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July 27, 2021, 6 a.m.
How Wilson Ng Uses OmniFocus

In this episode of The Omni Show, Wilson Ng shares about putting OmniFocus to work on the island of Guam -- so he still has time to enjoy the view!

Show Notes:

Wilson uses the power of OmniFocus to manage his many daily tasks related to running his business, helping his family, and maintaining rental properties on the Island.

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

  • Omni Group's Slack Channel
  • Omni Group's Discourse Forum
  • Guam
  • OmniFocus
  • OmniOutliner
  • Stephen Covey
  • GTD
  • The Checklist Manifesto
  • Zenhabits
  • Learn OmniFocus
  • MacSparky's OF Video Field Guide
  • Creating Flow with OmniFocus
  • OmniFocus Plugins
  • Effective Remote Work
  • Transcript:

    Andrew J. Mason: You're listening to The Omni Show. Get to know the people and stories behind The Omni Group's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. My name's Andrew J. Mason. And today we talked to Wilson Ng on how he uses OmniFocus. Well, welcome everybody to another episode of The Omni Show. Now I first met Wilson Ng on the Omni discourse forums, the Slack channels, and basically all over online, helping folks out with their OmniFocus setup. And have since found out that he runs a gift shop with his family in beautiful Guam, as well as owning some rental property there. And he uses OmniFocus to manage it all. Wilson, thank you so much for joining us today.

    Wilson Ng: All right. Glad to be here.

    Andrew J. Mason: Talk to us a little bit about how you got started finding out about OmniFocus and just a little bit about where you find yourself in life?

    Wilson Ng: So I'm from the island of Guam. We're the Eastern most United States territory, and it's the first US territory to celebrate new year's day every year. So our motto here on Guam is where America days begins. My OmniFocus journey started when I was at the local university going to classes. My boss had projects and I just tried to fulfill my duties. That's all I had to do. I didn't need any task manager at all. So I just did what I did. And I didn't have to worry about anything, but after graduating from college, I just floated for a while. And I had a job doing computer work at the local university and every once in a while, I help out with the family business, which is a retail gift shop here. I still didn't have any managerial duties, but I was okay with that. But then things got changed up in a hurry.

    Wilson Ng: So in 1998, my sister and I took over the family business and that brought a whole new set of challenges with the work duties to track and complete. That's when I started using any kind of list manager. Eventually in, I think it was 2008, that's when I discovered OmniOutliner. And that was just good enough to use to keep track of all my work. Then suddenly I got married, had two beautiful kids and family comes with its own commitments. And so I didn't know the honeydew list was a real thing. We also had commitments from our kids that became our commitments, things like soccer practice, taking them to band practice, taking them to all sorts of after-school activities, brought its whole world of commitments and promises that I had to keep as well. And so suddenly adulting became a thing for me. I had no clue what I was doing.

    Wilson Ng: There was just so many responsibilities and duties that were just thrust upon me that I knew had to grow up fast. So in 2010, I finally read David Allen's Getting Things Done book. Then I started looking for a GTD app on the Mac and there were slim pickings at that time and about, I think it was 2010, but out of the lot, I think OmniFocus looked like you had the most active user forums and it had a software company they didn't look like they were going to fold anytime soon. So from time to time, I'd look at all my other shiny apps that came out around that time. But I could usually find a way to emulate most of what those task managers did in OmniFocus. So I didn't have to stray anywhere. Nowadays I've used, OmniFocus mostly for my iPad. I'm not on my Mac a lot because I'm out all the time.

    Wilson Ng: So I carry my iPad and I use my iPhone mostly for capturing things on the go with Siri, dictation, going straight to OmniFocus. I used to use the Mac when I was doing heavy duty project curation and planning. But now that I've had my chance to get into the OmniFocus for test flight, I'm experimenting more with going with iPad and iPhone only. So far it looks like, I think I can do almost everything I can do on my Mac. Now I can do it on my iPad. So I've enjoyed that a lot.

    Andrew J. Mason: Wow. All right. So let's break that down. Father, husband, business owner, lot of moving plates around here. Can you walk us through some of the specifics of your day to day workflow using OmniFocus?

