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.

You Won’t Be Successful, Unless This Post Is

You’ve probably seen a ton of #content appearing on your various social media feeds lately offering inspirational stories, Life Hacks and general tips that might make you a better person. It might not, but at least it’s yet another new thing to try at some point in your miserable life-in-need-of-constant-stimulation-and-improvement.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

You clicked on this post because I wrote a highly-targeted, urgent, actionable title that caught your eye. I got you with a trope. You idiot.

I, however, am an influencer. And I would like to influence you. Did you know that the following people employed tactics to lead successful lives?

  • Steve Jobs
  • Mark Zuckerberg
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Sheryl Sandberg
  • Richard Branson
  • Howard Schultz
  • Warren Buffett
  • George Soros
  • Barack Obama
  • Most of the other writers on Medium

You probably did learn this by reading or hearing about it somewhere else. But I don’t care about that. I want you to think of me and this post next time you think about any of those famous, successful people. I want you to consume my #content and subscribe to my #newsletter and buy my endorsed #products, so I will inject myself into your life wherever and however I can. You will thank me for whatever Life Hack or tactic or change you made to your life, and consuming all that I spew is the first step.

So, to recap:

You are basically a massive failure until you follow all the points I lay out below.

1. Like and recommend this post and all my other Medium posts.

You might have read dozens, even hundreds of tips, posts, articles or even novels about what you can do to improve your life. But before recommending any of those, recommend my juicy content first.

2. Tell all your friends and followers to also like and recommend all my Medium posts.

Write your own content on Medium where you link to this article and generally reference my wise words and/or expertise on a field I totally have credibility writing about.

But what about the other social networks, you might ask? Yeah, share this post there too. It’s just more content for your friends and followers to digest. But it’s content YOU endorsed.

3. Follow me on every possible social media network & channel on which you can find me.

If you’re not on a network…well, get on it, dammit. I may or may not have profiles on the following sites:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • Google+
  • Vine
  • Periscope
  • Foursquare
  • SoundCloud
  • Spotify
  • Dribble
  • Behance
  • Product Hunt
  • Medium
  • Github
  • various Slack channels
  • Etsy
  • Ello

When in doubt, assume I have a profile there. Follow and watch me as I grow my following of minions!

4. Click on every paid advertisement you see that has my name and/or face on it.

I’m not just talking about the sponsored posts on BuzzFeed, Medium, etc. that I clearly paid for to get your attention; I’m also talking about Facebook ads. I even have an in at Forbes who hooked me up with advertising there – you know the 3 second ad you see every time you open up a Forbes article? You might start to see me there. Click on me there. I’ll make some money and burn my image into your brain some more.

I also have some sponsored content on ESPN. I don’t even like sports.

But I LOVE developing my brand shamelessly.

5. Subscribe to my newsletter (because of course I have one) and read it, every single time you receive it, to completion.

Because I know how much you love and value every single email in your fucking inbox. You might already be subscribed to the newsletters of various other writers, marketers and influencers – so what’s another?

Also make sure to click every link in the email several times.

Me, me, me. This is all about me, and not at all about you or your inbox or your attention span.

6. Praise my success with me.

Once this post and my various social profiles reach a certain amount of attention, I will write about it. I will convey to the world how I did it, how you helped me, and what my next steps are going to be.

Then, you can read that and repeat the 6 steps I’ve laid out in this post.


Did you like what you just read? Have you not followed me yet on all my social media channels? If not, it is the single most important thing you can do as a living, breathing adult. Click on this link and this link and that link, and maybe this link too.

Content content content content content content content content content content content content content content content.


Special thanks to all the other digital marketers and social media people who made this satire possible! Sorry, I got frustrated this week with #content. This is not representative of ALL inspirational writing, just a li’l joke about that writing which is dishonest, contrived and/or pandering for the sake of marketability.

Also, sorry that I have to make that clear as to not inadvertently offend anyone.

On “pop writing”

I’m gonna repeat the chorus, and I’m gonna sing it ’til I’m blue in the face

This is a note in response to various posts written on Medium in the last few weeks: one of which was effectively a ripoff another, one of which brought up the fairly obvious point that top content producers (by means of likes & shares, not quality, which is subjective) might simply rip each other off, and a final one which brought to light the inherent problem with all of this.

The problem described isn’t specific to Medium: virtually all written nonfiction on the Internet that gets clicked on by the masses is specifically meant to get clicked on by the masses. A great subset of writers on Medium are no different. Original, interesting writing gets shoved into obscurity while the majority of readers see these repetitive listicles, hollow advice columns and “thought pieces” about Startups, Wanderlust and Life Hacking – because that’s what people appear to want to read. The numbers show it.

