Summer explorations, part three: Resolution and refinement.

Parts one and two of this series are here and here.

I know this all seems like a tremendous waste of time, and in some ways I’d agree. I get a little sad when I think about how many other ways I could have spent the time I’ve sunk into task management and this kind of thing. Moving from one app to another. Thinking about perspectives, and filters, and tags. Talking to friends about what they do. Experimenting, tweaking, and returning to the starting point.

But if you’ve read this far, you’re likely the kind of person who sees some value in the process. And that’s part of my point.

I see two things very clearly now. The first is that this really has become a hobby, which is a little weird, but whatever. My hobby is playing with task apps and organizing information. This should come as no great surprise to anyone, given my previous statements. And for all the hand-wringing it causes me, I do like it. It’s fun. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle over and over again, but the pieces’ shapes change ever so slightly each time, so it’s familiar, but not exactly the same. It’s oddly delightful.

The other thing is that for better or worse, the way I feel about myself is intrinsically tied to how I feel about the information I manage in my life. I’ve discovered (re-discovered?) that I feel great about myself when I think I’m completely on top of things and not so great when I feel like things are slipping through the cracks. I suppose this is slightly better than tying your feelings of self-worth to something like your personal appearance or fiscal status, which may not be as easily managed.1 At least this way, I have a relatively manageable way to climb back out of whatever emotional abyss I find myself in from time to time, and can reason out why I might be feeling that way at that time.

I’ve found there’s something almost Konmari-esque about switching task apps after a certain amount of time. Each time I do this process, it takes less time than before, because I get serious about pruning things that have been floating around in my system that I have no intention of ever really getting around to. I shed a handful of things that were being maintained and adding to the overhead and re-prioritize some other things, forcing myself to take a good look at what I want to get out of the switch. It feels… cleansing, if we’re being honest. And I like that feeling a lot.

After all this, what have I learned?2

  1. I’m not going to feel guilty about doing this stuff. It’s fun, and it serves a purpose.
  2. I have great friends for humoring me as I go through this. Of course, they’re as bad as I am.
  3. Splitting work and personal data, while initially somewhat challenging, has yielded some interesting things both in how I use apps, but also in how I think about getting things done.
  4. If this is what I have to do to make me feel good about myself, things could be a whole lot worse.
  5. I should spend more time with my kids.

That last one pretty much applies to all aspects of adult life, but as you crest over the hill of “yay, I feel like I’ve settled into my new task app” it starts to kind of assert itself a little more.

So that’s it. Summer lovin’. Happened so fast. See you in about a year when I manage to get myself knotted up all over again about something else. Or the same exact thing. Either way.

  1. “No offense if that’s your bag, it just isn’t as important to me,” he said as he ate a third helping of dessert and drove away in his modest five-year-old mid-size vehicle. 
  2. The other thing I’ve learned is that it’s tremendously helpful to read my old blog posts. It’s like talking to myself in a private (except that it’s published publicly on the the internet) therapy session. 

Summer explorations, part two: The serpentine path of satisfaction.

Part one of this series is here.

As I said in the last post, splitting task data was something I’d not done before, and it became a very interesting scenario. I toyed with the idea back in July, but it was purely a theoretical thing, a thought technology and not much more. It didn’t stick then. In fact, it took seismic shifts in my daily routine and workload to precipitate the change and have it remain intact. But that happened in the past few weeks, and now I’m using two separate apps for work and personal tasks as opposed to filtering those things in a single app.

Once that decision was made, the next thing that happened was a realization that the way I think about “work” and “home” are drastically different–but I was managing them the same way, with the same overhead, filtering, tagging, etc. It didn’t make sense anymore. When everything is in one app, you start playing with filters and views to separate things you don’t need to see in reasonable ways. Eventually you hit on something that works, and you’re happy. But what I realized as I broke this data apart was that the things I want and need to accomplish in my personal life are vastly different from the things I need to accomplish at work. More importantly, the way I think about these things and the way I set about trying to do them really ought to be different too.

So I stepped back, with two disparate data sets, and thought about it. Todoist is a perfect tool for work, with team collaboration, web integrations, and cross-platform support. But what’s the perfect tool for everything else?

I’d been using 2Do for the past few months, and I’m a big fan of the app. It totally changed the way I think about information, how I organize it, and how I access it. I was late to that party and I’m far from the only fan, so if you’re interested, I encourage you to read these other great posts.

But 2Do started to feel (as flexible as it is) like more than I needed for this. So I did what any rational person would do in this position. I tried 47 other apps.

I began with redefining the things that happen in my personal life: there are “reminders”, which are things I need to remember, usually at a certain time. And there are “tasks” which can be things that need to get done but have no date—or things I’d like to get done, whether tactical or aspirational. I took anything without a date and created individual lists in Notes. I told myself I’d refer to them on a regular basis.

