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May 1, 2023, 6 a.m.
How Johnny "Decimal" Noble Uses Omni Software

Johnny Noble is possibly best known for his information cataloging / productivity system called the "Johnny Decimal System". Johnny’s methods have been mentioned by a few past guests (including Jimmy Little and Leah Ferguson) for helping them remove friction when managing personal data.

Show Notes:

Today, Johnny joins Andrew to break down how he got the idea for the system, when he came across Omni software, and in what ways he uses the system himself to stay productive.

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

- Johnny Decimal Website
- Jimmy Little Episode of the Omni Show
- Leah Ferguson Episode of the Omni Show
- Mikell Taylor Episode of the Omni Show
- Sinclair Spectrum


Andrew J. Mason: You are listening to The Omni Show where we connect with the amazing community surrounding the Omni Groups award-winning products. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we have Johnny Decimal Noble sharing how he uses Omni software. Hello everybody and welcome to another episode of The Omni Show. My name's Andrew J. Mason, so excited that you could join us today. And we have Johnny Decimal. I'm using air quotes, but you can't see it. Noble here's sharing about how he uses Omni software to get things done and stay productive. And Johnny, thank you so much for spending time with us today. I'm really excited about this conversation.

Johnny Noble: Thanks so much, Andrew. It's a pleasure to be here.

Andrew J. Mason: We've had other guests mention your work a couple of episodes ago, but for those that haven't met you yet, who are you? Where do you find yourself? And thank you for getting up so early in order to record this. I believe Johnny said it was 5:30 where you are.

Johnny Noble: Yeah, yeah. You're lucky. I'm an early bird. I never used to be, and my partner has turned me into one. So, yes, it's 5:30 in the morning here in Canberra, Australia. Like I said, I am normally up at this time of day. Yeah, I'm originally English. My accent might come through, it might not. I'm a funny hybrid of all sorts of pleasures because I was born in the northeast of England in a town called Sunderland and then went to uni in the UK. I worked all over the world. I was very lucky when I was younger, and I worked all over the world. I've always been into IT. I've always just been an IT nerd. My first computer I was just looking up, I think was in the 1980s. It was a Sinclair Spectrum, which any British person of my age will know. A formative computer, which I don't even remember how I got. I think my parents were inspired enough to buy it for me. I just remember this thing being there and I was young teens. So, I've always been a nerd and kind of fits the story later. The first things I remember writing on my early computers were databases of the things in my room, which of course at the time was mostly cassettes of Cyndi Lauper. It's true. I've always had a fascination with, I don't know, I guess with tracking things and knowing where things are is who knows where that comes from. And I went to uni in the UK back in there when was at the early '90s. So, I had very early experience of the internet back when it was green screens and terminals and all that sort of stuff, which I'll confess I kind of miss. I liked those days, they were fun. And then long story short, moved to Australia by accident in 2003. Came on holiday as a backpacker, never intended to stay, and just met a bunch of really nice people that was in Melbourne, which is a cool city. Met a bunch of people there, fell in love just with my friends and the city. Yeah, one day my mom said to me on the phone, she said, I was talking about home, and she realized, she said, "Hey, when you said home, you mean Melbourne, don't you?" I said, "Yeah." And she said, "You never coming back, are you?" And I never did. So, that was coming on for 20 years ago. And then about three years ago, I've been flying up to Canberra with work for the last seven or so years and it's a really nice little city and my partner suggested that we move here. So, we did. And that's been one of the best moves we've ever made. It's a really nice little city. It's the sort of city that people turn their eye of when they say you live here because they came here as a kid in their 1980s and it was terrible. And the secret's out, it's not terrible anymore. So, yes, now a proud Canberra native.

Andrew J. Mason: That's a perfect sketch. Thank you for that. And do you have any recollection as to when you first came across the Omni group, Omni software, anything of that nature?

Johnny Noble: Well, I checked my one password, and I can tell you exactly when it was. It was OmniPlan 1.7.3 in 2011. Yeah, I've been a Mac person since I left the UK, so at least 20 years now. Kind of stumbled across the Mac and then realized it was where I was meant to be. I love the platform, I love what it is. And what I love about the Omni stuff is it's as soon as you use a bit of Omni software, you think, "Oh, yep, this is it. This is how it ought to be." And if there's a bit of Omni software that does the thing you need to do, I listen to your show, the guy from O'Reilly talking about OmniGraffle, and I for many years have been kicking myself because I have no need to use OmniGraffle. And I'm trying to find one because I just, it's just nice software, isn't it? I just want to use it. So, yeah, it was a OmniFocus user for many, many years and then found OmniPlan. So, yeah, 10 plus years I've been using the software.

