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.

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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.

It’s a glorious day when Apple fixes your bug (UPDATE: oops, still broken)

UPDATE 3-16-16: I did some more thorough tests on my iPhone and MacBook Pro and have run into the Smart Reminders linking bug again – specifically when adding links from Safari on my Mac, then opening them up on my phone. Back to Apple Support forums. Ugh.

It takes a minor miracle to get Apple to fix a bug in any of its software or services. Just look at all the discussion threads about bugs on their forum.

The thing that’s been killing me for months? Dumb Smart Reminders. Apple claimed that, in iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, you’d be able to remind yourself about virtually anything on your device – a note, a text message, a Trello card, a file on your FTP server – and the reminder would be saved with a simple contextual link for quick access.

Problem is, it’s been categorically broken. Ironically enough, it’s broken when you try to use your phone in the way Apple keeps pushing us to use it – through Siri’s (admittedly mostly great) voice recognition.

If you wanted to remind yourself about a website you were viewing on your phone, and you decided to use Siri to do that, Reminders would (sometimes) create a link correctly to Safari. If you happened to have another app installed on your phone at all (in my case, Ticketmaster, Google Chrome and TripAdvisor), Reminders would instead link to one of those apps – then if I tried to access the website, iOS would attempt to open Ticketmaster and fail to render the website. I’m not the only one with this problem; it apparently happens unpredictably with any number of apps that you may or may not use.

tripadvisor-reminders

Argh.

It wouldn’t have been as infuriating if this was only an issue on iOS – but of course it happened in OS X too. If I saved the same website to Reminders on my Mac using Safari, for some reason, Reminders would instead create a link to Chrome. This wasn’t as bad – at least the site would load – but when you’re like me and strictly use your web browsers for specific reasons (eg. Safari for personal, Chrome for work), this gets annoying.

The worst part, though, was that I could totally see what was happening: if I uninstalled TripAdvisor from my iPhone, Reminders would stop linking to it – but instead link to Ticketmaster. Then it’d link to Chrome if I uninstalled Ticketmaster. If I reinstalled TripAdvisor, it’d start linking there again. Basically, Reminders would work without any other apps potentially risking the link to Safari. You’d think that Apple coded this such that Reminders was aware of the source app of the Reminder, and persisted that link forever. There was some dumb app prioritization happening that was causing TripAdvisor to take preference over Ticketmaster, which got preference over Chrome, which got preference over Safari. (No offense to any of these apps, they’re all great – which is why I have them on my phone, god damnit.)

So, while I wanted to use Reminders for exactly what Apple intended it for, I couldn’t, and had to rely on another (admittedly great, but not for me) app, 2Do, to manage my tasks.


Six days ago Apple released the sixth (sixth!) public beta of iOS 9.3. Yesterday morning, I got frustrated because I was duplicating task lists for my upcoming wedding in both Trello and 2Do – so I decided to try out Reminders again. Saving Trello cards as a Reminder seemed to work. Saving a Note seemed to work. Reminding myself about something in my Amazon wish list worked. Even a stupid webpage someone had sent me went correctly into a Reminders list.

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Yesterday was a glorious day.

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.