Reassembly.

Part 2 of 2

As I said in my previous post, I stopped using Todoist after a week, and it has nothing to do with the tool. I still think it’s totally amazing, and may absolutely go back to it. Which is the point of what’s to follow.

Since transitioning from client work with Nickelfish to product work with Derby, the demands on my time are radically different. I no longer have dozens of meetings and calls a week, and my time is not double- and triple-booked. I can manage things in a very different way, and honestly, it’s been a very nice change. As a result, I’ve started to pay less attention to things in certain capacities. Since my calendar isn’t packed, I barely look at it. Which made me forget that my wife added a doctor’s appointment that I agreed to be present for earlier in the week (baby stuff, you know). Not a problem, as I remembered the day before and didn’t miss the appointment, but it brought an issue to light: I missed something.

I’m not someone who likes to miss something.

Similarly, my task list is different. I used to have multiple deliverables for many projects tied to me at any given time and I needed to manage my time in a super granular way. That’s not currently an issue for me, so I have lists of tasks I’d like to accomplish for my new projects that aren’t pressing, and hence aren’t always getting done. Which is not to say I’m not getting things done, I’m quite good at getting plenty done, but even with weekly reviews and my insistence on checking those lists, I’m usually focused on a “Today” view, which I’ve come to rely on. Fine in most cases, but I’m feeling like I could be doing more, because once “Today” is wrapped up, I’m celebrating and not necessarily looking for more to do.

Prior to this week, I put everything I had into one system (OmniFocus, then Todoist). This included all personal and work responsibilities, recurring reminders, one-off items, anything. One place for everything. Nice. Except that since there was always something (i.e., some trivial recurring task) I felt like I wasn’t “accomplishing” because I could never clear those lists. While this may seem dumb to any person in their right mind, as we always have something we can be doing, it started to grate on me. Just a little, like a single grain of sand you feel after getting back from the beach and can’t quite find.

So I’m burning it down. Zeroing out the dials. I’m going back to plain text. One file, all tasks, neatly written, and always in my face. Here are the specifics.

  • A single .txt file (Todo.txt), in my dock, synced through Dropbox (duh), edited with TextEdit. It’s opened when I start my workday, updatable at any point, presenting all my tasks across my projects. Instead of a weekly review, I’m always reviewing, deciding what I can really do in the next few minutes, moving list items up and down, adding, deleting. No times, no dates, no contexts, just a few grouped lists. These are items that have no particular time component in terms of “due”, just stuff that needs to be done, by me, at some point.

  • Anything that requires a time component gets a reminder in Reminders.app. All recurring items are here now, so they don’t clutter up my tasks. I have four lists right now: Bills, Repeating, Reminders (things due this week), and Future (things due after this week). I may add more, I may consolidate. Point is, they exist somewhere, but I don’t see them all the time, allowing me to focus on what I need to do. Since they exist alongside calendar items, I can now view these secondary items all together in Fantastical, so they’re visible but not prominent. An item in Todo.txt may have a partner reminder, but the point is it’s a reminder, the item still exists as a top-level task item in front of my eyes.

[Yes, I realize I could have done this with OmniFocus perspectives and Todoist filters. I may eventually go back to it, which is the point of the post. This isn’t about switching tools again, this is about understanding how and why I think about my data and how that changes based on where I am and what I’m doing.]

Naturally, with Launch Center Pro, Drafts, and any of the other dozens of apps I like to use, I can interact with this plain text file, appending, prepending (which I do as my “inbox” approximation, just throw things on top, and then move into appropriate lists), etc. It’s very fast, can be done in the background, and is accessible from anywhere, as is the case with my notes now.

So: why the hell am I still doing this to myself?

I thought about this last night and earlier this morning. As I said previously this isn’t about your typical productivity masturbation, or ‘this tool is better than that tool and here’s why’. This is about my brain, understanding how it works, and more importantly, coming to grips with the fact that my brain will work differently depending on a variety of ever-shifting factors in my life. I’ve written before about giving up and settling on a trusted system, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that my trusted system is me, and I need to allow myself the flexibility to use the right tool at the right time.

