I’ve been a long time Airmail user. It was the closest thing I could find to replace the now-defunct mail client Sparrow (RIP), but for as long as I’ve used Airmail, it’s never been without bugs. Even worse, those bugs seem to not get fixed. Over time, those bugs, mainly one where emails I’d already processed continued to show back up in my Inbox, started to irk me.
So when the Sweet Setup posted an update to their Best Third-Party Email App earlier this month, they caught my attention at just the right time.
They didn’t change their pick. It’s still Spark, and I’d tried Spark in the past but decided to stick with Airmail. Still, I found myself wondering if there wasn’t something to their recommendation.
It turns out, Spark’s grown up a lot since the last time I tried it – enough so that I’ve made the switch.
So what’s good?
- I haven’t come across any bugs. Once I clear my inbox it stays clear.
- Readdle, Spark’s developer, is a pretty big name, so I don’t feel worried about their ongoing development.
- Search is incredible. I even have a few saved searches which have replaced any need for creating project-based labels.
- It doesn’t add a bunch of extra labels to my Gmail accounts.
- The smart inbox is pretty handy, although it does require some tweaking to get the training right.
And the bad?
- Spark doesn’t have all the integrations Airmail had. For instance there is no DevonThink integration. (Airmail’s wasn’t great though.) Moreover, it doesn’t have a native share extension so I’ve been relying on Hook more to create links. It does have integrations with both Things and Evernote though.
- Both Spark and Airmail create links using their own URL scheme so I’m finally experiencing the pain of email links being tied to a mail client.
- I’m still trying to wrap my head around the Seen behavior in Spark’s Smart Inbox. If I happen to view an email without processing it, I wish Spark would leave it alone. Instead it either removes it from your Smart Inbox entirely or moves it to a Seen section.
So I’m still trying to understand Spark, but overall, I am happy with the decision to switch. What mail client do you use?
With all the buzz about Cal Newport’s latest book Digital Minimalism, I’ve been thinking a lot about intentional use of technology. It’s something that’s always in the back of my mind, but right now, it’s front and center.
As a self-proclaimed power user, I’ve always had a thing for finding the best apps. Finding the “best” app meant finding the app that let me accomplish what I want while spending the least amount of time doing it, which usually meant finding the “pro” app with the most features.
But something else recently slipped into my decision process – almost without me noticing.
“Best” is no longer just about what saves me the most time. It also now includes whether or not I enjoy using it. The Marie Kondo’s of the world might ask, “Does it spark joy?”
These days, I’m becoming less and less interested in the apps with the most features. Features mean nothing if I don’t enjoy using the app. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Almost weekly, I discover a former OmniFocus user discussing why he or she has switched to Things. Things is not only practical. It’s pretty. It’s the balance between practical and pretty that wins people over. It’s why people really enjoy using it.
Another example is something I’ve been struggling to write about…
In the tech world, once you write about using an app, there’s a belief that you’ll continue to use it in perpetuity. It’s an odd belief, really. Just because I blogged on LiveJournal when I was little doesn’t mean I should still be using it for this blog today. Our needs change. Our thoughts change. Technology does as well.
So with that disclaimer out of the way…
I’ve recently succumbed to DevonThink’s terribly outdated UI and moved back to Evernote. Like OmniFocus, DevonThink is still an incredibly powerful (practical) app that I highly recommend for archival knowledge management. For daily knowledge management, however, I just didn’t enjoy looking at it which kept me from using it to its full extent. To be fair, I don’t particularly enjoy using Evernote either, but based on the balance of practicality AND pretty, Evernote wins.
More and more, I’m finding myself swapping practical apps out for prettier apps, and I’m seeing others do the same. I can’t help but wonder if this is part of a larger trend of people really starting to rethink how they use their technology and why. If it is a trend, I’m excited to see where this new wave of both practical and pretty apps can take us.
Today I want to give a shout out to the awesome folks over at Agenda. While browsing the Agenda community, I found a link to Alexander Griekspoor’s presentation at Do iOS 2018 in which he discusses how Agenda came to be.
