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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 September 18, 2019

            How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

            How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

            Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

            I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

            One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

            Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

            The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

            And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

            What to Write Down

            Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

            Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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            Dates of Events

            Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

            For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

            Names of People

            Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

            Theories or Frameworks

            Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

            Definitions

            Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

            Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

            Arguments and Debates

            Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

            This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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            Images

            Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

            Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

            Other Stuff

            Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

            I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

            Your Own Questions

            Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

            3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

            You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

            1. Outlining

            Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

            Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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            For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

            2. Mind-Mapping

            For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

            Here’s the idea:

            In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

            The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

            If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

            You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

            3. The Cornell System

            The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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            About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

            You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

            In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

            You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

            The Bottom Line

            I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

            I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

            More About Note-Taking

            Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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