Productivity and Organization

Over time I’ve acquired a reputation for being an organized (and, presumably, productive) person; occasionally, people ask me for tips.

Be as efficient as you can.

In the interest of following my own tips, I’m writing this up as a blog post so I have something I can quickly send to folks when they ask. Automate things where you can; if you’ve got the time to learn it, Workflow is a wonderful tool.1 I’ve got a good chunk of my morning routine compressed into pressing a single button on my phone and, depending on how complex my calendar is for the day, answering a question or two.

Don’t trust your brain to remember things

The human brain is a wonderful machine! Unfortunately, it’s terrible at remembering things, but also convinced that isn’t the case. The good news is, we invented writing, and then computers, both of which make it much easier to remember things. So don’t just put stuff in your head and assume it’ll stay there; it doesn’t matter what you use, but have somewhere permanent that you can put stuff. Depending on what you prefer, you can use a planner or notebook, or go all digital like I have. Personally, I use a combination of the system-default Calendar app, syncing through Google Calendar, with Drafts 42 as my “writing thoughts down in the middle of the night” app, Day One as a journal, and Ulysses for any longer-form writing or note-taking.3

Have a to-do list

Technically speaking, this is an extension of the above, but don’t trust yourself to remember things you have to do in a day. If they’re at a specific time or meeting with someone, they go in your calendar; otherwise, they go on the to-do list. Again, this can be on paper if that’s your style, but if you’re a big ol’ tech nerd, you’ve got a bounty of options. The built-in Reminders app is… there, and it’s not great, but it’s free and meets the bare minimum of functionality. Personally, I’m a big fan of Things 3,4 but Omnifocus is also a big name in the field, if (in my opinion) over-complicated. That said, task management apps like that are a huge market on the iOS and macOS app stores, as well as just online, so you should be able to find something you like.
Once you’ve started using it, I recommend the “vaguely Getting Things Done” style, which consists of “write stuff down as soon as you think of it, and file it away in the proper place when you’ve got time.” The important thing is to not go “oh, I’ll remember that later,” because there’s a really good chance you won’t.

Figure out what you’re spending your time on

You know that feeling like you’ve wasted a whole day? That’s stupid, but it’s also hard to convince your brain you’ve been productive if you don’t actually know what you’ve been spending your time on. Having a to-do list helps with this; you can look at your list for the day and see all the things you’ve checked off.5 Beyond that, you may want to try time tracking; I’m a fan of toggl and use it all the time. I keep the website pinned in a tab on my laptop, and rather than use their app, I’ve got some Workflows built that interact with their web API.6 It works pretty well for me; I know what I’m spending time on, and I can also use it for some very accurate billing, should I need to.

Clean up

Finally, staying organized is not only helpful for quickly finding things, it also just tends to make you feel better about everything. Take time when you can to organize your work and living spaces. If you’re currently in college, you’ve probably got ten thousand pages of various papers drifting around; next time it’s time to buy textbooks, I recommend going digital (it’s slightly cheaper, and then you only have to carry around your laptop/tablet, which you were probably gonna be carrying anyways, and you can search in your books, which is quite helpful). For the zillions of pages of handouts you get, invest in a scanner that can do duplex scanning and a recycle bin; it’s amazing how much space you can save by getting rid of all the papers.7 Once you’ve got things digitized (or, preferably, as you get them digitized), come up with a neat organizational system and stick to it. For school stuff, semester/term lines are a nice dividing line; if you’re doing the whole ‘adult life’ thing, the tax year is a good one.8

I’m going to call it done there. If you skipped to the end, the single most important thing I’d like you to get from this is brains are bad at remembering things; write stuff down. That’s my number one tip, so if you only take one thing from this, that’d be it.
If you’ve got any questions, I’ve recently brought back the ability for people to leave comments, so go ahead and do that.9 And hey, maybe I’ll do more posts like this, I enjoy doing the writing, and it’s fun to be able to support the various apps I use.10

