In this episode, we're joined by Zsolt Benke, a developer from Pécs, Hungary. More than a decade ago, Zsolt started his coding life on the Web, designing and building WordPress sites. Now, he works in both web and iOS development. In his spare time, Zsolt enjoys blogging about productivity and technology, and co-hosting the podcast Agyvihar.
Join us as Zsolt reveals his secret weapon for tackling tasks and projects - OmniFocus. Learn how Zsolt uses OmniFocus to keep track of his work and to boost efficiency with the "measure twice, cut once” mentality applied to software. Plus, get a sneak peek into Zsolt's workflow as he shares how he uses the Tags and Projects perspectives to stay organized Whether you're a developer or just looking for ways to improve your productivity, you won't want to miss this episode.
some other people, places, and things mentioned in this episode:
- Mac Power Users
- Merlin Mann
- Gina Trapani
- Ethan Schooner - Solarized Dark and Light
Andrew J. Mason: You are listening to the Omni Show, where we connect with the amazing communities surrounding the Omni Group's award-winning products. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we learn how Zsolt Benke uses OmniFocus. Welcome, everybody, to this episode of the Omni Show. My name's Andrew J. Mason. And today, we're talking to Zsolt Benke. Zsolt is a developer from Hungary working on web development and crafting design experience. Zsolt, thank you so much for joining us today.
Zsolt Benke: Hi. Glad to be here.
Andrew J. Mason: Zsolt spend a little bit of time talking to us about who you are, what you're up to, and currently what makes up your world these days.
Andrew J. Mason: Yeah. And honestly, I'm really grateful to hear your story because I've never heard any podcasts in Hungarian, let alone a productivity podcast, so tell us more about that.
Zsolt Benke: Yeah. I have a friend who is really into money management, and we were using both YNAB, the budget app, which I quite like. And we just accidentally happened to be quite lucky. We met on Twitter, just started to talk about YNAB and that's how the podcast was born. The first 10 episode was just talking about YNAB, like how you can actually do money management in a way that makes sense. It turned into a general productivity podcast. We were talking about OmniFocus GTD and everything related. We're both Mac users so it's like, I would say, a Hungary version of Mac Power Users, I would say. Yeah.
Andrew J. Mason: Yes. That's what makes the internet great. I mean, there's just a common interest, a shared space where you find out you have something in common with somebody you would've never otherwise met, and then you're able to build something together.
Zsolt Benke: Yeah, that's what I like about blogging and Twitter in general, so you meet people and you just... I'm not sure who said that, but "Facebook is for people who you were in school and Twitter for people who you wished to be in school," so something like that.
Andrew J. Mason: That's right. Now, talk to me about it. Did you ever have any memory of when your first interaction was with the Omni Group generally or specifically with OmniFocus? Do you have any recollection as to when that was?
Zsolt Benke: Well, it goes back to around 2006 when I switched to Mac. It was around the time when Apple switched to Intel. I think it was why MacBook, which was my first Mac, and it happened to be that OmniOutliner was installed on it. It was way before the app store, I guess, even the standard software packages were available from the store shelves and stuff like that. I mean, we had pre-packaged software back then like Microsoft Office and OmniOutliner was on my Mac. I had no idea what it's for. Yeah, so I started to use it for note-taking. I mean it seems like some form of list manager app. Back in 2006, blogging wasn't really big, and everybody was talking about GTD, and we had blogs 43Folders.com or Lifehacker. I just followed bloggers like Merlin Mann or Gina Trapani. And I think Merlin was the first one who was really getting serious about GTD and just there was no GTD apps for the Mac. And I did not even know that I needed a GTD app back then, so I was just getting into GTD. And I think I read the book for the first time. It was about 15 years ago. Omni just popped up in my RSS feed one day, and there was this new app called OmniFocus, which is made for GTD. I think there was a early video from Ethan Schoonover, the guy who did Solarized Dark and Solarized Light, which is one of my favorite programming color schemes for vim, and he was just talking about OmniFocus. It was really similar to OmniOutliner, so I was understanding it in a way that, "Okay, this is how it's supposed to be, this is where projects are, this is where contexts are, and it's basically this two way view of my work," and it was just instantly clicked. I started using the app. I basically used OmniFocus for the last 15 years now. I switched to other reps, but I'm always getting back to OmniFocus, so yeah.
Andrew J. Mason: Man, I love that story. The inception of OmniOutliner as it morphs into OmniFocus and just seeing the need for something like that, and it's just the right product at the right time. Talk to me about what you actually put in the software. Is this something that is for work, for home? How does this look for you?
