Month: September 2020

Look at the Engine, not the Color of the Car

I wanted to write to you about note taking apps, I had a whole plan to go over the different apps and what issues I had with them. I thought is was going to be a great post to share with you all. By the time I got it halfway written though I realized that the common denominator wasn’t a missing feature lack of Markdown support or the inability to export notes properly. No, the problem with me not finding a good note taking app was me.

Maybe this has happened to you too. You search for a great note taking app–or task manager, etc.–where there’s so much saturation in the app market that you basically have infinite choices. So, you start downloading the usual suspects. For notes it’s usually Bear, Evernote, Apple Notes, OneNote, Agenda, GoodNotes, Notability, and I am sure there are some that I missed but that’s my whole point. You download a boat load of apps in the hopes that you find one that instantly “clicks” with you.

As someone that has used all of the apps listed above, I still went ahead and downloaded them all again to try them out in hopes that I will magically love an app I previously didn’t.

I went ahead and fired them all up and within the first few minutes using them I remembered why these apps “weren’t a good fit for me.” It was like I was looking for a used car, nit-picking every small ding and scratch having higher expectations than what reality can afford me. One by one I gave it a thumbs down a la Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator.

I was left without a note taking app once again. Naturally, I was frustrated that there wasn’t an app developer that thought just like me about notes. That was when I realized that I truly didn’t know what I wanted in regards to note taking. I don’t have a trusted system in place to save my notes, I don’t have a strong philosophy about what is or isn’t good note taking hygiene. Frankly, I only thought about the note taking app and not the system. To continue the used car metaphor, I only cared about the color of the car, not the engine.

The best advice I have gotten regarding how to find a trusted system is to start with as minimal as you can until you start hitting walls. Once that happens start looking for more robust solutions. With that in mind, I will be using the Apple Notes app for now in hopes that it will give me an idea of how I want my note taking system to be, and if I decide to go elsewhere I can do so without much friction. Bear, Evernote, and a slew of other apps that are candidates for me have tools to import Apple Notes in without issue.

I don’t have a timeline set for myself for when I will have my system in place, but I hope with this approach whatever I decide will stick more than what I have been doing previously.

If you are in the same boat as I was, searching for the perfect app that meets your needs, maybe stop looking at the color of the car and start looking at the engine. Lift up the hood and really figure out is it is the app that is the problem or your system.

One thing I didn’t mention in this article was email apps, and for good reason. Shawn Blanc and The Sweet Setup have created an awesome course on handling your inboxes. It’s called Calm Inbox.

Email is a primary example in the course but I took what was taught in that course and have been using it for all of my inboxes. Things like email, RSS feeds, News, and more have all been maintained since I got an early preview of the course. If you are interested, I highly recommend checking out Calm Inbox and see if it is a match for you.

Going Offline Has Made Me Better

Lately I have found myself gravitating to tools that don’t offer any kind of internet access whatsoever. As some say, I have been using items “off the grid.”

Before I get into the what let me get into the why. As someone that has managed to write on a MacBook, iPad, iPhone, and other devices with access to the web, I have found it to be consistently distracting. When I have a thought to look something up, or check on an app’s features, I stop the writing flow before it even starts. Also, my task manager has become a bucket filled with things I want or need to do but no semblance of organization. Sure I have shortcuts to add items to Things 3, but I am not making it a priority to use that app to help me get things done. I am not opening it much, nor am I organizing the thoughts and tasks in there. I am effectively filing things away and never looking at them again until it has either been finished or hasn’t been done at all.

So, to fix this I decided to use a Bullet Journal and an AlphaSmart Neo 2.

Bullet Journal

As I mentioned in a previous post I have been without a task management system. After listening to the latest episode of Focused all about the Bullet Journal, I thought it might be worth a shot. I grabbed an old notebook I had in my office and started to set up a new BuJo. After starting out using this notebook I noticed the “intentional friction” with this system and it was something I hadn’t had in my other task managers. I would have hundreds of tasks in my digital task managers over time, clogging up the system and making it nearly impossible to decide what is important to work on and what isn’t. I was paralyzed by the amount of choices I had. With Bullet Journal you can add as many tasks as you want, but there is no copy and paste, no automation, and no services connected to the Bullet Journal adding things to my to do list automatically. If there was a task or an idea I had, the only way to get it in this system is with good ol’ old-fashioned pen and paper.

