First Impressions of the new 2017 5K iMac

I am now the proud owner of a brand spanking new iMac!

What I got

This is the first time that I’ve bought an iMac (or any all-in-one desktop). Before I’ve always had desktop machines with separate monitors. Since such a big portion of the value of this computer is in the screen I ordered a fairly high-end machine so that hopefully I’ll be happy with it as long as possible.

Apple offers their usual three “good, better, best” configurations on their website. The higher end configurations have slightly better processors and the “best” machine has more storage; they also have three different graphics cards. Notably, starting with the higher base model is the only way to get better graphics on this machine; you can’t configure the GPU separately.

I started with the “best” configuration and bumped the processor up to an i7 (better multithreading and a faster clock speed). Unlike a lot of Macs, the memory in the 27” iMac is user replaceable rather than being soldered to the motherboard. With non-upgradable machines I tend to max out the RAM when I buy it, since there’s no way to add more later. In this case, I bumped it up to 16gb, but if I feel the need in the future I’ll be able to upgrade it all the way up to 64gb (and do so for a lot less than the $1200 Apple would charge me).

The other big upgrade I made was getting a 1tb SSD. I fell in love with SSDs when I bought my bought my current MacBook Pro back in 2012. After using it for a while anything with a spinning hard disk just seems soooo slooooow. The other storage option on this machine is a Fusion Drive (a spinning disk plus a small SSD for cacheing frequently used data). While the Fusion Drive mitigates some of the disadvantages of the spinning disk, I’m willing to spend the extra $$$ to have fast access to all the data on my machine. However, I decided it didn’t make sense to spend $1400 for a 2tb SSD. I keep the really big stuff like my iTunes and Plex libraries on a network attached Drobo. The drive in my computer is basically apps, my photo library, and dropbox, plus whatever larger files I’m working on at the time. Honestly, right now I could probably get by with a 512mb SSD (the one in my MacBook Pro has been doing fine) but since the SSD is not easily replaceable, I figure 1tb will help future-proof this machine.

First Impressions

Out of the box my first reactions was “wow, this is big”. I’ve run a 27” monitor at work, so the size really shouldn’t have been a surprise. However, unlike a monitor the “chin” beneath the screen adds considerably to the impression when you’re sitting in front of it. It also makes the machine fairly tall. I like my monitors elevated fairly high; I’ve been running the monitors on my desk at home on a 10” tall monitor shelf for a long time. In this case, however, putting the iMac on the shelf made it way too high. The shelf had to go. For now I’m using a few reams of paper and a book, putting the bottom of the iMac’s “foot” about 7” above the desk. This puts the screen in the proper ergonomic position (with my eye level just below the top of the screen).

The big 5k screen is just fantastic. I am completely blow away by how bright and sharp it is. I’ve had retina displays on my laptop and iOS devices for years now, but thanks to it’s size this is just in a whole different category. It’s also tremendously bright. I’ve got it on the middle brightness setting and it’s still brighter than the 24” monitor I have next to it, even with the brightness on the external monitor cranked all the way up.

Lots of people say that once you’re used to a retina display you won’t be able to stand a non-retina screen, but in the past I hadn’t found this to be true. My retina MacBook Pro spent most of it’s lifetime right next to a standard definition 24” external display. If you looked hard, it was obvious the laptop screen was better, but I didn’t think it really made the external monitor look bad. Putting that same 24” display next to the iMac made it look horrible by comparison. I had been planning to get a pair of 4k monitors to go with the iMac, but seeing just how bad the standard def display looked definitely made that more of a priority.

This is a very fast machine. Not that my MacBook Pro was pokey by any means, but the difference is quite noticeable. While the processor and memory are both substantially faster, I think the faster SSD is a big contributor to the perceived increase in speed. Going from the SATA connected SSD in my MacBook Pro to the PCIe connected drive in the iMac isn’t as big a difference as going from a spinning disk to an SSD, but it takes a lot of things that were short waits on my MacBook Pro and makes them effectively instantaneous. Stuff that took a long time is noticeably quicker: for instance, when I run DaisyDisk on my iMac’s SSD it runs in a fraction of the time that it takes on my MacBook Pro.

I haven’t had a chance to do a lot of real processor intensive stuff, but it’s no slouch in that department either. The iMac cranked through the photo recognition on my large Photos library quicker and with less disruption to my other work than on older machines.

