Task Management Automation and a Peek Under the GeekDad Hood

GeekDad Automation
Images from the OmniGroup, GeekDad, and Apple

I’m guilty of taking on more projects than I should be able to handle, which is why I have to rely on a strong task management strategy to keep me afloat. So I thought I would share with our readers a peek under my task management hood and show you a bit of behind-the-scenes work that goes into writing for a blog like GeekDad.

My Tools

This article is not so much about tools, but instead about really pushing any tool or system you choose to work hard for you and not against you. My task management automation tools of choice are OmniFocus and the iOS automation app Shortcuts. There are other tools I use as well like Drafts, Reminders (a built-in iOS app), and Ulysses,and when used with an automation tool like Shortcuts they can really go from being a nice little utility to being a superpower. One of the biggest traps you can fall into (and trust me, I fall into this trap all the time myself) is to fiddle with tools and technology rather than just use them to be more efficient (play vs work). What I hope to do with this article is give anyone who has a need similar to mine just enough information that they can go from “zero” to “off and running” without having to figure out every last feature of these tools.

Once you have a big win under your belt it is a lot easier to add-on and build more automation into your task management workflow so you can really start maximizing your time. And when I say time I am not just talking about the actual time it takes to do the tasks. I am also talking about the mental workload you are taking off your brain and now relying on your task management system for. Don’t underestimate how much a great task management system can free up your mind to think about more important and creative things.

OmniFocus

I got on the task management bandwagon after reading the Getting Things Done book by David Allen over a decade ago. Originally I was using an app/service called Evernote and eventually moved over to OmniFocus. This isn’t a sales pitch for OmniFocus. Many people (like me) swear by it and many others say it is way to much or too complicated for them. I use OmniFocus because between work, family and all my “hobbies” I have so many different projects going at one time that I really needed a system that had enough features built-in to handle my level of chaos. OmniFocus is one of many applications developed by the OmniGroup.

OmniFocus is structured such that tasks are either entered into a specific “Project” or into the “Inbox,” which is a short term holding ground for individual tasks that don’t have a home elsewhere in the system. Typically people set up projects within OmniFocus around their major areas of responsibility within their lives. So for me I have a project called “GeekDad” that contains all of my upcoming tasks for GeekDad. I also have other projects like “House Chores” and “Bills” (and I bet you can guess the kind of tasks that are in these projects).

OmniFocus is actually a whole suite of apps, as there is an app for iOS and an app for the Mac. The OmniGroup is even working on “OmniFocus for the web” so that you can log in to your OmniFocus from any computer or device that has a web browser. As you can imagine, buying an OmniFocus for your phone, tablet and computer (and maybe even a web version as well) could get quite expensive and it certainly does. The OmniGroup takes a lot of heat because they charge a premium for their apps. But it really comes down to whether the cost of the tool is worth it to you. For me it is absolutely worth the cost. Even with the high initial purchase price of the OmniFocus apps I am still over the course of several years spending “pennies” a day to run these apps and the value I get out of this tool is worth orders or magnitude more. This may not be the case for everyone, which is why I am going to give you an automation example in OmniFocus and one using the built-in Reminders iOS application. Both of these examples will use the free iOS app “Shortcuts” for the automation.

Shortcuts

Shortcuts is an iOS application that is now Apple-owned and developed, but it didn’t start out that way. Apple bought an app called “Workflow” and all the employees that developed it back in the Spring of 2017. Originally Workflow was developed as a way to get some serious automation done on iOS despite the “walled garden” that Apple had set up in its iOS operating system (meaning that for the most part apps were not allowed to talk to each other for security reasons). Workflow utilized a method called “URL callback” to pass information between iOS apps and the main iOS operating system and astoundingly you could get a lot of powerful automation done despite Apple’s “walled garden” in iOS. Apple obviously recognized that power and bought the company (employees and all). Now the original Workflow developers work as Apple employees and actively develop an app called Shortcuts for Apple (which is essentially the Workflow app re-branded for Apple). Shortcuts is a free download but it does not come pre-loaded on your iOS device like Mail and Reminders so you need to go to the iOS App Store and download and install the app yourself.

Shortcuts is pretty straight forward in that it is set up so that each “Shortcut” you create lets you string a bunch of actions together for the Shortcuts app to execute all at once (either with or without any user input required). So, for example, instead of having to manually go in and create a new Reminders list of 12 items to pack every time you are preparing to go on a trip (with those items being exact same thing every time) you can automate that task into a single button press. It is these types of recurring activities that really lend themselves well to automation. Since this an article for GeekDad it seemed appropriate to use a task automation example of managing GeekDad review tasks.

