Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Power Unused

productivity & tech 3 min read

I’ve been thinking about my set of productivity apps here on my Mac (I do almost no work on my iPhone except for making notes, and I don’t own an iPad). Taking productivity seriously means always being willing to refine your setup, I think. Sometimes you have to live with something for a while before you can see the areas where it doesn’t quite suit you.

I’ve crossed a threshold recently whereby I’m now working exclusively in open formats. It wasn’t a philosophy; just an accumulation of aesthetic and practical choices that had an unsought but pleasing side-effect.

I’ve spoken previously about how my needs are simple, and how I stick to stock apps in most cases. My contacts, calendars, and reminders apps are the eponymous ones on OS X. I use the default Terminal app, and I use Safari as my browser (largely due to its exemplarily low power consumption).

I use BBEdit for all my tweaking, scripting, automation, and when writing for this site. I use Byword when immersed in a piece for my weekly members’ letter. In both cases, I’m writing in Markdown, an open and plain-text format. When I’m writing books, I’m in Scrivener, which stores projects as a package of XML and RTF files.

My email is via IMAP, and I don’t even use Apple Mail. I handle email on the command-line, with occasional recourse to Gmail’s web interface, or whichever IMAP client is within reach.

The only hold-outs were my much-loved task-management and outlining tools, OmniFocus and OmniOutliner respectively. Omni Group makes best-in-class business and productivity tools for the Apple platforms. The software is great; I’d recommend it to you. I use it myself.

But do I need to? That’s what I’ve been asking myself.

OmniFocus is a Getting Things Done-style task management app. It has projects and contexts, statuses, due dates, recurrence, review periods, and perspectives. It’s very powerful.

All I use are hierarchical lists of tasks. Some are marked done, at which point I usually delete them forever. A handful are flagged as important. I add notes to some of my tasks. That’s it. I don’t even have the Inspector panel visible.

OmniOutliner is a professional planning and outlining app. It has custom columns, and calculations, and sorting, and templates, and a million formatting options including per-level styles. You can use it to write a whole book, if you like.

All I use are hierarchical lists of tasks, some done, and some with notes. The only formatting customisation I made was to have notes in a smaller font, and in purple. I really like purple.

Given how I work, there’s no reason for me to use both of those apps. The intersection of their functionality pretty much already exceeds what I need. The rest of it just hangs around overhead, making me feel vaguely ashamed, and giving me things to fiddle with and then revert later, having lost another ten minutes.

Accordingly, I’ve moved to TaskPaper for all of that stuff, as well as for my daily do-today list of tasks that tend to find themselves on the paper note block on my desk, or in on-screen notifications. The TaskPaper format is plain text (it’s pretty much how you’d type to-do lists anyway, in an email or a text file), and you can thus read or edit it with anything. Here’s a TaskPaper list:

    - Write about TaskPaper @flag
    - Stockpile Creme Eggs
    - Call insurance company @done

In TaskPaper, the “@done” item will be struck-through. The “@flag” item will be in orange, because that’s how I set it up. Anything starting with a dash is a task, and anything without a dash is either a project (if it ends with a colon), or just a note.

I put together a TaskPaper theme that partially mimics some of the OmniFocus aesthetic. For fellow tinkerers and customisers, I also wrote a Ruby library for TaskPaper files that lets you work with the format whether or not you have the app. It’s pretty good. If you want an iOS app suggestion for both TaskPaper and Markdown editing, go with Editorial.

I really love the philosophy of just adding a “@tag” to my plain-text lists as metadata. I love that it’s readable no matter what app or script or whatever I’m using. I love that it’s portable, and parseable, and lightweight, and intuitive. I love that it’s text. Maybe that’s weird, but there you have it.

I think that augmented interfaces and interactions should be a bridge to enhancing the usability of plain, portable formats. I think that our data should stay around forever, regardless of what app we used to create it. I think we should be able to tie things together in unforeseen ways, just because it’s helpful, and it’s possible, and it’s the same odd sort of reluctantly-admitted dorky fun as perfecting a spreadsheet or messing around with your site’s CSS.

And I most definitely think that if you’re using something with a load of bells and whistles that you never touch, it’s a red flag. There’s a cognitive load there, and I bet it’s a bit ego-depleting too. Like you’re playing at being an adult, and hoping no-one notices. I like simple things that I can use elementally and idiosyncratically.

Stock apps, if feasible. Open formats. Plain, readable text. Then my own macros, and scripts, and workflows, and whatever I can be bothered with that day. That’s where I like to be, productivity-wise, and I find it liberating. There are different definitions of flexibility, and that’s mine.

For me, freedom is power unused.

OmniFocus exports TaskPaper format, by the way, which is a typically nice touch. OmniOutliner can export text that’s pretty damned close, too, and you can clean the rest up with some regular expressions.