Connect with the amazing community surrounding the Omni Group’s award-winning products.

Oct. 17, 2022, 6 a.m.
How Alec Johnson Uses OmniFocus

Today, we’re spending time with Alec Johnson.  Alec is a public speaker, engineer, and online presenter living in Thailand for the last 14 years.  His passion for productivity and daily live-streaming can be viewed via his TakeOneTech YouTube channel.  From content creation to inspirational lists, OmniFocus helps him to manage it all.

Show Notes:

In this episode, Andrew and Alec deconstruct his productivity workflow.  Using OmniFocus, Streamdecks, nvALT, and more - Alec has been consistently creating one helpful YouTube video each day.

You can find Alec @takeonetech_ on Twitter.

Some other people, places, and things mentioned:


Andrew J. Mason: You're listening to the Omni Show where we connect with the amazing communities surrounding the Omni Group's award-winning products. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we learn how Alec Johnson of Take One Tech uses OmniFocus.

Andrew J. Mason: Well welcome everybody to another episode of the Omni Show. My name's Andrew J. Mason. Today we have Alec Johnson with Take One Tech. He creates single take content videos via social media and YouTube and utilizes OmniFocus to handle his somewhat busy schedule. Thanks, Alec, for being with us today.

Alec Johnson: Oh, thank you very much. It's a real pleasure and an honor to be here, so appreciate the invite.

Andrew J. Mason: Alec, we've been talking for a little bit, but I'd love for you to catch everybody up. What do you find yourself doing day to day? Where do you find yourself day to day? Just share a little bit about what you do and who you are.

Alec Johnson: Okie dokie. So I'm from the UK originally, but I've been living in Thailand for the past 16 years and my background is in engineering and design and I suppose I've had quite a very career really starting with Aeronautical Engineering and various different things along the way. But I suppose the reason why we connected was through my YouTube channel of Take One Tech where I make tech based tutorial style videos on YouTube and it was to really share these sort of tools that I was using in my sort of business interests. But actually the whole Take One tech Side of things has just developed into a business of its own over the past 18 months really, so that's where I am at the moment.

Andrew J. Mason: Excellent, and that's a really cool snapshot too. Take One Tech seems to be a business model that's based on generosity. You're sharing what for free with other people in order for them to further their journey. Taking a look behind you a couple of miles from the journey you've already traveled on and saying, "Hey, this is how I got to where I am," which is how I found you by the way. I found an OmniFocus video where you really detailed out your OmniFocus setup, we'll put that in the show notes so people can see it. I'd love to hear from you though, how did you first come across either OmniFocus or the Omni Group? What was your first interaction with us?

Alec Johnson: It would've been OmniFocus specifically and around about I guess 2008-09, around about the time when it came out actually, and it was through Merlin Man, I think a lot of people discovered OmniFocus through Merlin. So that was my route into it and obviously the broader sort of topic of GTD in general and looking for a tool to help me keep on track with all of that to control my mind.

Andrew J. Mason: Talk to me a little bit about what makes it into the OmniFocus system versus what doesn't show up in there. Some people have it all encompassing, "It's my entire life and I manage every single detail." Some people say, "I only give it two slices of the pie." How does that division work out for you?

Alec Johnson: Yeah, it's pretty much using the GTD model. I apply that to everything and so therefore OmniFocus is basically anything that's actionable, that's what it's doing. So it is for everything from work, obviously, but then shopping lists, gift lists, things like that. Anything that requires something with action that I don't want to forget about.

Andrew J. Mason: Alec, take a second and talk to the person that is maybe just getting started either in task management or they find themselves in that changing stage of life, maybe they're taking on more responsibility than they have before and they have this realization, "My goodness, I don't think what I've been doing is working. I'm missing commitments. Things are falling out of my head." What's a good first step either in OmniFocus or task management in general that you would recommend, "Hey, if you're just getting started, I would recommend try this."

