Managing My Reference Material with DEVONthink, OmniFocus and Shortcuts

Reference material is a big challenge, and I find if I don’t set myself up for success from the beginning, then I am most definitely doomed to fail. I found DEVONthink some years ago and really like it for managing my reference material.

I realized a while ago that creating a place to store material related to a project when I create my project is critical—if it doesn’t happen then, when will it happen? As I have a strong tendency to reach for my iPad or my iPhone rather than a Mac, I solved this problem with a little help from Shortcuts and X-Callback URLs!

When you import the shortcut, it asks you for a DEVONthink destination. I keep all of my project material in one database, so I used that as my destination. You could also use a group – or remove the destination components entirely to put everything in the global inbox.

Copy the item link in DEVONThink so you can get the ID for Shortcuts.
Copy the item link in DEVONthink so you can get the ID for Shortcuts.

When you run the shortcut, it asks you for a name, you can cheat and add lots of names though (use a return to separate them), and it will run through each item.

For each one, you can choose if this is a project or a task. For projects, the shortcut automatically creates a group, and for a task, you get the choice of markdown, text, or a group.

The shortcut creates the DEVONthink item first, then creates the project or task in OmniFocus with a link back to the DEVONthink destination in the note. It’s a simple system but works well for me!

You can download DEVONthink And OmniFocus here.

Announcement: Build Your OmniFocus Workflow

Today I’m very excited to announce a book: Build Your OmniFocus Workflow. I’ve been hard at work on this for the last 3 months – but not alone. My fabulous co-author, Ryan Dotson, has been hard at work right along side me (admittedly with a timezone difference) – and we have 150 pages ready for you!

This book is designed, as the name implies, to help you build a workflow which works for you with OmniFocus – whether you’ve never used the app before, or if you’ve used it for years and just want to improve your setup. It is comprised of five sections:

  • First Steps: Getting OmniFocus set up with a basic setup.
  • Fundamentals: Walking you through the default perspectives, and expanding on your current setup – plus diving into settings.
  • Advancing: Diving much deeper, including custom perspectives, creative uses for tags, review and onwards.
  • Final Horizons: Honing your workflow to get the most out of your system.
  • Our Workflows: Ryan and I get personal and tell you about how our setups work.

Throughout the book there are tips, notes, personal comments, and most important of all: activities for you to complete in order for you to create a set up which allows you to be productive and which will hopefully also allow you to feel like you’re fully in control of your life.

OmniFocus is a remarkably flexible app and can adapt to practically any workflow. As such, everyone must go through the process of building their own workflow with it, whether from scratch or based upon someone else’s. Build Your OmniFocus Workflow, written with the insight of two long-time OmniFocus users, offers practical advice on top of solid technical information. Ryan and Rose guide you through the basic concepts and perspectives of OmniFocus and into the more complex world of custom perspectives and automation. All throughout they give their own interpretations of how they use features in their workflows and finish the book with more details about how their systems work for them.

Build Your OmniFocus Workflow is available for a short time at launch for $25. The price will increase in the new year to $30.

This book is not static, we intend to update it when new features are added to any of the OmniFocus platforms. That is not to say the book is incomplete, we have about 40,000 words and are very happy to release it today!

Now, to the nerdier side of things. You may be thinking “I’ve never heard of Ryan” – and until I started beta testing OmniFocus 3 for iOS I hadn’t either! In fact, Ryan and I have never actually met in person – the internet put us together (with some help from The Omni Group), and we ended up writing a book. If that’s not a testament to how wonderful the world can be I don’t know what is! I’m going to go through a little of how we wrote the book, just to give you a taste.

We started by mapping ideas out in iThoughts. We thought we’d write Markdown files and check them into a private GitHub repo – but for a variety of reasons realised this wasn’t going to work how we had originally envisioned so quickly moved over to Scrivener where the project has been ever since. Scrivener has excellent Dropbox sync support so we worked through that, back and forth – with differing timezones coming in handy as you can only have one copy of a Scrivener file open at once. Once we had a large chunk of the book written then came the hard part: formatting.

I have a confession, I had very little input on the formatting. By which I mean the styling formatting rather than the organisation of the book. Ryan had a hidden talent for this from which I have learnt a great deal! If you think the book looks pretty that’s down to him. From the font choices, to the indentation, and the whimsy of the hands for the notes and tips, Ryan did all the hard work. Just don’t ask him about list formatting, he’s still recovering from that.

The cover design was done by the extremely talented Josh Hughes. Josh has also designed a series of icons for OmniFocus custom perspectives.

Get the book here! If you’re not sure (understandable), then you can also get a free sample.

Automators 5: Project Templates

Episode 5 of automators is all about project templates, and how they can help you to be more productive. David and I are both OmniFocus users, but project templates can be used with almost every task management system out there – even Reminders!