    Wilson Ng: Actually I've seen my work breakdown quite easily, but this took years to discover. I have the idea of, I believe it was Stephen Covey that popularized it. I don't think he necessarily started it, about the idea of big rocks and little rocks. Imagine your life like an empty jar. And if you filled it up with the little rocks, all the small menial tasks that pop up throughout the day, you're not going to get your big rocks done. And the big rocks are your fantastic goals, and dreams, and ambitions that we all want to achieve. But sometimes we don't make time for that. So I'm trying to find a balance between working on my big rocks and my little rocks at the same time. And when I talk about little rocks, I mean, all the admin work that comes around in life, balancing the checkbook, paying the tuition for the kids, running around, making sure my kids got their soccer shoes and violin instruments at the ready when I need to.

    Wilson Ng: And then there's always also those one-off tasks that pop up every day. Maybe it's a customer request to fix something. One of my tenants at one of my duplex units suddenly sprung a leak and I got run off to fix that. So these little rocks are nothing more than small little pebbles in my shoe. I got to get it out of my shoe, but I got too much things to do, but I got to do them anyways. If I can get those rocks out of my shoes, then I can take time to work on the big stuff. I actually like to work on the big rocks, as well as the small rocks in between. I'm basically a planner. I don't like flying by the seat of my pants and just go with the flow. I do have to make room every day for all those spontaneous tasks that fill up the day, but strategically, place some of the big rocks in small pockets of time that I can make for.

    Wilson Ng: But when we talk about routines, we're all creatures of habit and habits provide structure for our lives. So when I look at a productivity system, like GTD, I found that it's mostly about getting to the habit of doing things, habits like capturing items into OmniFocus, like organizing my inbox into projects or single action lists, and then reviewing them on a consistent basis. And knowing when to put things inside OmniFocus and working on them when I need to. So planning provides a safe structure in the middle of a storm. I can plan every week and every day. And one of the best ways I've seen, or I've tried out is to use checklists. This is a concept that I stole from a book called The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. And he was basically a surgeon and he noticed that every time before he did a operation, he always went through a checklist just to make sure he got everything done in the correct way and the correct method consistently every time.

    Wilson Ng: And I've seen that with my life in OmniFocus. I have to go through a checklist for either my daily planning, my weekly planning, or monthly planning, because there's just so much to get into. There's so many steps that I don't want to miss. But I know if I just kind of breeze through it from memory, I'm probably going to miss something. And so I try to use and instill habits. And habits is something I learned from a blogger called Leo Babauta from

    Wilson Ng: And so in his concept of GTD, he calls it Zen to Done or ZTD. And his idea is that he grabs 10 habits that he wants to pick up on. And he works on them one at a time. So as he works on the first habit, like, say for example, learning how to capture, he just gets that muscle memory going until he successfully adopted it. And then he finally goes onto the next habit. And so basically it becomes like muscle memory. But when we start off with GTD, we have so many moving parts, so many things to worry about, capturing, organizing, clarifying your projects and tasks, and even reviewing. If we miss one of those steps, our whole system falls down. And so I like to use the checklist to keep my systems and routines going.

    Andrew J. Mason: Now in the forums, I remember you using a metaphor with OmniFocus, something to do with food. Do you remember that? And would you break it down for us?

    Wilson Ng: Sure. I like to see OmniFocus as my menu. When you go to a restaurant, there are 30 items on the menu to choose from. I only have room for two choice meal. So maybe one day I'll get the honey Walnut shrimp and the Kung Pao chicken today. Tomorrow, I want to focus on barbecue pork and stir fried shrimp. And the same with OmniFocus. I have so many projects and tasks to work on that I just can't get to them all. So I put everything on hold and then I just pick and choose from the menu in OmniFocus. I pick one big rock to work on tomorrow, as well as anywhere from three to five tasks that I want to work on for tomorrow. And that becomes my menu. So when tomorrow comes, I already have my set of list to do, or, I mean, I already have my set of tasks to work on and not have to do any executive decision-making.

    Wilson Ng: If I could take the decision-making out of the way tomorrow by planning today, then I can just hit the ground running tomorrow. I don't have to worry about anything. Because if tomorrow comes and I finish up one task, I might be a little tired and a little foggy headed, and I don't want to make another decision. I just want to look at my list inside OmniFocus and go straight to the next task. Otherwise, I'd probably be chasing an easy task to work on instead of the pre-chosen five most important things or MITs I want to work on.

