Time, task and project management ideas for photographers

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More and more photographers are realizing the need to better organize their time. In particular, freelance professional photographers feel that they can and they should develop a better system in conducting their day-to-day creative and professional photography. If previously the focus has been just on their pictorials and post-production workflow, a lot of them are now looking at how they can sort out and organize the multiple aspects of their work, profession, hobbies, and other interests.

For this reason, many are finding that the answer to their problem is the implementation of a “getting-things-done” system. Simply known to many as GTD, this is a methodology developed and codified by productivity guru David Allen in his seminal book entitled “Getting Things Done.” It is a system where a photographer, or anyone for that matter, can sensibly handle their time management, task management, and schedule management.

There are several ways to implement a GTD system. One preferred method is by using a software-based tool. And among those that are available, one software that stands out is OmniFocus.

OmniFocus is a personal productivity software and task management tool that anyone can use to implement the “getting things done” or GTD methodology developed by Allen as described in his book. It is one of the new and best-of-breed applications developed by The Omni Group that is designed to accommodate any individual, personal style, method or system of organization. OmniFocus is a flexible software that effectively and efficiently manages anyone’s to-do and task lists, as well as schedule, with the hope of gaining not only productivity but also better and higher level of work-life satisfaction.

Using OmniFocus, you can easily capture your thoughts and then allow you to quickly store, manage, and process them into actionable to-do items. Task can be assigned to projects and stored within contexts (for example, “home” or “work” or “garden” or “shopping”), with built-in visual cues that highlight the next action you need to do. OmniFocus helps you work smarter by giving you powerful tools for staying on track of al the things you need to do. OmniFocus includes the following features: a quick entry panel that is accessible via keybaord shortcut from any application, import for kGTD documents, iCal synchronization, extensive project and task filtering, file attachments, saved viewing perspectives, and more.

To understand what OmniFocus can do for you, and how it can improve your life’s workflow, we conducted an exclusive interview with Ethan Schoonover, the head of marketing at The OmniGroup.

• • • • • •

Dominique James: What is OmniFocus?

Ethan Schoonover: OmniFocus is our newest application and is designed to enable personal task management using a lightweight, easy to use yet powerful and flexible system. It was partially inspired by a popular task management methodology called “Getting Things Done” (GTD) developed by David Allen ( and was evolved from a set of scripts I wrote for OmniOutliner called Kinkless GTD (kGTD).

For years we’ve seen the “project management” and “task management” applications on the market living at extreme ends of the complexity spectrum: Sophisticated project management applications provided highly structured and detailed project plans but were usually either unwieldy or too complex for lightweight personal tasks and projects, while “personal information managers” and basic task management applications often broke down quickly when pushed past a very basic level of use.

OmniFocus has been designed to provide more structure and control over all your projects and tasks in one application. You can keep all your personal and professional projects in one place and view only the set of tasks that are most important to you at any time.

DJ: Who are the intended or target users of OmniFocus?

ES: Anyone that feels they have a lot of personal and professional projects and would like to have a simple system to effectively organize and manage them. Right now it’s very much a “single user” system but we’re hard at work on ways to enable small teams and groups to use it together. We’re also adding in multiple Mac syncing as well as iPhone syncing.

DJ: What is the main objective of using OmniFocus?

ES: The main objective of OmniFocus is “transparent task management”. We want to eliminate as much “metawork” as possible, i.e. we want to remove the need to spend a lot of time managing your projects and tasks. At the same time, we didn’t want to sacrifice control, power or flexibility in how you can view, sort, filter and control which tasks and projects are available or “on deck” at any given moment.

One of the unique features of OmniFocus is that it allows you to view your tasks as “physical actions” (discreet physical activities) that are associated with a larger goal/project. You can organize these actions by project to get an overview of how close you are to achieving specific goals and plan out next steps, or you can re-organize the actions by the type of physical activity they are. We use the GTD term “context” for this. A context can be a place, a resource or thing, a person or an opportunity that is required to do a specific action. For example, many of my actions might require that I am shopping at the grocery store, while others require that I’m at the pro photo gear rental shop. In this case I can use “grocery store” and “pro rental” as contexts. I can plan out actions across various projects that will happen at these locations and then when I’m ready to hit the road and go to the pro shop, for example, I ask OmniFocus for a list of all the things I need to do while I’m there. It’s like having a personal assistant in your Mac.

DJ: As a former professional photographer yourself, in what do you see the advantages and benefits in using OmniFocus?

