I’ve been a devoted user of Omnifocus for going on five years. At this point, I struggle to imagine how I could work without it, as I’m so utterly reliant on it to transform the hyperactive clutter within my mind into an ordered archive outside of it. But it’s hard to use. It took me well over a year to get to grips with it. It’s also hard to explain. If you’re nonetheless instinctively curious about it, you should read this great introduction offered by the Thesis Whisperer:

My background in architecture offices has given me a range of time and project management skills that are helpful in my second career as an academic. I think I’m pretty good at working multiple projects with complex dependencies, but moving into a management role at ANU has pushed me to my limit.

For years I’ve been using a simple to-do list system based on Cal Newport’s “How to be a straight A student”. I’ve been coping using this simple pen and paper method (just), but in January I hit crisis point. Two valued staff members left within a couple of months and I temporarily added their work to my already over burdened to-do list. My friend and extreme productivity guru Dr Jason Downs listened to my whingeing and suggested Omnifocus2. I’ll admit that I was initially skeptical. I’ve tried many project management tools, such as Producteev, Freedcamp andTrello , but, after an initial period of enthusiasm, I abandoned each one. Like being on a strict diet, complying with the digital tool made me feel … constricted.

Jason told me Omnifocus2 was different because it is built around the famous ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) by David Allen. This interested me. I read Getting Things Done years ago and implemented a few of the suggestions to great effect. For example, the folders on my hard drive relate to what I do: administration, writing, researching, teaching, supervising, blogging. My email has a similarly lean file structure, as you can see in the image below. While I have folders for automated feeds, the vast majority of emails end up in one folder called “archive”. If I need to find an email from a person, I just use the search function.

 

I’ve written in the past about my dislike for Evernote and near continuous search for an alternative to it. I won’t rehearse my issues with it here but the one that really matters is that I simply can’t stand the interface. I find it hard to pin down precisely what my problem with it is but I feel immensely antipathetic towards using it. It just doesn’t cohere with how I think or with the kinds of information I want to use it to record. The notebooks soon become arbitrary structures, filled with information organised in a sub optimal way and I’m never known how to rectify that state of affairs. To be fair, this was every bit as true when I used to carry organisational clutter around in moleskine notebooks instead: ‘notebooks’ provide too much organisation at the macro level and too little organisation at the micro level. Perhaps for these reasons, I’ve long since come to the conclusion that there’s something about Evernote and something about myself which just isn’t going to be compatible, no matter how many times I hear people who I respect sing its praises. I’ve tried Centrallo, which uses a structure that does work for me, though I realised that in spite of the ontology (I like lists much more than notebooks!) being more suitable, as well as the interface and synching being excellent, it was set up to store much more information than I was ever likely to need it for.

I recently started using Day One journal instead. It’s a carefully designed app, available for iOS and OS X, described as a “simple and elegant journal”. However it’s remarkably feature rich in spite of this simplicity, including reminders, photos, location, automatic backup, iCloud synching, publishing to social media and PDF exports amongst many others. I suspect there’s a risk the developers compromise its ‘elegance’ if they continue to add functionality but at least thus far they have not. The thing that made me fall in love with this app was the experience of writing – in a manner only matched by the Medium blogging platform, it makes writing a pleasure with a lovely distraction-free white screen waiting to be filled, complete avoidance of the lag that often characterises typing on iOS apps, markdown support and oddly satisfying Tweetbot like tapping noises as you type. The entries are filed chronologically, which I realised I associate with blogging these days much more readily than I do an actual journal, though can be favourited and tagged, as well as searched in a variety of ways.

The material I wanted to use Evernote for is probably much more specific than what most people use it for. I want a place to store my plans – I’ve been using Omnifocus for a few years now and I’m so entrenched in this way of reflexively organising my life that I would probably cease to function without it. However Omnifocus is task-orientated – the whole system is designed around the enactment of short, medium and long-term projects as sequences of discrete actions which should only be visible to you at the correct moment. It’s a system designed to overcome procrastination and inertia by offering you a continuing stream of relevant actions which you can take to work towards overarching projects of whatever sort, avoiding overwhelm by shielding the many actions which aren’t relevant (at this particular moment in this particular context) from your awareness. It’s hard to use, literally taking me a year to get to grips with the software, but when it does work it’s difficult to describe how powerful it is. Hence I think the creepy tone which often creeps into discussions about it. The problem with Omnifocus is that it’s not set up to store reference material (in the GTD sense) adequately* – the information which both informs your planning and is required by it, stuff you need to consult in the process of doing things but also to work with as a basis to decide what to do. This is what I’m now using Day One journal for and it really seems to work – I write ad hoc notes in the diary as things occur to me, stuff that I used to put in my Omnifocus inbox but that isn’t actually action orientated and so shouldn’t be in there, which I then review in the same way as I do with Omnifocus. Those thoughts, ideas, realisations etc that are important get tagged and incorporated into a structure which keeps track of the broader perspectives (20,000 to 50,000 feet in GTD terminology) which I’ve found tend to be collapsed into the temporal horizon of a few months at most in Omnifocus:

