The sickness of efficiency.

I suffer from a strange affliction that I’ve lived with for some time now. I’ve spoken to others in my circles and I take some solace in knowing they share either symptoms of it, or experience it full-blown. It’s a sneaky sickness that manifests itself in an all-consuming urge to deconstruct patterns, methods, and expectations in my life in a constantly self-doubting and brutally examined way.

I am, of course, referring to my addiction to task management applications.

We joke about it, those of us who know. Here’s a new one, anyone tried it yet? I’m back on Reminders (again). Screw Reminders. When is the update for [App] coming out? This doesn’t do custom repeating alerts? (Do I need custom repeating alerts?) YO GUYS you can totally hook up Drafts/Launch Center Pro/etc. to grab stuff and pass it in. Swoon. I’m always looking at, trying, evaluating, and otherwise just exploring the landscape. Sometimes that exploration leads me back down familiar roads.

Yesterday I re-re-re-downloaded OmniFocus again and dumped all my things into it. I do this every summer, it seems, although the constant tinkering is a year-long battle. I keep as much of this from my family as possible, for I fear they’d stage an intervention for this behavior as clinically speaking, I’m sure there’s a buried DSM-5 classification for it, or at least some heading under which it could be placed. So I’m finally going to try to break this into what I believe to be its component parts to try to understand why I’m this way as a person, why I’m forever chasing the last high of streamlining data input and retrieval for things as complicated as multi-stage projects and as mundane as taking out my trash on the right day.

I see the never-ending shift between these apps as an interplay between the following things I’ve identified in myself:

  1. An inherent need, despite the fact that something may be working, to explore, experiment, and generally try different kinds of software and see new ways to solve similar problems
  2. A desire to change the UI of whatever it is I’m using since I spend so much time in it every day that I tire of it, notice its shortcomings, etc.
  3. An internal nagging to always be assessing the state of my workflows and methods to determine if they are actually the best possible ways to do my work
  4. An ever-present doubt, that coupled with item 3 insists that I’m missing steps, forgetting things, dropping threads (which is sometimes manufactured and sometimes very real)

So let’s break these down. I’m not talking about specific apps from here on out, because it’s utterly irrelevant in the math here.

  1. I help to design and develop software almost every single day that I’m awake. On weekends, I download and try things, help friends with interface questions, find bugs, and generally fool around with personal projects if time permits. I know that there exists in my life a finite set of productivity problems that I need to solve for, and sometimes the thing that sets my mind off in a new direction actually helps me think about something else unrelated to what it is I’m focused on at the moment. If I never tried new software, I wouldn’t see how other people solve for the same problems, just the same way that you don’t get a pizza from one place and never eat another slice anywhere else. Life would be so boring without that kind of exploration, no matter how simple.

  2. I’m a super-visual person. I need to see things in front of me to make sense of them. I have a really hard time with audiobooks because my mind will wander and I’ll lose the story for my own thoughts and so read on my Kindle instead. My eyes are the way into my brain and my brain tells the rest of me how to feel about things. There are certain aspects of my daily experiences that I simply can’t change (easily–I know I could hack just about anything if I wanted to). The look of the operating system can’t really change. The interface of Mail is what it is. The Finder is windows and lists, and it’s fine. I don’t need those things to be different, because they’re all tools like my garden hose–I use them, I move away from them. I don’t care how my hose looks, I just want water to come out in varying degrees of force when I turn it on. I don’t need Finder to blow my mind, I need it to move my files around the same way, every time. But since I can easily change the look and function of my task lists, I’m tempted to do so and offered the opportunity almost every week. It’s an embarrassment of nerd riches. As I continue to design interfaces, I notice things I like in apps and things I really don’t, and they help me make better decisions in the work that I do. It’s valuable to me to keep my eyes fresh, and task apps are a weird, easy way to do that without a ton of disruption in my life.

  3. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a problem with keeping things the same for too long. I would endlessly rearrange my bedroom furniture, often in the middle of the night without my parents knowing. They’d wake up and see a completely different room than the night before. I had a limited kid-bedroom canvas to work with, and I was always looking to maximize the space I had to move around as well as the storage and access of all my stuff. This is but one example of this kind of behavior. As an adult, I don’t have the time or energy to move furniture all the time (and my wife would likely divorce me should I decide to make this a focus in my life again), but I look for other small efficiencies in my life that I can optimize. Rearranging the silverware drawer to gain access to the stuff we use the most. Same for the kitchen cabinets, putting things within reach and moving other things further away. The garage. My desk at work. My car. Shall I go on? Anywhere I see a repeatable task or a friction, I find a way to make it perfect (or as perfect as it can be within the limits of reality).

