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Jan. 17, 2022, 6 a.m.
How Joe Buhlig Uses OmniFocus

Today we talk to Joe Buhlig. As an "analog mind in a digital world", Joe's unique method of using both digital and paper tools resonates with his listeners in a refreshing way.

Show Notes:

In this episode, we talk through Joe's journey all the way from the world of agriculture to IT.

Some other people, places, and things mentioned in this episode:


Andrew J. Mason: You're listening to the Omni Show, get to know the people and stories behind the Omni group's award-winning productivity apps, for Mac and iOS. My name's Andrew J. Mason. And today we talk to Joe Buhlig about how he uses OmniFocus to stay productive. Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of the Omni Show. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we have Joe Buhlig. Now I am pronouncing that right?

Joe Buhlig: You nailed it. Just like Bueller, but IG instead of ER, that's how I explain it.

Andrew J. Mason: Perfect, okay. Joe's been a part of the Omni community for years. He's written some pretty great OmniFocus scripts. We'll talk about that. He's ran and runs the Bookworm Podcast with Mike Schmitz, and is also the IT director of his church. Joe, let's go, man. We were talking about our stories growing up and I told you that even though I grew up in a pretty rural environment, both of my parents actually had jobs in technology. So even though we were in corn fields or near corn fields outside of my house, we'd build computers and used tech. And we were the only family that we knew about, that did those things. Catch folks up. What did your journey look like? How did that play out for you?

Joe Buhlig: Yeah, so I'm all over the place. It's fascinating to me that you talk about growing up on a farm, because I did as well. And it was a 4,000 acre farm, which to me, I thought was very small, because there were guys is in our area that we're farming 12,000 acres, 24,000 acres. They were massive farms. They've only gotten bigger since I left the area, but I went into agriculture because it's what I grew up with. And I found out very quickly, that technology is a very big deal in ag. And we talk about self-driving cars and such today. Well, that's all fine, but when I was nine, 10 years old, we had self-driving tractors. Come on, this has been around for a while. And that was my foray, my beginning into tech, which then led me to doing seed research in the world of agriculture, which then had me in corporate ag, in the largest ag chemical company in the world. Your opinions of the ag chemical company space, I will probably agree with you if you have strong opinions about it.

Joe Buhlig: So just going to say that as somebody who was on the inside of that, we'll go there. And over time, I found out that I had a lot of stuff I was trying to do in the world of tech, in the world of agriculture, data was a huge deal for us there. And all of that meant I had to start keeping track of what I needed to do, because growing up on a farm, if you wanted to know what to do, what did you do? You walked outside and you could see it. If the cows were bellowing at you, guess what? You got to feed the cows. If that field wasn't planted, hey, guess what? You need to go get it planted. But when you start working in tech and get into the big companies, it's super easy to lose track of what's going on.

Joe Buhlig: That got me into the tech world. And then that eventually led me to today, where I am now, the director of technology at our local church. And as we were talking beforehand, that has me overseeing a lot of areas, from simple things like printers not working to, how do I set up a compressor on a specific microphone for a harp? That's what we're talking about. That's the spectrum that we're talking about here. So I do a lot of things from setting up stages outside for big bands, find myself writing, how to documents, for how to set up your voicemail on your phone. It's a pretty wide spectrum, which is good for my ADD, I don't have to do the same thing all the time. So it's great for that. But yes, that's a lot of what I'm doing today.

Andrew J. Mason: That's perfect. And it makes me think of this point of singularity, starting with beans and this idea, I think it was David Allen that talked about being in an environment where next actions are just self-evident, I'm here, there's cows, they're moving at me, I need to feed them.

Joe Buhlig: Yep.

Andrew J. Mason: And coming from that, where there's an environment where this is so self-evident, into a space where it's knowledge work, infinite possibilities, continuous improvement. How good can something be? When is it really done? Talk to me about what changed in your journey at that point. Was there an evident need for something greater in the terms of productivity or task management? How did that morph for you? And what did that journey look like?

Joe Buhlig: Yeah, when I was working corporate, I let the ball drop in many, many ways, and my boss let me know it. And I was like, "Okay, I got to do something here." So I did some searching online, just like, how do people manage their work? Because I didn't even know the term task management, at the time. That concept was so foreign to me. And this is back in, it would've been 2012. Yeah. Somewhere in there, 2012 or so is when this happened. And I did some search, how do people keep track of what to do? And some people are like, "Hey, put it on your calendar." And other people are like, "Hey I do GTD." I was like, "What on earth, is GTD?" So I started doing some searching and I didn't run across David Allen's book right away, which was hilarious to me, as I look back on it.