So far, the only games I’ve played on the iMac are Civilization VI and Kerbal Space Program, neither of which are graphics hogs even with all the settings maxed out. The GPU in this machine is mid-range by PC standards, but in these games it’s just loafing along.

I also got the new Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad (the numeric keyboard option is new1). Normally I’m a click-clacky mechanical switch keyboard guy.2 The Magic Keyboard is similar to the keyboard in my MacBook Pro, with much less key travel (though still more than the recent MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards). I’m giving it a try, but I’m not sold yet. I may end up going back to my big, wired keyboard. One minor annoyance is that the Magic Keyboard doesn’t have the double-height “+” key that I’m used to, so the “-“, “*”, and “/“ keys are each one position off from where my fingers think they should be.

Another feature I really like that’s new to me is the ability to unlock the Mac with my Apple Watch. This actually came out last fall as part of macOS Sierra, but my MacBook Pro was too old to take advantage of it. It’s probably a bit faster than typing in my password, but not by a huge amount. I’d still really like a desktop keyboard with a TouchID sensor (that might be enough to get me to give up my mechanical switch keyboard for good).

Overall, I’m very happy with the new iMac. The speed and the big, gorgeous screen are a big upgrade from my 5-year old MacBook Pro. I’m also happy to have a dedicated desktop machine. As I said in an earlier article, for my current circumstances having a desktop at home and a laptop (or, increasingly, an iPad Pro) that I can take to work or on the road makes more sense than doing everything on a big beefy laptop. I’m looking forward to many years of enjoyment from this machine.


  1. It’s also a bit hidden when you’re ordering in the Apple online store. Rather than being one of their usual click boxes or drop down menus, it’s hidden behind a text link that says “Change”. 
  2. My daily driver is a Das Keyboard Professional 

Laptop vs. Desktop

For most of my computing life, I was a desktop and laptop person. A desktop machine at home for heavy duty tasks and gaming, and a laptop for presentations and getting work done on the go. This pattern survived my transition from Windows PCs to Mac, where I ultimately ended up with a Mac Mini and a first generation MacBook Air.

Then about 5 years ago I got a job where I needed a beefy machine at work to do video editing and photo manipulation. Rather than spending the cash to keep both a desktop and a laptop up to date, I decided to go with one powerful laptop and move it back and forth from home to work. At the time, the Retina MacBook Pro had just came out, and I ended up going with a top of the line 15” model. I got a couple of external displays to satisfy my passion for screen real estate and was good to go.

I did not go entirely laptop-only, however. Although my Mac Mini had been eclipsed by the MacBook Pro as my primary computer, I kept around as a home server, running my iTunes library, handling online backups, and other tasks. This helped me retain the advantages of having a desktop at home without the expense of keeping up with new hardware (who cares if it’s slow when I only log in once every couple of months).

I love the 15” Retina MBP and that machine is still going strong today. However, my circumstances have changed. I no longer do a lot of heavy duty tasks on my Mac at work; rather than editing movies and photos, the most stressful thing I’m doing is some light Python scripting. On the flip side, the 5 year old MacBook Pro and Mac Mini are getting rather long in the tooth for some of my needs at home. The MBP isn’t able to run some of the games that I’d like to play1 and the Mini has started getting a bit flaky.2

All of this lead me to decide that my next Mac would be a desktop machine; I settled on one of those big, beautiful 5k iMacs. I actually made this decision late last year, but since the then-current iMac was over a year old at that point and lacked USB-C or Thunderbolt 3, I decided to wait and hope for an updated model. I was hoping for new Mac desktops at their November event, but when that brought only new MacBook Pros, I feared it would probably be Fall 2017 before we saw any new iMac models. Then WWDC 2017 brought an unexpected gift: new iMacs with USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 support! I jumped on the opportunity right away and now I’ve got a new top of the line 5K iMac on the way. I expect I’ll have plenty more to say about this machine when it arrives.