I am not the kind of person who enjoys jumping from tool to tool instead of working and getting things done. But I’m no longer going to feel guilty about these explorations because I simply can’t fight it anymore. It’s evident to me now that it’s in my nature to change, as much as I’d like to think I’m stoic and able to calcify around something. I can’t think of anything less productive on a personal level than sticking with a system that isn’t working for you–for any reason. So for now, it’s this. Next week it might be something else. I won’t bore everyone with the details every time it changes, but I think I’m done apologizing to myself for feeling the way I have about it. And that makes me feel good.

Moving from Evernote to Dropbox.

On this week’s Connected, there was a hearty discussion about some choices that Evernote is making with its product, namely the addition of “Context”. Offered as a Premium feature, the goal of Context is to surface additional useful information to the user as a note is being created, viewed, or modified.

Stephen voiced some very reasonable concerns about the direction in which Evernote seems to be moving, and how this type of feature can feel intrusive. In the absence of more information, Federico shared some of those sentiments, while Myke argued on the side of the business, namely that it’s a seemingly innocuous change that we could have expected this company to have made to increase its viability at some point (and everyone marveled that Google hasn’t done this yet). I don’t know all the facts about Evernote’s investors and fiscal plans, but even before this, I was considering moving away from it for different reasons.

First, let me start by saying I have been an Evernote user since 2008. I am a Premium subscriber. I love the service. I love Phil Libin’s focused and honest approach to the company. I love that it works almost all the freaking time, even when I do something dumb that should have broken it. It’s truly great. But I’ve started to realize that it’s also in direct conflict with the way I want to think about, store, and access my information.

I’ve never been a fan of GMail because I am an old-school IMAP guy. I like making folders, I like using folders, I like taking forethought and putting things in places. I don’t like the “leave everything in the inbox and just search” mentality. It’s never worked for me. And while Evernote allows you to create notebooks and stacks of notebooks around those, I found myself dumping voluminous amounts of information into it, organizing it, and still not really having an idea where my stuff actually is. Luckily, its search is tremendous and I can usually find what I need. But it still didn’t feel right to me, the way my brain works.

In addition to this, I have a long-standing affinity and love for plain text. But I also take pictures of things. And scan documents. And create PDFs all the time. How will I find all this? How will I search and have it make meaningful sense? Where is my context?

So I’m shifting gears. This week I manually created plain text copies of all my blog posts from this site. I wanted a local copy of everything, and I did some housecleaning while I did it. I used Editorial, because it was actually easier to do it–my hand to Federico–from the iPad with workflows than on the desktop. And yesterday I began migrating data out of Evernote, one note at a time.

I created this hierarchy in a top-level “Notes” folder in Dropbox:

It works like this:

Audio is for any kind of aural snippet I might capture and not have a specific place for yet. This could include funny things my daughter says, a conversation, a song idea, whatever. I have Dropvox set up on my iPhone to start recording the instant the app opens, and put its files directly here.

House is a folder I share with my wife. In it are ideas for renovation, pictures of interiors and exteriors we like, and documents we both need access to.

Lists is just casual stuff I want to keep track of: books to read, music to download, etc. Managed via Listacular on iOS.

PDF is any file of that type that contains information I want quick access to, or that has no relative home elsewhere (say, in the “House” folder). Evernote allows you to convert notes to PDFs easily, so a lot of things in this folder are series of images that ended up as one PDF. Handy.

Photo contains any kind of photo note I might grab with my phone. Wine we like, the type of paper towels I’m supposed to get, the back of my router. You get the idea.

Scans is for anything grabbed via Scanbot, Scanner Pro, or my ScanSnap. Yes, these could probably live in PDF in most cases, but I like the idea of a separate folder, because I will almost certainly remember scanning something. I do it infrequently enough, although I want to start doing it more. And chances are these are “documents” as opposed to say, the very first issue of Nintendo Power that I have also stored as a PDF, in the PDF folder.

Ladies.

Sketches: any hand-drawn notes via apps on iOS, using whatever app I feel like.

And text is just the library of .txt files that make sense as straight up text. I’m using my longtime favorite nvALT on the desktop, and I found the incredible Jottings last night, which is as close to nvALT on the iPhone as I’ve seen yet.