Alec Johnson: Yeah, sure. So first one would be if you haven't already read Getting Things Done by David Allen. Step two would be get a trial of OmniFocus once you've read the book. But then in terms of actually getting to set up a productivity system, it can be a bit of a rabbit hole and I think a lot of people when they're first discovering this concept of something more than just a to-do list or series of to-do lists which aren't very effective, there is a tendency to want to maybe, once you discover all that you can do with OmniFocus and these kind of systems, is to try and design the absolute perfect system. And if you're anything like me when I first went down this path, I spent probably a lot of time developing productivity systems and wasn't really actually been productive in the other areas of my life because I was trying to constantly tweak and get things set up.

Alec Johnson: I think that a good way to approach these things is to actually start to continue with the way that you are sort of going, but try and build this up as you go along so that you're introducing new sort of workflows along the way. And that's more than just productivity, really. With anything, it's a case of trying to build that muscle memory by building these things up slowly. There is obviously a process that David Allen outlines in terms of having that initial sort of brain dump as a starting point, but in terms of all the intricacies of the system that you can set up with OmniFocus... Yeah, take it step by step is what I would say to that.

Andrew J. Mason: Excellent. And talk to me a little bit about your workflow. I know there's the opportunity for this to head in sort of a Meta direction because you do work content creation about content creation, so there's that opportunity for that to show up there. But whether it's from a content creation perspective or just your workflow in general, can you give me a slice of how that process looks for you?

Alec Johnson: As I say, OmniFocus is all of the actionable items and so depending on what I'm doing, it depends on how I'm going to be working with that. But I mean just my video production from my YouTube for example, as I say, I make all those in one take. And the way that I do that is I basically just at the time when I'm going to come and record something, I don't necessarily even plan out exactly what I'm going to record on a given day, but it's a case of just looking at the things that I've got in OmniFocus. So I'm always thinking about video ideas or someone will recommend something so it goes into my idea list in OmniFocus and then... Yeah, it's a case of when I'm ready to record, I'll almost just sort of pick one and then record from there.

Alec Johnson: But depending... they're all sort of categorized as well so if there is a particular topic that I want to cover, I'll go and sort of dive into one from there. So that's the real basic level of OmniFocus where it's literally just a kind of list of items. But then when it comes to other things throughout my day that I use OmniFocus for, I'm a big user of perspectives to organize things and get them into a specific order and so that's part of the beauty of OmniFocus is that you're shown the things that you can work on or innate the correct sort of mind frame to work on at any given time. But yeah, OmniFocus is all of the sort task side of stuff. In terms of other tools that are using combination with that though, for the capturing side of information, then I use just text files. So another Merlin Man influence on me is my text file system, which is basically just exactly copied from his.

Alec Johnson: For text based sort of reference material, I'm still using nvALT from Brett Terpstra, still waiting on that long in the pipeline update from that. But actually nvALT as it is is just perfect for me because it's really lightweight. All of the information is just .txt files. I'm not locked into any particular system and that just works really well. I'll say that as well, these systems, they're not something that now I spend a lot of time, or indeed any time, really tweaking. I feel like everything's got into a flow with it and I feel like the GTD system in general is just such a well-structured system that if you just stick to that, it's almost like a solved problem now. So I don't spend too much time in the sort of productivity space as such because I feel like it has just sort of solved that issue for me.

Andrew J. Mason: There's two sections of what you just said that I'd love to draw attention to. First of all is there's been so many guests on the show, myself included, where you're like... they're working on how do I tweak the system, how do I make sure that things are incrementally better? There is such a thing as the other side on this. People do reach some sort of workflow where the work then becomes transparent and they just enjoy the process. So I think it's great to just call that out. And then second is, can you talk to me a little bit about this inspiration that you're just dumping into buckets For so many people, they just sit down at the keyboard or look at the blank piece of paper and then say, "Okay, I need to be inspired." You've been dumping your inspiration into buckets so that you have this kind of list of triggers for great blog posts or great ways to be inspired. Break down that process a little bit more because I think people might be interested in how they can maybe use that to their advantage.

Alec Johnson: It's come out of the learning to implement GTD in what I'm doing and with OmniFocus, I've mentioned about perspectives. I have perspectives for everything. So some of those are when I'm entering a task, I'll always put a time taken if it's going to be less than sort five minutes and then I've got a perspective that just shows me only the things that are sub one minute tasks or sub five minute tasks. So then at the end of the day, if I'm sort of low on energy and I've just got five or 10 minutes left at the end of the day it's like, "Right, well what are some little tiny little things that I can just quickly fire off the list?" I also actually have a perspective which is low energy, which is stuff where I'm not really in a mind frame to do anything mentally taxing as such, but I've got bags of time and things that need to get done, but that don't really take a lot of brain power, I suppose.