In short, Agenda started as a running text file Griekspoor was using to capture notes, reminders, and events throughout the day. He added new items to the top pushing older items down further down. As text files grew complex, he started creating separate files for each project, eventually moving the whole system to Simplenote before making Agenda. Overall, this running text file isn’t too different than how my colleagues and I manage our shared agendas in Google Docs, which is probably why Agenda clicks for me today.
I’ve written about Agenda in the past. It’s been working great for keeping my personal notes from meetings sorted, but understanding the mindset behind Agenda has helped me understand how to use it even more.
In the past, I created reminders in my task manager whenever there was a need to discuss something with someone. The problem was that I don’t usually have my task manager open during meetings so things tended to get missed.
This is where Griekspoor’s initial inspiration for Agenda was useful. The idea behind Agenda wasn’t just an app for keeping track of today’s notes and past notes. Griekspoor used it for future notes as well. When needing to discuss something with someone, he put it at the top of the note in a sort of holding area that he later converted into the section for the date it was discussed.
That’s what I was missing.
All those reminders to discuss things that I was keeping in Things could actually go directly into Agenda and even be attached to our next meeting, so that the next time I meet with that person, they’re front and center.
Griekspoor’s presentation was incredibly insightful. If you have a bit of time to check it out, I highly recommend it.
Now that I’ve been using Things 3 for a while, I wanted to share some of the “workarounds” I’ve been using to overcome some of my minor gripes along with some tips and tricks I’ve been using to make my life easier.
Denoting Projects vs Sub Areas
Unless Things 3 decides to add headers to areas, you’re stuck with using projects or tags to denote your sub areas of responsibility. I’ve opted to use projects because I like seeing the visual reminder of what I’m responsible for. This, unfortunately, leaves me with no distinction between my projects and sub areas. Admittedly, this was an issue with Omnifocus as well, so I’ve gotten into the habit of prefixing projects with a checkbox symbol to differentiate them from sub areas. It’s not perfect, but it works.
Improving Mail to Things
The ability to email tasks into Things is something I don’t widely use at the moment, but I do use it for one task in particular – checking my physical mailbox. I have IFTTT set to email Things whenever I get an email from the US Postal Service’s Informed Delivery informing me I have new mail arriving later in the day.
Unfortunately, Mail to Things is limited to sending a task to your Inbox, not the Today view where I need it to appear. Sure I could have just moved it every day, but that’s a pain. Using the Things AppleScript Guide and a little trial and error (it was my first time using AppleScript), I was able to craft a script that finds my “Check Mailbox” task in the Inbox, moves it to my Household area, and assigns it to “This Evening”. The script runs anytime Things activates on my Mac thanks to Keyboard Maestro.
It’s worth mentioning that moving the task to This Evening automatically is dependent on a separate script which checks for any tasks tagged with Evening and moves them to This Evening. This script triggers along with the previously mentioned script as part of the same Keyboard Maestro macro anytime Things activates on my Mac.
I started adding URLs to tasks years ago mainly to save me time locating bookmarks and navigating to websites, but lately I’ve also gotten really into using URL schemes throughout Things.
On the Mac, I’ve started including links to Keyboard Maestro macros in some tasks. Some are simple like adding a link to my Weekly Review task so that I can open BusyCal directly to my filtered Weekly Review view. I also use them to generate new templated projects either from a task itself or within a project’s notes field. For projects that may require follow up tasks or projects, this allows me the option to generate them as needed rather than adding them up front and then canceling or deleting them later.
For iOS, I’ve also started linking to Shortcuts. One of my favorites is the link attached to my meditation task which runs a shortcut that enables Do Not Disturb for 15 minutes and then opens the Headspace app.
The Delegated Tag
My last little hack mainly just satisfies my OCD. While my boyfriend and I share the responsibility of the household chores, the master list of those chores resides in Things. I use a “Delegated” tag to denote things he completes so that I can distinguish them in the Logbook section of the app. If there’s something he’s usually responsible for, I’ve tagged the task with Delegated permanently, which also gives me an easy way to let him know of any chores he can do when he asks what needs to be done around the house.
