Connect Your Tasks and Your Data with Evernote and Omnifocus

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 12: Milestones

Have you found an optimal task management solution that also handles your knowledge management library very well? Me neither.

For the past five years I’ve tried to find the “one app” to cover task management and knowledge management, however I’ve had plenty of failed attempts; More than I would publicly admit. A lot of task managers out there fulfilled some duties well, but failed to execute aspects such as note taking and knowledge management. The biggest emerging problem for the majority of note-taking applications is providing actionable context to your notes.

Evernote VS Omnifocus

I tried to use Evernote as a task manager, but it didn’t work out that great for me. There were methodologies like “The Secret Weapon”, and a book from my buddy Daniel Gold, that suggested all sorts of ways you could integrate Evernote as your main task management workflow, but at the end of the day all it ever did was make me work for my system, instead of my system working for me. Fraser Spears, a productivity influencer who uses Evernote for his task management, explained perfectly well in his article From Omnifocus to Evernote, why I won’t use Evernote for task management anymore:

“In effect, my Evernote system is a reference database with a task management system hacked onto the side.”

I’ve never particularly liked “hacked” solutions. Hacking a tool to do something that is not designed has never delivered the desired results for me. I would always feel the effects of a poor user experience that comes from working outside an application’s core design. So I moved from Evernote to Omnifocus, and I never looked back.

This article will teach you how to make a task management workflow that will seamlessly work with your reference material repository. Not only will you get to use some of the best tools for specific tasks, you will learn that you don’t need to compromise on the rich media provided by Evernote, nor on the task management flexibility that comes with Omnifocus.

The Background to my Evernote-Omnifocus Workflow

My life’s work lies in the gadgets that I use. I live on my iPhone, iPad and a Mac, and within that ecosystem, most things work flawlessly. Luckily for me, the same goes for the apps that define my workflow and productive output. I was looking for an app ecosystem that would allow me to seamlessly continue the work straight from my task manager, regardless of the hardware that is in front of me. This proved to be a much more difficult task than I’d imagined.

Being a big fan of Evernote and Omnifocus, I’ve always looked for a good way to make these two tools work together, as they had a unique and varied feature set. But I didn’t know that this by itself would take me to the solution. Individually they can’t fulfill all the needs that I have, however, their combined power significantly increases my organizational structure. Omnifocus is the starting point; It behaves somewhat as my “task operating system”, which essentially means that I don’t do the actual work inside of the Omnifocus, but rather use its linking tool to take me straight towards the things that I am working on.

When Evernote incorporated links that open URLs straight to your app, regardless of the Apple device you are using, I knew I was onto something big; Something that would work wonders for my cross-platform workflow. There were other writing and note application that supported URL schematics that would allow you to open a specific note or a text file, like Nebulous notes, but they were limited to iOS only. This left Evernote as the only contender to link my notes and work together with task management.

How to integrate Omnifocus and Evernote?

Omnifocus and Evernote can play very nicely together. Not only can you interlink from one to another, you can do that across all platforms and devices, be it iOS or OS X. These two tools are inherently quite different, serving 2 different purposes in my workflow. But often my reference materials are supposed to work together with my tasks, and that is where the URL schematics from Evernote work perfectly inside of Omnifocus.

This workflow came to life during the days of iOS7, and it used to require me to create links on my Mac in order to access them on my iPhone. However a lot of things changed since then, and now with sharing functionality that comes natively with iOS8, you can create tasks directly from your notes.

Omnifocus has a link structure of its own, but unfortunately Evernote can’t “swallow” those links in its own system and make them clickable, which makes two-way integration a bit cumbersome.

Luckily this workflow is not a hack, it is an intended user behavior that comes from both applications.

Big Benefits of This Integration

One of the consequences of this integration is the fact that I’ve started using Evernote for my writing. But there is another big consequence, and that is the fact that now I am using my Evernote inbox as a dominant one. Day to day, I clip stuff, and my Evernote inbox is generally more vibrant. At the end of the day I sit in front of the computer, and I don’t have to go to “two places”, because I’ve got everything in one place. My Omnifocus inbox is much calmer and contains much less clipped information. This is good, as it is designed to be cleaned up particularly easily. A lot of tasks that end up in my Omnifocus inbox I complete while I purge the Omnifocus inbox, which now has 4–5 items, instead of 30–40. This reduction in my inbox increased the overall usability and time spent on maintaining my apps ecosystem.

