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Aug. 7, 2023, 6 a.m.
How Mike Roberts Uses OmniFocus

This time on The Omni Show, we converse with Mike Roberts, co-founder of Symphonia and co-author of Programming AWS Lambda. We chat about his transition from software engineer to consultant, and how this change influenced his adoption of OmniFocus to better manage his work and personal life.

Show Notes:

The discussion explores Mike's journey into productivity tools and his advocacy for a system that helps offload the memory burden, inspired by the principles of Getting Things Done. Mike's approach stresses the importance of a reliable system, be it simple or complex, and highlights how OmniFocus has been instrumental in organizing tasks of every size.

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

- Programming AWS Lambda
- OmniFocus
- Symphonia
- Getting Things Done
- Evernote
- Day One
- Mike Roberts Mastodon


Andrew J. Mason: You are 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 Roberts uses OmniFocus. Welcome everybody to this episode of The Omni Show. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we're hanging out with Mike Roberts. Mike is a Brooklyn based British American software developer, and he's a partner in Symphonia, a consultancy that helps companies of all sizes and industries focus on delivering business value through cloud architecture. Mike has an appreciation for running theater, puns, cats and board games. And he's also the co-author of O'Reilly's programming AWS Lambda. Mike, thank you so much for joining us on The Omni Show today.

Mike Roberts: Thanks, Andrew. Thanks for inviting me. Hello everybody.

Andrew J. Mason: Well, Mike, I'm so grateful you could join us today and I'm really excited to hear a little bit more about who you are, where you find yourself, what you do day to day. Just give us a little bit more context around you.

Mike Roberts: Yeah. So I live in Brooklyn, New York. I have a bit of a strange accent because I grew up in the UK and I moved to New York in 2006, so 17 years ago. So my accent is a little bit, I like to call it somewhere south of Iceland, somewhere between America and the UK. It changes a bit. If I'm talking to my family, suddenly my wife will say I suddenly sound quite British. But when I'm doing work stuff, it sort of veers more to the American side. So I've been here since 2006. I'd had a few jobs in London. I actually had a visa to come and work in Boston in 2003. And then my visa was about to expire, I was like, "Maybe I can just use a little bit more of my visa. Maybe I should just go to New York." So I came to New York, got a new job, and then I met my wife a little while after that. That was that. So I've stayed in New York ever since. So I live in New York, I live in Brooklyn. I've worked in the software development field my entire career. About seven years ago, I actually started my own freelance consulting business with a business partner. There's two of us. So yeah, we've been running our own business now for seven years, mostly doing consulting around software architecture. So helping companies that want to use Amazon Web Services to develop software. We help them in certain aspects of how they do that. So yeah, that's pretty much a little bit of where I live and what I do for work.

Andrew J. Mason: And Mike, since we have you here, do you mind giving us a little bit of a preview into the world of serverless architecture just to level set for folks. Talk to us about your role in Symphonia, when somebody would want to consult with you, and more about just what serverless architecture as a whole might entail.

Mike Roberts: Yeah. So software development and how people run software or at least software systems has changed a lot over the last sort of 10, 15 years or so ago. So it used to be every company had a rack of machines in their office or somewhere in a warehouse. Their custom software would run on those machines that they own. And what's happened over the last 10, 15 years or so is that's not what most companies do. Just like most companies use Gmail or something like that to look after their corporate email, they will run their applications in the cloud as well. So Gmail is in the cloud, they now run their applications in the cloud. And there are many companies that will do this for people. Google is one, Amazon is one, Microsoft is one, and there's a bunch of smaller companies as well. Now when you build software that runs in the cloud, over the last fewer years, five to 10 years, there've been some sort of new techniques and new ways that you can use the fact that the cloud isn't just a rack of computers, it's like 17 million racks of computers. And so the cloud companies have given these sort of new ways of running software. That means that companies don't have to worry about these machine. I'm not running a machine anymore. I'm not even running my own database servers anymore. And a lot of these techniques have become known as serverless techniques because when I'm using them, I'm not thinking about what's actually running behind the scenes in terms of machines. I'm just saying, "Hey, here's what I want to do. Hey, Microsoft, hey Amazon, you figure out how to actually run this workload for me." But it's quite new and quite different in comparison to how people have been writing software for 20 years or so. And so, look, people will pull me in when they're like, "Okay, so we've heard about this thing and we want to start doing it, but it's new. So can you sort of work with us as we sort of go down that journey of trying to write software and run software in this new way?" And so I will normally join a company. It will be not either something very quick, I'll do a quick assessment for them. That sort of is about half the time. The other half the time I'll normally end up working with them for about six to 12 months as they sort of go down that journey.

