In this eye-opening episode of "The Omni Show,” we sit down with Zen, a multifaceted Pixel Artist and Designer from the gaming industry. Diving deep into Zen's fascinating journey, we explore OmniFocus and the art of digital productivity. Whether it's automating thousands of algorithmic art pieces or juggling numerous ambitious projects, Zen offers invaluable insights on staying organized in a chaotic world.
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 Zen uses OmniFocus. Welcome to another episode of the Omni Show. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we have Zen. He is a full-time artist. His bio says he creates pixels, games, UX, and UI. Some of his more well-known NFT art is Glyphscapes, Zen0verse, and Monster and Friends. He creates NFT art and also happens to use OmniFocus to get stuff done. Zen, thank you so much for hanging out with us.
Zen: Thanks for having me. I'm really excited to chat to you. I'm definitely a big productivity nerd, so when your email landed in my inbox, it was right up my alley. So thanks again for having me.
Andrew J. Mason: Nah, the honor's ours. I was so excited when I was searching online and got your mention of how much you enjoyed using OmniFocus and got to hear some of your audio space talking about NFT work and all the different art that you're able to create. It sounds like such an interesting career.
I believe our audience spans all the way from self-proclaimed beginners to of course. NFT. I mean, we all know what that is. Do you mind level setting just a few paragraphs around what crypto art is, and where you find yourself in that space?
Zen: Yeah, of course. I guess one thing just to get out the way right at the beginning is I know a lot of people have quite a negative connotation of that, and maybe chatting a little bit about it today will help give people a slightly broader view. But yeah, we'll see. So from my perspective, I have always been a very computer curious person. The very early days of the internet and everything, I was all about trying whatever was new. I kind of learned about crypto art in 2021, kind of like mid 2021. I just really loved the aesthetic of what I was seeing and I was very fascinated by the technology behind it as well. That was kind of what got me all wrapped up into it. I think one important distinction to make is a lot of people might be imagining monkey pictures, like very expensive monkey pictures when I say that. But there's actually a bit more of an indie art scene behind all of that that I don't think you always see on the forefront, and quite almost like a punk and underground aspect to it as well that's been going on for much, much longer than you might anticipate a few years ago. It didn't all start in 2021. I think that's just more when it hit the mainstream of artists experimenting with putting artwork on the blockchain, selling their artwork, making a living from their artwork, and overall just this very experimental vibe. I kind of slot into that a little bit later on, like I said, sort of late 2021. I released some of my first artwork and minted some of my pixel artwork as NFTs and distributed it to a bunch of collectors for free. People were collecting them having a lot of fun. A good comparison I guess I would make is to Pokemon cards, something I was really big on as a kid, opening up a pack and seeing what you get, trading them with your friends. That was the vibe that I really got from it and I really enjoyed about it. People enjoyed this free drop that I did. They wanted more and that was kind of it. The rest is like I just didn't stop since then. I got all these ideas of how I wanted to use programming and algorithms and stuff to generate artwork from my pixel art, drop it to lots of people, and eventually began making a living from it and kind of built a solid audience of supporters that follow what I do, love the Pixel art that I create, and want to collect more of it, and just for the pure enjoyment of collecting the artwork as well. That's a very important thing for me. There's always an element of speculation, but it's a little bit less on that side.
Hopefully I did a decent job of explaining that to people that might not have heard of this kind of thing. But I guess the way I would sum it up is a lot of artists make a living from selling a painting; but when you create digital artwork, there isn't really equivalent to that. You can't sell a physical piece of digital art so easily as an original painting. Whereas if you mint it as an NFT, the NFT is kind of like the original painting and somebody can collect that, have a authentic record of it that isn't reliant on one centralized place, that will last for as long as the blockchain that it's on lasts. That's a very, very cool concept for me, bringing traditional art collection into the digital age.
Andrew J. Mason: I so appreciate you schooling me, because honestly, this isn't an area that I have any expertise in whatsoever. And so getting to hear that laid out in such an accessible way is really interesting. I also find it interesting that it's not as much about the blockchain crypto slice of it as much as it is there is always this community of artists, and this just happens to be the vehicle through which they found their expression. It's just seeming to be a community forming around this space. I make the mistake of focusing solely on the technology and not the actual thing that's happening through that technology as a vehicle.