Alec Johnson: And then there's other perspectives which I've got one that's notebook. So if I'm just sitting with a notebook and there's some stuff that I know I need to do, some sort of ideation on something, where I'm going to need to sketch it out, then I do put things into those kind of mind frames. So I use contexts in that sense, not just a specific location or things like that, but actually the mind frame ones are a big thing for me. Also for meeting people. So if there's something where next time I see whoever it is, I need to make sure I ask about this, so I have lists for that and perspectives so that when I'm seeing somebody, I can just pull up all those things that I needed to speak to them about. And that applies to business meetings, but equally to friends. Next time I see whoever it is, I must remember to talk to them about something. I put it all in there cause I just can't trust my own brain basically to remember all this stuff.

Andrew J. Mason: Right on. I mean for me it feels like friction reduction. This is about trying to make things as effortlessly as possible. And in that same vein, I'm curious about your level of automation. Does your system contain any automation that you use for repetitive tasks or scripting or anything in that vein of trying to remove friction in order to get certain tasks done as efficiently as possible?

Alec Johnson: Yeah, I mean I'm a huge user of Keyboard Maestro on the Mac. And then there's also... there's one that I think I always overlook actually, which is Hazel as well, which is just automation of file and folder management on the Mac and I kind of forget about it until I ever migrate to a new computer and then realize all the things that I've got set up and it's kind of all these things that it's quietly doing in the background without me even noticing it, from downloading Adobe stock images and then they just automatically go to the correct folder from my downloads folder, things like that. Just from the such basic little things up to more advanced stuff like, I don't know, downloading a PDF of a bank statement and then it gets filed in OCR to put that information somewhere else and all kinds of different things like that that I sort of don't notice on a day-to-day basis, but I just realize afterwards how much time it saved me.

Alec Johnson: But with Keyboard Maestro, I've always been a huge user of that, but one of the tools that I bought for my video production and live streaming was something called a stream deck, which is basically, it's like a device that plugs into your computer and you can program all of the buttons, it's essentially like a little keyboard, I guess, with programmable buttons and you can change the images and icons on the buttons as well and you can have multiple different pages of it. And so this is built for live streamers to switch camera angles and things like that on their live streams.

Alec Johnson: However, I use it more now, it's like an extension of my left hand. So I've got one hand on my mouth and one hand on that because there's plugins that can allow you to control other things on your computer, not just live streaming and one of them is Keyboard Maestro. And so it sort of opened up a lot more things on Keyboard Maestro that you've only got so many fingers basically and so many places that you can put them on the keyboard. If you've got one hand on the mouse and one hand on the keyboard, you can't actually reach the whole keyboard whereas having things at a touch of a single button on a stream deck, and in fact, I've also got a stream deck pedal so I can do things with my feet now as well, so it's basically... it's really sort of enhanced Keyboard Maestro for me from that point of view, just to be able to have actions that I can do with a touch of a button.

Andrew J. Mason: All right. So I am self proclaimed nerdy enough to dive this deep. The buttons on your stream deck, do you have any examples of what specifically those buttons might be assigned for or what that process looks like?

Alec Johnson: Yeah, sure. So when I'm doing my live streaming and tutorial style videos on YouTube, I need to have my software open, which is Ecamm Live that I use for recording the video, then I would usually have, obviously I have to have the software open that I'm demonstrating, and then there's lots of other little tools that I would have on the screen. So I tend to have a lot of things open at any given time, depending on what I'm going to be hopping around between on in these videos. So I've got a 43 inch monitor that has... I've sort of split it up into six different areas if you like, where I can put content that I want to share in the video. When I come in to record in the morning, I just press one button on my stream deck and it activates a macro in Keyboard Maestro, which opens up all of the applications that I want.