If there’s one thing I’ve missed since moving from OmniFocus to Things, it’s the ability to use project templates. It’s hard to beat Omnifocus’s support for the TaskPaper format. Project templates can be created in a flash and added by simple text expansion tools.
That being said, it’s also hard to beat the design of Things, and for that reason, I set out to learn how to convert my templates.
In migrating to Things, I decided a number of them would be better off just scheduled as repeating projects in Things, which cut my list in half before I even started. Working at a university, most of my work tends to repeat each semester, but the actual dates of semesters tend to fluctuate slightly, so my projects tend to do so as well. I can, however, count on those projects happening roughly around the same weeks each year. With Omnifocus 2, it wasn’t possible to schedule a project to repeat yearly on say the first Monday of November, but it was in Things 3. It’s worth noting that repeats like this were added to Omnifocus 3, so if I were still using it, I’d have moved these templates back into Omnifocus too.
Unlike Omnifocus’s TaskPaper format, templates in Things 3 are possible through a URL scheme. If you’re interested in testing it out, Cultured Code has a really nice Link Builder to help you get started. While this works great for static projects and actions, it doesn’t let me create the variable templates I was trying to create.
Naturally, I turned to the trusty Keyboard Maestro to see if I could pass variables into a Things URL. It turns out Keyboard Maestro’s variable format doesn’t really get along well with Things’ URL scheme though. All those percentage signs make for a confused mess. I even found a post on Keyboard Maestro’s forums asking for Keyboard Maestro to play nicely with Things URLs, which I nervously bumped 8 months later out of desperation.
After hours of frustration trying to get it to work and searching relentlessly for a solution, I stumbled upon a blog post that used Alfred instead. While I was at least able to get this working, entering the variables was nowhere near as user-friendly as having the dialog boxes that I had been used to while using Keyboard Maestro. That being said, if you’re an Alfred fan, this may be just what you’re looking for!
Things Templates Using Shortcuts
At some point, I conceded that Keyboard Maestro wasn’t going to happen and tried my hand at creating them with Apple Shortcuts. Let me just say Shortcuts handled Things URLs beautifully. Having little to show for all my time dabbling with Shortcuts other than my Spotify playlist shortcut, I was surprised, to say the least.
The basic shortcut is only 5 actions (I’ve used my Book Project to help illustrate.):
- Ask for Input (e.g. What the’s title of the book?)
- Replace text (This finds spaces in whatever you inputted and replaces them with %20)
- Set Variable (In this case, to bookTitle) – I’m going to skip forward onto the remainder of the shortcut here for simplicity’s sake, but it’s safe to say you could keep reusing steps 1-3 to prompt for as many variables as you need. You can use them for any field supported by the URL scheme including (Notes, Tags, Deadlines, etc.) so there’s plenty of room for exploration.
- URL (This is where you’d put your URL you got from Cultured Code’s Link Builder unless you’ve got the URL scheme down to which I’ll say Kudos! This is also where you’ll be replacing the fill-in areas with your variables from earlier. Admittedly this is kind of a pain because the URL is long, and the URL field in Shortcuts is a single line, but copy and paste works quite well if you’re using a keyboard.)
- Open URL – You’re done.
I was able to recreate all of my templates in Shortcuts fairly quickly by duplicating and then modifying this shortcut, and I can easily run them from Spotlight by typing in the name of the shortcut.
While I was glad to have my templates back in some form, it was fiddly having to grab my iPhone or iPad to generate a template when I was already on my computer.
Back to trying to get Keyboard Maestro to work…
Things Templates with Keyboard Maestro
Thankfully in the months since I’d bumped that post on the Keyboard Maestro forum, a kind soul by the name of gglick came to my rescue. (Note to self: Pay better attention to forum replies.) I really cannot take any credit for this because he or she really did the leg work to make everything work. Even better, the way it’s set up makes the template super easy to update – even easier than Omnifocus’s TaskPaper format in my opinion.
I’ll give gglick credit by linking to the post if you’re interested in the macro, but in short, the macro is 4 actions:
- Prompt the user for input (Note: Unlike with Shortcuts, you can add all the variables you want in this step.)
