A small set of apps to keep me creative

There’s something I keep having to remind myself: no matter how little time I have to put into art, I’m still an artist.

Still an artist, still making art. Music’s my medium of choice. Finding time to work on it is hard though, between wedding planning, an increasingly-demanding day job, other side projects – when can I play or write some music, dammit?

Short, obvious answer: block my time like nobody’s business. That at least gets me time dedicated to working on the things I want to be working on. Once I’m there, how can I explore purely creative ideas and save them when my brain is full of all this other stuff? Equally short, equally obvious answer: technology helps me. But how?

I used to think that Evernote should be my catch-all for organizing my stuff to stay focused: important notes, snippets, ideas, lyrics, receipts, anything possibly necessary to retrieve in the future. Tagging and shortcuts, stacks o’ notebooks, so much control. I tried storing my lyrics, song ideas, high level album cycle plans, even task lists and reminders in there – but, as others have noted, I ended up overwhelmed anytime I even attempted to find something in the depths of Evernote’s robust (to a fault) categorization system. I had access to too many things all the time – I had to remember which tags corresponded to what in my bizarre system of organization, not to mention the hours blown trying to establish the system in the first place.

Then I tried 2Do for a while – I figured that if I could abstract my tasks out of their various places into a single, meticulously organized place, I could get to all the other pertinent content via links. 2Do’s various features are great – but again I felt overwhelmed, like I was spending more time organizing my ideas than actually executing on them.

I realized that these approaches contradicted my way of thinking through my various blurbs of information when I need them.

So I worked out a new system. Here’s what my core criteria was for this:

  • I cannot put all my things in one place, due to the sheer overwhelming of having to parse through it all each time.
  • Centralize the blurbs in the app best for those blurbs. For instance, the app that gets me quickest to my notes is the best one for the most important or most frequently used notes.
  • More abstract ideas that require gestation and iteration don’t require as quick access, but I need the flexibility to adjust, merge, rearrange those notes as my ideas come to fruition.
  • Markdown is amazing, but some ideas may require sketching, images, etc. so I can’t limit myself to just text.
  • I need this system to play nice with day-job work and creative work.

Turns out I was able to devise a system that works for me quite well – and it’s not far off from what others have written about recently. Here’s a shortlist of the apps I use in this system:

Reminders.app: my high-level starting point

Apple’s stock Reminders is what holds all my shit together. I tried using so many different task management apps and realized that the overcomplexity of these apps was what caused all my wasted time and lost focus in the first place. With iOS 9 and El Capitan, I can now save virtually anything to a Reminders list and have direct access to that thing, regardless of where it lives. I can even dump tasks straight into a list thanks to 3D Touch.

Disclaimer: A big reason why I went with Reminders was due to iOS Exchange integration. We use Exchange at my work, whose Tasks feature I rely on to organize to-dos each day. Having access to them on my phone is invaluable, and while I loved 2Do for my personal projects, I haven’t found a great iOS task manager that handles Exchange tasks.

I have a few key lists I rely on:

  • I created an “Inbox” list that functions as my collector of tasks. I rely on Siri and share extensions to put everything into this list, and I sort out as needed later.
  • I have a list for each major focus area: Wayfair (via Exchange), Sophomores, wedding planning, writing topics (for the blogs I contribute to), etc. I also have a generic “big goals” list for personal bucket-list items (starting a podcast, writing a book, etc.)
  • I also have a few lists for other things to reference: stuff to buy (Shopping), stuff to watch/listen (Media), stuff to take care of around the house (the Family list I share with Alicia).
  • I rely on Smart Reminders to link to the given Note, Trello board, Ulysses sheet, or whatever else is pertinent to the given task. These were pretty problematic for the first few revisions of iOS 9, but the 6th beta of iOS 9.3 seems to have fixed most of the problems I’ve had.
  • The default “Reminders” list itself is used for everything I need to do on a particular day, but I don’t care about until that day. Recurring tasks reside here, like laundry, taking out the trash or renewing my driver’s license.

My one gripe with Reminders is a simple limitation on iOS: only manual sorting. The OS X Reminders app lets me sort easily by priority or due date, but I can only manually sort on iOS. If Apple adds a sorting feature to Reminders (like they’re doing with Notes), Reminders will finally be an app you might not scoff at.

Notes.app: for all quick note access & entry

Apple’s surprisingly pretty (to me – sorry, haters) and nimble Notes is my go-to for quick essentials: important links, high-level project plans and lists, account numbers (thanks, password lock!), stuff like that. I also use it as a less technical Drafts clone, for quick note-taking (thanks 3D Touch!) for sharing to other apps when needed. The goal here is to get to important things quickly and start writing quickly.

