Hey, Control, and the Importance of a Good UI

One of the things I see a lot in comments about my videos/articles ab out Hey is something like “can’t you do this by blocking people in Gmail?” or “can’t you just control who gets in with Sanebox?”

I think that depending on what you like about Hey, then maybe you could do this in one of those services, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’ve allowed probably 95% of people sending me emails in through Hey’s “screener” feature. I’m not using Hey to block things from getting to me at all. It is nice to be able to know when someone is messaging me for the first time and decide right up front if I want to let them in, but most of the time I let them in, so what’s the value?

The value all comes down to the user interface for how Hey handles those emails once I let them into my system.

Most emails I get are mildly important, so they get put into The Feed, which is displayed outside of the inbox and abbreviates emails so they look more like a Twitter timeline than a list of emails I need to cycle through. I used to check the feed many times per day, but now I check it maybe once per day, and often a couple days will go by before I scroll through and see what’s there. It’s really nice.

Because most things get put into the feed, that means only emails I am excited to get are in the inbox. I sometimes get s single email in there over the course of a day, and that’s something completely foreign tome previously, but it’s a great feeling.

The other things that really stick out to me are the “set aside” and “reply later” queues I can dump emails into. The “set aside” queue is for emails I want to read, but don’t have the time to do so now. I often put newsletters or business emails I need to read, but don’t really need to act on. “Reply later” is for, I’m sure you already guessed it, emails that I need to reply to, but don’t want to do so now. Having separate queues for different actions I need to take is really helpful for me, and it’s much better than just leaving things in my inbox where they tend to sit for too long. And again, this is all about UI, so the way Hey does this works really well for me in ways that a label in Gmail just wasn’t as slick.

Anyway, I know you’re probably over articles about Hey at this point, but I wanted to clarify the use of the service. The marketing around Hey involved statements like “would you pay to get less email?” and while that is true, I don’t think the draw of the service is only in how easy it makes it to block people from sending you emails: it’s about building a UI that lets you have control over the emails you do let in.

Introducing YarnBuddy

Introducing YarnBuddy

Becky Hansmeyer:

YarnBuddy is a project tracker and a row counter. That means its primary job is to help you keep track of all the knitting or crochet projects you’re working on (or have worked on in the past) as well as where exactly you left off on each one. Its secondary job is to help you keep an inventory of all the yarn you’ve acquired (there’s always so. much. yarn. 😅).

I don't knit of crochet, so this app isn't made for me, but it looks really nice, so I had to share it in case you fall directly in that target market. This app looks great!

Hey: Feature Requests and Improvements I’d Love to See

I’m also sending a version of this to their support team directly, but I'd love to hear if this lines up with what other people are thinking about the hot new controversial email service, Hey.

  1. The iPad app needs to get keyboard shortcuts to gain parity with the web app (ironically, the iPad app appears to use some web components, so sometimes you’ll see the shortcut letters appear on buttons, but you can’t use them).
  2. The iPhone and Android apps need gestures to move between the Imbox, Feed, and Paper Trail. At the very least, they may want to consider a navigation bar at the bottom. I know they want to make the Imbox the primary location you spend time, but it’s two taps to get anywhere else, which seems unnecessary.
  3. Also, moving a single email to another location (like a receipt to your Paper Trail) means hitting “More”, then “Move”, and then “Paper Trail” buttons.
  4. The Feed needs to do a better job of telling me when there's something new in it. I may not want to see this stuff in my inbox, but I would like to know when I should look at it at all.
  5. The Feed also needs to somehow differentiate messages I've seen before and those that are new. Right now I don't walkways know how much I've seen before so I'm scrolling by some messages a few times. I'm seeing these emails more than I would have if I saw them once and archived them, which is not the goal of this feed.
  6. I buy things from some stores regularly, which means I get receipts and marketing emails from them. I’d like to have their near-daily messages go the The Feed, but the receipts would be better in one of the other areas. I’d like it if Feed items that looked like receipts were automatically thrown in my Imbox instead so I could make sure I see them.
  7. Finally on The Feed, is like to have anything I've seen and is more than 24 hours old disappear from the feed by default. Let me expand to see more if I want, but this would help trim this page down.
  8. The Paper Trail is cool, but I would love to see them do more to make this more powerful than a label like you'd add in Gmail. I'd love to see this page to have a dollar amount added to it, either by automatically crawling the messages to find the total, or allowing the user to manually enter the amount. Turning this into more of a transaction history than a list of emails would be awesome.
  9. Also on the Paper Trail, while I may not want to see those right next to my inboxed emails, I would like to more obviously see when a new one comes in. Maybe this is an indicator on the Imbox page or something, but this should be easier to see without a dedicated visit to the Paper Trail page.