Zen: Exactly, exactly. And we don't all know where it's going to go. Maybe this won't last forever. Maybe after a while we'll realize, "Oh, maybe there isn't so much here." But it's been going for a few years already and it's just fun to have people experimenting and trying to see what's next, what else can we use this for? But ultimately at the end of the day, I just found a really, really cool community there of people that, like I said, want to support me as an artist, are excited about what I'm making, and that's really I think what made me stick around.
Andrew J. Mason: Anytime you get a community of people surrounding something that becomes more of a movement than the actual thing itself, it's so interesting to see where that leads. Talk to me about any memories you have of the Omni Group or OmniFocus specifically. Do you have any recollection or first bits of, "I remember them as a company," or, "That was the first time that I opened and it seemed to click for me there."
Zen: Probably a lot longer ago than I would've initially thought. When I actually saw this question in your notes and thought a little bit more about it, I realized, you know what? I think I used OmniGraffle when I was a kid. I'm about 30 now and I was about 10, 11 maybe when I started playing around with digital creative programs and software like Photoshop and things like that. I don't condone this, but I would just get whatever kind of copy I could find of a piece of software. At that age, I wasn't earning a huge amount of pocket money to buy a copy of Photoshop. I would play around and try and learn them. I think that my dad actually introduced me to OmniGraffle and I remember having a play around with that. I didn't stick to it for a particularly long time or anything, but that must be my first introduction to the company software as a whole.
Later on when I got my first internship in the games industry, which is where the main background of my career is, I actually found that the company I was working for used OmniGraffle to create user flows for video game interfaces, which is what I design. So that was kind of like it coming back again and I was like, "Hey, I know this program." Actually, OmniGraffle was my first introduction. It wasn't til much later that I eventually dove into using OmniFocus, which is what I use day-to-day.
Andrew J. Mason: Thank you for bringing this back there. That's really cool. I was just talking to somebody for a different episode earlier and they said, "My first interaction with OmniGraffle was it shipped with our computer. And I'm just like, 'What is this?' And getting to mess around with that and think like, 'Gosh, diagramming software, this is cool.'"
Zen: Yeah, it goes far back, right?
Andrew J. Mason: It does. There's some history there. Talk to me about OmniFocus. What sorts of tasks do you use it for? What areas of life, slices of your work? Fill us in on what you use OmniFocus for primarily?
Zen: I would say that I use it for kind of everything. Definitely more heavily on the work side, like the professional art projects, design projects and things. But my regular kind of personal life slots into a little corner of it as well. So basically anything that I need to do each day goes into that. Before I started using OmniFocus, I used a lot of other productivity software as well. They were all great in their own ways. Just prior to OmniFocus, I was using one called Tweak that's kind of like a very, very, very basic Kanban board style of productivity management. But I'd hit a point where I had quite a lot of freelance projects on the go. I had my personal artwork in NFTs on the go. I wanted to develop my own independent video game. I wanted to start broadening my social channels. All of these things that I had in my head that I wanted to manage and plan and make sure I actually hit all of the goals that I was setting for myself. And I thought, "I'm going to need the big guns for this" basically.
So I did a bit of research. Like I said, I'd known about OmniFocus before so I went back to that, compared a few other things and thought, "I'm going to give this a go. Might be a bit more complex than what I need, but let's see." And obviously it did work out because I'm still using it. So yeah, I would say it fits pretty broadly across everything that I do, but mainly I'm using it to manage each different project that I have as a part of my personal and my professional life.
If I have one client, they have their own project in OmniFocus. My personal artwork, and each of the projects within that have their own projects in OmniFocus. And then I drill down and manage them more granularly, however necessary.
Andrew J. Mason: It's really cool to get to hear how all encompassing that really is for you. Really interesting stuff. I'd love to hear too about what other programs are you using? It doesn't necessarily have to be importing or exporting data from OmniFocus, but what other software do you use to make things happen within the course of your day or what you're doing?
