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Feb. 14, 2022, 6 a.m.
How Dr. Amy J. Ko Uses OmniFocus

Dr. Amy J. Ko's a respected professor at the University of Washington Information School and an adjunct professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.

Show Notes:

Dr. Amy directs the Code and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study computer science education, human-computer interaction, and humanity's individual and collective struggle to understand computing and harness it for equity and justice.
In this episode, Dr. Ko and Andrew talk about how OmniFocus helps her manage her faculty life, students' projects, personal projects, and more.
Some other people, places, and things mentioned in this episode:


Andrew J. Mason: You're listening to The Omni Show, where we connect with the amazing community surrounding The Omni Group's award-winning products. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we talk to college professor Dr. Amy J, Ko on how she uses OmniFocus.

Andrew J. Mason: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of The Omni Show. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we're spending time with Dr. Amy J. Ko. Now, she's a professor at the University of Washington Information School, and an adjunct professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. She directs the Code and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study computer science education, human computer interaction, and humanity's individual and collective struggle to understand computing and harness it for equity and justice. Those sound like very good things, Dr. Amy. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Happy to be here. Thanks.

Andrew J. Mason: Well, talk to us a little bit about what you do. We read that bio. I know that there's a lot to unpack there. How did you find yourself where you're working currently?

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Yeah, sure. Maybe I'll start by going backwards and just saying that I'm a professor. A lot of people assume what that means is that I just teach classes, but that's actually not accurate for most tenure track faculty at universities. So, a huge part of my job is research. Teaching is certainly a component of it, maybe 30 or 40% of my time, and then service is a big part of it too. So, overseeing admissions, and undergraduate programs, and setting up new programs, and community organizing, and research, and beyond. So, our lives are very much multiple jobs, multiple conflicting priorities, and teaching gets squeezed into all of those other things that we do.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Managing my time is probably one of the important ways that I make sure that I'm making the most of it. How I got into it, I can go all the way back and just say that I was always a pretty curious child, and I never was really satisfied with the first answer to a why question. I always needed to go to that fifth answer, to the Why question, and I annoyed my parents a lot because of it. I think that there is a certain type of people that like to go into research, because we are so deeply curious that we're willing to persist for five or 10 years, trying to answer some big question that nobody's ever answered in the world before.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: So, that's what drew me to it when I was an undergraduate. I was studying computer science and psychology at the time and thinking about entering the industry. The idea of me being part of a larger team and shipping product compared to me going and answering questions that nobody had ever answered before and just getting to choose my own trajectory around that, the latter was just so much more exciting. So, that's the path I ended up taking.

Andrew J. Mason: Computer education research is really an interesting topic. In preparation for this interview, I found myself digging down to some of the projects that each of your students were using, and there was one in particular that was really cool. It was gamification of computer coding so that it was fun to learn computer language. I found myself like four levels deep before I realized, "Oh, my gosh. I probably have a better use for my time."

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Good to know.

Andrew J. Mason: There's so much to that. Even just to make things a little bit more concrete, do you have a few examples of computer education research as it's in action? What does that look like?

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Yeah, sure. Maybe I'll give two examples, because there's a lot of different types of research on computing education. One kind is, let's say, new educational type technologies that support teaching and learning. So, the one that you mentioned, for example, this was the idea that a lot of ways that people are learning to code, especially online these days, involve you go to a website, and they give you some problems, and you try to solve them. If you don't understand what you're doing or you get some answer wrong, it kind of just says, "Nope, not right," and then, if you're not discouraged, you try again. But more often, you are discouraged and you just give up. So, that's a lot of what we were observing in the world.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: So, what we were trying to do in that project was, what would it look like to organize learning around not you failing to solve a problem, but more you fixing a problem that somebody else had failed to solve? So, position this debugging game where you had had this robot that had all of these programs that used to work but don't work anymore, and you had to go fix them. Through the process of fixing them, you're always making steady progress towards making it slightly better and slightly more functional. So, we found that reframing of what learning can be actually had some really profound effects on people's confidence in actually learning and also their actual learning outcomes too.

