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Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Sat 05 March 2016

I was listening to the “Under the Radar” podcast the other day. The podcast is by independent iOS developers, “Underscore” David Smith and Marco Arment, who discuss topics and issues related to being solo, indy, software developers. They both work from home.

In this episode, they talk about how to maintain a good work/life balance. David Smith quotes an old saying, “good fences make good neighbors”. He was talking about the temporal fence he sets at five o’clock in his daily work schedule. As soon as 5pm rolls around, he stops working. This helps him stay focused on work during work hours. It then lets him focus on his family outside of work hours. It’s a great metaphor.

I do the same thing, but on a weekly timeframe. It’s what I’m talking about when I discuss home management and what I do to keep things organized. My wife works non-traditional hours, so I schedule my prime working hours to match hers. Friends and other family work “normal” weekday, nine-to-five hours. This makes it difficult sometimes, but putting up the “fences” helps, even if it varies weekly, and even daily.

I love listening to podcasts by folks like Underscore and Marco. Hearing other people talk about problems similar to the ones you face yourself is really helpful.

Deep Work and Home Management

Mon 29 February 2016

Cooking, vaccuming, watering plants…why do I spend so much time and attention on home management tasks? I do it so I can forget about it.

Last year we were so busy, we got nothing done. This year, we laid out a plan to guide us through the year. I found a tremendous amount of help and inspiration for this from a book called “Deep Work”, written by Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport.

The Concept

“Deep work” is a concept that Newport has been developing on his blog for the past few years.

In January, he published a book of the same title. In it, he first describes exactly what he means by “deep work” and its value in today’s society. He then lays down a set of rules to help you design your circumstances to accomplish this work.

Needless to say, I find great value in the concepts and guidelines he has developed.

Deep versus Shallow

Fundamentally, deep work is “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”. It is set in contrast to “shallow work”.

Shallow work is busy work. It is the type of work you do when you are on the phone with many different people throughout the day. When you zip through a list of things, doing the same thing for each item on the list, you are doing shallow work.

Shallow work is easy to dip into for a while, take a break, then pick up where you left off. You are probably quite familiar with shallow work. It is prevalent in today’s world.

Going Deep

To accomplish larger, more meaningful tasks of higher quality requires work of a different sort.

Carl Jung revolutionized the field of psychology by building a personal retreat in the woods where he would go to think about the problems he was trying to solve. Cal Newport characterizes the work Jung did there as the deep work described in his own philosophy.

Newport presents other accomplished figures — famous like Mark Twain and lesser known like the blacksmith Rick Furrer from Wisconson — who also practiced or practices what he calls deep work. He finds the common thread in how these individuals are able to reach noteworthy success in their respective fields.

That thread is deep work – the ability to focus and concentrate for extended periods of time. Its principle is that these periods of concentration are necessary for achieving the breakthroughs that comprise extraordinary work.

You accomplish more in one five-hour session than in five one-hour sessions. Interruptions kill your momentum and cause you to start over from the beginning.

“The mind is a locomotive. It requires time for getting under headway. …Prolonged thinking leads to profound thinking.”Charles Franklin Thwing

How to Go Deep

Getting these chunks of time is a task in and of itself. Newport outlines several different philosophies you can use for finding these chunks in your own life. The last two-thirds of his book contains rules you can use to help you find them.

But getting the time is only part of the battle. The ability to use that time wisely, once found, is also critical. For this, Newport also provides tools and guidance.

These tools and rules are what separate “Deep Work” from other business productivity books. The rules are practical and useful. The advice is actionable and well-examined. Two months into the year, and I’m already seeing results from the practices I’ve put into place. My results will only get better as I get better at implementing them.

I can’t recommend this book enough.

Back to the Home

This of course leads us back to my home, my plants, and my kitchen.

In the exercise of finding, scheduling, and using deep work time in my own life, I have had to examine all the other parts of my “busy” schedule. In the process, I’ve re-purposed many tools I normally use for my “working life” and deployed them into my home. This has made managing my home life more efficient, which in turn has given me the time to go deep.

Mundane and repetitive chores can take over your schedule if you let them. I choose to take charge, put these menial tasks in their place, and forget about them. This leaves me with not just more time, but higher quality time to do the work that is important to me.

OmniFocus for Home Management

Tue 02 February 2016

Chores – a necessary evil. As a kid, I would do them when my mom told me. Living with roommates in college, I’d do them when I got around to it (and if nobody else had gotten to it first). It wasn’t until I had lived alone for a couple of years and found two-foot dust bunnies living under my bed did I realize how important it is to take care of chores regularly.

When dishes aren’t washed, they pile up. When the trash isn’t taken out, it starts to smell. When plants aren’t watered, they die. And I already told you what happens when you don’t vacuum.

Growing Up

So basically, I grew up and started to take care of business at home. But all this was still pretty simple when I lived alone. For the most part, I’d just wing it. Every once in a while, I’d forget to do something, but it was no big deal.