  1. In September 2018, or thereabouts, it’s going to disappear and be replaced by Shortcuts, but from what we’ve seen in public betas, Shortcuts has the same functionality, some new features, and a new coat of paint, so if that link doesn’t work, just search the App Store for ‘Shortcuts.’ 
  2. Drafts 5 has been out and received very good reviews for its automation capabilities, but all I really want from the app is a dark color scheme and the ability to open directly into a new document, so the old version works for me. 
  3. That link is to Ulysses’ iOS app, but thanks to their subscription system, you pay for it on one platform and get it on iPad and Mac as well; mostly I use it on the Mac, but it’s nice to have it available wherever. 
  4. That’s their macOS app; they’ve also got separate iPhone and iPad apps. 
  5. This is why I’ve got Things set up not to sweep things away as soon as I check them off, but to leave them there until the end of the day. If I look at my list and it’s empty, nothing to do and looking like I’ve done nothing, the “oh god I wasted the whole day” feeling gets so much worse
  6. If you’d like to know more about those, leave something in the comments that I’ve just remembered I opened back up. 
  7. You don’t necessarily need to do what I did, which was a roughly five-year-long process of clearing out every paper I own, but then, you’re hopefully less of a pack-rat than I was, too. 
  8. Oh, and don’t leave those files in a single place; the nice thing about being digital is that it’s easy to make copies, and when you’ve got copies, you don’t have to worry that you’ll lose the original. These days, I throw all the current stuff into iCloud Drive, but I used to use Dropbox; older things get moved from whichever cloud to an external hard drive that’s backed up with Backblaze
  9. It’s one of the only ways to get in touch with me. Bonus productivity tip, for those of you reading the footnotes: social media sucks, stop using it. 
  10. Shameless self promotion: as an app developer, I know how danged hard it can be to actually make a living from the App Store. Support the people making the stuff you use. 

“What’s On My Phone,” or, “without these apps I would ACTUALLY DIE”

School has begun again in earnest, which means I’m suddenly remembering just how much I rely upon my devices for keeping me sane and, more importantly, organized. It’s something I’m apparently rather good at, and I think it’s pretty useful for just about everyone, so I figured I’d share some of the tools I use.1

Calendar (system default)

When you’re taking as many classes as I am,2 plus trying to cram in an extracurricular or two to stay ‘well-rounded,’ it can get a bit hard to remember where you’re supposed to be next. The single best piece of advice I can give you is to figure out how best to use the built-in calendar on your device. Connecting an iCloud or Google account to get it syncing across everything, and you’re golden.34

To-Do List (Things)

Following a well-organized calendar, I’d say the single most important thing to have is a good to-do list. Things is my app of choice for having a to-do list, but there’s a few other options out there – OmniFocus is the powerhouse, but it’s a good bit more expensive than the average college kid is willing to pay. I haven’t really looked into the other ones, but they should all work. The main point here is to have a to-do list. The human brain sucks at remembering things – we all think we’re good at it, and we are horribly wrong. Get into the habit of, when you think of something you have to do, putting it on the list. Doesn’t matter if it’s an app or just a page in your notebook – just get it out of your head and into something permanent.5

Mail (Airmail)

Email!6 It’s a thing, it’s basically mandatory for living in a first-world country, we can’t escape it. May as well make it fairly manageable. Apple’s Mail app is a pretty solid implementation of email, but it’s a bit lacking in integration with third party apps and customizability. Airmail is pretty great at both, and all the settings somehow do iCloud sync better than Apple’s stuff does. And, killer feature? Snoozes. Fairly common in mail apps these days, they make the whole ‘inbox zero’ thing way more manageable.

Writing (Ulysses, Drafts, and Day One)

I do a heck of a lot of writing, and I’ve found that markdown is one of the nicest ways to do it. It’s a very lightweight writing syntax – just type like normal, but if you want to italicize something, wrap it in single-asterisks, and if you want bold, do the same with double-asterisks. It’s got fancier features – links are incredibly easy, footnotes not too difficult, and lists make a lot of sense – but depending on what you’re planning to use it for, those may be all you need. So it makes sense that all the apps in this section are compatible with it.
For the majority of my writing, I use Ulysses. Their library of export themes includes fairly ready-to-use themes that make converting a paper from markdown into ‘ready to submit PDF’ just a couple of clicks, and the library organization makes my heart happy. And, with my writing style,7 the killer feature is footnotes – instead of Markdown’s default footnote syntax, I just type (fn) and it pulls up a nice overlay to write my footnote in. So delightfully easy.
Drafts is for lighter-weight writing – it’s a spin-off of the “don’t try to keep things in your head” system I mentioned under the To-Do List heading above. Not everything that I want to remember is a thing that needs to be done – sometimes it’s a scrap of an idea for a blog post or another piece of writing, or maybe it’s a nonsensical quote for my collection.8 Either way, being able to open up a new note and have it ready to type immediately is nice. That said, there’s very little organization to speak of, so for the sort of stuff I’m doing with Ulysses9 it really wouldn’t work.
Finally, Day One is a journaling app of such high quality that, I kid you not, it was one of the main factors in my deciding to switch to macOS (then OS X) after I graduated from high school. I try to write a summary of every day before I go to bed,10 and it’s nice to be able to flip back through all my old entries and see what I was thinking.11