I’ve started to find Notes really useful for quick lists at a lower level than Reminders – for example, production & mix notes. I listen back to my demos constantly while on-the-go, and I’m constantly writing down ideas and feedback for them. I don’t want to create a single Reminders list for each song or album I’m working on – that feels too heavy – but I can create a note for the songs I’m working on, and then create a Smart Reminder about them so I don’t forget to review those notes next time I’m in the home studio.

Ulysses: for all creative / open-ended writing

Ulysses has become my ultimately creative scratchpad. Lyric ideas, blog post topics, sketches for a book I may write. The beauty of Ulysses is that it allows for endless organization, reorganization, merging, splitting and impeccable Markdown formatting of text.

In my workflow, this app (and how I use it) is especially important because it ONLY contains creative writing: blog drafts, lyrics, ideas for novel or album concepts, etc. I don’t get distracted by other life stuff when I have Ulysses open full-screen on my Mac or iPhone (like right now as I write this!), so I can actually focus on finishing that song or

Ulysses’ new iPhone app is totally invaluable, too, so I can do any of the above on the go. I didn’t at first value this since I typically need a keyboard for writing lots of text quickly – but now I can easily review my writing and rework snippets of it anywhere I like, without having to wait.

Trello: for all collaborative work

Trello is everything collaborative. Now that Trello’s iOS app is just as solid as it’s beautiful web interface (and I can jump across either via Handoff) I can easily share ideas with my collaborators or comment on theirs. I rely on this for mixing/mastering my music with my friend James, planning trips with Alicia and building apps with some of my NYC friends.

Thanks to Smart Reminders, I can also reference any board or card on a Reminders list and quickly jump back to it later. For instance, if James sends me a new mix via Trello comment, I can pull it up via push notification and then immediately tell Siri to remind me about it next time I can give it a serious listen.

Pause: for focus-switching and relaxation

Pause is one of those mindfulness apps, and I’m experimenting with it in my creative workflow. It’s allowing me to clear my head of the other life noise by just relaxing my motor functions before jumping into a recording session, new blog post or brain dump. I usually use it for a few seconds before jumping straight into a new context.


I used to think that over-organizing my life was necessary in order to achieve what I wanted to do creatively – but all I ended up with was tasks on tasks on tasks, multi-tier prioritization systems and even a literal Gantt chart at one point. All I needed was an easy way to see what was most important at any given time for a particular context, be able to act on it easily and without distraction, and discipline myself to switch contexts mindfully. This system seems to be working out well for me – let’s see how it works out over time.

Eight months, in an office

10 months ago, I was living what I thought was a dream: working remotely for a decently-buzzed tech startup where I was the lead product guy. I could work in my underwear, start and end whenever I wanted, have free reign to work and travel wherever I pleased.

Then in May, said startup laid me (and pretty much everyone else) off with a week’s notice.

I had seen this coming for almost a year for various reasons I won’t get into – but what did surprise me was the ease of getting back on my financial feet. Those of us who got laid off were offered a new job pretty quickly by Wayfair, an e-commerce giant also based in Boston. So that’s where I ended up.

Eight months later, I find myself finally in my element again. The first three months in this job were total culture shock: I was uncomfortable around so many people, all of them wanting to talk to me all about the work and nothing but the work. I was frustrated with having to commute to an office at all, let alone walking down the street like I would regularly do in New York.

But over the last few months, I figured out a rhythm to make it work for me. It’s certainly not a perfect situation – but then again, what job is, really? – but I’ve had some time to reflect about being in an office again.

(Disclaimer: this is primarily about the experience of working in an office environment, particularly after a stint in startup culture, and is in no way intended to be a reflection of the work I do, or my employer, at all.)

Wayfair employs thousands of people and has an office right next to Copley Square in Boston. When you walk into the office for the first time, it’s hard to not feel like you’re part of something massive, given just how many people are flocking to the Copley Plaza complex between 8 and 9am. You’d think one of the stores in the Copley Plaza Mall was having a blowout – nope, these are just Wayfair employees trudging into work.

After a few weeks, though, the awe of big company size and impact turns into drone-like fatigue…especially as wintertime sets in. Droves of sleepy, freezing employees passing through subway turnstiles, huddling underneath half-broken umbrellas and avoiding puddles of slush (and being forced above ground to avoid MBTA construction), just to stare at a PC screen and talk in corporate-speak.

