Kourosh Dini, MD is a psychiatrist, productivity expert, author, and musician. He's the author of Creating Flow with OmniFocus. On weekends, he can be heard streaming music from his website.
Kourosh crafts his days using OmniFocus. His value of productivity as play is expressed within the routine structure that OmniFocus provides him.
Some other people, places, and things mentioned:
Andrew J Mason: You're listening to the Omni Show. Get to know the people and the 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 Kourosh Dini on how he utilizes Omni Focus to get things done. Hey there, and welcome to another episode of the Omni Show. Today, we are excited to talk to Kourosh Dini. He's the author of Creating Flow With OmniFocus. He's a psychiatrist, a productivity expert, and a musician. And the reoccurring theme you'll hear from him is how productivity springs up naturally as a result of guided play. Kourosh thank you so much for spending some time with us today.
Kourosh Dini: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Andrew J Mason: I honestly can't wait to dive into this, your philosophy of predictivity as play. I feel like if we all had that mindset then the world would probably be a lot better off for it. But before we head there I do want to ask the question, I love asking this question of people too, how did you come across Omni Group's software? Just tell us a little bit of your story and your history as it intersects with the Omni group.
Kourosh Dini: So, somewhere in the late two thousands I was really trying to, maybe mid two thousands, I was trying to figure out how to continue to be responsible. So I was finishing up my residency and I was starting a private practice and I had just gotten married. I still enjoyed video games, I still do right now, but I was probably able to play them more then. And I still wanted to be able to do all of those things as well as play piano and still be responsible. And so, I came across two things at the same time which was David Allen's Getting Things Done. And also Omni outliner with KGTD that was that set up that allowed the predecessor of Omni focus. Together I was thinking, "How do I make these both work at the same time?" So it wasn't just getting things done or OmniFocus or KGTD I was trying to say, "There's a promise here of focus and how can I make that promise work?" And that's really where it all began.
Kourosh Dini: What eventually I think has really resonated with me throughout the years and continues today is that concept of the trusted system. Having this idea that something's going to continue to act the way it has been so I can rely on it, that's trust. If it's going to keep doing the things I want it to do and it's going to hold what's important to me to keep developing it then my mind will be more able to focus. That same theme has just continued since. Once I read that, once I got into it, it just sparked and I said, "Okay, these are all suggestions I can take from to build on that central idea."
Andrew J Mason: That's wonderful. And I remember a podcast that you did, no it was a screen cap inside OmniFocus that you did where you talked about OmniFocus being this place and the quote that you had was that it nudges your attention. I love phrase for some reason but can you speak to what that means to you, what that is, how OmniFocus nudges your attention in the right direction?
Kourosh Dini: Sure. So yeah, I think nudge my attention is definitely the phrase. When you look at a task list, it's a bunch of things that you've told yourself to do before you're not thinking about right now. And usually the gut reaction whenever somebody tells you something even if it's yourself is, "Yeah, I don't want to do that." And most of us also on the flip side have those moments where we were really into something and we're doing it well, there's nothing else in the world that matters. And you might even come out feeling proud of it and usually that's centered on that playful spirit that seems so mercurial to find. So you want to find how to get to that place in a way that's also honoring the genuine part of yourself that says, "Yeah, I don't want to do that."
Kourosh Dini: So it's about finding the workflows and habits that really orchestrate those moments. And you work with your external systems, reminders, OmniFocus to not make strong demands of yourself that you otherwise wouldn't do. It's about finding those rhythms that would naturally start heading in certain ways and then saying, "Okay, how about this way? How about that way?" So if I can use the metaphor of you're gardening yourself in a way, you're finding the ways that things would flow.
Kourosh Dini: So, I like using daily repeating tasks a lot, particularly the defer again aspect in OmniFocus. That way the more regularly you sit with something the more you can warm up to it, engage it, make it a part of yourself. So, the example I could give is let's say there's a report a person has to write for school. That's the typical, even as we grow further and further into adulthood there's still that haunting something that comes from that scenario. And if you start it early, set it up to repeat regularly and only make the promise to be with the work rather than force yourself through it you're much more likely to start being honest with it rather than just say, "Okay, this is what the teacher wants me to say." You're more like, "Maybe this is what they want me to say or maybe this is what the author meant but this is what I think and where I think things are wrong or differ or how I might approach it." And suddenly you're you, you're genuine. And with that, the work just goes many levels higher.
