Book Review: Creating Flow with OmniFocus

This is something different for Mac.AppStorm: not a review of an app, but of a book about an app. The book is Kourosh Dini’s Creating Flow with Omnifocus. Dr Dini, a psychiatrist, musician, and author, has written regular blog posts about using OmniFocus, the Omni Group’s brilliant, but often daunting, task management app. Creating Flow… brings together a number of his previous posts, and builds them into a thorough overview of working with the app, as well as offering suggestions for a comprehensive system for approaching task management using OmniFocus.

I’ve read many blog posts and essays on using the app, and watched various screencasts, each of which has had some influence on the system that I have come to use. I became aware of Creating Flow… several months ago, and finally decided I wanted to read it and see if it could teach me anything new about OmniFocus. Join me after the jump for an overview of the book.

Getting started

Creating Flow is supplied in PDF, ePub and Kindle formats, so it’s easy to read on iPad, iPhone, or ipod Touch, on your Mac, or on a Kindle or other eBook reader. I decided to treat reading this book as a test of reading on the iPad, as I’ve not previously tried to read such a long text in iBooks (668 pages, including Foreword, Appendices, and Footnotes) – I’ll finish off with some remarks on this secondary test.

If you sign up to Dr Dini’s email update list, you’ll receive a preview of the book, as well as occasional email tips for working with OmniFocus. If you then decide to go ahead and buy, you will download a zipped folder containing the various versions of the document. Getting up and running on iOS devices and Kindle was very straightforward, simply involving dragging the correct version of the file into iTunes or a folder on your Kindle when it’s mounted as a drive on your Mac.

Contents

Creating Flow begins with a simple introduction to working with the application, and works through increasingly subtle (and sometimes esoteric) ways of using it. The book is divided into five main sections:

  • Basic Principles – Part I
  • Basic Principles – Part II
  • Intermediate Principles
  • Advanced Principles – Part I
  • Advanced Principles – Part II

And between the third and fourth of those sections, an Interlude of more philosophical and reflective thoughts on the nature of different kinds of tasks and different ways of approaching work.

I really appreciated the clear and systematic nature of Dr Dini’s writing. He begins with the assumption that his readers have no idea at all about how to use OmniFocus, and then slowly walks them through the various things possible using the app. He builds from the simplest beginnings – from entering your first task and understanding the difference between Planning Mode and Context Mode, then moving to describing the benefits of thinking in terms of Projects and detailing the different Project states possible within OmniFocus.

Along the way there are also useful sections to do with integrating the desktop version with the two iOS versions in order to build a seamless system at work and on the go. Slowly, incrementally he builds up the complexity of his system, and as you follow along, chances are that most readers will learn new things that could change the way you work.

What Stood Out for Me

Dini makes a good argument for the benefits of reviewing your work at regular intervals, and through considering this covers the nature of writing good tasks. This material will be familiar to anybody who’s spent time reading sites like Lifehacker and 43 Folders, but it’s always worth revisiting such questions as ‘Is there a next actionable task? Can it be readily done?’ As basic as this is, the answer remains fundamental to whether or not you will actually be able to get your work done.

The section on different approaches to repeating tasks, which is explored through building a ‘Regular Maintenance’ folder, is very useful, and clarified for me some things I’d not previously understood about working with such tasks.

And the section on ‘Crafting Contexts’ is particularly useful for narrowing down the number of contexts one works with, and building particularly conducive and supportive structures for different kinds of work.

Gathering all the materials needed into one location can be helpful. By using the notes field in a task for instance, one can incorporate important links to text notes, reminders, links to URLs, links to open programs, perspective links, etc. into any particular task. (400)

The idea of an ‘Oasis’, in which one gathers all the necessary conditions for a particular task, or for a type of work, is very helpful.

an oasis provides the mind a place to settle into details until the process itself becomes an oasis. The mind actualizes work in a state of play, where the object becomes the playground, and where the mind and the context begin a flow. (403)

And this emphasis on the importance of a playful attitude returns in the ‘Interlude’, and again towards the end of the book. This is a useful antidote to a tendency to become too stiff and stuck with our work:

Flow is a state of play. It is similar, if not identical, to the play of a toddler. It is an interaction between self and environment with relaxed and sharp focus. It is a meditational state. It involves growth and learning of the individual.

The last two sections of ‘Advanced Principles’ describe what Dr Dini calls a Core Design. This is a system for working with OmniFocus, including strategies for reviewing, integrating your calendar, different suggestions for ways of working with Tickler Files, and particular Perspectives that best suit this approach. While I’ll not be implementing the suggested system, I found much here that helped me to clarify how I currently work, and ways in which I could improve my workflow.

The final section looks in principle at some very important issues: Prioritization and the idea of working at different ‘altitudes’ (David Allen’s description of the different layers of responsibility and attention in working with GTD and life plans), a discussion of ‘The Anatomy of Attention’ (which is informed by Dr Dini’s practice as a psychiatrist), and the final goal of ‘Mastering Productivity’.

Worth a Read?

The truth is that everything about OmniFocus is rather expensive – the various clients are each costly, and I feel that Creating Flow with Omnifocus, at $29.95, continues this pattern. But I’ve not balked at paying up for any of the different versions of the app – the benefits they have brought to my productivity is definitely worth their cost. I feel the same way about Creating Flow… If you are already a committed user of OmniFocus, you might well agree that spending another $30 in order to get the most out of the suite is money well spent.

Postscript: Reading on the iPad

I bought my Kindle not long after my iPad. I had tried to read a few things on the iPad, but found its weight and the shiny screen were not very conducive. By contrast, the Kindle seemed to be near-perfect as a reading device. It’s now almost a year, then, since I last used iBooks. I was impressed. The many screenshots presented in the text were much easier to read on iPad than on Kindle, and I found the bookmarking and noting systems on iBooks much easier and more elegant to work with than the Kindle’s equivalents. And I had not previously realised that reading position is synced between iBooks on iPad and iPhone, which was a very welcome discovery! I still prefer the Kindle for most purposes – its relative weight and legibility being the main factors – but I can see myself choosing the iPad instead in future when it comes to reading non-fiction, or any text that will require taking many notes or highlighting and bookmarking sections. If only there were a device that combined the elegance of iBooks with the form factor and display of the Kindle!


  • Brett

    Hi Ian, I’ll start the comments with a question. Having read this book, do you feel it would be helpful to users of other apps like The Hit List? Or is most of the book specific to features only found in OmniFocus?

    Thanks for the review!

    • Ian

      Hi Brett, The bulk of the book is quite detailed about working specifically with OF. The later chapters about creating a ‘core’ system would be transferable, but I don’t know if they’d be worth the investment. Put it this way, I’m a dedicated OF user (mostly), and I learned a lot that I found useful (even in the first chapters), but I’m not planning to implement the specifics of the system outlined. That said, I have definitely picked up some tips that have altered my workflow in OF.

  • http://www.cipriancosma.ro Ciprian

    Hello guys,
    I have bought and read the book while I was on holiday..waiting to get home to implement some of the ideas in my Omnifocus system.
    I have found difficult to apply and to discipline myself to work the way the author suggests. IT requires to much time defining the work then actually doing it.

    So..for the moment I have start easy ..I implemented some routines and perspectives…probably I’ll need to read it twice to better understand it.

    So if you are OF user you will get some ideas- as for the 30$… I found it expensive but probably the benefits will be higher on the long run.

    P.S. I have been an OF user for 3 years now so the first chapters were not useful for me.

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