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really like this way of working and it’s the first time I’ve found an app like this which I suspect I’ll stick with. However I think my experience illustrates a broader point about information capture and organisational apps like Evernote: what do you actually want to use it for? What is it you’re trying to capture? How are you trying to organise it? It’s only when we address these questions that we can begin to get a handle on which apps will actually help us do things more effectively in a way that avoids distraction and procrastination. So in that spirit, here are the various apps I use and the purposes I use them for:

  1. I use my Gmail account as a catch all place to store URLs that I might later want to retrieve. I can access it from anywhere I have an internet connection and everything goes into two folders ‘blogging/twitter’ and ‘reading’ (for academic papers) which then become inboxes of sorts for blogging (particularly for Sociological Imagination) and for research (the papers are unstructured but the reason I’ve saved them is because they’re relevant to a project).
  2. I use Pocket to capture online stuff (up to and including LRB length long reads) which I want to read but don’t care about saving the citation details for. If I don’t think I’ll pay attention to it when I come across it or if it would distract me to do so then I save it to Pocket. This leaves it accessible on my iPhone and/or iPad at a time which is more conducive to reading it attentively.
  3. I use Bundlr to organise online stuff for other people. If I think it’s useful to others to collect a package of links and share on Twitter then this is an easy and effective way to do it.
  4. I use Papership to collect PDFs, bibliographic details and notes I’ve made on journal articles and books etc.
  5. I use my blog as a commonplace book – extracts, videos or images that I’ve found interesting in some way and want to ensure I can retrieve at a later date (i.e. unlike things in Pocket where I just want to make sure I read them properly).
  6. I use my blog as a research journal – collecting short thoughts, mini essays, notes on reading, responses to papers etc in a way that I group into thematic tasks and come back to as a resource when I’m doing ‘serious’ academic writing.
  7. I use Day One to keep track of what I’m doing and why in a general overarching sense.

I suspect Evernote works very well for 1-6. I’m not convinced it works well for 7. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to disentangle my own use of apps from the broader practical needs they serve because I’m writing a chapter of my social media book on curation tools and managing information at the moment. So if anyone has got this far, I’d love to hear whether activities 1 to 7 map on to your own use of apps and experience of reflexively approaching your work.

*You can add attachments to projects but this atomises overarching plans. There’s no space for ‘big picture’ stuff in Omnifocus.

I really enjoyed Raul Pacheco-Vega’s post yesterday on how he schedules his work life ‘to the very minute’ so I thought I’d offer my own reflections. I’m intellectually fascinated by how people organise their everyday lives for both personal and academic reasons. I used to have massive difficulties with procrastination and focus. I still do really but in a different way. It’s hard to convey how much I identified with Raul’s description of his experience: “I learned early in my life that I had a really broad range of interests, and that if I didn’t rein in my own impulses, I would be scattered and disorientated before long”. He seems to have learned this a lot earlier than I did though.

I rely on two pieces of software: Goal Streaks on my iPad and OmniFocus on my iPad, iPhone, desktop and laptop. The former keeps track of things that are important to me but not urgent (stuff like going to the gym, blogging, meditating etc) which otherwise get squeezed out by the exigencies and distractions of everyday life. It’s based on the so-called ‘Seinfeld Method’ of instilling habits by marking the daily completion of associated tasks on a calendar by crossing out that day. Thus you measure ‘streaks’ and compete with yourself to surpass your ‘best streak’. The psychological assumption underlying this is that you’re much less likely to avoid the task in question (“I don’t want to go the gym today, I’m tired and it’s raining outside” or “I don’t want to write 1000 words today, I’m travelling for four hours and the seats on London Midland trains are really uncomfortable to type in”) if you have a visual representation of your past completion of the task for X number of days. I have no idea if this is universally true but it certainly works for me. Habits you seek to form are what Charles Taylor would call second-order desires i.e. “I want to want to go to the gym”. Goal Streaks gives added weight to the second-order desire by visually embedding it in a representation of progress over time. In doing so it avoids the familiar (akratic) situation of the first-order and second-order desire being in direct conflict e.g. I don’t want to go to the gym but I want to to want to go to the gym.