Mm hmm.

I went back to Reminders, like a gentleman. Built-in, deeply integrated, and simple as can be. Set up a few lists. The perfect place to store the things I need to be reminded about. Even does those cool deep-link things between apps as of iOS 9. The Notes idea, however, quickly became a weak spot, so I pulled those items into a single note in Drafts, which I am in all day, every day. Figured if it’s right in my face, I can see it and take action. I would look through that list each day and if I saw something I needed to do that day, I would highlight it and send it right to Reminders for attention-grabbing. It was flawless! Until it wasn’t.

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.

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.

Then I went back to Wunderlist, which I’ve used in the past. Wunderlist is cool because like Todoist, it’s web-based, so you can do some cool stuff with it. The app’s come a long way and features excellent things like natural language capture now. But between some syncing weirdness, some UI glitching on the iPad, and general malaise, I decided within a few days that it wasn’t going to be the winner either.

Then I snapped entirely and put everything back in 2Do. I wiped all my previous data one Sunday morning and decided it was the right place. I told myself I would change the way I think about organizing things (more capture, more action, less fiddling, less overhead) and I was convinced I was done.

Until about 45 minutes later, when I re-downloaded OmniFocus, installed it, and put everything in there too. OmniFocus, my longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend, with whom I share history, with whom I am not truly complete, despite my weary wanderings.

For the next 36 hours or so, I had all of my personal life in those two apps. And then I just freaked out. No, seriously, I did. I had a baby anxiety attack, quickly righted the ship, realized I’m a total asshole, thanked the heavens that this was my biggest problem right now, and just said fuck it, it’s going to be OmniFocus again, and that’s that.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the way OmniFocus organizes and displays information is what I was looking for right now. It does bulletproof reminders and due times. And with what I learned about not using due times and surfacing things at the right time when I need to see them, I figured out what I needed to do.

If you’ve made it this far, I truly am sorry. And thankful. We should hang out.


Anything that either has to happen at a certain time or should happen by a certain time gets a due date in OmniFocus. Everything else sits across a handful of projects. Flat hierarchy (for now), no folders, no sub-projects, none of that. Simple. Barely any contexts. Contexts are a luxury now. I only create one when absolutely necessary. I have four perspectives: “Today” (due and flagged), “Available” (everything without a due date), “Wait Up” (stuff I’m owed or stuff I owe – good for work and personal life), and “All” which is just everything, in case I ever need to dive in. I can use Drafts and Siri for capture everywhere, and things like MailDrop and calendar integration as well.

The idea is: things I need to do each day (due) show up no matter what. In addition to that, I comb through “Available” each morning and choose one or two things I really want to get done–and think I can during the course of that day–and flag them so they show up. I have to be brutally honest with myself, and only pick those one/two, but it’s made me start to plan around how I want things to get done a bit more, instead of just making lists and never actually doing them. Last week alone, I cleared about four or five little things that had been hanging around just because I pushed myself.

And therein lies the big lesson.

This isn’t about apps, or systems, or UIs, or web integrations. It’s about getting serious and allowing myself both the flexibility to do things, and not do things as life dictates. It’s about changing the way I think about work projects and the way I think about my personal goals, so that both get accomplished in the best way possible. By changing the way I visualize and organize, I’ve been able to reset what my actual goals are, and start clearing items out. But it wasn’t the apps. It required a serious mental shift, and I had to be ready to do it. I wasn’t before. Things changed, and conditions became favorable, I acted on it, and I’m pleased with the results. I still have lots of work to do to move through some longtime lists I’ve been carrying around, but the new ideals I’ve created will lay the foundation for how I manage those things going forward.

Final chapter: after all this nonsense, what does it all mean? I realize some things about myself (again) and crystallize how I want to think about things for the future.

Summer explorations, part one: A feeling of relative control.

Summer traditionally seems to be a great time to muck around with my systems and workflows. Lots of people are away, so the office gets these nice little lulls where I can sit quietly for bits of time and ruminate. We’re on the cusp of a new iOS release–and new hardware–but nothing is happening quite yet, so I’m thinking about it, but also can’t act on anything. Year after year (if I read back through blog posts and journal entries), I end up tugging on threads in my setups over and over again, exploring things I’ve used for months or years, trying new things, generally comfortable with upending everything, knowing in September I’ll be wiping everything and installing iOS fresh.

This summer’s been no different, apart from me being way busier than normal at work. But ironically, it’s been this shift that’s precipitated probably some of the biggest changes and realizations about the way I organize and deal with information in my life. In fact, the changes in my responsibilities have triggered a chain of events that will likely alter the way I deal with information for a long time.

It came in phases. Phase one involved creating a calculated division between my work and personal worlds, which didn’t exist before. Phase two built on phase one and is all about how I think about doing things in my personal life, and how I structure the things I need to remember, the things I want to accomplish, and just about everything else that makes its way into my brain.