Zen: Yeah, absolutely. I think that OmniFocus probably sits in the center of them, and my Swiss Army knife of software is probably Figma and FigJam; Fantastical, the calendar app; and then Obsidian for note taking; and then obviously OmniFocus alongside those. A couple of those, they don't integrate. Like you say, there's no input or output of data between them. But I'll use FigJam for larger, more visual planning, like brainstorming, quite high level planning. Figma I obviously use for actual design work and stuff. Fantastical probably the one that integrates most directly with OmniFocus because I have calendar events in there which are then pulled into OmniFocus and will display on my forecast and everything so I can see, "Okay, I've got five tasks today, but I've got a meeting at 9:00 and I need to go to the doctor's at 1:00," or whatever it is, and kind of helps me plan those tasks around it. I have recurring events as well that also get pulled into OmniFocus.
And then Obsidian for note taking. Like I said, that kind of just exists in its own little thing. There isn't really any integration between them, but it's definitely part of the larger whole. So that's probably my main ones. Notion as well, I'm sure most people have heard of. I use that for normally writing longer form content and things. I don't use it so much for planning. I know a lot of people do, but for me it's more like if I'm going to write an article or a long Twitter thread or something, I might write it in Notion. So yeah, that's kind of my toolbox.
Andrew J. Mason: What a great group. This next question isn't even in my list, but it feels like the right question for right now, so I apologize if there's not a great answer for it. We can skip and move on. What is the weirdest thing that you've ever had to keep track of or use OmniFocus for? I don't know why, but it just feels like a great question to ask.
Zen: Well, I don't know if this is weird enough, but I did start experimenting with putting more of my morning routine into it, which I actually did in Fantastical, but it pulls through to OmniFocus. I made recurring events for just a block that is my morning routine. So it would be like 7:00 AM to 8:00 AM is morning routine, and then 12:00 til 1:00 is lunch, and then 9:00 til 10:00 PM is the evening routine. And then there's things like go for a run, go to the gym, walk the dog, everything. I try to do this as a way of not overcomplicating, but on quite a basic level, logging my days so that when I go into OmniFocus and think, "What have I got this week? Where are these tasks going to fit? When am I going to do them?" I try and place them in between those preset blocks. So okay, this task is going to go between the morning routine and lunch. This one's going to go between lunch and the evening routine.
So I don't know, that's not super strange, but it's probably not how most people use their to-do lists, I guess, because you get up and have a coffee, you don't really need to-
Andrew J. Mason: Oh, let's check that off.
Zen: ... write that down. But the reason I did it was actually so I could plan my days in more of a healthy way. Whereas before the NFT space, I'll say in moves very, very, very fast. You are always working. It's very easy to fall into unhealthy patterns of working too much, burning out. That was becoming quite a problem for me. So I thought, "If I give myself these blocks and those are my safe blocks, I don't put tasks into those blocks, maybe it will help me build a slightly more balanced routine." So that was kind of why I did that.
I'm still sticking to it. Most of the time I burn right through the lunch and completely ignore that. And sometimes I do work a little bit too far into that sacred evening routine, but it's definitely helped me to be more mindful of it. Maybe that's not the strangest answer you were hoping for, but it's what comes to mind.
Andrew J. Mason: No, excellent answer. I apologize for the conversation going off the rails from what I had sent you as a structure, but I still feel like it's a great conversation. You mentioned how OmniFocus was able to help you handle kind of the expanding world that you have of NFTs, your day job, personal stuff. What do you do when you're in that kind of creative visionary space and you've made a list where you see everything in front of you for the world that's expanding in front of you and say, "I can't really do everything here in a lifetime." How do you handle that tension and decide, "Okay, this is really what I want to do next"?
Zen: I would say I'm definitely very prone to that, overloading what I want to do and the tasks I give myself. I think when I realize I'm at that point, there's kind of two sides of it. One side of me goes into crunch mode and just does my best to make it happen, push through it. Basically cope with the fact that this is a little bit too much. I need to get this done and then learn from it and not do this again. The other half of me may be slightly more sensible, half of me will start to try and get a little bit ruthless and cut some things; be like, "I can't have both of these; one of them's got to go." So I wanted to start a YouTube channel; that's going to have to happen later. I need to focus on this thing.