ES: I’m sure you’d agree with me when I say that being a successful pro photographer is as much about being a consistent, competent, on-time and on-budget service professional as it is about talent. Indeed, I’ve known a lot of talented photographers that couldn’t survive in the business simply because they were too disorganized or unreliable. Good photography requires skill and talent. Good professional photography requires a totally separate set of business and organizational skills.

For a lot of photographers, the organizational side of things ends up being an afterthought, which is really a terrible way to handle business. It’s a recipe for disaster, really. If you work with a good producer, art director, etc. and have a strong team either in house or from an agency or studio you are working with, then you may have a lot of the back office activities taken care of for you, but you still need to keep “your own house” in order.

I’m going to list out some of the things I used to have to handle when I was shooting full time. I didn’t use a full-time assistant or office staff, so being organized was critical. Here’s a random sampling of tasks and projects that were up on deck for me at any particular time (actually pulled from OmniFocus):

  • process last shoot
  • upload final selects to publication/printer
  • update website contact information
  • tag old shots for resale online
  • pick up pocketwizards from repair
  • buy new short seamless
  • order bigger think tank belt (or go on crash diet)
  • chase editorial for publication date
  • wrap up client’s annual report shoot
  • put together a go-bag for harbour shoot on next available clear night
  • more bobby pins
  • new 220v & 110v modeling lights
  • prepare for next photoshop training session
  • replenish studio fridge
  • retouch client’s final picks

Some of these are individual tasks (pick up pocketwizards) while some are bigger projects with individual sub-actions. I built Kinkless GTD out of desperation… I needed something to help me organize and manage all the things I was working on. Simple task management such as that in iCal (or Outlook, as I was a fresh convert to Mac when I first wrote Kinkless and had found Outlook equally limiting for task management) just didn’t scale well past a couple dozen items. I needed a way to see what was due, overdue, coming due, organized by project or by context.

OmniFocus takes this same idea and executes on it much better and in a top-quality piece of Mac engineering. The coders at Omni are, I swear, prodigies one and all. They’ve done some amazing work in OmniFocus 1.0 and the roadmap for future updates is clear and we’re on track to release some great new stuff this year.

Anyhow, back to OmniFocus for photographers …. the other big area I needed help in was managing client relationships. I did mostly editorial and corporate assignment. For both types of photography it’s important to develop and maintain a strong client relationship. You can’t just sit back and rest on the success of the last job. You need to keep some awareness and communication open at all times. It’s what a bigger business might call Customer Relationship Management.

Rather than use a dedicated CRM tool, I was able to use OmniFocus to easily manage each of my client relationships. I had a separate folder for each client and inside each folder I had specific OmniFocus projects for specific jobs/deliverables. However I also had a general “Relationship Management” project that was very similar for each client. If I hadn’t spoken to the client in a while, I could add an action to call them on the phone and touch base. Once I called them I’d take notes on the call right inside the notes field in OmniFocus. Then, after the call, I could create new actions based on any specifics the client mentioned (i.e. provide samples of work specific to a project proposal) and I’d also create a new task that was dated to stay off my radar for, say, two months. But in two months it would show up on my task list as “mail postcard to client”.

OmniFocus does a stellar job at not overwhelming you with things you can’t work on now, and it also fits nicely into a lightweight, “natural planning” workflow. You don’t need to plan out everything from now till the end of time. Just the next couple steps in any given project.

DJ: What do you suggest is the best way to transition from the old, less-than-perfect and not-so-efficient method of personal organization to the new GTD-based OmniFocus?

ES: Great question. The best way, in my opinion, is to “start fresh” with a brain dump into OmniFocus. Just start to capture everything, big and small, into the OmniFocus inbox. David Allen calls this a “mental sweep”. Then categorize this material into projects, tasks, and folders as necessary. You can go back and look at your old task management materials but this kind of “blank slate” start is a good way to really get the stuff that’s top of mind into your trusted system.

DJ: From a user’s point of view, and from a psychological framework, what are the difficult organizational, management, work and personal issues that OmniFocus has already solved or can solve?

A lot of the problems that OmniFocus solves are really the same things that David Allen’s GTD methodology is designed to address. For example, getting all the stuff that you’d like to do or that you are obligated to do literally “off your mind” is probably the top benefit. The reduction in stress that this effects is palpable. Everything starts with this. Once you trust that you have a system in place that captures and organizes everything, you can clear your mind of everything other than what you are working on at that moment. Focus. Clarity. Attention. All benefits of GTD with OmniFocus!

DJ: What is the easiest and fastest way of learning OmniFocus?

ES: Download the trial and play with it. Watch the quickstart video. We’re in the midst of revamping the website right now to include more video materials and training resources, so stay tuned for that!

DJ: OmniFocus is different from all other GTD software in what ways?

