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Feb. 28, 2022, 9 a.m.
How Professor Mark Hutchinson Uses OmniFocus

We’re honored to have Dr. Mark Hutchinson with us today. He’s the Director of the Arc Center for Excellence for Nano-Scale Biophotonics and the current president of Science and Technology Australia.  He also happens to be an avid OmniFocus user!

Show Notes:

In this episode, Dr. Hutchinson and Andrew talk about the latest exciting advances in biophotonics. Mark also shares about how he uses OmniFocus to manage himself and his team.
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 is Andrew J. Mason and today we talk to the Director of the ARC Center of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics in Australia, Professor Mark Hutchinson.

Andrew J. Mason: Hey everybody. Welcome to another episode of The Omni Show. My name's Andrew J. Mason and today we have Mark Hutchinson. He's a professor within the Adelaide Medical School and is the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics in Australia.

Andrew J. Mason: He's also the President of Science and Technology Australia. Mark, thank you so much for being with us today.

Mark Hutchinson: Thank you so much for having me joining you today from Kaurna lands, traditional owners of the land on which I am today here in Australia.

Andrew J. Mason: Beautiful. And well, my goodness, we're looking at your career track and what a whirlwind it's been so far. You've got a degree in '98, another in '99, your doctorate's in medicine in 2004, and it's just the very beginning.

Andrew J. Mason: So, first of all, let's talk about what is the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics? And second, how does somebody end up as the director there?

Mark Hutchinson: Yeah. So, the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics is one of Australia's premiere funding schemes via the Centre of Excellence Scheme. There's over 200 scientists across the country that I'm responsible for, challenging them to do amazing things with their science fundamentally, but then scarily, getting them to actually use their science in the real world.

Mark Hutchinson: And that's not normally the case. Usually we go, let's make a discovery, let's publish it and put it out there for our colleagues to read about it, and it tends to sit on the bookshelf.

Mark Hutchinson: And so the Australian government mandated we do something different. We have to actually use this amazing science to help people, help the taxpayers who are funding it. And so our technology is now out in the real world and using the approach that I call rather than bench to bookshelf, we're taking bench to boardroom science to really translate these technologies out into the real world.

Mark Hutchinson: And our tech is sitting in brain surgery making sure that gliomas can be resected more effectively, literally seeing beyond the end of the suction needle through to the same technology sitting in a good old Australian [inaudible 00:02:19]assessing how good the meats is going at line speed past the sensor to be sold to hopefully some international restaurant plates around the world.

Andrew J. Mason: This is awesome. And I'm just nerdy enough to love talking about it. Just a rabbit hole here for a little while. So I love the brain surgery example. I can almost see it's like road signs warning you of what's ahead.

Andrew J. Mason: What else is latest, greatest and cutting edge that you see on the bleeding edge of future possibility here with this technology?

Mark Hutchinson: Yeah, so the brain surgery angles really fascinating and neurosurgeons need tools to be able to work out where the blood vessels are that perhaps don't show up on the scans. And so this new technology is literally the world's smallest microscope in a needle, that is measuring the blood flow beyond the end of the needle. We have programs in my laboratory for example, where we're objectively measuring the color of pain, which sounds crazy, but we are using multiple shades of lights to literally have a blood test for pain.

Mark Hutchinson: So that a child who doesn't have language yet, an aged person who is perhaps dementing or you and I that are in the hospital unconscious, we could actually one day make a measurement of pain. And that's all using this fascinating interaction of light matter in the biology to make that diagnosis. Very similar technologies we've got for the first time to be able to objectively determine which embryo should be used in IVF for parents to have future humans and giving that embryo the greatest chance of a successful pregnancy. Right through to is this plaque that is within a blood vessel going to lead to a heart attack or not, or is it in fact, in inverted comma a "safe clot" that we don't need to worry about as much.

Mark Hutchinson: And so all of this comes from amazing quantum physicists, engineers, theoreticians having conversations and actually working alongside biomedical clinical scientists like myself to actually do something with that amazing technology. So 200 scientist sitting around a table in Australia, often with a beer, having great conversations is where the great ideas happen. And that's kept me excited for the last eight years.

Andrew J. Mason: It's so funny to me, I think to myself, how does this guy not wake up excited each morning at the spectrum of possibility?