And just actually to loop it into OmniFocus, one thing that I quite like to do in that situation is change the project status to paused rather than ongoing. That kind of gives me this mental wellbeing of it's there. I'm not going to forget about it. I've written it down, I've got some level of commitment to it, but I can relax knowing that that is in pause mode right now and I'll come back to it later. And if I get really ruthless and I cut it completely, then I can change it to the dropped status, I think it is. Like, that one's gone. I'm going to cut that loose and let it float away. So partly it's just like I go into overdrive mode if I really, really want to make these happen. Or if I've somehow ended up obligated to make them happen, for example, maybe I've taken on too many jobs, too many freelance jobs, I'll just push through, get it done. When it's the more personal creative stuff, like, "I would like to do this. Maybe someday I would like to do this," then I just try and reassess the timeline and think, "Okay, maybe I can't do it now, but I'm going to give myself maybe a really high level due date that in October I'm going to make the first step towards this."
Using some kind of productivity system, whether it's OmniFocus or otherwise, I think is really helpful with that, because you don't deal with this brain soup of all these ideas floating around. You've put them into little bowls, and one of them is the future bowl and one of them is the today bowl. You can forget about them and relax knowing that they've been somewhat taken care of.
Andrew J. Mason: I will absolutely be stealing that phrase brain soup. That is awesome. I honestly think it's really interesting that you've laid it out so logically and methodically. For me it's a tiny bit more emotional process than that; there involves some freaking out. But being able to see it laid down that way is really encouraging to me.
Zen: Yeah. At first I was actually thinking, "Not so much." But once you explained the question a little bit more, actually I realized probably I do use more automation than I thought, that I would initially think.
One thing is I think personally it can be quite easy to over-engineer automation and try and use it too much, and I think possibly to detriment of productivity in my personal case. But I definitely use it here and there, and it's definitely saved me a lot of time. I mean, the obvious one, like you said, is those recurring calendar events that always pop up on my calendar and get fed into OmniFocus. That's probably the most simple use of automation in my workflow.
Other than that, it's more of a as and when I will leverage what I can to get something done. So in Photoshop, I'll do that quite a lot. I'll make actions for mundane tasks. One that I was doing recently is I had a few hundred pixel art assets and they were created at the original pixel art size was 24 pixels, which is obviously very small. To share it online, I needed to upscale that to 768 pixels. So I made a little action that I could just batch drop a folder into it and export all of those. So little things like that I use quite a lot.
Like I said, we're talking about quite a lot of images. If I had had to arrange them all and name them all manually, I would still be working on it today. Luckily I finished it. The way I did it was I used Hazel. Not sure if you're familiar with that; probably productivity nerds on Mac definitely will be. Hazel is for automatically cleaning up files and folders on your desktop and things. And then I used an app called A Better Finder Rename, which is a power tool for batch renaming files in Finder, the file Explorer on Mac. And I used a conjunction of those two so that whenever I exported my spreadsheet from Photoshop, which I had done with slices, don't know if any web designers from batch in the day remember slices. I don't think we really used them anymore.
Andrew J. Mason: Just to pause for a second, believe it or not, I actually know what you're talking about because I used to open up the spreadsheets in Duke Nukem 3D back in the day. I enjoyed level modding and that is really cool.
Andrew J. Mason: Please continue. I'm so sorry, but the excitement got the best of me because I actually know what you're talking about.
Zen: No, that's awesome. Yeah, that's really cool. That's a great little kind of tidbit that fits into this. Yeah, so I was using Photoshop slices to export all of my little sprites, and then once they landed in the assets folder, Hazel would pick them up and arrange them into sub folders based on what category. And then I would drag that folder into A Better Finder Rename, which I'd created a droplet from that would rename them using regular expressions. And basically just in a few seconds do what would've taken me a few hours.
And then every time I made edits to the artwork, so if the programmer generated some outputs and I was like, "Oh, that color is a little bit off, or there's a mistake here, I need to change one pixel, re-export the whole thing," instantly it would all fit back into the same structure.
So very, very long-winded example, but I guess it is a pretty strong example of how I use automation to not necessarily plan and track my tasks, but actually achieve them in a way that I probably wouldn't have been able to achieve them otherwise.
