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An Experiment in First Party Apps

Reflections on several weeks of using only Apple’s first party apps.

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Over the past couple weeks, and largely prompted by the releases of iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, I’ve been trying an experiment where I used first party apps everywhere I possibly could. I had three main reasons for giving this a try: simply enjoying doing experiments like this, liking to challenge my assumptions about what I think I need to do my work, and being curious about how my computing experience might be better if I went all-in on the Apple ecosystem.

Without going through app by app I figured I’d share some of my larger learning points:

There’s a certain elegance or comforting state of mind to using all first-party apps.

I’m not sure if this is just my own broken mind or if others experience this as well, but when I was using first party apps across all my devices I felt calm about my setup. All the apps were made by the same company so ostensibly they should all work together extremely well, right? They all came pre-installed with the device I’m using so I’m computing in as minimal way as possible. No fussing over three different apps that all do basically the same thing — instead just using what’s provided and staying focused on the work. I liked the feeling of knowing that I was using my devices with almost no customization. I knew I could buy a new computer or borrow somebody else’s and I’d feel comfortable in doing the work I needed to do.

Some of the apps are just as good as what I was using before and I’ve decided to stick with them.

Early in this experiment I deleted Evernote from my phone and my computer and decided to try to use the new Notes app as its replacement. While Notes does not bill itself as an Evernote replacement and it’s not nearly as full featured as Evernote I quickly realized that it worked better for what I needed to do. Evernote had become bloated over the past few years and I no longer enjoyed using it. What I realized by shifting to Notes is that I didn’t need something as big and all-encompassing as Evernote to do my work. Notes is lightweight yet still powerful, syncs across my devices nearly instantaneously, and (this is where Evernote started to fail) is actually enjoyable to use.

You begin to appreciate apps that do the little things well when all you use are first party apps for awhile.

This experiment actually pitted two opposite sides of my personality against each other. The minimalist inside me loves the idea of using only the bare minimum tools to get work done. However, there’s also a very large part of me who loves to make sure I’m using the best tool in every situation. In many ways I have power user tendencies that result in trying out tons of new things and really making sure that what I’m using is truly best-in-class. While Apple has done an admirable job across most of the apps they ship with iOS or OS X, the aren’t necessarily aimed at power users. They aim to do the bare minimum. They do the bare minimum extremely well, but there were times I found myself longing for some apps that added that extra level of polish and functionality.

All in all, I’m glad I gave this a try over the past few weeks. Even though I’m shifting back to some of my beloved non-first party apps I now know that if I had to I could be perfectly productive using nothing but the provided apps. I may not choose to work that way right now but there’s a certain peace of mind knowing that I don’t truly need my fancy third party apps to get serious work done. And, as with any personal experiment, I learned a little bit more about myself and what I value.

If you’re curious about what I tried and what I decided to keep using I’m providing my current setup below:

