Moving to iOS: an experiment in creative restraint

On Monday I’m receiving a company laptop. I have mixed feelings about this – it inevitably and subliminally will have me working more on trains and on weekends, but I’ll be able to do so much faster than I currently do via Microsoft Remote Desktop.

Why do I bring this up? I bring this up because I have a beautiful, expensive Retina MacBook Pro that I’ve been using for the bulk of all my work for almost 3 years. It’s my indispensable sidekick for recording music, writing, (attempts at) coding, managing my finances, pretty much everything. Since starting my current job, though, I’ve started to spend less and less time with it – occasionally pulling it out on crowded trains, opportunistically pushing it to its limits by recording for hours at a time on weekends, painstakingly RDP-ing into my work machine just to run a few SQL queries. Sometimes it sits on a desk for days at a time, neglected.

Now that I’m getting this other laptop, I have even less use for the thing.

I have an iPad Air 2 – this thing is also generally neglected in my household. Alicia will occasionally use it to watch TV in bed, and I’ll occasionally check Twitter or read some blogs with it, but that’s about it. I had downloaded Ulysses for iOS a few months back thinking I could use this iPad as a blogging machine, but even that felt redundant with the MacBook Pro.

I realized, however, that the work laptop has given me an opportunity to change the way I work outside of my day job a bit. After reading about the amazing power in the new iPads and the app potential brought by iOS 9, I’ve decided to run some day-to-day experiments using the iPad Air 2 in attempting to make it my primary computer.

The iPad does not replace coffee.

There’s already been a ton of writing on this – I’m really happy to have dug into the writings on iPad on MacStories, Daring Fireball, the Music App Blog and other sites, so I have plenty of foundational ideas to work with. I’m interested in seeing how I can leverage my iPad for my personal use cases:

  • rapid blogging in Ulysses,
  • music recording in Auria Pro with a plethora of synth/sampler/effects apps wired together via Audiobus,
  • pseudo-local website development with Working Copy, Coda and Transmit,
  • managing my music, technical and personal projects with Trello and various stock iOS apps

…and I’m sure many more along the way. I’m mainly interested in testing just how portable my tech can be and moving to a single operating system (that is, iOS), but I’m also curious as to what new possibilities there are brought by the iOS framework and app ecosystem.

More to come. I should probably start getting used to this tiny keyboard…

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.

reminders-notes-ulysses-trello


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.

On Macs and focus

I own an iPad, but I really only use it to watch Netflix in bed with my fiancée since my iPhone 6s Plus is just too small enough for both of us to watch simultaneously. Outside of this pretty obvious use case, I’ve struggled to find a purpose for the gorgeous device in my life.

Everywhere I turn, though, I read about another person finding the iPad completely invaluable in their daily lives. It now exceeds the processing power of the average PC; its app ecosystem is generally much cheaper than the PC app ecosystem; it’s “more fun” to use than any device before. A lot of people who write about the iPad suggest that it allows for a level of focus beyond what Macs or PCs can allow.

I call bullshit. Anyone who says the Mac is too distracting has not given the Mac a fair shot since, well, 2 or 3 versions ago of OS X. Apple has made a series of beautiful, powerhouse laptops, build for demanding technical work – that also happen to be incredibly pleasant to use and conducive to focus.

I’m not suggesting that the iPad isn’t a great device – it truly is a pleasure to use. However, so are Macs, and some tech pundits seem to forget this. Efficiency on a Mac isn’t even a question worth asking – sure, you eschew a touch screen for a keyboard & multi-touch trackpad, but the sheer ergonomics of having both the keyboard & trackpad within millimeters of each other compared to jumping between keyboard and screen are staggering. Sometimes you want to lay back and relax, but when you need to work, the Mac wins every time.

The question really is about one’s ability to focus on a single task or project while working on a laptop/desktop computer. Tons of people have written about this. Those same people have tried incessantly for years to justify usage of an iPad for as many possible use cases as possible: blogging, note-taking, long-form writing, designing, music producing, analyzing spreadsheets, chatting with many people at once. I keep asking myself: what’s the goal of being able to do all these things on an iPad, other than attempting to justify my impulse purchase of an iPad?

If the goal is focus, I’ve wanted to try and tame the beast and have my Mac work to my advantage. Basically, a means of avoiding this:

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 8.15.04 PM

Hey, guess what? It's really to avoid the above with really minimal effort and discipline. Between the iterative improvements brought to OS X and its huge app ecosystem, it's really easy to make a Mac your portable productivity powerhouse. (Alliteration intentional.) And while the Mac app ecosystem is technically smaller than that of iOS, that has its benefits: less crap to weed through.