Andrew J. Mason: I can totally see that because this reframing is one that's positive. It makes it fun. Instead of having the spotlights on you, it's like, "Hey, you're coming in to save the day." That's great.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: That kind of work, right, where we're inventing some new way of learning or exploring some new kind of pedagogy, potentially a computing-based one as opposed to one that a teacher would use, that's one kind of research. Other kinds of research are really about doing empirical social science, education research, and understanding learning, and teaching, and education, and what's working about it and what's not.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: I'll give another example of that. We were looking for example of, what are the experiences that people are having in coding boot camps, and how do they compare to the experiences that, let's say, undergraduates have in higher education? A big thing that we found there was that in many ways, because the instructors of coding boot camps had experiences from higher education, they actually just perpetuated and recreated the culture of higher education in coding boot camps, and sometimes combined that with even sometimes more toxic culture of industry and led to a lot of the same inequities and inclusion issues, rather than having an opportunity to recreate them. There were exceptions, but that was a study where we were really trying to examine the structural parts of learning and some of the inclusion issues that came about from them.

Andrew J. Mason: Well, I appreciate the overview. I know that a lot that you're involved with, and that actually is a perfect backdrop for your usage of OmniFocus. Do you have any memory of when you first came across the Omni Group or OmniFocus? What can you tell us about that?

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Yeah, I think I do remember that, actually. So if you go way back to even middle school, my sort of task management productivity role model was my mom. She was one of the people that carried around the paper planner, was really dedicated to constantly writing and updating her to-do list on that calendar and on paper, and so I did too. I just carried that around all the time and did my middle school homework using similar systems as her, but I was really into computers too.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: So, one of the first things I did when I was in high school was I saved up and got a PalmPilot and started installing all of these to-do list apps on it, trying to replace my paper organizer with it and got really into it. So, I was a very nerdy, getting things done kind of high schooler really early on. So, all the way through grad school, and college, and all of these other periods of my life, I always had some technology that I was using to support my task management and my time management.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: So when I was in grad school, I'd fallen in love with Omni Group's OmniOutliner for lots of note taking, and organizing of project, and specs, and other types of things. So when OmniFocus was released, I think it was maybe 2008, that was just about the time that I was finishing my PhD and starting as faculty. I think I got some marketing from Omni Group about the new product, and I was like, "Oh, this is perfect," right? "My life is going to get 10 times harder and 10 times busier, and I need something that's really for the power user of task management." So, I just jumped right into it, built all of my faculty life's workload around it, and I've been using it ever since.

Andrew J. Mason: Now, you mentioned faculty life, but are there other areas or roles that you manage using OmniFocus?

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Faculty life is interesting. I mentioned because there's so many different jobs that we do, right? So within the research bucket, I might have, let's say, six or seven PhD students who are working on one or two projects of their own, and I'm tracking all of those. I might have my own projects that I'm working on. I might have grant proposals that I'm working on. So if you add up all of those research projects, there's probably something like 45 at any given time that I need to manage and track.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: So, a huge part of what I'm doing in OmniFocus is just monitoring all the little details of each of those and making sure that I'm staying on top of it as I constantly task switch. Teaching is a whole piece of that too, though. I'm only usually teaching one class at a time, so it's usually a project for what class I'm teaching, maybe some projects for classes I'm going to be teaching in the future, so that I can prep for them in advance.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Then, service is sort of like research. I might be on 10 committees, and have some journal that I'm editing, and have some event that I'm planning. So, there's usually maybe 20 or 30 of those projects at any given time, all moving in a different pace, and so I really need to have a project that monitors progress on each of them. Then, of course, there's all of this stuff outside of work, right? My personal life, so there's projects at home, and bills, and lots of long-term recurring reminders, things like, "Hey, don't forget in January to go check my credit report on," and there's sort of things like that where I just don't want to have to remember, and so OmniFocus is great at kind of building in that infrastructure of all of the chores in life that nobody wants to actually do or remember to have to.

Andrew J. Mason: Nobody wants to have to remember those things.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Nobody.

Andrew J. Mason: Well, speaking of reviewing, there are a lot of spinning plates happening in your life. What does your review process look like? Is it more organic or is it more formal?

