There’s an App for That… but Do You Really Need It?

Working in IT, it’s easy to get caught up in the deluge of apps you’re bombarded with every day. I started wondering how many apps I’ve downloaded over the past 6 years since I got my first iPhone. Apple doesnt’ make this number easy to find, so I started counting them manually. I figured it was time to stop when I had reached 300 and still hadn’t made it 1/6 of the way through the list. That’s A LOT of apps!

Over the past few months, I’ve drastically reduced the number of apps on my phone (49 at the present moment). In doing so, I’ve come to really question whether I need “an app for that” in the first place. Some things I consider are:

Does this app offer a function I actually do on my phone?

Sure, I can download an app for every credit card or bank card on my phone, but if I manage my finances from my computer, why does it need to be on my phone? Browsing Reddit is fun on my phone too, but wouldn’t that time be better spent elsewhere? Unless it’s something I trulls need to do on my phone, the app can go.

Does this app offer an improved interface or additional features over the web version?

Here’s a case where maybe I don’t use an app frequently, but having it installed on my phone adds additional features. A great example of this would be Pinterest. While I don’t use Pinterest all that frequently, browsing through the app is a much more pleasant than browsing through Safari, and the app also includes a Share extension. Tweetbot is a similar example.

Do I already have an app for this?

If you’re not careful, you can end up with information silos. For me, a great example was lists. At one point I had an app for my reading list, another for my grocery list, an app for my wishlist, and of course Omnifocus for my to do list. Not everyone loves to throw anything and everything at Omnifocus, but for me, having multiple apps for tracking lists of things I need to do added overhead to my systems. With everything in Omnifocus, it’s comforting to know that lists of tasks or things that need to be tracked all live in one place.

Does this app add additional fiddliness to my life?

A recent revelation was that many of my apps were causing undue stress and added fiddliness that just wasn’t worth worrying about. My habit tracker app was the most recent app to get chopped. I was tracking things like “Walk 6000 steps a day” (which my FitBit does automatically) just to pat myself on the back with a checkmark when I remembered to check it off at the end of the day. The problem is, even when I did hit 6000 steps, I didn’t remember to check it off. Every time I opened my phone, I had a glaring reminder of something I failed to do instead. At the end of the day, most of the things I was tracking were trivial and knowing whether or not I did them didn’t add value to my life.

With fewer apps on my phone, I’m now more intentional about how I use my phone. I not only have a tidier homescreen, but I know that when I open my phone, I will only be presented with information and tools that are useful to access from the palm of my hand. Apps to let me know where I need to be, what I need to do, and how my day is going. Apps to help me do the things I need to do in life, and a few to take advantage of any spare moments during the day.

Smarter Hydration Reminders with Ulla

This week I’m taking a break from my normal app posts and posting about something a bit more simple. Last week, I wrote about how I’m using Keyboard Maestro to remind me to drink water when I’m at my desk, but I recently received a small device that works wherever I’m at and I just had to share it.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve explored countless options: expensive water bottles that track your drinking, less expensive apps for your phone that nag you to drink, even drawing timelines on existing water bottles. None of them worked for me.

I’m not sure where I first read about Ulla, but boy am I glad that I did, because it just works! It’s a simple $25 device that you can strap onto ANY water bottle or cup you already have using an included silicone band. Once on your water bottle, it will blink obnoxiously every 30 or 40 minutes to remind you it’s time to drink. That’s all. It doesn’t beep or buzz your phone. There’s no app involved. Just a tiny little clip on device with a battery that should last for 6 months.

I’ve had it for a little over a week now, and I can say, it works. I almost always have my water bottle within sight, and the blinking light is nearly impossible to miss. The few times I have missed it have been met with my friends asking “Why is your water bottle blinking?”

I was skeptical at trying it, but for $25, I couldn’t be more pleased.

Check out the video.

The even better part, Ulla has a Refer-a-Friend promotion. You’ll get $5 off and I will as well. Check it out, and if you’re interested use code R3C588 at ulla.io.

App Mention: Hiya

2016-08-12 screenshot

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably seen an increasing number of spam calls to your phone. If I don’t recognize a number, my usual routine was to (1) let the call go to voicemail, and then (2) look it up with a reverse phone search. More often than not, it came back as spam.

Then one day, I found an app, and I’m honestly surprised it doesn’t get more mentions. Recently rebranded as Hiya from Whitepages ID, the app is a lot like a blacklist for your phone. You can use it to perform reverse phone searches, but it also features an automatically updated list of numbers flagged as spam by adding a contact called Spam. This means when someone calls you, the caller will actually show up as Spam not an unknown number. You can also manually add users to a blacklist.