Automating GeekDad Review Articles

One of the challenges we have at both GeekDad and GeekMom is that our writers are spread out all over the country (and even the world), which means keeping everyone on the same page with respect to the world of new product reviews can be quite daunting at times. When a company has a new product coming out, their PR department (which oftentimes is a single person) sends out a lot of emails to all the press contacts they have. More often than not that means that several writers within GeekDad and GeekMom get the same press release. The last thing we want to do is have several people from the same blog contact the same company PR rep and request a product review sample. So it is on us to ensure that we keep track of who is writing about which new product. At any given time, the number of writers we have coupled with the long lead-times we often get on new products can easily result in hundreds of products we have to keep track of.

We have a lot of very passionate geeks writing for both the GeekDad and GeekMom blogs so, as you can imagine, certain products can get the attention of multiple writers. So we came up with a system that we call our “Dibs Request Policy” that gives all of our writers a chance to call “dibs” on a new product while at the same time taking into account previous writer/PR relationships and priorities for “Core” vs “Occasional” writers. Without going into all of the rules and gory details, below are the major steps we take behind the scenes before we even start reviewing a new product:

  1. Submit a “dibs” request: We have an automated system we use to keep a list and status of every product review request from our writers that includes who is writing about it and whether the review has been published or not.
  2. Wait for your “dibs” to be approved: This step is a built-in pause (a pre-determined amount of time before a “dibs” is approved) in our process to allow other writers and our editors to see a dibs request and respond in case they have already written about that product or may already be in contact with that company about the product. This ensures that we only have one writer at time working a company about a product review.
  3. Receive your “dibs” approval: Our system will notify you within a couple of days once your “dibs” has been accepted and is active within the system. This tells you that enough time has passed for the rest of the team to be aware that you intend to write about this product and it give you the green light to make contact and/or continue working with said company/PR person.
  4. Receive your review unit: Most of our reviews involve a company sending us a physical review unit or maybe a download code if it is software or video game related. Sometimes quite a bit of time can pass between when you are initially told a product is being sent to you and when you actually receive it (turns out developing a new product is hard and involves delays… who knew?). So keeping your own personal list of what products you are expecting is pretty essential.
  5. Write the review and publish: Pretty self-explanatory. Once you receive the review unit the next step is for you the writer to write the review and publish it.
  6. Send PR contact the article link: This is where you send the PR person you have been working with a link to the article once it is published.
  7. Close your dibs: Once you have written and published a review about a product you need to circle back to the dibs system and close the dibs. But before the dibs is closed you need to make sure the dibs item captures the URL of the article you just wrote (so people in the future who find the closed dibs request can go back and read the article). Oftentimes there are multiple versions of a product so just because it is has been written about before doesn’t mean it couldn’t be reviewed again later, hence the need to actually read the previously published article before deciding whether writing a new review is warranted.

Those are the major steps involved. So first off, why would anyone want to automate this? There are only 7 steps so it should be pretty easy to remember, right? Well, the important thing to recognize is that weeks and even months can pass between some of these steps. Also, if you write at least one article a week for GeekDad like I do you can have several dozen or more dibs in the system at any given time (right now I have 10 active ones I am working on, which is probably a low or average number) as we often get contacted by companies many months in advance of a product launch and article publishing date. When you add all of this together you get a lot small tasks that you need to keep track of over a long period of time… which is nearly impossible to do in your head.

So I have automated this recurring set of tasks using the iOS Shortcuts app. OmniFocus has a feature that allows you to create a Project and a group of tasks using the Task Paper text input format. Task Paper is a plain text To-Do list application for the Mac that has been around since 2006. What’s nice about the Task Paper input formatting is that it is easy to understand and pretty straightforward to write and work with once you understand the basic nomenclature. The OmniGroup has a great support article that explains the basic syntax and the bottom of the article has a list of commands that will support most if not all of your needs associated with quickly creating a bunch of tasks in OmniFocus with this method.

So why use the Task Paper input method? Two reasons. The first is that the Shortcuts app supports it and the second reason being that it allows you to create multiple actions within OmniFocus all at once in a simple to understand text input format. This means that it is easy to automate names and dates into a groups of tasks within a project. So rather than explain all the details I would rather just give you access to my Shortcuts shortcut for my GeekDad review set of actions (yes, that is what a shortcut automation within the Shortcuts app is called…kinda confusing).

But before downloading my shortcut….In order to use this and download this shortcut you should first download and install the free iOS app Shortcuts.

