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30 Days With: OmniOutliner Professional

30 Days With: OmniOutliner Professional

    Editor’s note:

     This is a featured post in our ongoing series “30 Days With” which outlines the use of a productivity tool, service, or product that we have used for the past 30 days. We want to provide our readers with an in depth view of tools and products that they are interested in and provide them our thoughts as well as ways to use these products faster and better. Enjoy.

    I love outlines and I think in them. I love to be able to quickly make a list, add children to certain topics or ideas and then easily sort that list. For many years I have used the Outline mode in Microsoft Word and then in Microsoft OneNote to make my outlines, take notes, create plans, and plan projects. This was several years ago before I switched to Mac and ever since then my use of the Microsoft Office suite (at least for personal use) has slowly been diminishing with the availability of excellent replacement apps on Mac as well as Google Docs.

    The outlining tool for the Mac is OmniOutliner Professional, plain and simple. In doing a quick search of the Mac App Store there are a few other outlining applications, but OmniOutliner is the one that wins with its feature set, ease of use, excellent interface, and design decisions.

    I have been using OmniOutliner 3 a little over 30 days now. Below is my accounting of that experience.

    What OmniOutliner got right

    Let’s first take a look at what OmniOutliner does the best.

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    Ease of use

    The first Omni Group product that I had the pleasure to use was OmniFocus. OmniFocus is awesome because of how easy it is to use and organize things, that is once you get over the small learning curve. What OmniOutliner gets right is that it uses the same type of list creation interface that OF uses that makes creating a parented list of items dead simple and super fast to do. You can easily drag and drop items, reorder them, indent and outdent them, sort them, etc. This is probably the main reason that OmniOutliner is so good.

    Oh, the export options

      Something else of note is that OmniOutliner accepts the growing in popularity outline format OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language) making it pretty darn versatile. I have taken mindmaps from iPad or Mac, exported them to OMPL, and then opened them in OmniOutliner. I could then easily organize my outline once in OmniOutliner. This is much easier than organizing in a traditional mindmapping application because organizing tends to be a more linear process than actual brainstorming. Also, with OMPL I can open up my outline in Scrivener and then sync different sections of text with Dropbox and have access to it with any text editing app I use.

      Exporting options in OmniOutliner are superb. You can even share with your Microsoft Word using friends or create a quick HTML page that you can open and view with any web browser.

      Two dimensions

      OmniOutliner gives you the option of adding multiple columns. This opens up a whole new dimension to your outlines allowing for almost any type of data to be stored like a check register, task list, budget, contact list, time log, or any other type of small “database” data.

      Two dimensional outlines coupled with the next point make OmniOutliner very powerful.

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      Datatypes

        I love that OmniOutliner supports several different datatypes. You can set a column to any data type that you want including dates and duration, amounts, checkboxes, pop up lists, etc. Another nicety is that you can then sort your rows by the columns’ data types allowing for ease of sorting your outline data.

        Something else great is that OmniOutliner has a nice short hand for durations. So, you can type something like, “12w148h” and OmniOutliner will convert it to “15w 3d 4h”.

        What OmniOutliner got wrong (for me)

        There isn’t too much that is “wrong” per se with OmniOutliner, but there is one glaring issue that I encountered for the first couple of weeks of use of the app: it’s complexity and my own tendency to want to fiddle and tweak it.

        Complexity

        There is a good quote on the Omni Group’s site for OmniOutliner,

        “If you can think it, it is possible with OmniOutliner 3 Pro.”

        – IT-Enquirer

        This is both a blessing and a curse. OmniOutliner is one of the best apps I know for creating a simple, nested list, but also templates for creating budgets, keeping an inventory of things, planning projects, etc. But there are almost endless options for font styles, line heights, tab spaces, etc. Its versatility and complicated nature make it an app that has to be learned with an overcoming of a steep learning curve, that is, if you want to use the more advanced features of the applications.

        If you are simply wanting to create simple lists and outlines, change their appearance a bit, and use them for keeping track of things, that is pretty straight forward. But, the notion of “if you can think it, it is possible,” leads to the potential for thinking that you need to tweak the application and your document to be perfect in some way.

        What can you do with this thing?

          Like I said above there really is not too much of a limit to what you can do with OmniOutliner as you are only limited by your imagination and time. I have used OmniOutliner as an intermediary step to project planning by following the process that I mentioned above by first planning a project with a mindmapping application an then importing the OPML. This is even more powerful when you find that you can easily drag-and-drop your outline into OmniFocus where it will ask you what columns in your outline match up with the inherent columns in your OmniFocus setup (name, project, context, due date, etc.)

          I found that creating quick budgets and some basic things that I would use spreadsheets for can easily be done in OmniOutliner because of its sorting and summation capabilities.

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            Another thing OmniOutliner is good for, and something that I am working on now, is using it as a way to store information, like research that I may be doing for an article, keeping track of product warranty information, a list of hardware for the company I work for, and other things that would “traditionally” be stored in a database of some kind. OmniOutliner is a great way to create a personal database of sorts, but only if you and possibly a small team are going to access and manage it. Anything larger than this, especially with need of custom reports and views, there are much better options.

            Does it replace anything?

            I can’t say that OmniOutliner has replaced anything completely in my workflow as of today, but has definitely added value to it. I could see OmniOutliner replacing Evernote for the way that I keep data (mostly research and links) while using my MacBook or Mac, but can’t do anything like Evernote can do while I’m mobile with my iPhone.

            If you just do basic calculations and sorting in Excel or Numbers, then OmniOutliner may be able to replace that. But really, OmniOutliner feels like a product of its own and if you are in need of a good outlining application, this is the app to get for Mac.

            Conclusion

            My 30 days with OmniOutliner has gone a little longer because of my growing love for the app. I love taking notes with it, organizing ideas, keeping track of small datasets, and summing up values. But, the thing that makes OmniOutliner so darn compelling is Omni’s excellent outlining engine that is also included in OmniFocus. It make organizing and moving things so easy and once you use it and try something else for outlining, you will see just how awesome it really is.

            The long and the short of it; OmniOutliner is the best way to create outlines on the Mac or any platform for that matter and if you want that, the $39.99 for OmniOutliner 3 or $69.99 for OmniOutliner Professional is totally worth it.

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            More by this author

            CM Smith

            A technologist and writer who shares advice on personal productivity, creativity and how to use technology to get things done.

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            Last Updated on January 21, 2020

            Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

            Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

            Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

            This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

            The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

            The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

            Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

            Curiosity

            Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

            People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

            Patience

            Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

            When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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            Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

            A Feeling for Connectedness

            This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

            A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

            The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

            How to Self-Taught Effectively

            With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

            1. Research

            Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

            Learning the Basics

            Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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            Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

            What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

            Hitting the Books

            Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

            Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

            Long-Term Reference

            While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

            My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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            2. Practice

            Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

            A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

            Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

            Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

            3. Network

            One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

            These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

            Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

            Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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            4. Schedule

            For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

            Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

            Final Thoughts

            In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

            If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

            At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

            More About Self-Learning

            Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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