Today, we’re talking with Leah Ferguson. Leah’s a Canadian designer who creates experiences in the digital and built environment through way-finding and information architecture. In her spare time, she loves helping people navigate the world of personal knowledge management.
In this episode, Leah and Andrew talk about the power of environmental cues, context, and forward-thinking in reaching peak productivity.
Some other people, places, and things mentioned:
Andrew J. Mason: You're listening to The Omni Show, where we connect with the amazing communities surrounding the Omni group's award-winning products. My name's Andrew J. Mason and today we have Leah Ferguson talking about how she uses OmniFocus.
Andrew J. Mason: Welcome everybody to this episode of The Omni Show. Today, we have Leah Ferguson, a Canadian designer who creates experiences in the digital and built environments through wayfinding and information architecture. In her spare time, she helps people navigate the world of personal knowledge management. Leah, thank you so much for joining us today.
Leah Ferguson: Well, thanks so much for having me, Andrew.
Andrew J. Mason: Well, Leah, I know we just gave everybody the thumbnail sketch of your career. Do you mind breaking it down just a little bit more? What else would you tell somebody who isn't familiar with this space?
Leah Ferguson: Well, experience design is a bit of a broad thing, and especially talking to an audience who probably more familiar with the digital side. I deal with user experience in the built environment. Things like how you're feeling through art installations or those cool graphic walls you see in tech companies, but my specialty has been wayfinding and essentially it's how you find your way through space. I've spent most of my career doing navigation at airports, such as the Harvey Milk terminal at San Francisco International Airport, Calgary International Airport, and the Jewel at Changi Airport in Singapore.
Leah Ferguson: I get into the weeds and the details, my whole goal, as a designer, even though I've trained as a visual designer, my goal is to take the complexities of the built environment and of your flow through an environment and basically, I bear the burden of that to be able to make it a more pleasant experience for you. That way you are able to find your plane on time or be able to enjoy yourself at a shop or things like that. On the side of that, I just kind nerd out about how we get through space and how we get through information.
Andrew J. Mason: I am nerdy enough to appreciate this, and maybe I'm not alone in our audience, this is the first time that they've heard of this as a career path as well. To me, it sounds like is this about visual cues and finding yourself from one segment to the next, along the way?
Leah Ferguson: It's a bit of everything. It's everything from auditory cues or working with interior architects to look at how you change the carpeting or the colors or branded environments, so that you're entering into, say an Apple Store. They have a very unique look and feel. It's how do you take those visual cues and how do you take that information, whether it's written, tactile, or visual, and so that people be able to kind of know where they are in space.
Andrew J. Mason: That's super interesting and not something I consciously think about all the time, so thank you for that. Let's jump over to the Omni Group. When did you first hear about this company?
Leah Ferguson: I actually blame David Sparks for this one. I started using OmniFocus. I went back and had a look. I started using OmniFocus in 2010. Picture me, way back when get in the time machine, and I was a young undergrad doing a design apprenticeship in package design. I was already familiar with getting things done. I had done the Hipster PDA. I had tried out different applications and then I heard about OmniFocus on Mac Power Users. I know when I first looked at it, I thought "No, too complex, not something I need," but no. Yeah, I'm a nerd. You start to take apart things and go "Oh, this is actually pretty cool." I jumped in and I've been using it ever since.
Andrew J. Mason: Fun fact. You're not the first person that has blamed David for their introduction to the Omni group, so kudos to David. What does make it into your OmniFocus system? Is this a slice of your life, personal, professional, or is this more all encompassing for you?
Leah Ferguson: It's everything except for grocery list, literally everything except for grocery list. I've used it for school, my undergrad certificates. I'm just wrapping up my masters at the same time as I'm working. I've used it professionally to be able to navigate crazy, complex environments. I've also used it for personal, to remind me to actually go get groceries, volunteer work, design organizations, and even Dungeons and Dragons. I've used it for a little bit of everything.
Andrew J. Mason: That is phenomenal. Talk to me about what advice you might have for somebody who's just getting into OmniFocus. They crack open the software, they look at it, they say "Okay, I knew there's something to this. I'm just not necessarily sure where to begin or what to do with task management in general." What do you say to that person who's just getting started?