News (Feedly, Instapaper, and Overcast)

None of my recommendations for news are algorithmically-powered – I have yet to find an algorithm that does a good job of figuring out the sort of news I want to read. So I stick with straight RSS. Feedly is the strong contender for RSS readers ever since the death of Google Reader,12 and while they provide a good API that means there’s a bit of an app ecosystem around them, I’ve found their default app (on iOS, and the web app for macOS) to be perfectly enough.
Now, as you’re reading your RSS feeds, you may come across something you want to read… but not right at this moment. Instapaper is a pretty good service for that – the app is very well-designed, and functions beautifully without internet access, so if you’ve got a cell-service-unfriendly commute, or just a limited data plan, I recommend it as a way to keep a bunch of articles ready to read.
Finally, podcasts seem to be all the rage these days. Apple’s built-in Podcasts app is… there. In case you want something that hasn’t been forgotten by the people who make it, Marco Arment’s Overcast is wonderful. He’s a big proponent of open web technologies, something I’m clearly13 in favor of, and Overcast as an app is the sort of app I’d like to make one day.14 Killer feature? Smart Speed – who has time to listen to a podcast at normal speed when you can crank it up to three times faster than normal? Overcast does that without making everyone sound like chipmunks using what I can only assume is some sort of deep audio wizardry.

Music (iTunes/Cesium)

If you’ve been around on my blog for any length of time, you’ve noticed that I post my playlist every month. As a musician, I’m not a big fan of streaming music – they still aren’t doing a great job of paying the artists, and yadda yadda you’ve heard it all before. I’m just an angry old man, shaking my cane at kids, telling them to get off my lawn with their new-fangled streaming services. I just stick with iTunes and actually buying songs for my music needs.
That said, the people designing the Music app on iOS clearly have no idea that people without Apple Music still exist, and the app is borderline hostile to users who don’t have a subscription. I got fed up with it after the last iOS update and took advantage of the ability to remove the built-in apps to replace it with Cesium, which I’d describe as “what the default Music app would be if Apple hadn’t launched Apple Music after iOS 7.”

I think that’s where I’m going to leave it – I’ve got a few more apps on my phone, obviously, but I think I’ve hit all the really useful ones, at least for the college kid trying to stay organized about the whole “oh god so many classes” thing. Good luck with the coming semester (or the rest of the quarter, if you’re one of Those Schools) and, I suppose, fire me a tweet or a message if you’ve got a suggestion of something else that really needs to be on this list.

  1. I’ll be linking to the iOS apps for most of these, but a couple are web services, and most of them have a macOS app of the same name. 
  2. I’m sitting at ‘1 credit above the 18-credit maximum,’ and working on getting signed up for an online class that’s about a 3-credit equivalent. Free time is something that happens to other people. 
  3. Hint: use the macOS Calendar app to set stuff up, it’s a bit easier to get the ‘custom repeat’ stuff to line up with what the class schedule actually looks like. 
  4. Second hint: BlackBoard Learn and, I assume, the equivalent pieces of software at other schools, have something hidden away in the settings that allows you to export an iCal feed of due dates; set that to import into your calendar for low-effort reminders of when things are due. 
  5. My organizational system is vaguely based on the Getting Things Done system, but it’s inexact because I’ve never actually read the GTD book. With Things, I have Areas set up for Home, Work, School, and Media. Tags within that keep track of what stuff is for what class. Setting the due date of assignments is quite nice, as I can have things sort by that or by class. 
  6. Or E-mail! if you prefer. 
  7. “The bastard child of Terry Pratchett and David Foster Wallace” 
  8. The photo book I put together at the end of my study abroad in Austria captioned all the photos with contextless quotes from my fellow students. 
  9. Notes and papers for classes, all of my blog posts, a manuscript or two… 
  10. Which, to be fair, sometimes consist of “I did a lot of things today, and so now I am very tired. Good night, future self.” 
  11. Plus it’s a great way to vent without spitting out a wall of sub-tweets. Journals are an underappreciated way of dealing with being mad at people. 
  12. Not that I’m still bitter or anything. 
  13. Proudly powered by WordPress! 
  14. Not literally a podcast-playing app, because that’s not a competition I want to get into, but the ideals behind the way he builds i- oh whatever, you know what I mean. 

