Categories
On Technology

We might have reached Peak Apps

It’s a great time to be a productivity nut. (Note that this post is going to be incredibly first-world-problem-y in nature.)

Since moving to Berlin I’ve had an opportunity to critically review how I work. My job is for the same company and essentially doing the same thing, but I was able to shed some of the burden of direct reports, longstanding internal processes and borderline-political work relationships, and kind of start fresh in a way. My morning routine has gotten more about me — taking time, eating a real breakfast, learning a bit of German via Duolingo, reading news instead of email.

When my mind is feeling nourished, I plan my day with Things 3, moving stuff for this evening to This Evening, comparing my pockets of available time with the number of tasks or projects I need to focus on, and deferring the least important things. I might draft up a few writing ideas or notes for projects in Drafts, some of which get linked to in Things and others that sit in my inbox for when I have a creative thought later.

My bigger idea boards for things that need planning or some kind of structure sit in Trello.

This all works for me quite well… but on some days it feels wrong. Why manage some projects in Things and others in Trello? They’re both really good, but why do I need Things to supposed Get Things Done when Trello can organize my projects with structure and let others collaborate with me?

Collaboration is important, right? But isn’t focus? Trello can do focus really well, I think. But then again, Todoist is also great for focus and collaboration — plus, it can automatically pull in tasks from anywhere via its API. But, Things can kind of do that through its own URL scheme and Mail feature.

GoodTask can do most of the above too — plus it integrates with Reminders, which is great because I can talk to it via Siri and not have to remember to say “using Things” or something very unnatural. Then again, why not just use stock Reminders since I can remind myself about most of the things I need to work on and have it smartly link back to those things? Moleskine Actions also looks really good too, I think. I haven’t even mentioned OmniFocus, because that’s…too much for me right now.

Literally all of these options are totally fine and look, perform and function amazingly. I haven’t even touched the writing, presentation, mind mapping, or spreadsheet apps. My brain hurts.

It’s a weird time to be a productivity nut. Most of the popular apps in most categories are all really, really good. How do you know which one is best? What is best, anyway?

Best for most people? Best for productivity nuts? Best for a married couple? Best for tech company employees? Best for strong female entrepreneurs? Best for stay-at-home dads? Best for digital nomads? Best for you? You’ll probably find a list like this and see roughly the same 10 to 20 apps in a given category, all of which are really, really good.

Navigating this is really hard. Not because the lists of “best apps” are too long or they’re too expensive or hard to find, but they’re just all so good. It takes a long, long time of trying each one out, being wowed by the unique features or design conventions or automation potential or scalability of each one, and having to decide which secret sauce of those is best for you. Apple is sometimes helpful with this, but other times not. I love the new App Store, but when I see a feature focused helping me “Get to Inbox Zero”, I can’t help but laugh at the 15 email clients they recommend for this — as if they’re sneering, “Literally any of these will work, we don’t care, just pick one.” It’s almost lazy.

Not to mention how those apps in a single category connect with the 10-to-20 best apps in a _different_category. I’ve finally decided on sticking to Things, but do I use that in tandem with Drafts? Bear? Ulysses? Apple Notes? Byword? 1Writer? Each of them? Some combination of these? I could use a cocktail of these different apps that basically do the exact same thing, but how much time must I give myself to figure out that perfect Manhattan of writing a few ranty blog posts on an iPad?

I also have to imagine it’s especially hard now to develop an app in the productivity or writing category and not be in this list. Either:

  1. You could copy some design conventions or differentiating functionality of one of those 10–to–20 apps, do some marketing pushes, and eventually be admitted into the wonderful apps club
  2. You could try and determine some feature or use cases that none of these thousands of people figured out already, and take a big gamble
  3. You should just give up and die

To be clear: I don’t think any of this is bad. I find it an interesting time in the world of mobile-first productivity and content creation where the consumer is pretty much always going to be delighted. Developers of that top-tier bucket of apps clearly know what conventions and functionality their consumers want and are willing to listen hard to understand how to best deliver that. The question for the consumer has gone from “what is the best app out there?” to “what is the app or apps that best suit my particular needs at the moment, but also jive perfectly with how I think or what I want to look at?” The second is a much more time-consuming question to ask, I have to imagine, for most people.