Zsolt Benke: I have a bit of a weird setup right now. I used to do everything inside OmniFocus, personal stuff, work stuff, everything went into OmniFocus. I actually extracted out my personal stuff into Reminders because I started to feel that I like GTD, and I still love the classic GTD that you can use paper. You only need lists. And Reminders translates that easy-to-use system. I don't need the power of OmniFocus in my personal life. On the other hand, on my work life, I need it because I'm a developer, so I mainly work with projects all day. Projects can be any issue from a customer, any feature, any bug, anything that comes from basically Jira. At this point, I create OmniFocus projects for each ticket, and I keep next actions under these projects. I usually have about, I don't know, 10, 15 ongoing projects inside OmniFocus. I like this separation because I have a personal laptop, I have my work laptop. At the end of the day, I can just close down my work laptop. I know OmniFocus is going to be there the next day. I can just start to mess around with other stuff. I like this distinction right now. I was talking about the professional aspect of it. Automation is great in OmniFocus, so I'm automating a lot of stuff and also using other apps like Hook to have notes that center around this project-based workflow I have.
Andrew J. Mason: Now, that's really interesting where you're using physical hardware to separate contexts out, which is really smart, especially when so many people these days have transitioned into a blurring context mode, working from home and home stuff from home. And it's like how do you separate it? And using physical hardware to actually do that and just say, "All my work stuff's on this laptop and all my home stuff's on this laptop" is a really smart way to do that.
Zsolt Benke: I still use Context in classic GTD since I have a home context and Errands 1. I usually tag actions by the type, is it coding? Is it support? Is it reaching out to people? Contacts have changed a lot, but I still think that the classic GTD examples are a good starting point for people, but I mean you have to, I guess, invent your own.
Andrew J. Mason: That's brilliant. What advice do you have for somebody who's maybe just getting started in productivity or task management space? Maybe they're getting more responsibility than they're used to having, they're having trouble keeping it all in their head. What would you say to somebody who's just in that space, they're not sure what to do next?
Zsolt Benke: Don't try to expect help from a tool. Have some form of system that you're using and try to find a tool for that. Otherwise, you are going to end up with a bunch of list managers that you don't know how to use. OmniFocus is a great one to start with because if you ignore every feature of OmniFocus, start with the basic stuff and understand what projects are, what the next actions are. I know it's a GTD term, but that's how it's called inside OmniFocus. And I think it's a great way to think about your work and don't expect the tool we all think instead of you.
Andrew J. Mason: That is great. I am so guilty of that myself where you maybe take the first step of just capturing everything that you're working on and saying, "Okay, this is what I need to get out of my head," and then you look back, it feels so great, your mind's clear. "I've got superpowers. I can take on the world. All I have to do is capture it. And then, you're confronted with the reality of what you're actually creating, and no tool can save you from this. You actually have to think and it's like, "Oh no, now I'm stressed out by what I've created and I'm blaming it on the tool."
Zsolt Benke: Me too. I mean I did the separation because of debt. Some projects don't need the power of OmniFocus. I was over-organizing some stuff and I tried to get into, "Okay, I should maybe use Estimates inside OmniFocus." It's great for some people, but sometimes you end up with this weird place where you spend more time organizing stuff than actually doing. It's a fine line to walk, but I think you have to pay attention to your system more than the tool.
Andrew J. Mason: Yeah. Now, talk to me about what your overall workflow looks like. You mentioned Reminders, you mentioned OmniFocus. Are those smaller links in a much larger chain of workflow or is that all there is to it? How does that look for you?
Zsolt Benke: Yeah, I consider actually OmniFocus and Reminders, just the list management part. If you think about the GTD system, it has calendaring and project management and project support and all of those things. I have different software for different workflows, I would say, or different tasks. Everything is connected by Hook or Hookmark now, which is one of the best productivity apps for the Mac in the last couple of years. It just connects everything. I heavily link stuff from OmniFocus and into OmniFocus as well. For project support and general assets and stuff, I use DEVONthink and Finder together. It's a great piece of software. And mainly, I use it for project support. I'm very organized by projects, so I have folders or databases or groups or whatever I need. I'm not putting everything inside DEVONthink. Sometimes some projects needs step power, otherwise sometimes Finder is enough. I'm just organizing them by the project name, so I can link them together. The other part, I would say, is thinking everybody talks about subtle customs and PKM's and stuff like that, but it's a nice way of saying note-taking through outlining. I'm using Craft for that. It's actually made here in Hungary. It's a cool piece of software for that. I usually create at least one Craft document for each project where I jot down ideas. I start to collect stuff, especially when I'm doing development work feedback coming into my inbox or I have ideas about something, how I should implement a feature or how I should fix a bug? I'm jotting down inside Craft everything I can grab, and then I'm starting to form this plan into a final outline where I can just follow along. And this is, where 50% of the time, I'm actually creating next actions inside OmniFocus because I'm having a concrete plan for a feature work or any other development work. I'm a big believer in measure twice, cut once. Creating software is one of the work that can benefit from that thinking. For calendaring, I use Apple Calendar. I have Fantastical as well installed. I think it's great for scheduling meetings, but these are the main aspects of my system.
