Tools to Manage Time, Attention, and Focus

With three girls 13 total months apart (twins and an older sister), I often get asked how I keep organized, so I figured a post on my favorite tools would be beneficial to others.

The key is my iPhone, which is my second brain for the most part. There are three apps I use to help keep me organized: Omnifocus, Evernote, and Clear. I've tried a TON of different to do apps and other productivity tools over the last year and I always come back to Omnifocus for my to do list; Evernote for storing links, reference materials, and other useful content I come across during the day; and recently Clear as a simple list app. More on all that below!

Omnifocus

Omnifocus is a premium to do app for the Mac and iOS. The price puts a lot of people off, but when it comes down to support, app quality, and usefulness, there are few apps that can compete. You need to pay a premium for that kind of experience. Plus, in the end, $20 (iPhone price) for a to do app is nothing considering you'll use that app more often than pretty much any other application on your phone. If you consider one year ownership, that $20 works out to $0.05 per day, so it's nothing really.

Organization

I took time to reorganize my todo list last night, with a main focus on simplifying the organization and implementing a different strategy for contexts. (Contexts, for all of you not familiar with David Allen's Getting Things Done, are generally thought of as places or methods to do work -- so Phone, Desk, Home, etc would be considered standard "contexts".)

Projects

My new main projects view now has three folders: Personal, Work, and Eko Agency.

Inside Personal, there are two folders: "Personal Projects" and "Rituals and Reviews", with the latter holding all of my regularly scheduled items (chores, payments, Omnifocus reviews, etc.)

Then I added "Single Actions" and "Someday" task lists. Single Actions will hold all of the one-off items, while Someday will hold all of my ideas for future projects or items with no due date.

Work is set up similarly, but I used different names to make them stand out from my personal list: "Work Projects", "Work Routine", "Work One Offs", and "Work Someday".

Eko Agency is also similar, but more streamlined since it's less of a focus for me: "Eko Projects", "Eko Someday", and "Eko Single Actions".

Contexts

As far as contexts go, I chose to take a different approach than a standard GTD setup. My new method is based off an article on Simplicity Is Bliss called 'A Fresh Take on Contexts', which argues a better approach for contexts revolves around time and attention -- so how much time and energy you have available, as well as the level of focus needed for your tasks.

With that said, here are my new contexts:

  • Low Energy: tasks that take longer than 5 or 10 minutes, but don't require a lot of focus.
  • Keep Flow: short tasks, less than 10 minutes and no differentiation on level of focus. More on this below!
  • Full Focus: tasks that take longer than 5 or 10 minutes and require a lot of focus.
  • Errands: pretty self explanatory.
  • Waiting: stuff I am waiting on other people to do before I can move a task or project forward.

I did want to spend a little more time describing "Keep Flow", which is just a shortened way of telling myself these taska are quick and easy. Tasks I can pick up when I'm bored, feeling stuck, or not feeling up to taking on something bigger -- kind of an anti-procrastination context. That way I can knock off a few items quick to get back into a productive mode.

Under Keep Flow, there are a few contexts: Call, Email, Read, Quick Dashes. Where Quick Dashes are active tasks that don't take much time to complete -- usually less than 10 minutes.

The cool thing about Omnifocus is I can create two custom views (called Perspectives) for this new Keep Flow context: one for Work and one for Personal, that I can use to break down that context even more and have a ready made list of quick tasks while at work or at home. Brilliant!

Then finally, my favorite feature of Omnifocus for iPhone is the Forecast view, which shows you the next 5 days, as well as Overdue and Future items in a quick view. You can even hook up your calendar to show meetings and appointments in this view as well. So useful!

Evernote

Evernote is an amazing service that allows you to capture and store information in centralized location. You can then tag and organize your information to make it easy to find and refer back to on a regular basis.

What I like to collect:

  • Gift ideas.
  • Recipes (Initially. I end up adding them into Paprike Recipe Manager for actual use in the kitchen.)
  • Useful programming, e-commerce and web development articles and guides.
  • An archive of good articles I've read on the web. Topics usually include: politics, Mac/iOS software tips, and Buddhism.
  • Site bookmarks (iOS apps, web apps, etc.) to check out later.

Capture

It's so easy to get virtually anything into Evernote, from any device you use on a regular basis. I have the browser extension set up on all of the computers I use, an email address I use to send entries to (they automatically get added to your inbox), as well easy share buttons integrated in my feed readers: Google Reader and Reeder for iOS.

Access

I have the desktop app installed on my MacBook, the Chrome app on my work computer, and the iOS app on my iPad and iPhone for easy access pretty much anywhere. The search is great too, so you can find that hidden gem in your pile of notes very easily.

I highly recommend Evernote. Did I mention the basic service is free? Go sign up and come back, I'll wait...

Clear

Clear is a simple list app for iPhone that costs $0.99. It has a really unique gesture-based UI that is fun to use, so that alone makes it worth checking out.

I use Clear to keep lists of things I don't need to put in Omnifocus: movies I want to see, books I want to read, basic post ideas for this blog, music I want to check out, quick shopping lists, and other temporary lists.

Clear excels in quickly creating lists (it opens much faster than Omnifocus and item entry is very fast, as well), so it's a perfect fit for my use case.

Summary

That's pretty much it -- three tools that organize my entire life.

What do you use? Share in the comments! I'll also answer any questions, if you need help or want more detail.

Author: Jason

I am a patient boy.