Andrew J. Mason: Incredible in project management, any specific highlights about the software itself that you tend to enjoy?

Johnny Noble: The thing I really like about OmniPlan that makes it in this class of Mac apps that makes it really Mackey because of course we've all used the other software, I shouldn't name the other project software on Windows that, and that everybody kind of universally hits, right? And it's really nice to have a bit of project management software that one doesn't dislike using. And the thing about OmniPlan for me the... It's the good old sidebar, it's the inspector that's such a nice little resource to always have open the power that you have there without having to click a million times. I mean, my plans, they look nice because I color all the different rows. I select all of the rows within a particular high-level grouping and I just make them a different color. People literally say to me, "Oh, how many people have said that at work?" "Oh, this looks nice to a project plan." The inspector it's really helpful for the thing at the bottom where it will show you. Because I think that's the thing that I still have to wrap my head around some allocations being pushed out. If your resource loading things and you look at it and you think, "Why?" Shaking your fist at the screen, "Why can't you happen until next Tuesday?" And lo and behold, there it is. It's at the bottom of the inspector, the task inspector from memory. It will show you exactly in order a priority why a particular task can't happen because Jim isn't available until next Tuesday. And then because the proceeding task won't finish until Wednesday and then so on and so forth. So, yeah, that little inspector is really helpful.

Andrew J. Mason: When it comes to project management, is there anything that's like a go-to for you for a first bit of advice or a way to help somebody if they're looking to kind of get to that next level or do better in project management as a whole?

Johnny Noble: For project planning? I think I am a big fan of an old-fashioned schedule, and I know Agile's a thing. I think people fool themselves into thinking that modern infrastructure deployment can be Agile, and it isn't because it's all about dependencies and it's all about understanding what you need to provide to other people and what other people need to provide to you. And this is what allows you to theoretically make your boss happy. Because if you can show that it's so often the case in my industry for sure that you are waiting on someone else and you don't want to say, "It's not my fault," but it's often not your fault. There's nothing you can do about it. And if you can represent dependencies there. So, I think the first place to start is just by mapping out the high-level tasks in your dependencies. Now I think that gets you 50% of the way there in a schedule.

Andrew J. Mason: Very good. And for anybody that finds your name recognizable, it may be due to the fact that past guests have relied upon utilized the system that you've developed for indexing, finding retrieving information projects, a lot of things. There's almost a whole kind of methodology surrounding this for somebody that just has no idea what the Johnny Decimal system is. Do you mind walking us through that?

