Looking at 2Do as an OmniFocus Replacement

While we all need to be careful about succumbing to shiny object syndrome when it comes to applications and workflows, but there is often something to learn from them.

Case in point is my experience with 2Do as I was trying out SetApp. By default, 2Do filters out tasks that are set to start at a time in the future. So when I planned the night before I could set calls for 8 am, emails for 9 am…Then if it was 7 am, I wouldn’t see either of those tasks. My list of things to do was clear until those tasks became available.

This is not the default function of OmniFocus. In fact, I quite regularly found that the ‘Forecast’ view was cluttered with things I really shouldn’t be doing yet. That often led me to jump around between tasks, which is not effective in any fashion.

Armed with the knowledge from 2Do I found that I can set a custom perspective in OmniFocus to do almost the same thing.

So there was value in my three weeks with 2Do operating as my task manager. The changes I’ve made to my OmniFocus workflow will benefit me for years.

This is not a complete review of 2Do; you can find lots of those out there. Here you’ll find some of the things that I liked about 2Do and some things that I did not like about 2Do. There are enough of the latter that OmniFocus has stayed my task manager of choice.

Things to like about 2Do

First off, the general design of 2Do is beautiful. While the design doesn’t matter in many ways all things being equal, a pretty interface to work with is going to help you use a task manager.

Yes the 2do interface is very nice looking.

2Do also has a vast range of keyboard shortcuts. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a single page where you can find them all. In fact, the official manual recommends looking through the menu or downloading CheatSheet to find all the keyboard commands. I’d love to see a single list on the developer’s site with all the keyboard commands.

Tags, oh when will OmniFocus get tags? Or maybe multiple contexts per task? Well, 2Do has these things. That means if I’m shopping and I could get Milk at Costco or the grocery store I can tag Milk with both and then look at the tag. In theory, it’s coming to OmniFocus, or there are some work arounds but…meh to that. It feels like this has been ‘coming’ for years.

Another place that 2Do has one over on OmniFocus is the reminders and notifications. They’re simply way more robust. With 2Do you can even have nagging reminders which means until you resolve the task you’ll get a nag. You can also set multiple reminders per task.

The reminders also work when new tasks become available. OmniFocus and many task managers could learn from the reminders in 2Do.

The final big thing is how the Smart Lists work by default. I’ve already talked about this in the introduction. If I schedule a task for 8 am, and it’s 7:50 am, then I don’t see the 8 am task yet. I could click ‘Show Scheduled’ or the clock in the upper right side to see things that aren’t yet available if I’m ready to move on to the next items.

With a custom OmniFocus perspective you can achieve this, but you still see things ‘Within the next week’, ‘Within the next month’…and other stuff. Sure you can hide those lists, so the tasks inside aren’t cluttering up your view, but I haven’t been able to find a way to remove them.

My NOW perspective in OmniFocus

While I’m sure that many others will say I’ve missed awesome parts of 2Do, like it’s ability to sync with Reminders all the time, these are the things that stood out to me.

Now on to the things that were less than stellar.

Things to not love about 2Do

First up is sync. I know that OmniGroup took forever to get their sync going, but it was worth the wait. When I make changes in MacOS, they’re on my iOS devices in a few seconds. 2Do does not have sync like this. It’s not slow, but it’s not fast either. If I make a change on any of my devices, I need to make sure I’ve initiated a sync on the other devices to see the changes.

Sometimes that means a few seconds wait, sometimes it’s much longer. Whatever the interval is, there is no wait with OmniFocus. Things just sync fast, and that’s not the case with 2Do.

Now there are many ways to sync 2Do but Dropbox is what they recommend. It works, but it could be faster.

I said above that the design was beautiful, but then there is the quick entry box. It’s not terrible, but it reminds me of the OmniFocus quick entry box from before their big redesign. It’s got brushed metal. Is it functional, yes, but it just feels older.

2Do quick entry, brushed metal and all

Next, the way you put tasks into projects from their Quick Entry box is slow. At least the obvious way is slow. Sure if you use the ‘M’ key you get a popup that allows you to type and it will filter the projects out down to the one you want. If you press enter while the project is selected, you get a dropdown set of projects that you need to navigate with the arrow key.

I’d love to see 2Do implement the type/filter in every place that you can place a task inside a project.

Get ready to find the arrow keys or your mouse to put tasks inside projects from the 2Do quick entry

Let’s say I have a client project. That lives inside my ‘Clients’ list. Now for a single task inside that project I need to have a list of things, say headings I need to add to a custom CSV file exporter. With OmniFocus, this is no issue. I add the sub-tasks and go. With 2Do, I can’t nest tasks. That means I have to create a whole project for around 20 minutes of work.

Is this a show stopper? Nope, but it’s a bit annoying.

File attachments in 2Do are lacking as well. You can attach an image and an audio file and that’s it. So that PDF you want to read next Friday, you’ll need to write the title down and maybe add a link to the PDF in Dropbox. You can’t attach it to the task on reading it. This is less than ideal.