Leah Ferguson: What I'd recommend is start small and start with intention, because there's a lot of information out there. There's a lot of different systems that can work with OmniFocus or whichever task management you want to use. It's really easy to get overwhelmed. It's one of those cases where, even if you've been doing it for a while, the grass can always be a little bit greener in the other application. It's easy to just jump in and realize at some point you're spending more time organizing your tasks than doing your tasks. Take a step back, understand what you'll need. Put the "you" back in personal task management, and find what works for you. Take a look at other systems, but if it doesn't work for you, don't do it
Andrew J. Mason: Truly excellent advice, I do believe that. What about the role OmniFocus plays? Is this a single software or is this something that takes a more integrated approach and there's many different steps along the way? How does OmniFocus fit into your overall world?
Leah Ferguson: Well, I think of how I use OmniFocus as a single sign in an overall airport. That one sign, it's a guide for that particular moment, that particular thing, but the messages on the signs, the images, the fact that it's leading me to other places, it's one of many pieces in an overall system. I'm also a community moderator with Obsidian. I had the opportunity to talk with, well, we're up to 65,000 members in our Discord community. You get to see how a lot of different people work, and the different tools they use, and how often you have someone coming on the Obsidian Discord and say "All right, I want to use Obsidian for literally everything in my life." I get the impulse. I totally get the impulse because I used to use Evernote. It was my be all end all things led to Evernote, but I've taken a step back.
Leah Ferguson: I've come to realize that you need to use the right tool for you for the job. But that doesn't mean that those tools can't interconnect just as one sign at an airport, leads you to the next sign. OmniFocus is a tool that in the notes, you can put a URL to push you to a Google Doc online or push you to an obsidian doubt. That's where I see a lot of beautiful interconnection with workflows. My workflow is a bit of chaos, it depends what I'm working on. At the end of the day, this is one of my all time favorite things about OmniFocus is the X callback URL. That's nerd speak for, you can click a link and jump directly into some element of your OmniFocus. For instance, I use it with Mac software called Bunch. Now, Bunch is I think of a little bit like perspectives in OmniFocus, except you're taking that step back out on your computer.
Leah Ferguson: You're able to set your computer to be whatever view you need it to be, including your OmniFocus perspective. For instance, if I'm doing a routine call or a routine meeting, I have Bunch go through and open up the browser I need. My OmniFocus perspective I need and my calendar invite that I need, and all the different tools to be able to set the perspective I need to do the work at that time. Same way I do that with Dungeons and Dragons, totally to be able to say "Hey, I use the task manager when I'm playing sourcers and wizards and all the fun things," but at the end of the day, that's a commitment. You've made a commitment to a group of people, and you want to be able to remember from session to session and respect people by showing up prepared just as you would for any need.
Leah Ferguson: But I also use it to be able to plan and review. A big part of OmniFocus is the fact that you can sit down and you can look at your horizons and see what you've got to get done. This might be something that people may or may not know, but you can actually drag and drop OmniFocus tasks right into your calendar, whether that's Mac OS calendar or something like Fantastical. If you have your project duration or your task duration set, it'll actually say "Okay, this is a 15 minute task," or "This is 90 minutes," and allocate that space and link you back to your OmniFocus. I make a lot of use between OmniFocus and Obsidian. For people who don't know what Obsidian is, it's a note taking application or a personal knowledge management application, and it also uses X callback URLs, similar to OmniFocus.
Leah Ferguson: If I've got a project note where I want to be able to always have that note to give me an overview with what I'm working on, whether or not that's a paper I'm writing for grad school, or if it's a meeting I'm prepping for, I'm able to take that link and drop that into my OmniFocus task. That way I've got it connected, and I'm able to jump straight in. Same way I'm able to grab my OmniFocus link and put it into my Obsidian note. What this allows me to do, is you can actually create a kanBan board in Obsidian showing all of your tasks in OmniFocus, or at least all of your big projects. This was something that I used in grad school. You can capture every single thing you have to do, every reading you have to do in OmniFocus, or you can have a single view in Obsidian where it shows all of your readings and all of your notes.
Leah Ferguson: I don't know how many people actually do use kanBan boards with OmniFocus. I know I've seen some automation where it's a way to be able to visualize your tasks in a different way, but I make use of a plugin in Obsidian called kanBan, which you're able to see all of your ongoing projects and what state they're in, just like a traditional kanBan board. The beautiful thing about doing it in Obsidian is you're able to take a step back and look at the big picture and see what you've got on your plate and whether or not that's for entire semester of grad school, where you're sitting down and seeing how many papers you've got to write, or how many readings you have left to do. You're able to see that bigger picture and then push to OmniFocus to get into the details.