IMG_6680

 

It’s saved me a ton of time, and I no longer worry about who’s calling me. Did I mention it’s free?

Healthy Habits with Keyboard Maestro

By this point, pretty much everyone knows about the dangers of sitting in front of a computer all day. Unfortunately, some of us work desk jobs and just don’t have a choice. Even more unfortunate is my tendency to forget to get up and move around unless I’m reminded. I don’t have an Apple Watch to remind me to move, and I’m hesitant to create too many alarms on my Fitbit Charge HR that might detract from my main reason for using alarms, medication reminders. Thankfully, Keyboard Maestro has saved the day once again.

Inactivity Reminders

A little over a year ago, I bought an app called Healthier. It’s a simple app that lives in your menubar reminding you to take a break by overlaying the screen after a time period of your choosing (between 10 and 90 minutes). Unlike most of the break reminders, you can override it so that it doesn’t prevent you from working when you’re in the zone, which I like.

I found having Healthier running all the time a bit too much though. For instance, if I’m in class, I can’t always get up to take a break as much as I’d like. Thanks to Keyboard Maestro, I was able to set up a macro to launch Healthier only when my Time Machine back up in my office is attached. This allows me to get reminders to get up when I really need them, sitting in my office, rather than all the time.

Note: If you don’t want to buy Healthier, and just want notifications or alerts to get up and move (without the screen overlay) you can also just use Keyboard Maestro to send you reminders periodically. Keep reading for more information.

Hydration Reminders

I’m terrible at remembering to drink water throughout the day. Even with a water bottle in front of me, I still forget, so you can bet I’ve spent a lot of time looking for the best app, water bottle, reminder – anything to remind me to drink water. None of the things I tried managed to stick though. It turns out Keyboard Maestro is perfect for this too (provided I don’t need reminders on my phone).

I have two separate macros enabled. The first sends me a notification reminding me to drink water every 45 minutes between 11 AM (when I’m typically done my morning coffee) and 4:30PM. The second is a bit more extensive, and actually prompts me to enter my how much water I’ve had and then enters it on the Fitbit website twice a day. (All I need to do is hit submit.) I have a tendency to forget to track my water intake, so this removes nearly all the friction of having to open the app or go to the website.

Mindfulness Reminders

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m fairly high strung and easily get worked up about things, so I’m trying to be better at staying calm throughout the day. There are plenty of mindfulness reminder apps available but most seem to rely on a chime of some sort. Since I normally keep my Mac muted at work, none of these really worked for me. Much like my hydration reminders, I set up a Keyboard Maestro macro set to remind me to take a deep breath every 90 minutes while I’m in the office.

Keyboard Maestro seems to be the app that keeps on giving, and keeping me healthy is just one more reason to love it.

 

Use Apple Notes to Tame Your Stash of Carryout Menus

I was never really a big note taker, and I could never wrap my head around why people were so in love with apps like Evernote. So when Apple announced they were revamping Apple Notes, I wasn’t all that impressed. Then something curious happened, I found a use case that changed how I think of notes entirely – Menus

I’m one of those people who likes to figure out what I’m going to order at a restaurant ahead of time and I’m usually the one calling in food orders, so I’m always looking up menus. If I go somewhere enough times, chances are I probably have the menu saved somewhere and it turns out Apple Notes is actually perfect for this.

Menus Are Always Available

Gone are the days of having a folder of menus stashed in the kitchen. I don’t need to be home or at my computer to access them stored in a folder (physical or digital). Someone can suggest one of our favorite restaurants while we’re out driving, and within seconds, I can bring up the menu from my phone. They even came in handy one day AT a restaurant that was particularly busy due to an event. The servers were incredibly busy, and I was able to bring up the menu and had everyone’s order ready for the server before she even came over with the menus.

Make Notes about Menu Items

One of my favorite places to go is a local sushi place. Their menu is massive, so I’ve started jotting down notes about what I’ve tried, or might want to try. Now I don’t have to guess which items I’ve already tried and which ones I love.

Easy Ordering

I’m usually ordering food for other people, so Notes makes it easy to jot down what everyone wants. I also have the phone number listed in the note, so once everyone’s responded, I can easily call the restaurant.

Storing menus is by far my favorite use of Apple Notes, and being able to pull up a menu and place an order in minutes has saved so much time. I now understand why people like taking notes, and I’m excited to find new use cases, especially with the upcoming addition of sharing.

 

Adding Read Times to Pocket

I’m an avid reader of online content, and to keep up with it all I save everything to Pocket. When that list gets long, I find myself looking through the list to read the quickest ones first. For a while I was just determining that by looking at how long the article was, but it turns out there’s a better way.