Here’s a quote from the book The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, creator of the Bullet Journal, that clicked with me:

In 2016 the average American spent nearly eleven hours in front of digital screens each day. Factoring in six to eight hours of sleep (which is also compromised by our smart phones), we’re left with around six hours of non-screen time per day. Now consider the time you spend commuting, cooking, and running errands, and you can see where this is headed: We’re steadily decreasing the amount of time we have to stop and think.

Doing some quick math I average about an hour of free time that doesn’t have screen time in it. My commute is another 2 hours, but I don’t count that because I don’t have a choice in that matter. But my work a free time is almost entirely comprised of screen time, taking up my mental storage and “mental RAM” almost entirely.

As someone that has a full time job watching local TV programming and directing the local nightly news, I am inundated with screen time. It has gotten to the point now where I need to have the anti-blue lens on my prescription glasses to slow the deterioration to my eyes. Reading that quote made me really consider the time I spend in front of a screen, and has made me double down on using a Bullet Journal just to give my mind and my eyes a break.

One thing that I really enjoy about Ryder is that he isn’t just here to tell you how to use the system, but to also share with you insights and information about productivity and task management in general. Honestly, even if you aren’t interested in Bullet Journaling his book can still be of value to people interested in this kind of stuff.

Making pen and paper my main task manager has also allowed me to think beyond the things I need to get done and make decisions about the things I am doing. I am critically thinking about whether or not something on my task list deserves my time and attention or if it is something that I should just remove from my life entirely.

I plan to share more as I continue to use the Bullet Journal methodology and if I find any cool tips or tricks with it I will pass it along.

For those of you that aren’t interested in using a physical journal but are interested in this system, I suggest checking out the app NotePlan. It is a fantastic digital Bullet Journaling app. I have been on the beta for version 3 and it has some very cool features BuJo enthusiasts will enjoy. I don’t want to speak on the new version just yet, but once it is released to the public expect a full review of it here on Tablet Habit.

The AlphaSmart Neo 2

Along with the Bullet Journal, I have been writing with a product that was made in 2013 and has nothing but small LCD screen, and a standard keyboard. The AlphaSmart Neo 2 is a word processor that was meant to be used for typing classes in schools created by former Apple employees. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Stephen Hackett’s video on the Neo 2, it is a fantastic introduction to the product that I can’t compete with. For me, this product is basically a digital typewriter. In fact, the reason I bought this product (again) was because I was seriously considering buying an actual typewriter but quickly decided against it once I looked at the price of one in good working condition online. To add to that, there is no ink or maintenance needed to make sure this machine is working properly, where a typewriter can be expensive to continue to use over time.

I have written the last several newsletters, including this one, with the Neo 2 because I have found that the iPad, even when in Do Not Disturb mode, I can’t focus. I catch myself looking online for information, checking RSS and Twitter feeds for the latest news, and other things that isn’t writing frequently. It took me over an hour to write a first draft for my newsletter before the Neo 2 because I couldn’t focus on the task at hand. There were too many possibilities and open trails to be explored. No matter how much I tried, when it came to putting my head down and writing, the iPad always seemed to offer other things for me to do.

Before you write in, yes I am aware of Airplane Mode, but even when I would turn it on I would simply disable it to quickly look something up and that would begin my descent into a rabbit hole.

With the Neo 2 those things that I would waste time on the iPad with aren’t available. There is no internet, no videos, no podcasts, and nothing else I can focus on. There is simply a keyboard with a blinking line awaiting for my writing to appear.

I used to see that blank page as something daunting, frightening even, but now with the Neo 2 I know that there is nothing I can do except fill that void with my words. I am much more excited to write with the Neo 2 than I have been on the iPad lately. It seems less of chore and more of an experience. This could be because it is a new thing for me to use, but I also consider the fact that when I wrote on the iPad it took significantly more time.

This may be a simple keyboard with a cheap screen but it allows me to turn off the distraction in my brain and just write what is in my head. The words pour out of me as opposed to the light trickle it was when I was writing on a device that had access to the entire world in just a few clicks.


I plan to still write about the iPad, don’t get me wrong. That being said, I think that the way I will be writing about it won’t be on an iPad initially but instead will be on this “digital typewriter” for the time being.

As for the Bullet Journal, I plan to finish reading The Bullet Journal Method and write a review of it. I also will be sharing some of the things I am doing to make the BuJo experience more catered to me, including digital tools I have used.

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