Johnny Noble: Yeah, sure. I mean, firstly I find this deeply strange that people know my thing. It's just a thing I wrote on the internet and now it turns out it's a thing that people know. So, thanks for everybody who does use it a real, yeah, it's amazing. What is it? So, Johnny Decimal is, I call it a system to organize projects. It came from the original frustration was that, I mean, everybody's seen a file system at work and there's just stuff everywhere. It's chaos normally and people have their own ways of organizing things. But I came up with a system by accident. Again, I think a lot of my life has been serendipitous. We were, strangely enough, we'd quit our jobs and I was producing a contemporary dance performance in Melbourne and there was a bunch of us in a cool little office, very Melbourne style, and I realized people were pinning things on the walls, particular prices and things that were changing all the time. And one of the things I really despise is when people have the file path in the footer of a document C:\Documents and Settings\users\ all that, oh, I hate that. So, I thought there's got to be a better way to represent where a file is so that when we pin it on the wall, we can find it again when we need to update it. And as far as I can remember, that's the origin of the system. And so basically, I think I started with the idea of numbers, but at its core, here's the system, you take everything within your project, everything you need to organize. And when I say everything, I don't just mean files, I mean everything. And we'll talk about this in the context of OmniPlan later. And at the top you start by kind of sketching out where all the things are. Literally sketching helps, whiteboards are great, post-it notes are great, or use mind mapping software and you dump everything in there, just load everything in there that you need to organize and do that for a couple of weeks. Here's the crash course in how to build your own Johnny Decimal system. And then what you do when you're comfortable that you've got everything and you've thought of all of the pieces of work, you group them into the types of work. So, you might have written the same type of thing three times, I'll talk about IT projects. So, you've got things like change requests, you've got change requests, and you've got different types of documentation. So, you start grouping all of these things together. And then what you need to end up with is at the top level. So, when you come into your system, which is your folder structure or your Johnny Decimal index or whatever, at the top level, you can have no more than 10 buckets of stuff and we call those areas. So, in a IT project management world, micro and project, I've got project management is one of those areas. So, project management as a top-level area, it captures everything to do with project management underneath it and we'll get underneath it in a second. One of my other areas is I think I've called it technical but not application specific because we do have other applications that are migrating. But all of those other technical things, documentation, change requests, scripts and hacks and architecture and whatever that is, that all goes onto the technical but not specific bucket. So, now you've got at most 10 top level buckets, and you shouldn't try to have 10, you should have as few as you need. The idea being that when you come to your system in the future or when someone else comes to your system and tries to find a thing, it should be really unambiguous, which of those 10 things the thing is in. You shouldn't have to think, you shouldn't have to scratch your head and go, "Oh, where hell I put the thing again." It should be really obvious from that top level where thing is, then we do it again. So, we're in our project management bucket area and then you divide again because that's not specific enough yet. And again, you do into at most 10 things. So, now within there I have things like communication, risk and get really boring and project manager, right? Project, communication, risk, stakeholder management, procurement, all the boring project management things. And then in there that's where... And we call those categories. So, as I say on the website, a category is any type of work that you can do. So, a category is when you sit down to do a thing or when you're dealing with your email or when you're in your schedule or whatever, everything that you do must be able to fit into a category. And people often think this is difficult. They say, "Wow, how do I put everything into a category?" And I ask them, "Well, if you can't put it in a category, if you can't define what it is, then what are you doing it for?" If you can't put it into a category, you should ask yourself what earth you're doing because you might be wasting your time. So, now we're in categories and you have at most 10 categories in your areas. So, you have at most a hundred categories and usually far fewer, usually a couple of dozen does the job. And then inside your categories, finally we're at the level where we have what we call Johnny Decimal IDs, which is the place where you can store things. And in there you store, so I'll bring in the numbers now is it's not very good on a podcast, it's kind of visual, but you have your category might be you give all these things numbers. Your category might be the number 32. It is contained within a folder which contains all of the number 30s, so from 33-39. So, we call that folder 33-39, and you give it the name 33-39 technical but not application specific, 32 change requests. And then within 32 we just start at 32.01 and we work our way up 32.01, 32.02. And each one of those things, the number doesn't mean anything, it's just an index and that's where you put your stuff. So, your first change request that you need to track 32.01, you give it a number. And the tricky is now as well as being very organized, you have just created an index for yourself that is unique within your project that you can use anywhere. So, you can use it in your file system, but you don't have to. What if you don't? This is a change request in a technical change request system. I don't have any files. Maybe I do, maybe I have attachments and that's where they go. But if I don't have files, I still have a unique index and I can still use it as my own little database to look things up. I use the numbers in my bookmarks, people said, "You really put numbers at the start of all your bookmarks." "Yeah, of course I do. And guess what? They're usable and I can find things again." I see people at work, and they just throw things in their bookmarks folder, or they just throw things in a file system and those things never get seen again. Because this is of course a little bit of extra work. It's not free, it's free as in beer, whatever the phrase is. But it's not free. It's not free in time. You do have to spend some effort in putting this in, but what you get back is the ability. I mean, I like to think you get back a bit of your sanity and you get back the ability to actually find your things again in the future. So yeah, that's a quick roundup. Check the website. I don't know how good a job I did there at explaining my own thing. But that's what it is.

Andrew J. Mason: Such a cool and unique breakdown. I really appreciate you walking us through that. And I have to confess to you along with our listeners, this is relatively new information to me. I did look up the site. What I hear you saying is that if you do a little bit of the clear-thinking work upfront to kind of say this is where the thing is. At that point, muscle memory can take over and you can say, you know what? 35.05 is always this thing.

Johnny Noble: And that's right, yeah, you're dead right. You'd be surprised at how many of your numbers you remember. The examples I've been giving you today are real examples. The other thing as well, you tend to find, you do very similar things at work. I'm an IT project manager. I do IT integration and application, cloud transformation project. It's what I've done forever. I could write you down. Now the things I do, I don't need to invent them every time. Every time isn't brand-new. And you find yourself across projects reusing some of these numbers. The numbers may not be the same, but you use the same concept to use the same categories. And in fact, some of the numbers are the same because I have a standard structure for the project management area because project management's always the same. And I won't bore you with a 10, but I can rattle them off in order. And whenever I start a new project, I just copy, paste the project management stuff. And in fact, I go one level deeper than categories there I go to... So, in project management, you've always got a scope management plan. If you put your good little project manager hat on, you've always got a scope management plan, you've got a schedule management plan, you've got a schedule, you've got a risk management plan and a risk register. All of those things in all of my systems have the same number all of the time because they're well-defined, why wouldn't they? And then my old boss, who's also a very good friend who actually chose the name Johnny Decimal, as it turns out he did, he found the name for me. Thanks, Alex. He as my manager then knows exactly where everything is. And in fact, he can guess where things that he doesn't know are, because the pattern is so structured, he can infer where a thing will be and lo and behold, he can actually find it. And as someone working on a big project in that kind of project management PMO office role, your job is to enable people to find things and to remove the frustration of people not knowing where things are. I mean, one day I'd love to do, if anybody out there can help me do a study, I'd love to do an actual study in a normal workplace of the time spent, the time wasted with people just trying to find stuff. It infuriates me, it drives me mad. So, yeah, that's the end step. That's what I try to, I like to solve. I want to remove frustration and help people find things.