Andrew J. Mason: This is exactly what I'm talking about. This is perfect because the sequential thinking of doing the job from the beginning to the end, next action thinking comes so naturally for me; but that systemic batch level thinking saying, "No, no, no, I'm going to do this a thousand times, so how can I develop the process to get it done once the right way and then just repeat that process?" That is something that I truly do admire.
I know that if anybody has a mind that goes in this direction, there is some level of interest or passion for productivity. How do I get the most out of myself so I can do more of the things that show up on the list that I like to do? Where would you say that desire comes from for you to say, "Man, I really want to be as productive as I possibly can be in my life"?
Zen: It's such an interesting question because my instant reaction is, "It's got to be built into me." It is in my blood or something. I've always been this weird way, I suppose, of very, very focused on organization, productivity, and efficiency I think. So my background, like I mentioned briefly, is in the games industry, but more specifically in UX and UI design for games. I'm always thinking about optimization of the flow of the experience of something, how to remove friction from the player, how to get them to where they want to go in terms of the menus and the interface as smoothly and intuitively as possible. So I have that. My brain is definitely wired that way to think in that kind of sense of optimization.
But yeah, I mean, like I said, when I was a kid, I was playing around with this software, like digital software. I've just always been quite fascinated with computers specifically and how we can use them to optimize what we do. I think it just goes hand in hand with quite a naturally organized personality, I suppose.
Another angle of it is I am quite ambitious in my creative and my professional life. I take on a lot of projects. There's a lot that I want to do. Like I said, I want to make a game, I want to make a YouTube channel, I want to take this job, I want to take that job. And naturally that can become pretty overwhelming. The natural response is, well, how can I make this less overwhelming? How can I control it? And that is obviously in how you manage your productivity, how you manage your time, how you can get the most out of this, and therefore be most likely to actually achieve those goals as well. If I didn't organize things and I kind of just went day to day, I know I would never do those things because I would just be coasting. I wouldn't have direction, I wouldn't be building the right kind of momentum.
I suppose to kind of summarize partly I think it comes from a natural disposition to that kind of thing; it's just part of my personality. And then the other side of that is I kind of realized that if I don't do this, I'm not going to achieve the things that I want to achieve, and I want to achieve them. So it's about putting systems in place that let me do that. And crucially not overdoing it as well because I've definitely had ups and downs of finding that balance of, "Okay, I'm micromanaging this too much to the point where I'm not really using it effectively," or, "This is too simple, and as well, I'm not using it effectively." And it is about finding always the right amount of productivity management for me to get stuff done and not be worrying about it, but not be letting it slip at the same time.
Andrew J. Mason: Well done on presenting the answer in that way because yes, there is the carrot, there is the stick there, and there also is the tension of is the system too overblown or is it too loose? How structured do you have to make things in order for you to feel like you're positively challenged in the right direction? I know with that landscape of being passionate about productivity, there's also trying new things, saying, "Hey, this might work for my system. This might give me a lot of return." Is there anything that you would say, "I actually would say don't do that"? Something that you've invested some effort in that, you know what, if you were to do your career the way that I did it, I would just skip that slice of it because it didn't turn out as well or give me as much return on investment as I thought maybe it would in terms of productivity.
Zen: It's a very difficult question because even the things that maybe were the... I mean, it depends if we're talking small scale like task management, or if we're talking big scale like career moves. Because I think that high level big things like going to university, taking this job, finding my way into this industry or whatever, those things, even if I look back and think, "Ah, that wasn't the most optimal use of my time," as cliche as it sounds, there's always so much learning done in those little failures or going down the wrong track that it's hard for me to want to erase them and do it a different way because I definitely came out of it learning from it.
So it's hard to say, "Would I do that again? Would I not do that again?" And also maybe I've just been quite fortunate in the direction that I've taken myself in that I don't feel super strongly that I went completely off the rails at any point. I mean, I went backwards and forwards a bit. I started out my career doing freelance bits of graphic design when I was quite young, and then I decided to go to university to study graphic design so I could be a more robust designer. I dropped out after one year and just went and got a job instead. I was like, "I don't know if this is the best use of however much money it costs to study in England," which is quite a lot. And then the time as well, when I already had a little bit of experience in graphic design, I thought, "I can just do this on my own sort of thing."