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Yeah, that's a great question. So, review for me happens at lots of different levels. Some more tool assisted than others, and so probably the most tool assisted is just the built-in review features in OmniFocus. I use that as a way of cleaning up my task management messes, like stale projects that I didn't notice needed to be closed or something that I haven't paid attention to, that I might have forgotten to pay attention to, because I didn't write a reminder about it, I didn't add an action about it.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: So, I do that sort of maybe once a quarter. I'm on an academic system that's quarterly. So, kind of at the end of each quarter, I'll sit down and review all of my projects, make sure that they're clean, and that they all have the right metadata on them.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Then, there's sort of this weekly thing that I do, which is much more of a weekly audit of what I'm going to do next week. So, a lot of that is cleaning up my calendar, cleaning up my inbox in OmniFocus, making sure that I've got good time estimates on all of the things that I've committed to myself to do. That's really key because I might only have, let's say, 45 hours a week to do work. If I've scheduled to do 70 hours of work, it's not going to happen. So, there's this process to really triage, what can I actually feasibly get done, and then really put metadata on all of my actions and projects so that I remember to do them in the next week?

Andrew J. Mason: Dr. Amy, if there's somebody out there that is just getting started and they're thinking, "I haven't used OmniFocus, I don't know much about task management. I know I'm starting to get more on my plate than I know I'm comfortable holding completely in my head. Where do I begin?" Do you have any go-to tips or tricks or anything that you use to just help educate people?

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Yeah. Yeah, and I actually end up teaching this a lot, too, because I'm always working with students at different stages of maturation around task management. Right? Sometimes undergraduates who've never kept a to-do list at all, right? I'm really helping them develop some study habits that they maybe didn't get in K12, all the way to, let's say, a postdoc that I might be working with, where they have some pretty mature practices, but now it's time to level up because they're going to be a little busier than they've ever been.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Then, everybody in between, PhD students and grad students and some time other staff that I supervise. So, there's lot of spectrum there. What I usually say is, to anybody, wherever they are is, "Start off with an audit of your practices." What do you currently do? What's working about them? What's not working about them? How concerned are you with task management failures? Do you frequently forget to do things and that has severe consequences to your life? If so, maybe there's some work to do. Maybe you don't forget that often, and your workload isn't that high and you don't need something so advanced, and you don't need a more heavyweight tool or process to do it.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: So, a lot of what I do is sort of at that meta level and just saying to right size and choose the right tools for whatever needs you have. So, that's kind of where I start when I'm mentoring somebody on these things. Then, of course, there's all kinds of individual differences that we have in our preferences around how we orient to the world.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: I remember describing some of my practices to one of my colleagues in the information school, and I just saw the look on his face. He sort of seemed horrified, and I think when he was explaining his reaction, he was like, "I just can't live my life. That way. I can't live my life ruled by a list I've written to myself." So, his practices, when he described them to me, they were much more about having awareness of what needs to be done and having a big collection of what needs to be done, but not organizing it at all, right, and really just having some open space on any given day and at any given time where he could choose from what he felt like doing and prioritize in the moment, as opposed to planning for the future moments that he was going to have.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: That's just a great example I think of, how different all of us are in terms of our relationship to thinking about the future, and our future commitments, and our future work. We really have to figure out what works for us.

Andrew J. Mason: Somebody mentioned this analogy of race cars and how they only race cars that notice any drag on their system are the ones that are moving. So, it's like, you might not need it if you're not moving very fast, but as things get going, yeah, there's the need for that. Speaking of need for that, speaking of systems and moving forward quickly, are there any spaces in OmniFocus or just productive video in general that you use automation?