    Andrew J. Mason: Okay. So outside of making me hungry for some Chinese food now, do you have any rhythm of reviewing in your system? How do you keep on top of that repeating stuff?

    Wilson Ng: Yeah, I do lots of reviewing. It depends on what level or horizon of focus that I want to work on tomorrow or the next day. On a monthly basis, I review all my projects. I want to see what I need to put on hold and what I want to make active for the next month. So I choose like one to two big rock projects that I'd like to make progress in, in the next month. And the next week, I like to do what we call the weekly planning. And that's where I just look over the whole week, next week. In the next seven days, I'll just see all my appointments. Those are my big rocks that I've already placed. Those are non-negotiable events that have to happen like doctor's appointments, kids' practices here and there, maybe something my wife asked me to do on a Wednesday. I can't move those.

    Wilson Ng: But then when I go back to OmniFocus, I can choose the two or three most important tasks and sprinkle them throughout the week. Then maybe one to two big rocks that I can spend focused quality time on. But at the end of the day, I do my daily review. So my daily review is where I do most of my planning for the next day. Reality moves fast and OmniFocus can get outdated real quickly. And when OmniFocus doesn't match reality, I lose trust in it. So OmniFocus doesn't automatically update itself. And during those reviews, at the end of the day, I can catch up on what's changed, what happened today that could probably affect tomorrow or even next week. And so during the daily review, I like to go through a whole series of checklists that can get involving, but I have a piece of paper or an OmniOutliner outline and I go through my daily review so I make sure I don't skip anything. It can get pretty involving. It's kind of like I do the daily checklist every day. But I always have to have my checklist in front of me.

    Wilson Ng: So I make sure like a surgeon, I'm not missing anything. So like for example, here's my daily review at the end of the day. I clear out any items in my inbox. Then I review my projects and the review perspective to update them. I can either delegate, delete, or defer my projects as needed. Then I go to visit my completed perspective to see if I need to create any followup tasks. After that, I have to go check out the agenda perspective to see if there are any talking points I need to bring up tomorrow with other people that I'm going to meet in the next few days. I check the forecast perspective to see if I have any meetings and you need to create new task to handle them.

    Wilson Ng: Then I go to my perspective, showing all my available tasks. I like to assign the forecast tag to any non do task. So I'll show up in the forecast perspective tomorrow. And when that's all done, I just marvel at myself because that's just a lot to remember. But there's so many perspectives to visit that I need to remember, I got to follow 1, 2, 3, 4 in my perspective. When I go into OmniFocus, I hit each perspective one at a time until I get to the end so that I can prepare and plan for tomorrow. But checklists are actually another form of automation that takes my monkey brain out of the equation. I can just go through the checklist and focus on decision-making instead of wondering what's the next step. Follow the checklist, even though it sounds complicated, but it becomes easier over time and things flow much smoother in the end.

    Andrew J. Mason: Wilson, what advice might you have for somebody that's just getting started in this level of project management? The tasks in my life are just starting to overwhelm and it's kind of swirled around in my head. I'm not sure what to do next. What would you recommend?

    Wilson Ng: I would start with a checklist. Checklists makes life easy. It's like when I check in my car into the auto shop, I guess every 5,000 mile maintenance, I see the car technician looking around at my car and he's just checking off lists. And he's just looking at my car, seeing, okay, lights are here, no scratches there, air tire pressure's good here. He's just walking through a list without thinking. So I always believe in the idea of creating a workflow first before trying to tackle a GTD app.

    Andrew J. Mason: That's perfect. And what about OmniFocus specifically? Somebody's looking at that, can you put on that mindset of a beginner and think about, gosh, here's this app, where do I begin here?

    Wilson Ng: Well, some people confuse OmniFocus as a complicated app, but it can actually scale up and down with you. You can turn it into a simple checklist or you can turn it into a multilevel project manager if you want it to. But I always say you don't always have to use every feature in OmniFocus. Just take the bits that you want to use and maybe when you go to the discourse forums or the Slack channel, you see someone else come up with a brilliant idea and a little simple workflow that you can test out and try and add to your workflow. So try little bits and pieces at a time. See if it works. Put it away if it doesn't work or you might need it in the future. I love the idea of going to the various OmniFocus resources, such as a Tim Stringer's Learn OmniFocus.