- Set Variable to Text (In this case, Keyboard Maestro is going to be doing most of the link formatting, so you can pretty much write out all your tasks in plain text with the exception of a few bits like the variables and the starting syntax.)
- Filter Variable with Percent Encode for URL (This turns all the spaces into %20 like Step 2 of the Shortcut earlier.)
- Open URL (Note: the URL you’re opening is actually the Variable you made in Step 2.)
As I did with Omnifocus, I’ve set up a macro palette to display the templates that I can trigger via the same keyboard shortcut (⌘+F4) I used with Omnifocus saving me from having to retrain any muscle memory. All this is is a macro containing the action “Show Macro Group”.
I know I spent countless hours trying to figure this out, so I’m sharing this in hopes it saves someone else time. Happy templating!
It’s been a little over 100 days since I upgraded my Apple Watch to the Series 4. Like many Series 4 watch owners, I was pretty excited when Apple announced new faces with even more complications, but it didn’t take long for me to realize more complications didn’t make creating the perfect watch face any easier.
Even months later, a number of complications haven’t been updated to support the new watch faces, some of the complications don’t work the way I had hoped, and there’s also the issue of 8 complications being visually overwhelming.
That being said, I think I’ve finally landed on a watch face that works for me, and I actually am using the ever cluttered Infograph face with all 8 complications. Even better, I’ve gotten out of the business of different watch faces for different activities on a regular basis. Goodbye separate faces for workouts, work, and weekends. Switching faces is strictly reserved for special occasions when I want to have a nicer looking face.
The main function my watch serves is to provide me with an overview of how my day is going with a quick glance. For those of you who’ve been following my home screen posts, my watch essentially replicates the top row of apps on my home screen.
In the top left corner, I have the date (via Better Day). The top left is reserved for the calendar. I’d honestly prefer to have the calendar displayed on along the top dial, but Apple made an unfortunate decision to link the top center complication with what’s displayed on the dial and also lock the digital time complication to that same spot. Unless I suddenly start reading analog clocks as quickly as digital ones again, which is pretty unlikely, I’m stuck with giving up arguably the most prominent complication location to the digital time. In the bottom left I have the Activity complication, and on the bottom left is Dark Sky. Within the watch dial itself are the complications for Things, Workout, and Waterminder.
Now, this watch face isn’t pretty, although it is the prettiest combination I’ve come up with. It is, however, exactly what I need my watch to be – quick access to see and do the most important things in my day – what’s going on and what I need to be focusing on. Complications on the outside of the dial are for quick status checks. Complications on the inside are for action items.
The only thing I wish I could add is Streaks, and I’ve toyed with replacing Waterminder with it as I’m also tracking hydration within Streaks, but being able to both quickly see and track what I’m drinking from Waterminder’s interface on my wrist seems to be the key to making sure I actually use the app, and as you can see by the fact that I hadn’t tracked anything by almost 9:30, I need all the reminding I can get.
For those of you who haven’t read my About page, I’ve spent the last 4 years slowly completing a Masters degree, 1 class at a time. Well, I’m happy to report that the 14 hour days of this past semester are behind me (7:10-9:40PM classes should really not be a thing), and more importantly, so is my degree.
Ironically, the defining moment of finishing my degree wasn’t walking out of my final class or applying for graduation. For me, the strangest milestone was checking off my final task in Things and removing my School area, which marks the first time I’ve not had a School area in any task manager.
Now that I’m done my degree, the logical question is “What could I possibly do with all my free time?”
Of course, this question couldn’t come at a better time since I like to spend December reflecting on the past year and planning for the next. Thankfully planning comes after reflection because if anything’s clear, I did not slow down as I had intended. If anything I did the opposite, and I’m feeling it as we wrap up the year.
So for 2019, I’m going the opposite direction. I’m purposely keeping things simple.
My focus is on intentionality.
Instead of committing to new things, my intention is to focus on things I’ve already committed to – like all those house projects that have been on my to-do list since I moved in. (Hello, kitchen cabinet doors that are still sitting in the corner waiting to be painted.)
With that in mind, I will be taking a few weeks off, so this will be my last post of 2018.