For now, my old MacBook Pro soldiers on in the laptop role. I still tote it to work every day. It’s under threat from a couple of different sides, however. Since I no longer need a ton computing horsepower in a laptop, I’m tempted by the ultralight MacBook. The touchbar has me drooling over the new MacBook Pro as well, and the 13” model would still be quite a bit smaller and lighter than my current MBP. The biggest threat may not be a new laptop at all, however. The 12.9” iPad Pro has already replaced my laptop more and more often when I travel, and with the new enhancements to iOS that were recently previewed at WWDC, I can foresee it taking on a larger and larger role in my life. Perhaps the next phase for me is a beefy desktop at home and an iPad everywhere else?


  1. Civilization VI 
  2. It got to the point where it wouldn’t boot and I had to reinstall the OS. 

Due and Time Sensitive Tasks

Fourth in a series on task management. Read part 1, part 2, and part 3.

OmniFocus is a great tool for capturing and organizing tasks, but when it comes to getting certain stuff done I need a bit more of a kick in the pants. That’s where Due comes in.

Due is a very persistent reminders app. By default it will sound an alert not only at the date and time you set for the task, but every five minutes thereafter. It’s great for things that need to get done at a certain time, like taking the trash can out to the curb on trash day.

While you can use it for one-off tasks, most of the stuff I’ve got in there are repeating tasks. Due has a very powerful system for this that goes beyond just the daily and weekly repeats you see in other apps. It allows you to set a task to repeat on a certain day of each month, or just on weekdays, etc. The only repeat interval I think is missing is one for a certain number of days before the end of the month (which would be useful for things like mailing my rent check that needs to arrive by the 1st of the following month).

I use Due for things like reminding myself to back up my iOS devices to a Mac every week, to top off the charge on a USB battery pack every month, and even to call my parents on their birthdays. One of the most critical things I have in there is a reminder to do my weekly GTD review in OmniFocus. I have a tendency to skip that, so it’s great to have an app as persistent as Due to get me to do it.

Due is a great looking and well designed app on iOS. The Mac version is not nearly as impressive (and has a completely different look). It basically seems kind of phoned in on the Mac, the iOS version is definitely the flagship. I’ve got it installed on my laptop just so I get the reminders, but I don’t usually interact with it much on the Mac (the reminders sync back and forth via iCloud or Dropbox).

I resisted Due for quite a while, relying on the built-in iOS reminders app, but it has become a critical piece of my task management system.

Analog Task Management

Third in a series on task management. Read part 1 and part 2.

For many years my task management system has been all digital. Recently, though, I’ve taken to supplementing it with some analog tools.

Field Notes Day Planner

As I mentioned in my post on OmniFocus I have trouble picking out what to work on when my task list gets too long. I try to filter my task list in OmniFocus down to a manageable subset that I use to pick what to work on, but there’s a balance to be struck between getting the list down to a manageable number of choices and not cutting it down so much that things slip through the cracks.

To help deal with this I started coming up with a list of my important tasks for each day. Every day before I leave work I come up with my major task list for the following day. For both technical reasons1 and because I thought it might introduce a bit of deliberation into the process (and a physical limit on how many tasks I could write down for each day) I decided to go analog.

I use a little Field Notes notebook. Each day gets a pair of facing pages. The date goes at the top of the left-hand page and underneath it I write my major tasks for the day. Depending on how full my schedule is and how big I think the tasks are, there are usually 2-5 tasks. One of them is usually a deep work type task that I’ll work on in the morning.

Many of the major tasks are lifted right out of my task list in OmniFocus, but sometimes a major task for the day might represent a series of smaller actions from a project I want to make progress on.

As I go through the day I use bullet journal type markings to check off the tasks I get done and mark those that did not get done and got deferred to a future day.2

The other thing I’m trying out in this analog system is to schedule my time during the day. I’ve heard this advice many times, but it always seemed too restrictive until I read Cal Newport’s explanation of how he does it in Deep Work. This inspired me to give it a try.

On the right-hand page I write the hours of the day every other line, so each line represents 30 minutes. I copy over the “hard schedule” items from my calendar (meetings, appointments, etc.) in red ink. I block out the rest of my day in pencil. When I’m doing this I usually start with the stuff that’s pretty regular from day to day (hard schedule permitting) like doing email after lunch and planning out tomorrow’s schedule before I leave. With the remaining time (and some days there isn’t much of it) I block out time for the major tasks I wrote down on the left-hand page. Sometimes this prompts me to rethink how many of those major tasks I can actually get done in a given day.