I have to give Apple props for identifying the key aspects that make iOS so pleasant to use and employing them in some fashion within OS X. For instance:

Launchpad is a solid app launcher and organizer; after a bit of reorganizing, it effectively replicates the iOS home screen. With Spotlight (or the more powerful Alfred) on top of this, finding and opening an app on a Mac is far quicker than anything performed on an iPad.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.03.10 PM

Full-screen mode and Mission Control in El Capitan is arguably an even more elegant app switcher than iOS 9’s. Split screen mode is actually useful on my MacBook Pro unlike the iPad Air 2.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.04.08 PM

Automator isn't new or even quite that extensive without mild technical know-how, but Workflow wouldn't be the iOS powerhouse it is without Automator coming first.

Plus, you can enable Do Not Disturb just like an iOS device.

Still having trouble focusing after trying these wonderful solutions? There's apps for that, including two literally called Focus (here and here) – some of which also have iOS counterparts but many of which are Mac exclusives such as:

  • Bartender, a great menu bar cleaner-upper
  • Hazel, an automatic file organizer so you don't have to clean your crap up yourself
  • Alfred, an amazing launcher and workflow tool that allows you to quickly ask a question or start something without pulling yourself away from the task at hand.
  • Ulysses, Byword, 1Writer, ia Writer, or any other number of free/cheap minimal writing apps for writing without distraction

Some of these are real boons to focus, like the first Focus app, which blocks you from accessing distracting websites and replaces them with inspirational quotes. I could argue that this makes the Mac BETTER for focus than the iPad, since you can actually stop Facebook from loading after you impulsively type the "f" into your browser's address bar. Can't really make the impulsive tap on the FB app icon on your iPad less compelling than it already is.


Disclaimer: I use a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which has a solid state drive and 16GB RAM, so I’m not really ever concerned about my laptop exceeding the performance needs I have. Yes, it came at a higher price point than the average iPad and I purchased it primarily with music creation in mind.

But considering the top-of-the-line iPad Pro is virtually the same price as (and comparable in spec to) the ultrathin MacBook, it ultimately comes down to user preference. I’m here to suggest that while tablets are so fun and exciting, many of the reasons why find tablets so fun and exciting are right there in your average Apple laptop.

As with any tech write-up, this is my opinion, but I’d love your thoughts too. Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Like how I write? I’d love for you to share this post and follow my writing, either here or on Twitter. Thanks!

The problem of task managers

Wunderlist, Trello, Todoist, OmniFocus. 2do. Things. I have to imagine that most smartphone users haven’t even heard of these apps. That's probably why there's such an apparent subculture around each one. The average person will never break into the most beloved apps, and those who do will defend it to no end.

So why don’t so many people, who presumably have things they need to do in their lives, use one of these tools? For all the people that do try a project management tool, why do so many underutilize them?

Everyone has a smartphone, and most of them probably use stock functionality (read: Reminders & Calendar) to keep track of their daily lives on that smartphone. However, Reminders rarely has accountability – what if you forget to set a reminder time? What if you miss the location-specific notification by the time you’ve left? What if some to-dos are dependent on others and you can’t check them off the list until some other thing you neglected gets done?

Are the to-dos I’m getting reminded about even a good use of my time right now?

What about the big important complicated things I want to do?

How do I even break those things down into the little to-dos to put in my list?

What does that mean to me in the big picture?

The average person doesn’t want to (and almost certainly can’t) think through all that stuff, even though they potentially have implications on their daily lives.

This conundrum, in the workplace, is basically why project and product managers exist. Product managers help to figure out the right things to focus on and why; project managers make sure they happen so you, Mr. Stakeholder Guy don’t have to worry about all the little details.

Personal assistant apps exist, even virtual ones, to remind you of upcoming meetings and tasks – so why haven’t we developed a “personal product manager” that takes your big goals in life and helps you break them down and focus on the most achievable pieces of said goal?

I think about the big things that I want to eventually do in my life – get married, build a company, buy a house, be a notable musician, other things – there’s a ton of knowledge of what to do to make those things happen on the Internet. But parsing all that information is a nightmare – you’re basically relegated to Google searching or starting with blogs/resources you trust and vetting the content endlessly until you end up with a series of tasks, which may or may not be in order, prioritized or even possible. Then, you have friends and/or family as a resource, which may contradict your online findings (or even each other). I don’t even want to think about the difference between my dad’s opinion on starting a business compared to my previous employer.

Productivity apps can’t do this thinking; it’s not what they’re designed to do. 2do, one of my favorites, requires a whole lot of task creation and organization in order to be truly useful. and People have said that about Evernote, too. Trello is great for visualizing projects in a board format, but it doesn't tell you what should populate that board and what of that stuff needs to get done in order to make BIG AMAZING GOAL X happen. (That's probably why they've started collecting and sharing sample boards for various use cases.) The thought process around focusing the idea into discrete pieces hasn't been productized for personal lives.

I wonder if this is why productivity apps aren't ubiquitous – because they exist to humor the details of lives instead of boiling them down to what’s important.