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Blog // Thoughts
February 4, 2019

This Week I Quit Omnifocus

For more than ten years, Omnifocus was an integral part of my daily life. The productivity app is one of the best on the market and a great way to get organised. But I’ve stopped using it. Here’s why.

I still remember the first time I picked up a Palm Pilot. The interface, crude in comparison with today’s designs, felt like something out of Star Trek. But the possibilities it brought with it!

You could access and edit a digital calendar, make notes, even compose emails, all from a device that could fit in your back pocket. And you could synchronise it with your computer using a dock and a dongle (and a somewhat fickle piece of software) in less than an hour!

Of course, technology has evolved quickly and devices like the Palm Pilot have disappeared, replaced by smartphones, which can synchronise data across your various devices, often without your having to do anything at all.

We have started to rely more and more on this digital ecosystem to organise our lives. Of course, we tell ourselves, apps are a better technology for communication, planning, scheduling, making notes, project management and so on. Oh, how things can go wrong when we make assumptions!

Economists remind us time and again that, in the past 10-15 years, in most developed countries, productivity has gone down, not up and the internet doesn’t seem to be heeling our economies grow. And, there’s a growing trend, especially among young people, to return to paper-based solutions for personal planning and productivity.

I’ve come to believe these two trends are symptoms of the same problem, a problem we didn’t foresee when we all began using digital tools.

From Paper To Devices

Back when David Allen created the Getting Things Done (GTD) system for productivity, he used a paper-based approach. Over the years, followers of his idea have adapted it for use on digital platforms. It felt empowering to have a computer organise our lives for us while we got on with living them. Omnifocus was the best of the digital productivity apps and continues to be a powerful solution, steadily improving with each upgrade.

But, over the years, I’ve found Omnifocus harder and harder to use. This isn’t a design challenge, an interface problem or a user experience issue. It’s simply a reflection of the volume of information stored in the database.

Going back to the Palm Pilot days, storage was a problem; there were strict limits to how much information you could load into the device, and synchronising was slow. But these limitations also encouraged us to be lean.

Storage is not a problem anymore; capacity is virtually infinite. We can capture every passing thought. But this facility brings its own problems.

Prioritising a list of ten possible actions is one thing; prioritising a list of 10,000 possible actions is another! No matter how powerful the app, at some point you have to process the information manually, and that only ever happens at the speed of your very human brain, not the speed of the chip in your device.

If you do it well, you’ll create order and sequence, scheduling tasks efficiently and making them actionable. But what if your day or week blows up, and you have to ignore the prompts and notifications? Then it all goes to pot. And digging yourself out of the mire feels much harder than planning your way into it did.

Which is why I have repeatedly abandoned Omnifocus in favour of paper and pen, finally migrating to a paper system for my day-to-day work.

Late last year, I stopped using Omnifocus entirely, adopting in its place a Bullet Journal-style approach. (It’s not exactly the Bullet Journal Method because I’ve kept the daily diaries, but I use the Bullet Journal format for making notes about projects, organising ideas, and all the messy thinking required to work out how to complete projects.

The Surprising Benefits Of Going Back To Paper

What’s happened since I went back to paper is that I’ve begun to feel more productive and relaxed about my to-do lists. I seem to have at least an extra half hour during the day, even at the busiest times.

And there’s something aesthetically pleasing about working with paper and a fountain pen, a joy even, that’s absent when I use a computer or smartphone.

But the big realisation is how short the list of things I need to pay attention to really is. Not just the list of things to do, but the list of things I even need to think about, or invest any emotional energy in.

My Future With Omnifocus

I’ve migrated all the information I will need during 2019 to my paper system. I’ve deleted Omnifocus from all my devices except one. I’ve kept that one installation, along with the Omnifocus database, in case I want to look through the archive in future. Because, unlike some of the things I’ve quit, I can’t quite rule out going back to Omnifocus. So, it’s in the cupboard, rather than in the bin.

The problem isn’t really Omnifocus itself. Rather, it’s the idea of digital productivity planning that’s broken. Maybe that will change; maybe it won’t. It’s too early to tell.

A Final Thought About Mindset

There’s an often quoted saying by Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” It reminds us that hindsight lends bias, assuming we can predict the future because we know the past. This is a dangerous and arrogant way to be in the world. It also reminds us that intellectualism, relying too much on our knowledge and intelligence, can blind us and shut us off from new things the world might have to offer us. Without a deep awareness of how open the world is, we can never know our true nature.

But, as much as the creative in me craves the beginner’s mind, the openness of possibility and opportunity, the creator trusts expertise, the clarity that comes from mastery of a skill, the knowledge that, in this situation, this particular option above others is the right one.

Or, to put it another way, it’s one thing to consider how a Zen master might meditate, another to watch a Zen master perform calligraphy. One is a mystery, the other brings a very tangible and beautiful thing into existence.

Mastery is involved in both the beginner’s mind and the expert’s mind.

So, while the beginner’s mind of infinite possibility has its place in considering who we are in the world, and what creative projects are possible for us, the expert’s mind still has its place it getting things done each day. And that’s why shorter lists, filled with fewer possibilities, are so powerful. We focus intently and do what needs to be done. Then we can re-open ourselves to the world’s possibilities.

This Week I Quit is an occasional series where I share experiences of quitting apps, platforms, habits and commitments in a quest to live a simpler and more focussed creative life. Last time I Quit SoundCloud and you can read the rest of the series here.

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