Andrew J. Mason: And if you don't mind bringing this to life a little bit for somebody that would use this in an OmniPlan or an OmniFocus, do you mind sharing just a few examples of how this might be used in that software?

Johnny Noble: So, it might sound strange, but I've done this very successfully. You basically put your numbers in the titles of your tasks. And I've done this with a schedule with thousands of lines because again, what I find often in my sort of job is that you are doing the same sort of thing repeatedly. I heard you talk with Michael talking about OmniPlan and they were saying how a lot of it is, it's repeated stuff and you find yourself doing the same thing again. And so, as a result, you're doing a lot of copy, paste, right? You are typing in some new tasks at the beginning, but then I often find myself copy pasting those things. And what I do is I just put my number in the title, I put it in square brackets. When I use the number elsewhere, I tend to put it in into square brackets just because it makes it a bit more findable. So, if you do end up with a number in 38.12 it might appear somewhere else. It might be a currency value, it might be in somebody's phone number, but 38.12 in square brackets tends to be unique. And so, I put all of the numbers in my task titles, which allows you to filter like a wizard. So, you can very easily filter on, because think about what this does, you can filter on anything in the 33-39 category by filtering on open square bracket and just the number three. And that pulls out everything in that category. So, that will pull everything out of your schedule in the technical but not application specific area. And now if you want to drill down just to the category 32, which was change requests, you just filter on open square back at 32. And that's usually the level that I go to. It's rare that I need to filter down to a particular task. And this removes the dependence on having really particularly well named titles because we all know people aren't very good at that. People can put different titles in there. You can change your title, whatever, but what remains is this piece of metadata because that's what this is. It's just metadata about your project that you've created. I find that very useful little technique works really well. Again, extra work. It is extra work, but what you get back, especially on a larger project, what you get back is amazing.

Andrew J. Mason: I love that this way of thinking isn't beholden to a single bit of software. So, OmniPlan, OmniFocus, TextEdit, Finder.

Johnny Noble: Absolutely. I mean, and this suits OmniFocus very well, as you might imagine because it's rigidly hierarchical, which is one of the really nice things about OmniFocus is that allows you to set up that folder and then projects within folder structure.

Andrew J. Mason: Johnny, I've really enjoyed this conversation so far. I got to know, I hear this story arc and it's true for many of the people that we interview, but there's this story arc of passion for anything that can make that person more productive. And I hear it in yours, this growing up and just databasing things even before that was a thing. What would you say it is that makes you passionate about being productive?

Johnny Noble: So, when my partner li and I, when we see things that are inefficient and a waste of time, our little house joke is that I'm a big fan of Star Trek: The next generation. As you can see, you see me on camera, I once went to a dress up a Jean-Luc Picard my hero of obviously. It's true. And in this amazing future world where Jean-Luc Picard is the captain of the enterprise. I don't see anyone with messy file structures, and I don't see anyone trying to remember where that URL was, and I don't see anyone. It's the efficiency, right? And we often said is the path we, humanity is the path we are on now, the path to the Starship Enterprise. And I really am not sure that it is. And that kills me in a way. It really does because we are so smart humans, we can do so many things. And I think we take 20% off the top immediately just by being disorganized, just by not knowing where things are. And it's such a simple thing. It's such kind of boring in a way. When I tell people about this thing, I feel like it's a little bit boring and it kind of ought to be a bit boring. It shouldn't be the cornerstone of your life. It happens to be mine, but don't be like me. But I want people to be organized. I want people to know that there is an easy way to do this and to feel the lack of frustration and to feel how much it opens up what you can do when you don't spend half your day rummaging through your office like a crazy old accountant trying to find that thing that you need. And then by the time you find it, you're so frustrated you can't be bothered doing what you were going to do anyway. Yeah, and I'd really just like to see more people become, the thing about this system, not everybody's going to do this. And in a work environment, it is the job of somebody. If you're listening to this and you work in the PMO, it's you to do this for people. This is your job. And it's arguably the project manager's job as well, although they would need help in doing the day-to-day of this. But the people who you have employed to do all the clever things in my world that's doing all of the, who knows, building an Azure cloud platform or whatever, they need your help, and they need your guidance. And if you give it to them, they'll be better at their job. And as a result, you'll be better at yours and your project will be more successful. And we'll all spend less money and time doing these things. And who knows, maybe one day we'll get the Starship Enterprise. Small goals, small goals, but that's what we're going for. I just want the uniform.

