Categories
Productivity

Emerging Classes of Note-Taking Apps

If you’ve paid any attention to productivity news in the last 6-8 months, there has been a lot of talk around note-taking apps. Note-taking apps are part of the productivity trifecta (task managers, calendars, and notes), so this attention is no surprise.

And of course, with this attention usually comes a flurry of “What are the alternatives to X note-taking software” articles.

These articles usually lump software like Evernote, OneNote, Notion, DEVONthink, Apple Notes, Bear, and others all into the same list. While these apps all handle text well as note-takers, most have widely different feature sets.

There is a substantial break forming between different classes of apps in the note-taking space which I’d like to draw attention toward. If you’re in need of a note-taking app, this separation into multiple categories may help you make a decision based upon what you need.

Class #1: Note Takers

These are the apps we’re all used to seeing. At the very base, these apps take text, images, attachments, and put them into notes. The apps usually have straightforward organization systems (usually folders, tags, or some combination of both), and offer a similar experiences across platforms.

Apps that fall into this category include:

Class #2: Reference Libraries

This is the first sharp distinction I noticed in the note-taking space. Many tend to lump these apps in with the note takers, but the feature set of reference libraries often far exceeds what note takers can do.

Most often, reference libraries offer easy ways to clip data from external sources, search inside documents and images (usually via OCR), and organize documents in a highly detailed way. Reference apps also normally heavily rely on search and need to have a rock-solid sync system to handle the materials contained within.

Apps that fall into this category include:

You might be saying, “Wait, you added Evernote on this list too?” Well, yes.

While the free version of Evernote is as standard of a note taker as they come (really one of the first), the Premium subscription, which adds OCR and the ability to email in items for storage among other features, fits nicely into the reference app category.

Class #3: Wiki/Documentation

One of the newest categories of note-taking app are wiki or documentation apps. These apps are database-like and can be used for personal information storage or collaboration among team members.

These aren’t solely note takers because the experience tends to be more like creating a web page with information. T

hey aren’t reference libraries either because the apps often don’t feature the ability to easily get documents or web clippings in the software (though they may tie into software like Google Drive or Dropbox).

Apps that fall into this category include:

Class #4: Paper Replicators

With the rise of the iPad Pro, this category is one many look to if they want to move to a completely paperless lifestyle. The number one differentiator in this group: a heavy reliance on Apple Pencil for input and a free-form layout.

Apps that fall into this category include:

Notes are Notes

I think as these categories begin to mature, we’ll see fewer applications trying to be all-in-one. Evernote has done decently at trying to be al things to all people (with OneNote being the most successful), but most people don’t need an everything notes app . They want an appropriate place to store the stuff they need to keep track of.

I recently made the distinction in my life that I need a note taker AND a reference library. The two serve definitively distinct purposes in my system, yet I was trying to cram both functions in either Bear or Apple Notes. While they can serve as reference libraries, that’s not the role they best serve.

If you can get one software to work for you, that’s great. However, I say do not be afraid to use multiple apps for different purposes .

When you’re looking to choose a note-taking application, here are some questions you can ask yourself to get to those honest answers?

  • Do I want everything in one place, or am I okay with keeping different types of information in different apps?
  • Am I needing a place to store documents and search inside the contents?
  • Do I gravitate toward handwriting and like the idea of a paperless notebook?
  • Is something highly visual with building blocks work with my brain better than a sheets or cards metaphor? (If yes, something like Notion may be a good fit).

While these questions don’t get into the depths of individual features you may need from a note-taking application, these will at least help you figure out what classes of apps to focus your research on.

One last thing — be brave and commit to something when you find something that works! Remember: the most important thing is to get the work done.

Categories
Productivity

Task Notifications, Or Make Good Habits?

In this way, there are at least two important considerations when starting a journey of productivity.

Consider minimizing your reminders to the bare minimum.

Realize that the smoothest path into work is a deliberately chosen one.

In terms of the first point, consider going through your phone’s system preferences, and one by one turning off reminders, then turning them back on as desired or needed.