That’s it for now, although I’m sure there will be more things that come up as I keep using it. Frankly, I’m coming around on the service the more I use it. It definitely feels like it has a lot of room to grow, but that’s good: Basecamp seems committed to making this thing work, and I know their product people care about making great software, so I hope to see at least some of these features added in time.

Update: Sent via official channels 😁

The Case for Using Third Party Apps

This pairs well with the companion piece, The Value of Using Stock Apps.

Your iPhone comes with a collection of perfectly capable apps for things like task reminders, maps, and notes, so why not use them? They’re free, after all! But I use very few of them, and below I’ll try to explain what the benefits are, as well as what apps I’m using in place of the stock apps (it’s a long list…).

1. Data portability

If I choose to use Apple Reminders for my task tracking, then I’m limiting myself to (a) only using Apple devices, and (b) only using Apple devices that are logged into my Apple ID. Oh, and if Apple does something tomorrow that makes me no longer want to support them, I can’t move to Android or Windows because there is no real option to use Reminders there.

And would you like to export those reminders or those notes to a new service? No such luck, you either manually move them over or you just throw them out and start over. that may be fine if you don’t use them too much, but if you’re a major Notes user, you may not take so kindly to losing everything. It’s not always as simple as “click-and-move” to other services, but often there are tools to move between the major apps.

2. Multi-platform

I mentioned this above, but it warrants its own point. If I’m all in on Apple platforms and use my Apple ID on all of them, then stock apps can be good, but if you venture even an inch out of line then it all falls apart.

As a basic example, I use Things for task management. This is an iOS/Mac-only app, but I use it on my personal devices and my work Mac and they stay perfectly in sync. My work Mac is signed into my work iCloud account, so there is no way for my to sync Reminders from my personal iPhone to my work Mac. For some this is fine, but for me this is a deal-breaker.

Similarly, I have a Windows PC at home (as do a large majority of iPhone users), so having apps that let me work on things on my iPhone and then pick them up seamlessly on my computer are wonderful!

3. New features faster

I mentioned in the other article that getting system features is more reliably going to happen in stock apps, but these features come to the better third party apps pretty damn quickly. Not only that, if an app I use doesn’t have a feature I want, then I can contact the devs and they may add it in a minor update soon. If it’s something I want a stock app to do, I really need to wait for next year’s iOS update to get anything meaningful.

Also, Apple’s stock apps are more conservative with adding new features that the market as a whole finds important. I may wait years to get Apple Mail to do something (see snoozing emails) that every other app in existence has agreed is useful for years. Clip sharing in Castro and Overcast is a dealbreaker for me with podcast apps right now. How long do we think until Apple adopts this in Podcasts?

4. Flexibility

If Apple does something with Podcasts that I don’t like, then I can move to Castro. If Castro updates and changes something I don’t like, I can move to Overcast. Looking at RSS, I can use a back end syncing service and then use whatever app front end I want with it. If Reeder starts to suck, well then I can install Unread, log in with my Inoreader account, and boom, I’m up and running with my same feeds in no time.

I also don’t have to value the same things as Apple in what apps I choose to use. If Reminders doesn’t work with my mental model for task management, then I can choose from the several apps out there that line up for me.

5. It’s Fun

Let’s be totally frank about it, finding new apps that help you do new things is tons of fun! Now, I’m not saying you should change out your apps ever few weeks or anything, but the beauty of the app market is that companies are working hard to outdo each other and make better experiences for all of us. Apple is great at a lot of things, but they’re just not the best at everything, and they’re rarely the most innovative options on the market.