A site called ReadRuler will automatically assign tags to corresponding to the read times (based on your own reading speed) to your articles in Pocket.

I’ve improved the process by creating two smart folders in ReadKit, Quick Reads which includes articles tagged 1 or 2 minutes, and Long Reads which is anything not 1 or 2 minutes.

Now the one caveat is that you need to visit the ReadRuler site to allow it to scan your articles. To make things a bit more automated, I set up a Keyboard Maestro macro, triggered by a hotkey, that opens the Read Ruler site, closes the window, and refreshes ReadKit to get the new read times.

Tips and Tricks for Staying on Top of Meeting Agendas

Attending meetings is a necessary evil of my job. Thankfully, most of my colleagues see the value of having a running agenda stored somewhere in the cloud. Over the years, I’ve come up with a few best practices of my own that have helped save me time and keep me on top of my game.

1. Use Alfred to quickly launch agendas in the cloud

Agendas are great. Having to remember what every person decided to name the agenda just to find it isn’t. I can never quite remember if they decided to use “Catch Up”, “Running Agenda”, or “Meeting Notes”. I’ve solved the problem by making an Alfred workflow that opens the URL for the agenda by typing “agenda” followed by a descriptive keyword for the meeting that makes sense to me (e.g. agenda managers). The amount of time this saves me is honestly a bit mind-blowing.

2. Use Apple Notes or another notes app to store your own notes for the agenda

My colleages and I tend to use meeting agendas as shared notes and edit them throughout the meeting as things come up. However, I’ve started keeping my own running agenda for each meeting in Apple Notes. It’s nice to be able to look back over my own notes in one place rather than a myriad of Byword files. I’ve named all these something similar (e.g. Agenda Notes: Meeting Name) to avoid another complicated naming scenario as described in the last tip.

3. Add any action or follow up items to Omnifocus ASAP

As soon as I get back to my office, I make sure to review the agenda and my own notes making sure to capture any action items into Omnifocus for further action. This ensures nothing slips through the cracks before the next meeting.

4. Keep an agenda project in Omnifocus

Any time I think of something I need to discuss with someone that’s not immediately pressing, I add it to Omnifocus as a reminder to mention it the next time I see them. I name each item in the same format, “Person’sName: Action”, assign it to the @People context, and add it to my Agendas project (if it’s a work colleague). If I know the next date I plan to meet with that person, I’ll set a defer date as well.

When it comes time to meet with someone, I have one of two options for reviewing items to discuss with him or her: (1) view the @People context which has items involving both work and personal contacts or (2) view the Agendas project which only has work colleagues. Since every item includes the person’s name, I can search by name to narrow down the list to a specific person if need be. If an item up for discussion seems like it will warrant a lengthy discussion, I make sure to add it to the agenda before the meeting as well.

Using Keyboard Maestro to Send Tracking Numbers to Deliveries in Airmail

I’ve been using Airmail since the day it came out, so I was ecstatic when it came to iOS. The iOS version even added a bunch of new features, and the most recent Mac update for brought most of those features to Mac as well. On iOS, one of my most used features is the ability to send emails to Deliveries to track shipping notifications via the Action List. Sadly, there is no Action List on the Mac version.

Deliveries does have a Share extension on the Mac, so you can right click the tracking number and send it to Deliveries, but in my experience, the share extension doesn’t always grab the right information. For example, capturing an Amazon order grabs the “#” before the tracking number, which prevents Deliveries from recognizing it as an Amazon order. Not only do you have to delete the symbol manually, you still have to confirm the dialog before it gets added to Deliveries – all unnecessary steps in my opinion.

Deliveries offers another way to send things to the app – forwarding them to an email address, so my first thought was to set up an IFTTT recipe to forward emails to Deliveries. I quickly realized that to capture all shipping notifications automatically, you either need to create rules to pick up all the specific types of order notifications to avoid missing any emails or create a generic rule that searched for something like shipping which caught way to many irrelevant results.

So I abandoned fully automating the process and instead turned to the trusty Keyboard Maestro which I seem to be using for everything these days. I was able to set up a hot key, only available in Airmail, that will forward the email to Deliveries and then archive the message. It works for any order type without creating multiple rules, and it reduces the number of steps required to add something to Deliveries down to one.

You can see the workflow below:2016-06-15 screenshot

 

Making the Case for a Single Homescreen

IMG_6251I’ve been in the two home screen camp for as long as I’ve owned an iPhone. It just made sense to have a page for my most used apps and a page of folders for all the others. In the past two years however a few things have changed:

  • Switching to an iPhone 6 meant more room for icons per screen
  • I also cut back on the number of apps I use overall.