Writing the items that aren’t part of my hard schedule in pencil is a deliberate choice. I’m generally a ballpoint pen guy when it comes to writing, but the schedule needs to be flexible because, inevitably, things will come up and it will have to change. Using pencil is both a philosophical declaration that this is subject to change and a practical choice so that I can make those changes without turning the page into a complete mess.

Listing my major tasks and planning out my schedule has been a boon for me so far. It requires an investment of time and effort up front, but I spend a lot less time staring at OmniFocus and trying to decide what to work on next and I’m less likely to get distracted by something if I’ve got a schedule that says what I’m supposed to be doing at that moment.

The Big Board

One of the issues with the way I practice Getting Things Done is that the very task oriented approach doesn’t always give the best high level overview of the project.3 It can take some effort to sort through my list of “next actions” for a project and translate that into where I am with the project as a whole.

I’ve had a whiteboard in my office since I started working at my current job, but rarely put it to any use. A few months ago I decided to see if I could use it to help me get a higher level understanding of where my many projects stood.

I printed out a list of all my projects in a nice big font and taped it up on the left side of the board. On the whiteboard itself I wrote in the next step for that project with the date for that step (if there is one) over on the right side. By “next step” I mean something at a higher level than the GTD-style “next action”. For instance, the next step for a project might be a meeting with the people involved, which would have a series of actions associated with it (do a Doodle poll to set a date for the meeting, reserve the room, set the agenda and send it out, etc.).

Being able to see where I am with all my projects at a glance is very useful. I’m responsible for quite a few projects and many of them are long term who’s deadlines are many months or years away. It’s important to make sure I keep making sufficient progress on these projects and don’t let all my time get sucked up with things that have short term deadlines. The whiteboard does a good job of helping me set priorities for what I need to be doing on these projects to make progress towards the long term goal.

It’s early days yet for both of these analog tools, but so far they seem to be useful additions to my task management system.


  1. OmniFocus only supports one level of flagging (either a task is flagged or it isn’t) and I was already using that functionality to create a 15-20 item subset of my larger tasks list that I draw from for my daily list of major tasks. 
  2. Tasks that are done get an “X” and those that don’t get done and are pushed to a future day get a “>”. 
  3. I should emphasize that this is largely a problem with the way I implement GTD. David Allen has some good stuff in his book on taking a higher level view of your projects (and your life) but that’s part of the system that I don’t really make enough use of. 

OmniFocus

Second in a series on task management. Read part 1 here

In my previous post I talked about how I use David Allen’s Getting Things Done system for task management. You can implement GTD in many different mediums, from pencil and paper to a wide variety of software. When I first started with GTD I ran my system on vertically ruled index cards. However, I discovered that I had enough complexity in my life that it quickly overwhelmed my index card based system. I moved over to OmniFocus and I’ve been there ever since.1

OmniFocus is specifically built for GTD and it implements all of GTD’s fundamental concepts: projects, contexts, weekly review, etc. One of the most important features for me is that it’s available on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad and syncs seamlessly between them.

Quick Entry

One of the things that’s important to me is making it as easy as possible to enter tasks. On the Mac OmniFocus does a great job of this right out of the box. It has a quick entry box feature that will pop up ready to receive a task when you press a particular key combination (mine is Ctrl + Option + Space), regardless of what app I’m in at the time. Sometimes I’ll enter all of the details of the task in the quick entry box (Context, Project, defer or due dates), but often I’ll just put enough in there to remind me what the task is supposed to be. OmniFocus will hold the task in it’s inbox until I get around to processing it and adding all of the details.

OmniFocus has a quick entry feature on iOS as well, but it’s nowhere near as useful. Rather than just a quick keyboard combo, I’ve got to open the app and hit the quick entry button before I can start typing. Entering additional details requires navigating through lists of projects and contexts and using the iOS date picker. It’s well designed and uses iOS interface elements well, but for a long time I wanted an experience more like what I could get on the Mac.

Recently I switched over to entering my tasks using the Drafts app. Launching Drafts automatically opens up a new document with a blinking cursor ready to type. It integrates with many different apps, including OmniFocus; allowing me to send whatever I type to OmniFocus as a new task. I actually have two actions set up to send to OmniFocus, one just adds the task, the other specifically adds it to my Work context..