I've slightly gone down the wrong track and then backpedaled and done different things, but all of those experiences were still useful. I guess I did come out of it with a little bit more student debt than I needed to, but it's not so bad. So yeah, it's a tricky one. Big scale, I would say, honestly, no, I don't think so. I just follow my path, constantly kind of evaluate the path that I'm on, try not to fall into that common sunken cost fallacy where you think, "Well, I've already done one year of university; I might as well stick it out for the last two." No, I just dropped out and learned from it and did something else. And maybe that's the lesson there is if you feel like you're on the wrong track, just get off it. Don't feel like you have to follow it through.
Andrew J. Mason: That's a really good perspective because bad choice, good choice, maybe is even the wrong way to frame that because you are where you are and we're having this conversation.
Zen: Yeah. I suppose small scale, if we want to talk more of the day-to-day things like the not so big decisions in life, there are definitely a lot of task management systems that I've tried to implement and I would consider to be a failure and I've abandoned. I think the biggest thing for me, the biggest learning for me, and this might be relevant to the audience, especially if they're listening to a podcast like this, is overcomplicating that task management and going too far into rabbit holes of watching YouTube videos of how other people use it, which I definitely think you should do, but don't feel like what works for them will definitely work for you. When I first started using OmniFocus, I was like, "Okay, whole new program, don't know anything about how to use it. I'm going to go and see how other people use it and try and copy them and see what works for me." And I watched a lot of videos of like, "This is how I use, this is how I use OmniFocus, blah, blah, blah," And found that people would say things like, "Don't use due dates, do this, don't do that." I actually really like, I'm like a religious due date user.
So I think do your research, but take your own conclusions from it and don't overcomplicate it. I watched one video where somebody had this amazingly granular task management system for herself, and it was quite impressive. And for her, it seemed to work amazingly. I kind of watched this video and thought, "No, that's not going to work for me. That's too much. I'm going to spend so long managing my task management that I'm never going to do any tasks."
Long story short, takeaway I think is observe how other people do things, but remember that what works for them might not work for you. And personally, I think the biggest downfall that makes you abandon this kind of thing and not hit the productivity goals that you want to hit is probably overcomplicating things or trying to fit yourself into a system that you are just not designed for or that doesn't work well with your brain. I think start really, really, really simple. Find the most minimal baseline. And then if you hit a snag, start adding to it. If you don't use due dates, but you feel like you're missing tasks and you're missing deadlines, start using due dates. Gradually add to things.
Andrew J. Mason: Yeah, raising my hand on that one, guilty as charged, as guilty as the next person. I want folks to see your art. If people are interested in finding out more about you or what you're doing or see some of the artwork that you've created, how would you suggest they do that?
Zen: Yeah, of course. The easiest way is probably either Twitter/X or my website. My Twitter username is actually Zen0m. Unfortunately. Zen0 was taken. So that's Z-E-N, the number zero, and then an M. That's my Twitter, or X, I should say. And then there's also my website. Thankfully I could get Xen0 for my domain name. That is xen0.art. So it's Z-E-N and then zero dot art. There's a little bit of an overview of my various art collections on there. You can browse them on NFT marketplaces if you're curious what that kind of thing looks like. I actually have a merch store as well where you can buy desk mats and hats and things like that with my pixel on. That's kind of where the biggest overview of all of my stuff will be.
I'll also say that my inboxes are always open as well. If anybody wants to send me a DMM and chat more about how I manage things, how I organize things; or on the other side of things, if you're curious about how artworks on the blockchain or just about pixel art in general as well, love talking about all that kind of thing. So yeah, that's the best way to find me.
Andrew J. Mason: Zen, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Excited to have come across your work and really excited to see where this community takes you. Thanks for being on the show.
Zen: Thank you so much. Yeah, it was awesome to chat to you. Love any opportunity to get a little bit nerdy about organizations. So like I said, when your email landed in my inbox, I was like, "Yep, this was made for me." So very happy to be here. Thank you.
Andrew J. Mason: Hey, and thank all of you for listening today too. You can find us on Mastodon @TheOmniShow@omnigroup.com. You can also find out everything that's happening with the Omni Group at OmniGroup.com/blog.