  4. This one’s the toughest. The fact of the matter is that I get everything done that I’m supposed to. I’m pretty good at it. I base everything against dates, and I’m brutally honest with myself about when things need to be accomplished. A former procrastinator in my youth (in stark contrast to what I just revealed in the above paragraph), as I got older, I realized that honesty and planning are better for me mentally than avoidance. However, I do capture things without dates, or without an immediate need. And they sometimes linger, or I forget about them. Sometimes it’s fine, and they never really needed to get done in the first place, and sometimes it’s dinner with a friend from six months ago and I’m a horrible person and let’s finally finally get together sorry man. Some of this dropping creates doubt in my systems and nudges me into new directions. Some of it is completely true and I find I’m not managing things as well as I think I’d like to–with little ill effect, other than a desire to improve as a person. But it’s there. Real or not, the thoughts are there and they need to be addressed.

All this considered, it’s worth noting that when I’ve got a lot to do, and people are depending on me, I don’t mess around with my system. I focus, get my stuff finished, and move on. I’m not a monster, after all. Work is work, and all this fiddling doesn’t matter at all when things are on the line. And I haven’t touched on it, but I absolutely, unequivocally realize the irony in wasting time trying out productivity software. Some people take it to extremes, and it just becomes farcical.

The last point I’ll make is that if I’m being honest, I have to say that my needs sometimes actually do change too. I might use Reminders between iOS and OS X and it’ll be just perfect for a few weeks or months, but then I realize that I actually do need a feature it doesn’t support for something. And not a manufactured need, but a real, honest-to-goodness need. It might even be a temporary need, but once I recognize it, it starts me thinking and the machine spins up all over again. Then I wrestle with some feelings–truly–about how and why I am the way I am. Why can’t I just leave well enough alone? What am I hoping to gain by engaging in this activity for the third time this month? I’ve become comfortable with my shortcomings, real, perceived, or otherwise and I just want to do good work. If a little dicking around with tasks makes me feel better and isn’t hurting anyone (and I’m still actually doing the things I need to), I guess I’m fine with it. I could have worse habits, I suppose.

But when time permits, and my mind wanders, or my eye tires, or the little kid in me really wants to move his bed and dresser again because maybe, just maybe he could fit some more stuff in here somehow… now I just open the App Store. It’s a wonderful time to be a lover of software, and we often forget just how great things are.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some data entry to do. Again.

Wading back into familiar waters.

I’ve been playing video games since I was about five. For the majority of my life, games have been a hobby, an obsession, a field of study, a diversion, and everything in between. For the past few years, I’ve been far less active in gaming culture, and that’s due to a variety of changing conditions in my life. Helping to grow our company, buying a home, and having a child have all in some way played a role in leaving less time to think about gaming. I’ve also chosen to spend my free hours in other pursuits as well, so that’s not a condemnation, but rather just an acknowledgment of the change in my situation. I could go into the depths of my previous video game depravity here, but that’s probably for another post.

Thanks in part to the exceptional new podcast Directional, with Myke Hurley and Federico Viticci, I’m now once more really thinking about gaming. The time I can devote to games is still at a premium, as there’s many things that legitimately require my attention, but I think having been out of the current scene for so long, I’m ready to slowly make my way back in and I’ve chosen handhelds as my entry point.

I love all platforms and have never held allegiance to any one over another. I always felt a true lover of gaming wouldn’t limit him/herself that way. As such, I am faced with a choice between the 3DS/3DS XL and the PS Vita. As luck would have it, Myke and Federico touch on this very same topic in this week’s show in response to some listener mail, and they made some terrific points. But I’m also asking anyone else who’ll listen for their thoughts. While I could probably buy both, I think I just need to start somewhere. To help solicit good feedback, I’ve put together my basic criteria.

  • I’d like to play some games that have a more forgiving difficulty curve, since I won’t be able to spend long stretches figuring things out. I may have frequent short opportunities to play, but extended play sessions may be tougher to come by, and I’d like to feel like I’m getting somewhere.
  • My love for classic games has never wavered, and I’d love to be able to play older titles as well. That could be NES stuff or perhaps PSX-era, or anything else in there. Open to all suggestions.
  • I have iOS and Android devices already, so this will truly be a dedicated piece of gaming hardware. I don’t care about checking email, Skype calls, Twitter, etc. I want a gaming machine first and foremost.
  • I know I’m getting in well into the life cycles of these handheld consoles, so what’s coming up on the horizon is something I can take into account as well. If a new Nintendo handheld is right around the corner, let me know. (As I said, I’m really out of the loop on so much, it’s truly saddening… but I’m turning that around!)
  • Finally, all features, bells, whistles, and stuff aside: which is more fun? Super subjective, I know, but I’d love to hear about what you all think.