Before I leave though, I want to say thank you to everyone who’s read this blog over the past year. A year ago, this blog was just another thing to check off on my path to maybe becoming some sort of writer in the distant future. Thanks to some major encouragement from my boyfriend and all of your amazing feedback, I couldn’t even begin to imagine this blog would be where it is today.
Thank you again, and warm wishes for the holidays.
About a week ago, I decided to move Instagram to the second page of a folder on my iPhone. I didn’t really think I had any sort of problem with Instagram. I just wanted to be more intentional with how I used my phone after seeing my weekly Screentime reports. Little did I know, just seeing the Instagram icon (even the tiny one inside a folder) had become an incredibly strong cue to unconsciously open the app whenever I picked up my phone. A week later, and Screentime is already reporting my phone usage is down 36% just by moving the app!
Features like Screentime and Downtime are great for iOS devices, and that 36% is huge, but the 19 hours I spend on my iOS devices pale in comparison to how much time I spend on my Mac. I couldn’t help but not think of how many cues on my Mac were stealing my precious time without even realizing it. For now, there is no Screentime for Mac, but services like RescueTime work similarly to give you a good idea of where you’re spending your time so you can start seeing where you need to cut back.
That being said, breaking bad habits requires more than just knowing where you’re spending time. If you want to actually change those habits, you also need to disrupt your behavior patterns. Plenty of apps can block apps and websites during specific times. Unfortunately, most of the ones I found require subscriptions, and as much as I want to support developers, paying for another subscription is just not in my budget right now.
As I thought through my options, I realized I had already broken a pretty well-conditioned habit of compulsive email checking using a fairly simple Keyboard Maestro macro paired with Marco Arment’s Quitter app. The Keyboard Maestro macro just gave me an alert every time I opened my email client just to remind me I was opening it. Usually, the notification was jarring enough to make me stop and realize what I was doing. The Quitter app quit my email client after 20 minutes of inactivity. Within days, the combination opened my eyes to just how often I was opening my email client throughout the day and also kept me from being pulled back into email when I forgot to close it.
It worked so well that I’ve gotten checking my email down to 3 times a day while at work (8AM, 12PM, and 4PM). In fact, I had to create a new Keyboard Maestro macro that opens my email client at those times because I often forget to check my email. For added fun, I recently added an option to the macro that lets me delay opening Airmail for 5 minutes if I happen to be occupied with something else.
With how well this worked for breaking compulsive email checking, I figured I could apply it to other applications, so I set back to work in Keyboard Maestro. Having recently learned how to incorporate times into my macros, I was able to come up with a vastly improved macro that lets me “limit” certain apps during certain hours. I’m using the term limit loosely because I didn’t want to be completely blocked out of an app if I didn’t need to be. If a predefined app activates during the hours I’ve set, I get a notification reminding me I probably have more important things to do, along with 2 options – to quit the app or accept the notification and open it anyway. More often than not, just as with my email app macro, just the alert is enough to snap me out of my muscle memory.
I’ve only been using it for a week or so, but it’s been working so well, I wanted to share it with you. The macro first sets the variable Time to the current hour. If it’s between the hours set, it will pause briefly to allow the app to load and then prompt you with a notification. Clicking Quit continues to the next action of quitting the frontmost app. Clicking the other option cancels the macro.
Of note, instead of referring to specific apps within the macro, I made use of the variable %Application%1% which refers to the front application. I’ve created macros to refer to the “Front Application” in the past, but until recently, I didn’t know you could pass the front application’s name as a variable as well. This lets me avoid hardcoding any of the applications into the macro’s actions and dialogs so that adding new apps just a matter of adding a new application trigger at the beginning.
Have you set up anything on your Mac to keep you on track? I’d love to hear what others are doing.
Switching to Things 3 has greatly simplified how I work. Whereas with OmniFocus, I worked out of a handful of custom perspectives, with Things I just work out of the built-in Today view. The Today view shows what’s on my calendar for the day followed by a list of everything with a start date or deadline of today or earlier. I’ve come to appreciate this much more than Omnifocus’s way of interleaving tasks and calendar appointments.