In terms of the second, to make a chosen path, the work must be approached by way of habit. The habit to start though is not to “just do everything”. It is instead to create a single list to which you can turn daily: a today list. A well-honed list creates a simple silo of play and work, a collapsed and streamlined set of ideas from the entirety of our environments.

If you have a list that stores your work and other desired habits of the day, then your single habit of “look at daily list” covers you.

Kourosh has great insight here. I liken this to a common life scenario: chores.

Imagine you’re a teenager. Your mom gives you a list of chores to do around the house. The dishes need washed, laundry folded, and dinner needs to be on the stove by 4pm so it is finished when your dad gets home.

Are you going to:

  1. Make your mom nag you until each of these tasks gets done, or
  2. Just get the work done?

While it may be easier to just let mom tell you what to do, of course she’ll be happiest if you just get the work done.

Looking to your task manager, do you need your task manager to be your mom nagging at you to get work done?

Probably not.

There are definite benefits to having due dates and alarms set on your tasks especially if a task must be done by a certain time (i.e. take the trash out on Thursday nights). However, over-dependence on them may signify a larger issue.

I’d contend if you have a bunch of alerts set up to remind you of all the work to get done throughout the day, you may expect too much out of yourself in a given day or you might not have taken responsibility for those tasks yourself.

It is much better to build a habit of trying to realistically assess what you can accomplish in a given day, week, or even month, make those tasks into a list, and then work off it. This is why people love paper for writing down their daily tasks, and why picking the three most important tasks for the day is so effective.

If you relate to the feeling of being alerted and dinged to death, I highly encourage you to take some time, evaluate what you can realistically do, and start smaller without all the bells and whistles.

Categories
Productivity

Justin’s Favorite Productivity Apps — November 2018 Edition

In the last few months, my workflows and application choices have changed quite a bit as my needs as a business owner became more clear.

Without any further adieu, here are my favorite apps in my workflow as of November 2018.

Task Manager: OmniFocus

Oh the softwares you waffle on but ultimately need to come to grips with that this is the right one for you…

OmniFocus is exactly that in my workflow. Now that I’m 100% on a Mac for work, it’s much easier to justify going all in.

The killer feature for me? Recurring projects that complete and defer to another day based upon its completion. I utilize this feature so much with checklists and recurring projects that OmniFocus has ruined me for other task managers.

Note Taking: Apple Notes

If you read my topic on the Community about my note-taking app setup a while back, I had some convoluted ideas. Took no time at all actually using that system for me to realize it was a bad idea.

Now, all my notes are in Apple Notes. I don’t take all that many notes, to be honest, so Notes is a straightforward solution at this point. The benefit is my wife and I share some notes, so it makes things easy when we need to make changes to those as well.

Long-Form Writing: Ulysses

The two major contenders for long-form writing are Ulysses and Scrivener. I don’t do novel or long research writing, so Scrivener doesn’t make sense to me.

I love how Ulysses offers such flexibility in organizational capabilities. Groups, filters, and keywords make it dead simple to form whatever organization complexity I need.

Email: Apple Mail

I was trying out Mailmate earlier this year, and while I really enjoyed the software, I was finding I don’t really use many of the power features. I’ve used Airmail and Spark as well, but some of the quirks and bugs make it challenging for me to fully implement.

Thus, Apple Mail wins.

Planning: Paper

When I actually need to flesh out what I’m doing for the day or week, nothing beats paper. I remember things better when I write them on paper, so a benefit is I stay mentally focused better throughout the day.

My current favorite notebook? A Leuchtturm1917.

Idea Development: iThoughts

I recently jumped into the world of mind mapping. While it’s a bit overkill for smaller projects, using a mindmap to lay out the key areas of a project really helps me get my mind 😉 around it. I’ve found paper is good for dumping ideas out, but mind mapping helps me make sense of all of it.

Mindnode is an excellent contender in this space, even featuring OmniFocus integration. However, iThoughts is included in the SetApp subscription (which I’m a happy subscriber of), and while there are definite design differences between the two, iThoughts fits the bill nicely.