  • I tried using Podcasts.app across my devices but I ended up going back to Overcast because of Smart Speed.
  • I tried using TextEdit on my Mac for all my basic word processing needs but I moved back to Byword because of Markdown support.
  • I tried using Twitter.app and the Twitter website and I’m still kind of undecided between sticking with it or going back to Tweetbot. Tweetbot is a delight to use but I’m worried about Twitter’s relationship with third party developers and I feel like I should get on board with how Twitter obviously wants people to interact with the service.
  • I tried using Calendar.app on my iPhone and on my computer but have decided to shift back to Fantastical. Quick adding events with natural language is a much better experience than adding events in Apple’s calendar app.
  • I tried using Notes.app instead of Evernote and I’m sticking with it. The new Notes app is top notch.
  • I tried using Reminders as a replacement for Things. Reminders is really not built for managing lots of complex projects so I very quickly realized it wasn’t going to work as a replacement for more robust task management software.
  • I tried committing to Mail.app on all my devices and I’ve decided to stick with it. I honestly don’t get very much email and it has been more than sufficient and enjoyable to use for my needs.
  • I’ve been using Safari across all my devices for a long time so no change there.
  • I tried using Numbers and Pages instead of Excel and Word. So far I’ve been able to stick with Numbers and Pages but I have a feeling there will be situations where I will need to revert to Excel and Word (particularly with my PhD work and collaborating with my advisor). However, I haven’t installed the Microsoft Office suite on my new work computer and I’m going to see how long I can hold out.
  • I committed to using iBooks over the Kindle app awhile ago. I didn’t like having my e-book collection spread across multiple services so several months ago I decided to go all-in with iBooks. I really enjoy it so far.
  • I tried the three month free trial of Apple Music when it first came out and decided to commit to it over Spotify. In many ways Spotify and Apple Music were basically identical for me so I decided to give the tie to the first party app. I suspect I’ll dip into Spotify from time to time to see how it’s being developed, especially if Apple Music begins to feel stagnant. For now I’m happy with it.
  • I committed to using iCloud Drive as my data backend wherever possible. I still have a Dropbox account because that is how my research lab shares data but for everything else I’m using iCloud Drive. So far it has been rock solid.
  • I tried using Safari Reading List as a replacement for Instapaper. I’m going back to Instapaper, though, primarily for the offline reading and the ability to “like” articles. I have a pretty mature workflow around sending things to read to Instapaper from basically anywhere and then sharing great articles in batches with Buffer. I couldn’t figure out a good way to replicate that with Reading List. Plus, Reading List doesn’t save the articles for offline reading and I like to use Instapaper when I’m on the subway.
  • I’ve been using Apple Maps for a long time but I’ve had a series of complications recently that are causing me to seriously reconsider whether this should be my go-to mapping service. It’s walking a very narrow line with me right now…
  • I’ve been trying Apple News since the release of iOS 9. I’m not sure if it will fit into my workflow in the long run but right now I’m trying to give it a fair shake.
  • Key third party apps I use all the time that don’t really have a first party replacement include: Day One, Slack, Instagram, and Paprika. Other first party apps I use regularly include Photos, Reminders, and Messages.

On Sight, Blindness, and Stretched Metaphors

Today’s snippet is brought to you by this article from CGP Grey, Daredevil, and a long walk.

Daredevil is a blind hero. After being blinded in an accident as a child his other senses grew to sensational levels of sensitivity. He could no longer see but he could hear heartbeats from hundreds of feet away, know someone’s emotional state by the way they smelled, and could move through his environment as deftly on his non-sight senses as he ever could with vision. What initially seemed like a handicap promoted him to grow in new ways.

I’m looking for a little of my own Daredevil-ness. I’ve decided to “blind” myself from easy distraction by unfollowing everyone I used to follow on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I erased my RSS reader and moved Apple News to the back of a folder. I unsubscribed from every podcast I used to listen to. My hope is that the energy that used to go into these activities will be productively rerouted into other outlets, namely the creation of awesome stuff.

Drastic measures? Probably. Although, it feels like it’s necessary to take drastic measures if I want to make a drastic impact on the world. Working in a start-up and finishing a PhD at the same time isn’t something that can be considered doable under “business as usual.” It requires honesty with myself. If I want do what matters I can’t do it all.

Silly metaphor? Certainly. Hypocritical to follow nobody on social media when I want others to follow me? Yep. Do I feel like extremely uncomfortable that I’ll somehow miss something important? You bet.

After cleaning out all the accounts I mentioned above I went for a walk. I noticed and felt things that I haven’t in a long time. Parts of my brain that used to be preoccupied by the low din of constant connection started wandering to new places. My other “senses” (creativity, motivation, discipline, and diligence) started to feel more energized.

My powers won’t let me beat up bad guys or be awesome at martial arts, but they just might help me do something awesome in my own areas of interest. At the very least, it’s worth a shot, right?