Andrew J. Mason: Any separate or final, just kind of thoughts of the day or words of wisdom that, "Hey, there's a soapbox, I have a captive audience, this is what I would share."

Johnny Noble: I mean, I think because my life has been... I use the word accidental, but I mean, don't know if it's that it's, I'm kind of fickle in a way. I'm a jack of treads in my work and I enjoy doing lots of different things. I get bored easily. That's me. And so, I do lots of different things. I mean, when we did the dance production, I talked about where we invented, where Johnny Decimal just kind of came out of the air financially that was a disaster. Don't put on a large skill dance production if you've never done it before. There's a bit of advice, but probably a bit too specific. But no, I mean, look at, I find things lead you in life wherever they lead you. And I mean, for me, I love where I am. I love who I'm with and it's cheesy to say no regrets, but I think that's how I look at life. Don't do it again, but would I choose to do it again in my own past while I have to, because otherwise I end up somewhere different. And here I am talking to you. So, no, I think just be yourself. Do what you can do. I mean, we're currently just trying to think about what goes next for Johnny Decimal, because I guess I haven't really done much with it, to be honest. That's why I said at the beginning, I'm kind of surprised when I find people are using it because I haven't really pushed it at all. It's just a thing. It's kind of been out there for the website, hasn't been there for 10 years, been out there for five plus years, I can't remember. And I haven't really done anything with it. So, I guess that's my next life goal, is to actually do something. That's why I'm rebuilding the website so I can actually put more content on there. Yeah, that's my next thing to figure out with life is how do I actually make something of this thing. I would like it to be the thing that earns me money and it's not, I currently work a job and that can be really hard. I work a job and I try and be good at my job and I'm there most of the week and when you come home, you're tired. So, it's just trying to find that time. I guess there's, okay, there's my advice. If you have something like this that is your passion that you think, especially these days on the internet, the internet it's amazing. Now, you can have your own thing and you can find your thousand true fans and you can make something of it. Find the time, make sure you find the time because it is more important than your day job, which you probably don't like that much. Find the time to do your thing.

Andrew J. Mason: Good advice. Very good advice. I know you mentioned working on your website and that's definitely a way that people can connect with you. Is there any other ways that you would like for people to just know about what you're up to or connect with you or keep in touch?

Johnny Noble: Yeah, look, everything's on the website. You are going to prompt me to get the new website up. So, it'll be when the listeners of this episode see the website, they'll be some of the first people. I mean, it's just a website. It's nothing too special. But yeah, we're going to get that new website up over the weekend. So, all the contact details are on there. We have a forum that's linked from the website. The website is Pretty easy. The forum is linked from the website. There's a good little community on the forum. A couple of people actually wrote me a few years ago, Jack and Glenn. Hey guys, and said, "Hey, we need a forum if we need somebody to talk about Johnny Decimal." So, we set that up. It's not super active, but again, not something I'm really pushing at the moment. People can get me on email if they do need help, I'm always happy to help. I prefer to help on the forum because I want this whole thing is public and if I help you, unless it's super sensitive, I'd like other people to be able to find out help as well. So, the forum is the first place to ask or reach out on email or hey, if you're in Canberra, I had one guy. Hi, Joel. I had one guy reach out by text because my phone number's actually on the website and I'm going to leave it there so you can send me a message as well. Nothing bad happened yet, so it's up there until nothing bad happens or until something bad happens. Yeah, I'm in Canberra, so I'd be very, very interested in helping people out in real life here in Canberra. I think it would help you because I'm going to help you out and it would help me make this more of a career than just a little side place. So, yeah, if you're in Canberra, hit me up or anywhere in Australia. It's a small country, metaphorically.

Andrew J. Mason: Amazing. Thank you, Johnny.

Johnny Noble: Thank you so much, Andrew. Thanks very much indeed.

Andrew J. Mason: Hey, and thank all of you for listening today too. You can find us on Mastodon at The Omni Show, at You can also find out everything that's happening with the Omni Group at