Those are my starting points. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, so I’m ready to get started, but I really would appreciate any feedback you’d have to offer. My history is deep and storied in the world of gaming, but I’m re-entering it now with somewhat fresh eyes. Share your thoughts on and Twitter. All suggestions are welcome, and thanks in advance.

Fitbit fatigue.

I listened to this week’s Back to Work which focused heavily on self-quantization, or simply put, keeping tabs on your activity and measuring what you’re doing. I’ve been a Fitbit user for over a year, during which time I’ve collected all the data the little thing could provide me with. It helped motivate me and showed me definitively what I was doing and how I was spending my active time. I agree with everything Merlin says in the show–it’s tremendously helpful to have this kind of insight about yourself. I began a personal campaign to become healthier a few years ago and using the Fitbit became a part of that. I was excited to have a little companion noting all my data for me. Numbers! Graphs! Yay!

But over time, something occurred to me and only recently became extremely salient: I don’t need to use it anymore, and more importantly, its use had become something that was a subtle stressor for me. It seems dumb, but I’ll explain.

As I explained in that earlier post, I began a new lifestyle in which I was very aware of my routines and habits and got very hard on myself to achieve some goals. Adding a Fitbit to the mix was a way to make doing those things a little more fun, and I was really into it for a while. My wife bought me a One for Christmas, which I promptly lost on a business trip and replaced. So I was into the idea enough to buy a second device. For a solid year it never left my side, unless I forgot it (rare), and then I was nearly inconsolable (all those lost steps!). Over time, something changed though; I was more concerned with collecting the data and having it than actually using it. It became a weird anxiety-provoking moment (pat pocket-ok it’s there-whew) that I experienced a few times a day.

As such, I was thinking about it recently and decided to check my data. What I discovered was exactly what I had suspected. My data was almost unvaried across the board. My sleep wasn’t so great in the beginning of last year, but a new infant will do that. Nowadays, I sleep 7-8 hours a night, with almost no disturbances. My sleep quality is something like 96% on average. My steps vary, but we’ve been saddled with some positively oppressive cold weather, so they’ve been a little low; that said, walking is always on my mind, and I’m still doing it as much and as often as possible. Water intake? Terrific. 64-96 ounces a day. Diet? Solid.

I found that my good habits were already in place, and the Fitbit wasn’t doing anything to change that. It was another thing I was carrying, and worrying about losing/syncing/monitoring, and I just don’t think I need it. I still think I’m going to fire it up for stuff like WWDC, just to see how many steps I’ve taken, but it’s not providing a level of insight I really need on a daily basis. I’ve created good habits and sustained them for a long enough period of time that I’m still doing those things without the added gadget. I turned it off earlier this week and placed it in a drawer and deleted the app from my phone. It feels strange, because I’ve been so focused on it for so long, but it’s also oddly freeing. I’m curious to know if I’m alone in this boat.

I’m probably a crazy person, but that’s also something I already knew from the data.

Apple’s wearable differentiator.

The more I think about the eventuality of an Apple wearable device (ugh I’m already sick of hearing the word), the more I think about what’s going to set it apart from the current crop of trackers, monitors, and smartwatches. Aside from the UI, one thing keeps coming up in my mind: battery life.

It seems obvious if you think about it. Apple’s entire device line in the past few years has–as it’s evolved–kept battery life increases front and center. The company knows that this is the one technology that isn’t increasing in the leaps and bounds it would like and continues to limit its vision for products. Between the MacBook line and iOS devices, huge advances are being made in extending the daily use of our devices, but we collectively keep running up against that wall.

The difference with a wearable device is that due to its diminutive size and proximity to the body, different methods can be applied to extending its useful daily life. I’ve got two thoughts on this, and I think they work in tandem. I’m not saying this is what’s coming, but it’s starting to make more sense to me. Obviously, I am not a battery technician of any kind, nor an electrical engineer. I’m just trying to figure out a differentiating factor, which is often a selling point when Apple enters a market.