Andrew J. Mason: Okay. So what I know of web architecture dates way back to the day of you'd get a dedicated server and it's a physical rack server somewhere in another part of the country that's the secured facility. There was a lot of resource management that had to deal with that and you had to really be aware of how many resources your website was planning on using. And now with serverless, we're saying that that box becomes hypothetical and can expand and contract based on the resources needed, and then therefore there's some potential cost savings and maybe some future proofing involved.

Mike Roberts: Yeah. So I guess getting away from the world of software development a little bit, it's like using WordPress instead of running your own Apache server, right? If you were to buy even a virtual machine in the cloud and run that machine in the cloud and run your own WordPress instance on that, then you have to think about, "Well, if I suddenly get a whole bunch of traffic, does that box have enough capacity?" Or, "I have to keep that version of WordPress up to date, otherwise it might get hacked." There's benefits to running your own thing, but there's also all this extra work that goes alongside of it. But on the other hand, you can go to and say, "Hey,, I want a website. I don't want to run WordPress. I just want to host all my content." And at that point, you pay a little bit more in the initial, but you don't have to worry about all the patching or the scaling. If you suddenly get a whole bunch of traffic, WordPress are going to handle that for you. WordPress hosting are going to handle that for you. And so that's really the same kind of idea with serverless computing, is like, I want to run some software, some custom software, but I don't want to have to worry about the machine and the patching and all that stuff. I just want to have some software. So it's basically the same idea.

Andrew J. Mason: Mike, talk to me about your first interaction with Omni Group, Omni software, anything of that nature. Do you have any specific picture that comes to mind when you think about, "Okay, that was when The Omni Group really first showed up on my radar."

Mike Roberts: I have a fuzzy memory of first coming across OmniGraffle probably about 15 years ago. I don't know, some point, way, way back in the past. And I can't remember when that was. I saw it and I was thinking about using it. Everyone was using Vizio at the time. I think I probably looked at OmniGraffle as an alternative, but I didn't need something that hardcore. So that was when I first came across Omni. When I first came across OmniFocus, I very, very much remember. So this was 2014, and I was working with an old friend of mine at a startup in New York. He was the CTO that had about 50 people on the team and he actually resigned and I was installed as a part-time CTO. So I was asking him various pieces of advice about how to run the team and whatever, and one of the things he said was, "Well, the first thing you need to do is you need to get OmniFocus, and that is how you're going to organize everything." I'm like, "I already organized myself pretty well." And he's like, "Nah." And so I was like, "Okay, fine, I'll try this out." And that was 2014 and I've used it every day since.

Andrew J. Mason: That's fabulous. What go-to tips or ideas do you have for somebody that is just getting started? Maybe they're taking on more than they know how to handle. It doesn't necessarily need to be an OmniFocus related thing, it could be just more productivity in general, but what do you say to that person that says, "I need something to kind of keep me going here"?

Mike Roberts: I think always my sort of number one I always recommend to people is you just need to get that stuff out of your head and into a system that you trust, right? And so that's a concept that comes from this idea called Getting Things Done, which was an idea that I came across years and years ago. One of the things is that as human beings we have terrible memories about things that actually matter, or at least I do. And so it's always important to me that if it's something that needs to be done at some point, I personally want some system outside of my brain that's going to help me remember to do it. And that can be as simple as a notepad with a piece of paper or it can be as complicated as a massive piece of software. The first thing I would say to people if they're sort of in that situation of how to organize themselves especially in a management situation, it's like, "Yeah, okay, you need more than your brain. Just figure out a system that you trust as long as you trust it." To me, the most important thing about getting things done or whatever is not following the system, but following the system that works for you, and the best system is the one that you use. That can be as simple as a piece of paper. I remember that when I first started using this stuff and was like people would also try but it was just too onerous and they would give it up. And instead of giving it up, it's more valuable to just trim it down.

Andrew J. Mason: That's incredible. And talk to me about where does OmniFocus fit in your overall software workflow? Is it one link and a really much larger chain? What kind of flows into and out of it? If you would, go ahead and place it in context for us.

Mike Roberts: Yeah, it's interesting. So I guess it, to me, is very much organizing things that I want to do or I want to follow up on. I try as much as possible to use it for everything there. Now there are a few exceptions where if I have an email that I want to reply to, if it's going to be a quick email, I normally just leave that in my inbox. But if it's going to require something that requires a bit more thought or I need to actually get to it and structure it, I might even write a note in OmniFocus to be like, "Reply to that email." Especially if I want to get my inbox really emptied, I might say, "Reply to the email" and then have a copy of the subject line in the OmniFocus note so I can find it in my mail. And the other thing I don't use it for is once something is done, it's done in OmniFocus. I never look at my archive in OmniFocus. So I have a separate tool that I use to remember stuff, like "journaling," which is I use Day One, and I've been using that for a while. And so to me it's very much about organizing both in the immediate but also in the long term. I have stuff in OmniFocus that is two years out. Renewing passport is a to do in my OmniFocus and that's obviously can be years out at time. But it can also be like I get a little thing and I see it on my web browser and I want to read it later and it's going to be later on today, I'll just forward that to my OmniFocus. And so it can be very, very short term or it can be very, very long term.