Joe Buhlig: But I ran across... Do you remember The Secret Weapon, for Evernote? Do you remember this?

Andrew J. Mason: Yeah, yep.

Joe Buhlig: That's what I ran across. That was the very first thing I discovered, when it came to GTD. Which, I will tell you, do not start there. If you're getting into getting things done, do not start with The Secret Weapon for Evernote. It's a bad day whenever you start there. So I started there, tried to figure that out, found people talking about getting things done. And I discovered through trying to learn The Secret Weapon that, this is a system that's not specific to Evernote, when I thought it was, "Oh, it's based on a book." Well, I'm not reading the book because I'm not going to take the time to do this. I was one of those nae sayers and I eventually realized that was for the birds. I'm finally going to buy the book and read it.

Joe Buhlig: So I bought the book, read it and realized Evernote is a terrible tool for this. That was my experience. So it's like, "Okay, what am I supposed to use for this?" And a very quick search showed me OmniFocus. I was in the middle of potentially, leaving that company and moving to another virtual company. We're going to do this all at one time. When I switch companies, I'm going to switch tools and we're going to do this all at once. Have complete chaos for a few weeks as I'm learning, both my job and a tool, and we're going to go in head first, on OmniFocus. So that's my foray into the Omni Group and such. So yeah, fun.

Andrew J. Mason: That's perfect. And it's funny, you and I both have a pretty similar use story. I read the book, about half of the book first, and it was at a time of my life where I didn't have a whole lot of responsibilities. So I'm reading this and I'm like, "This is way, too over structured. Who lives like this?"

Joe Buhlig: Right.

Andrew J. Mason: And then lo and behold, three years later, it's just, "Okay, where was that book? I can't remember where I put that book. I need it." It's crazy how things change. I've seen some of the digital spaces that you roam around in. There's also this interest in analog, for you as well. Things that are a little bit more tactile. Talk to us about, how does that assimilate into your structure, your system? What does that look like for you?

Joe Buhlig: Yes. This is a progression of that same story. I got into OmniFocus, and if you've followed any of the work that I've done and the writing that I've done for OmniFocus online, you know that I've written tons of scripts for OmniFocus. And I know, Rosemary Orchard talks about a few of them, that she still uses regularly. And the analog world came about because I went down that path that a lot of people go down, you get into task management, you find a tool, you find a system, you figure out how it works and then you dump absolutely everything into it. Which on the surface sounds like a really cool, great idea. I'm going to have one tool, that's going to have absolutely everything in it. My problem is, I can't focus that much and I don't have the motivation to just go, all day long.

Joe Buhlig: I've learned that, that timeframe between about seven in the morning to about noon, that's when I'm going to get a lot of work done, everything past that, good luck. Let's record a podcast because I can talk to people in the afternoon, but me trying to think and write and develop videos and do my day job. No, it's not going to make it. So I found to help with that, I needed to step away from some of the digital side, and then develop some form of a cohesive ecosystem that ties what I'm doing digitally, to what I'm doing in the analog space, because I've done the bullet journal thing. I'm not really doing that anymore, but I do have multiple notepads around, where I'm doing some creative thinking. I'm trying to process, what it is I'm doing today. I've had... Do you remember the whole Merlin Mann HPDA?

Andrew J. Mason: Oh yeah.

Joe Buhlig: Do you remember this?

Andrew J. Mason: The hipster PDA, yeah.

Joe Buhlig: I don't know if he pioneered it or not, but he had the three by five index cards and he clipped a bunch of them together with a small binder clip, threw it in his back pocket, kept a pen in his front pocket. And then he always had pen and paper. I've done that since 2014 and still do it today. And that is easily one of my best productivity hacks, because I've always got pen and paper. I can always draw something out and it has proven to be something that helps me in many, many, many ways, Andrew. And this is something that I find myself doing more and more of, but at the same time, scaled back recently, a whole bunch of reasons for that. But ultimately, it's come down to, I do a lot of my thinking on paper and anything that's long term, goes digital and it's a combination of OmniFocus or text files for me, is where I land in that mix. But at any given point, I've probably got a list on my note cards of what's going on today. So anyway, I've got this weird mash up between the two.