ES: Three things really differentiate it:

1. Top quality “under the hood” engineering – OmniFocus is more robust, stable and more frequently updated than any other GTD application that’s currently out there. We have a solid development roadmap and have already issued significant feature improvements and bug fixes since we shipped a couple months ago. Omni started off developing for the NeXT platform, the predecessor to what is today known and loved as Mac OS X, so they are some of the most experienced Mac developers around. They’ve worked very hard to make sure that your data is truly in a “trusted system” and that if you put something into it, it’s there and it’s safe.

2. Fast, powerful input tools – OmniFocus has a significant new feature that users of Quicksilver might be familiar with already. We’ve built in “Smart Match” functionality into OmniFocus that lets you match existing information in OmniFocus with just a few keystrokes. If I have a context called “Mac Office” for example, I can match it by hitting the key strokes “M” and “O”. If I have a project but only remember part of the name, I can assign a task to it by just entering a word or even just part of a word in it’s title. HUGE time saver. You can also use natural language dates such as “Today” or “Next month” when assigning task start and due dates.

3. Easy to start “light”, easy to use more advanced tools – You can get started by just entering a couple tasks or projects and working off them like a simple task management list, but OmniFocus also gives you easily accessible tools to sort, filter, and review your projects and actions. For example, say you want to see everything that is due this week? No problem. Just “group by date”. Flag a couple “hot” projects and then tell OmniFocus to show you only actions that are part of flagged projects and that you can do while at your computer. Done in a couple clicks.

DJ: What are the significant advantages and features that is in OmniFocus but not in others?

ES: There are three:

Filtering & Smart Match – Our filtering tools are really in a class by themselves and no other GTD apps have a true “Smart Match” function.

Interoperability – Additionally, we have great interoperability with the rest of OSX, so for instance we can sync your OmniFocus actions with iCal to-dos (and vice-versa, so it’s a “round trip” relationship). You can even do nifty stuff like email yourself a task (say when you are out and have your phone but no computer) and if you preface the subject line with a certain simple prefix it will be automatically pulled into the OmniFocus inbox as a new item.

Ongoing development and support – I’ll toss out one other reason to consider OmniFocus: Ongoing development and support. Omni has one of the biggest dedicated support teams of any mid sized Mac indie developer (over 30% of our staff are full time live customer support staff and we recently added a couple new full time OmniFocus support staff). We also are hard at work on significant new features for OmniFocus including a dedicated iPhone app and live syncing with multiple computers.

DJ: What will keep photographers from straying out of the GTD with OmniFocus?

ES: We actually have built OmniFocus so that you can use it in a non-GTD manner if you want to, but it’s also designed to fully support a “strict” GTD use case. We’ve of course made it super easy to view your tasks in context lists as well as in project mode, but we’ve also built in some unique features in OmniFocus that enable you to do GTD reviews of your projects based on the last time you reviewed them. This is also a unique feature of OmniFocus in the GTD application market as far as I know.

Any system ultimately relies on the commitment from the user to make it work, of course. We make it easy to do the “right thing” however.

DJ: Will OmniFocus be available through iPhone?

ES: Absolutely. OmniFocus for iPhone is being actively developed as we speak.

DJ: Will OmniFocus develop it’s own built-in calendar module in future versions that may be independent from iCal?

ES: Like many of the best OS X applications, we are staying focused on doing “one thing well” and then “playing well with others”. For example, OS X doesn’t try to mimic the “one app to rule them all” approach of Outlook. Instead it breaks these PIM functions out into dedicated, purpose-built applications including iCal for calendaring and for email. The brilliance of doing this is that it allows the user to pick the app that works best for them (i.e. a different mail client) while still using, for example, iCal. We felt that there was a lack of strong task management support in the built-in OS X personal information management tools so we developed OmniFocus to both work well with iCal and Mail. It’s kind of the “missing piece” of the OS X PIM puzzle.

So that’s by way of explaining the development philosophy of OmniFocus and its relation to iCal. We do support start and due dates and may continue to develop the options for viewing dated tasks in new and unique ways, but iCal will always be the best place for “hard landscape” events and appointments.

DJ: Will OmniFocus also be able to integrate and tap on information resources existing in one’s computer such as Mail, iCal, Address Book, etc?

ES: Yes. I’ve mentioned a bit about our existing integration with Mail but will say a little more about that. Currently we have the ability to email yourself a task and have OmniFocus (via an automatically installed Mail rule that OmniFocus can create for you) pull in that task as a new action in the OmniFocus inbox. Additionally we integrated with almost all the other apps on OS X in that you can instantly capture information from any place using either our Quick Entry panel or the OmniFocus clipping service. For example, when I’m reading a web page I can select some text, images or even a full webpage and then hit a simple key-combination to instantly capture the entire page to my OmniFocus inbox or even directly creating a new task with the web page content as a note inside an existing or new project. I can do the same instant capture with part of an email message or the entire message.