But I’ve come out (what I think is) the other side now, and the crazy part is: sure, I’ve played with some apps and done some reconfiguration of tools, but in doing the things I’ve done this time around, I’ve uncovered some things that I didn’t expect to.

We’ll get to that.

This is all probably too long and meandering to walk through in one post, so I’m going to break it up. Gotta get those 16 page views somehow. Fair warning, this is some nerdy-ass stuff.

Let’s begin.

Since joining a much larger company, the things I need to do–and subsequently keep in my mental RAM–have changed dramatically. I interact with many, many more people, on a global scale, across time zones, in different disciplines, and with greatly varying agendas and goals. It’s actually been an incredibly good experience for me as a person because it’s opened me up to thinking about things in new ways, and given me the opportunity to work with lots of personalities I might not have been exposed to otherwise. All good things.

Along with this comes a lot of new stuff I need to do and think about. I lead a small team doing interesting projects, but I also play roles in other parts of the company as well. I have to span a lot of different activities in the course of any given day, and I may not have time to cover everything I need to. I have had to learn to delegate and share some of the load, which honestly was a challenge for me, but utterly necessary in order to keep my sanity. Luckily for me, my team is amazing and is more than willing to help out with anything.

So instead of keeping my tasks in a silo by themselves, we’re all using Todoist together now. It has been transformative, mostly because I’ve never used it with anyone before. 1 I’ve used it extensively myself, but the service begins to take on a whole new life when you use it with other people. So we all have the app installed, and the team has access to just about every project in my personal list. This way, they can see everything I’ve got going on, can jump in and handle things if they see an opportunity to do so, and I can assign tasks to them as I work through setup of projects on calls and in meetings. I get notifications when things get done, and we can comment on tasks, attach files, and chip away at large bodies of work all at the same time. It’s been terrific for feeling like we’ve got a handle on everything we need to do, and I’m glad I kept my premium account active, because it’s really been quite handy.

However, now that I’m sharing all this stuff in Todoist, I’ve discovered that I want to have the things I’m tracking in my personal life somewhere else. The other part of joining a large company is stuff like IT policies and compliance, and I’ve found that having a clean separation of work and personal data on my company-provided laptop is the most comfortable way for me to work. It also gives me another reason to bring my iPad to work every day, which is essentially my personal laptop now anyway.

So I’ve split my world: email in different apps (Mail for work, connected to Exchange, Airmail for personal), files (Box for work, Dropbox for personal, along with my Synology), and tasks (Todoist for work and a million freaking things in the last month for personal stuff). For some reason, my calendar is the only thing I don’t mind blended, although I tried that too for a while (Calendar for work, Fantastical for personal).

I’ve never done this before; work and personal life was always together, and not in an unhealthy way. When you help start a company, it kind of happens. You don’t draw those boundaries the same way you might when you’re not personally invested in something. It never bothered me to see that stuff all mashed up–in fact, I really liked figuring out how to filter and sort in creative ways. Some of my best tinkering has been around how to use my favorite tools to show me exactly what I wanted when I wanted it. Now I’ve realized with all the things I’m tracking, the best way to do that and accommodate my personal wishes to keep work and personal life connected but separate means I take that information and split it right down the middle.

With certain data, like email, this was easier than I’d expected. I always thought having a unified inbox was wonderful, until I was sifting through dozens of work emails to lift out the actually important personal email about my mortgage that I absolutely couldn’t afford to miss. So I bought Airmail and haven’t looked back. It got a great update right around the time I was making this change, so it was rather fortuitous.

Files were easy too. I keep one folder from Dropbox on my work machine called “Sync” and it only contains a dedicated 1Password vault I use for work stuff, and my Alfred data. Everything else on that machine is work stuff and so it lives in Box.

Tasks. That’s where things take a real turn. Big surprise, I know.

Next post: the clouds part, I go a little crazy, and land right back where I always start, a little more enlightened for the journey. As it should be.

  1. Federico has written quite a bit on using Todoist with his team at MacStories, and they do some very cool stuff over there with it and a few other tools. 

Ain’t no party like a network-attached storage party.

I’m a relative overachiever when it comes to complicating things in my technological life. I like tinkering. But I’ve always kept local storage a little on the basic side, with a few external hard drives cloned to one another using Carbon Copy Cloner. When one of these drives started to go recently, I finally decided it was time to take the plunge on a NAS setup in my home. I asked for recommendations on Twitter.

The answers were overwhelmingly in favor of the Synology family of products. A quick trip to Amazon and several hundred dollars later, and I had my ticket to board the train to NASville.


Anyway, my needs are fairly straightforward: I just want a big drive to store a bunch of stuff, and I want redundancy. After looking over the different models, I went with the DS414j as my entry point to this brave new world. I coupled it with two WD Red 3TB drives to start (leaving two bays free for later).