It’s possible to include a due date with a task as well, by putting “@due(today)” after the task (the “today” can be replaced with a specific date or a number of days or weeks). The problem with doing this in Drafts is that the parenthesis and “@“ symbol are more difficult to access on the iOS keyboard. Thankfully, Drafts supports TextExpander snippets. I set up a snippet that replaces “xdue” (which can be typed without any special characters on the iOS keyboard) with “@due( 5pm)” and places the cursor right after the opening parenthesis. So I can type “xdue” and then enter a specific due date or the number of days.2

Defer Dates and Dependencies

One of the best features of OmniFocus is the ability to defer a task. By giving a task a start date sometime in the future it won’t show up in the task list until that date arrives. This is a great feature for keeping stuff that I can’t do anything about right now out of my main task list. I use it all the time when I need to follow up with somebody in a week, or when a task can’t be started until some future time.

OmniFocus also offers the ability to make all of the tasks in a project sequential, so the second task in the project won’t appear in your task list until the first task has been done. This is useful when you’ve got dependencies where a subsequent task can’t be started until you’ve done the previous one. I do wish they had a more flexible system for this, allowing me to make one task dependent on another, rather than having to make the entire project sequential.3

Triaging the Task List

One thing I’ve always struggled with is keeping my task list manageable. OmniFocus can hold huge numbers of tasks, but I can’t deal with that many at one time. When I get too many things on my task list it makes it hard to pick out what I need to be doing right now. I find my limit is about what OmniFocus can display without having to scroll the task list to see everything (15-20 tasks depending on screen size). Defer dates and sequential projects can help with this, but I still have more things that I could be doing right now than I can easily choose from.

The solution I’ve found is to prescreen my task list and create a subset of tasks that I’ll actively consider when deciding what to work on at any given moment. I’ve tried a bunch of different ways to implement this concept in OmniFocus and they’ve all had issues. As Churchill reputedly said, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”4 I can’t say I’ve gotten around to the right way of doing this, but here are some of the other possibilities that I’ve exhausted:

My first approach to this was to use defer dates. I would go into OmniFocus every morning and defer all of the tasks in my task list that weren’t in the subset that I wanted to work on that day. This was rather fiddly and time consuming. In particular, it was hard to implement on iOS, where you have to defer one task at a time (on the Mac you can select a bunch of tasks and defer them simultaneously).

After giving up on the mass defer option, I started using due dates to create the subset of tasks that I was going to pick from. I’d go into OmniFocus in the morning and set the tasks I was interested in to be due that day. This was a bit less fiddly because I only had to set dates for the smaller subset of tasks that I wanted to pick from, but it was still pretty fiddly. It also made it hard to distinguish stuff that had an actual hard deadline from stuff that I had given an arbitrary due date to.

My current method is to use OmniFocus’ flag feature to create my subset. It’s less fiddly since I only have to set the flag for a task once, rather than having to create the subset anew every day. The disadvantage is that since I’m not forced to actively curate the list every day it has a tendency to grow over time, which kind of defeats the purpose of having a small subset of my task list. I’ve recently taken to supplementing this by using a paper notebook to plan my day better, including both tasks and my schedule, but that’s a different article.

An Essential Tool

OmniFocus has really become an essential tool for me. Going back to grade school, things like remembering homework have always been a struggle for me. Since then my life has grown a lot more complex, and having a powerful task management tool is the only way I can keep thing from slipping through the cracks.

Next up in the task management series: analog task management with a notebook and a whiteboard.


  1. Nine years. 
  2. The “5pm” is in there because when you send OmniFocus a task from Drafts with a due date, the default time for the task to be due is 12am (unlike when you enter a task in the OmniFocus app and the default due time is 5pm). So I’ve set up the TextExpander snippet to pre-populate a 5pm due time. 
  3. Although you can set up a subproject inside of a project and make just the subproject sequential, it’s a bit clunky. 
  4. I was disappointed to find the attribution to Churchill is probably apocryphal. It seems like a very Churchillian thing to say. 

Getting Things Done

The first in a series on how I deal with task management.

The level of complexity in a task management system needs to be commensurate with the number and complexity of the tasks that you’re managing. David Sparks relates that when he was a student, his task management system was to write down the day’s tasks on the napkin he got with his morning coffee. I never used a napkin, but as the complexity of my life has varied the complexity of my task management setup has waxed and waned from simple checklists (both paper and computerized) to powerful task management software.