Some Third Party Apps I Use Over the Stock Options

  • Darkroom/Affinity Photo/Lightroom over Photos editing because I want more power than Photos allows me. Lightroom is also cross-platform so I can shoot on one device and edit elsewhere.
  • Spark over Mail because I want to snooze emails and Mail has major issues in syncing and sending timely notifications. I also archive most emails, and Spark makes it quicker to swipe them away.
  • Reeder over Apple News for RSS because Apple News up and killed the ability to even add RSS feeds in the first place (and it was never good for non-Apple News content, anyway).
  • Nike Run Club over Workouts for running because I like the mid-workout audio updates and again, an online sync that works on non-Apple devices.
  • Things over Reminders because Reminders is straight up not built for my needs. Not even close…
  • Castro over Podcasts because I want to share clips, want better speed controls, far prefer the UI, and want to be able to share clips on social media.
  • Audible over Books because the prices are better and the library is more expansive.
  • LumaFusion over iMovie because iMovie is not even close to powerful enough to do what I need with videos.
  • Ferrite over Garageband because, again, I need more than Garageband offers, and Ferrite’s Apple Pencil support is amazing.
  • Dark Sky over Weather because I like to see a radar, so I hope this acquisition means the stock app will gain a radar before the third party app stops working.
  • Pocket over Reading List because I want to save from all devices, I want things reliably made available offline, I don’t use Safari on the desktop, and it’s hooked up to Zapier for Birch Bark newsletter reasons.
  • Fantastical over Calendar because I prefer the UI.
  • Sleep Cycle over…uh, Bedtime, I guess because I like the smart alarm system.

The Value of Using Stock Apps

The Value of Using Stock Apps

This is part 1 of a two part series. Read the followup on the value of third party apps here.

I was chatting with Andy Nicolaides recently about task managers (as you do), and he was telling me how he tried using Things again after my recent article about how I use the app, and he said it didn’t work for him and he’d gone back to using Reminders. He also mentioned how he sometimes feels like his preference for using stock apps for as much as possible might be keeping him from enjoying some great third party apps. As someone who tends to prefer third party apps, Andy and I are approaching things from completely different angles.

That said, there are some definite advantages to using stock apps and I wanted to give those reasons a quick shout out here.

1. Here today, here tomorrow

How many photo library managers can you think of that have come and gone since iCloud Photo Library launched in 2015? How many task managers have either disappeared or languished since Reminders launched in 2011? How many mail services have disappeared since Apple Mail came out in 2007?

The advantage of using stocks apps (on iOS, at least) is that they generally have a longer life than third party options. There are things like OmniFocus that were around before Reminders and are still going strong, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

2. Predictable business models

This one doesn’t bother me as much as it does some, but the nice thing about something like Apple Notes is that you know it’s going to be free forever. You know iCloud Photo Library is going to cost you however much storage you need to save your photos.

The odds of Notes switching to a subscription model next year is basically zero. Also, if you start using it today, it’s not like Apple is going to release Notes 2.0 in a few months and you’ll need to pay again to get the updates.

Apple and third party devs have different business models, and each makes sense for each party, but from a straight up consumer basis, the one that is more likely to stay the same for longer is more appealing.

3. It’s just plain cheaper

Say what you will about the benefits of those other apps, but there’s no getting around the fact that since the cost of developing Apple Notes is absorbed by the income Apple gets from hardware sales, Notes is able to be free to the end user. You really need to get something significant out of the paid options to make them worth your while.

4. Keeping up with new OS features

Did your photo manager, email client, task manager, note taker, web browser, camera app, music player, news reader, podcast player, calendar, calculator, and messaging app have dark mode enabled on the day iOS 13 launched last year? If you used all stock apps, the answer is yes! If you used third party apps, then the answer is likely no, not all of them.

Or look at Google Docs/Sheets, which Connected has turned into a meme in asking each week whether it has added a fundamental feature that iOS enables (split view before, multi-window now). Months and months go by and then they finally add it, usually around the time the next version of iOS is in beta and has something else they won’t get to for a year. If you used Pages or Numbers, they supported those almost from day one.

5. Predictable Privacy

Is your email app selling your email data to advertisers? Do you trust putting personal information in your notes app? What if those apps are acquired by a company you don't trust tomorrow?

By buying into the Apple ecosystem, you probably trust Apple more than most companies. Again, their business model is selling you hardware and some premium services, not selling your data for profit. Lots of third parties are excellent here too, but you really have to check for each one if you want to be sure.

Takeaway

Look, my iPhone and iPad home screens are full of third party apps. For me, the benefits they allow (especially having web interfaces and working cross-platform) provide me value, but there is definitely a strong case to be made that it’s safest and cheapest to use stock apps unless you have a good reason not to do so.

