Axes and Solar Panels

Two weeks ago at the Canadian Evaluation Society’s conference1 I presented an Ignite talk extolling the virtues of being a Lazy Evaluator. I’m planning to record a screencast of that five-minute talk to share here, but in the meantime a new software release got me thinking about one of the presentation slides, namely:

The point I was making here is that there’s a balance between periodically reviewing your ways of working2 with an eye to optimization, and spending lots of time tinkering around the edges to eke out modest (if any) gains. I know the second case can often be a form of procrastination or just generally avoidance – maybe spending some extra time sharpening the axe or picking out the best tree to fell is worthwhile, but at some point you just need to put steel to timber.

I have certainly been guilty in the past of playing with tools to the exclusion of getting work done, so I was a bit wary when the Omni Group released a new version of their OmniFocus task manager, the program I have been using for years to track to-do’s for both work and personal projects. For some reason it’s only been released on iOS thus far, with a Mac version coming sometime later in the summer: since I use OmniFocus on both platforms, that means realistically that I can’t move over full-bore until everything is up and running on the new version3. On the other hand, that does mean I could download the trial for the new version on my iPad just to take a peek, knowing that I wouldn’t be tempted to shake thing up too much at this point.

However. Even this brief opening of Pandora’s box (Pandora’s task manager?) made me realize that I haven’t been using the old OmniFocus that much recently, which for me is a sure sign that something in the current setup isn’t working. Building on that, some of the new features address various sore spots where the OmniFocus system rubs against my way of doing things. For example, it used to be that a task could only be assigned two dates, namely when it became available4 and when it was due. Now, you can set multiple notifications for a task, so I can be reminded about paying a bill a few days in advance of its due date and then again on the actual day in case I haven’t marked it off as done yet.

Another new feature, without getting too much in the weeds here 5, allows for multiple ways of categorizing and organizing tasks in a way that’s much less confining than the system used previously. Unfortunately for me, this second new feature calls into question how I organize everything in my OmniFocus system and whether I should just tear my structure of projects and task categories down and start fresh. It’s as if, when reaching for the axe, I see a glimmer of sunlight reflecting off of it and start debating whether I should replace the wood stove with a solar panel, battery, and electric heater. Of course, once I open that can of worms, I start thinking that I should look into other to-do managers6 or perhaps transition to a paper-based system or …

Well, you can see how this could lead to all sorts of tinkering. Don’t get me wrong, this exploration could very well lead to a better way of doing things: at the same time, I have a report due next week and emails to respond to and other things to do that are not directly dependent on me figuring out my task management system. I’m lucky in this particular instance in that I can draw a line in the sand and say that I won’t change anything until the Mac version comes out: hopefully I won’t have anything major on my to-do list when that day comes! In the meantime, though, I’ll probably start jotting down some ideas of what this new system might look like and perhaps share some ideas here on the blog as they become fleshed out.

  1. Welcome to new readers and subscribers from the evaluation world!
  2. Your mise en place, to use the culinary world’s term
  3. To be fair, the Omni Group has promised compatibility between the two versions in terms of syncing, though obviously the old Mac version will be missing the new features for the time being 
  4. Useful for repeating tasks, where once I book a haircut I won’t need to book another one for a couple of weeks at least 
  5. For those interested in getting into the productivity weeds, previous versions of OmniFocus aligned pretty strongly with David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system and thus allowed a task to belong to only one Project and one Context. In the new version, Contexts have been replaced by Tags, of which there can be any number assigned to a task. For example, where in the previous version you would have had to decide whether to assign a Context of “office” or “coworker” to identify a task you had to work on with a coworker while physically at the office, you can now use both.
  6. One notable competitor to OmniFocus is Things, which has been on a roll lately when it comes to improving their program

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