Right now I’m at a fairly high level of complexity: my task management system involves two different pieces of software, a notebook, and a whiteboard. I’ll talk about these tools in future posts, but to start with I wanted to talk a bit about the conceptual framework that underlies it all.

That framework is the Getting Things Done system by David Allen. GTD is one of the most popular task methodologies, there are a lot of people out there using it. However, everyone seems to have their own particular take on the system. I sometimes think there are as many was of implementing GTD as there are people using the system. So what I describe certainly should not be taken as canonical. It’s more like, “This is my GTD system. There are many like it but this one is mine.”

Clean Sweep

Of all of the aspects of GTD, the one that was the biggest benefit to me when I first started was getting all of my tasks out of my head and into some sort of system. This is important for a couple of reasons: First, since I am terribly absent minded, any task I just try to rely on remembering is very unlikely to actually get done. I have to get it written down in a place where I’ll come back to it later. Second, (and this is the reason that David Allen emphasizes) having these unfinished tasks bouncing around in the mind is a distraction. It’ll be there, gnawing away until it gets done. Perhaps because I’m so forgetful this has been less of a problem for me.

The cure for both these ills is to get tasks out of my head an into some sort of system. For me, that system is OmniFocus. I’ve got it set up so that it’s extremely easy to get tasks into the software and as soon as I think of something I need to do I’ll pause whatever I’m doing and get it in there. I know from experience that there’s not a moment to waste if I don’t want to forget it.

Next Actions

The next step in GTD is to group tasks into projects and organize them as a series of “next actions”. One of the things I had to learn how to do when I started with GTD was distinguish between projects and actions. When I’m capturing a task, it might go into my system as “learn programming language X”, but that’s not something I can just sit down and do. It’s too big and involves too many different steps to bite off in one go. The next actions might be “Search Amazon for books on programming language X” or “Download programming language X software”.

The critical idea here is that taking a larger project and figuring out the next step requires mental energy. If I have to put in that energy right at the moment when I’m trying to start the work it creates an additional barrier, and the harder it is to get started the more likely I am to do something else. By putting in that thought about what the next step is up front, it lowers the amount of effort it takes to get started with the task when the time comes to actually do it. So when I’m looking at my task list all I have to do is pick one and do it.

While the “action” part of next actions is important, the “next” part is critical as well. One of the things I’ve struggled with is when my task list gets too long, it becomes harder and harder to go through the list and pick something off of it to work on. This makes it important to limit the task list to stuff I can actually do right now. There’s no need to clutter it up with something I can’t start on until next week or tasks I can’t start until I hear back from a colleague. This is where software can make a really big difference. One of the things I really like about OmniFocus is it’s ability to defer tasks (hiding them until a future date) or to make tasks sequential (you don’t even see Task B until you’ve checked off Task A). It really helps keep my list of available tasks manageable.

Contexts

The other way GTD is set up to limit the number of available tasks is by dividing tasks into different contexts. If the task is to fix a leaky faucet at home that’s not something I need to see when I’m at work.

This is one aspect of GTD that I’ve always struggled with, and I know I’m not the only one. When David Allen wrote Getting Things Done back in 2001 the canonical contexts where things like Phone, Computer, Internet, and Office. The idea was on an airplane you could ignore tasks that require phone calls or internet access. If you didn’t have your computer with you didn’t need to see tasks that require a computer or internet access. The problem is the proliferation of mobile devices and cellular data connections have blurred these lines tremendously. Unless a task requires me to be in a particular location, it’s usually something that I could be working on wherever I am.

So, I have three contexts: Work, Home, and Computer. The real divide here is between personal stuff and job related stuff. Work is for everything job related. Personal stuff is divided between Home and Computer. The tasks that require me to physically be at home go in the Home category and things that I can do anywhere I have access to a computing device and an internet connection in the Computer category.

In turn, this means that contexts don’t do a very good job of limiting my available task list. If I’m at home I could be working on everything on my Home and Computer tasks lists and almost everything on my Work task list (with the exception of a few tasks I need to physically at the office to do). This means I’ve always got a ton of different things I could be working on, which makes choosing one of them to actually work on more difficult.