Understanding URL schematics

Part of this integration is enabled by URL schematics that are a component of OS X and iOS platforms; In the case of Omnifocus these links will work on both platforms, enabling you to have the same system of links working on both of your devices. While on Evernote, Omnifocus URL schematics won’t work properly on OS X (however they will work fine on your iOS devices).

Omnifocus won’t let you create these links on iOS device, which is a shame, as they work flawlessly. However the only place where you can create these magical links is OS X powered device. Understanding this limitation places an emphasis on the Mac as a planning device, where iOS is demoted to recording every day tasks.

Interlinking Your Notes To Your Tasks

When you right-click on an Evernote note on OS X, you can select “Copy as link” option. This will put your note link into the clipboard, enabling you to paste the link inside of the Omnifocus task as a shortcut. When it comes to these notes, I don’t treat them only as a reference material, I treat them as a working dashboard. Everything that is related to that specific task is found in that note. Sometimes you might want to add more “stuff” to the note, so you don’t end up cluttering Omnifocus with micro tasks. I try to keep the links to relevant projects inside of the specific Evernote note, so I can jump between the note and the Omnifocus project with more ease.

This has became very important for tasks that would otherwise be projects in Evernote. Now an entire project can fit into one hyperlink found within the task itself. This is efficiently removing clutter and making Omnifocus an overview of your working environment, rather than the working environment itself. Keeping it uncluttered, neat and clean, means that you will be coming back to it, and you won’t be “turned off” by the amount of junk tasks that are waiting for you to finish them. Smaller tasks can fit within the notes sometimes, and I can keep some mini projects as a part of the checklist.

Blog posts have been extremely well accepted in this regard. I can link a note that contains everything I need to do in order to publish a blog post. Including having multimedia files saved within it. This helps me minimize the time, and gives me the feeling of control over my working environment.

The Benefit From Clipping as Little as Possible into Omnifocus

Some people are “all-in” with Omnifocus and I respect that But as I have three years worth of experience with Omnifocus, I’ve encountered a lot of downfalls of the app that are related to the amount of tasks I keep in there. In particular with the notes section of the tasks, which is limited and inconsistent across the platforms. I like to treat Omnifocus as my “active database”; my “Someday/Maybe” projects can live inside of Evernote. Evernote has a better search, and I can find all the things fairly easily, despite the fact that I have 7000+ notes.

There are many notes that I have tagged with “Wiki” and that contain links to numerous other notes. Sometimes a note contains a list of articles that I am currently working on; If I assign a task to myself to “write”, than I can easily link to this note, that contains all the materials I am working on, at any given time. So instead of cluttering Omnifocus with endless list of articles that I am writing, they are conveniently stored in a “wiki-like” note that has all my work concentrated in one place, as opposed to cluttering my active database stored in Omnifocus.

This means that everything that resides in my task manager is immediate and important, completely eliminating the need for me to access the Someday/Maybe lists. Those reside in Evernote, which I also frequently review.

Leveraging Text Expander

Users of Text Expander will really enjoy this integration. Unfortunately it will only work if you want to include a hyperlink of Evernote note into an Omnifocus task. Including an Omnifocus link into the Evernote note will fail, due to Evernote not recognizing any non-http formatted links. If Omnifocus and Text Expander integration worked, we could make this a highway of data flowing interlinking two apps in a matter of seconds. However that is not the case…yet.

The best way to address this is to make a list of commonly accessed notes that you want to integrate as a part of the routine when you are organizing your task manager. Instead of looking for notes, you can have a snippet handy, and if a task is referring you to a certain area of Evernote, you can easily include the link without actually looking for the note.

Key Takeaways

You can’t help but appreciate the benefits you can have from having an application that is natively designed for task management, and a separate application for your knowledge management and notes. With this type of workflow, you don’t compromise any practical elements of these two applications. You get the benefits of the active task manager, coupled seamlessly with the extensive yet passive database.