I’m fine with that, sure, in small doses. These days, you need some positive motivation to deal with the shitstorm mess that is modern reality. But after a while, as Ben Belser suggests, it gets old. Thousands of “influencers” circlejerking on hearts and fuzzies to promote themselves without giving a shit about what they’re actually saying, robbing the Internet of its soul.

I realized something the other day: Isn't this basically the same as pop music?

Hundreds of thousands of songwriters, composers and performers over generations, mostly working within the same general realm of tonality, mostly attempting to portray the same general emotions and ideas, oftentimes even ripping each other off for the sake of marketability. There are millions of blog posts, ironically enough, about how to do this.

Think about it: all of the most popular songs in the US right now can be confined to a tiny number of styles (hip hop, synth pop, country, with a few rock hits and retro throwbacks). Almost all of these songs are about the following: love, sex, drugs, partying, loneliness, angst. Many even feature the same ideas (emotional or musical) or even the same artists (looking at you, Tay Swift). There are incredibly few exceptions to this rule in the past 15 years – nu metal was an incredibly dumb angry fad, but even Limp Bizkit’s lyrics largely stayed within the confines of the aforementioned 6 topics.

How is this any different from going on Medium one morning and seeing virtually the exact same blog posts you saw 2 weeks prior? The posts are obviously not the same – maybe a different author, a different sponsor, a different tip to make you fitter, happier, more productive – but they're largely interchangeable. Sometimes they are even virtually the same. Like pop music.

So I’ve started to call the majority of what Medium feeds me something else: pop writing. Marketable, interchangeable writing to satisfy the masses. Blogs (at least the most popular ones on Medium) are no longer personal or honest or catering to a particular interest – their sole purpose is to maximize the marketability of the writer’s brand. Not unlike any top 40 artist, CamMi Pham (whose writing and general vibe mostly infuriate me) has a carefully curated personal brand, which draws elements from positivity-pumping wellness and advice writing (and sometimes, directly from other writers). She’s trying to be the Tay Swift of your Medium feed. This fine – millions of people love Taylor Swift, and thousands of people love CamMi Pham’s deliberate, speech-like writing on learning and unlearning and bettering oneself.

You want to figure out how her written brand works? It’s pretty simple, actually.

Come up with a really fucking edgy, attention-grabbing title.

Start with some one-sentence paragraphs.

Write increasingly powerful and emotional statements in those paragraphs.

Maybe a sentence implying initial self-doubt.

Then throw out a big initial thesis.

Usually in bold or headline style.

Then repeat that thesis verbatim, followed by a supporting reason.

The repeat that thesis verbatim again, with further reasons.

What about this other reason? No need to worry, because here’s that thesis again. With another supporting reason.

And that is the thesis, verbatim once more.


Pure, unadulterated crap.


King Crimson (which most people probably know, sadly, from when Kanye West sampled them) have this great song called “Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With” which is basically a brilliant exercise in hollow meta-songwriting. Most of the lyrics discuss the structure of the song itself:

And when I have some words

this is the way I’ll sing

through a distortion box

to make them menacing

It makes for a great commentary on the cookie-cutter nature of pop music construction – there are tropes that one can follow to clearly evoke some kind of emotional response, so we exploit them for maximum feeling. Adrian Belew (the singer) clearly describes the section of the song, what emotion must be evoked within it, and how he intends to portray that emotion; by the time he’s in the second chorus, he’s made it clear the song itself has no meaning: “I’ll brew another pot / of ambiguity.” The bridge, “you have to be happy with what you have to be happy with,” just reinforces that – it’s a nothing statement, weirdly urgent but pointless, endlessly repeating like the advice pieces on my Medium top feed.

(Ironically, that song was written music-first, and the lyrics were thrown in last minute as placeholder. Do you think Adrian Belew cares about what I think the song means? He’s not even making pop music.)

Like how pop music leverages chord progressions and romantic/lonely/excited feelings, Pop Writing leverages the nurturing nature of self-help, the inspiring nature of startup culture & life disruption, pandering political fluff and a few other obvious topics. Let’s call them “subgenres.” Each subgenre, and some artists within that subgenre, have particular conventions that are proven to be more effective than others. It’s already obvious that clickbait article titles is a common theme among all subgenres of pop writing. Some others: pick an icon and find an obscure fact about him or her; pick a bad quality about yourself and gradually turn it good; pander to the founders of an amazing product; respond to that pandering by shitting on said product; give advice to the most blogged-about professionals.

Like how pop music is hard to pigeonhole by conventions but easy to pick out, pop writing is hard to pigeonhole by topic to easy to pick out. One can easily pick up on the writing style of a blogger and exploit it for their own gain. Just pick a topic (even if it’s been beaten to death), read a few popular articles on that topic and pick up on the sentence and paragraph structure. Write a few test-drive articles to hone your skill, and then start marketing your brand. You’re basically doing what Taylor Swift did when she decided she wanted to move into pop music – developing your brand to reach a new audience.