Andrew J. Mason: I love it, because I personally have a belief that the way each person processes information, and even inputs information is unique to that person. And to be able to have this level of self-awareness that says, "Okay, I know myself. And after about noon, I am toast. So I need to carry around with me, something that's analog, a little bit more tactile, to be able to input and capture information." A little bit of a left turn, but talk to me about scripting, then. I find it fascinating that there's the analog tactile portion, but there's also, hey, I have an interest in automating certain portions of my life workflow that can be automated. I'm actually, honestly not familiar with what the scripts are, but just curious, how that took the turn it took, and how that slice of your journey unfolded for you.

Joe Buhlig: Yeah. So if you go to GitHub, find me, joebuhlig/ofscripts, you'll find a whole bunch of them there. There's everything from weather activation, I had a script that would run every day, and based on the weather would turn a project on or off, which was fun. Task shuffle, that was a fun one. I had a whole deal where, I could run a script on a project and it would shuffle all the tasks inside of it, if it was a single actions project. And that was really great for someday, maybe lists. You don't think about that, but if you're doing the review process inside of OmniFocus, it's real easy to just always hit that mark review thing. You're so used to seeing things in the same order, that you just don't actually, process what's on there.

Joe Buhlig: But if you shuffle them all, it's now completely new and you might find things and see things in a different way. Anyway, a funny one. But yeah, probably the big ones that people know of, the update reviews script. So if you've wanted to schedule your weekly review, you can run this script and anything that's marked to have a weekly review cycle, time period. It will set it to whatever day you want it to review. So they'll all show up on that same day, same thing for monthly or annual. So that script is one I know, gets it's a lot of mileage. People still use that today. Last I know, it still works. And I did port that over to the iOS setup, so you can run that in the new script setup there too. So anyway, the auto parser, that's the one specifically, I was talking about earlier with Rosemary.

Joe Buhlig: She still promotes that thing because it gives you a whole syntax that you can email or use drafts to just, drop something into OmniFocus, run these scripts and it will parse the project and dates and tags and such, out of that, into where it needs to go. So those are some of the things that I was doing heavily with OmniFocus, but every time I hit a pain point and something wasn't quite working for me with OmniFocus, I realized that the scripting ability of it meant that I could add these features by writing these scripts.

Joe Buhlig: And I don't know how many there are here. What is it? 12, 15? I don't even know how many there are. There's a bunch of them. A lot of are functional on both Mac and iOS anymore. So it's a cool deal, but yeah, it was all a matter of, if I don't have the features I want, hey, guess what? I can add them. That's a really cool deal. That's something that I know Ken Case and the team have done a great job of, you've made it very easy for people like me to just, add to those products.

Andrew J. Mason: That is awesome. See, I actually have used the update review one before, I had no idea it was used, so I feel like I have a new superpower. Thank you for that. Talk to me about your unique usage of OmniFocus. Is there any way that you implement your system where you're thinking, I haven't really seen this use case anywhere else, this is unique to me?

Joe Buhlig: Yeah. I know, the ways that I'm using it today, it's mostly, there's a list of projects. I break so many conventions if you're following canonical GTD, I break a lot of those rules anymore, and it's because I don't use tags, I don't use contexts. I have no dates that I'm using in OmniFocus. And when people see that system, it just messes with them. It's like, "Wait, how do you organize these things?" I don't, that's the point, that's why I have the list of projects. And most of those are recurring in some form, whether it's house maintenance stuff, it's projects I need to do on an annual basis or a monthly basis or a weekly basis. These are projects that need to happen regularly. And the reason for that is, I've been down this productivity path for years now and have written it, done many podcast videos, all sorts of stuff about it.

Joe Buhlig: What I have learned, especially in recent months, so to put some context to this, in July here so six, seven months ago, six months ago, my wife and I bought an old, old farmhouse on five acres. It's a 126, 127 year old house, needed a lot of work. And we decided to take a couple of load bearing walls out, do a massive remodel, all sorts of stuff. And in the span of three and a half months, we took two walls out, re drywalled it, re insulated almost the whole thing. I pulled 1200 feet of electrical cable in the house.

Joe Buhlig: It was a lot, a ton of work had to happen. And when the project started, I looked at my wife, Becky, and was like, "Okay, somehow you and I have to collaborate on this. And somehow we have to make sure this is all done, because our lease on our apartment was going to expire in October and I'm not adding to that. I'm not going month to month on that, because I don't want to, financially. So we have to have this done and we got three and a half months to get it done." So we put together a week by week list.