How I Organize My Digital Life

This is written in response to a post of the same title that my friend did on her blog: normally I would’ve responded in the comments, but it seemed like such a fun concept for a post that I felt like doing my own write-up.
In a similar vein, I am fairly immersed in the Apple ecosystem, though not entirely: my primary machine is a Macbook Pro running OS X Yosemite, and I’ve also got an iPhone 6 to which I am attached. However, a lot of my sync services are handled elsewhere – I use OneDrive, Dropbox, and my own server(s), as well as Google Calendar and a variety of email services.
For the apps that keep me organized, though, the list is as follows:


Apps that I use on both my Macbook and my iPhone.
1. Calendar. Mine is a multicolored mess, but each color corresponds to a calendar for specific things. My main Google Calendar is full of obligations – work, club meetings, classes. I’ve got an iCloud calendar of practice time and meals, things that are important but not quite as critical, another iCloud calendar for my free time, and another that I use for stuff that I might do. Plus, three calendars stored on my school’s Exchange server, which I use to keep track of the hours for the dining hall, the campus mail room, and office hours of my professors.1
2. Things. I wound up with this app after it was part of a bundle of software I bought at one point, and I’ve been using it ever since. The sync is well-done, and I enjoy having a ‘per day’ sort of system rather than the specific-time setup that Apple’s native Reminders app uses.
3. Pocket. The Share extension in iOS is beautifully-implemented, and the service is very reliable. I tend to binge-add, and then read through things slowly. Pocket is what I use for all of my linked-lists style content.2
4. Excel. I use spreadsheets to keep track of my budget and which classes I’m going to take and when. They’re intense spreadsheets.
5. Day One. Not technically for keeping organized but more for keeping sane, I use Day One as my journal of choice. Every day, about an hour before I go to bed, I’ll write up anything notable that happened that day. I’m outsourcing my memory.
6. Dropbox. To be honest, I almost forgot about this one because of how seamless it is. Dropbox is the glue that binds my life together and I could not function without it.3
7. myHomework. It’s technically possible to do everything that myHomework does using a combination of other apps on this list, but the ease-of-use of having it all in one place is worth it to me. Especially considering that I’m taking about a billion classes and I need to keep track of what project is for what class.
8. Mint. It’s got less functionality than my bank’s website does (in terms of what I can actually do with accounts and stuff) but it’s helpful to put my balance next to the balance on my student loans. Keeps things in perspective.


Not available on my iPhone, unfortunately.
1. Airmail 2.4 Email is an important thing that I use a lot. Airmail 2 is host to all 8 of the email addresses – spread across six different email servers – that I use regularly.5
2. Ulysses. I do all of my writing in Markdown6 and Ulysses is my favorite editor out of all of the ones that I’ve tried. It’s got a few idiosyncrasies, but half the time they’re features that I enjoy – the footnotes, for example, are wonderfully executed. And when I say I like it, I mean “I have more than 50,000 words written in it to date.”7


Those things that are iPhone-only.
1. Outlook. The best mail app I could find that supports my varied email providers. It’s actually a pretty good app, too, not just a ‘the only thing that would work’ – I’ve got one or two things I would change, but it’s all fairly well-implemented.
2. Health. I somehow became one of those Quantified Self people, to some degree or another. I’ve been on the iOS 9 beta for a while, and I really enjoy the Health-native support for water tracking. I also using Withings HealthMate to put in my pulse sometimes, because why not, and Lose It! to track what I’m eating.8

So yeah, that’s how I keep myself organized. It’s a complicated system, but it works for me.

  1. There’s no central place where all professors list their office hours, which I find strange. It’s an idea I’m fiddling with as a potential for a capstone project in my computer science major. 
  2. The Daring Fireball-style quotes-with-links posts I’ve been doing a lot of lately. 
  3. It’s gotten to the point that I now install it on the computer I use in the Computer Science lab, in spite of the fact that the machine has Deep Freeze on it. Long story short, I install and sign in to Dropbox at least once a week in that lab. And it is worth it
  4. Apparently they’ve got an iOS app coming out soon. I am very excited. 
  5. Don’t ask why I have that many functional email addresses. It just… happened. 
  6. John Gruber has been more of an influence in my life than I thought. Hmm. 
  7. I’m guesstemating here, but I’ve got about 100,000 words stored in it overall and I did anywhere from 30,000-50,000 of that in other editors and later imported them into my Ulysses file structure. 
  8. Fun fact: I started using Lose It! during the fall of last year, not because I felt like I needed to lose weight, but because I needed a reminder to eat enough that I wasn’t starving myself. I forgot to schedule myself time to eat meals. Whoops.