Andrew J. Mason: Do you, and if so, how do you use perspectives in OmniFocus? Some people like to do a lot of custom perspectives. Some people stick to one or two slices and say, this is all I need. How does that look for you?
Zsolt Benke: I used to. Now, I use the tags view and just keep work stuff. In OmniFocus. It doesn't mean that I have 10 to-dos inside. In OmniFocus. I still have a lot of stuff, but I don't really use perspective that much. I still keep one for deferred items. I know we have forecast view for that, but having a separate particular file, it's basically a running list of stuff that comes to you. It's like a scheduled view, something like that. Creating a particular file perspective makes more sense to me because the focus view hides past items and the perspective is keeping everything until I decide I can start working on this thing and I can move it to a project or back to the inbox or whatever. I had this idea, I wrote about this on my blog called the process perspective. Some people liked it, some people did not understand the idea. I had a lot of ongoing stuff within projects... And if you have an OmniFocus inbox full of stuff, it doesn't really make sense to think about something twice. I just started to organize stuff into their corresponding projects, so instead of idea one about Project X, go down three items below. And then, there is another idea about Project X, and I'm thinking about Project X again. So, my brain tries to plan in terms of projects. Before I started to process something, I was just organizing raw data by projects, and then the process perspective just used as a way to see items without any tag group by project. I still use it a little bit. Instead of by project, I would say it's by aerial work. It's related to support or bugs. Otherwise, I just use the standards perspectives right now. I like that they are there, and I can create any lists if I need to.
Andrew J. Mason: That's really good. You're maybe the fourth or fifth person I've talked to that has this really disciplined approach that says, I don't need to see things in so many different ways. What I need is the restraint in order to focus and use my time effectively.
Zsolt Benke: Yeah, I mean I used to create a lot of perspective just to slice my work, but at the end of the day, you actually can achieve that with the text view if you just search for something. OmniFocus already provides a view for slicing your work by tags, especially if you use GTD, I assume people use tags as contexts. And I like the way that you don't have to use a feature to be productive at OmniFocus, but it's there. And if you discipline about it, "Okay, I'm not going to create this perspective because I'm going to reach that with, I don't know, with a building's perspective." I think that's fine and if you really need that, you can create it. And it's going to be way more useful thing to have instead of just going inside a perspective view and creating 3000 perspective by different groups and stuff like that. So yeah, I think it's better if you wait for the need to have a list and then you create it naturally.
Andrew J. Mason: Zsolt, talk to me about automation. Do you do repeating tasks? Is there a level of coding or plugin automation that you use? How does that look for you?
Zsolt Benke: Yeah, I actually learned AppleScript a year ago just to have some linking related things automated using DEVONthink, Hook, and OmniFocus. I'm doing time tracking. I forget to mention Time, which is this lesson known time tracking app for the Mac, and they have AppleScript integration and shortcuts as well, and it's a really nice piece of software. And one of the automation that I use is an OmniJS/shortcut combination, so it's called Start Work. I can pick any next section, actually select any next section. I just press a button on in the OmniFocus tool bar and is just finds the project, tries to find the client if I'm doing any freelance work and basically just start tracking the project inside timing, which is really helpful. And actually it's also picks the OmniFocus task and timing has this note feature which can, when you do freelance work, you have to let the client know what you are doing so you can take notes of your work, and I just basically insert the current OmniFocus task inside that. It has also stopped work, which is just doing the opposite, so it just stops the current timer and sometimes I start to tweak this. The last thing I did with this workflow is actually just have focus integration on Mac OS, which is actually pretty helpful. That's one of those scripts. I will, I have some smaller ones downloaded from the Omni Js websites, like creating a follow up task, which has sometimes I am using, I mentioned a tickler perspective, which I created omni js script. I can just pick any action inside the tickler view. And it's just going to push it into the inbox, and I can start to plan that in any way I want to. I mentioned Hookmark.
