Things I like this week, volume 30.

Mozart in the Jungle

Amazon has, in the past few years, gone from “the place where I buy almost everything” to “the place where I am continually surprised to find extremely compelling original entertainment”. When the company announced it was creating its own content, it seemed like a very me-too move. But to its credit, it’s gathered an insane amount of talent and continues to put out some incredible stuff with its Prime Video service.

Apart from the high-visibility shows like the absolutely amazing Transparent, there are a ton of other efforts, some of which barely register on the radar but are still very good. One of these shows is Mozart in the Jungle. I’m not going to get into plot summary, but suffice to say if you like snappy dialogue and classical music, you’ll probably like this show. Hell, even if you don’t like the music, you’ll probably like it. There are several recognizable faces and some outstanding performances from a few you don’t yet know.

It will probably take you a few episodes to get into it, but since it’s a half-hour show, you can chew through it really quickly. Season three just landed in early December and I haven’t started it yet, but we’re about to and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s charming, scathing, heartwarming, and hilarious in equal parts, and once you get into it, you find yourself strangely compelled in watching the lives of these characters unfold. It’s a look at how utterly normal and relatable seemingly different people can be, and it’s a delight.

Mozart in the Jungle

Using Drafts, Reminders, and Slackbot as a task management system.

I know, this sounds like a fever dream. Stay with me. I promise it’s headed somewhere.

Over the summer, I made the decision to split my work and personal tasks between two separate systems for a lot of reasons. It’s stuck, and I’m really happy with that decision.

I also decided that in terms of thinking about personal tasks, a basic hierarchy is all I need. There are things that need to get done by a certain time, and then there’s everything else. I was using OmniFocus for this to great success.

But if I’m honest with myself, I’m still over engineering things. Work stuff, ok, there’s other people and dependencies, and lots of other things at play. But my life? At home? I essentially need lists, and that’s about it. Simple, basic lists. With the occasional nudge to do something once in a while.

I’ve also been (re)drawn to the idea of using as much of the stock OS as possible, which means I’m looking at Reminders for things. I’ve been down this road before.

Reminders is great because of what it does, which is exist on all your devices without a bunch of extra effort and mostly capture things in a reasonably expedient manner. But what it doesn’t do is allow you to make changes to those items easily and quickly. Or sometimes sync reliably (I had weird duplication of tasks, and stuff marked as done come back from the dead multiple times). All it takes is a few cracks in the facade, and I’m running. So while in principle, having all those unchanging things (bills, medication alerts, household stuff) always available on any new device via iCloud, it just didn’t feel like enough to take the throne.

iOS 10 seems to have fixed a lot of the weird behavior I noticed previously. Also, if I’m not forcing Reminders to be a system it’s not–i.e., using it for what it’s actually good at–I can actually derive an incredible amount of value from it. Here’s what it does well: it reminds you to do stuff. If an alert fires, and you don’t dismiss it or complete it, it hangs out on your lock screen until you do. Every time you look at your device, it’s there, like “hey, yeah, hi, don’t forget this thing”. Simple, quiet, persistent. I like this behavior.

So anything with a date/time/location goes in Reminders. Easy enough. But what about this part:

what it doesn’t do is allow you to make changes to those items easily and quickly

Well. I had a good think about this, and realized that if I’m using this tool correctly, chances are I’m not making changes, but I do still need a little flexibility in assigning those dates and times. So as always, I turned to Workflow. In minutes, I had built an “add reminder” action that I can trigger anywhere from the widget that asks for input and either presents a list of my most common times for an alert or one of three most-used locations (home, office, pharmacy).

I can add a new reminder, with the right alert, in about half the time. It’s freaking great.

That brings me to all the stuff that doesn’t need an alert, but has to get done at some point, or at least should. From that same post:

More disappointingly, even though I adore Drafts more than life itself, it really isn’t the place for me to house my tasks and take action on them. The idea of a single Markdown list of the things I want to do was intoxicating, but it didn’t fit with my mental model of how I manage things I actually need to do.

Once again, I was trying to make a tool do something it shouldn’t. So I changed the way I thought about these lists. I need to keep these lists handy, and they don’t always require action but I need to remember to check them (in GTD, this is a “review”) occasionally. I’m in Drafts all day long, for a million reasons. I’d never tried filters before, so I decided to give this a whirl.

Not one list, but a few key ones. See, if these things are always accessible, in a tool I’m already using all day, I think I’m more likely to idly scroll through and do several quick reviews, and potentially cross some things off. This is definitely the big variable in this new system, and I’m waiting to see how it feels. So far, so good.

Drafts doesn’t have line spacing controls, and one of the other things I wanted was a little more padding in the list views for ease of reading while I scan quickly. So I added a very basic Unicode character that creates a little bit of space between lines, allowing for a nicer view. I added that to an action key, and made an action list to send the draft to the right list.1 This is also good because I can filter against that same Unicode character, and keep things where they belong, keeping my inbox cleaner and actionable.

Within the lists themselves, I can use the native link mode and line re-ordering functionality Drafts has to move items around (or delete them when complete) or view a URL I add to a task. Works pretty well.

But what happens if I have an item in this list that I decide I need a nudge for? I took that same Workflow action I’d built, and modified it slightly to take a selected line of text from Drafts and send it through the same flow. It kicks it over and runs the same super fast steps and dumps it into Reminders for me, to ping me at some future point.

