Look at the Engine, not the Color of the Car
I wanted to write to you about note taking apps, I had a whole plan to go over the different apps and what issues I had with them. I thought is was going to be a great post to share with you all. By the time I got it halfway written though I realized that the common denominator wasn’t a missing feature lack of Markdown support or the inability to export notes properly. No, the problem with me not finding a good note taking app was me.
Maybe this has happened to you too. You search for a great note taking app–or task manager, etc.–where there’s so much saturation in the app market that you basically have infinite choices. So, you start downloading the usual suspects. For notes it’s usually Bear, Evernote, Apple Notes, OneNote, Agenda, GoodNotes, Notability, and I am sure there are some that I missed but that’s my whole point. You download a boat load of apps in the hopes that you find one that instantly “clicks” with you.
As someone that has used all of the apps listed above, I still went ahead and downloaded them all again to try them out in hopes that I will magically love an app I previously didn’t.
I went ahead and fired them all up and within the first few minutes using them I remembered why these apps “weren’t a good fit for me.” It was like I was looking for a used car, nit-picking every small ding and scratch having higher expectations than what reality can afford me. One by one I gave it a thumbs down a la Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator.
I was left without a note taking app once again. Naturally, I was frustrated that there wasn’t an app developer that thought just like me about notes. That was when I realized that I truly didn’t know what I wanted in regards to note taking. I don’t have a trusted system in place to save my notes, I don’t have a strong philosophy about what is or isn’t good note taking hygiene. Frankly, I only thought about the note taking app and not the system. To continue the used car metaphor, I only cared about the color of the car, not the engine.
The best advice I have gotten regarding how to find a trusted system is to start with as minimal as you can until you start hitting walls. Once that happens start looking for more robust soltuons. With that in mind, I will be using the Apple Notes app for now in hopes that it will give me an idea of how I want my note taking system to be, and if I decide to go elsewhere I can do so without much friction. Bear, Evernote, and a slew of other apps that are candidates for me have tools to import Apple Notes in without issue.
I don’t have a timeline set for myself for when I will have my system in place, but I hope with this approach whatever I decide will stick more than what I have been doing previously.
If you are in the same boat as I was, searching for the perfect app that meets your needs, maybe stop looking at the color of the car and start looking at the engine. Lift up the hood and really figure out is it is the app that is the problem or your system.
Going Offline Has Made Me Better
Lately I have found myself gravitating to tools that don’t offer any kind of internet access whatsoever. As some say, I have been using items “off the grid.”
Before I get into the what let me get into the why. As someone that has managed to write on a MacBook, iPad, iPhone, and other devices with access to the web, I have found it to be consistently distracting. When I have a thought to look something up, or check on an app’s features, I stop the writing flow before it even starts. Also, my task manager has become a bucket filled with things I want or need to do but no semblance of organization. Sure I have shortcuts to add items to Things 3, but I am not making it a priority to use that app to help me get things done. I am not opening it much, nor am I organizing the thoughts and tasks in there. I am effectively filing things away and never looking at them again until it has either been finished or hasn’t been done at all.
So, to fix this I decided to use a Bullet Journal and an AlphaSmart Neo 2.
As I mentioned in a previous post I have been without a task management system. After listening to the latest episode of Focused all about the Bullet Journal, I thought it might be worth a shot. I grabbed an old notebook I had in my office and started to set up a new BuJo. After starting out using this notebook I noticed the “intentional friction” with this system and it was something I hadn’t had in my other task managers. I would have hundreds of tasks in my digital task managers over time, clogging up the system and making it nearly impossible to decide what is important to work on and what isn’t. I was paralyzed by the amount of choices I had. With Bullet Journal you can add as many tasks as you want, but there is no copy and paste, no automation, and no services connected to the Bullet Journal adding things to my to do list
automatically. If there was a task or an idea I had, the only way to get it in this system is with good ol’ old-fashioned pen and paper.