Web Development: Visual Studio Code

A nerdy entry on here, but an obligatory one considering my main form of work — web development. Code editors are plentiful these days, from Sublime Text to TextMate to Atom.

Surprisingly, my choice is Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code. The software is fast, clean, and offers quite a few tricks up its sleeve to make development work faster and easier.

Automation (Mac): Keyboard Maestro

If there’s an app that’s ever fallen into the “Where have you been all my life?” category, it’s Keyboard Maestro. In just a few short months of use, I’ve already developed a significant number of keyboard shortcuts to do even the tiniest of tasks I find frustrating, including showing/hiding specific windows (which is a pain when doing web development and you have 20 of them open…) or closing notifications without touching the mouse.

If you want to get as deep as you can into macOS automation, Keyboard Maestro is for you.

Automation (iOS): Siri Shortcuts

Let’s be honest, Siri Shortcuts is the star of the year for Apple. Forget new iPad Pros, an updated Mac mini, and all the other new gear. Siri Shortcuts is probably the biggest game-changing piece of software Apple has released in recent memory.

The system integration alone makes toying around with Siri Shortcuts infinitely more valuable, let alone the developer APIs.

While I’m not as heavy of an iOS user like others out there, Siri Shortcuts found its place on my iPhone XS as a quick way to trigger actions from my home screen.

Up In the Air

No system is perfect, and at this time, I have a few areas I’m trying to work out.

Reference/Research

I’m currently using iCloud for most of my file storage and organization needs. It works, but Finder tags are not the most usable things in the world at any sense of scale (sorry Brett Terpstra).

This leaves me with two major viable options for reference and research: Evernote and DevonTHINK.

I’ve used Evernote in the past for this purpose, and it’s worked quite well; however, the lack of features the community asks for (for years) makes me hesitant to pay them a recurring subscription.

DevonTHINK is the option I haven’t tried all that well. I’m currently giving it a go as a productivity experiment and will report on the results of it in our monthly Pro newsletter. It may just be the option I’m looking for.

Email

Oh email. I survey the landscape and it appears to be the land of 10,000 tradeoffs. My favorite iOS app, Dispatch, hasn’t had a meaningful update in years, and iOS Mail doesn’t cut the mustard with getting email into other systems easily.

Spark and Airmail are promising alternatives, but I haven’t connected with Spark’s design philosophy, and Airmail’s buggy nature makes me nervous. These are both great apps, but I haven’t been able to land on either long term.

Thus, I will probably stick with iOS Mail until an alternative comes out (can you say mashup of Dispatch and Airmail?).

Notes

I’m fairly satisfied with Apple Notes at this time with my low-volume note-taking. I do know, however, I’m going to hate the folder-only structure if I need to scale at all. This is why I’m holding onto Bear in my back pocket. It’s a solid app, supports Markdown (yay!), and is under constant development. I do lose the sharing support from Apple Notes, but in the long term, that may be a minor tradeoff. Changes may be coming, but not until they are necessary.

Categories
Productivity

Why I Track Time

There is only one subject in the productivity space I’ve seen to be so highly contentious and subjective: time tracking.

If you’ve listened to Cortex (one of my favorite productivity/business podcasts), the topic has come up a number of times, with highly polarizing reactions from the audience.

I get it, too. Time tracking can be a pain. You have to remember to start and stop timers, look at the data, and then actually do something with it. All of that can be downright stressful.

Despite all the pain associated with it, I am a big proponent of time tracking.

When I worked in IT, I was required by my employer to track my time. It was an odd habit to get used to at first, but when you end up working multiple support tickets a day, each one requiring the time to be tracked, you get the motions ingrained in you. Starting a new task — start the timer — okay I’m moving on, remember to stop it.

Now that I’m self-employed, nobody is making me track my time, but I find a high value in having the data available.

Time Tracking Gives Perspective

Everyone gets to the point in life where they need to choose to stop doing something. Especially if projects or tasks are business related, these decisions can be difficult. Do I stop working on the side project I like, even though it’s not making me much money? Do I keep doing the thing that stresses me out, but brings in the most money?

