Connect with the amazing community surrounding the Omni Group’s award-winning products.

Sept. 11, 2023, 6 a.m.
How Mike Burke Uses Omni Software

Today we chat with Mike Burke. Mike leads a software engineering group focused on customer privacy at Amazon with teams in Austin and Seattle, using all of Omni’s products in the process. He lives in Austin with his family but is originally from Sydney, Australia and has also lived and worked out of Seattle and Dublin, Ireland along the way.

Show Notes:

Whether you're a beginner or a power user, this episode is packed with invaluable tips and tricks. Mike divulges his unique weekly review system, a clever Keyboard Maestro trick for easy note retrieval, and his simplified yet potent use of tags. Don't miss this deep dive into the suite of Omni Software!

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


Andrew J. Mason: You're listening to The Omni Show, where we connect with the amazing community surrounding The Omni Group's award-winning products. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we learn how Mike Burke uses OmniFocus. Well, hello and welcome to another episode of The Omni Show. My name is Andrew J. Mason, and today we have Mike Burke with us. I'm so honored to be able to hang out with Mike. He leads a software engineering group focused on customer privacy at Amazon with teams in Austin and Seattle using all of Omni's products in the process. He lives in Austin, Texas with his family, but he's originally from Sydney, Australia and has also lived and worked out of Seattle and Dublin, Ireland along the way. Mike, thank you so much for hanging out with us today.

Mike Burke: Thank you so much, Andrew. It is indeed an honor to be on this show. Can't tell you how excited it is.

Andrew J. Mason: No, the honor's ours. So excited to hear more about you and what you're up to. If you don't mind, just give us a couple of paragraphs, tell us a little bit more about what you do day to day, who you are, and where you find yourself.

Mike Burke: Yes, my name is Mike Burke. I think I'm the second Mike Burke on The Omni Show, right?

Andrew J. Mason: Actually, yes, this is true.

Mike Burke: You need to find a third somehow. Anyway, I lead a software engineering group here in... I'm based out of Austin. Our teams are in Austin, Seattle, New York. I work for an obscure company called Amazon. Maybe you've heard of it?

Andrew J. Mason: Uh, no.

Mike Burke: Okay. We take care of customer privacy. We build and run a lot of systems and programs that are really there to make sure that we meet our customer's expectations when it comes to how their personal data is looked after. There's a lot to unpack there, which we're not going to have time or the space to get into, but it's a super interesting area to work in. I've been working for Amazon for almost 10 years now. Last five years I've been in Austin. I was in Seattle for five years before then. I used to walk past The Omni Group's office every day. You could probably tell I'm not from the US. I grew up in Sydney, Australia. I moved to the US in 2014. First got started with OmniFocus just before moving continents and it saved my bacon then and it has done so ever since.

Andrew J. Mason: Now, this is interesting to me because you've lived in a couple of different places. When and where did you first come across The Omni Group or Omni Software?

Mike Burke: I went through my email history to try to get my memory in order here. I'm not one of those folks who've used Kinkless GTD back in the olden days. I don't have that street cred. I came to OmniFocus in late 2013. This was in between the time of knowing that me and my family were moving continents and actually doing it and thinking, I don't know if pen and paper and notepad are going to cut the mustard anymore. Got hold of OmniFocus on my own phone, started to use it. And then the other side of that, moved successfully to Seattle and actually got hold of a Mac for the first time for work.

I was allowed to use a Mac, which was super cool. That was a short part to getting OmniFocus on the Mac. Continued to use OmniFocus. And then according to my notes, not until another four years I actually discovered this thing called OmniOutliner and realized that that was a super cool way of keeping all of the notes that I was taking on so many different things in some sort of order.

And then the story does not stop there, because a year later, I found myself needing to do some organizational planning, figuring out how many people to work on different things in the course of the year and figure it out. Maybe I need some sort of project planning tool to the rescue there. I've used that for a couple of years now to do our annual roadmap planning and make sure we do things all the right way there. And then finally, to collect the set, OmniGraph, not until 2020, but I also use that for visualizations and for some stuff I do at home as well. I use it at work to quickly convey things visually. In a time when most of us are on video calls still, it's the closest I can find to having a whiteboard that I can then do a screen share and just throw some stuff together quickly since I've gotten some expertise with it over the last couple of years.

Andrew J. Mason: And speaking of expertise, Mike, talk to me about what advice that you might share with somebody who is just getting started in productivity. Maybe a good way to frame it is they find themselves growing in responsibility, maybe taking on another hat or another role. What do you suggest they do?

Mike Burke: Going back earlier than OmniFocus, this is probably another common theme on The Omni Show, but getting back in the early 2000s. I will admit, and I actually still have a couple of Filofaxes sitting around at home. Every now and then I get a material. I'm sick of screens. Can I just do everything on paper again? And then about a week later, I immediately regret that decision and come running back to OmniFocus because it's just too much.