If that’s what you feel like doing with your spare time, weirdo.

Medium is going the way of the music industry, but that's fine.

Nothing should stop CamMi Pham from writing like she does. Medium definitely shouldn’t stop her. That's the free market blogging economy at work. Instead, let's just call it what it is: happy, cookie-cutter, highly targeted pop blogging that will gain her new followers. The market demands it.

The problem seems to ultimately lie in the writer’s convictions. Yann Girard might be more genuine in his writing, but he might not be. Someone writing about a life tip they just discovered might genuinely be so excited about it that they’re compelled to share it with the world. S/he might also be plagiarizing someone else. Who knows?

Maybe the problem ultimately lies in the newfound stigma for content marketing and “social influencers” – people who are paid to get clicks and followers, and thus the honesty of their writing is instantly called into question. Maybe these people could rebrand themselves to appear more honest. CamMi Pham is unapologetic – she admits to being a total fraud and attempts to justify it (within her standard writing convention, of course). Yes, she might be encouraging young writers to steal ideas from others and develop a contrived style of writing that eschews honesty for marketability – but again, if that’s what people want to read, then more power to the writers.

For those who don’t like it: welcome to the beginnings of literary snobbery. Three immediate suggestions for you:

  1. If you don't like pop writing, simply don't read it. Just as I usually avoid the Top 40 like the plague, stop reading the Top Posts on Medium and find writing you like via other means: use Medium's tags, start curating who you follow, or look elsewhere entirely.
  2. If you think Medium isn’t listening and want to help out writers you care about, start your own subculture. Radio failed to capture many niche music genres and scenes, so music blogs popped up to try and promote music in those niches. Maybe fans of certain types of writing will subscribe to a blog or network that heavily caters to a certain niche of fiction or nonfiction. There doesn’t need to be one blogging platform.
  3. If you do genuinely have some honest advice or learnings to share with the world, do so genuinely. Please refrain from marketing tropes, because people can see through that shit. Tell the world what you know, how you feel about it, and if you pulled it from somewhere else, be honest about it. I love reading Jason Fried’s posts for this reason – he’s honest, witty and daring and has legitimate reason & experience to pull off all three.

I’m going to tag this post and hope it gets some likes and shares (which, by the way, you should do if you think it’s useful). It probably won’t, though, because I’m not a digital influencer with 500+ followers on Medium.

Yet.

Because I’ll keep trying.

Maybe I should read one of those “Top 10 Ways to Find Success on Medium” posts for help.

It’s not obsessive-compulsive

Every day when I get home from work, I walk in the door, kiss my girlfriend Alicia and start organizing things. If it’s Monday, I take the trash and recycling out to the street and line up all our bins neatly in a row. Otherwise I put my keys on the hook, my wallet & sunglasses in a tray next to said hook, pick up the small pile of bags, jackets and/or shoes that Alicia leaves by the door and put each item in its respective closet or corner; then as she starts cooking I tidy up the non-junk mail we received that day, throw the rest into recycling, wash my coffee mug out in the sink, wash her mug out, review the state of the dishwasher. Next I'm washing dishes as she uses them to cook our dinner; it looks like a Charlie Chaplin assembly line if we have the right background music playing.

We eat. Sometimes in front of the TV, sometimes at our brand-new first-owned dining table. I compulsively pick up the dishes to go wash them, sometimes regrettably before she's even done eating her dinner. The dishwasher is full, so I might as well run it. The laundry hamper is full, and I'm getting low on t-shirts to wear to work – should probably do a load.

By the time I start relaxing, it’s either too late to play any music (might wake up the neighbors) or I burnt myself out just tidying up the place. But for me, having control over my house grants me the calm I need to relax & think creatively. It’s not obsessive-compulsive (maybe it is? Who knows/cares); but it’s a mental exercise that keeps me proud of what I’ve got around me. Most of us go through days (even weekends) without thinking much at all – at work, at social events (which take less thought than the decision whether to even go), even when trying to write something (yeah, that's a stab at lazy blogging conventions, so what?).

For a long time I tried to force creativity, dedicating whole evenings in front of a MIDI keyboard trying to compose – but instead of writing any great melodies, I ended up lazily repeating the same riff I’d written years prior over and over for 3 hours with nothing new or different. My head was in the wrong space during those forced moments; obsessively organizing my home life seems to correct that. I’ve learned to love the process, even though it's sort of compulsive by now.

Also, Alicia loves not having to do dishes or laundry, so win-win.