Project templates are crucial. You have blog posts to write and you need to do the same tasks with each one. In OmniFocus, you can tackle this in a few ways. First, you can use this script to generate a project from a template. Possibly a better way is to use OmniFocus’ Taskpaper paste/import feature since using TaskPaper templates means you can use them on iOS as well.

The final, and maybe the biggest issue with 2Do is that it doesn’t do project reviews like OmniFocus does. Let’s be honest, nothing does reviews like OmniFocus. It’s certainly possible to manually review every project, but not every project needs a weekly review. Some need monthly; some need even less than that. With OmniFocus, you can set the review interval and then leave it. The review perspective will show the projects that need attention and the ones that don’t won’t require a weekly decision.

Interesting Ideas in 2Do

There are a few interesting items in 2Do as well. First up is Checklists. Checklists are useful for stuff like packing up the kids to go to a birthday party. Create the checklist and then all the items inside the list are tasks. All tasks in a checklist inherit the due date of the Checklist. Tasks cannot have individual due dates. I used it a few times and it’s interesting, but it’s not a feature that makes me stay with 2Do.

The second interesting idea/choice is the lack of task nesting. In some instances, it’s a pain, like I cited above. It also helped me realise that I relied on nested tasks for things that should be projects. I still feel like it’s more pain than a benefit, but the constraint improved my workflow overall.

Should you use 2Do?

Now the question, should you use 2Do? I always say that the first question is, what problems do I have with my current task management workflow? Write those problems down.

Then with the problems in hand, look at the options out there. If 2Do solves some of the problems you have (like maybe it’s available on Android and OmniFocus isn’t), then go for it. 2Do is a great task manager.

I didn’t stick with it, mainly because of the sync. Most of the other things I could live with. Far too many times I would open 2Do in stores, not have a signal for my phone and then have to walk back to the front of the store to get a signal to wait and sync my list. This never happened with OmniFocus.

photo credit: clement127 cc

Does Squash Add Value to SetApp?

SetApp has been around for a bit and is interesting. It takes a number of popular Mac Applications and bundles them in to a single inexpensive monthly subscription. Out of the gate some of the awesome applications are Ulysses and ForkLift 2.

But I have a great Markdown editor and I don’t see anything in ForkLift2 that’s more compelling than ForkLift1, which I already own.

So over the next bit I’ll be looking at a number of the applications that piqued my interested to see if SetApp is worth another subscription fee.

In my look at what’s in SetApp I wondered if it was going to be better to move from my set of terminal commands for squashing images to Squash. Which one would be faster? Which one would produce images that are good quality but smaller for delivery on the web?

The first test was with an image off Flickr. You can find the original here

With Squash it took around 2 seconds (I just counted in my head). The image went from 2.4mb to 640kb. So a good reduction and the new image is perfectly suitable for the web.

With jpegoptim used like jpegoptim --strip-all -t --max=70 *.jpg I couldn’t even count to 1. The image went from 2.4mb to 273kb.

So with a .jpg image, Squash was not the winner. Sure it was good, but not as fast nor did it squish images as small as the terminal jpegoptim command.

PNG Compression

To test a PNG I used the same original image above and saved it out as a PNG with Pixelmator. That got me a 6.1mb png image.

The terminal command for optipng I used was optipng -o7. Just like with jpg I left squash however it was set out of the box.

Using Squash it took about 40 seconds to tell me that it couldn’t squash the PNG any further.

Using iTerm it took 12:44:11 and the image size ended up at 6.1mb. Now terminal said it was a 16% decrease, but clearly it’s not enough to make the image suitable for the web.

Figuring that those two tests weren’t really great, I grabbed a random PNG from a client site. They both took under a second and turned the image from an already small 3kb to 2kb. Optipng said it took 818 bytes out of the image where Squash said it took 606 bytes out.

So is Squash Worth it?

Squash is interesting and I can see that someone that doesn’t feel comfortable with terminal using it. For me though, I don’t think it adds enough value to SetApp to add anything to the value in the monthly cost.

I’d install jpegoptim and optipng in your terminal and use those.

photo credit: clement127 cc

Why I’ve stuck with 17Hats

2016 marks the first year in a long while that I haven’t changed my billing system. I’ve used Billings, FreeAgent, Bidsketch and a whole host of other time tracking/billing/estimate software you’ve no doubt heard of. Every year I’d end the year with more frustrations than satisfaction with my choices and so I’d change again in the vain hope of finding something that didn’t have too many rough edges.

Often my frustrations would come down to a lack of features. With Bidsketch you can send a great proposal but then you’re stuck going to FreeAgent to generate an invoice for the customer to pay. It’s great to have a single purpose application because it does its one thing well, but when it increases the lead of your business administration it’s really just using up time better spent doing the work you’re being paid to do.

Well it seems my choice in 2015 was the right one because I haven’t been tempted to leave 17Hats.

The one rub

I only have one real complaint with 17Hats, so I’ll get it out of the way here and move on. My least favorite part of 17Hats is around the UI. To put it bluntly the overall design simply doesn’t appeal to me. It looks old and heavy and clunky. It doesn’t feel terribly clunky while you’re using it though, so my beef really comes down to a matter of personal preference.