Andrew J. Mason: I don't know why that is, but it does make me think of you were mentioning Evernote, wanting that to be your end all, be all. It's, for whatever reason. It makes me think of Lord of the Rings, the ring of power, the one to rule them all. Everybody just kind of clings onto this is my software, like the precious, kind of a thing. But talk to me about automation. Is there a role automation plays in tying all of this software together? Or is there a role of automation where things are just as simple as a repeating task?
Leah Ferguson: It spans everything from repeating tasks to being able to have templates, all the way to being able to leverage shortcuts on Mac and iOS. OmniFocus allows me to automate parts of my life so you can spend more time actually doing the things you love. In my case, when I went to design school, I didn't realize how much time I'd actually be spending in spreadsheets and in planning mode. While that's really interesting, and I can nerd out about spreadsheets like no other, it is nice to be able to have that time, to be able to spend the time on strategy and visual and get into the weeds that a human makes a difference on. You automate out the things that become routine or the things that you find yourself doing repeatedly. That could be something like setting up a template so that if you're kicking off a project, you've got a system that you do every single time or something as simple as actually setting up tasks as you come by them.
Leah Ferguson: One that stands out to me is, I'm a Canadian and our passport is renewed every 10 years. In 2016, when I renewed my passport, I put a task in OmniFocus that I said "Defer for nine years. But in 10 years, my passports due." The thing about OmniFocus is like, if I had to see that on my weekly review, at that point, you go "No, I quit,". You can set the pace to say "Okay, I just want to check this every calendar year," being able to choose the frequency of review or just knowing that six years ago, I put a task in that I know I'm going to be able to use in three, four years. That way it takes the pressure off.
Leah Ferguson: Getting things done, you talk about having a trusted system. One of the reasons why I use perspectives is if I'm putting my entire life in OmniFocus, I don't want to see my entire life in one go. If you're working on a design, the last thing you want to do is "Oh shoot, did I schedule getting my dog's vet appointment done?" You can actually use perspectives to look at the different areas of your life, to be able to partition things off, be contextual and in the moment.
Andrew J. Mason: Leah, do you use any perspectives that are custom or considered custom in that they might not necessarily be the ones that are shipped out of the box with the OmniFocus software?
Leah Ferguson: Honestly, I've got about 30 of them and that's because you can get really granular. I only have a few perspectives actually up and starred so that it's in my sidebar. But if I'm working on a specific project at work, I want to be able to use Bunch to call that up quickly and using the OmniFocus as URL I'm able to make use of it. I don't have to click and point to it. It just comes to me automatically. You can get as granular as saying "Hey, what are all the calls I need to make today?" Just have a perspective for that. It's a different way of being able to frame what you need to work on.
Andrew J. Mason: I think anybody that's been productive for any amount of time and used software is kind of bumped up against that production versus production capacity thing. Do I invest in the system? Do I invest in working the system to get the results? For somebody that sees you investing in the system, what do you say to them? Why are you so passionate about productivity? Just to even shave just a couple of seconds off of each interaction, why is that important to you?
Leah Ferguson: I would say it comes down to, this sounds the opposite of what it truly is, but it's because I'm lazy. I would rather spend the time and learn how to do something once so that I can automate it. It seems outlandish to be able to say "Okay, I'm not a programmer, but I'm going to sit down. I'm going to be able to learn this bit of Apple script or this bit of automation so that I can do this thing the one time and now it's just going to replicate." Every single time I'm going to set up a new project or every time I need to return a call, I click a button and it's taken care of for me. You automate the things, the little edges that make a difference. It's that fine line between how much of this am I actually nerding it too much? I'm spending more time automating the task, not getting value from task being automated, but life's too short to do the same thing repeatedly.
Leah Ferguson: I'm passionate about productivity because I'd rather be doing the really interesting things. I'd rather be figuring out how someone's walking through a space or designing emotional cognitive experience in an environment. I'd rather go do an escape with my free time and not have to worry about "Gosh, did I actually book that appointment for my dog's vet or groomer?" When you're able to actually segment out the parts of your life and trust that you've got it done. Trust that 2025, I'm going to be able to renew my passport because it's in the system. You're just able to actually enjoy the little things so much more.