I would say that's the number one advice before going for tools is think about how you're going to use them and getting things done is just the best way I've ever found to think about how you approach that. And then the simple, simple things that GTD gets you to think about, writing stuff down as soon as it comes into your mind, capturing it somehow, somewhere, and treating your calendar as a hard landscape instead of just a big collection of maybe I'll do this or I've got three things I might do at this time. Just getting rigorous about how you... Effectively, that's like where the rubber hits the road when you manage your time. Unless you're thinking rigorously around your calendar, then everything on that to-do list isn't going to get done because you haven't got the time to do it. And then there's some other things like obviously starting simple, not trying to use the whole tool all at once. Getting tangled in the technology could be really tricky.

Andrew J. Mason: Mike, I don't really have this question on my list there for you, but I am curious, do you have anything that shows up as a regular day? Is there a routine or structure or something that you would consider this is how I traditionally spend my day? I'd love to hear how that plays out for you.

Mike Burke: It's funny, because the busier I feel like I've gotten the work, the more value I've putting into rituals and structure of the date. You get to a point where you can't just rely on instincts and going from room to room or whatever it is. Every day I have time carved out of my calendar for a daily startup ritual. It sounds a bit too official. I call the ritual. There's a perspective and OmniFocus. I go in. Step one, look at what's coming due today. There's a whole list of things I go through.

It's a mechanical thing. My brain is only on the second coffee, so it's not really fully functioning. All right, here is the hit list I need to go through and I'll know that I'm set up for the day, that my calendar is clean. I'll be turning up at the right time with the right information for the right people. And then from there, it's one-on-ones with a lot of folks, team meetings, working on documents and wrangling email and everything, and do a lot of collections through that.

And then at the end of the day, there's a daily shutdown, the other ritual, which is going through everything what just happened, trying to make sense of it all, going through the inbox, trying to get everything cleaned up, aligned into projects, and then setting things up so that you can come in the next day, look at what's in the inbox, but you have that foundation. For me, it's all about peace of mind. I can walk away at the end of the day and just not have to think about work as much.

And that's really the number one thing for me. It's not so much about getting more done, it's about having peace of mind, to be honest.

Andrew J. Mason: That triggers for me this shtick that David Allen used to do where he talks about reducing your life back down to a crank widget job. Very often our first job is one where we don't have a whole lot of managerial capacity. We're just kind of doing the task. But the upside is that when you get to go home, you get to leave your work at work. You have that clarity and that focus that shows up by being able to be fully present at home because your job isn't all that stressful from a standpoint of trying to figure out unclear things that need to be done.

Mike Burke: Yes. It turns out I can do all that faster than I can on pen and paper. For me, that's the ultimate thing. I can be done with this sooner and move on to other things. Yeah, that's great.

Andrew J. Mason: That's it. What about the overall ecosystem of your software? Is there anything that drives data into OmniFocus, or any way that the information in OmniFocus is a link in a much larger chain and the data from OmniFocus goes somewhere else, or you use it or pump it out in some other way? Just talk to me a little bit more about what other software is at play there.

Mike Burke: This is going to sound complicated, but I do try to keep it simple. I've got four virtual desktops. The first one is just email, day-to-day stuff. I have the OmniFocus forecast view there. That's my regular check-in checkpoint. I've got another virtual desktop which is dedicated to meetings. I'll have another little OmniFocus window there, which is my context for whoever it is I'm talking to, like anything I need to talk to them about or check in about. I'll have on the Outliner on the side, which is just my running meeting notes with that person, where I just keep track of all the stuff we talked about and that sort of thing. And then another window for the video chat if it's not an in-person meeting anymore. That's the second window. The third window is where I do my rituals. I'll have a daily startup or the daily shutdown perspective on the first half of the screen, and then I'll have some other perspectives that support that. Things like what am I supposed to do this week, this month?

What's coming due? What am I waiting on? That'll be in a separate window as well. Everywhere I go on my computer OmniFocus is there, which is a nice place to be. There's some other little software. I use Keyboard Maestro for some really dumb simple things like expand the current date or expand the date and the week. I've tried experimenting with stuff like Hook and some other systems out there, but I quickly find myself going down the rabbit hole of wanting to automate.

Because as an ex-software developer, it's a tempting thing and it's fun, but I have to recognize that the payoff probably isn't there for me after a while. Every time something breaks because some brittle dependencies changed, then that's more time I have to spend on it. I try to keep things loosely coupled, if you like. I think that's it at a high level.