So I’ve covered basic lists and the escalation point where I need an alert to move something along. I also mentioned Slackbot. My love for Slack is well-documented at this point. I’m always looking for different ways to use it. I decided to try using Slackbot for a certain class of nudge that is absolutely not mission-critical—one that I didn’t feel like seeing in a list every time I opened Reminders—as a test. So I have a handful of recurring reminders I’ve asked Slackbot to yell back to me every now and then.

I have a “home” list of stuff we need to do around our house. Totally not urgent, has no time sensitivity. Every Saturday at 9am, Slackbot goes “hey check your home list and see if you can do anything today”. I don’t need to mark anything as done, and if I want to hear about it again, I can defer the reminder for later or the next day. This is only for stuff I kinda don’t really care about, but still want a poke for occasionally. So far, so good. And you can review what you’ve told Slackbot to track with a simple /remind list slash command. I’m still exploring this one, but it’s been fun so far. I’m currently trying to think of other little nudges that I don’t necessarily need to take action on, but that I’d like to see now and again.

That’s pretty much it for now. For… now. Every time I change this system up, I feel like I’m losing my mind a little more, but I also feel like in restructuring everything, I keep learning about what’s important to me at different times in my life. And I’ve decided that this is my hobby. I really do like playing with these things. I have almost no free time, and a busy work and family life, and this stupid crap actually makes me happy. It’s not getting in the way of doing stuff, and that’s the important thing.

So yeah, that’s this month’s experiment. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  1. And naturally, Tim improved it by combining everything into one action, so if you want to play with this stuff, just use his instead. It’s tight. 

Things I like this week, volume 29.

Twenty Thousand Hertz

This is a new podcast that I discovered thanks to it being featured on a recent 99% Invisible episode. It’s all about telling “the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds” and is exactly the kind of stuff I adore–people examining something that permeates our consciousness and culture at a deep level. Great storytelling, great production value.

And the latest episode is literally about one of my favorite things: 8-bit sounds. I had the biggest grin on my face as I listened to it.

A delightful show, and I can’t wait to hear more.

Twenty Thousand Hertz

A return to form.

I type a lot. Hundreds, if not thousands of words, every day, across various devices. I’d say it’s a primary interaction model for most of us at this point. It’s changed the way I think about information, because since I can type, I often do, and it means that since I can type pretty quickly, I can capture quickly too.

Along the way, I’ve used lots of different notebooks as well. That was a vestigial practice–held from college, I’d wager–where I was never without one. But in my professional life, I could just never get it to stick the way I could in my personal life. I’d use a Moleskine or some Field Notes for a while, and then inevitably gravitate back to my Mac in most cases.

And I’ve tried to blend these ideas in the past, with various degrees of success. I’ve drastically increased my usage of iOS across personal and professional activities, but I’m still typing. A lot.

Earlier this year, I got the 12.9″ iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil. I enjoyed the novelty of finally having a digital handwriting tool that almost exactly matched my writing style on paper. But I still wasn’t using it much for this. I’d pull it out and open Paper to sketch something quickly or explain an idea, or annotate something, but I just didn’t make the mental shift to embracing it as a real input method.

But in October, I attended a conference for work. And I decided to try something different: I would sit in sessions and meetings and just listen and only write down something that stood out to me as interesting or important. What happened as a result of this decision should surprise exactly no one: I listened more attentively and actively, as opposed to simply trying to capture every detail of what was communicated. The things I did capture were of more value because they were most likely the important aspects of the information, and the act of capturing them more deliberately by hand allowed them to gestate in my mind a little more.

This isn’t a new discovery. In fact, I already knew this to be the case, even on a personal level. But blending the idea of the digital notebook along with the act of handwriting triggered something new for me. Since then, I’ve been keeping daily handwritten notes in an app that was recommended to me by a friend. Each day, I start a new notebook, log anything I need to during the day, and at the end I export a PDF to Box for archiving.

The act of more consciously listening and being present in a discussion has been transformative for me. I think that for a long time, I felt obligated to log as much as possible but what’s really more important is engaging in the discussion when it’s actually occurring.

To the extent that this is a digital activity as opposed to paper-based, in doing it this way, I allow myself a quick and easy way to backup my notes and share them if need be. I can drop images in and annotate immediately, or record the entire session and take notes alongside. Distinct advantages over a paper notebook, but the biggest one is that I have one thing to carry and I can do everything with it, as opposed to a computer and a notebook, which I’d then want to scan in some way, adding another activity to the chain of events.

I’m dealing with information differently now, and I’m really pleased with how it’s been going. It’s been about a month, and I really enjoy the act of writing again, which surprises me. It might not be as efficient a method of capture, but part of that capture process is understanding what it is I’m keeping for later—and slowing my mind and allowing that information to breathe as it moves around has been a real change.

Of course this all led me to buy a second iPad too, but that’s a story for another time. 😉

Things I like this week, volume 28.

Apple News

I’d been using it for light reading with a few sources before (not as an RSS replacement), but as of iOS 10, I’ve left the “Top Stories” stuff turned on and it’s become one of my most-used apps. I like the new look of the app, but still think it’s a bit odd on the iPad (I find there to be strange formatting issues with too-small fonts, odd layouts within articles, and photos that are huge and cropped in totally weird ways). On the iPhone however, it’s fantastic. I’m in and out of it all day, every day.1

Handwritten notes

Hopefully I’ll have more to say about this soon (working a post out in my head for the past few weeks) but for now, suffice to say I’m rediscovering how slowing down the ways in which I listen to and take in information can actually help my brain. Using the Pencil/iPad instead of typing, and reshaping how I do things.

  1. I mean, it’s mostly bringing me abject misery all day, every day, because 2016 is a goddamned emotional black hole, but I’m still enjoying the app. ↩︎