Writing stuff down and doing stuff

Great app recommendations are really hard. It's easy to tell other people what apps you use. It's difficult to communicate how and why you use them.

I'm going to describe how I work in two dimensions: writing stuff down, and doing stuff. This is about the apps I use because they've stuck. These are the apps that I continue to use everyday because they're what I actually need, and they don't get in the way -- not software that has its own agenda about how you should be living, requires huge personal investment, and promises to change your life. (I have nothing against that kind of software, I've just come to grips with realizing it's not for me right now, and I'm wagering it's not for you either.)

For all you top ten list-lovin', Buzzfeed-readin', TL;DR "peeps" -- there will be a list of straight-up app recommendations at the bottom.

Notes (or: "writing stuff down")

Here's the trinity, in case you want to jump right in:

nvALT (Mac) ⇄ Simplenote.app (iOS/Android) ⇄ ResophNotes (Windows)

All of these applications and services are free. To get started with what I'm about to describe, register for a free Simplenote account.

I want to be able to see all my notes and write new ones from anywhere. I have a Mac at work, an iPhone in my pocket, and a Windows PC at home. All three of these places are kept in sync by Simplenote. So all my notes are kept on each device and in the cloud. (You can also log into Simplenote.com from any web browser and see all your notes.)

I also need it to be frictionless to enter a new note or to find an old one. To me, this is the most important aspect for note-taking and note retrieval -- if I can't instantly be writing a new note, or instantly find an old one, it's not going to work for me. That's not fussiness, that's just knowing myself well enough to know which tools will stick. And if a tool doesn't stick, and you don't keep using it, then it's useless.

nvALT (Mac)

It is so easy to start a new note, or to find an old one in nvALT. To do either, you do the same thing: Command (⌘) + L, and just start typing! Think of it like the URL bar in your web browser.

Watch me make a new note:

... or find an old note:

nvAlt can also encrypt your notes while they're on your computer. You can have it ask you to enter your encryption key (a password you create) every time you start the app, or have it remember it for you.

Simplenote (iOS or Android)

The two example notes you just saw -- in under 30 seconds -- are now on my phone, too.

And all the notes are secured behind Touch ID (or a PIN number) -- so even if someone got a hold of my unlocked phone, my notes are still behind a second wall of security.

ResophNotes (Windows)

There is really nothing special to show for the Windows side of this trifecta of note-taking goodness because ResophNotes works exactly like nvALT -- that's why I use it. The hotkey is the same to search for and create a note (Control + L); it looks the same, list of notes on the left, note on the right. And it syncs perfectly, just like everything else.

Everyone needs to take notes, and find their notes quickly and easily. That means always knowing where they are. For me, it's a huge load off my mind to never have to think about where I'm going to write something down, where it won't get lost, every time I have an idea (which is often), or every time I need to write something down during my workday (which is really often).

Calendars, reminders, and alarms (or: "doing stuff")

Tasks, projects, calendars, reminders... there is a huge industry of software and thought technologies built around keeping you "organized" and connected to all of your responsibilities. Unless you're a GTD nerd (no hate!), extremely powerful tools like Omnifocus or Todoist probably aren't going to help you because you're too busy actually working to invest the time into them.

Another challenge for most people is that they don't get to choose the entire ecosystem they have to work inside. Chances are that you have at least one work calendar telling you where to be, and at least one task manager telling you what to do next, and you didn't get to pick either one of them.

I'm in the same boat, and I need something that is flexible enough to pull all of it together, so that when I wake up in the morning, I have to look in as few places as possible to get an accurate picture of my today.

I am going to cover two simple needs that I have. A calendar app to remember where I'm supposed to be and see what's coming up; and an app to handle quick, spur of the moment reminders and timers where quick and easy entry is key. Remember, these have got to stick.

Sunrise (calendar)

Sunrise is a free app for iOS, Android, and the web -- and I think it's the best calendar app you can get.

What makes it great is that you can plug different kinds of task management tools right into it. So, if you or your employer is using AsanaTrello, or Producteev, you can get tasks and projects that are due sitting right on the same calendar that also tells you what meetings you have today. If you so choose, you can also connect it with:

  • Facebook to pull in birthdays and events
  • use Github? Put your milestones right on your calendar
  • if you're an Evernote user, get your Evernote Reminders on your calendar
  • LinkedIn (if that's your thing) can provide information about your meeting attendees
  • ... and there's more, too.