The simplest type of project template is a project you can copy – this is easily done in both OmniFocus and Things, the advantage is it’s easy to set up, but it’s also static – what you have is what you get.

You can also store project templates somewhere else, the places I have used are:

  • Editorial
  • iCloud Drive
  • Dropbox
  • Drafts
  • Workflow/Shortcuts

One thing I have done is to import all of the templates I’d previously saved into Dropbox and iCloud Drive into Drafts – this was easily done by pressing and holding the + icon which then lets you import a file.

Something I use a lot when making templates for OmniFocus is TaskPaper – and I even made a Drafts Action Group to help me do so easily. What you can do with OmniFocus and TaskPaper is create a template in OmniFocus, copy it and then paste it into a text editor (like Drafts) to edit it – this allows you to put “fuzzy dates” in, such as “Thursday” or “Monday -2d”, the latter evaluating to two days before Monday. You can also include «variables» which the TaskPaper to OF action will then help you replace.

I demonstrated how to use this action group in a screencast for you:

And there’s also a blog post all about it: Using Drafts 5 Taskpaper with OmniFocus

As I mentioned in the podcast, Todoist supports importing a CSV file – and if your task manager does too then you can use Numbers or Excel and date math to make relative dates.

So, what kind of project templates might you create?

  • Packing Lists
  • Publishing a podcast episode
  • Writing and submitting an essay/report
  • And much more!

While David and I are both primarily OmniFocus users, there are also lots of great resources for Things users:

And the Todoist blog also has a post called A whole new way to create and share Todoist Templates – Todoist Blog.

One of the workflows/Shortcuts I mentioned on the podcast was one to create an essay project, the options here are somewhat simplified, but demonstrate quite nicely how this works:

  • Essay to OmniFocus
  • Essay to OmniFocus
    As the URL Scheme in Things doesn’t support adding headings I formatted the project in Things somewhat differently – however you can import a JSON which does support headings format so if you’re willing to get stuck in I’m sure you can figure it out!

Another Workflow/Shortcut I mentioned is the iOS implementation of these scripts:

David also did a great screencast about how he uses Shortcuts to make project templates:

Make sure to check out the show notes for all of the links, and I look forward to discussing this episode and all of your examples for project templates in the forums!

Workflow: Add Task & Sub Tasks To OmniFocus

One thing I frequently do in OmniFocus is to add an action group, that is a task with a series of sub tasks. Action groups are flexible because they can be turned into projects if necessary, or be a series of tasks within a project.

The Workflow works by asking you for the main task, then it asks for the sub tasks. Each sub task is indented (and has a dash added in front of the name to make it TaskPaper friendly), and then the whole lot is put into my OmniFocus inbox.

Exact Workflow Steps:

  • Ask for Input: This is the main task.
  • Text: Add a dash before it – which in TaskPaper makes it a task not a project.
  • Add to VariableTask List
  • Ask for Input: Ask for the sub tasks.
  • Split Text: Turn this into a repeatable item
  • Repeat with Each – go through the sub tasks.
    • Text: Add the tab indent and the dash before each task.
    • Add to VariableTask List
  • Get VariableTask List. This makes sure we get the main task too, the output of the repeat loop would just be the sub tasks.
  •  Combine Text: Put the action group together.
  • Add TaskPaper to OmniFocus: Everything goes into my OmniFocus inbox.

You can get the workflow here: Add Task & Sub Tasks To OmniFocus.

OmniFocus 3 for Mac Sneak Peek

I am once again lucky enough to be in the early preview for OmniFocus 3 – this time on the Mac! What’s important to keep in mind here is that this is a beta, and an early one at that – things can and likely will change between me writing this post and OmniFocus 3 for Mac being released – they may have already changed by the time you read this post!


This is a beta app so there’s no guarantees, for me the app has been very stable – but I’m also running it on High Sierra. However as the builds can literally be released every few hours (depending on what is being added or changed) this could change at the drop of a hat – so be warned 😉.

The Icon

We have the sketch icon again! It’s cute, and helpful to distinguish between the two apps in your dock. Personally I put OmniFocus 2 in a folder in Applications called “OmniFocus 2” and the beta in a folder called “OmniFocus 3” (yes, I was feeling creative, however did you guess‽). This means if you launch the app via spotlight you get a helpful text hint about which version of the app you’re launching too.

Forecast View

Interleaved tasks and calendar events have made their way to the Mac in the forecast view. This is really handy for putting my day together and I’m a big fan of this on iOS.

I find this view much more beneficial than the gantt style view in OmniFocus 2, just because it brings everything together.


OmniFocus looks different now, for example the toolbar across the top is much slimmer and by default includes fewer actions – though as always you can customise it by right clicking on it to add more options. The sidebar where the perspectives (and any starred custom perspectives) are listed, as well as the area where the project or tag list is shown have a dark background too, which I find helps me focus on the tasks area – the important things!