Review

The final piece of the puzzle is to review outstanding projects and next actions every week. It’s really a series of questions about each project: Is this something I still need or want to do? Are there any tasks associated with this project that haven’t made it onto the list of next actions? If I haven’t made progress in the last week, why not?

This is another area that I’ve struggled with and it’s really a critical one. When I fail to do my review for a couple of weeks cruft builds up on my task list and things fall through the cracks. I’ve gotten better about this in part by scheduling time for the weekly review. I review for my personal projects on Sunday evening and my work projects on Monday afternoon. I’m also using an app called Due that’s another part of my task management system to remind myself to do the review on a regular basis. My track record on weekly reviews still isn’t perfect, but it’s getting better.

Getting Things Done has really been a godsend for me. Without it I would be blowing deadlines and missing tasks left and right. It’s really essential for me to be able to function as a responsible adult.

Next up in the task management series: OmniFocus, my task management software of choice.

Inventorying my Tools

One of the things I’ve been inspired to do lately is to take an inventory of all the tools I use to get work done. 1 To help bring some order to this I’ve broken it down into tools I use every day, tools that I use often, and tools that I only use occasionally, but are vital for particular tasks (within each of these categories tools are listed in no particular order).

Every Day

OmniFocus
Microsoft Word
Safari
Chrome
Outlook
Spark
iPhone Mail app
Hours
Bear
1Password
Dropbox
TextExpander
Field Notes

Often

Drafts
Byword
Ulysses
Workflow
Excel
Numbers
PowerPoint
Timepage
My office whiteboard

Occasional But Vital

ArcGIS
TransCAD
Python (IDLE)
TextWrangler
Scrivener
OmniOutliner
OmniGraffle
Fantastical

The list itself is kind of interesting, but I think the real value here is to reflect on the tools individually and as a set. Are there some of these where I would benefit from learning to use them better? Which ones do I want to use more often? Which ones do I want to use less often? Are there tools that don’t fit my needs anymore? What tools aren’t I using that I might benefit from?

I’d really like to move Drafts up the list and make it an app I use every day. I know I’m not using it to it’s full potential right now. On the flip side, I’d like to use Microsoft Word less often. It’s in the “daily” category because I use a PC at work and almost all of the folks I collaborate with don’t write text any other way except in Word. I’d much rather use a simpler Markdown enabled text editor (several of which you’ll see on the list). I doubt I can get it off the list entirely, but only having to open it a few times a week seems doable.

One of the tools that’s helping me diminish my reliance on Microsoft Word is Bear. It’s can export content as a Word document and, using Dropbox, I can get the exported .doc file onto my work PC fairly easily. When I initially made this list, Bear was in the “often” category, but by the time I got around to writing this article it had jumped up to “every day”.

Among the things this list has me thinking about is whether Byword is going to stick around for me much longer. It’s been a mainstay for me on both iOS and the Mac for a long time. But when I look at all of the text editors on the list I have to wonder how much room there really is for it between Bear on one hand and Ulysses on the other. About the only thing Byword has going for it right now is when I need to make some edits to a text file on the filesystem of my Mac (since both Bear and Ulysses want to store their own documents internally).

Many of the apps in the occasional category are problematic. They serve a vital purpose, but I don’t use them often enough to really achieve a level of mastery. There are a few of them like ArcGIS that were everyday apps for me in the past and enough of that knowledge has stuck around that I can still make them dance when I need to.

For some of them I probably just need to decide if a more specialized app that I seldom use is worth the overhead compared to a more general tool that I use less often (Ulysses versus Scrivener, for example). For many of them, though, I really don’t have a good alternative. It’s just not a problem I’ve got a solution to at the moment.

In addition to all the apps, you’ll notice a pair of analog tools on the list (Field Notes and my office whiteboard). Initially this list was going to be focused on just software tools, but these are important to my getting things done. In particular, the Field Notes Steno books that I use for all my note taking in meetings and the like is probably one of the most vital, and most used tool on the list.

Overall, I think this was a useful exercise. It got me thinking and caused me to make some changes to how I use certain apps. I’d encourage others to give it a try as well. It’s probably something worth doing on a regular basis.


  1. I’ve excluded personal stuff that I use purely for recreation, like Reeder and Sonos.