
My favourite tool and approach here is to find a place for all the bits that will inevitably come in. This not only groups things for clarity later, but it also forces me to consider what a bit of information even is.
The categories I find helpful:
Facts: these are pieces of information that are true, verifiable, and replicable by others. This can also be a bucket of verifiable things that aren't true (i.e. it is a fact that x is false).
Assumptions: often masquerading as facts, these are findings that are thought to be true, or which represent information that will be used in the absence of other information.
Opinions: research means engaging others, and explicitly separating opinion from fact or assumption is valuable. Bonus marks: these give hints on how to sell you ideas later.
Ideas: like opinions, but less rooted in evaluations. These may also be my own, but are also good insights to my audience later.
Questions: this is a running log of open questions, and is typically added to as the other things sort (i.e. I this is a fact, and that is an assumption, then what is the other fact?)
Next Actions: coming out of all of the above, having actions is vital so that I know what I will do as more information comes together and is clarified to fill in the initial void.
Having a place for everything and helping everything find its place is a great way to manage information and ideas, and can really support going from no information to a lot of information to organized information. When information is organized, patterns can emerge, and I can really make sense of what all it is I'm working with.
How do you like to approach planning around new things? I’d love to hear about it!