Mark Hutchinson: It's a balance between being super excited and the center actually gave me one year to go [inaudible 00:04:44] from we need the because I am that excitable bouncing around guy. The piece though that comes with that obviously is I have my own laboratory, I'm a father of two children, I have a life partner, Amanda, who's also an academic in clinical psychology. So, we are academic, it's pretty crazy multidimensional life that I'm living.

Andrew J. Mason: So, in this multidimensional life, how does one come across the Omni group? Was it just OmniFocus from the very beginning? Were... Was there other software involved? Talk to me about that.

Mark Hutchinson: So, when I got your amazing invitation to speak on your brilliant show, I actually went back and did the email search to work out, when did I first engage? And I do remember who it was. It was Dr. Jeremy Reynolds, who was a colleague with me at University of Colorado Boulder, where I did my postdoc and Jeremy had been talking about his crazy life that he was leading and this amazing software that, in inverted comma he said, "this is brilliant". I didn't hear that excitement from Jeremy very often. So, I immediately in May 24th 2008, I went and downloaded the 14 day pretrial. But I have to tell you, Andrew, I didn't get it because I was using OmniFocus. And it's like to me, it was driving the car without the instruction manual. I had no GTD around me at all. And so I dumped it straight away.

Mark Hutchinson: It was too complicated. I couldn't get into it. And then in 2009, I had a huge 110 word review paper that I was tasked to write. And of course in the depths of trying to run life, I decided why not reorganize my life and work out how to do all the management. So, I got into GTD. I read the book and it was like, my name was on the page. It was exactly the problem. And then I suddenly realized light bulb moments, that's what OmniFocus is. And so I paired the two of those. And soon after that, I became the evangelist for GTD and OmniFocus, and going back through my emails from 2009, everybody was getting their email. You've got to try this out. You've got to try this book. And since then the iOS apps came out. I've always had it. And I've listened to your show and I've heard about how other people use this.

Mark Hutchinson: I'm all in. There is not an element of my life, which is not quantified, tagged, noted, transferred into Omni. Because for me, I did not realize until I actually transferred my working memory over to OmniFocus. How much of my cognitive task load was actually keeping memory balls in the air. At the end of the day, yes I'm a scientist but at the end of the day, I'm also a creative thinker. And if I don't have that cognitive reserve to be able to undertake that complex thinking I'm stuffed. So I need to be able to have as much of that cognitive reserve as possible. And in all honesty, OmniFocus provides me that in spike.

Andrew J. Mason: Now just a few seconds ago, you used the phrase all in, does all in mean professional or does that mean personal areas of your life as well?

Mark Hutchinson: Everything is in there. So, I have all my council bills, my reminders to pay the rates, the electricity. Whenever I make a purchase that I need for my tax to reclaim the tax back on the email comes in and it immediately goes into the tax component tax flag on Omni.

Mark Hutchinson: At the moment I've got seven PhD graduate students working with me. They each have their own tag and so anything related to them, I'm in there noting them. I'm tasked with before COVID, I was on the road upwards of a hundred to 120 days a year, all flight details, all speaking arrangements were in there.

Mark Hutchinson: So that every single trip had its own little project. I was able to then quickly just double check, where am I going today? Yes, it's in my calendar. Yes, it's in my other trip things, but all those details, all the other emails around that are in there so that I have that reservoir of knowledge.

Andrew J. Mason: Well said, and I want to speak to both sides of our audience. I know that we have a very real segment slice of our audience, that they're power users, they're on board with even the slightest incremental change that really just helps them do that much better. And then I think there's people that maybe they haven't even used OmniFocus before. And they're the thinking it must be great for him, but how does somebody keep all of those lists? That's crazy.

Andrew J. Mason: I've seen both sides. It makes me think of David Allen's quote, where he says, if you think it's difficult, having these lists, try not having them and living the life that you're living. But let's jump into review, capturing is just one slice of that process. What does the review segment review process look like in your system?

Mark Hutchinson: So, for me getting things into Omni is super simple. Most things are going in direct from my inbox, using the Omnis, Inc straight in with the email forward. That's how it works for me. Yes, there are things that as I'm driving home from work, I tell my if person on my iPhone, Hey, remind me to do this please. And boom, it automatically goes in.