Andrew J. Mason: Wow. Mike, I think in all the episodes I've recorded so far, I haven't heard somebody have that particular setup contextually to have the windows kind of pre-grouped. And then you have this contextual computing thing where I'm going to go into a different mode and all my windows are preset in this right direction here. When you say virtual desktops, is that Apple Spaces that you're talking about?

Mike Burke: Yeah, that's it. Super basic. I just slide from one to the other, depending on what mode I want to be in. It's just a way of being able to focus and to have deliberate spaces set aside to know that I'm working on this and not that the number one is I keep an email somewhere else so I can actually get real work done.

Andrew J. Mason: Just for the record, I love your term brittle dependencies. I've never heard that before either. That's a great phrase, brittle dependencies. Mike, what would you say it is that makes you passionate about being productive as possible or productivity in general? When it comes down to, hey, I want to get every bit of performance out of myself that I can to make sure that I have the best day possible, where does that drive for that desire come from for you?

Mike Burke: I don't know if I buy into the productivity thing as a thing, and maybe it's forbidden for me to say that, but for me, OmniFocus GTD, these are all things... There's an Oscar Wilde quote that I think is great, but maybe makes me look lazy, but I'm going to use it anyway. He said, "I believe in the noble aristocratic art of doing absolutely nothing. One day I hope to be in a position where I can do even less." I like that because for me it's not about filling my day with more and more stuff and cranking widgets. It's about creating time and space for me to not do much and to enjoy that, to pursue other things. For me, it's about how can I get as much done in the time that I want to set aside to being productive and how can I give myself, like I said, the peace of mind so that I can switch off as much as possible and spend time thinking about other things. For me, that's the payoff.

There's no doubt that the Omni tools have really helped me be more productive in my work especially and have helped me figure out ways to scale and to take on more responsibility without it turning into more and more hours and that sort of thing. At its core, I think that's what productivity means to me.

Andrew J. Mason: Mike, what would you say is something that you've tried during your journey of productivity so far as you look back, accomplishing everything that you have in your career, in your personal life, that I tried it and I thought it was going to be a successful attempt at something, but when I look back, it maybe didn't bear fruit the way that I thought it would.

The reason for sharing this is just so that other people behind you can learn from what you've done. To call a failure or a mistake, I really think that's a little bit too harsh, but to be able to say this was something that I really felt like was going to move the needle, help move me forward in my productivity journey. When I look back, I'd just say probably skip that for yourself.

Mike Burke: As much as I love all the Omni tools, I'm as guilty of getting tool envy as the next person. Every now and then, like I said, I have tried to go back to pen and paper, just the promise of the ultimate simplicity, but it actually turns out not to be so simple. The meta lesson for me is, A, don't try to oversimplify. There is a limit to doing that, if you're older mindset, if you're trying to simplify things and not add layers. That's a mistake I made. I tried to pare things back too much. Then I realized why these tools are important in the first place, but wasted a bit of time doing that.

And also, don't get envy of other tools. Ultimately, I feel like knowing a set of tools really well and sticking with them and building that muscle memory and that level of comfort with it, I think there's a lot of productivity, if you like, within just having that facility with something as opposed to thinking that if I switched its other tools, then it would make me more productive or more helpful or more whatever. Some other things I guess I've made mistakes with, and I've heard this a few times, but it rings true for me, is setting due dates on everything in OmniFocus and thinking that, well, if I don't put a due date on it, I'm never going to get to it because I only look at things in my forecast view. The problem is as soon as you start missing things with a due date, you start going numb super quickly to what a due date actually means. What I've learned is that due dates shouldn't really matter.

If I don't hit this date, then my boss is going to be cross, or I'm going to let someone down, and then they're going to come up with tagging ways to track things that I really want to get done this week. But if it doesn't, it's okay. This week, next week, this month, next month, and then part of the weekly cycle is to just revisit and retag those things as needed. That's worked better for me. That's something I would recommend. Just don't treat OmniFocus as a note-taking app.

That's something I made a mistake on wanting to use one tool for everything and realizing that just having OmniOutliner off the side and being able to find on the Outliner quickly through say like Alfred or one of these other spotlight type tools gives me everything I need there and it's actually much more usable.

Andrew J. Mason: I don't think I've asked this question before to anybody, but why not start here? I know that our user base is all different levels of expertise. For the more advanced users out there, for people that would maybe consider themselves power users or experts, what is your nerdiest go-to interesting hack tip thing that you've done or tried or way you've set up your system where you're like, this is pretty nerdy? Feel free to get into the weeds.