All my files are named in a readable natural fashion (Wine – Chianti – Birthday Party.jpg) so I can scan for what I want quickly. I use Alfred and Spotlight to find them instantly on my hard drive. I’d tried Alfred workflows for searching within Evernote, but they always felt kludgy and slower than a fast file system search. This feels good.

I’ve set up a great set of Launch Center Pro actions to help with all this too:

They’re all pretty self-explanatory, and they’re working really well so far. “Checkbook” is a little prepend action so I can keep track of the handful of times I actually have to write a check, since I haven’t kept a proper checkbook in about a decade. And I can open the Dropbox app itself and browse all these files really easily. It’s great.

So that’s pretty much it. I’m out of Evernote in less than 24 hours (about 550 notes) and I have an accessible, lightning fast, and extensible micro-file-system. The idea of having a tangible handle on my data, visibility into it, and the ability to move it easily (not to mention switch between apps that handle all these standard file types) is a breath of fresh air. Nothing against Evernote, I still think it’s great, but it was time for a change, and this feels like the right one for me.

11-15-2014, 9:12 AM
A few people on Twitter brought up the idea that I’d be losing rich features like annotation, notes with both text and images, etc. Not really. Notability has excellent Dropbox support and provides a variety of format export options. I have mine set up pointed to my PDF folder, saving in that format. Changes sync to the folder instantly. It’s pretty great.

11-28-2014, 10:17 PM
In using this system for almost two weeks, I’ve added other functionality and condensed some actions within LCP. My notes group has been augmented by a Drafts action to send text to iCloud Drive for quick access from the Mac (this is still in beta, hopefully coming to the App Store release soon!), as well as with NoteBox. It’s a cool app that can merge bits of text together easily, which I learned about from this post on MacStories.

Now instead of a bunch of individual icons, I get this nice menu when I need to perform an “add” action of any kind. Cleans things up nicely.

Obviously, I’ll continue tweaking, maybe forever. Such is my curse. This is how it stands today.

Rewiring my brain with Drafts and TextExpander.

Drafts has become one of my very favorite apps on iOS. Prior to this week, it was iPhone only, but a recent update has not only extended its usefulness on the phone, but added a new iPad app too. It’s not universal, but that’s no reason to overlook it. This app belonged on the iPad from day one, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s here.

I’m going to skip the review, since there’s already a whole bunch of those, and they’re far more comprehensive than I’d be. What I was thinking about is whether or not I could take a highly extensible app like Drafts combined with a tool like TextExpander and change the way I use my iPad.

Since iOS prevents apps from running globally in the background as they can on OS X, apps like TE have a hard time being as useful on the mobile platform. Sure, you can try to do everything in the app itself, but after years of training myself to jump between apps on my iPhone/iPad, it seems unlikely that I’ll be able to (or want to) live in a single new app and try to push text everywhere. TE can allow your snippets to be made available in other apps though, and this is fairly useful, but the app needs to expressly support it and not all apps do. However, an app like Drafts feels like it might work. It supports TE snippets, and I’ve already grown accustomed to using it on my iPhone. It’s worked its way into my workflow, being both an instant scratch pad and a brain dump for chunks of text that will end up in other apps. It’s highly configurable, clean, and fast.

On the iPad, the interface is very similar to a handful of other apps that I’m using right now (Byword, Writing Kit). There are a variety of attractive font choices and a few different interface color themes to choose from, as well as variable text sizes, word count, and some quick shortcuts to useful text insertions. The thing that’s making me really reconsider what I do on the iPad is that I’ve grown fond of using text snippets on my Mac lately (I know, I’m a little late to that geek party, but whatever). I want to do the same on iOS, but the limitations of the system prevent me from doing it smoothly. If I pair the functionality I want with an app I’m already using, can I rewire my brain to do a lot of my text entry from a single start point? Obviously, I’ll still need to jump into apps to read things like Twitter and email, but for things like quick bursts of creativity, blog posts and longer emails, it’s a pretty compelling option. OH. I almost forgot – half the reason I’m willing to try this is that Drafts 2.0 has added a sync option. So your text goes between your devices effortlessly. It’s not through Dropbox (awww) but it works phenomenally well in my testing (yay!).

I’m going to give it a shot. I’ll probably talk about how it works at some point. If you want to ask about it, feel free.