Here’s a quote from the book The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, creator of the Bullet Journal, that clicked with me:
In 2016 the average American spent nearly eleven hours in front of digital screens each day. Factoring in six to eight hours of sleep (which is also compromised by our smart phones), we’re left with around six hours of non-screen time per day. Now consider the time you spend commuting, cooking, and running errands, and you can see where this is headed: We’re steadily decreasing the amount of time we have to stop and think.
Doing some quick math I average about an hour of free time that doesn’t have screen time in it. My commute is another 2 hours, but I don’t count that because I don’t have a choice in that matter. But my work a free time is almost entirely comprised of screen time, taking up my mental storage and “mental RAM” almost entirely.
As someone that has a full time job watching local TV programming and directing the local nightly news, I am inundated with screen time. It has gotten to the point now where I need to have the anti-blue lens on my prescription glasses to slow the deterioration to my eyes. Reading that quote made me really consider the time I spend in front of a screen, and has made me double down on using a Bullet Journal just to give my mind and my eyes a break.
One thing that I really enjoy about Ryder is that he isn’t just here to tell you how to use the system, but to also share with you insights and information about productivity and task management in general. Honestly, even if you aren’t interested in Bullet Journaling his book can still be of value to people interested in this kind of stuff.
Making pen and paper my main task manager has also allowed me to think beyond the things I need to get done and make decisions about the things I am doing. I am critically thinking about whether or not something on my task list deserves my time and attention or if it is something that I should just remove from my life entirely.
I plan to share more as I continue to use the Bullet Journal methodology and if I find any cool tips or tricks with it I will pass it along.
For those of you that aren’t interested in using a physical journal but are interested in this system, I suggest checking out the app NotePlan. It is a fantastic digital Bullet Journaling app. I have been on the beta for version 3 and it has some very cool features BuJo enthusiasts will enjoy. I don’t want to speak on the new version just yet, but once it is released to the public expect a full review of it here on Tablet Habit.
The AlphaSmart Neo 2
Along with the Bullet Journal, I have been writing with a product that was made in 2013 and has nothing but small LCD screen, and a standard keyboard. The AlphaSmart Neo 2 is a word processor that was meant to be used for typing classes in schools created by former Apple employees. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Stephen Hackett’s video on the Neo 2, it is a fantastic introduction to the product that I can’t compete with. For me, this product is basically a digital typewriter. In fact, the reason I bought this product (again) was because I was seriously considering buying an actual typewriter but quickly decided against it once I looked at the price of one in good working condition online. To add to that, there is no ink or maintenance needed to make sure this machine is working properly, where a typewriter can be expensive to continue to use over time.
I have written the last several newsletters, including this one, with the Neo 2 because I have found that the iPad, even when in Do Not Disturb mode, I can’t focus. I catch myself looking online for information, checking RSS and Twitter feeds for the latest news, and other things that isn’t writing frequently. It took me over an hour to write a first draft for my newsletter before the Neo 2 because I couldn’t focus on the task at hand. There were too many possibilities and open trails to be explored. No matter how much I tried, when it came to putting my head down and writing, the iPad always seemed to offer other things for me to do.
Before you write in, yes I am aware of Airplane Mode, but even when I would turn it on I would simply disable it to quickly look something up and that would begin my descent into a rabbit hole.
With the Neo 2 those things that I would waste time on the iPad with aren’t available. There is no internet, no videos, no podcasts, and nothing else I can focus on. There is simply a keyboard with a blinking line awaiting for my writing to appear.
I used to see that blank page as something daunting, frightening even, but now with the Neo 2 I know that there is nothing I can do except fill that void with my words. I am much more excited to write with the Neo 2 than I have been on the iPad lately. It seems less of chore and more of an experience. This could be because it is a new thing for me to use, but I also consider the fact that when I wrote on the iPad it took significantly more time.
This may be a simple keyboard with a cheap screen but it allows me to turn off the distraction in my brain and just write what is in my head. The words pour out of me as opposed to the light trickle it was when I was writing on a device that had access to the entire world in just a few clicks.
I plan to still write about the iPad, don’t get me wrong. That being said, I think that the way I will be writing about it won’t be on an iPad initially but instead will be on this “digital typewriter” for the time being.