Andrew J. Mason: Oh, so that's their name now?
Zsolt Benke: Yeah, they just changed it like a week ago, and I just created a script which is like a template so I can select any OmniFocus project, and it's creating a complete set of DEVONthink groups. Basically, it links them together with Hook, so it has meeting notes and recordings if I'm doing any Google meet standups or stuff like that, so I can just save them inside DEVONthink, and I think it has even a notes section, which is sometimes helpful. Yeah, it's basically just setting up a big group of assets related to projects, and I think that's about it.
Andrew J. Mason: That seems like a really small thing, but I'm sure the returns are exponential on that, not having to look at five or six or seven different places and just one button that says, "Okay, I'm starting work or I'm focusing in." And then, another one that's like, "I'm shutting down or off it goes, and the returns on that are exponential. I
Zsolt Benke: Mean, I use the same for automation as well. Wait until you have a problem and try to automate that. So I mean, time tracking is, nobody likes the track time I guess, but you can automate it, so if you have the data inside, you can have AppleScript integration, you can have GS integration, you have shortcuts, so it's kind of like you have these three, four ways to hook into OmniFocus and you can integrate... You can even use a terminal. I mean I've seen an app or a script that actually made your OmniFocus database available from the terminal, which I don't really have any use, but it's really cool. It's there. I know it's someday I'm going to need it, so hopefully it's not going to be broken by the time, but I like this openness of OmniFocus. It's not like, "Okay, this is your data, but I'm going to keep it for myself so you can't access it in any way."
Andrew J. Mason: What would you say makes you passionate about being productive? Putting that much work into automation so that you can save a few seconds every single day that builds up and then you get that time back, there's a return there. Somebody doesn't do that unless they value their time. Why is that for you? What makes you passionate about productivity?
Zsolt Benke: I would say two things. One of them, I like to make tools for people, so I'm one of those people and if something is bugging me, I'm trying to create script or something that can help to ease out the pain, I would say. And when you start to use it, you are really proud of yourself like, "Okay, I shoved off maybe 10 minutes of my work every day, but those 10 minutes after you're going to be a lot of time that you can save. So, I would say that's a really cool thing to have. The other part, which is more systematic approach to stuff, as David Elland would say, when you have an external system and you keep bookmarks of your projects, I can do something, finish it and stick a bookmark into my OmniFocus or Reminders or whatever a system I use and the knowledge that I can pick that bookmark up later, it's actually frees up your brain power to think, and it's like a superpower in a way. So it's just being able to trust, I would say.
Andrew J. Mason: Being involved in this as long as you have over 10 years now looking back and saying, "Okay, the journey that I've been on," is there anything that you would say is maybe not a mistake or a failure, but something that could be instructive for somebody saying, going back, I don't know if I would've done this the same way that I did it before, I probably would've skipped that. And maybe it can help some people who aren't that far along in their journey skip that part.
Zsolt Benke: Not having clear separation between where stuff goes, like keeping everything inside is I did that for a while. I'm not talking about to-dos, talking about notes and everything. It's not really made for that. I would say try to use a tool like a calendar should be about your events. OmniFocus focus should be about your next actions or to-dos or whatever you call that separation or clean edges, I would say, really makes you more efficient when you're processing your stuff and just use your head. I mean, these tools are there, like a hammer is not going to build a house, you are going to build a house with hammer. And the same is true for any productivity software is that you still need to figure out stuff and you can basically park the results of the thinking in any external system that you need, but you still need to think, and I think that's important to keep in mind before you start to use any productivity to software or want to replace one.
Andrew J. Mason: Zsolt, this is an awesome conversation. I'm so grateful for you sharing your wisdom with us. How can folks connect with you or find out what you're up to?
Zsolt Benke: The best would be my blog at decoding.io. I'm writing about OmniFocus automation, Apple in general, and I'm trying to avoid Twitter these days. I have a Twitter account, but I'm not really using that anymore, so it's just mirroring my blog, so if anybody tries to find me, it's decoding.io.
Andrew J. Mason: Perfect. Thank you so much for joining us.
Zsolt Benke: Thanks.
Andrew J. Mason: Hey, and thank all of you for listening today too. You can drop us a line on Twitter at the Omni Show. You can also find out everything that's happening with the Omni Group at omnigroup.com/blog.