Features I like

The biggest selling feature for me is that you can produce a great proposal and once the prospect accepts it 17Hats walks them right to the contract which they can accept. Then it moves them seamlessly to the invoice for payment.

To work them through that, all I need to do is check a few boxes and use a few content templates. 17Hats takes care of the rest without me needing to go back in and deal with anything.

The second biggest feature I love, and which has been added since my last look at 17Hats, is the workflows. Workflows are basic automation for your projects. I use mine to email my client a week before the project to remind them we are starting and tell them the items I need like access to their servers.

This saves me from needing to remember to send the email or even record it in my task manager. I simply set up the workflow for a project and let it happen.

Stuff I don’t use

17Hats has a bunch of features I don’t use though. It has some CRM features, but really Contactually is much better, so I use that. The biggest reason that Contactually is better is that it really monitors email (at least for Google Apps like I use) and remembers when I’ve sent emails to clients. 17Hats doesn’t do this well when I’ve tried their CRM features.

Tasks are also a shortcoming of 17Hats. Here the biggest issue is that 17Hats really isn’t meant to support a team so you can’t assign tasks to another member of your team or to your clients. Tasks are the nuts and bolts of a project, and there are much better applications — such as Todoist or OmniFocus — for managing tasks.

No this wasn’t an in-depth review of 17Hats, but a quick status report for 2016. If you want more detail then go take a look at my big review from last year. Everything there still applies.

photo credit: horowisewolf cc

August 2015 Reading

Predictable Revenue

We all want predictable revenue, right? We want to know that if we get five qualified leads we can turn two of those into paying customers that are worth $XX over time.

We want to have a process to qualify leads for our business and move them down that sales funnel.

If you’re looking to develop that process then this is a decent book to read. I say ‘decent’ because at times the book feels more like a ‘sales’ book for Salesforce.com (which was where this sales process was developed, though the author is no longer employed there).

My favourite points were around how to nurture and qualify leads. It’s important not to just ABC (always be selling) but to ruthlessly qualify the leads that come in. You don’t have five ‘best’ leads — you have five, maybe ten, that you should be working on and the rest are a waste of your time.

I feel that this book is better for larger organizations with a dedicated sales team. Smaller businesses like mine (which is just me) can benefit from the discussion about process, and cutting leads so you only focus on the ‘best’ ones. However, some of the tips will be difficult to implement as a one-man operation, or even a business with only a few team members.

The Mistborn Trilogy

After finishing The Dark Tower series last month I was looking for some new fiction. Brian Krogsgard recommended this series and I’m glad he did.

This series starts out in a world where there is an ‘evil’ emperor who oppresses most of the people. He has the power of allomancy, which means he can burn different metals he’s ingested to gain new powers (like extra strength). Now there are others — the Mistborn — who possess the power of allomancy (Mistings, though, can only burn one metal), but The Lord Emperor is about 1,000 times more powerful than them.

The first book in the trilogy is all about a crew of thieves trying to overthrow this hugely powerful man to free their people. They suffer many setbacks but do eventually accomplish their goal, though it does have many unintended consequences.

The second book is all about trying to put a reasonable government back together in the midst of many kings trying to become the new Emperor. There are also many changes happening to the world. The ash mounts are spewing forth more ash, making the crops harder to grow. The mists are killing people, and very little seems to be getting better.

The people are looking for the Hero of Ages who will take up the power of the Well of Ascension and ‘fix’ everything. The only thing is, no one knows where the well is.

The third book is all about the world going to hell in a hand basket. When the Well of Ascension was finally found, ‘something’ got out and it’s accelerating the ruin of the world. More ash and lava are overtaking the land, and the mist keeps getting thicker, cutting off the sunlight needed to grow crops.

Add armies and rampaging monsters called Koloss, and ‘skin changers’ called Kandra, and it seems the deeper we dig we find The Lord Emperor had an impossible task to do and really planned ahead for a world he loved.

Of course, as in most books, the question is not will the ‘hero’ actually win out over the villain. Of course he will, but in this story the big question is: Who really is the Hero of the Ages?

The deeper you get into the series the more layers you peel back — and you begin to understand the whole makeup of the world and how the evil force (Ruin) has been pushing even the main heroes of the story to do his bidding.

I thoroughly enjoyed this series and will certainly come back and read it again.

Crazy for the Storm

This is a story about two survivals. The first and big flashy survival is that of a 12-year-old boy surviving a plane crash on a snow covered mountain. In this survival he fights off the elements and uses the skills his father has taught him — skiing and surfing, and running from Federals to overcome a physical challenge that would have killed many of his peers.

Layered in that survival story is the story of how that same young boy survived his mother’s abusive boyfriend and how he deals with the death of his father in the plane crash that left him alone and battling the elements. While he fights the physical elements, he faces the emotional challenges by again using the skills his father taught him — namely, experiencing joy for the storm. That calm in the waves and the peace it brings him.

I can totally understand that peace every time I’m out on a mountain watching a sunrise, or even when it’s pouring rain/hail/snow and I’m having the time of my life in the terrible weather.

