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.

Recorder on the Pixel 4 vs Dictation on iOS

I read this sequence from a recent blog post on this site and had the just released Dictation for iOS and Recorder for Pixel 4 listening at the same time. Here are the exact words I read:

It’s the end of the decade and I love lists, so today I’m starting a series of lists about my favorite things. Today we’re looking at my favorite albums from the past 10 years. What I learned more than anything with making this list is that 2010 and 2011 were more amazing than I gave them credit for at the time. 7 of the 10 albums below came out in those two years! Alway, I hope you like the list and check out one or two of these that you haven’t listened to yet.

And here is what Google Recorder captured:

It's the end of the decade and I love lists so today. I'm starting a series of lists about my favorite things. Today we're looking at my favorite albums from the past 10 years. What I learned more than anything making this list is that 2010 and 2011 were more amazing than I gave them credit for at the time. Seven of the 10 albums below came out in those two years. Anyway, I hope you like the list and check out one or two of these you haven't listened to yet.

And Dictation for iOS:

It's the end of the decade and I love lists so today I'm starting a series of less about my favorite things today we're looking at my favorite albums from the past 10 years what I learned more than anything making this list is that 20 10 and 20 11 were more amazing than I gave them credit for at the time seven of the 10 albums below came out in those two years anyway I hope you like the list and check out one or two of these two haven't listened to yet.

Both apps captured the general message well, but Google is so far ahead here it’s not even funny. I counted 5 errors in Dictation’s transcript and zero in the Recorder transcript.

Not only are the words more accurate in that transcript, it also includes punctuation that’s not too far off from the script. Dictation can only give me one loooong sentence, but Google mostly understood where each sentence ended.

I’m glad Dictation is out on the iPhone because the functionality is very nice, but Google should rightly be proud of what they have been able to do with voice detection on the Pixel 4.

Night Sight vs NeuralCam (quick, incomplete comparison)

Here’s a shot taken on the iPhone Xs:

And here’s the same scene taken with the Pixel 3a:

Not so pretty right? Well here’s Google’s much lauded Night Sight doing its best:

And here’s NeuralCam doing it’s best in this same insanely low light situation:

Due to WordPress liking to cache images, you might not be able to see much of a difference beyond the Pixel photo looking a little brighter, but the Pixel photo is definitely better overall. It’s sharper and maintains more details than the NeuralCam shot. Not for nothing, but I had to hold my phone still for about 3 seconds with Night Sight and north of 10 seconds for NeuralCam.

This is not a take down of NeuralCam or anything, and I think it’s a really decent option for someone who has an iPhone and wishes they could get similar shots to those Pixel owners like to brag about. It’s the best app I’ve used yet for taking very low light photos with an iPhone.

And before anyone says it, no, this is not a very realistic shot I’d normally take a picture of, but it’s a good stress test for each mode. I’ll be doing a more comprehensive side-by-side in the coming weeks, but these single example is consistent with most of what I’ve been seeing after a few days with NeuralCam.

How Keyboard Maestro Saves Me Tons of Time at Work

You’ve probably heard a million times how great Keyboard Maestro is, but you likely have the same question as everyone else: this seems cool, but I don’t know how to use it. I can’t tell you how you should use it, but I can show you a few examples of how I get work done with it at my job as a product designer at an e-commerce company.

Text Expansion

Keyboard Maestro has most of the powerful text expansion features you’ll get from TextExpander, and I think that’s a great place to start. I enter a lot of fake credit card numbers throughout the day, so I have these set up:

Shortcut Value
;v 4111111111111111
;m 5431111111111111
;a 341111111111111
;d 6011601160116611

I also have a few that might be more universally useful. For example, I have “@@” expand to my work email address and “;uu” expand to “UAT complete” since I need to write that on every task that goes through me in our task management system. I also have “ddate” expand to the current date in the format YYYY-MM-DD since I need to write that quite a bit as well.

Simulating a Card Swipe

This is pretty old school tech, but it’s something I need to test every now and again, but this text expansion lets me simulate a credit card swipe through an unencrypted keyboard emulation card reader. These are pretty darn rare these days because they’re not as secure as other readers, but they exist and it’s sometimes useful to be able to test it out.

Logging into a Site

Sure, things like 1Password and LastPass usually handle this sort of thing, but I log into the same URL with a bunch of different username/password combos and those tools don’t handle that situation as elegantly, or as quickly as I’d like. The screenshot above is of one login, but there are 3 more I use with different keyboard shortcuts.

