Academic writing, task management, and OmniFocus

Task management systems, invented to increase focus and productivity, may become a source of distraction and procrastination. I certainly learned that when I tried to integrate my academic writing with OmniFocus. OmniFocus provides reminders, information, and space to decide what should be done. When you’re writing, you don’t need any of these. You need your determination, your notes and references, your Mac with the writing software and the Pomodoro. As Rands in Repose describes in ‘A Precious Hour’, creative work does not really have a place in the crazy world of email and OmniFocus. You need to create another world for it.

This other world may be morning (or afternoon) hours when you shut all your systems and just write. It may also be a separate physical space or a dedicated desktop on your computer. It should be protected from the onslaught of external information and request. Yet, there should be a connection between the two worlds. We academics write not (only) for fun and pleasure: we need to observe publishing schedules, incorporate various data, and collaborate with co-authors by email. So how do we implement this connection?

For a while, I experimented with entering different writing-related stuff into OmniFocus. At one point I tried to keep literally everything there. It included for example, many writing thoughts and inputs. It ended in a disaster to both OmniFocus and my writing. I firmyly decided to keep some things out of OmniFocus. I still maintain a list of my writing projects and even such funny “tasks” as “Write XXX article” (duration: 40h). Needless to say this ‘task’ does not enter any of my daily doing routines. I do not need a reminder that I have a large writing project, I just need to create a space and incline my mind. Yet, a list of long writing tasks (in OmniFocus or elsewhere) may be useful because it helps long-term time planning and supports your resolve to say ‘no’ to impossible assignments.

It is still useful to keep certain things related to your writing in OmniFocus. These can include returning proofs, meeting coauthors, and circulating copies of your published work (hooray!) Other bits and pieces related to writing (notes and ideas) may be kept in NValt, OmniOutliner, TaskPaper and other systems which live on that magical desktop where the three drafts are born.

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy at Central European University and Associate Professor of Lund University. He is also the coordinator of MESPOM, an Erasmus Mundus Masters course operated by six Universities in Europe and North America.
This entry was posted in Tasks, Workflows, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Academic writing, task management, and OmniFocus

  1. Csaba Pusztai says:

    Hmm, I wonder if a creative process can be backed up by ‘tools’n’methods’ that are inherently designed for exploitative rather than explorative tasks. Well, I guess one can get used to relying on little apps and tricks, but as for me, I am still wired in an analog way. Regardless of skeuomorphic features (e.g., the cork board in Scrivener) which try to give the user the ‘old school’ feel, I seem to remember things by their physical location. I can remember that I scribbled a note on the upper left corner of the second page of a printed paper, but there are no such clues there for me when working on the computer. Maybe indexing, tagging is exactly meant to replace (augment) our traditional cognitive structures that enabled locating information based on physical interaction/contact (flipping through actual pages, handwriting on margins etc.). I have always thought I was a geek, and now I have to find out that I am not. :)

    • Jessica Jewell says:

      Csaba I don’t think you’re alone in this, particularly not among people with really active spatial cognition. Some cognitive research has also come out about how long-hand writing triggers creative and memory processes far better than typing. But one of these decades I’m sure we’ll laugh about they days when we typed to talk to our computers!

  2. zerode says:

    Reblogged this on atelier186 and commented:
    I use OmniFocus as well and find it incredibly useful, particularly for organizing projects and keeping track of more complex tasks.

  3. Pingback: The Tao of the three drafts | Academic workflows on Mac

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