Holy hell, this thing is cool.

It took about 10 minutes to set up. I was prepared for a protracted land war, and it was more like a game of laser tag. The box opened up, the drives went in the box, the box got closed, it did some magic, and then I had a web interface to see the box. It was so easy, I was convinced I did something wrong for a minute.

The web dashboard has a ridiculous amount of options, most of which I’ll never even use or look at again, but it’s crazy how much these boxes can do. I got about 1.3TB of data copied over the LAN in 10-11 hours, and I was done. I can’t remember the last time I had a big computery task to do that was this easy and non-enraging.

I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I plan to play with it and explore a bit more soon. In the meantime, if you’re thinking about something like this, start your search with Synology. So many people recommended it without hesitation, and now I can see why.

A week with the Pebble Steel.

Prior to the announcement of the Apple Watch, I had little to no interest in wearables of any kind. The closest I came previously was a year-long dalliance with my Fitbit. Even today, I’m still not wholly convinced of the overall utility of wrist computing, but I’ve begun to think about it more seriously and as such wanted to dip into the current market so I’d have a way to make a comparison when the Apple Watch does finally arrive.

So last Saturday, with some birthday money in hand, I went to the nearby Best Buy and left with a Pebble Steel. At first, I figured I would just get the cheaper plastic model, which is half the price, but it was so ugly that my modest personal style sensibilities immediately overrode that decision. The Steel is actually a pretty decent looking watch anyway, and not so far afield from what I might ordinarily consider. The goal of the experiment was the following:

  • get a little experience with some kind of wrist-based computer thing in advance of the Apple Watch to understand what it’s competing against
  • decide if having notifications on my wrist was even something in which I was even mildly interested
  • explore the apps and functionality the Pebble line currently offers, having matured a little since its introduction

I’ll quickly address the hardware itself. The Steel is a nice watch, but I always have issues with metal watches with leather bands that are waterproof. I realize the casing can take it, but who wants to get leather wet? And I’m far too lazy to spend the time treating and waterproofing the stock band. It’s just not that nice. The black leather that comes standard is less than stellar, and I immediately replaced it with this, which is a vast improvement and feels more like one of my beloved G-Shocks. I know there’s a steel band you can buy as well, but it also looked sort of lackluster and I wanted something that felt more sporty. The Shank is a great product, and I’m really enjoying it. Now I don’t care if the watch gets wet because it’s metal and silicone and feels more durable as a result, even if it’s all in my head. I think Pebble should have offered a band like this themselves, as it still feels high end, but adds a resilience to the overall design.

On wrist-based computing: The first day I wasn’t convinced this was for me. Little stuff like controlling music/podcast playback is nice, but my best use case so far was viewing a shopping list on my wrist in the zoo that was Whole Foods on the day before Thanksgiving. That was actually super convenient, especially now that I have the 6 Plus. So I think a device that can do more than this (e.g. respond in some way to notifications) could be useful in a hands-free scenario.

On notifications: A bunch of buzzes on my wrist, telling me all kinds of things happening on my phone that I found I mostly didn’t care about. A little tweaking of settings, and I can definitely see the value of having little blips here and there when you don’t want to or can’t take your phone out of your pocket. I’ve always kept a lean notification profile on my phone, but I trimmed it down to only the stuff I want to see on my wrist and it’s pretty useful. Calls, messages, support tickets for Stringer, and only a few more things are what make it to the watch, and it’s working out pretty well.

On the Pebble experience/apps: Most of the “apps” that I found in the Pebble ecosystem were pretty goofy. Proof of concept stuff, things that overreach with what the watch can actually do, etc. There are some interesting things happening, but overall it feels pretty half-baked. Speaking of which, the Pebble app on iOS is an abomination. I think it’s just a wrapper for a web app, and it performs horribly, with a high percentage of your taps not registering, the app freezing, and you generally just losing interest in the whole process. When you actually install something, it’s a fairly janky process, the settings for the apps are stored in web pages on the phone with varying functionality and complexity, and you can only manage eight slots on the watch at any given time. It’s… less than ideal.

Understanding that you need the phone to do anything with the watch, it’s really disappointing how terrible it feels. It’s also (as of this post) still not optimized for the new iPhones, which is really annoying, but that’s just me being petty, I suppose. Still.

All that said, I’m a believer in having something on my wrist to use this way. I wasn’t just over a week ago, and now I am. So I can thank the Pebble Steel for getting me on board with the concept. I thought the Apple Watch looked cool when it was introduced, but I was skeptical as to whether or not it was for me. I think it definitely is, and the Pebble’s just made me look forward to it more. For all my criticism, I am actually enjoying the Steel, and I’ll continue to wear it and use it until I can upgrade this satellite experience next year.