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Tools to Enable Workflow

by Kerry Dawson

To this point, we’ve determined what Workflow is and that by having a solid Workflow we can enable ourselves to be truly productive. Hopefully, the Buzzword aspect that currently surrounds the term has been eliminated. We’ve further established that the method in which a beneficial workflow is obtained is by using a model rather approaching this in an ad hoc style. However, now we have to address the most critical component in the process and that is the tools that you’ll use to Get Things Done.

Tools are Critical to Get Things Done

UnknownIts one thing to have a workflow and better yet to have a model to guide your workflow however, without tools to do the things you need to do nothing can get done. Both a model and tools are essential to productivity. However, in many ways, it is the tools that can make or break the process.

Its not only that you require tools in any workflow process but its best to have the best tools at hand to do the job. Further, if you’ve chosen a model you want tools that fit that model. There’s no point in having a model that dictates your process if you don’t have tools that conform or support the model. It‘s really like anything, if you skimp on your tools you’ll only make what you have to do all that much harder and in some cases impossible. Further, the more appropriate the tools are to the task at hand, the better. Using a wrench to hammer a nail into a wall can be done but its not the best way of doing it and the results might end up lacking.

Since the model I use is Getting Things Done by David Allen or GTD for short I want tools that fit this model. Should you choose a different model to guide your workflow and thus enhance your productivity you too will want the right tools to do the job. The bottom line at the end of the day is simply improved:

  • efficiency
  • effectiveness

A Tusted System

Trust iconI want to take a step back first before I outline the tools I use to support GTD. There are three fundamental concepts in GTD.

  1. The brain is not the best place to store reams of things or tasks that have to be done. In fact, David Allen would say our brain is really only good to store seven or eight things at the most without becoming bogged down or the thought just being lost.
  2. To free the brain to do the thing it’s best at, which is to solve problems and get things done it’s best to free the brain of having to retain that information. Rather you want to get it out of your head so that you can think about more important things and in essence relax.
  3. To do this though you need a system you have confidence in or you can trust. If you’re going to get the stuff out of your brain and down on paper as lists or better still into a software tool you want to know that you can be certain that when you need to be reminded of or know that you need access to information, its going to be there and easily found. Further, you also need to know you can easily get that stuff out of your brain in an efficient manner. You don’t want to be fiddling around trying to figure out how to do this or that or spend hours sorting information once out of the brain. Trusting your system in essence frees you as it will instill confidence that you can let something go. Otherwise, it will still be rattling around in your brain and you’ll have accomplished little.

The Tools I use to Support GTD

I don’t use one tool to provide me with my trusted system but rather a variety of tools to do this. I tend to believe in a synergistic approach to a systems solution. Rather than drawing on one tool to try to accomplish everything, I tend to prefer to use tools and exploit their specific strengths.

The following are the tools that I will cover however, this is a not a comprehensive list of tools that I use in my daily workflow yet these are the most critical for me to Get Things Done. Further, these tools support GTD, in my view, the best however, there are other solutions you can employ that would effectively support GTD.

The first two tools that I will cover off more extensively are:

  1. OmniFocus for the Mac, iPad and the iPhone to manage activities and projects.
  2. DEVONthink Pro Office for the Mac, iPad and the iPhone which is an information or knowledge-management system that allows for the analysis and long term storage of vital information.

In the latter‘s case, I will concentrate more extensively on the desktop only due to the nature of the function it is serving for me.

The other two tools I will take a cursory look at are:

  1. Pocket which allows me to read things later when I’ve got time. This one is easily explained so it will not need a lot of elaboration
  2. The Internet a rather self-evident tool


OmniFocusThis is probably the best designed system to support GTD. It conforms extremely well to the principles of GTD however, it is a highly flexible system so you do not need feel that you have to use it solely for this model. A good system is flexible enough to conform to your own particular work habits and personality and this one does. However, bear in mind though that of the systems I reviewed, this conforms the best to GTD and the manner in which you work within that model.