Alec Johnson: And then I use Moom, which is a window management app, but with Moom what you can do is you can take a snapshot of the layout of your screen as it is with certain apps open and then you can basically just with a keyboard shortcut, you can position, well reposition the apps. I've then linked that keyboard shortcut into my Keyboard Maestro sort of chain if you like, into that macro. So basically I just come in and press a button and it just puts everything... opens everything up and puts everything where it needs to be on the screen for me to press record and then be sharing that correct area of the screen in my demos. And then once I've finished recording, I press a button and it basically just uploads the video to YouTube, it opens the file up for me to go and watch the video back at double speed to be able to go and put in my timestamps.

Alec Johnson: So in YouTube, when you see on the timeline a series of markers, you have to actually physically type in where those are. So I go and watch it back from that. And then it does a load of other things like opens up my little file for my thumbnails to create for YouTube. So it's sort of like one button to start everything off and then one button once I finish to upload it to YouTube and get everything done. So for my first sort of year on YouTube, I was aiming for 365 videos in the year. I fell a little bit short towards the end, but got off to a good start with that. But basically I would have two hours every morning just to get up, record a video, upload it and be done with it. And so that was my sort of workflow and if I had to come down and actually physically set everything up every day, that would've been a little bit challenging.

Andrew J. Mason: Well, I have to admit, this is a video call that Alec and I are on right now. So what people don't see is he has very simple background behind him. So I was actually picturing just a one screen setup and then now I have this stockbroker multi-screen grid image in front of almost a mission control in front of Alec, so that not that that changes my perception, but that's still pretty funny. I do understand though, this passion for wanting to be as productive as possible. Can you share a little bit about what drives that for you? Why are you passionate about productivity here?

Alec Johnson: First, it comes from a need that I had, which was to not be reliant on my unreliable brain. I found that when I just left everything to myself, I used to think that I was really organized. I used to think that I like to keep on top of stuff, but there would always seem to be stuff that was falling through the crack somewhere. So it's not like I was a complete mess, but I certainly wasn't as efficient as I knew I could be. And this has just sort of helped with that GTD and OmniFocus just stops that kind of thing from happening. But it's also about just giving me more hours in the day, there's so much that I want to do and so I want to be not spending time doing those things of setting up all the windows on my computer. To be able to just press a button and it be done, it makes a huge difference.

Alec Johnson: And people often ask when they see the sort of things that I'm producing or the quantity of it, I suppose, they ask where do I get the time and how do I manage to do all of this? And it's not really at one specific place. It's not like doing things to the exclusion of others, but it's all these little minutes and seconds that you can shave off in so many different areas throughout the day that actually do really add up and they add up over the course of a week and a month and a year. It does mean that you've ended up getting a significant amount of time back. And there's another thing about it, which is that when something happens with great ease and without friction, as you mentioned friction earlier on, when something happens without that, it doesn't actually interrupt your thought process and your workflow.

Alec Johnson: And if you think about when you're working and then somebody comes in and interrupts you, they might only interrupt you for like a minute, but actually you lose 15 minutes because you've got to regain that concentration. And it's almost the same when you have to just of stop what you're doing to go and do something else, set up your windows or upload a video or something like that. It's almost like I feel that I'm switching out of gear to go and do something else, or when I try and switch back again, I've got to build up that momentum. Whereas if something can happen with a real sort of frictionless flow to it where you just kind of, as part of the flow that you're in, you're just pressing a button and something happens and you can continue with that momentum, I feel that that is actually the sort of hidden area where you end up saving a lot more time with these things rather than just the actual implicit amount of time that you've saved by automating it, if you see what I mean.

Andrew J. Mason: I do. That's smart. It reminds me of a quote that I heard recently. Somebody said, "Focus is more important than intelligence in this day and age." Talk to me about mistakes. What mistakes do you see people make repetitively when they're trying to be more productive or when they're trying to do things the right way? Are there common pitfalls that you see reoccur over and over again that can be instructional. Hey, you don't have to do this, you can avoid it.