Andrew J. Mason: Mike, tell us about what role, if any, that automation might play in your system. The idea of templating, the idea of routine scripting, anything that falls into that space of, "I'm repeating thinking, so this sort of repeats for me here."

Mike Roberts: Yeah, it's interesting. Considering how long I've used OmniFocus, I wouldn't consider myself a power user actually. There's still two editions. I only have the base edition. There is still two editions. And I break stuff into projects, but I don't really use anything apart from single item actions. So it's very loosely structured. I don't use templates. Sort of my main thing I do use, it's not just... The three main things I'd probably use are Omni's first party email integration. So I will forward a lot of things from my email to my OmniFocus address so that it comes into my OmniFocus inbox. I use that all the time every day. I use ticklers a lot. So I have a project which is just ticklers, which ticklers is Getting Things Done concept for those that don't know. A task that's repeating and has no particular end date, it's just ongoing. It can be as simple and as banal as I have a tickler for watering my client, but I also have ticklers for billing my client. And I also have ticklers for my... I mentioned passport earlier on, that's a tickler. So I use that. I use a lot of them. And I do use products, but I don't use any automation. I don't use any template.

Andrew J. Mason: Is there anything regarding your system or productivity that you wouldn't do over again that maybe could be instructional for people that are on your same journey? So the idea that maybe it's not a mistake or a regret of any sort, but just this idea that, "I thought this was going to work in a certain way and it didn't turn out the way that I thought" and so therefore if you are thinking about the same thing, maybe just skip that piece of it.

Mike Roberts: I think I never had that experience particularly with Omni. But with Omni, even though I started using it back in 2014, it was probably the third different tool I'd used with Getting Things Done as a bigger umbrella. So I first used Getting Things Done back in 2005, and I don't know how it is if people still use the idea, but if they use those ideas now I tried to go all in at the beginning and then that was like, "No, it was actually most of that stuff I don't need." And so I went back and forth a lot. So I used email was originally my tool, so I had the hugely complicated email setups that people used to have for Getting Things Done back in the day. And then I used Evernote for a while and I tried to get really into using Evernote. And in the end, by the time I got to using OmniFocus, I was pretty slim with how I use the system. So I only use everything in the system. So most important parts to me are I have an inbox and I try and keep that fairly light. I don't say I keep inbox zero, but I try and keep it to lessen a page once it gets to more than a page of items. So if I have to scroll, I start getting itchy and I try to organize my projects. I've always found over the nearly 20 years I've been doing Getting Things Done, there's always been a how do I decide what are the items I need to do next? There's at least three ways you can do that. You can use a priority flag or you can put it in particular project or you can use calendar dates. I'm really bad in terms of getting things done. Things I need to do today, I'll set the due date for today, which is a no-no in getting things done. You're supposed to... I use dates a lot to figure out my most pressing things.

Andrew J. Mason: Mike, what makes you passionate about productivity? A lot of humanity doesn't even use a to-do list or anything that keeps track of what their commitments are. And so it's really fascinating when somebody is passionate about getting as much as possible out of themselves. I love to know what drives that for them. What do you think that is for you?

Mike Roberts: It's weird. I haven't really thought about this for a while. It's been so long since that I've had a system now that it's just part of my daily rhythm. It's as much like you have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I use a system to figure out what I'm doing today. I think when I first started using Omni, and I mentioned that there's definitely points in my life where there's a life change, there's a situation change and there's a lot of stuff that's new. And I think those points in my life are like, "Okay, I need to get my head around that. And if I don't, I'm going to get anxious." And I find it quite calming to know that I don't have to remember everything, especially in times of change. So I think that is sort of one of the things, it's like, "Yeah, when there's a whole bunch of new stuff going on, it's good to have it." But now, I say now I've been using these tools for so long, all these techniques for so long that it would be very weird for me not to. Occasionally, I'll think about people using paper organizers or whatever. "Oh, maybe I should try something else out," and I'm like, "No, this very specific tool has done me well for nearly 10 years. So I don't feel that a compelling need to change it up at this point."

Andrew J. Mason: Mike, I've loved, loved, loved this conversation and getting to hear how you use your OmniFocus system. How can folks stay in touch with you and find out more about what you're up to?

Mike Roberts: Well, it used to be a very easy question. I used to just point me in my Twitter handle. I'm still on Twitter, but I don't really post there anymore. The best way is for my work stuff is on our work website. I have a blog on there,, which sometimes goes months without any updates and sometimes goes hours without any updates. It depends how much client work I have. So that's sort of if people are interested in my work. Where most of my social stuff these days, I'm actually using Mastodon,

Andrew J. Mason: That is awesome, Mike. Thank you so much for hanging out with us today.

Mike Roberts: Thank you. 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