One of the most poignant paragraphs for me comes right at the end of the book:

I had a pretty good idea of how Noah felt hovering over the lip of the gully. Having been in similar situations at nearly the same age, I understood that he just didn’t want to be scared, didn’t want to feel all that tension in his body, no matter what the payoff might be. He wanted to have effortless fun – Crazy for the Storm (emphasis mine)

Really isn’t that what we all want — effortless fun? Maybe if I put it another way, effortless reward, you’ll see more of yourself in it. But this is not a book about effortless fun or effortless reward. It’s a book about a father teaching his son that the greatest reward comes when you’ve put in the greatest effort.

This is a well written book that I very much enjoyed.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet

So, I’ve heard of Felicia Day before. I recognize her as some famous person and I know enough not to confuse her with Emily Blunt. I had a vague idea that she was into video games and had a web video show called The Guild. But before I read this book, that was the extent of my knowledge about Felicia Day.

Now one thing that always strikes me as funny is when a young person writes a memoir. I mean, you’ve got what — like ten years out of your parents’ house to get ‘wise’ and it’s time to write a memoir of your life? Sure, a memoir seems appropriate at age 60, 70, or 80 — but 30? Anyway, getting past that, this book is very quirky. Felicia Day is regularly self-deprecating as she wonders why you’d even read her book. That threw me off a bit since, why on earth would you write a book you figured no sane person should read?

Getting past that, this was an interesting look at how she got in on the ground floor of web video series at YouTube. Now everyone is trying to get some web show that hits it big so they can be famous, but when she did it, the concept was something totally new and she dove in just because she had a story she simply couldn’t not tell.

One of my favourite parts of the book is when she talks openly about dealing with depression. This is a topic that so many avoid and are ashamed of despite the fact that almost every person will go through some sort of depression in their life. Felicia talks about it openly and I could feel the struggle as she described trying to do almost anything — even care for herself. For that reason alone you should read this book.

Vagabonding

Travel is alluring to so many, myself included. Many of us dream of experiencing other cultures and sitting in cafes in exotic places, chatting with a friend for hours, with no attachments. Vagabonding doesn’t quite shatter that dream, but puts it in a more realistic context.

It starts with the idea that your trip truly starts and is truly earned with the work you do up front to make it happen. Those extra hours at the office, the things you don’t purchase so you can save more. All that sacrifice makes the journey better.

After that, Vagabonding talks little about specifics of any particular geographical area and much about the general philosophy required to have a great trip wherever you go.

My only warning to those reading this and dreaming of travelling is that it may make being at work now even harder. You’ll read this and want to travel now, not wait. The book will prepare you and make the call stronger at the same time.

The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive, Book 1)

At the beginning of the month I finished The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson and that led me right into a second book by the same author (based on the recommendations at the end of my Kindle book).

The Way of Kings is another fantasy series with kings, and high princes, and war and slaves and mystical/magic powers. I actually found the book a bit confusing at first as it introduces us to a few soldiers just after a battle and then jumps us to the ‘present’ and an entirely new set of characters. It was only right near the end that I realized the soldiers introduced at the beginning were likely The Heralds spoken of throughout the book.

I found the characters engaging and the struggles real. I couldn’t put the book down at times, much to the chagrin of my children. I highly recommend this for lovers of medieval fantasy books. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Daily Rituals

What are the daily rituals of successful artists or writers or thinkers? I’m always interested in how others work, and how other people accomplish tasks. This book is right up my alley, and if you share the same interest, this is a book for you as well.

Daily Rituals reveals 161 routines of people you’ve likely heard of, like Franz Kafka or Bach. The thing that stuck out to me reading the book is how much leisure many of these creatives factored into their day. Now many of them may not have considered it leisure since they were out wrestling with their creative demons while walking the mountains, but really, so many of them spent copious amounts of time walking, or sitting in the pub drinking a pint, or sitting in a cafe sipping on coffee and observing the people around them.

It seems to me that we can learn something here.

Daily Rituals is very well researched and plain old entertaining, albeit light (as in none) on tips for applying the routines of others to your own life.

Still a recommended quick read in my opinion.

Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive, Book 2)

In this second installment in the Stormlight Archive we pick up directly where our first book left off. No time skipped, just straight into the former slaves trying to figure out how to be good King’s Guards.

The best part for me was watching Kaladin struggle with his hate of the ‘lighteyes’ (ruling class based on eye colour) as he is supposed to guard them and even sacrifice his life for them. Not just the ones he likes either, since he doesn’t particularly like the king, or think he’s a good king.

This struggle is what really brings the character alive for me, and as he works through it he becomes a better man.

I enjoyed the second installment of this series enough that I was sad when I realized that Book 3 hasn’t been released yet. Otherwise, I would have bought it right away.

That’s it for my August 2015 reading list. Stay tuned next month for my September update.

Using Marxico to work with Markdown in Evernote

In my quest to find a decent way to work with Markdown in Evernote, I’ve already looked at Alternote, which was…okay, but only just barely. Today I’m going to write about Marxico.

Marxico is a paid app/service that has a free 10-day trial. During those 10 days you get the full Marxico experience with no limitations; after 10 days you’re no longer able to sync notes. Meaning, it becomes totally useless after those 10 days.

