Super charged academic productivity?



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 and Trello , 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.


To be honest with you, I knew that further implementation of the Getting Things Done principles was a good idea, but it seemed too hard. Omnifocus2 changed all that by helping me implement the Getting Things Done system with minimal changes to my existing workflow.

The Getting Things Done system conceptulises your work as having actions directed at goals, which, Allen points out, can be understood as different projects. In Omnifocus2, each project action can be entered and saved, with metadata and/or further information attached to it: word files, PDFs, photos, audio files and so on. This is like chopping up all the vegetables before you start doing a stir-fry: all the ‘digital stuff’ you need to do that action are in one place.

For example, I’m writing a book based on the blog for University of New South Wales Press (yay!). The book will be called How to be an academic. In this screen shot you can see this book in my writing project list on the left (grey) column. In the middle you see a series of actions related to my various writing projects and their due dates. When an action is complete you click in the circle next to it and a big, fat, satisfying tick appears. Actions close to the due date are yellow; they turn red when they are due. The light grey column on the far right is context specific, it shows the meta data and files attached to the selected action.


I’m very aware that what you read influences your writing. I’ve been looking for chatty, fun, non fiction books because that’s the tone I imagine for How to be an academic. I saw a book in a bookstore called “Lives in Ruins” about the working lives of archeologists. It was funny and interesting – exactly what I am aiming for, but I don’t like reading paper books anymore. I pulled out my phone and added a new action to my How to be an academic list about reading the book. I took a photo of the cover and attached it to the action and synched to the Omnifocus cloud.

This is how the action appeared on my computer later:


I used the photo to locate a URL to buy the book on Kindle and started reading it. You’ll notice the action “Read Lives is Ruins” is attached to a project and a context. Contexts are just another way of viewing actions. This is useful for complex knowledge work. A context can be anything – a person, a place, or even a mood. My context list contains ‘modes’ of academic work – writing, reading, teaching – as well as people that I work with. When I click on the context ‘Reading’ I see every action tagged with that context – this automagically generates a reading list aligned with my current projects:


This context view also helps me co-ordinate my work with other people. For example, I’m editing a book with Deborah Lupton and Pat Thomson called ‘Digital Academics’ for Routledge. I’m writing a chapter in this book called “The Digital Kitchen” with the super awesome moderation team from the ‘How to Survive your PhD’ MOOC. I can keep track of what everyone is doing for this paper and where they should be up to by clicking on the context ‘digital kitchen team’:


The context view is brilliant for dealing with email. Like most working academics, I find there’s a ‘tyranny of tiny tasks’ generated by other people that arrive via email. I can forward emails straight from my inbox to Omni, complete with any attachments. Each email automatically becomes an action which can assigned to a project and a context. The text of the email is saved in the notes pane. I can schedule each email task with a due date and see them in relation to my calendar for each day using the ‘Forecast’ view. This is yet another way of viewing the action list, but in relation to time:


I can see my calendar entries for the day underneath the various actions. This forces me to actually allocate time to each task and (theoretically) prevents me from taking on more than I can cope with. Conveniently, when used this way, Omnifocus2 keeps a record of what I did and when I did it. I created a context called ‘service’ which groups all these ‘other people’ generated work together and keeps a record for any future promotion applications.

Since I started using Omni my email inbox is always empty – a major achievement for me. In the 15 or so years I have been a full time academic, my inbox has been bulging. In the morning I answer anything that can be dealt with in 2 minutes or less and send the rest to Omni for further consideration. I’m less stressed because I’m not mentally trying to keep track of 100 different things.

If you are writing a thesis you might not have enough complexity in your day to need Omnifocus2… yet! But I can see how it could be adapted to keep track of any project involving a lot of details – such as fieldwork or keeping track of lab experiments. Every thesis chapter could be its own project, or you could split up your reading and writing tasks. I’m sure it can be creatively adapted to many different problems. There’s a Screen Cast academy playlist on Youtube which I used to help me set up and learn the functions. I don’t think it’s a hard program to learn, it took me four hours, but people tell me that I often underestimate the difficulty because I’m kind of nerdy and love spending a weekend on the couch bending software to my will.

Omnifocus2 is a Mac only product, but you can get many of the same features in a free, cloud based product called Asana, which I use with my team at ANU to keep our work co-ordinated.

I hope this review has been helpful. I believe in try before you buy so I encourage you to download the free version if you are keen to give it a go on the Mac. If you love it and want to donate some money to Thesis Whisperer, you can buy it through this link  – but no pressure!

I’m still learning how I can implement Omnifocus2 in my work so I’d be interested in what you think. Do you use project management software in your work? Or are you a list maker? What would you recommend as good project management tools for doing a PhD?