OmniFocus meets the requirements of not only a good tool but an excellent tool. It works on all you Mac products in a relatively seamless fashion. The jump from the desktop (v2 in development) to the iPad or the iPhone is consistent enough from a User Interface perspective we can easily say that it is a low friction environment. By that I mean, it does not get in your way as you move from one environment to another struggling with how you do this and that. Although there are of course differences, they are minor. One of the criteria you need to look for in your tool is not can it do the job but can it do it so that its not creating friction for you and you have what David Allen refers to as flow.

Zero to Twenty Thousand Feet

Workflow is all about the method or the process in which you get things done. However, there has to be a reason your doing this. In GTD there is a view that sees function or life operating from a zero to a fifth thousand foot level. At the top end levels we can easily say these represent our larger goals and the achievement of those goals. To develop a perspective around what those are requires a certain framework and tools suited to that function.

OmniFocus we can view as taking us to the 20000 foot level effectively. In fact, to get to this top end level, OmniFocus might carry us a long the entire route but it‘s best viewed as a tool that can help us manage with what is sometimes the chaos of day to day living.

It really helps us get off the runway and stay on course. In essence, OmniFocus is an excellent tool when your trying to accomplish a goal be it buying a house or closing a critical business deal. To do this requires two things. It requires both perspecitive and control. Perspective in what is required to get us to our goal and control in terms of the management of activities to get us there. These two aspects of behaviour need be managed as one without the other can lead to not the greatest outcomes.

OmniFocus to Take us There

At first blush, OmniFocus or for that matter, any system based on GTD can seem a little overwhelming. Its not really. The one caveat I’ll make here though is its easy to get carried away with some of the concepts of GTD and OmniFocus is such a powerful tool it can take us to places we might want to be. My advice as I lay out how OmniFocus works in the framework of GTD is don’t get carried away with it but do develop a balance so it‘s effective.

Simply put, to accomplish something may require only one task or it may require two or more tasks. Anything that just requires one task sits on its own. However, anything that requires two or more tasks becomes a project. One action will follow another action to complete the project. Remember, we want to do almost a brain dump here to get all the tasks out of our head to accomplish a project.

The one mistake people often make is they describe an action almost as a project. As an example, “Buy a House”. That is a task of course but when you look at it there are many actions that have to go into buying that house. Buying a house is really a project in OmniFocus and within the project there are numerous actions that have to be carried out to accomplish this. Its at this point, you could get carried away and generate too many actions and too many projects and this would lead to no time to do anything.

This is definitely not the idea of GTD. The idea of GTD is enhanced control and focus which will lead to a result and hopefully allow you to feel more in control and thus relaxed. Its in our relaxed state that we can focus on that 50000 foot level I mentioned.

Capture, Process, Assign Context and Accomplish

My goal is not to teach you GTD specifically but I have to reference it to demonstrate how OmniFocus will lead to a productive outcome. Another of the key concepts behind GTD is to capture and store your information as it comes in as fast as possible. To do this, you basically use a generic inbox. You can capture information no matter where you are on your Mac as you think of something but you need to get it into your system. Once into the system, at some point during the day you’ll need to process your inbox by assigning your tasks to relevant projects and contexts.

As outlined actions can lead to projects. However, all actions need a context. Context is another enabler in the process of good workflow. Omnifocus supports context incredibly well. However, as you can well imagine at this point, you are gaining control over information coming in but you’re also developing a busy inbox and that does have to be dealt with.

Finally, context is simply the where and how things will get done. So a context can involve the computer, an errand and on it goes. It‘s best not to have too many contexts as these can work synergistically. Should different actions leading to different projects have the same context, it is possible to be efficient and do those actions or tasks in the context their related in. This is simply an efficient mechanism.

Data Contructs and Frameworks

One of the things that makes OmniFocus an elegant tool to work with is that the underlying data constructs and the framework your working in are the same whether you’re working on the iPad, the iPhone, OmniFocus 1 (the current) or OmniFocus v2 (the one being developed to replace OmniFocus 1). Since the architecure of product is so sound, you not only have the reduced friction of the interface to deal with but regardless of platform you’re working with the same underlying data. The data constructs and the framework of operation is the same between all platforms. If you follow GTD, as I’d recommend as its very tried and true, you’ll want a product that conforms well to your model. That’s what helps to make OmniFocus so functional. Personally, I find it a very fluid environment and is one of the best task management systems I’ve used. It does really help though to have read David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done”. When you put OmniFocus into action it’ll make so much more sense.