There are many scenarios in life where having more data can help me make better decisions. Time tracking gives me yet another reference point.

Without having time tracking data, I’m limited to making decisions on my emotions or just how much money something makes me. Adding time into the equation gives more perspective.

For example, that project I really like doing but doesn’t make much money is only taking five hours a week. Having that data makes the justification to keep doing it easier. Or maybe I calculated an hourly wage of my main moneymaking project. Turns out it’s only making me $12.50/hr because I sink 60 hours into it a week.

While the data never makes the decision for you, having the extra data does help make the decision easier.

Time Tracking Shows Reality

Ever started working on something thinking you’d only spend 90 minutes on it, and once you completed the task three hours had passed?

People tend to be poor at guessing how much time a task will take them. Factor in distractions, and our sense of time can really get messed up throughout a block of working on a task.

Time tracking corrects that. The clock can’t lie. The numbers will tell you exactly how much time you edited that blog post or watched that documentary on YouTube.

I personally feel like I have a good sense of time, but when I get deep into a project, the hours slip away. I only have 24 hours in the day, and with having small kids at home, I need to be keenly aware of how much time I’m spending where. Time tracking enables me to do this more effectively.

Time Tracking Helps You Batch Tasks

Since I started time tracking for my business, the process of setting a timer and the awareness of it running has helped me be aware of how I’m batching tasks throughout the day. Instead of stopping a timer and having to start another frequently when switching tasks, I am more conscious of being able to group my tasks together.

Batching tasks has numerous advantages, number one of which is maintaining deeper focus for longer. On average it takes approximately 20 minutes to regain focus after switching contexts or getting interrupted. Do that multiple times per hour, and your effectiveness drops drastically.

While time tracking isn’t the magic bullet to begin batching tasks, the very process of thinking about what you’re going to do and starting a timer for it helps keep focus toward the front of your mind.

Time Tracking Allows Better Client Billing

Though this may not pertain to everyone who may be interested in tracking time, it is one major advantage and reason I track my time. If you ever bill a client for hourly work, TRACK THE TIME.

Not only does the tracked time give you the ability to bill more accurately, but you also have a record you can show the client if they ever challenge you.

I never work on a billable client project without having a timer running in the background — ever. I highly recommend you do the same, because it may just save your bacon down the road (and everyone likes bacon, right?).

Why Wouldn’t You Track Time?

While I highly value tracking time and recommend it as a general practice, especially for those involved in their own business, there may be reasons tracking time isn’t a good fit for you.

  1. You don’t have a good reason to. — This is the well, duh answer, but part of effectively tracking time is knowing what and why you need to track. You can’t sustain a time tracking habit without knowing your why.
  2. Time tracking stresses you out. — For some people, having a clock running in the background may cause undue stress. There are options that may help you track time without the stress of a timer, but you may want to evaluate if it’s right for you if the idea causes stress.
  3. You don’t consistently focus on one task. — If you jump between tasks frequently, tracking time may be extremely difficult for you. There are different types of jobs where this is likely the norm (i.e. most management roles), so evaluate if tracking time is worth the investment.

Categories
Productivity

Overcome Perfectionism by Developing an Iterative Mindset

Have you ever felt like you can’t do something because you’re not good enough at it? Not finished a project because you weren’t sure if it was done?

If that’s you, you’re definitely not alone.

What we’re likely talking about here is the feeling of perfectionism. Perfectionism is, by definition:

the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.

I know I want to think of myself as achieving perfection at times, but I always fall short of it. That’s the time when I get frustrated and often quit. It’s not healthy.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Well how in the world does anything good get made then if you don’t obsess over it and shoot for perfection?”

There’s nothing wrong with having an ideal in your head and aiming to achieve it. The world wouldn’t have most of the inventions and creations if we didn’t have individuals aiming for an ideal, a vision if you will.

However, there is a difference between perfectionism and excellence. While perfectionism says nothing but perfect is good enough, excellence says do the best you can with what you have.