You can view your calendar as an agenda, or as a traditional calendar.

Adding events is even better. You're not thumbing through stupid dials to pick the right time. There's a genius little interface where you drag your event around to where you want, and stretch it out to the length you want.

What made Sunrise stick for me was that it understood simple but important concepts, like: I might want to see four different calendars, but I only want notifications for two of them -- or, that I've got lunch with my sister next Tuesday and I need to be reminded the day before, three hours before, and 30 minutes before... not just 10 minutes before I'm supposed to be there. And that's all customizable.

Due (reminders, timers, alarms)

I love Due. I love it so much. I've been an iPhone user since 2008 and I have been waiting and looking for this reminders app that entire time. Due 1.0 was released years ago, and I liked it, but it didn't stick. However, 2.0 was released a few weeks ago and it's not only stuck for me, I can't imagine being without it.

I like (and need) to set small reminders for myself throughout the day. It helps me dump what's going on in my head into something that will remember for me, so I can concentrate on the things an app can't do (like my real work). That means making a new reminder has to be as effortless as possible. Due accomplishes this in a few ways.

You can either tap the "+" button to make a new event, or you can pull down on the entire app to either search your reminders, or make a new one. Sound familiar? It's the same concept from nvALT. Combining search and creation into the same action reduces mental load. You spend less time thinking about which button to push, and more time just doing it. There is also natural language processing: if you write "Pick up TPS reports in 2 hours", you'll have a reminder to "Pick up TPS reports" set for two hours from now.

As I've stated before, I don't like time/date picker dials. Scrolling up and down for the right day and time feels tedious, and just doesn't connect with how my brain works. Due has a different idea about how you can quickly set times, and it's customizable to the times of day you're setting the most reminders for. They're called Quick Access Times, and it's a panel of buttons with static times, or time additions and subtractions that you can tap to get the reminder you want. Let me show you:

Like most iOS apps, if you get a notification on you Lock Screen, you can swipe the notification to the left to reveal some simple actions. In Due, you get "Mark as done", and a snooze button. But, the snooze button is a customizable amount of time. You can set it to 5 minutes, 30 minutes, or whatever works best for you. It might not sound like much, but those little touches make this app so much more useful. When you can make it yours, it'll stick around.

Due has also replaced Clock.app as my alarm clock. I used to set an alarm every night before I went to sleep. Now, Due wakes me up with an intelligently scheduled, recurring alarm clock. Let's set one to go to bed on work nights.

This works because Due also comes with dozens of different sounds. Subtle reminder sounds less than a second long, to loud ~30 second sounds perfectly suited for morning alarms you can't ignore.

Finally, possibly my favorite little feature that sounds small, but has helped this app be so effective for me: it's called Auto-Snooze. A lot of the time, when a reminder alarm goes off, you don't actually have time to follow through with it right this second. You'll say to yourself "I'll take the trash out right after this scene", or "This song is almost over, I'll grab the laundry in just a minute." With Auto-Snooze, Due will keep reminding you without you doing anything. You might not be ready right now, but maybe you are in five minutes. And, as always, this amount of time is customizable so it's as persistant or relaxed as you need it to be.

For me, Due gets everything right. It's not trying to be a task manager or a list-taking app that also has reminders. It's a reminders app, period. Nothing I've used -- and I've used a lot -- that did reminders second to some other primary function, ever did reminders right. This is dedicated... and it shows.

iOS Apps I Really Like

The GIF-laden tome above was about showing how I achieve core functionality on a day to day basis. For me, writing things down, and keeping track of what I'm doing is core functionality. But it's not all I care about or need to be able to do with my phone (and computer).

Without going into too much detail (like the GIF-laden tome above), here are the iOS apps I use and little bit about why.

Photos (and videos)

VSCOcam - editing, Darkroom - editing, Picturelife - backup (and sharing)

VSCOcam continues to have the best filters in the business. Professional-grade, excellent filters that truly add to your photos. Instagram doesn't come close. It also has a great, built-in way to share your photos on the web and in nice collections.