One place where you can see some subtle, but effective changes to the design is in the inspector. For example the status of the selected item has changed from a dropdown to segmented controls – the iOS equivalent of radio buttons (you have probably seen these in the maps app, to say that you want to see a map, transit, or satellite view). Tags of course have changed too, so that you could see multiple tags which are assigned to the current item at the same time.


In OmniFocus 3 for iOS we got custom repeats, and these have been brought over to the Mac as well. The place where this really shows is in the monthly where you can specify that a task should repeat on day X of the month, or you can specify a repeat on the yth zday of each month (e.g. the second Tuesday). These repeats have come in very handy for me – for example I submit my timesheet for last month on the first Monday of the next month.

Custom Perspectives

Another feature we’re now seeing on the Mac is enhanced custom perspectives. You can build these by nesting rules – if you’ve used Hazel or created smart folders in Finder then you’ll be familiar with creating the rules (click the + to add a new one), and you can press ALT++ to add a nested rule. A new feature here that’s not yet on iOS is the ability to change the overarching rule, on iOS it defaults to “all of”, and this can be changed to “any of” or “none of” in the new Mac version – though at the time of writing this doesn’t yet sync to iOS.

I’m very excited about the new OmniFocus 3 for Mac, and really looking forward to seeing how it evolves throughout the beta process!

Workflow: OmniFocus When Home

I often add things to my OmniFocus as reminders of items to do when I get home – however they’re not due when I get home, which would be the default if I added these icons through the Forecast view for today. As such as I have the following Workflow which allows me to defer items until I get home.


  • Ask for Input: The first thing I do is input one or several tasks which I would like to accomplish.
  • Split Text: Turn this block of text into a series of items.
  • Repeat with Each
    • Change Case: Make the task sentence case.
    • Text: Flag the tasks and my preferred tags – Home, Afternoon, and Evening.
  •  Combine Text: Turn this list back into a block.
  • Add TaskPaper to OmniFocus.

You will want to tweak the tags added to the tasks, to suit your needs. You may also wish to remove the flag I add to these tasks. You can get the workflow here: OmniFocus When Home

Workflow: OmniFocus Travel Plans

Another Workflow workflow I demonstrated in my Learn OmniFocus Video was one to generate a project for travel. I travel a fair amount, and often to more than one destination so this is built around that.

The first thing I do is decide where I’m going and when I’ll go there. Then the Workflow puts together the start of a “before I go” list – including entries such as booking time off work, booking flights, charging battery packs, etc. The next step is to choose if this is a one or a multiple destination trip, if it’s just one location then I add a few entries for that – planning travel to and from the airport, things to do, and so on. If it’s a multi destination trip then I have to tell the app which places I’m going and in what order, and it generates a series of tasks based on that. The last thing the template does is to add packing categories to my project, I keep my actual packing lists in TripList as it has a wizard which generates a list for me (I could replicate that in Workflow of course!) – and syncs things to my TripIt plans.

The taskpaper result for a one destination trip looks like this:

2018/08 - Belgium:
    - Book time off work 11/08/2018 - 14/08/2018
    - Book flights to Belgium
    - Plan travel to the airport for 11/08/2018
    - Plan travel home from the airport for 14/08/2018
    - Make a packing list
    - Pack
    - Charge battery pack
    - Charge headphones
    - Put films & TV shows on iPad
    - Book accommodation for Belgium
    - Plan travel from the airport to accommodation (11/08/2018)
    - Plan travel from the accommodation to the airport (14/08/2018)
    - Plan things to do in Belgium
    - Packing
        - Clothing
        - Documents
        - Electronics
        - Miscellaneous
        - Hand luggage

And for a multiple destination trip you end up with this:

2018/08 - Belgium / Netherlands:
    - Book time off work 11/08/2018 - 18/08/2018
    - Book flights to Belgium
    - Plan travel to the airport for 11/08/2018
    - Plan travel home from the airport for 18/08/2018
    - Make a packing list
    - Pack
    - Charge battery pack
    - Charge headphones
    - Put films & TV shows on iPad
    - Belgium @autodone(true) @parallel(true)
        - Book accommodation for Belgium
        - Plan travel from the airport to accommodation
        - Plan things to do in Belgium
    - Netherlands @autodone(true) @parallel(true)
        - Plan travel from Belgium to Netherlands (14/08/2018)
        - Book accommodation for Netherlands
        - Plan things to do in Netherlands
    - Packing
        - Clothing
        - Documents
        - Electronics
        - Miscellaneous
        - Hand luggage

As you can see there’s not much of a difference – just the division and repetition of some tasks.

You can get the workflow here: OmniFocus Travel Plans

If you look at that Workflow and think that it’s too complicated and I’m crazy (possible), then I also have a simple version for one destination which you can get here: OmniFocus Travel Plans – Simple