Excellence, therefore, requires you to have a realistic viewpoint of yourself, the possible outcomes in front of you, and what you’re capable of in this moment in time.

That last one is the hard one. I know for myself that I like to skip the process and be amazing at something right away. But, as John Maxwell, one of the top authors on leadership said:

“Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first.”

Excellence rejects the notion poor means bad, and embraces the process of growth. In other words, the way to overcoming perfectionism is to embrace an iterative mindset.

What is an Iterative Mindset?

To iterate means to perform repeatedly. An iterative mindset is the viewpoint recognizing that repeating a task over and over slowly brings improvement over time.

Think of it this way: you can’t steer a parked car. Driving a vehicle requires movement, and movement is provided by the desire to go somewhere. What having an iterative mindset helps enable is for you to stop thinking about the end destination before you even leave the parking lot, and instead just drive, finding the way as you go.

Developing this mindset is a significant key to hitting your goals in life and developing your productivity systems. Here’s why:

  1. Goals require you to make progress at something you’re likely not great at. Let’s be honest. If you’re not pursuing something that’s not stretching your abilities, you’re probably not going anywhere all that meaningful. It’s safe to stay where you’re comfortable, but we all have areas in our lives where we need to grow. That’s the essential human experience. We never stop growing, but sometimes we need to push ourselves to grow more.
  2. Life is iterative. Just like the earth goes through different seasons at different times of the year, so does life. The systems, goals, and mindsets I have while working a corporate job won’t always apply when I’m self employed. Your systems will need to change to accommodate your life as it changes.
  3. Letting go of perfection and embracing an iterative mindset is less stressful, more fun, and more freeing. It’s easy to make progress when you’re embracing and enjoying the process. That doesn’t mean things won’t be tough, but it does mean you can take challenges in stride because you know how to make adjustments.

Building an Iterative Mindset

If you’re looking to break out of perfectionism and into an iterative mindset, here are three ways you can start today.

  1. Start right where you’re at . It doesn’t matter how good you’re at doing a thing. If you want to do it, embrace your lack of skill and just start doing it. You don’t hit the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert by watching Netflix.
  2. Recognize failures are learning opportunities. Any mistake that doesn’t kill you is an inflection point where you can choose to let it teach you or hurt you. It’s scary to look at your failures, but doing so will teach you more than any book, podcast, or blog post will.
  3. Try to improve one thing every day. Focus on finding an area you can improve by 1%, whether that’s by automating a repetitive task in your workflow, finding the lesson in a project, or doing one small helpful task like making your bed. The little things, including things that feel like they don’t matter, will add up to become massive improvements over the long term.

The truth is productivity systems are only tools you use to help get you to where you want to go. You can only adjust your systems so much to account for detrimental ways you think about your work.

Perfectionism is one of those detrimental thought patterns. As you learn to break out of the pursuit of perfection into the journey of excellence through iteration, I think you’ll find yourself hitting more goals, taking more opportunities, and finding joy in the processes of life.

Categories
Productivity

Trying Things 3 for Two Weeks

I’ve been an on-and-off user of OmniFocus for the last half a decade or so. I got pretty excited at the release of OmniFocus 3’s iOS beta earlier this year. Omnigroup always does a great job with their software. However this time around, even after release, there are areas of OmniFocus 3 I felt needed some work.

I’m learning to experiment with my systems, so one night, I decided to embark upon an adventure — try Things 3 for two weeks.

Every task manager is different. If you’ve ever tried out two or three different apps, it’s easy to see each one has a unique focus, strengths, and weaknesses.

My goal in testing Things 3 was to find if it could really work for me, or if OmniFocus would still reign supreme.

How I Tested

There’s really only one way to truly test a task manager — go all in.

It’s true. The only way you’re ever going to figure out if productivity software will work for you is to throw everything you can in it to see where it breaks.

To get going, I downloaded the Mac trial and the iPhone app, set up a sync account, and started moving tasks over.

Importing items into Things 3 isn’t actually all that difficult. I set up some Areas, and I started copy/pasting tasks in from OmniFocus, setting tags, due dates, and the like as I went.