How I Use Things 3 To Organize My Life

How I Use Things 3 To Organize My Life

Intro

First things first, I am a strong believe in the idea of “offloading your brain” into a task management system. This means everything I need to do in the future, and I do mean everything, gets logged as a task in my task manager. I find this frees up space in my brain to not think about what I have to do at any given time, I can just refer to my system and do what it says.

Some people like to set higher level tasks and have like 2-3 todo items per day, and that’s a valid system too, but it doesn’t work for me. I typically have 15-30 tasks to complete each work day. For reasons I’ll get to soon, Things has some features that make this very easy to manage.

The Inbox

The inbox always baffled me, but last year I finally read David Allen’s Getting Things Done and it clicked for me. I add things to the inbox when they come up and then I have a recurring task set up to triage my inbox every day. Sometimes I’ll often triage throughout the day, but there is a repeating task at 7:30am each day to make sure that everything is out of my inbox and somewhere else.

I also value being able to add to the inbox easily. Since I add so much, it needs to be simple and quick.

It’s very quick on the iPhone and iPad, and the Mac’s Ctrl+Space shortcut is hugely useful. The Mac app even has another command (Ctrl+Opt+Space) that does the same thing, but pulls in the website you’re currently looking at in your browser, which is really nice for saving tasks with linked web pages.

After the Inbox (Areas and Projects)

After a task is put in the inbox, it needs a few things to escape. First of which is an “area” (I think OmniFocus calls these “Contexts” but they’re the same thing). An “area” is where a task falls in my life. I have 5 set up now:

  1. Morning (things I need to do before the rest of the day)
  2. Home (things around the house or just things I need to do for me/family/friends)
  3. Work (all the stuff I do for my employer)
  4. BirchTree (blog post ideas, podcast schedules, YouTube posting steps, etc.)
  5. Freelance (any work I’m doing on the side)

Every single thing I want to do falls into one of those areas, and if I ever make a task that needs something else, then I’ll simply make a new area.

Projects are sub-categories of areas. So for example, “Release Notes” is a project under my Work area, “Shopping List” is a project under my Home area, and “Birch Bark” is a project under my BirchTree area. These can either be finite projects that will come and go, or they can be ongoing things that will never end.

All tasks get assigned an area, but not all tasks get assigned a specific project. For example, I have a task on my list today to clean up the shoes by our back door. I could theoretically have a project for “Chores” or something, but I just assign it to the Home area and consider that good enough.

Oh, and as a rule I give all projects an emoji to help pick them out of a list quicker. You don't have to do this, but it helps me a ton.

Due Dates

I assign due dates to almost everything. I tend to live my day-to-day in the “Today” view of the app, which predictably shows me what I have to do today. Due dates mean that I see what I need to do on specific days whenever that date hits (duh).

One thing I really like about Things over OmniFocus, which I used before this, is that I can assign tasks a due date without a time associated with it. I have a task today for work called “Give feedback for test mode ticket” which I need to do today, but it doesn’t really matter if I do it at 8am or 9pm. The dev is going to work on the changes tomorrow, so as long as it’s today, then I’m all good. An alert that goes off at a random time today is not useful here.

Of course there are also tasks I do that are time-sensitive, and those get timed alerts. I have a task where I keep my daily standup notes and that alerts me at 10am each day, right when the standup starts.

And then there are things without dates. These tend to be lower priority things that I want to do someday, but there’s no rush right now to get them done. For example, I have a task to replace the spare tire in my car. This is not something I need to do right now, but I don’t want to forget about it, so it lives in my “Home” area and I’ll set a date for it down the road (more on this in the “weekly review” section below).

Weekly Review

I used to balk at this idea of a weekly review. “I don’t have time for that!” I would think. But I’ve figure out a way to do it that is quick (less than 5 minutes most times) that helps me make sure I understand what I’ve done, what I have coming up, and if there’s anything I’ve missed.

This is of course a recurring task at 3pm on Fridays, right before I pack it up for the weekend.

  1. First, I go through the “Logbook” section of Things, which is a log of all the tasks I’ve marked complete. I don’t get much out of this 15 second activity other than satisfaction at seeing how much I was able to accomplish this week. Sometimes it’s a quick dopamine hit to see a few important tasks marked as done.
  2. Second, I look at what I have upcoming in the “Upcoming” tab. This shows what I have next week, and this lets me get some info in the back of my mind so I’m not surprised at something when I come in next week.
  3. Third, I click through each area and project and see if there are tasks that do not have due dates that really could use a due date. I set those and move on.
  4. Finally, take a second and look at my projects and brainstorm anything I haven’t logged yet that needs to get done. If I need to send an email on Monday, I make a task. If I’m all good, then I wrap up.