Fewer apps and more screen real estate made for two very empty looking screens, so I started wondering if maybe I could be one of the “crazy” people with only one screen of apps. Turns out I can.

Introducing my new and improved single home screen…

Row 1: The Dashboard

Row1In the top row you’ll notice my “dashboard” apps. Fantastical provides me the hard landscape of my commitments. Day One lets me journal about my day. Momentum tracks my habits, and Fitbit tracks my health and activity.

Row 2: The Folders

row2

I initially put this row at the top, but realized moving them down creates a visual distinction between my “dashboard” row and my frequently used apps. One of the biggest game changers here was a tip from CGPGrey in episode 26 of Cortex, where he mentioned putting only the most important apps on the first page of a folder. This lets me keep apps on my phone without really having to see them on the home screen.

My Apple folder still contains all the stock apps, but I’ve been able to hide them all on subsequent pages leaving only the App Store, Phone, and Settings app.

The second folder contains all my “miscellaneous” apps. I’ve tried to arrange the apps in different pages based on their function loosely described below:

  • “Action” (e.g. Uber, Starbucks, Scanbot)
  • “Distractions” (e.g. games and less important services that I don’t want pulling at my attention)
  • “Utilities” (e.g apps that live in my Notification Center or provide other background functions like Workflow or 1Blocker)

Media contains apps like my TV show tracker, Instagram, Netflix and Youtube. CGPGrey’s tip also means I can keep apps with awesome interfaces like Tweetbot on my phone for when I need to access Twitter but keep them “hidden” to reduce the temptation of mindlessly browse feeds all day.

Remote is my last folder and contains the apps for remotely controlling various things in my life (Nest, Alexa, WeMo, etc.)

An added benefit of keeping my folders on the main home screen is that the rest of my apps listed below are now much easier to access when using my phone with one hand.

Row 3: The Content

row 3

This row is entirely based on content. Reeder for RSS Feeds (still the fastest way to go through my feeds and flag things to read later), Pocket for things I want to read later, Overcast for podcasts, and Spotify for music.

Row 4: The Reference Apps

row 4

The last row is reserved for apps I regularly refer back to: Dark Sky for weather, Notes for active lists and project notes, Waze for directions and “time to leave” reminders, and 1Password for managing passwords.

The Dock

dock

My dock contains the most important apps: Messages for chatting with people, Airmail for email: Safari for looking up things, and Omnifocus for keeping my life on track.

Also worth noting, keeping Omnifocus in the last dock slot keeps it in the same location as the “Add to Inbox” icon inside the app removing the need to move my thumb when adding a new task to Omnifocus.

 

My Current Omnifocus Workflow

With my project and context organization out of the way, I figured it would be helpful to explain how I’m actually using Omnifocus to get things done (or at least try to get things done).

I start every morning by reviewing my calendar in Fantastical. This gives me a good idea of where I need to be and how much time I’ll have to do things.

Next I go through my inboxes. Email is up first. Anything that is going to require more than 2 minutes gets added to Omnifocus using the Airmail’s built in integration. I also check my “Action” folder in Readkit which contains anything that I’ve starred in Pocket. This may be a recipe I want to add to Paprika, or something I want to research further. As with email, if it can be dealth with quickly I do, otherwise, it gets added to Omnifocus. Last but not least, I jump over to Omnifocus and process anything that’s been added to the Inbox.

While I’m in Omnifocus, I look over my Waiting perspective and the Forecast View breifly to see if there’s anything I can check off or need to attend to. With that out of the way I go to my Available perspective, which as you might guess, shows all of my available tasks. Based on what I have going on for the day, I decide if there are any tasks I want to tackle during the day and flag them.

Once tasks are flagged, I can work entirely from my custom perspectives (based primarily on where I’m at) to get things done:

  • Today shows all due or flagged tasks grouped by context and sorted by project. It’s a nice overview of everything I plan on doing sorted by where I can do it.
  • Work also shows all due or flagged tasks, but it’s grouped by project and sorted by due date so that I can tackle the most pressing issues first.
  • Home, once again, shows all due or flagged tasks grouped by project, but I sort this one by duration. By the time I get home, I’m usually pretty tired, and doing chores is usually the last thing I want to do so sorting by duration lets me check off the quick wins.
    I do have other custom perspectives like Errands and Grocery List but these are the three I primarily work from.

To stay on top of this workflow, I’ve created a Daily Routine project that lives at the very top of my Projects list. I’ve flagged the project so that every step shows up in all three perspectives, just to serve as a reminder in case I miss a step.