Originally published at tonedeafcolorblind.com on April 28, 2018.

Categories
On Creating

A small set of apps to keep me creative

There’s something I keep having to remind myself: no matter how little time I have to put into art, I’m still an artist.

Still an artist, still making art. Music’s my medium of choice. Finding time to work on it is hard though, between wedding planning, an increasingly-demanding day job, other side projects — when can I play or write some music, dammit?

Short, obvious answer: block my time like nobody’s business. That at least gets me time dedicated to working on the things I want to be working on. Once I’m there, how can I explore purely creative ideas and save them when my brain is full of all this other stuff? Equally short, equally obvious answer: technology helps me. But how?

I used to think that Evernote should be my catch-all for organizing my stuff to stay focused: important notes, snippets, ideas, lyrics, receipts, anything possibly necessary to retrieve in the future. Tagging and shortcuts, stacks o’ notebooks, so much control. I tried storing my lyrics, song ideas, high level album cycle plans, even task lists and reminders in there — but, as others have noted, I ended up overwhelmed anytime I even attempted to find something in the depths of Evernote’s robust (to a fault) categorization system. I had access to too many things all the time — I had to remember which tags corresponded to what in my bizarre system of organization, not to mention the hours blown trying to establish the system in the first place.

Then I tried 2Do for a while — I figured that if I could abstract my tasks out of their various places into a single, meticulously organized place, I could get to all the other pertinent content via links. 2Do’s various features are great — but again I felt overwhelmed, like I was spending more time organizing my ideas than actually executing on them.

I realized that these approaches contradicted my way of thinking through my various blurbs of information when I need them.

So I worked out a new system. Here’s what my core criteria was for this:

  • I cannot put all my things in one place, due to the sheer overwhelming of having to parse through it all each time.
  • Centralize the blurbs in the app best for those blurbs. For instance, the app that gets me quickest to my notes is the best one for the most important or most frequently used notes.
  • More abstract ideas that require gestation and iteration don’t require as quick access, but I need the flexibility to adjust, merge, rearrange those notes as my ideas come to fruition.
  • Markdown is amazing, but some ideas may require sketching, images, etc. so I can’t limit myself to just text.
  • I need this system to play nice with day-job work and creative work.

Turns out I was able to devise a system that works for me quite well — and it’s not far off from what others have written about recently. Here’s a shortlist of the apps I use in this system:

Reminders.app: my high-level starting point

Apple’s stock Reminders is what holds all my shit together. I tried using so many different task management apps and realized that the overcomplexity of these apps was what caused all my wasted time and lost focus in the first place. With iOS 9 and El Capitan, I can now save virtually anything to a Reminders list and have direct access to that thing, regardless of where it lives. I can even dump tasks straight into a list thanks to 3D Touch.

Disclaimer: A big reason why I went with Reminders was due to iOS Exchange integration. We use Exchange at my work, whose Tasks feature I rely on to organize to-dos each day. Having access to them on my phone is invaluable, and while I loved 2Do for my personal projects, I haven’t found a great iOS task manager that handles Exchange tasks.

I have a few key lists I rely on:

  • I created an “Inbox” list that functions as my collector of tasks. I rely on Siri and share extensions to put everything into this list, and I sort out as needed later.
  • I have a list for each major focus area: Wayfair (via Exchange), Sophomores, wedding planning, writing topics (for the blogs I contribute to), etc. I also have a generic “big goals” list for personal bucket-list items (starting a podcast, writing a book, etc.)
  • I also have a few lists for other things to reference: stuff to buy (Shopping), stuff to watch/listen (Media), stuff to take care of around the house (the Family list I share with Alicia).
  • I rely on Smart Reminders to link to the given Note, Trello board, Ulysses sheet, or whatever else is pertinent to the given task. These were pretty problematic for the first few revisions of iOS 9, but the 6th beta of iOS 9.3 seems to have fixed most of the problems I’ve had.
  • The default “Reminders” list itself is used for everything I need to do on a particular day, but I don’t care about until that day. Recurring tasks reside here, like laundry, taking out the trash or renewing my driver’s license.