Even better: when OmniFocus captures this information in the note of a new task, it also adds a link back to the original source. So you’ll get a link that opens up the original email, the original web page, or even a file on your file system.

DJ: If a user’s ongoing iCal and Address Book data is in a laptop, and the OmniFocus software/data is in a desktop, what do you suggest is the most efficient way to integrate and make both current?

ES: While we are working on mac-to-mac sync functionality for a future update, currently OmniFocus will work best on a single machine. OmniFocus does support iCal sync, so you can have your OmniFocus actions show up as iCal todos and can even add new todos from iCal back into OmniFocus. If you sync your iCal between multiple machines then this is one way of accessing and capturing at least some of your data from one machine onto your “main” OmniFocus machine. Also, we have a neat Mail capture rule/script that lets you automatically capture specially written mails that you send yourself and have them show up in your OmniFocus inbox or even right in a project.

DJ: Will project management become an integral part of OmniFocus?

ES: Yes. OmniFocus is all about personal project and task management. While OmniFocus itself will never do things like Gantt charting (nor would we want it to since that’s way too complex for most “natural planning”) we are looking at ways we can allow teams of OmniFocus users to work together easily and how we might allow our Gantt chart and project management application OmniPlan work with OmniFocus. These are ideas for the future but are certainly top of mind for us.

DJ: Where will the next development be for OmniFocus? Where is the software headed?

We’ve already release a couple major fixes and point releases and have another point release for general bux fixes coming up soon. The iPhone app is already in progress and we’ve got mac syncing also being developed right now, so those features you should see within, say, sometime this year (though we don’t know when Apple will start distributing iPhone apps via the recently announced App store).

Our ongoing, active development is a key part of what sets Omni apps apart from the crowd. It’s like buying a car: you have to factor in service and support. With Omni, you get live, human support and outstanding ongoing engineering resources. It’s an outstanding value.

• • • • • •

Based on my initial evaluation of OmniFocus, I give it a 4 out of 5 rating. And since I easily learned how to use the software, and because it gave me the opportunity to quickly note down to-dos, project and work ideas, became somewhat more organized and was able to handle priorities better, planned everything more efficiently and in the process ended up being somewhat more productive, my buying advise is: go buy it now! There’s no point in procrastinating. The time to get better organized is now. This is the right time, task and project management not only for photographers but for everyone.

To quickly learn OmniFocus, you can watch the excellent introductory high-definition or standard-definition video, or, download the PDF-formatted OmniFocus map and manual.

OmniFocus is $79.95 for a single license. You can also buy a family pack at $119.95. Upgrading from single to family license is $40.00 only. The good news is, if you already are an OmniOutliner 3 Professional or an OmniOutler 3 Family Pack owner, you can avail of their promotional 25% discount. Quantity discounts and educational pricing are also available.

OmniFocus, a 6.7 MB download, provides universal support for both the Intel and PowerPC-based Macintoshes. For more about this GTD software that runs on any Mac, visit the official OmniFocus website. A free trial of OmniFocus is available for download at their site, and you can also download abd try out future builds that’s currently in development.

About The Omni Group – The Omni Group is an elite team of special forces who develop productivity applications exclusively for the Mac, such as: OmniWeb, a web browser offering far more than standard browsing features which won a 2004 Macworld Editor’s Choice Award; OmniOutliner, an outlining and organizational tool which was awarded an Editor’s Choice Award in December 2005; and OmniGraffle, a highly regarded diagramming application that received a 4.5 mouse product rating out of a possible 5 mice in the February 2006 Macworld magazine. Other products developed by the Omni Group are: OmniPlan, OmniFocus, OmniDazzle, OmniDiskSweeper, OmniObjectMeter, and OmniDictionary. The company is located in beautiful Seattle, Washington. In 1989, the founders of The Omni Group began working with some of the technologies that form the basis of Mac OS X. Their early consulting projects included creating a custom application for the William Morris Agency, and designing a database and security architecture for AT&T Wireless. The Omni Group was founded in 1993, and has since successfuly transitioned from a consulting/game porting business to the application developers today.


Written by dominiquejames

April 15, 2008 at 7:28 AM

One Response

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  1. […] time, we also did an exclusive interview with Ethan Shoonover. Ethan used to be photographer before joining OmniGroup, and he talked about how photographers […]

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