Andrew J Mason: That's a great answer. I remember an interview that I had done with David Allen a while back and I had asked him, "What's the biggest barrier to productivity for people?" And I asked this huge open-ended question hoping to sit back and relax and listen to him riff for a few paragraphs. But what he came back with was just this short one sentence answer and it was, "I believe it's people's addiction to stress." And it's so curious because you talk about this internal fear, this internal dialogue we have with ourselves where it's not necessarily even anybody from the outside putting expectations on this anymore. I mean we're adults. Do you have any way of gaming that addiction to stress or that idea that work can be play, it doesn't have to be so stressful?
Kourosh Dini: Well, I think there's many different ways to approach that but I think there is considerable practice to it. I think that idea of play can be practiced. Because that addiction to stress idea, I think there's something to that. That's the way that's worked. Oftentimes when somebody who is dependent on a due date and that's just the way it's always been and that's the only way that it's reliably worked well that's the I guess the addiction if you want to call it that but it's also like I don't know any other way. So if you practice the other one there's something to that. And then there's always, how is it that that's an addiction? How is it that that's been the only way? And then that's a much more broadened discussion.
Andrew J Mason: Yeah, I think sometimes it's just that belief that something if it were different then we could be much more effective people, if that thing was different then I'd be so much more effective. And I think the same thing goes for new features too. Sometimes you'll see people float from software to software and making movement but not progress just because they believe that there's going to be one killer feature that if this software has that feature then I'll be super productive. Have you ever had any trouble with that or do you have any advice for anybody that is just? Because you've had such a long history with OmniFocus but maybe anybody that's trying or having trouble landing the plane for their selection of software, any words of wisdom for them?
Kourosh Dini: Yeah, no, it's a tough thing. So a couple of thoughts in there, one was, do I ever feel tempted to kind of veer off and see anything else? And then what do I suggest for others? So the first part, every once in a while I test the waters, I check out what other systems there are and very quickly I'm, and maybe it's just because of my long history with OmniFocus or maybe just because I've come so symbiotic with it. I suppose I just get repulsed. I just can't do it. You know, the one thing that I would consider more seriously is pen and paper, pen, and paper is just very, the organicity to that, the power of the written word and the simplicity of it is just unparalleled. So then I would probably have a folder and a set of sheets of paper for each project or something like that. But the repeat system and setting up my practice and things like that it just, it wouldn't work the same way.
Kourosh Dini: Then the other aspect of helping somebody land it touches on at least two or three things that come to mind. One is again, that idea of trust but trust is developed, it takes time because it's a primal feeling. It's a sense that something's going to keep doing what it has been so that you can rely on it. You can't choose to trust something, you can only decide whether or not you trust something at some deep level. So it's a matter of consistency but then the other aspect is the anxiety. There's so much worry of, "Am I doing the right thing? Will I do the right thing?" That that needs its own exploration to some degree at least before you start realizing how much of that is playing into changing system after system after system. In any form of procrastination you can wind up just thinking that you're solving the problem but in reality you wind up perpetuating it. It's not a simple answer. I wish I could say just do this but there's a depth of self-reflection that needs to go into it.
Andrew J Mason: No, that makes absolute sense and it is a big discussion. It's a conversation I think that's worth having. I want to talk about this phrase that you had and forgive me for just picking and choosing phrases throughout your different screen casts and stuff. But sometimes a phrase will just stick with you and I love this phrase that you use about OmniFocus' inbox is almost like a thermometer that gauges your system's health. What do you mean by that?
Kourosh Dini: Yeah, the inbox is powerful and I'm often fond of saying the more powerful the tool the more caution it requires. So the inbox is where you throw things. You're not willing to think about it and you're not able to think about it and we're almost always in the middle of something else so it's very useful for that. But without actually addressing the things in there it quickly loses the trust of it being a place you could defer your decisions. So, with some regularity then maybe daily or a couple of times a day, something, you not only move everything out of it, you have to address them. Another way of saying that is the inbox holds everything you haven't addressed.
Kourosh Dini: So then what does addressing mean? It means a series of a few questions. One is what does this thing mean to me? Where is it useful? When would it be useful? And how can I make it show up in a way that's uncluttered by distracting tasks, thoughts, or surrounding things so that you could actually deal with it at that time. So there's no perfection but you can think those things through as much as you can and when you do that you greatly improve that signal to noise ratio of what's meaningful to you and how to make that develop and form. And so, when you can do that then you're in a much better place of being able to focus on what you want to focus on, deal with the things that are in front of you. Because you feel like, "Okay, that other thought I have a way of dealing with it."