Marxico is available as a Chrome Extension, and desktop clients for Windows and Mac. I admit to being a bit concerned about just downloading the desktop client from the developer’s Dropbox account. I’d much rather see this in the app store, though then the developer would likely have to give Apple its cut of the Pro purchase.

Writing Interface

The writing interface for Marxico is pretty nice. You have two view choices available — split view and markdown-only view. When you choose the markdown-only view you get a nicely-centered column of text that seems just about right to me for writing.

Marxico split view
Marxico split view

 

Distraction free Marxico
Distraction-free Marxico

 

The colours are dark (perfect for me) but if you want something light you can dig in and write plain old CSS in Marxico’s settings to get that. This is less than ideal for sure, since so many people who love Markdown will end up muddling through CSS. But the feature is there…barely.

For speed, the UI is awesome, even handling a huge note that makes Evernote lag lots. Marxico had no issues with typing lag or with rendering the markdown in five seconds or so from the time I typed. I wish Evernote could do this.

One nice feature that you don’t always see in split-pane Markdown editors is that the two halves of the view stay aligned when you scroll in either one. So when I’m proofing in the rendered view, I can just move to my left to edit the markdown I should be editing. Many others scroll independently, which means you end up searching for the markdown that goes with the text you’re currently proofing. This is terrible user experience and totally frustrating.

Editing in Evernote

Editing is where Marxico falls down — you can’t edit your notes made with Marxico in Evernote. When viewing a note in Evernote, you get a little red bookmark in the top right corner. To edit, you need to click on this bookmark — which is actually a web link — and you’ll be taken to Marxico.

This means that you can’t edit your notes made with Marxico on your other devices that don’t have Marxico, like perhaps your iPad or iPhone. This, for me, makes Marxico a total fail, though I sort of understand why they do it.

See, when Marxico stores your note in Evernote it stores two copies of the note. The first copy is the regular note that you see. The second copy is stored where you can’t see it and is a complete copy of the markdown you just wrote, without editing. This is great for Marxico because it doesn’t have to send your notes through some reverse processing system to get back to Markdown when you edit a note a second time. This process also lets Marxico support everything that Markdown (and LaTEX) does without worrying so much about Evernote.

Simply convert the Markdown to a rich HTML file in Evernote on each save, and sync the new note and the associated Markdown.

This ‘easy for Marxico’ means that one of the hallmark features of Evernote (everywhere editing your notes) is totally lost. Also, since you can’t sync notes not made in Marxico back into it, any note you create from your iPad/iPhone/Android device won’t go into Marxico unless you do the copy and paste routine, rendering the note unavailable in the platform where you first created it.

Note Sync

The biggest issue, and the reason I won’t be continuing to use Marxico, is how it syncs notes. I have a whole list of notes sitting in my writing notebook in Evernote that I simply can’t edit in Marxico because the notes didn’t originate there. I have been unable to find a way to pull in a complete notebook to Marxico, short of copying and pasting every note into the editor then saving it so it syncs back to Evernote.

Now, you can take a Marxico note and use a special ‘markdown like’ syntax to place it in a notebook of your choice. This even comes with autocomplete as you type so it’s at least functional. This notebook completion also works with both my personal accounts and my business accounts, meaning I can push a single note from one account/subscription to the other.

Marxico also deals with offline notes by just storing them locally until you can sync the note, which means that not having an Internet connection is no problem.

Overall

So overall, I really want to like Marxico. If it allowed me to edit my notes in Evernote and sync down entire notebooks of notes that didn’t originate in Marxico, I’d have no complaints and would have a new Markdown editor.

Unfortunately that’s not the case, so I’m still looking.

photo credit: songzhen cc

2 Big Issues with Evernote

Okay, I love Evernote. I use it daily and almost all my life ends up in Evernote in some form or another. But that doesn’t mean it’s all daisies and roses. There are some big annoyances with Evernote.

Writing lag

Even as I work on this article I’ve got two other articles sitting in the background. One is about 1,200 words, and about every 60 seconds it ‘beach balls’ on me as I type. I often get 20 words in while I wait for it to actually put them on the page.

Now this short article (about 150 words at this point as I type) is having no issues at all. I type away happily with Evernote keeping up. But it’s not uncommon for me to write 1,000-word articles, all of which get laggy at some point.

There are a bunch of ways you can correct this, like removing Evernote and deleting the local copy of the database, then installing it again and waiting for it to sync all your notes back to the machine — among other dark magic. But this takes a long time for someone with 6,000 notes like me, many of which are 30 mb or more in size. I can’t imagine how long it would take for someone with more notes than me, and I know there are lots of them out there.

If you need to create a bunch of long notes, then Evernote is going to be a pain in the ass.

I’ve tried things like Alternote, and while they are much faster they have many other issues, like crappy markdown storage in Evernote.

PDF Annotation…sucks

Yes, Evernote has annotation features but really it’s just Skitch annotation. That means you can draw on a PDF and ‘draw’ a yellow line over text you want to highlight on that PDF, but not actually select the text and highlight it like you would in an application like PDF Pen Pro.

For me that means opening the PDF in PDF Pen Pro, making my annotations/highlights, and then putting the new PDF with annotations back into Evernote.