My one gripe with Reminders is a simple limitation on iOS: only manual sorting. The OS X Reminders app lets me sort easily by priority or due date, but I can only manually sort on iOS. If Apple adds a sorting feature to Reminders (like they’re doing with Notes), Reminders will finally be an app you might not scoff at.

Notes.app: for all quick note access & entry

Apple’s surprisingly pretty (to me — sorry, haters) and nimble Notes is my go-to for quick essentials: important links, high-level project plans and lists, account numbers (thanks, password lock!), stuff like that. I also use it as a less technical Drafts clone, for quick note-taking (thanks 3D Touch!) for sharing to other apps when needed. The goal here is to get to important things quickly and start writing quickly.

I’ve started to find Notes really useful for quick lists at a lower level than Reminders — for example, production & mix notes. I listen back to my demos constantly while on-the-go, and I’m constantly writing down ideas and feedback for them. I don’t want to create a single Reminders list for each song or album I’m working on — that feels too heavy — but I can create a note for the songs I’m working on, and then create a Smart Reminder about them so I don’t forget to review those notes next time I’m in the home studio.

Ulysses: for all creative / open-ended writing

Ulysses has become my ultimately creative scratchpad. Lyric ideas, blog post topics, sketches for a book I may write. The beauty of Ulysses is that it allows for endless organization, reorganization, merging, splitting and impeccable Markdown formatting of text.

In my workflow, this app (and how I use it) is especially important because it ONLY contains creative writing: blog drafts, lyrics, ideas for novel or album concepts, etc. I don’t get distracted by other life stuff when I have Ulysses open full-screen on my Mac or iPhone (like right now as I write this!), so I can actually focus on finishing that song or

Ulysses’ new iPhone app is totally invaluable, too, so I can do any of the above on the go. I didn’t at first value this since I typically need a keyboard for writing lots of text quickly — but now I can easily review my writing and rework snippets of it anywhere I like, without having to wait.

Trello: for all collaborative work

Trello is everything collaborative. Now that Trello’s iOS app is just as solid as it’s beautiful web interface (and I can jump across either via Handoff) I can easily share ideas with my collaborators or comment on theirs. I rely on this for mixing/mastering my music with my friend James, planning trips with Alicia and building apps with some of my NYC friends.

Thanks to Smart Reminders, I can also reference any board or card on a Reminders list and quickly jump back to it later. For instance, if James sends me a new mix via Trello comment, I can pull it up via push notification and then immediately tell Siri to remind me about it next time I can give it a serious listen.

Pause: for focus-switching and relaxation

Pause is one of those mindfulness apps, and I’m experimenting with it in my creative workflow. It’s allowing me to clear my head of the other life noise by just relaxing my motor functions before jumping into a recording session, new blog post or brain dump. I usually use it for a few seconds before jumping straight into a new context.


I used to think that over-organizing my life was necessary in order to achieve what I wanted to do creatively — but all I ended up with was tasks on tasks on tasks, multi-tier prioritization systems and even a literal Gantt chart at one point. All I needed was an easy way to see what was most important at any given time for a particular context, be able to act on it easily and without distraction, and discipline myself to switch contexts mindfully. This system seems to be working out well for me — let’s see how it works out over time.

Categories
Getting Better

Task managers are tough

The problem with productivity apps

Wunderlist, Trello, Todoist, OmniFocus. 2do. GoodTask. Things. Toodledo. Evernote and Asana. Those are just the task managers that immediately come to mind, and there’s hundreds more.

I have to imagine that most smartphone users haven’t even heard of these apps. That’s probably why there’s such an apparent subculture around each one. The average person will never break into the most beloved apps, and those who do will defend it to no end.

So why don’t so many people, who presumably have things they need to do in their lives, use one of these tools? For all the people that do try a project management tool, why do so many underutilize them?

Everyone has a smartphone, and most of them probably use stock functionality (read: Reminders & Calendar) to keep track of their daily lives on that smartphone. However, Reminders rarely has accountability — what if you forget to set a reminder time? What if you miss the location-specific notification by the time you’ve left? What if some to-dos are dependent on others and you can’t check them off the list until some other thing you neglected gets done?