Mark Hutchinson: So, I'm always capturing. I admit I am a terrible reviewer. I have not gained the discipline to regularly go through the entire list. Now I'll stand up on the podium and say, I Mark, I am a terrible reviewer. Having said that I'm a terrible reviewer who sits down and looks at everything in one massive slab. I don't do that. But what I do very regularly is I go through defined elements of... For example let me look at my manuscripts that are in preparation.

Mark Hutchinson: Where are we up to? I have plenty of reminders that come in and say, Hey, this is a follow up. Let's do it now. So to me, I don't enjoy at all going from the top to the bottom on that two weekly, one monthly, six monthly review going, oh my goodness, what I said yes to rather what I have is I know on all of my projects, I set up and perhaps it is reviewing and I've just changed the name so it's more comfortable with me. My cognitive dissonance is lowered, but I regularly go through and get reminded, this hasn't moved forward. What are you doing next? What's that next action. Who's holding it up. Am I responsible for this? And I think that's what works for me.

Mark Hutchinson: The one thing I don't like about OmniFocus is the number of button clicks that takes for me to do the review for a specific item. I wish it was just quick, bang. And I know there's a process there. I know I'm supposed to be integrating this and really reflecting, but it's just too much from me, unfortunately, to do it in one sitting.

Andrew J. Mason: No shame there at all, because it makes me think of BJ. Fog's tiny habits book, where he talks about making the habit doable. Floss one tooth instead of the whole mouth if you want to start small. And this idea of having a clean and current review every single week, that's thorough... What some people, and I totally get it... As a parent, sometimes you can only do the low level review here and there as you have time for it. Sometimes I think instead of a whole shower, you can just scrub down an arm for this system. And then that's... Some is better than none and that's a good thing. Let's go back to that person though, that looks at all these lists, or maybe hasn't even opened OmniFocus before, and they take a look at this thing and they say, there're buttons, there's an inspector. What do I do? Where do I go? What advice do you give that person?

Mark Hutchinson: For me the first thing that I tell people that they're amazed by is the ability to take something from the inbox and shoot it straight into the task, into the inbox of Omni for actually prioritizing and placing in and around projects. That if you set the very first thing, set that up, get that ease of a keystroke, Text Expander, simple snippet, whatever it takes, get those things so it's easy to go from E email to Omni.

Mark Hutchinson: The other thing that start allowed me to do, and, and other things that people I speak to enjoy is setting up some of the context around people who are important to them. So that when you are in that meeting with that person, or you are having that coffee with a person, you can quickly just look up and say, I was thinking about this person, what were the things that I wanted to talk to them about?

Mark Hutchinson: And so that's not, last time we talked about X, Y, and Z, have you done this? No, it's rather, I was thinking about you the other day. And there was this really interesting book and I immediately thought of you and here it is, there was this thing you borrowed my ladder, you borrowed my X, Y, and Z. Could I get that back now, please? That also goes in there. So that's another one that I've found is really cool. And, and the final one that I never thought that I would use, I thought it was a bit gimmicky, but actually the location GPS tagging of locations to remind me when I'm in a place. Now, I don't use that for the logical things. In Australia we have this wonderful hardware store called Bunnings which is like your home Depot, but comes with sausages for sale out the front.

Mark Hutchinson: And I love just walking through Bunnings. There's always something around the house or some cool tool. And there's a bit of a fun time to be had there, but I also walk away from Bunnings, never buying this things that I should have bought. So, I have my Bunnings list of, I need this particular screw, or I need this particular paint brush or whatever it is. And then I also have my Costco version of that as well, because that's the shopping list. So those are things that either I'm driving past and ping, it says, Hey, you're nearby here. Do you want to stop? Yeah, I do today because I do know I need that.

Mark Hutchinson: Those are some simple things that make it fun. And I guess for me, I got into early on in 2009, I tried to shine the tool that is Omni too much, rather than using the tool. It's getting that balance between having a nice, shiny new tech piece of an app that looks brilliant and is super tidy versus actually using it in the Australian lingo, using it in anger. Now, Omni, the focus for me is partially polished, but heavily used. And I think that's the best tool to have.