Search Jira

This one gets a little more fun, as there is a query I need to run in Jira every Monday and Wednesday. I run it a few times, and it’s just easier to enter a URL to find it.

Sadly, the date needs to update every time I run this, so saving a bookmark doesn’t work. This action calculates the current date, adds one day (since I’m looking for the release on the following day), and opens a URL with that specific date appended. This is so much easier than using Jira’s search UI to do repetitive searches.

Open a URL from the Terminal

This one gets a little more crazy, but the gist of this one is that I set up repositories with specific branches of a project. I have a script that runs and spits out a URL I can use.

This action, which I run with a keyboard shortcut, opens my terminal app Hyper, CTRL+clicks a link and copies it, then opens Chrome, goes to that URL with some text appended, and then logs in as the test account I always use.

This is very specific to me, but this one can serve as inspiration for how far you can push Keyboard Maestro.

Run a Terminal Script with User Input

This one gets even more wild. This one asks me what branch I want to set up for testing. I get prompted with a text field when this runs and I enter a task number into the field. This then runs the script I need, finds the repository I need, and sets it up.

I’m super proud of this one as it can be something I do dozens of times per day and takes a minute or so each time if I do it manually. This takes about 3 seconds and feels like magic.

Convert Clipboard to Plain Text

And finally we’re back to simple one: this simply takes whatever is in the clipboard and converts it to plain text. Boom, simple.


This is far from an exhaustive list, and I can strongly recommend the MacSparky Field Guide if you want to learn everything there is to know, but maybe one or two of these gave you ideas for what you could do with Keyboard Maestro. It’s one of the best software purchases I’ve made in recent years, so the least I can do is try and help others figure out what makes it so amazing.

iOS Apps Crank it to 11 Right Before iOS 12

(That thing where you write a terribly punny post title without even realizing it.)

App developers seem to be treating WWDC as a deadline to get their big updates/launches out of the way. Presumably, this will let them devote much of their summers to updating for whatever goodies will be included in iOS 12. Since I’ve been mostly offline for a few days and missed most of these, I figured I would share some bite size impressions on these updates.

Castro 3

This is my new podcast app of choice. With the best queuing system out there (IMO), the addition of chapter support and a real player view make this the app with everything I want. The in-app purchase to unlock all features was totally worth it. Amazing update.

Free on the App Store (IAP)

Spark 2

My Newton email subscription expired a few weeks ago and I’ve been looking for an app that can replace it1. Nothing was scratching that itch and I was about to pony up for another year, but Spark 2 is amazing. The killer feature for me is being able to share links to emails to other apps like OmniFocus, which lets me easily set emails as tasks for later.

Free on the App Store (IAP)

Obscura 2

I’m not that big on third party camera apps. The stock app tends to get the best results and launches fastest, and Adobe Lightroom takes the best RAW photos in my experience. Obscura has a really great UI and some cool editing tools, so it gets closer than most to getting into my workflow. I am still playing with the RAW image quality, but it seems to do a really good job. I’m not sure if I’ll stick with it, but I’m sure it will work for a lot of people.

$4.99 on the App Store

Pocket-Run Pool

This is my new addition, and like all of Zach Gage’s games, this is a new take on pool like you have never plated before. It’s simple, quick fun, and I’m on the hunt for a perfect game.

The coolest thing is an international tournament that happens every hour of the day. You get one shot each hour to set a high score and try to come in the top 10 worldwide. I haven’t made it yet, but I feel like I’ve gotten close at least once or twice.

Free on the App Store (IAP)

Things 3.6

My heart has a soft spot for Things, which is a great task manager and my second favorite app for this sort of thing. This recent update added a ton of keyboard shortcuts which makes the app feel ridiculously powerful.

$9.99 on the App Store ($19.99 for the iPad app)

OmniFocus 3

This is my go-to productivity app and the new update is…relatively conservative, actually. I didn’t feel like the app reinvented itself or anything, but I love their conversion of “contexts” to “tags” and their new scripting options look powerful, but I need to dig in more to see what’s new.

Free on the App Store (IAP)

Ulysses 13

Famously my “favorite app on any platform,” Ulysses continues to be one of the best software investments in my life right now. The new daily writing goals are amazing (watchOS 5 review, I’m looking at you) and keyword highlighting is helping me omit some words that I don’t want to appear in my writing more easily. This is a great update!