Are the to-dos I’m getting reminded about even a good use of my time right now?

What about the big important complicated things I want to do?

How do I even break those things down into the little to-dos to put in my list?

What does that mean to me in the big picture?

The average person doesn’t want to (and almost certainly can’t) think through all that stuff, even though they potentially have implications on their daily lives.

(insert stock photo of businesspeople doing business)

This conundrum, in the workplace, is basically why project and product managers exist. Product managers help to figure out the right things to focus on and why; project managers make sure they happen so you, Mr. Stakeholder Guy, don’t have to worry about all the little details.

Personal assistant apps exist, even virtual ones, to remind you of upcoming meetings and tasks — so why haven’t we developed a “personal product manager” that takes your big goals in life and helps you break them down and focus on the most achievable pieces of said goal?

I think about the big things that I want to eventually do in my life — get married, build a company, buy a house, be a notable musician, other things — there’s a ton of knowledge of what to do to make those things happen on the Internet. But parsing all that information is a nightmare — you’re basically relegated to Google searching or starting with blogs/resources you trust and vetting the content endlessly until you end up with a series of tasks, which may or may not be in order, prioritized or even possible. Then, you have friends and/or family as a resource, which may contradict your online findings (or even each other). I don’t even want to think about the difference between my dad’s opinion on starting a business compared to my previous employer.

Productivity apps can’t do this thinking; it’s not what they’re designed to do. 2do, one of my favorites, requires a whole lot of task creation and organization in order to be truly useful. and People have said that about Evernote, too. Trello is great for visualizing projects in a board format, but it doesn’t tell you what should populate that board and what of that stuff needs to get done in order to make BIG AMAZING GOAL X happen. (That’s probably why they’ve started collecting and sharing sample boards for various use cases.) The thought process around focusing BIG AMAZING GOAL X into discrete pieces hasn’t been productized for personal lives.

I wonder if this is why productivity apps aren’t ubiquitous — because they exist to humor the details of our lives instead of helping us boil them down to what’s important.

Categories
Getting Better

It’s not obsessive-compulsive

Every day when I get home from work, I walk in the door, kiss my girlfriend Alicia and start organizing things. If it’s Monday, I take the trash and recycling out to the street and line up all our bins neatly in a row. Otherwise I put my keys on the hook, my wallet & sunglasses in a tray next to said hook, pick up the small pile of bags, jackets and/or shoes that Alicia leaves by the door and put each item in its respective closet or corner; then as she starts cooking I tidy up the non-junk mail we received that day, throw the rest into recycling, wash my coffee mug out in the sink, wash her mug out, review the state of the dishwasher. Next I’m washing dishes as she uses them to cook our dinner; it looks like a Charlie Chaplin assembly line if we have the right background music playing.

We eat. Sometimes in front of the TV, sometimes at our brand-new first-owned dining table. I compulsively pick up the dishes to go wash them, sometimes regrettably before she’s even done eating her dinner. The dishwasher is full, so I might as well run it. The laundry hamper is full, and I’m getting low on t-shirts to wear to work — should probably do a load.

By the time I start relaxing, it’s either too late to play any music (might wake up the neighbors) or I burnt myself out just tidying up the place. But for me, having control over my house grants me the calm I need to relax & think creatively. It’s not obsessive-compulsive (maybe it is? Who knows/cares?); but it’s a mental exercise that keeps me proud of what I’ve got around me. Most of us go through days (even weekends) without thinking much at all — at work, at social events (which take less thought than the decision whether to even go), even when trying to write something (yeah, that’s a stab at lazy blogging conventions, so what?).

For a long time I tried to force creativity, dedicating whole evenings in front of a MIDI keyboard trying to compose — but instead of writing any great melodies, I ended up lazily repeating the same riff I’d written years prior over and over for 3 hours with nothing new or different. My head was in the wrong space during those forced moments; obsessively organizing my home life seems to correct that. I’ve learned to love the process, even though it’s sort of compulsive by now.

Also, Alicia loves not having to do dishes or laundry, so win-win.