After you have downloaded and installed the app then click the link below to my shared GeekDad Review Process shortcut and it will allow you to download the shortcut and add it to your shortcut library within the Shortcuts app.

Here is a link to my “GeekDad Review Process” shortcut

The shortcut itself is quite simple. I have one “ask for input command” that prompts me to enter the product/company name of the item I am reviewing. I then take the text that I input and set that to a variable that is used in the text block throughout the shortcut. The text block is where all the “magic” takes place. I use the Task Paper input format to create a new project in OmniFocus that uses the product/company name as part of the Project name. I then create a serial set of tasks within OmniFocus in this new Project I just created that mirrors the 7 steps I just explained above. The result is the following:

GeekDad Automation
The resulting new Project and set of tasks that Shortcuts creates in OmniFocus (Image by Skip Owens)

I am sharing this Shortcut with all of you because it has a lot of reuse potential. If you use OmniFocus and you have something that you do over an over again that requires multiple steps, then you most likely have a need for this type of automation. Simply start with my Shortcut and edit as needed to suit your particular need. If you want to go deeper with OmniFocus and automation I highly recommend looking into the Mac Sparky Video Field Guides on OmniFocus and Shortcuts. The OmniFocus Field Guide is a set of videos that walks you through all of the functionality of OmniFocus or Shortcuts. An application that has this much power is unfortunately at times very complex and these Video Field Guides really help.

If you don’t use OmniFocus and have no need to do so then I still may have something for you with my next automation example.

Automating With Reminders

If you don’t already use OmniFocus or you aren’t interested in investing in the OmniFocus app then worry not… there are a ton of alternatives. There are a lot of really great checklist applications out there and many of them can be automated within iOS with the Shortcuts application. The easiest way for me to demonstrate this is to use Apple’s built in to-do list application Reminders. So I created a shortcut in the iOS Shortcuts application that does the same things that I do with OmniFocus but instead the tasks are sent to a GeekDad reminders list in the Reminders application. In Reminders you are able to set an alert for a specified time. I only have one task in my list of GeekDad review tasks that I assign a time to and that is receiving an email from the GeekDad editors granting my Dibs. I set this as 3 days from the time I submit the Dibs (the official policy is 24 hours but I add a little pad). This allows for our other writers to see all the Dibs being submitted and reply in case they already have engaged with that particular company. When automating with OmniFocus it is very easy to set the task as “due” in 3 days since there is syntax in the Task Paper input. But for the Reminders App in iOS you need to add a few extra steps in the shortcut to:

  • Get today’s date
  • Add 3 days to that date
  • Assign the new date to a variable
  • Use that variable to set the alert time on the reminder
GeekDad Automation
The resulting task list that Shortcuts creates in the iOS Reminders app (Image by Skip Owens)

The main drawback to using the Reminders app instead of OmniFocus is that if you have multiple review processes at once they will all be within the same “GeekDad” reminders list within the Reminders app while in OmniFocus each one gets its own Project. Because of the way the Shortcuts app assigns tasks to a reminders list there is no way to automate creating a new reminders list for each new set of review tasks. As long as you don’t get too many review projects within the same reminders list I think this is manageable.

Just as with the shortcut to automate my OmniFocus tasks I am also sharing my shortcut for the Reminders app. Click here to download my “GeekDad Review-Reminders” shortcut.

One very important caveat for the “GeekDad Review-Reminders shortcut…make sure you create a to-do list in the reminders application called “GeekDad” before running the shortcut. You could alternatively create a new list and use any name you choose, but  just make sure you change the name of the list in the last step of the shortcut that the shortcut is adding all of the tasks to.

Summary

I am a big proponent of automation. It can save you a load of time and take a congestive load offyour brain and allow it to focus on more important and creative things. But as with anything you must use automation sparingly. Use it too much and you end up spending more time scripting the automation than the time you saved by automating the tasks. But in the cases where you do the exact same steps over and over again and missing or forgetting one of those steps is a real pain, automation can really save your bacon. So even if the example I provided doesn’t directly apply to you (and unless you write for GeekDad or GeekMom it won’t), I suspect there is a set of tasks in your life that is similar in nature to our review process and you can take the shortcuts I have shared with you and modify them for your particular use.

One more shout out I want to do for automation. If you want to learn more about automation I highly recommend listening to the Automators podcast, where David Sparks and Rose Orchard tackle a different automation topic on every episode of the podcast. It’s a great way to get your foot into the automation door and these two make automation very approachable.

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