Free on the App Store (IAP)

Agenda

And finally, one more productivity app, but this one has a twist. Agenda pitches itself as a single app to replace your note taking and task management apps. The design looks very nice and some people just love the Mac app, so I’m just starting to give this a try.

The tragedy of this app is that it looks like exactly what I want for me day job, but with no Windows version, I can’t use it for that. I’m pretty happy with OmniFocus now, but this is a really interesting app that everyone should at least check out.

Free on the App Store (IAP)


  1. I love Newton, but it’s $50 per year and that’s a bit much. 

Today’s Forecast Status Update

8 months ago I released my first app to the iOS App Store: Today’s Forecast. The app was intended to be the weather app I’ve always wanted to use, and I did a really good job of doing that. It’s still the weather app I have on my home screen and I use it everyday. Users tended to agree, with a 4 star rating all time (and 5 stars for the current version).

But one of the things that I was not able to do as well as I would have liked was maintaining the app. I fixed bugs and added some critical features that people requested soon after release (a weather widget was the big one), but I wasn’t able to iterate on other features, such as an Apple Watch app, push notifications, and radar.

Part of the reason for this is that I had less free time to do such things, but the big reason was that I had accorded a ton of technical debt in how I built the app originally. I won’t get too into the detail here, but essentially I wrote the app without following a lot of best practices in iOS development and relied too heavily on storyboards for the interface. This meant that every change required considerable investigation into what parts of the app impacted other parts and any interface changes were frankly maddening ordeals.

All this is to say that I booted up Xcode today and created a new project called “Today’s Forecast 2.” I’m throwing out all the legacy code and am going to see if I can make the app again, but this time with a focus on doing things the right way. I want to be able to iterate on the app bettering I want to make it a better experience for everyone who uses it today. I can’t make any promises about how fast I can make this happen, but I would love to have a summer release for version 2. Job one is to replicate the features already there, and step 2 will be to add on some customer requests.

Wish me luck!

Today’s Forecast Update and Price Drop

A small update to Today’s Forecast just hit the App Store! Version 1.2.3 includes the following changes:

  • New seasonal theme!
  • Modified the Halloween and standard dark themes to look better on the iPhone X
  • Fixed a small bug in the Halloween theme displaying weather alerts
  • Removed alternate icons (sorry, hopefully adding them back soon!)

Additionally, I’ve dropped the price to 0.99¢ for the foreseeable future. After selling the app for 3 full months, it’s clear the price is too high for many people, so hopefully the new price point will bring in more people. I’d love to make the app free, but my time is not free, and on the off chance the app got 100,000 new users tomorrow, the Dark Sky API costs would make me go broke, so there has to be a cost.

Finally, you may have noticed that note up there about alternate icons going away. I wasn’t happy about this, but app review rejected me 3 times for saying the app did not allow users to change the app even though it said it could. Zero beta testers nor myself could replicate this and everyone said it worked perfectly1, so I don’t know what’s going on there. I’m working to get this functionality added again because I know I miss it as well, but I needed to get this update out to fix a few small bugs that were in the last release, and the number of people asking for iPhone X-optimized dark themes was too great to leave hanging. Keep an eye out for an update very soon that re-adds this functionality. I’m sorry for any frustration this caused.


  1. Of note, the code that was used to change icons had not changed since the original launch of the app. 

Transmit for iOS Bites the Dust

This is a sad day:

Transmit iOS made about $35k in revenue in the last year, representing a minuscule fraction of our overall 2017 app revenue. That’s not enough to cover even a half-time developer working on the app. And the app needs full-time work — we’d love to be adding all of the new protocols we added in Transmit 5, as well as some dream features, but the low revenue would render that effort a guaranteed money-loser.

I totally understand where Panic is coming from, and I’m sure it’s the right decision for them, but it still makes me sad. I have transmit on the second page on my iPhone and the first page of my iPad. It’s one of the first apps I mention when talking about how much more I like iOS than Android as well as being one of the apps that lets me go Mac-free more easily.

This does not affect Transmit 5 for Mac. It’s doing extremely well

This also does not affect Coda iOS and Prompt iOS, both of which are still going strong

I’m happy to hear that Coda and Prompt for iOS, as well as Transmit for Mac are doing well, but Transmit has been my keystone in that set for a long time.

Transmit for iOS will disappear from the App Store soon, so if you want to pick it up before it goes away, you can buy it from the App Store.