Joe Buhlig: It was not OmniFocus, because I needed to share it with her. But we had this week by week deal set up and I knew what days the framing needed to be done. What day I needed to be done with electrical. When was drywall going in? When was carpet going in? I knew all of these things down to the week, as far as when it needed to happen, which was great because that then, told me when I could schedule all of my subcontractors. I didn't really use much for subcontractors, but I knew when to call the drywall guys, to have them show up.

Joe Buhlig: So anyway, I bring this all up, because that process was such a massive project in such a short timeframe for the scheme of it, that it forced me to rethink how I do task management in general. And so much of what I've done in the past is, what David Allen talks about is take a project, break it down into its component parts, anything that's longer than two minutes, you use that whole timeframe deal and then keep track of that. I don't do any of that anymore. And it's partially because of this house project, because it taught me that, it's okay to do that if you want, but it's just time involved. I can look at the project itself and I know what needs done. And if I have so many projects that I don't know what needs done, I have too many projects going on right now.

Joe Buhlig: So if I keep it to, somewhere around four or five projects at any given time, I can glance at it and know exactly what needs to happen next. I don't need to go through the process of spelling it all out. So because of that, my current OmniFocus structure is just, tell me the time periods, when things need to reoccur. It's a list of projects that are not broken out. And there's usually a link in the notes for the project, that sends me to a text file that will then give me all of the metadata that I need for that specific project. That's really what I'm doing, but it's super weird when you see it.

Andrew J. Mason: I think that is really unique. The closest I've heard, I think so far is, Alan Pike was the CEO of Steamclock software. We had an episode with him earlier, where he talked about just, seeing this sea of red, staring him in the face and just the stress induced where, he is managing this team of people for Steamclock. And just "My gosh, what do I do? There's so many tasks that are overdue", and just suddenly just said, "I'm done with it. Why have it?" And as new parents, I also on the other side of that spectrum say, "There's nothing wrong with the micro level either."

Andrew J. Mason: I have, brush teeth, don't forget to brush teeth because I don't think we're bad parents, but if we don't do it, gingivitis might show up or something might happen. That's not good. Let's also talk about what you've encountered, twists and turns along the way that maybe, you won't call them failures, but these are areas that I thought it would turn out one way. It didn't turn out that way. And maybe this can be instructional for somebody else, "Hey, I want you to avoid any missteps that I've taken. Here's something that I would advise you on."

Joe Buhlig: Yeah. I would say that, I've done some coaching for this in the past, paid coaching before. And one of the things I regularly see whenever I look at somebody else's system, is a thousand available tasks in OmniFocus or there's a list of a hundred projects and it makes me anxious and it's not my life. Don't do that, please. I want to plead with people sometimes, please don't go that route, because you're spending so much time spelling things out that you're avoiding the time of doing the project itself. So what I encourage people to do is, don't use the management of your tasks to be a crutch when you don't have the motivation, because so much of what I've found is, and I'm guilty of this too. Look at the scripts I've written, I've spent so much time writing these scripts to make the tools, show me what I need to see at whatever time, instead of trying to figure out what motivates me to actually do those projects, and realizing that there's a huge disconnect between those two and they're definitely linked.

Joe Buhlig: That's why, if you look at what I'm doing and what I just explained, so much of what I'm doing is routine and habit based, instead of trying to spell things out in detail. So if I can build the routines and I can work on managing the high level, the low level will come and I'll get there, but it takes so much time to do the detail stuff. So anyway, I would just encourage folks, don't do what I did at the very beginning. Don't spell it out in tons of detail. I'm totally cool if you want to manage the list of projects, don't have too many of them active at one time, and then just run with those. That's what I would highly, highly recommend. Please do that.

Andrew J. Mason: Wow. You're honestly echoing what we had talked about last episode, our guest Naomi Pierce was talking about. Hey, it's the new year, be kind to yourself.

Joe Buhlig: Yeah.

Andrew J. Mason: People get all stressed out and say, "I'm going to do all sorts of things with this brand new year." And then just man, you're setting yourself up for a crash and burn. So be kind, but also understand the excitement when you gain a new superpower, you're like, "Man, I'm going to put 400 things on this list." And there's a cycle of expansion and contraction. And I understand that. This might seem like a strange question, but how do you fight for the discipline that it requires, to maintain and keep things as simple as you do?