Alec Johnson: Yeah, sure. So the thing that I mentioned earlier about not trying to do everything all at once, as it were, set up the system, that is certainly a trap that I fell into at the beginning with my productivity system, but the same with automation as well. Sometimes, with Keyboard Maestro for example, there is a... you can almost do anything that you could think about with it in one form or another, you can have open websites, move the mouse over, click on a button, go and do something else. You can do a whole chain of things. And when you see that, if you're a real total geek like me, there is this desire to think, "Right, what new problems can I solve with this?" And almost... it's so fun to use it that I ended up, when I first started using Keyboard Maestro, I would plan out all of these different things and go and create them all, but then promptly forget the keyboard shortcuts for them because at that time before stream deck I was reliant on more keyboard shortcuts.

Alec Johnson: So then if you're forgetting the keyboard shortcut and you ended up having to go and go and look up what the keyboard shortcut is, you've almost wasted the whole point of doing it. So this thing of going through your day to day and noticing the things that you're doing repetitively, and then when you notice these things saying, "Right, okay, well let me just automate this particular part of it," then I find that that is a better way to go because you're just sort of introducing these things one by one, or a couple at a time rather, and then you're sort of building up that muscle memory of how to use them. I will say that the stream deck has sort of eliminated that problem of having to remember all the keyboard shortcuts because now you can make just a nice little graphic that really helps. So the Keyboard Maestro and stream deck combination is really a winning formula because, I don't know if I mentioned, but all the little buttons have got individual screens on them so you can change the actual icons that are on the screen. So all of these little buttons on the stream deck have just got lots of different colored icons that you can then press to do different things. And so that has been a bit of a game changer.

Alec Johnson: The other thing I'd say though, as well, I mentioned about it being this lack of interruption of flow. People spend so much time working on their productivity system, but they don't really guard their own time and attention and as soon as the "Do Not Disturb" feature was available on the iPhone, I switched it on and I really haven't ever switched it off. So there is only a very few select people who can ever just actually call and get me on the phone. Apart from if there's certain mission critical clients or things like that where we need to be able to speak at any time, then I do that. But I'm very guarded about how people can basically just come and disrupt my time. And that goes for notifications on email and things like that. I certainly don't have any little audible sounds going off when any email arises and I'm just very clear about the way that I interact with clients and things like that so that they know the way to sort of raise me if they need to get my attention.

Andrew J. Mason: Man, you've shared a lot of little snippets that each one of those I feel like I need to go into a cave and think about for a couple of hours, especially the one about turning off alerts. FOMO is just such... it's so real. People feel it, this like, "If I turn off email, I might miss something important." But I don't think we realize there's two sites to this coin and the price we pay in interruptions and not regaining our focus and flow is massive.

Alec Johnson: I mean, there's obviously going to be certain times where something's mission critical and so if... coming up for this interview, for example, I made sure that I was going to be anything in the run up to this that could have disrupted it, then I will be sure to get that notification, but just not have them on all of the time and working with certain clients, we need to be in constant contact perhaps so that they are mission critical. But just in general, the default position is no notifications and email I check periodically throughout the day and then I have other messaging services that I use for, "Okay, this is like the hotline," if you like that "I need to be able to actually speak to this person."

Andrew J. Mason: Alec, this has been such a cool conversation. Tell us how we can get in contact with you. You have a really high value YouTube platform, really high value website. How can people get in touch and find out more about what you're up to?

Alec Johnson: Sure. So I'm on all the social platforms as Take One Tech. So if you search for that, you'll find me there and on YouTube. And then my website is and there I do consultations on all this kind of stuff. I also have a number of courses as well that are out at the moment and more sort of in the pipeline for that as well because one of the things about YouTube is a big study at the University of YouTube, but one of the things I found when I started making videos myself is that my videos will go out of date.

Alec Johnson: So I cover different software platforms like Keyboard Maestro and things like that, and also Ecamm Live, which is the software I use to make the videos. But when these programs are updated, then suddenly these videos that I've got might be out of date, there might be a different way of doing things. So all of the courses, the way that I run that, is that these are all sort of a lifetime access to the course where you basically access your online encyclopedia because I always make sure that that is kept up to date with the latest version. So that was the sort of thought process behind creating those.

Andrew J. Mason: Alec, thank you so much for joining us. We're honored to have you as a guest today.

Alec Johnson: Ah, thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here and talking with you.

Andrew J. Mason: Hey and thank all of you for listening today too. As always, you can drop us a line @TheOmniShow on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you there. You can also find out everything that's happening with the Omni Group at