On OS X this workflow isn’t terrible, but on iOS…ugh. Yes it works, but it’s less than ideal — actually it’s just a plain old pain in the ass. The PDF feature in Evernote feels more cursory, as if the developers added it simply to check off a box on a feature list, without really digging into what’s really needed to deal with PDFs.

At least when you save a PDF in OS X it automatically updates the version available in Evernote.

So what keeps me using Evernote? Well, it’s available on all platforms, and you can link between notes while you’re doing research just like a Wiki. The context feature is super awesome amazing and I love it.

Really, the biggest pain is the laggy UI on large notes. If that could be solved then I can live with the PDF thing.

photo credit: julochka cc

Exploring the Pocket Notebook

So, I’ve got a pocket notebook and I love it. I use it to write out a quick grocery list (often actually copied out of the shared list in Todoist). I use it to jot down quick thoughts that will end up in Evernote, Todoist, or — nowhere. I use it for a trip journal when I go hiking or on a canoe trip.

I use it daily so let’s talk about why.

Why not go with Evernote or Todoist or…?

The first question lots of people ask me is why don’t I use some electronic solution like Evernote or Todoist or…well anything that didn’t kill trees? My reason is pretty simple — all the electronic solutions just added more friction than the paper solution. I wrote a bit about this when I talked about my essential analogue tools.

Let’s review my steps for adding notes electronically:

  1. Pull iPhone out of pocket
  2. Unlock iPhone
  3. Open Evernote
  4. Wait a few seconds for Evernote
  5. Click the quick note widget/icon/thing
  6. Wait a few seconds for Evernote
  7. Tack out the note on a thumb keyboard

Compare that to the steps for a pocket notebook

  1. Get out pocket notebook
  2. Open pocket notebook
  3. Get out pen
  4. Write in pocket notebook

Now of course, the paper solution isn’t friction-free. The biggest drawback is that adding a paper notebook adds another ‘inbox’ to process every few days. However, I find that issue is easily offset by the benefits of just always having it with me.

Another big issue with digital options is entry of content in wet environments or even if you’ve got wet hands. Ever tried to unlock your iPhone after washing dishes? Not only does the Touch ID barely work, but the screen always seems to think I’m pressing some button other than the one I actually want it to register.

That increases my frustration as I try to get a thought down before a kid bugs me and I lose the thought.

Where will you be writing?

When choosing your notebook it’s important to think about where you will be writing. Are you regularly writing in a damp environment? If so, then a conventional paper notebook just won’t hold up to the abuse you’re going to put on it.

I regularly write with damp hands, or on canoe trips (where the whole notebook could end up in the water) so I need to choose a notebook from Rite in the Rain to ensure my notebook is always around for me. No switching notebooks when switching environments. Just a single type that’s right for my application.

Secondly, how are you going to carry it? I’ve found that many of the ‘pocket’ notebooks just barely fit in your pocket. I’ve even lost one or two riding my bike when they’ve slipped out of my back pocket.

Most standard ‘pocket’ notebooks are 3.5“ x 5.5”. My choice from Rite in the Rain comes in at 3 1/4“ X 4 5/8” which means it’s just a bit better fit in my pockets with sacrificing much in the way of size.

Bindings

The binding of your pocket notebook matters. While spiral bound books allow you to truly lay them flat, or fold the cover over to the back of the book, they also present the problem of the spirals folding/breaking.

The issue with spiral bindings was brought home to me this summer when my wife used a spiral-bound Rite in the Rain notebook and by the end of a five-day canoe trip, the spiral binding was damaged. I used my stapled notebook (already two weeks old) just as much as she did and mine suffered no further deterioration during the trip.

For that reason alone I don’t recommend a spiral notebook. I recommend you go with a stapled or stitched binding. In all the options I’ve tried I haven’t found that either of those two choices makes much of a difference.

What will you write with?

Finally, what are you going to write with? Yes, you can just use a standard pen/pencil all the time, though I always found that finding a spot to put a pen where I wasn’t worried about breaking it was problematic.

I ended up going with a Fisher Space Pen (Amazon.ca) which packs small and is tough enough that I’m not worried about it in my pockets at all. It also writes perfectly in water, dirt, upside down, and even in space if your travels take you there.

Now they aren’t particularly cheap, but there are other options with similar features and cost less, like the Tombow Airpress (Amazon.ca) or the Uniball Power Tank (Amazon.ca).

Whichever way you go, you need to find something that writes all the time and can be safely carried. There is no point in having a pocket notebook if you have nothing to write with when you need it.

Are you using a pocket notebook? If so what are you using it for? If not, why don’t you use it?

photo credit: pasukaru76 cc

Reviewing Alternote – Distraction-free markdown with Evernote?

A while ago I talked about how Evernote took over my life, and in that post I talked about Blogo which was pretty cool but had a few holes in it. I dropped Blogo and will cover my specific frustrations with it in a future post.

I actually stopped using Evernote for my writing workflow when I dropped Blogo. As much as I love Evernote it’s really not the ideal writing interface. It’s not terrible but programs like Scrivener or Byword have much better distraction-free writing modes. Byword actually supports Markdown which is a feature not available in either Scrivener or Evernote.