Kourosh Dini: Now secondly, as your inbox becomes cluttered it quickly breaks down that feeling of this thing can be developed because now you've got 40 things, 100 things sitting in the inbox and you have no idea which one's important, what's not important. If you don't have a place to move it, if you haven't figured out where good places for that are based on your habits, based on where you see things, all that, then that shows that the system is not healthy, it's not there yet, it's not developed to the point that that works. So in that way if you have a bunch of stuff in the inbox, it shows that there's a fever, there's a state of unhealth. It's the grandmother test of placing your hand on the forehead.
Andrew J Mason: That's such a great way to describe it. Everybody has that number and it might not be explicitly but just this internal measurement of comfortability with how much or little you trust your system based on how crazy your inbox is getting. And you're right it depends on the speed of your life. For me when things are flowing pretty fast in that range of 40 to 60, somewhere in there, as you start to see a scroll bar show up on your screen and it's gone past below the fold of the newspaper for your inbox that's where I start to get this like, "I've got to do it. Got to do it." Because you don't know if there's a commitment that you've made or a thought that would be really useful if you acted on. And the flip side of what you were saying, the powerfulness of the inbox is that your present version is now responsible for the past version of you has committed to capture.
Kourosh Dini: Totally. Yeah. If you can honor that past part of yourself even if it's just touching the thing that asked your future self to do it then you are much more willing to trust your future self in the current state.
Andrew J Mason: Well, as we're moving in that direction tell the listeners what your system is currently structured as. I've seen one or two of your screencasts where you talk about this almost multi-layer action going on where you have the system where the work actually happens but then you also have this sub or meta-layer that helps focus your attention in the direction of those things that you want to pay attention to. And so, it's almost like you've made this system and now it goes back and prompts or makes you.
Kourosh Dini: Absolutely. Yeah. So this system, I call it navigation, I've previously called it land and sea. I like the sailing metaphor even though I never go sailing, I just have this romanticized picture in my head. So the navigation system is very much about putting the right stuff in front of me at the right times with minimal clutter. So at its heart it's really simple. There's just the complexity that grows around it. But really what I want is three major things to do in a day that's outside of my client work. So my client work that takes precedent, we set an appointment, we meet and all that. But when I have time to myself or when I have time with family or something along those lines I want three places that I would set my attention to about those. So it could be writing a book or developing a course, it could be playing a game, it could be anything, but those are things that I've said, "For some unspecified period of time I want my mind there during the day."
Kourosh Dini: At the same time, I don't want to see all of those tasks that are associated with it. I just want to see something like continue writing book or continue working on the patio outside or just it says continue and then the thing. And I set that to repeat every day, usually every day. And in that way if I have those three things repeating every day and amidst let's say a total of maybe seven to 10 things total for the day it's a nice, simple list that I can make an quick decision about this thing, that thing, okay I'm going to do this now. But rather than having to process any thought about if it's 20 things suddenly I have to think what's important and what's not in a much more paralyzed way I should say.
Kourosh Dini: So those three things, the way I deal with them is I put them in a project called Engaged and it's a project set to parallel so that I see all of them. I give it a tag called Current. Current is my today list if you will. And I just called it a Current list. I like the river metaphor so still going with the water I guess. And within every task it has a link. I use the copy as link function to link to the project or a perspective or a folder that's associated with all the things that are related to it. So maybe continue working on a book that's repeating daily links to a folder of individual projects of all the things that are each chapter or whatever it is I want to work on.
Kourosh Dini: So again, just daily I see continue working on book but then I go follow that link and right now there's a nice automation in the Omni automation page that's set to follow that link very quickly. And then I can go to that list. I have a big, long list I can work through a little bit while I'm there. And then I say, "Okay, that's enough," close the tab, go back to my main list and mark off that one task as done.
Kourosh Dini: So then obviously there are more than three things that a person needs to deal with but really to me that's about enough for the day, that's enough nudging my attention because beyond that, I'm just that part of me says, "I don't want to, it's just a little too loud." And anything else maybe, up to about seven things or so, 10 things or so, it goes into a project called Parked and that's on hold. So, every day I go back and forth and I might move one to the other and maximizing it three for the engaged and that's the navigation system. I put them in a folder called Navigation. And really once I settled into that I haven't changed it. I mean, there's little bits and pieces in more detail about major routines, minor routines, things like that, that I've worked into it, but that's the heart of it and it's worked well for me.