Andrew J. Mason: This question is always fun and I love asking it, is there any role for automation in your system? Some people, they have magically complex scripts that run their lives in, if the script's grind to a halt, then their life falls apart and other people it's as simple as a repeating task or repeating project and it helps them do things and not have to of things twice, any use for automation in your OmniFocus system?

Mark Hutchinson: Yeah. So, for me the automation is not within OmniFocus itself. I use Text Expander a lot and I actually have my Omni automation within Text Expander. So for example, I get asked to do a bunch of manuscript reviews for peer reviewing of science. When that comes in, I accept it online. And then I get the email saying, this is due in 14 days. So, I then click that immediately into OmniFocus. And then I have a Text Expander, which allows me to say today's date it's due in 14 days. And so that sets the due date for me, it immediately classifies the task within my manuscript reviewing projects. And then there's a little note section there as well that I can add as well. And that's all within a Text Expander piece.

Mark Hutchinson: I found that's the easiest way to do it. I honestly haven't delved into and perhaps time anxiety of I don't and how to do this right now to actually automate all of that within Omni. But I look forward to the day when I have a few minutes to sit down and see somebody else's excellent examples of automation to then adopt theirs.

Andrew J. Mason: I'll raise my hand here too. I'm a keyboard, my strip person, I love the idea of learning JavaScript. I'm not a coder, I'm not going to pretend to be, but I love leveraging the intelligence of others for stuff that they've already created. And it's really cool to see what our community's created. As you've learned from other people and seen other workflows in action. Is there anything about your particular OmniFocus setup that you look at this and you say, this is unique to me? I haven't seen this anywhere else. Some people have a particular way of doing work or tagging things or setting up their workflow, and I've never seen this done anywhere else.

Mark Hutchinson: I thought hard about this and I think I'm pretty vanilla. I don't think there's much in here that really others aren't already doing. For me Perhaps I use the tag of the person more. I really like this later version of OmniFocus where you can have multiple tags so that I can then have those multiple previously contexts that really changed it up for me. I use forecast a lot and yes, I'm absolutely guilty for seeing how many things I've said that I'll do today and they get bumped seven days, that's classic. But probably if people looked at Omni they'd say just, how do you... Why have you got so much in here? Why have you got life and work in here? And to me, I treat it as an extension of my hippocampus. So, it's my memory reserve. If Omni went down for me, I would be in deep doo-doo!

Andrew J. Mason: Ditto. There's, this... It works better than your actual long term memory because you can pull up exact day and date of something being created. One last question, didn't have it on the script, but curious about perspectives. Do you have any custom perspectives set up to help you do what you do better?

Mark Hutchinson: Yeah, totally. I do use the perspectives for the different elements of my work. So, when I'm sitting within my lab group meeting, I have all the things relevant for my lab group, the neuropharmacology group, when I'm then sitting with the center of ANCA Bionics, I have a specific perspective just for CNBP activities. In my new role as presidents of science and technology Australia, I now have ATA board perspective just so I can stay focused there because if I just looked at straight up total Omni as a whole, I would be distracted. I'd go, shine, let's go there. And I've not been listening to my colleagues appropriately. So, I absolutely do refine the amount of information that I present to myself intentionally so that I remain focused on the here and now on that particular task. That's gold, I wish I could do more and those perspectives, but what I have right now works, and I really do refine that available information as much as possible.

Andrew J. Mason: Mark we are so grateful to be able to have you as a guest on the show. We just consider it its such a huge honor, especially with how valuable your time is. How can folks connect with you and all the different things that you're up to?

Mark Hutchinson: Yeah, fantastic. So, hang out with me on Twitter, @prof_hutchinson on Twitter, I'm always keen to connect with people around the world. Usually it's talking about pain research or drug development or nanoscale Bionics, but I'd love to do some more discussions about project management, OmniFocus stuff out there. So that's probably the best way. And then if you're interested in what's happening in science and Australia, check out science and technology Australia, the peak science body that represents 90,000 scientists and technologists around Australia in both academia and industry. That's my latest passion in addition to my day job at the university of Adelaide FDA, there's great things coming out of Australia when we take science from the bookshelf to the boardroom.

Andrew J. Mason: Dr. Mark, thank you so much for your time. We... It's been amazing having you and having this conversation.

Mark Hutchinson: Thank you so much, Andrew. It's been pretty.

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 @