Simply having to be at the mercy of weather sucks. When I was working from home, if it was snowing out, I could just stay inside. I technically have the facilities to work from home in my current job, too – so it can be frustrating to eschew all this technological capability just to be present in the office culture. Wayfair has offices in several locations around the US and Europe; I can’t tell you how many times I questioned my battling of snowstorms to get into the office, only to sit on calls with my Berlin colleagues all day.

That said, if you’re stuck on calls all day at home, you might never leave the house. Get this: working in an office forces you out into the world. This is something I completely took for granted as a remote worker – I would occasionally run out to a coffee shop for a while to get stuff done, but nothing was more comforting than parking it on my couch for 9 hours straight save bathroom and lunch breaks.

Speaking of which, when you begin to compare home-work and office-work life, tiny subtle details start to surface about your lifestyle. For instance, The cost of your utilities start to become something you scrutinize monthly – I drastically underestimated how much I was spending to run electricity and heat during the ’14-’15 winter while working at home. Finding food to eat in an office is a really hit-or-miss thing, depending on where your office (or home) is located. I have the benefit of being right near Copley Square, where food trucks and solid restaurants abound. My last office job was in an awkward part of East Cambridge, MA, where our best culinary options were in a mall food court. At home, you’re really at the mercy of your grocery list or what (if any) restaurants are nearby; back in NYC, this wasn’t a problem, but in quieter parts of the world, this could certainly be a drawback.

Everyone who Product Manages knows the difficulty of trying to herd cats – oops, I mean colleagues – toward a shared product vision, and this difficulty is only amplified when doing it from afar. Being in the office ensures presence from everyone who matters, including my/yourself. I find myself more productive overall, simply because I had face time with colleagues working on projects with me – and no at-home distractions, like my guitars or my television. I can also use my commute to unwind and/or focus on things I’d never be able to focus on given those distractions. I’ve started writing again simply because I have over an hour of “free time” on the train every day.

Working in an office can be painfully social. To avoid talking only about the work, you need to find common interests with your colleagues: in Boston, it’s generally assumed that this is Boston sports. If you’re not actively following the Bruins/Pats/Sox (or worse yet, following another city’s team) you’re already at a disadvantage. I’ve come to develop a personal brand around music snobbery, pop culture savvy and a more casual tone, which people seem to appreciate outside of my general apathy for sports.

Once you figure your general vibe out, though, working in an office can be delightfully social. You actually start to make friends and engage in social conversations and outings you never would’ve had sitting at home or in a coffee shop all day long. Sure, there’s spontaneity involved with serendipitously meeting new people at your local coffee shop, but there’s something equally spontaneous in the side conversations that happen at work. My aforementioned music snobbery may manifest itself during a discussion of weekend plans, which may lead to a colleague/friend to check out a band with.

And what happens when the work gets to be too much, and you find yourself stuck at the office all day? Isn’t that the beauty of working wherever you choose? What about those giant cultish companies who directly incentivize their employees to spend all waking hours at the office, or even sleep there?

Well, so, you can just leave. If there’s more work to be done, and your company has a VPN, you can catch up on work at home after having a lovely dinner at a reasonable hour with your significant other. I’ve come to realize (again) the importance of balance – not necessarily the lofty, unattainable “work/life balance” construct of 9-5, but finding a personal balance where I’m challenging myself and working hard, but not burning myself out and still finding time to reflect and find fulfillment elsewhere in my life.

Certain parts of the tech/startup industry paint office culture as a thing of the past, rendered unnecessary by new collaboration technology. Fully-distributed organizations are popping up everywhere, promising uber flexibility and balance. I admire these companies’ ability to embrace technology to try and bring more happiness to their employees – though it is certainly not perfect either. Remember that distributed companies (or remote work at all) is a fairly new concept, far from perfected by any one organization – and the larger the company is that you work for, the harder it is to adapt the necessary processes and technology to enable that flexibility.

All in all? I certainly don’t hate everything. My commute is sometimes frustrating, as can be the work, but that’s part of dealing with everyday life. I genuinely like quite a few of my colleagues (both in and outside of work), which after being remote for a while is quite refreshing. And I’ve achieved a balance that, at least for now, I’m happy with.

The question I now find myself asking more frequently is: where does this go? Do I advance up the food chain of a strong brand with its corporate quirks, or do I keep my hand in some things that could result in more personal freedom? What will ultimately make me a better, happier person?

Well, how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?