Andrew J Mason: And then throughout, and I know we mentioned this earlier but throughout your system you also have this model or idea or perspective of play and talk to us about why it's important to have that viewpoint shape what you do in that system.
Kourosh Dini: So, play is vitality, it's that essence of creativity. So, when we talk about flow for instance it's that same toddler mindset of deep focus. The toddler is when they're playing they're at serious work. They are looking at the blocks and figuring out why the block is the way the block is and how to make it a tower and won't it be fun to smash it down or whatever it is there's the deep seriousness to it and the depth to it. That's also about what's important to you and there's the act of learning and expression of self that runs deep between world and self. And that happens internally when we're caught up in a project and really enjoying it or it happens interpersonally, maybe we're interviewing in a podcast or maybe a conversation with a friend or a romantic interest that there's something about all of those that connects to it.
Kourosh Dini: And the issue though is that it's not directly willed into being and then when it is there it can also be problematic. For example, particularly those who struggle with ADHD it winds up there can be a hyper-focus which sometimes is wonderful but also sometimes barrels through other obligations. It winds up being very difficult. And I think there's very much that same aspect at work. So structuring your sessions, your systems, and all that, it's about both trying to spark those moments and also trying to pull out of them where it's vital. So that's a matter of understanding yourself, your rhythms, and again that nudging your attention.
Kourosh Dini: There's a metaphor that Freud used and I know he gets a lot of flack because of antiquated ideas of things that don't quite fit but he also nailed a few things just right on the head. And some of them are really just expressed through metaphor. So the double metaphor one is the id and the ego, the id being this idea that we're all living and because we're alive we've got to stay alive, our individual selves, and then as a species we've got to do that. So whatever aspects our bodies are telling our brains, "Hey, we need to keep doing these things," that's what it is. And then ego is the part of us that's trying to figure out, "Okay, what do I do with all that?" So we have feelings that come to our brain and then we have thoughts that we have to deal with these feelings. And the reason why any sort of development has to happen is because the same idea you look at the toddler who's great at play but they're not going to go rent apartments and fork. So, there's some learning that has to happen.
Kourosh Dini: Anyway, the second part of the metaphor is he describes id as a horse and ego as rider. So we're all riding this primal part of ourselves in a sense. And sometimes you have to follow the horse and see where it's going and you have to develop this relationship with that primal part of yourself. You can't just beat it over the head it's not going to work and you can't just ignore it and just let it follow wherever it wants to go because that's not going to work either. So, it's connecting with that part of ourselves that is about that spirited play when you're both in tune, when you're both heading in the same direction and there's that vitality that comes with it that you're really aiming for.
Andrew J Mason: Well, the spirit of that actually parlays really well into where I want to head next and that is your YouTube channel. People might not know that along with your passion for productivity and getting all of these things done through this mindset of play there's also this theme that you share with your YouTube audience of just music and its creation but also its intersection with concepts like logic and structure and productivity. And there's one piece that I really, really enjoyed that you created called, I think it was Writing a Synth Wave From Start to Finish or Writing a Synth Wave Piece From Start to Finish where you actually broke down sequence and structure in a song and then just paralleled that with how a productive day might go. Would you mind sharing some thoughts or concepts from that piece?
Kourosh Dini: Absolutely. Yeah, so that particular piece was called Ztir. I don't know how to pronounce it I just thought of, somehow I thought of those words after I composed it with Z-T-I-R. Yeah the parallels between music and play and productivity I think are many. First music is this lovely pre-verbal primal language where you can just deeply play with structure and emotion and the relationship between the two. And then as with any learning process your mind has this tendency to transfer or generalize what you learn through whatever magic goes behind metaphor to other things in your life. So you get good at Chess, you get good at strategizing in general. And maybe that translates into how you deal with board meetings, something like that. I'm overgeneralizing or just but that's the kind of sense that when you get good at playing with emotion and structure that generalizes to all of your other aspects of your life. Anyway, it's so powerful the other soapbox that one day I'll get on somewhere is just it needs to be taught more in schools.