But really, it’s the distraction-free writing that I truly value in a writing app.

However, after a few months of using Scrivener for all my blogging, I realized I really missed the context feature in Evernote. When I used Evernote, I could easily access articles — ones I had saved during research — that were related to the post I was writing.

So I went on a search to see if there were any new tools I could be using to write with, that included the features I used the most. Here were my wants/requirements for those tools.

  1. Markdown support
  2. Distraction-free writing
  3. Evernote backend

With these 3 things supported, that would mean I could write in the app in Markdown, and then check back with the article in Evernote from time to time to see if I had saved any related material.

My first stop in this search has been Alternote.

Alternote Setup

Setting up Alternote is a pretty simple process. Purchase it from the Mac App Store ($6.99) and then open it. Alternote will ask you to sign in to Evernote, then prompt you to choose which notebooks you’d like it to sync with.

I was starting with a very short list of notes in my writing notebooks since most of my writing has been moved to Scrivener. As a test, I synced one of my notebooks with lots of notes of various types (e.g., web pages and audio) and Alternote pulled them all down in 30 seconds or so.

So the backend on Evernote is a go.

Distraction-free

To enter the distraction-free writing mode in Alternote, you use the key commands ⇧⌘D and the note you’re working on will take the full width of the window in Alternote.

Distraction free writing in Alternote
Distraction free writing in Alternote

It’s a pretty interface as it sits, but I found the font size to be small. Changing that is a simple matter of clicking the ‘A’ in the top right corner and increasing the font size, or changing the font or the line height.

Font options in Alternote
Font options in Alternote

You even have the option of night mode if you prefer to write in a dark environment.

Alternote night mode
Alternote night mode

So that box is checked — I have a workable distraction-free writing zone.

Markdown support

Hmmm…well, you can put in Markdown so technically, it does support Markdown, but it really doesn’t do anything awesome with it. Using the standard * character for italics, or double * for bold, simply renders the text as you see it — unlike Byword, which bolds the text so you can see that it’s actually bold.

In fact, if you bold the first word in a paragraph, Alternote assumes the first * is a bullet and starts making a list for you.

Alternote does better with lists, supporting them as expected, but falls down again with block quotes. Where Byword or other markdown editors show you an indented paragraph, Alternote just shows you what you’d expect out of any text editor that didn’t support Markdown.

Headings work as expected, from H1 – H6 getting progressively smaller, but  there’s no formatting at all for links, which is a minus.

Probably the biggest knock against Alternote’s markdown support is how it actually stores the data. Headings are actually converted to rich text, so that in Evernote you do indeed see the heading as a big bold heading, but it’s not Markdown.

Alternote 'markdown' on the left and Evernote on the right
Alternote ‘markdown’ on the left and Evernote on the right

For me, this is a terrible option since it defeats the whole purpose of Markdown in having a plain text file, with some basic markup that should be able to be edited anywhere. When I go to post this Evernote rich text file on my site, I’ve got to dig back through all the headings and reformat them so they actually come out as the heading I expect and not just some text.

That’s a super waste of my time, and for that reason alone I won’t be using Alternote, which is really disappointing since it’s so awesome in other ways.

What I’d love to see is Alternote format Markdown so I get some feedback on what the text actually is (like Byword does), and then store just plain Markdown in Evernote so that I have a plain text file to work with in the long term.

The choice they’ve made here seems the worst option for supporting Markdown. Minimal support for it, and then we store a proprietary file anyway, so you don’t get any of the real benefits.

Do you know of a distraction-free app that supports Markdown, with an Evernote backend?

July 2015 Reading

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Get Me and Earl and the Dying Girl on Amazon.com
Get Me and Earl and the Dying Girl on Amazon.ca

I got this book because the movie looked interesting and I generally like to read the book before I see a movie.

That said, I hope the movie is better than the book. Now the book wasn’t terrible; it’s just that the main character (Greg Gaines) is pretty whiny and self-deprecating, which I find annoying.

The book is about a boy who really doesn’t have any friends and really doesn’t have any purpose. His mom makes him hang out with a girl who has cancer, and through that he eventually finds a purpose.

After she dies.

All through the middle we sit through Greg’s whiny musings on how life works. He goes on about everything from girls to school to…friends. Not that he has any friends — even Earl isn’t really a friend since Greg never actually shares anything real with Earl. They just make films together.

My hope for the movie is that Greg doesn’t spend 60% of his time talking, telling us how much he sucks. If he does (like he does in the book) then it’s going to be a boring movie.

I’m not sure if you should read this or not and I really haven’t been able to think of a way to help you decide. You’re just on your own.

Making It Right: Product Management For A Startup World

Get Making it Right on Amazon.com
Get Making it Right on Amazon.ca

What does it take to get a product right? Not only when you’re the sole developer/designer/mind behind it, but when you’ve been hired to manage it, or you need to hire someone to manage the product because it’s too great a task for one person alone.

What if you have many products and need to have them all run well?

That’s where a product manager comes into play, and this book is all about what it takes to be a good product manager.