Darkroom is a brand-new app that has immediately done on-the-phone photo editing and quick-sharing very right. It doesn't "import" your photos into it's own library, all edits are permanently stored and reversible, fantastic editing controls, and RGB curves control for a $2.99 in-app purchase. It even lets you export non-square photos to Instagram (hallelujah!).

Picturelife backs up my photos (manually by opening the app, or automatically) with 25GB of storage for $5. Photo storage and backup has gotten incredibly cheap lately, and it's an extremely complicated subject. [Probably] eventually, iCloud Photos will become comprehensible and I can drop Picturelife, but for now it's a second backup to iCloud backing up my entire phone. Also, if you're in a family of iPhone and Android phones and you're all looking for a way to share and keep photos (say, of a new baby) Picturelife has unmatched ability for groups of people to share pictures to each other by pooling all your photos together in an easy-to-understand way.


Square Cash - sending and receiving, Level - day-to-day management

Cash lets you send and receive money directly to and from your checking account just by attaching your debit card to the app (built by Square, a trusted and veteran merchant services company with a proven track-record in protecting financial information). You can send a dollar or thousands. My girlfriend and I use it to split dinner bills. My roommates and I reimburse each other for bills and rent. With most banks, the money is shown (and available) in your account instantly, and settles within 24 hours. I can't imagine being without this app. (Oh, and they'll pay you to try it.)

Level, once you've let it into your bank account and taught it a little bit about how much you want to spend, it keeps track of how much you're allowed to spend today. It's the day-to-day budgeting app I always dreamed of. If you want an app that can keep track of whether you can afford to go out to eat tonight, this is it.

News and reading

Circa - the news, Unread - RSS, Instapaper - read it later

Circa is the best way to read and stay on top of the news. And if you don't really care about reading the news that much, you should download this app even more. Real journalists curate the day's real news from existing sources and break it into readable, few sentence chunks to deliver the important information quickly, all sources cited. You can tell it you want to "follow" a story in order to get updates. You can also trust Circa with push notifications -- they only push important breaking news (I can't say the same for any other news app I've given those privileges to.)

Unread is my favorite RSS reader. If you don't know what an RSS reader is then skip to the next paragraph. If you do, then you probably had a Google Reader account and you probably have a Feedly account now. Unread is my Feedly reader; it has my favorite interface, great color scheme options, unbeatable sharing and saving options. Simple, but powerful. (Also it was recently acquired and is due for a big visual refresh.)

Instapaper is the original read-it-later, and I think the best. The app itself is a beautiful reader that lets you read websites you've saved. What Instapaper lets you do is more than that: you can save a link you want to remember or read later from any app on your phone, and even organize at the time of saving into categories you make yourself. You can save from inside apps or using a bookmarklet on your computer's web browser.

Great odds and ends

Path Talk - messaging businesses, Dark Sky - weather, Canopy.co - curated Amazon shopping, Hopper - best-price airline ticket buying

Path Talk is a weird one. Path is a social network basically no one cares about, and they have an app for chatting with your Path friends. Why am I telling you? Because there is a feature inside it called "Places" that lets you text message local businesses. How? Your texts are received by someone in a call center that calls the business with your inquiry and fields the response to you through the app. It's magical. I've asked about drink specials, ordered delivery food, and made Valentine's Day reservations, without calling anyone.

Dark Sky is still my favorite weather app, although I don't think it's for everyone. They made their claim to fame predicting when it would rain down to the minute. And for the most part it works better than you could imagine. Between their nicely made app, their hyper-accurate predictions, and simple Today Widget, it's the weather app that's stuck.

Canopy isn't just an app, it's also a website -- and it's how I did almost all of my Christmas shopping. It's a human-curated site full of all kinds of items for you or for gifts. The hook is, they're all things that are on Amazon, so you don't have to worry about finding something great and then getting a dead link to a random site that doesn't sell the thing anymore. The picks are fantastic and they have stuff in all price ranges. Great tools for finding what you're looking for put this app over the top.

Hopper is another new one for me that I'm completely sold on. The idea is that you tell it where you want to travel to and from and when; Hopper will then watch your future trip and tell you -- even months from now -- when to buy your tickets. This is all based on tangible, historical data for ticket prices. Hopper will even tell you when it's planning to tell you to buy so you can be prepared, and if you should adjust your dates and airports to achieve the absolute cheapest flights.