Let’s think about it in terms of a watch-type device: since it would be attached to a person’s body similar to a current wristwatch, it would have the benefit of constantly being moved around; kinetic energy might be a factor here. The natural movement of a person’s body could be channeled into keeping a wearable device supplied with trickle power. Kinetic watches are already on the market, but have not seen true penetration, and re a smaller percentage of the devices out there; so far, fits the Apple formula–take something that already exists and do it better. I also have a few G-Shock watches that are part of Casio’s Tough Solar line. The watchfaces contain tiny solar cells that require minimal exposure to light to continue to power the watch. They work exceptionally well, and I never have to change a battery.

Kinetic and solar power. Individually, I doubt they’d be enough to power a device like the one people are expecting on their own. But together, it starts to seem feasible. Ok, now what would make those low-power technologies not viable?

Radios: this device is going to need to communicate, probably with a nearby iOS device or a Mac. However, Bluetooth LE is starting to show up in more places and appears to be extremely flexible. I’ve seen some very cool applications of this lately, and it feels like a shoe-in for a device like this. Wi-fi, I’m not so sure about; may or may not be necessary depending on the feature set of the device, and that’ll surely suck power. Cellular/wireless broadband? Forget it. No way.

Screen: certainly this device will have a gorgeous screen to match the other ones Apple offers. It’ll be small though, and I’d be shocked to see Apple use the same high-drain tech that exists in the current Retina LED panels for a device like this. Just doesn’t seem likely. I don’t know what they have cooking, but it won’t be e-ink (not pretty enough) and it won’t be exactly what you have in your phone (battery destroyers at high brightness values, which people would totally need to see this device outside in the sun, like any normal watch).

Using this math, it starts to form a picture of what’s going to set it apart. All the other devices that people use right now need to be charged every few days. If Apple could offer a device that effectively never needed to be plugged in, that factor alone would be a huge selling point. And I can absolutely hear the keynote already:

“We all have other devices we use for this sort of thing already. But what’s are the problems with those devices? Small, ugly screens–if they have screens at all. Limited communication and functionality with our iPhones and iPads. And they have to be charged all the time! Some last a few days, some longer, but they all need to be taken off of you and plugged in. We think we can do this better…

…A beautiful, low power screen that is extremely readable in bright sunlight. Bluetooth LE for complex interconnection with tons of different apps. And forget a week of battery life; it never needs to be plugged in–ever.”

Now: we know Apple doesn’t fight on specs, so all this hardware talk is merely prelude to what it affords the user to do, which is where Apple excels. The device quietly becomes a part of your life, providing information and enrichment without a net cost of annoyance. You start to wonder how you lived without it. The commercial writes itself; people from every age demographic, every walk of life, all finding a different, perfect personal use for a tiny always-attached device. You never charge it, and it’s always there, working for you. Your iPhone’s tiny companion.

It’s a lot more believable than trying to get a date on a ski lift.

Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans

In 2005, Death Cab for Cutie released Plans to mixed reviews. The follow-up to 2003's Transatlanticism, it provided an interesting counterbalance to the previous release. At the time, all I knew of the band was that they were on the OC soundtrack or something, and that was enough for me not to be interested. I was more of a dumbass then, admittedly.

Which means when both of these albums were released, the band wasn't even on my radar. I came to discover Plans in the early part of 2007, at the end of a particularly tumultuous winter for me. I think I started listening to it in March or early April, and my attitude was something along the lines of “let's see what all the fuss is about”. Needless to say, it immediately made an impression–I wasn't sure if I liked it–but I was pretty sure I needed to listen again, and so I did, immediately after finishing the first run-through. Then I started listening to the lyrics, and seeing scenes come together in my head. I think by the third or fourth listen, things were coalescing and I had made up my mind that I liked the album.

In the intervening years, it retained a place as one of my very favorite (and in my opinion one of the most well-rounded and balanced) albums in my collection. Each song is a tiny story, and although that sounds incredibly asinine (duh, all songs are tiny stories) there is a thread of longing, melancholy, and loss throughout them all–even the upbeat ones. It's partly a combination of the time in which the album entered my life and partly the achievement of the band in putting a handful of terrific songs together that hang so well next to one another, but it really does change my emotional state on every listen. And while I realize the inherent bias I may have toward its quality, I do believe as a musician that it's worth looking at, because it's increasingly rare to find a collection of tracks that work together the way these songs do.

If you've never heard it, I would highly recommend a listen. Maybe a few. Give it a little time to take root. I could go on about the individual songs and why they're great, but I don't want to drift into music critic douchenalysis. Conversely, it's the kind of album that makes me want to go make more music, and that's what I need more of in my life.