DEVONthink Pro Office

DEVONthinkOmniFocus is very much about control and command and getting you to the so called 20000 foot level. However, as you’re going a long you’ll need a storage system to contain all the relevant information you gather. However, you need more than just a storage system. You need an information management system or a knowledge management system that can contain any kind of information, store that information logically and fast, relate bits to other bits to help in the decision making process. It is best that it also conform somewhat to OmniFocus in design so relationships can be made at that level.

DEVONthink Pro Office is an ideal system to be the container of information that needs to be stored and managed in a flexible manner. It can store information in hierarchical groups or folders, tag the information and provide links between related information. Its stores any kind of information you throw at it which is very important and can be retrieved utilizing a variety of techniques and views. As OmniFocus has an hierarchical structure so too does DEVONthink Pro Office. There is an important synergy here that can’t be underestimated.

Help with Processing both in terms of Data Capture and Retrieval

DEVONthink can be a bit of a daunting system when you first approach it. However, if you can get over what I refer to as the learning hurdle (possibly read Joe Kisell’s book Take Control of Getting Started with DEVONthink 2, Second Edition), this system will really pay off for you. As an example, DEVONthink Pro Office uses AI technology. Earlier I mentioned that you’re going to have a very busy inbox in OmniFocus. In DEVONthink so too will you pretty well have the same thing. You‘ll want to get all the information that needs to be retained or utilized in the decision making process into DEVONthink Pro Office and fast.

However, processing an inbox manually can be painful. At this point, you’re now working with three inboxes:

  • mail
  • OmniFocus
  • DEVONthink Pro Office

DEVONthink Pro Office can dramatically help with this using its AI engine. The more you store in DEVONthink the better the AI engine gets. However, what it‘s doing for you as your database grows is making decisions for you where to mass store stuff. At first, you might find this more of a manual process as the AI engine needs information to relate to. Once the folders become large enough, the AI engine can and will become very efficient. This is important as you don’t want to get overwhelmed at managing your information.

Retrieval, Perspective and Decison Making

An Information management system is not of much value if you can’t find the information that you once stored in it. Further, to be a Knowledge Management system there has to be a way of relating information that could assist you in making connections around a decision. DEVONthink Pro Office Is loaded with tools that help enable this process. Here again, the AI engine can come into play. Forgetting how well you structured the filing of information in the first place, the information you’ve stored in DEVONthink Pro Office can always be found. Once again, DEVONthink Pro Office’s AI engine can come back into play. There are basically two levels of find or search. The one is for rapid fire searching. If based on the words you use what you’re looking for is not immediately apparent (DEVONthink has a ranking engine to indicate which is are the most likely and least likely to meet what you are looking for) you can switch to the more granular search function.

The search function, in an intuitive interface, uses a form of Structure Query Language to uncover what you’re looking for. Depending on some aspects of the way you filed things, such as tagging the notes or records, additional properties can be brought to bear to uncover your document or documents.

Relationships Matter

Information and that information, depending how it was structured upon filing, can bring together more than one document that could be of importance in providing you with a new perspective on your considerations. DEVONthink, as I mentioned, allows you to get information into it fast from either an electronic form or a paper based form. Regardless of where the information comes from, it is all searchable.

The better though you are at organising the input of your information, the better will be the results of what you later on find. DEVONthink provides hierarchal group and folder structure filing. A set of documents that relate to a project you might be working on in OmniFocus can all be filed together in their own folder. If that’s not good enough, you can tag your documents to either provide a different view of your information or enhance your search function. PDF documents or for that matter any document can be annotated. DEVONthink supports linking of documents so one document can be linked to another or many related documents. An annotated document could actually be a container for links to related documents.

DEVONthink Is extremely flexible and it is this flexibility that sometimes makes it daunting to learn. Getting information into DEVONthink can also happen from a variety a methods from cut and paste, web clipping, Quick Note taking, from other sources, scanners that output OCR documents to third party applications that link to DEVONthink and rapidly fire off even more information (Drafts, PopClip, Apple’s Services). Yet, all this information that ends up in DEVONthink if filed well will allow for very relevant recall of information that enhances the decision making process. Thus, I call DEVONthink not only an information management system but a knowledge-management system. Data in, information out.