OmniFocus has the steepest learning curve of any software I’ve ever used. It took me well over a year to learn to use it properly but I now couldn’t imagine living without it. It’s based around the principles of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system which in essence amount to: (1) write everything down (2) regularly process what you’re written down (3) either discard what you’ve written down, file it for future reference or turn it into an actionable task. The software allows any idea to be immediately captured wherever you are. I find this is often on my phone and, given my continued inability to type accurately on an iPhone, it’s usually in garbled short hand. The point is to distinguish having the idea from evaluating it and working out how to put it into practice. It’s easy to distinguish these as cognitive tasks but, in practice, they often run together – OmniFocus allows you to file fringe thoughts (as C Wright Mills might say) and stray ideas in a reliable inbox, accessible from anywhere, which can be revisited later to evaluate the ideas and draw out their practical implications. It can sound very sterile when written about in the abstract but my experience of the process is one which can facilitate an intensely creative orientation towards ideas. In an important sense GTD is what I’d call a ‘reflexive technology’ (i.e. an ideational construct which serves to augment our capacity for reflexive deliberation) and OmniFocus is the technical means through which this is accomplished on a practical day-to-day level. I used to do much the same thing with a notebook but it was pretty messy and ineffective compared to using OmniFocus.

My point is not to sing the praises of OmniFocus and GTD (though I do like doing that with both) but rather to try and illustrate how I seem to have an equal but opposite approach to Raul. I’ve tried scheduling everything down to the minute in the way he does and it just doesn’t work for me – I rapidly become preoccupied by whether or not I’m doing the thing I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing at a given moment (usually I’m not) and the constructed order soon starts tumbling down around me. What I love about OF + GTD is the flexibility it affords – it incorporates a similar degree of organisation but it decomposes the rigidity of a intricately planned schedule into concrete tasks. So for each day OF produces a to do list based on the tasks, projects and start/end dates I’ve entered into the software (building from the inbox where the ideas go). Some tasks are recurring (e.g. updating the various websites and twitter feeds I manage), some are one off but many are sequential aspects of an overarching project §. The software lets you plan a project in terms of detailed step-by-step tasks and then only shows you one task at a time. The database might contain thousands of discrete tasks but it only shows you a small number at any given time – I rarely have more than 6 or 7 items on my to do list for a given day. What makes the software so hard to get to grips with is the challenge of making sure the small number of tasks it shows you at a given moment in time are the right tasks. The software simply offers tools for registering, organising and representing what you want and might want to do. It doesn’t answer the attendant questions for you but it does force you to think them through in a way which you are otherwise unlikely do.

Consider the Sociology Department of Warwick University. What is itThe department is not just the individuals within it. If you took all the staff and students from the department and plonked them down in a field in the middle of nowhere, you’d no longer have a sociology department, you’d have a gaggle of confused academics, support staff and students in a field. If this was not a random act of God but instead some sort of collective journey to the countryside, it might be possible to enact organisational roles in the field: meetings could be had, lectures could be taught, administrative work done. Or could it? Certainly there are some functions which coud be sustained, albeit fallibly, however others clearly require a material infrastructure drawn upon by individuals in enacting their roles within an organisation e.g. there would be no computers in the field.

But what if everyone bought their own laptops, tablets etc? it depends on the people who are enacting the roles and the relationships between them. It would be easier  for people who’ve worked together for years to go and pretend to be an academic department in a field than it would be for a collection of strangers. Furthermore, there’s more material infrastructure than computers. Over and above this though, the individualised allocation of resources and the organisational allocation of resources are unlikely to be coterminous over time: people might be able to meet the functional needs of their roles sometimes (and for some time) but the pattern of the distribution, as well as the capacity to meet it, isn’t homologous with that of an organisation allocating resources more or less rationally on the basis of financial capacity and functional need (as much as this often limits activity in practice).

So what if everyone in the department packed up all the stuff that’s in there, trucked it over to the field and worked hard to build a passible facsimile of the department there? It might work, possibly, up until the point where some function requires interaction with other elements of the university or anything in the wider world i.e. there’s no IT services, no payroll, no library and, well, it’s a building in a field… no students are going to want to enroll.

Obviously it’s a silly example. But I think this kind of counter-factual approach is useful to understand the composition of organisations. It helps delineate different dimensions to what an organisation is and how it works:

  • The individuals who populate the organisation
  • The lived trajectory of interactions between these individuals and their personal & social meanings
  • The roles individuals enact within the organisation (and the causal relationships between the enactment of these roles by individuals)
  • The material infrastructure they draw upon in their enactment of those roles
  • The department as an emergent entity able to exercise powers of constraint and enablement over the individuals and networks within it
  • The broader organisational structures into which that department, as emergent entity, is causally interlocked: enactment of roles at the individual level, sustaining action at the collective level, presupposes all sorts of causal relations with other entities within the university and with the university itself as a much larger emergent.