Again, this whole process takes a couple minutes most weeks. It's just meant to be another task that takes a lot of time, it's just something to take stock quickly on what I've done and what's next.

Recurring Tasks

Things gets a lot of grief for how it does recurring tasks, but it's method works for me. The recurring logic is pretty powerful, and I have some tasks repeating every weekday, every week, and every month.

One thing I really like is that I can have notes automatically added to recurring tasks, like my daily standup task:

This appears everyday for me, and everyday I enter a list of things I want to talk about at the standup, and when I mark it complete, that note stays forever in the logbook, but tomorrow's task still only has the "1. " to start the new list. Notes edited on the day a task is due are only applied to that version of the task, and changes made to the recurring task before it's due are saved for all occurances afterwards. Not sure I'm explaining this well, but it works great for me, and is unlike how I've seen other apps handle notes of recurring tasks.

Organization

Here's my view of work tasks today:

I've masked a good portion of it, but you can still see the structure. Basically, I have 4 general work tasks, one task for Collect Checkout, and a bunch of them for something else. I like having my projects clearly organized, and since many of these tasks don't have specific times they're due, I'm able to sort them however I want.

I also like that Things organizes tasks into their respective projects/areas. This helps me keep my work stuff and home stuff separate (although OmniFocus has more power here).

Forecast

To see what's next, Things has an "Upcoming" page where you can see every task from tomorrow until the end of time. I don't use this a ton, but I do like being able to see what I have coming up on Monday before I sign off for the weekend.

Shortcuts

Finally, I use Shortcuts to automatically add a bunch of tasks at once when certain things need to be done. For example, 2 weeks a month, I am responsible for collecting and posting release notes for my company's products. It's not 100% consistent though, and setting recurring tasks would only lead to a mess. Also, I have a bunch of little things that I need to do. They're the same every time, but I can't miss any of them lest the whole thing fall apart (yes, this should be better automated, but it's not yet).

I have a couple shortcuts that have actions to add about 5-6 taasks to the following Monday or Wednesday. Things, like most other task managers out there, has good Shortcuts support that lets me create these tasks, assign them to the right areas/projects, and give them due dates without me needing to do anything besides tap the button.

Takeaway

I don't think my system is the One True Way to Get Stuff Done. in fact, you may think I'm a crazy person after getting this far. I'll say three things in my defense:

  1. This is what works for me. I've never been more productive than I've been in the past year since adopting a lot of the behaviors described above. I manage a design job, this site, a podcast, a newsletter, a YouTube channel, a social life, and freelance work, often fielding questions like "how do you do all this?" Well, the last 1,700 words should give you an idea how I keep things straight most of the time.
  2. I've tried a ton of other systems and apps and nothing else has worked as well for me. Name the app and I've tried it, I've paid for it's premium subscription, and I've come back to Things. A few other apps could do it (OmniFocus is clearly my #2 option, with Todoist a distant, but doable third).
  3. This is my work calendar this week. To say that I task switch a lot is a massive understatement, and I really need a way to keep everything, including the really small stuff, straight. My head is shifting from thing to thing too much to "just remember" everything.

Quick Apple Weather + Dark Sky Mockup

Quick Apple Weather + Dark Sky Mockup

I've had the itch to mock up something for a little while and Apple's recent acquisition of Dark Sky was the perfect inspiration to do something in the weather app space. This is a quick mock up, and took about 2 hours this afternoon, so no, not everything is there, but I like the idea of putting ideas out there quickly and seeing the response.

Here's a breakdown of what I was thinking for this first run.

Oh, and of course there's a dark mode!

Unread 2: RSS That Looks Nice, but I Wish Did More

Unread 2: RSS That Looks Nice, but I Wish Did More

Unread is one of those apps that just has an incredibly loyal following. It’s not the biggest player in the RSS space, but so many people I respect love it that it is always an app on my radar. Despite this love, Reeder has remained my go-to RSS app for iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I use Reeder for a few specific reasons:

  1. I subscribe to a lot of feeds and Reeder has a UI optimized for getting through lots of content quickly.
  2. The app simply looks wonderful and has a style that has naturally evolved from its pre-iOS 7 days without losing it’s personality.

