Cal Newport’s insight about OmniFocus

October 18, 2020

The other day, I was listening to an episode of Cal Newport’s “Deep Questions” podcast. Cal is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and he has written several popular books. His most popular book is Deep Work, in which he argues for developing the skill of focusing, without distraction, on cognitively demanding tasks (because those tasks add the most value).

I respect Cal for his insights and for his relentless promotion of the idea of deep work, so I was interested when a listener of Cal’s podcast asked him what he thinks of OmniFocus. I know that Cal uses a very simple to-do app—Trello, for the curious—and that’s just about the opposite of OmniFocus.

Cal told a story about how OmniFocus came to be and said that he thinks OmniFocus is a fine app. He then made a point that I’ve thought about before, but hadn’t spelled out so clearly: you can see OmniFocus as a type of relational database. It includes data types such as tasks and projects and each task or project has a state. You can then write queries (in OmniFocus-speak: create custom perspectives) to view a certain slice of your data.

That’s why, Cal suggested, OmniFocus can be particularly appealing to people like software developers, who feel very comfortable querying databases. Experience bears this out: among the 550 students who have enrolled in my course Get Stuff Done with OmniFocus 3, a good portion are software developers. And I also have this background: when I was 14, I developed my own content management system with a complicated database on the backend.

But what if you’re not a software developer? Just this week, three students emailed me that they were pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of the OmniFocus workflow that I teach. And that’s a common refrain: many people customize OmniFocus to the point where the system drags them down, rather than propelling them forward. This is particularly true for people who don’t have a background in computer science and relational databases.

For many people, OmniFocus is a great fit. I love OmniFocus too! I mention Cal’s insight to illustrate a broader point: your task manager (and any other productivity app you use) should resonate with your way of thinking.

Does it?

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