    Wilson Ng: Maybe there's MacSparky's video field guide, or even some of the other resources like Kourosh Dini's, Creating Flow with OmniFocus. Learn from others. So that way you don't have to build it yourself. Chances are probably somebody already built it. And you just look at their example and try to see what you can take in. I love the idea of the Omni JS plugins that we have for OmniFocus. I don't have to build anything. I can just peek into the OmniFocus plugin collection and see if there's a plugin that somebody already made and I don't have to build it by hand. So when you have this community of people helping each other out, that's something I don't see in almost any other Mac task manager out there right now.

    Andrew J. Mason: And what about that person that's just overwhelmed? I'm starting out, but I don't even know where to begin. The metaphor, the jar of salsa has fallen from the kitchen counter onto the floor. There's shards of glass and salsa everywhere on the floor. Where do I start cleaning this mess up?

    Wilson Ng: The chances are that a beginner that's coming into OmniFocus for the first time, they already have too much to do so they're trying to find that tool that's going to help them manage all their stuff. What I always think about starting small. For me, when I started off, I used OmniFocus as my honeydew list. I had to remember everything my wife asked me to do because I'm a forgetful guy. I'm not going to be that reliant. So what I did was I started capturing all my honeydew list for my wife into OmniFocus, and I would check it every now and then and check off any tasks that I worked on, or I promise to my wife. As I got more comfortable using OmniFocus with just a small slice of my life, I started expanding that out further.

    Wilson Ng: After my honeydew list, I started taking on my kids' commitments and I put that into OmniFocus and I would get more comfortable. As time goes on, I can slowly start to cover more areas of my life, more areas of responsibilities. Pretty soon I had things for my duplex units that we're renting out. Then later I added projects from the shop. And so slowly over time, you can see your life getting covered by OmniFocus, but I would suggest starting off with one area of responsibility first, before trying to throw everything in the kitchen sink into OmniFocus.

    Andrew J. Mason: We're so grateful for your involvement in the community and just all the people that you've helped out. Are there any pitfalls that you see that are common? That man, if I could just help people avoid this behavior, I feel like they'd be so much better off.

    Wilson Ng: Sometimes I see a lot of people trying to switch apps every now and then, because they're trying to find that perfect app that's going to magically make things easier, but I've found that checklists make it all easier. It's not necessarily the app that you're trying to fix. Maybe it's the workflow you want to get right. Or fine tune it every now and then. It's not necessarily the app that should solve your problems. Although it's just a tool, it's your workflow that matters. You can take any workflow, but if it's a broken workflow, it doesn't matter which app you try. It's all going to be broken because you're not doing the consistent things like capturing, reviewing, clarifying, and organizing your tasks. So if you can get those habits down, GTD is nothing more than a series of habits that you have to attain over time. So I figured if I can get my habits and my routines down, then everything else will go easier.

    Andrew J. Mason: That's perfect. Wilson, thank you so much for spending some time with us today. Hey, folks are interested in connecting with you or getting up with you about anything. How would you like them to do that?

    Wilson Ng: Well, I could be mostly found online at And that's the discourse site that Justin Deero's set up. It's a community with an emphasis on remote work. And when remote work seriously became a thing in 2020, we usually discuss issues about becoming an effective remote worker and bringing balance to our lives. Oftentimes you can find me on the OmniFocus discourse and the Slack channel chit chatting and learning from each other. And I always loved the idea of sharing with others. That we're all on this journey and we're all on this road. Some of us are a little further ahead than the rest of us, but if the ones ahead of us can bring us forward, then maybe I can pull someone from behind me up to my pace. And we talk about giving and sharing with the world. Give to the world and the world gives back to you. So you can find me there.

    Andrew J. Mason: Wilson, that's awesome. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today.

    Wilson Ng: No. Well, thanks for inviting this little space cadet on this journey on OmniFocus and we hope to see more of you all in the test flight as it starts coming out to everyone.

    Andrew J. Mason: Yeah, I got in myself not too long ago and pretty excited about what I'm seeing. Thanks so much Wilson. And thank all of you for listening today. Hey, we're curious, are you enjoying the shows? Are you enjoying learning how people are getting things done utilizing Omni software and products? Drop us a line @theomnishow on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you there. You can also find out everything that's happening with The Omni Group at