So Unread 2 sparked my interest, but I didn’t think it would take over Reeder’s spot as my favorite way to catch up on the news of the day. Ultimately, I think that is still true, but I see a place for Unread 2 in my life.

RSS Service Support

Because this review becomes immediately useless to you if you can’t sync your feeds with it, here’s the list of services you can use with Unread:

  • Feed Wrangler
  • Feedbin
  • Feedly
  • Fever
  • Inoreader
  • Newsblur

There is no option to sync over iCloud, if that’s your jam.

What’s New

Fundamentally, Unread is the same app as it was before, and as someone who doesn’t use it that often, it was hard to notice the changes at first glance. If you enjoyed how the old app was laid out, then you’re not in for much of a surprise here, and you’re still going to enjoy it. This is an app that simply looks fantastic, and it does a great job of making you enjoy your time in it.

The headline feature for me is being able to manage your feeds from inside Unread. The previous version of the app required you to add feeds in your syncing service’s website, but now you can add them from within Unread and put them in whatever folder you have set up.

Another big feature is that Unread will attempt to display full text articles for feeds that truncate the content in their RSS feeds. For example, the 9to5Mac feed is truncated, but Unread shows you everything in the app, which is nice. There is some UI weirdness where the app will flash the full website on screen for a moment and then display the text nicely, which is a little distracting, but is also nice since it’s loading the source URL and giving the publication the page hit they want from the truncated feed, but the user gets the nice in-app reading experience.

And then there are a few other changes that are smaller, but mostly welcome. They have integrated to the big read later services, so you can save to Pocket, for example with one tap less than before. They’ve added a “double-tap” gesture you can use to save to read later, mark unread/read, or star an article (I have this mapped to saving to Pocket).

Form Over Function

There were numerous times in the beta period where I thought the app was unable to do something because I couldn't find a control for it. All of the user interaction items are hidden behind gestures with no indications of where you can do said gestures. For example, I like to sort my feeds from oldest to newest, and I went through the settings for list view in the app settings page but didn't see the option to change this. I was about to submit a feature request before seeing in the release notes that this could be done by swiping left on the article list view and toggling it there. Why this one view setting is broken out from the others, I don't know.

There has been a lot of talk lately about discoverability and intuitiveness on the iPad lately, and I think Unread leans too far in the “custom and undiscoverable” end of the pendulum. I believe this is a case of not wanting to mar their admittedly beautiful UI, but now we're at a form vs function debate. You don’t want a cluttered UI, I get it, but buttons are not the enemy.

Pricing

I’ll get dragged over the coals for this if I didn’t bring it up, so here’s the big thing for a lot of people. Unread is now a subscription app and it will run you $19.99 per year.

Unread 2 is a new app on the App Store, so if you're happy with Unread 1, you can just keep using it. I don't believe the old app has any web services it relies on, so it should work well, it just won't get updates going forward.

If you bought Unread 1 after Jun 1, 2019, you can get the first year of the new app for free. This expires June 1, 2020, so if that's you, you probably want to make sure you get that redeemed on time.

Did It Steal Me Away from Reeder?

Sadly, I still don’t think Unread is the reader for me. I think it looks great, and if you have a small number of feeds, it’s great, but my needs are more intense and I don’t think Unread keeps up.

For example, their iPad app got some love this year, adding keyboard shortcuts and multi-window mode. These changes are welcome, but the keyboard shortcuts are not standard so you'll need to learn all of them from scratch, but the more glaring miss is that the UI is precisely a blown up iPhone UI. Again, this is maybe more of a me thing, but the UI does not take advantage of the 13” screen in running it on and that's a shame.

If my primary reading was on an iPhone, it would be more compelling to me personally, but I don’t think it’s the right option for me on the iPad.

Recommendation

My review skewed a little negative, but I don’t think this is a bad app by any means, I just don’t think it’s the app for me, and I worry that some of its UI decisions make it hard to understand for new users. John Gruber recently complained about a UI element (that is typically a “set it and forget it” feature, but whatever) on the iPad that was hidden and he therefore went years without knowing it was there. Unread hides 90% of it’s interactions behind non-standard gestures, and for me that’s not a good design choice. The app looks amazing, and when I’m casually browsing a few items, it’s really delightful, but the choices they made don’t line up with what I need from an RSS reader.

But if you enjoy that design and are used to the gestures, then this could be your favorite app in the world! This review was strange to write because I know this app is adored by many, but it still doesn’t quite click for me.