Joe Buhlig: How do you fight for that discipline? Good luck. That's my take. I'm terrible at it. I'm really, really bad at self discipline. And I know that I need an external motivator in most cases, and money doesn't count for me. There are a lot of things, if you told me if I did something, you'd pay me $10,000 for it. And it took me an hour to do it. I may not do it. That's just the way I am. It doesn't matter. And I know that for me, I've had to learn what it is that I love to do. And then be very specific about the things I hate doing and then play games to get myself to do the things I hate doing. One of those for example, is I really, really despise scheduling volunteers at our church.

Joe Buhlig: It drives me up a wall. People love to do that. You're a sick twisted person. I cannot handle this. The concept of contacting people, figuring out when they're available, putting together the schedule and doing all the admin stuff to get that all out, makes my skin crawl. I can't handle it again. If you like doing that, if you want to do it for me for free, get ahold of me, but it's not something that I like to do. So I have to do things in order to convince myself to do that. I know that I've got to get it out by say, January one. Well, we've got the Christmas season and new years is going to be there. So people aren't going to want to respond and figure out availability for the next three months, in that timeframe, which means we got to do it early December.

Joe Buhlig: So that means December one, I need to start that project. So I just take one person a day and I can do this because of the number of people involved, one person a day, contact one person a day and then get all that information. And then usually, somewhere about a week or so before Christmas, I can tell myself, "Okay, the very first thing I need to do today, is get this scheduled done. And I'm not allowed to go make my morning tea until I've got it done." I have to do that sort of thing.

Andrew J. Mason: Holding caffeine hostage.

Joe Buhlig: Yeah, absolutely. I have to do that sort of thing or I'm not going to get it. So I know that some people really, really good at self discipline, the whole ADHD thing for me, even medicated, it's a challenge. So it's not something that works well for me. Thus, I have to play the games. For some people, I am very envious of you if you can just say, "Yeah, I need to do this today." And then you go do it. I aspire your level of motivation, because I can't accomplish it that way.

Andrew J. Mason: Yeah. We salute you, audience. I know they're out there, they exist.

Joe Buhlig: Yep.

Andrew J. Mason: Do you have anybody in your life that you considered a productivity hero? Somebody that just has mentored you along the way or you looked up to and you're like, "Man, I wish I could do more like they do or be more like that." Anybody that's influenced your journey?

Joe Buhlig: Yeah. Let's circle all the way back to the very beginning of how we started here, growing up on the farm. My grandmother who has since passed, I would say she's probably, if I have a productivity hero, she would be very close to that top of that list. I don't know that I have a specific person, but if I have to pick somebody she's very close to that, because start noticing the themes here. She had almost no lists. She didn't really manage admin things at all, but she always knew what routines would accomplish the things that needed to happen, when. She had all of these traditions and cycles that happened. So she knew how to take care of the things that were on her plate. And she was the bookkeeper for the farm, which at a 4,000 acre farm is no light project in itself.

Joe Buhlig: So she did all of that. And as she managed all of that at the same time, she was the one who would always bring us meals in the field. She was the one who always called all of the relatives and knew who was doing what, where, and when. This was pre email and cell phones for her. So she was always ready for a conversation. She was always the one who was willing to talk to you no matter what. How the woman did all of this, I have no idea, but she was very well connected to here and now, she was very well connected to what other people needed when, and that is something that I've always aspired to.

Joe Buhlig: I don't have that level of mental know-how that she had, but I know, despite all of the tools and despite all of the systems that we tend to talk about, and yet I feel like she had a very full and fulfilling life and I feel like that's what we're all shooting for. But I hesitate to say that, certain tools and certain systems and processes are what you need to do the right thing to be, quote unquote, effective, even though that term is hijacked nowadays. But that's something that I find myself trying to get towards more and more is, how do I connect with other people and help other people feel better about what they're doing? That's more and more, what I'm driven to. But a lot of that comes from grandma.

Andrew J. Mason: I love it. And speaking of connecting with people, any ways that you would like for people to reach out to you, find out what you're doing or connect with you?

Joe Buhlig: Yeah. The easy ways are, go to That's the easy one. You can catch me on Twitter, occasionally as well. That's just, @JoeBuhlig. Outside of that, I've got a podcast, Bookworm. If you're not familiar with that, read a book every two weeks with my good pal, Mike Schmitz, record a podcast and turn that loose. So there's always something fun and exciting going on there as a well.

Andrew J. Mason: Joe, I so appreciate your time. Especially when I know that it's at a premium, you're managing so many people, time is valuable. Thank you for spending it with us today.

Joe Buhlig: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you.

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