Dr. Amy J. Ko: I guess one way to talking about that is automation explicitly within OmniFocus, and I use a lot of these sort of capture automations, capturing emails' actions capturing other kinds of content as actions. So, I rely on that a lot just to streamline capture. I guess there's, in some sense, automation embedded in me, like yelling at Siri, at my Apple Watch, telling her to capture something as well. So, I rely a lot on those forms of automation to do a passable job at capturing a fleeting thought while I'm driving, or hands-free. Or in other settings.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: So, I feel like I rely a lot on the ecosystem of devices in my world to do the capture for me so that I don't have to sit there and transcribe and interrupt whatever I'm doing in order to really give that attention. Other kinds of automation, I think I've had to go outside of OmniFocus at times. So, an example is a lot of my commitments inside of my faculty life. As a professor, they're very long-term commitments, I might say yes to something that lasts three years or get onto a grant proposal that's five years.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: So when I commit to those things in the future, I really struggle over many years to try to find a way to use OmniFocus to capture those long-term commitments. There were really basic questions I had about those long-term commitments, like, how much of my time have I committed to in the next five years? If a request comes in, if I don't have that answer, that data, how do I know if I can say yes to it, right? It's really easy to over commit otherwise, and I think that kind of tracking is a little hard to do on something that's more task and action oriented as opposed to time oriented. So, I ended up having to build some of my own tools that really do some of that long-term time commitment tracking.

Andrew J. Mason: Now, we've talked about what OmniFocus does do that you've leveraged to automate and speed things up. Is there anything that OmniFocus doesn't do that, like, "Man, I just wish... If it had this one feature, it would just make everything for me"?

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Yeah. I mean, in addition to those really long-term time commitment things, there's also the really short-term ones. The thing I've always wished OmniFocus could do is I put in all of these time estimates for the different actions for a day, right? It also knows about my calendar. Why can't it just tell me how much time I've committed to for the day? All that data's there, tell me that I've got like a 12-hour day and only eight hours to do it. It's sort of like a nice warning to me that it's going to be either a busy day or I need to make some tough choices about how to spend my time. It's really, really close to being able to do that, but it's just not there yet. I think I've even submitted an issue on that, and I think there was a good argument back to me. Like, "That seems like a advanced use case."

Andrew J. Mason: It's funny you mentioned that because, fun fact, now after the fact I'm thinking, somewhere in the discourse forums, I remember somebody talking about a total time plugin using Omni Automation. So if we find that, we'll throw it in the show notes, but for now, is there anything in your system that feels like it's uniquely yours? I've looked all over to a lot of different workflows and use cases, I haven't seen anybody using OmniFocus in this particular way.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Yeah. That's a really interesting question. There is something that I'll teach my students a lot when I'm talking about task management. It actually is an idea that comes from computer science and programming languages. It's the idea of kind of lazy of the evaluation. The notion there is that we can symbolically represent something before we even know what it is, and then just be able to talk about it before we know what it is, and then figure out what it is later. Right?

Dr. Amy J. Ko: So, this comes up a lot when I'm capturing tasks. I'll remember that I need to do some important thing, but I won't want to spend the time and the moment to think about how I would do that. If you're going to write down an action about what to do, you have to know how you do it.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: So instead, I kind of symbolically represent it. I'll write down an action that's something like, "Figure out how to do the thing," right? Then, I'll get to that later on some day and it's like, "Figure out how to do the thing. Yeah, how do I do that thing?" Then, the task is figure out how to do it, and that'll turn into five more action items, and half of those will be figure out how to do this other sub-task. It just kind of fleshes out over time as I figure out what needs to be done. I just haven't ever found tool that really acknowledges that that's kind of inherent to the nature of doing work. You don't know every single detail about how you're approaching something when you write down the task.

Andrew J. Mason: That is awesome. So, it's this idea of symbolically, I know there's the thing on my mind, it's the ribbon around your finger, and I'll flesh it out later when I have time, but for right now, I'm just going to put this in the inbox until I figure it out.

Andrew J. Mason: Dr. Amy, I am so grateful for your time with us today. Thank you for investing in with us. We know it's super valuable. How can folks reach out to you or see the work that you're involved with?

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Yeah, sure. I'm pretty active on Twitter, AmyJKo, and so you can find me there, ranting about computer science, and social justice, and various COVID-related things these days. Then, I also update my website pretty frequently, and so you can usually Google me pretty easily, Amy J. Ko, and you'll find my website there. There's basically everything I've ever published, and talks that I've given, and all kinds of essays that I've written. People have told me that they can spend way too long reading everything I've written, and that's entirely true, and you probably shouldn't.

Andrew J. Mason: Thank you, Dr. Amy.

Dr. Amy J. Ko: Yeah, thanks for chatting, Andrew.

Andrew J. Mason: Hey, and thank all of you for listening today too. As always, you can drop us a line at 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