The Today View in Things is a big change from my carefully tailored (and fiddly) perspectives in OmniFocus, where I could also set times for both deadlines and defer dates. With OmniFocus, the only things on my list were things I could do at that very moment at that location. Things doesn’t account for start or due times, which means anything you have to do that day shows up, even if you can’t do it until later. In some ways, I appreciate having a clear picture of everything I need to do each day (something that actually made me leave Things 2 years ago). There’s no more forgetting to check the Forecast perspective, only to be blindsided by 5 tasks showing up right as I sit down to relax for the evening.
That being said, there are some things I really can’t do until later, and for that, Things has the This Evening section of the Today view. Unfortunately, there’s no way to set a task, like setting out the trash on Monday nights to appear in This Evening by default. However, I’ve found a clever workaround through the use of Keyboard Maestro and a handy Applescript. Each time Things activates on my Mac, Keyboard Maestro triggers the Applescript which scans for any tasks in Today tagged with Evening and moves them to This Evening. It’s so quick, I don’t even notice it running. The only downside is it only works on my Mac.
Note: When you create a recurring task Things creates the next instance of a recurring task and a separate template task, so if you want any changes to stick to the entire set of recurring tasks, make sure you’re applying them to the template task. Otherwise, your changes will only apply to the next instance.
With start dates, deadlines, and my evening script running automatically each time I open Things, my Today View is already in pretty good shape when I open the app each morning. From there, I tag my three most important tasks as “Top 3”. I find it’s a nice way to mentally set my priorities for the day. I also reevaluate whether any tasks should be removed from Today. I’ve been doing my best to move these tasks back to Anytime rather than setting arbitrary start dates in the future to keep my Today view from growing too unwieldy. Lastly, I take a few moments to rearrange my tasks into a rough order of when I plan to complete them throughout the day. This is something I couldn’t get from OmniFocus. From there, the rest of my day is spent completing tasks.
Interestingly enough, taking the complexity out of my task lists has led me to complete more, and I now regularly find myself browsing the Anytime view in search of additional tasks to fill out my day. It’s also led me to a tagging system that truly makes sense (something I struggled with with Omnifocus 3).
I use tags to filter my Today view down at various times of the day. For instance, I can easily filter my list to my Top 3 tasks for a quick priority check, or I can use tags to batch my tasks.
I have my tags broken up into 4 main groups, which Things display’s quite nicely at the top of the Today view:
- Area of Responsibility – I picked up this tip from Shawn Blanc’s All the Things course at The Sweet Setup. It seems a little redundant to recreate your Areas as tags, but it’s actually quite handy to be able to sort your Today view by Area of Responsibility. Each of my areas gets tagged with its respective area tag causing any task within an area to automatically inherit its area tag.
- Location – These are my traditional GTD contexts (e.g. Anywhere, Home, Work, Errands). Unfortunately filtering by multiple tags is additive in Things, so these don’t completely replace my custom perspectives in OmniFocus, but they come close enough.
- When – This is where my Evening tag mentioned above lives. I’ve also added Morning and Afternoon tags. This comes in handy on busier days when I want to break up my Today list into more than just Today and This Evening. I have my fingers crossed Cultured Code might consider allowing users to break up their Today view in the future, but for now this works.
- Action – This is where batching comes in. I have tags for various activities I do regularly (email, research, chores, etc.) As someone who tries to avoid keeping my email client open all day, being able to work through all my email related tasks at once is quite handy.
Lastly, I have 3 straggler tags that don’t fall within any group. This includes the Top 3 tag I mentioned earlier, a goal tag for tagging any tasks related to my yearly goals, and a Waiting tag.
With regards to tasks I’m waiting on, Things doesn’t offer stalled tags like OmniFocus, and I still haven’t quite worked out how best to handle waiting for tasks with Things. Setting a task to Someday with a deadline creates a really nice visual distinction by graying out the task’s checkbox while still reminding me to follow up on the task, but it goes against my rule of setting arbitrary deadlines. For now, I’ve gone with the lesser of two evils, and have been setting an arbitrary start date as a reminder to follow up on the task.
Again, Things 3 has made me once again realize how easy it is to overcomplicate things over time. Sometimes simpler is actually better.