To be fair, I didn’t dive into automation, the iPad app, or much for keyboard shortcuts in my two weeks. These are strong features of the Things suite, but I’m not a heavy user of any of these anyway.

You might be asking, “Why only two weeks? It takes longer than two weeks to get used to something like a task manager.”

True, and fair point. I had two reasons:

  1. The Mac app trial and iOS App Store return period are two weeks
  2. Two weeks is a fair bit of time for the “new shiny” feeling of something to wear off and to get to the real meat of something.

With that being said, here’s what I found in my short venture into Things 3.

Things I Liked

Aesthetics. Things 3 has had its praises sung up and down for its world-class design. It’s true — this software is one of the best looking task managers out there. OmniFocus 3’s redesign is great, too, but it’s not quite as aesthetically pleasing as Things 3. What stands out about Things’ design is user experience did not take a back seat to visual design.

Whimsy. It’s rare to get a whimsical feeling from using an app these days. While Things takes notes from general design trends, it’s whimsical experience is what makes the app a truly enjoyable software to use. Its whimsy comes mostly from the little details — transitions, animations and how the app responds to user interactions. It’s hard to explain in words, but if you’ve used the app, you’ve likely noticed this.

Less-Pushy Due Dates. Nobody wants to wake up to 25 overdue tasks. Nobody. And let’s be honest — this is largely a process problem for most people by overusing due dates. However, if you do end up missing a task on its deadline date, wouldn’t it be nice if it just rolled to the next day instead of ending up in some different “overdue” screen? Things 3 does this, and it remove much of stress from missed tasks.

Rock Solid Sync. Sync is a core feature of any app these days. All I have to say about Things 3’s cloud sync is it just works. As a former Things 2 user, I am grateful to see this in action.

Floating Add Button. This is one of those whimsical design elements, but it deserves its own mention. The floating add button, which can be tapped to add a task in context or dragged to another part of the screen to add a task in place, is a genius addition. I never knew I wanted one until Things implemented it!

Rapid Development. It’s a bummer to see so many great apps (Editorial and Dispatch, for example) have ridiculously long release cycles, especially when OSes and other software are changing at a rapid pace. Cultured Code definitely keeps up with the changes, but also goes above and beyond with major feature releases every few months. I have to give total credit to the developer for this.

Things I Didn’t

No More Than One Level of Subtasks. I didn’t think this was going to be a big deal for me, but it turned out to be. In Things, you can have these items hierarchically:

  1. Area
  2. Project
  3. Task
  4. Checklist

Unless I was missing something, you can’t get any deeper than this.

As a person who sometimes has multi-step, nested processes templated out, this became a little overwhelming to deal with. In big projects, I rely heavily on the hierarchy folding features in OmniFocus. Not to have these was quite a challenge to overcome.

Not as Easy to Hide Tasks. In addition to having only a single level of subtasks, I found it harder to hide tasks. Start dates were helpful, but sometimes they also hid tasks too well for my liking. What I need out of a task manager is the ability to hide tasks until I need them, and then make it easy to see them when it’s time to start checking them off. For the way I think about tasks, Things 3 only got part of the way there.

No Perspectives or Saved Searches. This has been a frustration of many who are coming from other task managers who have a saved search type feature. I’m not the biggest perspectives user in OmniFocus, but even the ability to show tasks fitting multiple criteria without having to retype a search query would be a great addition to Things.

What Did I Choose?

I went back to OmniFocus 3.

Indeed, it’s never easy to change a big piece of your workflow, and OmniFocus has largely been the rock-solid center for a number of years.

Don’t get me wrong — Things 3 is a fantastic task manager. I’m partial to the design choices made by Cultured Code throughout the app. It’s just fun to use.

However, you have to stick with what works for you. Some of the things I didn’t like simply kept me from working as efficiently as I could in Things versus OmniFocus.

Despite not making a change from this experiment, I did learn a number of lessons from Things’ opinions toward task management I’m taking and now applying to my OmniFocus workflow.