As for the Bullet Journal, I plan to finish reading The Bullet Journal Method and write a review of it. I also will be sharing some of the things I am doing to make the BuJo experience more catered to me, including digital tools I have used.
Why I Moved to iPad Only
I recently sold my MacBook Pro and iPad 7 to buy the new 2020 11” iPad Pro. I also picked up the Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil. The reason for this was because I wanted to get the best iPad I could and make it my one and only computer.
To rewind a bit, I used to use a 16” MacBook Pro for both my marketing/videography job and for personal use. After I decided to leave that line of work the MacBook returned to the company. Once that happened I found myself wanting to use my iPad 7 as my main device even though I had the 2017 MacBook Pro as well. Mind you, nothing was wrong with my MacBook Pro, I felt that the iPad was more my flavor of computing.
Now that I am a month into using my 11” iPad Pro full time, I couldn’t be happier with my decision. When people ask me why I decided to move to the iPad over the Mac it comes down to two things. The first being operating system and the second being what the future will be for the platform.
Why iPad OS over macOS
After watching the WWDC keynote this year I realized that while the lines between the Mac and iPad were beginning to blur. Even with Apple silicon, these devices are still vastly different from one another.
The biggest difference for me isn’t the apps or the way certain things interact on the screen. It is automation and making these computer do the things that you want them to. Enter Shortcuts, the mainstay automation app for the iPhone and iPad. Shortcuts is by far and away my favorite app of all time. The reason for this is because it’s allowed me to unlock the full potential of my iOS and iPad OS devices.
To me, that is the difference between a Mac and iPad in a nutshell. If you want to do something for automation on the Mac you can try using an app like Keyboard Maestro. Alternatively, you will need to know how to code something yourself to make it happen. With Shortcuts, you can create your own automation system in minutes using their Lego-style blocks to build atop one another. Shortcuts might seem like a rudimentary way to program for those that know how to code. Yet, as someone that has tried learning to code over the years Shortcuts makes more sense to me than anything else.
In fact, it’s the first app I go to when I have an idea to automate or make something I do simpler. When I was using my Mac I felt as if that aspect of computing was unattainable for me. For example, I didn’t know how to write code to edit plain text the way that I wanted to. As someone that works with text a lot it seemed inferior to my iPad for that reason. With an iPad I can use Shortcuts and make automated changes to the text in a matter of seconds.
I often would write things on my Mac and reach for my iPad so I could run it through my Shortcuts for various things I wanted to do with the text.
Shortcuts allows the democratization of automation for people like me with no coding experience required. For that reason I chose the iPad over the Mac.
That being said, Shortcuts wasn’t the only reason I chose the iPad over a Mac. The other is where I see the iPad and Mac in the future.
iPad and Mac Futures
My other reason for going with the iPad is because of the announcement of Apple silicon. My first thought was that the Mac is going to have a turbulent 2-4 years as they transition from Intel to ARM. I am confident the new ARM Macs will be better for the user in the long run, but we are in a transition period for the Mac. It seems to me that buying a new MacBook isn’t a great idea for the foreseeable future for pretty much anyone. Yes, Apple did say that they intend to release new Intel Macs before going entirely ARM, but the questions of “Should I buy a Mac right now?” and “What is the best Mac for me?” becomes muddied and difficult to answer for even the most knowledgeable.
On the other side of the coin, there is the iPad Pro. The iPad Pro has recently had its 3rd iteration with the addition of one of the best keyboards on the market for any computer. To me, the Mac is on its way to being an amazing machine, but the iPad has already set its own foundation for a fruitful future. I firmly believe that this 2020 iPad can easily be my main computer for 2-4 years without issue, which is something I cannot say about the current Macs out today.
I don’t mean to rain on the Mac parade entirely. I am sure that the transition will be an overall smooth process. In fact, it seems that Apple has really taken everything into consideration before officially announcing Apple silicon. With Rosetta 2, emulation, and more Apple silicon looks to have thought of every hitch there can be during this transition. That being said, even if the new Macs are indeed amazing I personally will still prefer the iPad Pro over a Mac. For me, the experience on the iPad is far superior than that of the Mac.