How I’m Using Notion to Track my Life in 2020

How I’m Using Notion to Track my Life in 2020

I know articles and video on Notion are a dime a dozen, but after years of being totally befuddled by the service, I finally found something it works great for and wanted to share.

Context

In 2016 I tracked a bunch of aspects of my life, from weight to sleep time to what movies I was watching and more. I took 2017 off and got right back to it in 2018, tracking many of the same things. As you can guess, after taking 2019 off, I wanted to get back on the grind in 2020.

However, the last 2 times I did this I used the app Reporter for iOS to track everything. Reporter was literally built to do exactly this, but the app is pretty long in the tooth right now, feels pretty fragile and only works on my iPhone.

Enter Notion

I ended up just exporting my Reporter data as a CSV anyway, since I needed to do some manipulation to make sense of the data, so I considered Numbers, Excel, or Google Sheets to handle this, but they were not friendly at all for something I would be filling out everyday. Notion on the other hand happens to have a way to store things in a spreadsheet without making it feel like just a spreadsheet.

For one, Notion lets me set data types for each column, so I can ensure I enter a number in some columns and text in others, meanwhile yet others can be checkboxes, and there are tons of other options I haven’t used yet.

Also, since Notion is a web service and runs on basically anything, I can record my daily reports from an iPhone, Android device, iPad, or Mac, whichever is most convenient at the time.

My Notion Setup

I almost feel like this should be more dramatic, but this is it, folks. Actually, here it is with some test days recorded while I was figuring out if this would work for me:

It’s basically a spreadsheet but with some nice styling to make it easier to understand at a glance.

Oh, and here’s the data entry mode, which feels very much not like a spreadsheet.

What I’m Tracking

  1. Money spent on “fun stuff” (aka what did I spend on apps, movies, games, Starbucks, etc. that I didn’t need to today?)
  2. What movies did I watch?
  3. What video games did I play?
  4. What books did I read?
  5. Did I need to use my Mac for something my iPad couldn’t do?
  6. How many alcoholic drinks did I have?
  7. Did I do strength training today?
  8. Did I run today? How far were those runs?
  9. Did I walk the dog today? How far did we walk?

I can do all of these through new columns in this spreadsheet, and like I said earlier, Notion makes it pretty easy to format these so you are always entering the right data. I especially like the “Multi-Select” data type for things like games and books since they let you create “tokens” that you can use to easily fill out the same value over many days. For example, I like to play a game of Madden right after work, so instead of typing out “Madden 20” every time I fill out this report, I just tap on the “Madden 20” token I created previously. This is really nice for things that I do the same multiple days.

Entering Data

I have a recurring task set up in Things 3 that reminds me to report on my day. When I see this, I’ll open Notion and tap the “New” button at the top right of this page. This adds a new row at the top of the table I’ve created.

This brings up a page that feels more like a standard web form than a spreadsheet. I just go down the list and enter values for everything. It’s all saved immediately to the cloud and I can access the data wherever.

It is worth mentioning here that the iOS and Android experience is not as good as that of the desktop and web versions of Notion. You can’t easily tab from one field to the next and entering things like dates takes more taps than you might expect. But that said, I still do this from my iPhone most nights and it’s been good enough to get the job done.

Getting My Data Out of Notion

While Notion is great for entering this data and keeping it synced online, it doesn’t have anything in the way of graphing these numbers or anything like that. To that end, I needed to be able to get my data out of Notion and into a traditional spreadsheet so Numbers can make nice graphs for me.

Thankfully, Notion also makes this easy, as I can export this data as a CSV and then do what I want with it in my app of choice.

Another note about the iOS version: the iPhone app does not allow you to export, but the iPad, Android, Mac, and Windows versions do. I have no idea why, but again, it’s not a deal-breaker, just a weird omission. iPhones have the same Files app integration as iPads, after all.

Conclusion

Tracking this much information about yourself is not easy, and it’s not even fun for lots of people. For me, it lets me see my life in a more complete manner than I can if I just look back on things and guess how things are going or what I did. I invariably burn out on it by the end of each year doing it, but I really enjoy being able to look back on 2016 and 2018 and see a detailed view of what I did that year.

I’ve been trialing Notion to do this tracking for about 45 days and it’s worked well for me so far. There’s not much more to say now, but you’ll see the results this December when I dig through all this data and try to find the interesting bits.