Andrew J. Mason: That's awesome. What is the number one pitfall or issue that you see people bumping up against for productivity? Maybe not even personally for you, but something that you just see rampant everywhere. You're like "If I could have people do this a different way, then I would change this one thing,"?
Leah Ferguson: The number one pitfall I see in task management in productivity, just this whole sphere is it's magical thinking. It's that idea that the app is always greener on the other side, there's something better out there and that maybe I'll actually be more productive if I switch this tool or switch this workflow.
Leah Ferguson: At the end of the day, your system is only as good as the work you put into it and the strategy put into it. The other pitfall I see is people come in and in Obsidian and they go "Okay, I want to do Zettelkasten," or "I've heard about this thing called Johnny Decimal. Is this the thing that's going to change my life?" They kind of take almost a Mandalorian approach. This is the way, but the thing is, there's not, there's so many different ways to do things. More importantly, the way I do something may not be the way you do something, Andrew. You've got to be able to find the system, the tool, the workflow that works for you and take what you've learned from other people. Steal that little nugget that actually helps you just get rid of the rest and spend more time focusing on what actually works for you.
Andrew J. Mason: Something somebody was once mentoring me about is that it's so funny that very often we get stressed out about the content in our lists that we think it's going to be solved by looking at a different list manager. When in reality, it's just, it's the content of your list. It's your life that you're stressed about when you're thinking about the things that are on the list. It's almost silly to blame that on the software that you're using to feed that back to you. I'll also be the first to admit I'm a sucker for a good rabbit hole. I've never heard of Zettelkasten, and I've never heard of Johnny Decimal, so my interest is peaked right now.
Leah Ferguson: Yeah. Zettelkasten is concept for a slip box. It's been very popular in the Obsidian community in terms of creating small bite sized information or your interpretation of information in an atomic note, which there's another buzzword, atomic note. But the idea is one note per idea. Then the other is Johnny Decimal. This one I'll actually take a step back and actually say "Hey, I use this in an Obsidian. I use this in OmniFocus. I use this in my calendar views. I use this in the email and the idea, it actually works really well with getting things done, mindset." It's having areas of focus and then having shallow folders beyond that as well.
Leah Ferguson: For instance, if you follow it to the T, and I don't recommend anyone follows anything ever to the T, but what I take from it is my folders one through 10, I call them my meta folders. They have things like my inbox, my references, or my attachments. Then you have the block of tens or the teen folders. Those are my personal things. Twenties is anything learning or academia. 30 is anything professional. In my project naming for OmniFocus, I'll say "Okay, 35s is my courage employer and therefore all folders numbered 35, whether it be in Obsidian, OmniFocus, my email, literally anything. I know that 35 means where I'm working. Or that 22 is grad school. It's a way of being able to classify things quickly.
Andrew J. Mason: Oh my gosh, I feel like I need a nap and a bowl of cereal after that. That's just the level of abstraction, but I get it now. Okay. It's a lot easier just to say 35 and remember the number 35 and then all of a sudden there's everything from work with 35. That is cool. Thank you for breaking that down for me, it's really mind boggling to think about how you can create this extra abstract or section or layer of information that lives beyond software and in multiple places and then helps you in all of those places.
Leah Ferguson: OmniFocus has folders, you've got projects, but then you've got tags, which are a layer of information above and beyond. You can have in four different projects, you've got a call tag or a person tag or whatever the case may be and that layer of information lives beyond. Same way you've got where I was talking about linking, where you can link to different reference material. There's just so many different ways. If you take the time and create the system and the mindset that works for you, look at your system as a whole and find ways where they interconnect you get the tools working for you.
Andrew J. Mason: That's perfect. Leah, thank you so much for teaching me something new today. If folks are interested in connecting with you and what you're up to, how can they do that?
Leah Ferguson: They can reach out to me on Twitter I am Leah the designer, L E A H the designer, and visit me at my website, leahferguson.com, where I solemnly swear I will one day update my blog.
Andrew J. Mason: That's awesome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Leah Ferguson: Thanks Andrew.
Andrew J. Mason: Hey and thank all of you for listening today too. As always, you can drop us a line at the Omni Show on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you there. You can also find out everything that's happening with the Omni group at omnigroup.com/blog.