A much as this article was about the differences between the Mac and iPad, I don’t want this to be an additional piece of artillery in the war of iPad vs Mac. To me I like the iPad, to others it is the Mac; it’s that simple.
I am beyond excited about the switch to the iPad and I absolutely adore my 11” iPad Pro. I can’t wait to push this machine to its limit over the next few years and share with you what I learn and create here on Tablet Habit.
Writing Mode Shortcut
After making writing a routine for this newsletter, I wanted to automate things a bit so that I can get into the writing flow even faster. After some tweaking, I think I have finally created a version 1.0 of my Writing Mode Shortcut.
Essentially, this Shortcut sets the brightness and volume where I want it, creates an event called “Writing” in my calendar, sets Do Not Disturb, Opens Drafts, and adds a word of encouragement before I get started.
Here’s a breakdown of each item.
When I am writing, I like to have my volume loud enough to hear it, but not loud enough where it distracts my thought process when writing. After some trial and error, 20% is about where I need it to hit that sweet spot.
Like the Set Volume action, I like to make sure my iPad is at the brightness level I prefer for writing. To me, 70% seems the be the brightest I want my iPad when I am in my office writing.
Add 30 Minutes to Date
This is an action that I use as a later variable. I use it as a custom Pomodoro technique.
When I first start writing in the morning, it can be daunting to look at a blank page. When I am in that mood, I often use the Pomodoro Technique to get myself going. The first step in creating a custom Pomodoro Timer in Shortcuts is with this action.
This action works by taking the current date and time and adding 30 minutes to it. From there, I use it in the next action to create an event.
You can always adjust the time in this to your preference if you so choose.
With the adjusted time, I create an event called “Writing” in my calendar that starts immediately and ends 30 minutes later using the Adjusted Date as a Magic Variable.
Set Do Not Disturb on Until Event Ends
Once that event is created, I use it as a Magic Variable as well for setting Do not Disturb on. After the event is created, I turn on Do Not Disturb and set it to turn back off once the newly created event has ended.
I was initially going to use a simple timer for this Pomodoro Technique.
Still, I realized that I wanted to keep track of how must time I was using to write, so I decided to use the calendar as a means of record-keeping.
Of course, I don’t always hit this Shortcut every 30 minutes, so I adjust it later to reflect the actual amount of time I was writing, but it is a good starting point for me to track my writing.
Open Dark Noise and play Coffee Shop
Dark Noise is an app that adores using when in the writing spirit. I use it when I need to focus while working. If you don’t know, Dark Noise has many soundscapes you can listen to to help you concentrate, sleep, or fill your ears with something.
I often use the Coffee Shop sound when I am writing. If I could go out to an actual coffee shop, I wouldn’t be using this app. Alas, because we are in the pandemic, this soundscape will make due for the time being.
Once I have everything set, it is time to get writing! The app I use when writing is unsurprisingly Drafts. This Shortcut action opens the Drafts application. The way that Drafts works is that if you open the app, it usually starts with a blank page waiting for you to start writing, which is what I want.
If I indeed need to open something I have been working on, it is stupidly easy to open up the drafts list and search for what I need and open it up.
I originally wanted to make this a list of items to choose from. However, after some time with it, I noticed that when I give myself the barrier to decide before I begin writing, it negatively affects my ability to get into the writing flow. So, I decided that I will open a new draft and start writing. It is more critical for me to get into the flow than to be in the right doc.
Once I am editing or taking a break from writing, I can figure out where this writing goes, but for “Writing Mode,” my main priority is writing.
An Encouraging Notification
Finally, I wanted to have a list of different words of encouragement for me to use to get started. So far, I threw in a few simple things in a list.
With this list, I then have it choose a random one and display it as a notification. It is just a small thing that helps me get into a positive mood and trick my brain into being excited to write, even though it’s 5 am.
You can download the Shortcut here and start to make it yours today.