Kourosh Dini: But secondly, the parallel to the day's list. When developing a piece of music for improvisation or when you're learning something that someone else wrote for example you have to memorize. You have to memorize more than just scales, you also have to memorize phrases that seem to suggest a feeling. So, I've actually connected my piano up here. I can play a tiny bit and give you a sense of what I'm talking about. So let's say I have a couple of phrases so. Something like that. And if I memorize that or something close to it then I have it more in my finger, it's ready to go, I have a sense of the shape of the emotion that that creates. And then if I come up with something else, let's say... It's very different in the same scale but I memorize that as well.
Kourosh Dini: And then what I will do is that I will try to see where the emotion goes. So I might go... So you get a sense of there's, obviously I varied it, the second time around I went with each thing I made something different happen. And what happens with your today list is that you think through, "What is the day going to look like? What am I going to deal with? Where am I going to go?" But the day has its own opinions and so do you in other ways and so you have to go with where that goes but having done all that work of the analogy of memorizing here it's planning your day and setting up the task system that it lets you vary and improvise and follow the emotions of the day and follow that in such a more enjoyable way, in a better way, whatever that means to you.
Kourosh Dini: So going back to music, if you don't do that, the idea of going with the flow often means don't have a structure I think, if you do that you're honestly just going to get a headache from whatever music you make, at least I do. The same thing goes with the day you wind up playing video games the whole day, I don't know it just doesn't work. But if you've set up all of those things and you thought about it then once you're in those structures, once you've sat with the thing you want to sit with that you've promised yourself, then it's play. In music it's about going loud, soft, vary, jump, crash, whatever it is, but you've got that space in which to do that and it's nicely juxtaposed with all the other parts that you've set throughout your day. So, I realize I'm going way back and forth with these metaphors but it means then you can really go with the flow is what I'm getting at.
Andrew J Mason: Wow that was awesome. I honestly just want to ask a different question that'll give you an excuse to keep playing. All right. I'd kick myself if I didn't ask this. We're so complex as human beings and we have so many different roles and yet I know what we share with the online world or online communities is just a small slice of that whole person. And I know that there's a re-emerging theme of play as we've talked about today but I've also noticed that throughout your books and the YouTube videos and anything that you do online there's also this sense of calm. And I have to ask is that by design or is that an overflow of who you are or is it even an intentional like, "This is something I feel like the world needs right now and so I'm going to share that."
Kourosh Dini: I think let's see to begin with I'm not always calm, I try to be. The other part of it is I find it to be just that characteristic of play that even when stressed and maybe there's something I just picture in my mind of someone who's in a very stressful situation but still calm. In that they are the ones that you look to and those are the ones who also manage to make it through or even if they don't make it through there's something about it that there's an elegance to it that somehow works.
Kourosh Dini: I think there's a face of calm in play that it's just one of those, the phrase that I've used, the metaphor I've used is the quiet smile. Even when things are maybe in an athlete for example in that really crunch time something and somehow you still see in their face this calm. Even though there's a stress, there's a pressure, it's not to say they're just sitting back on the couch. They're not, they're fully there, but there's also a calmness in their demeanor. I think that's what I'm trying to aim for and I don't know why that works but it seems to.
Andrew J Mason: Kourosh I so appreciate that. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with Omni software but also all of these different slices of who you are. We're so grateful for that. Where can people find you if they want to connect with the work that you do?
Kourosh Dini: Sure. So my main site would be, either two sites, one is being productive.org, and the other one is kouroshdini.com, K-O-U-R-O-S-H-D-I-N-I.com. I usually go to beingproductive.org first, it's just easier for most to spell. Yeah kouroshdini.com that connects you to the broader world of what I do including the music and my psychoanalytic analytic practice and just random thoughts I might have occasionally. And then if you're interested in catching me performing live I do that every Saturday morning at 10:00 AM central and I'm broadcasting to both Second Life and YouTube and you can catch that at kouroshdini.com/music.
Andrew J Mason: Awesome. Thank you so much Kourosh.
Kourosh Dini: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Andrew J Mason: And before you go, do you mind maybe sharing a little bit more of that music you were playing?
Kourosh Dini: Should I just go through a full piece?
Andrew J Mason: Maybe we could just switch up the outro just for this episode. I have a calm outro. So grateful to share this time with you all. If you find this episode helpful and want to help us out absolutely leave a review or rating on iTunes. If you want to keep up with us and what we're up to check out the OmniGroup at omnigroup.com/blog or head to @theomnishow on Twitter. Enjoy the music everybody. (Music)