It starts by walking us through the personality traits and demeanour that a good product manager should possess. Of course not everyone is well suited to the position (just as not anyone can be everything) so this start is a great way to help you establish what it’s going to take to find a good product manager.

The second section is all about what it takes to build a good product plan, from wireframes to when you get developers involved (hint: the same time as the designers and UX people), to how you build a roadmap and balance all the competing voices as you decide on feature priority.

The third section walks you through how to execute that roadmap by being productive. One of my favourite parts here is the stance on meetings which, according to the author, should not just be to update someone down the chain. Updates are what Wiki’s, blogs, or project management systems are for.

The book finishes off with a roadmap of what you should be doing for the first 90 days as you start a product management position. It breaks this up in to 3 blocks of 30 days each, and gives you the tools to hit the ground running as you start that new position.

In short, this is a great book for anyone working on a product even if you’re not the product manager. At least after reading it, you’ll know how things should be running.

Paper Towns

Get Paper Towns on Amazon.com
Get Paper Towns on Amazon.ca

I grabbed this one on my way down to Mexico. It’s in the same genre (Teen/YA) as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl but this one I really enjoyed. Here’s a quick synopsis from Publisher’s Weekly:

Weeks before graduating from their Orlando-area high school, Quentin Jacobsen’s childhood best friend, Margo, reappears in his life, specifically at his window, commanding him to take her on an all-night, score-settling spree.

I found Margo’s clues in the story to be intriguing and fun. It would have been very interesting to have a person like that around during my high school years instead of the normal crop of generic stereotypes that most of us actually experience.

But at that, the book really came down to (at least for me) learning to see people for who they really are. Margo wasn’t quite the outlandish person that everyone thought. At her core she was much less sure of herself, much as we all are.

Overall the characters had enough depth to be believable and it didn’t feel like a chore to watch them fumble with the clues Margo left. The end was both climactic and not, which was just right. I’ll leave you to read and figure out how it was both.

Song of Susannah

Get Song of Susannah on Amazon.com
Get Song of Susannah on Amazon.ca

Song of Susannah is Book 6 of the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Out of the whole series, this is my least favourite book. It feels like little really gets resolved. We start with Susannah being apart from everyone and that’s about where we end, though we lose a character that has just made an appliance.

It also feels self indulgent as we see the author become a major part of what holds the world together. He’s a beam, it would seem, and now needs to be protected.

The story has its interesting parts as well, as we see some shootouts and get to find out what ‘low men’ actually are. We learn more about the difference between some doors between worlds and get a glimpse at how the rose is saved.

If this was the introduction to the series I don’t think I would end up reading the series. Sitting here a few books from the end it’s decent enough to keep me reading the rest, and I know the end books are great reads.

The Dark Tower

Get The Dark Tower on Amazon.com
Get The Dark Tower on Amazon.ca

This is the final book in the series (though there are a few short stories that explore more of Roland’s past). It’s a bit bitter as we see Roland get to the tower. He ends up without any of his long-term traveling companions, and while death travels with Roland almost everywhere, it may not find everyone that’s around him.

After such a long series this last installment feels ‘short’. It’s not really any shorter than previous books but the fondness you develop for the characters makes it hard to say goodbye, leaving you wanting to hear more and more about them.

It’s this personal wishing that makes me desire the quest for the Dark Tower to never end so I can keep reading about the issues that befall Roland.

As I’ve said after every review, it’s a great series I think you should read. This is at least my third time going through the whole thing.

That’s it for my July reading list. Let me know if you’ve read anything good this summer, and stay tuned for my August list in a few weeks.

May Reading

May was another month with only one book read, which is more typical for the summer, when I go riding at night or take the kids to the lake. That means all the house cleanup has to happen after we get the kids to bed, which means less time devoted to reading.

Growing a Business

Get Growing a Business on Amazon.

This is an ‘older’ book which isn’t even available in a digital format. At the time I ordered this book, I was on a book-ordering spree, and didn’t actually even notice I hadn’t purchased an ebook until the paperback arrived from Amazon.

Unfortunately, physical books often end up sitting on my shelf, unread, due to the fact I can’t carry them everywhere with me as easily as I can a Kindle book. I already carry lots of stuff while bike commuting to my office, so physical books typically get left behind.

However, this book was one of the ones that made it off the bookshelf. I started reading it every morning before I started my work for the day, and I am so happy I did. The insights I found within are awesome.

Author Paul Hawken has started a number of businesses in his life. Everything from whole/organic food stores to mail order garden tools and supplies. He’s also invested in a number of other successful companies and served as an advisor to them. He has a very unique, down-to-earth perspective on running and growing a business.

But rarely do we really hear what happens inside business. The whopping success stories are glorified, the failures are dissected or shunned. The rest is silence. Our demand for heroes and goats obscures the truth.

One of my key takeaways from this book was this: Contrary to our current tech bubble, Hawken advises that simple money doesn’t solve problems — it only allows unprofitable companies to continue to lose money and become a bigger problem. He’s not opposed to taking investment, but it’s not the magic pill many people think it is. Execution of a good idea by the right team is really what’s key.

Growing a Business is on my list of books to read again because I’ll be ready for new bits of Hawken’s awesome advice.