Combined with our control and command center, OmniFocus, you have the makings of a toolset that will support a highly robust workflow process. Through cross links and references between the two, an action leading to another which leads to the information needed to support the next, a project can come to a more than satisfactory conclusion.


Read it laterAbove I have presented two very powerful tools that each within their own right stand strong. They are for me, without a doubt, my trusted system. I know as long as I engage the systems in the best way possible, the results will be more than satisfactory. Its easy to do then what David Allen would have us do and that is a brain dump or a clearing of the brain so that it can engage in that which it is best at; being creative and making decisions. Not that we can operate at a 100% and everything that goes into our system would be as perfect as we like. However, even with that in mind, these systems are so uniquely powerful and flexible what we minimally require will be there.

When time is lacking though and we don’t necessarily have the time to deal with reading a piece of information right then or there and thus acting on it or filing it, Pocket, a store and read it later system can come into play. Should an OmniFocus action lead you to search for information on a specific topic which you find but realize you simply do not have the time to deal with it now, it‘s time just to store it in Pocket.

Pocket is rather self explanatory so I won’t spend a lot of time on it. Simply put, should you find an artricle that you think might be worth reading but cannot act on it by either trashing it or storing it, just place it in Pocket for reading at another time. Having read the article in Pocket, you can now decide that its not relevant to the case at hand or you’ve gleaned enough it doesn’t need to be stored. Trash it. Otherwise, store it for future reference.

Actioning things in OmniFocus either by completing them, deferring them, putting them on hold, delegating the activity or just trashing it is a method of dealing with your time efficiently. Pocket provides another mechanism of doing just that. If you decide, based on the reading of your Pocket article you can action it now do so. If however, it will go into your larger, longer term project, file it in DEVONthink. Again, when the time is right, you’ll be able to turn to that source for actioning.

The Internet

Of the tools that I’ve presented, this is the most self-evident of the bunch and one that almost everyone utilizes for some reason or another. It is basically a ubiquitous repository of information. In our modern age, our workflow and thus our productivity could not occur without, at some point, turning to the internet.

All the tools above that I’ve presented to support the model fully integrate the results of information gleaned from the internet. Once again, the toolset I have put together is something that is utilized in a synergistic manner. Information from the Internet can be directly incorporated in any one of the above tools. However, its not as efficient to put reams of internet information or for that matter reams of any kind of information in OmniFocus. Rather, use OmniFocus as your control and command centre to go out and get the information you’ve stored in a more suitable place.

Actions can easily reference information repositories. DEVONthink links can reside in an OmniFocus action. A tool such as DEVONthink can store vast amounts of information and can reference directly back to an OmniFocus project. Material waiting to be acted on in Pocket can be actioned in OmniFocus and then either trashed due to lack of relevancy or stored for permancy in DEVONthink.

Workflow at its Best

Happy Computer UserIn this article, I’ve only touched upon the capabilities of anyone of these systems. Rather, it was my intent to highlight tools and in my case what I would see as the best tools to enhance my workflow and support the model I use to accomplish what I want to get done. I have taken a cursory view of workflow in this series of articles and what it requires in the truest spirit of the meaning of workfow to outline both the need for a model and tools to support the model all in an effort to enhance our productivity.

Enhanced productivity has many benefits to it including more time for ourselves and more time to consider some of the things we’d like to accomplish. If we’re bogged down in a process though not only is it frustrating it can potentially be self defeating. The things we want to do in our lives just might not happen as we haven’t had the time to consider them or we haven’t the time to do them.

Taking thus some time at the front end to first understand the purpose of a robust workflow process, utilizing a model to guide us in achieving that which we need to do or want to do and then putting into place preferably, in a synergistic manner, tools to support the model, will allow us more time to deal with other things be them more important or not. Feeling more in control of our lives and actually being more in control of our lives leads to enhanced confidence, a sense of ease and as David Allen would clearly point out, a more relaxed self.

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