Mike Burke: One weird hack, I can do that. I'm not using technology in obscure ways I think. Anyway, I was pleased with this. I don't know if everyone else thinks this is obvious, but part of what I do, like I said, I use OmniOutliner to take a lot of notes during meetings and things and keep track of all conversations that I've had. Weekly review is a GTD thing, but it's also just an important thing for me to go back and quickly review all the meeting notes for that week, see if there's anything that's lurking in there that I should have turned into an action, or oh gee, I'm already late for that.

I need to apologize to someone. With pen and paper it's like, all right, well, the diary started here, so I'll just flick through these pages. But when you've got dozens of meetings and you've got files all over the place, being able to quickly just bring up those specific notes that you had during the week, it's actually is not as easy as I thought it would be. What I do is I use a little Keyboard Maestro thing, which is every time I have an entry and an OmniOutliner file for a meeting, I type .dw, which puts in the date and the week number automatically right there. Puts the week number in square brackets.

At the end of the week, all I have to do is use Alfred to search for all the files that contained that week number in square brackets. And then I just have an immediate list of all the notes I've taken that week. I can go quickly, bring them up, glance through them, close them, and I'm done in one minute, two minutes as opposed to spending too much time trolling through them, getting discouraged and giving up and thinking, oh, well, if it's important, they'll yell at me. I was happy with that one. I don't know if that's like a power tip, but it works for me.

Andrew J. Mason: No, it's fantastic. I remember too, we were talking about tags, how you like to use tags. Can you dive into that for a second too? Mike Burke:

Tags are huge. Such a simple feature that was added to OmniFocus, but just incredibly, incredibly helpful. Actually, there's two things. There's how I organize projects and then there's how I use tags. I'll just talk about them both briefly. Projects, I use a classic GTD thing, which is start with the high level areas of focus in your life and then work granularly down from there to figure out what projects make sense under each of those, what things need to be maintained or what things need to be delivered or whatever.

That's my project hierarchy in OmniFocus and that is mirrored in the file system where I keep all my notes and everything. And then I use tags for people, places, and time primarily. I have a tag for each person that I have an ongoing touch point with or I need to remind someone about something. A long list of people there. I've also found it really helpful as someone who manages other managers, if you use the tag hierarchy in OmniFocus because you can put tags within tags, you can put people who report to a manager under that manager in the tag hierarchy.

That means whenever you bring up that manager's tag, you'll see everything for them and anything that might be going on with the people in their team as well. That's been a really helpful thing for me just to be able to bring that together. And then obviously locations. I have one location, which is a geofence kind of thing that it pings whenever you get close, so that's home. As I drive home or get home, it's like, don't forget, you've still got this thing you've got to do. That's helpful.

And then the time-based stuff, which for me is important because I use due dates very sparingly. I have a tag for this week, a tag for next week, a tag for this month, next month, this quarter, next quarter, this year, next year, someday, maybe. Every day I look at not just what's in the forecast view, which tells me what's in a given due date, but I then also look at the this week tag and just looking at the slightly longer term view to make sure that the things that I've got to get done by the end of the week, I've started on them or I'm working on them. And then invariably, you get to the end of the week and you haven't done everything, but that's okay. It's a very quick mechanical part of the weekly review to just grab everything that's tagged with this week, make it next week, and then just iterate through that quickly. Maybe some stuff moves to this month instead of next month or whatever. Been super helpful. The only other tag I have looking at it now is something called Big Rock. I use emojis aggressively when it comes to tag because I like little pictures.

It's got a nice rock on it, but I tag anything I need to get done during a week. At the start of the week, what are the big rocks? If I do nothing else, what are the two or three things that I'll be happy as I get to the week and at least I've achieved something? I make sure I tag those ones. And then I use the same little rock emoji in my calendar so I can place my rocks in my schedule and make sure I've carved out time. There's some joke there about carving rocks. That's how that connects together.

That's the only other way I use tags, but I have been through journeys of using many, many, many tags for many, many reasons, and I've learned to simplify over time just to focus on those core things.

Andrew J. Mason: That's excellent. Thank you Mike, so much for diving into that. Thank you for your time too. I know you are ridiculously busy, and I'm just really grateful that you spent some time hanging out with us just breaking up your system and talking to us about how you use it. It's always really interesting hearing people do cool stuff with the software, so thank you for that. How can folks get in touch with you if they'd like to do that?

Mike Burke: I'm not on Twitter or Facebook or Meta. Sorry. I guess LinkedIn is the only place I have a public presence. If people want to see what I look like or I don't know, they can go to LinkedIn. My name is M-I-C-B-U-R-K-E. I think if you search Google or LinkedIn, Mike Burke Amazon Austin, you'll probably find me. If you heard this and thought it was interesting or silly, I'd love to hear from people. It'd be fun.

Andrew J. Mason: Very cool. Mike, thank you so much for joining us.

Mike Burke: It's been so much fun. Thanks, Andrew.

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