Today, I live in a bigger home, with one other person. Shared lives means shared responsibilities and a shared calendar. This means that winging it is no longer sufficient. So I took a page out of my work life and set up a system for organizing home chores with OmniFocus.


OmniFocus (OF) is a personal task manager created by the Omni Group as part of their productivity suite of apps. I’ve been using this app for about four– to five years now (I can’t remember exactly how long). It’s the best thing I’ve found so far for keeping me on track at doing things that need to get done.

This app is pretty feature heavy, so it may be a bit of overkill to use just for the home. But if you’re already using it for work anyway, adding home management is a no-brainer. If you’re in the market for a task management app, it’s definitely worth taking a look.

For the home, I use OF to schedule all the routine maintenance work I mentioned above. In addition to that, I also use it to make sure taxes get done, bills get paid, doctors are visited, etc. I’d find it pretty difficult to get through a month without it.

How I OmniFocus at Home

Two things about OF I find make it useful for home task management:

  • a hierarchical project structure
  • scheduled, repeating tasks

The Task Hierarchy

If you’re at the point of scheduling your chores at home just to get them done, then you’re already probably juggling a lot of different things coming from multiple directions. (If not, then maybe take a look at some simpler alternatives below.)

OmniFocus lets you organize these many tasks into a multi-level hierarchy. This allows you to place related tasks together and manage them as a group (as well as individually).

OmniFocus Task Hierarchy

The top level in OF is known as a “project”. So I created a project called Home where I placed my home management related tasks. Under this project, I have various high-level groupings of things that need to get done:

  • Home Office
  • Home Maintenance
  • Finances
  • Automobiles
  • Travel
  • etc. (you get the picture)

For work related tasks, I have completely separate projects. (For instance, tasks for this blog are under a project named Diligent.) This keeps a clear separation in place.

For additional clarity, you can add as many layers as you want underneath the project. My Finances task, for example, has sub-items like Bills and Taxes. In turn, Taxes has 2015, 2016, etc.

The ability to organize tasks in this fashion, something missing from simpler “to-do” list apps, makes OF invaluable to me.

Scheduled and Repeating Tasks

Back when I lived in an apartment by the beach, (quick visual aside...

Beach Sunset

...okay, I'm back) one perk I had but didn’t realize at the time was the dumpster behind the building. Ask me what day trash pickup was – I had no clue. I still don’t. Anytime I had to take out the trash, I just brought it out back, no problem.

Today, I live in the suburbs. It’s a wonderful house with a great garden in the back, but there’s a schedule to picking up the trash. They come by every Wednesday, so by Tuesday evening, I need to make sure the bins are out front, ready for pickup.

Simple Tasks

This is where OF’s scheduling and repetition features come in handy. I have a task set to come up every Tuesday afternoon reminding me to take the bins out. For Wednesday evenings, I have another task reminding me to bring the bins back in.

Remembering to do this every week seems like a pretty simple thing, and it is. But forgetting to do it just once (and having to wait a whole extra week to get rid of trash) makes you appreciate having a system to remind you.

But of course, it’s not just the trash. I used to be a plant-killer. No longer – I have a weekly reminder to water the plants. I hate vaccuming, but when that reminder comes up, I at least think about doing it.

Infrequent and Important Tasks

Then there are the things that are truly easy to forget: tasks that come up much less frequently, yet are even more important.

  • Bills need to be paid monthly – I have a checklist for the important ones that shouldn’t be missed.
  • Regular dentist cleanings are now a thing (every six months).

And annual tasks won’t be forgotten either – we have an annual airconditioner checkup scheduled soon and the rowing machine will need a new water purified tablet in a few months.

These are all things that I pop into OmniFocus, then forget about until it reminds me.

It’s pretty great. If you need a task manager, you should try it out.

OmniFocus Alternatives

So that’s how I manage at home with OmniFocus. But if you don’t need something that powerful yet, then you can probably get by with these simpler apps:


Reminders comes built into the iPhone, the iPad, and Macs, so there’s no additional cost to using it. You can schedule it to repeat on a regular basis, but that’s pretty much it. Organizing tasks is limited to creating separate “cards” for different groups of tasks.

This works for really simple things, but any level of complexity at all makes the app unwieldy.


There are many other third party task-management apps on the app store. I highlight Wunderlist here because it is one that I actually use in addition to OmniFocus.

This app is a step above the stock Reminders app. In addition to scheduled and repeating tasks, it also gives you some basic organization capabilities (like folders and subtasks). It also has features for collaborating with other people (something I’ll write about in a future post).

Wunderlist isn’t for heavy-duty task management in the same way OmniFocus is, but it excels at what it does at a lesser cost.

A System

OmniFocus is just one part of the system I’m using to manage our home and my business. I’ll be writing much more about this and other topics on this blog.

You should let me know on twitter or tell me by email at what you think or if you have any questions.

Thanks for reading!

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