Turning Off the Informational Deluge

Today’s snippet comes from realizing the connection between news, gossip, bite-sized nuggets of information, and doing my most meaningful work is tenuous. And this article by Jason Fried.

I recently embarked on an experiment where I opened the informational floodgates and let the world of news, think pieces, and “thought leadership” wash over me.

That experiment is now over.

I’m back to my cozy world of following basically nobody on Twitter (it’s not personal), Facebook (sorry high school friends), and Instagram (I can like you as a person even though you take terrible photographs). I’ve re-built my minimal RSS reading experience where I follow only a handful of extremely high quality sources. I’ve stopped trying to teach Apple News that I don’t want to read articles about celebrities or basketball. I’ve been exposed to some new ideas over the past few weeks, realized what I’m not actually missing out on much, and developed a new appreciation for silence, reflection, and wrestling with my own thoughts.

The nice thing about this little experiment is the fact that I’m really not feeling any anxiety about missing out on anything. I was super on top of everything for weeks and I don’t think I did any particularly great work or had any awesome ideas. I mean, I wasn’t a bump on a log or useless during that time but it’s not like I was crushing it. It just reinforces to me that feeling connected and plugged in to what’s going on in and around my areas of interest is not necessary to do great work. Without the time and attentional space provided by turning off the informational faucets it probably actually prevented a lot of great work from happening.

I’m not disappearing. I’m not turning into a hermit. I’m just committed to trying to do more awesome things.

The World Is Your Hard Drive

Today’s snippet is brought to you by the thoughts stimulated by episode 244 of the excellent podcast, Back to Work and the concept of stigmergy.

The world around us contains tons of information, some of which we placed into it and some of which we didn’t. I don’t mean newspapers or websites. I’m talking about a more basic type of information. The light is red so you stop, the sidewalk is crumbled so you step around it, and the sky looks cloudy so you grab an umbrella. Simple and obvious stuff, right?

These are all examples of things that happen to us and then prompt some kind of action. However, that’s not the only way the environment can prompt action. There’s no reason we can’t be the one who puts something into the world to prompt us to take a certain action later. We all do it already, actually. When you set an alarm to remind yourself the coffee is done brewing you’re taking action because of something you did to your environment in the past (setting a timer). You didn’t sit around and fret about when those three minutes were up. Once you set that alarm you were able to continue moving through your day without any extra psychological weight.

You can take this to an even higher level, though. This is when we start to get into the realm of Getting Things Done and #lifehacks. We can deliberately offload certain responsibilities and reminders into our environment in order to lift that burden from our already information overload ravaged and besieged brains. The classic trick of putting something you absolutely positively must not forget in the morning on top of your car keys falls firmly in this category. By doing this you’ve removed the constant tug of, “Don’t forget this, don’t forget this, don’t forget this…” and placed the only reminder you need into the physical world. You’ve offloaded your psychic worry into the physical world.

Looking back to the micro-transitions I discussed yesterday, does your environment support or hinder the action you want yourself to take? As Merlin says in Back to Work, do you “make the right thing the easy thing”? Here are some examples I’ve tried or am trying from my own life:

  • I’ve installed a “lightweight distraction blocker” into my world by moving distracting apps on my phone to a folder instead of keeping them front and center.
  • I’ve installed a “motivation booster” into my world by starting every work session with a specific playlist I always listen to while working.
  • I’ve installed a “morning routine aid” by making sure everything I need to make coffee the way I like it is clean and ready to go every night.
  • I’ve installed a “reminder app” by putting every idea I have regarding anything I’m working on into a trusted bucket (my Things inbox).
  • I’ve literally installed a shared task management product into my world (Trello) so I don’t have to try to keep track of what my coworkers are working on.

On a basic level what I’m trying to do, and where I think I’m only just scratching the surface, is to leave imprints on my environment from when I’m feeling intelligent and inspired that I can follow later when I’m feeling tired or overwhelmed. The more I can craft my environment to nudge me in the “right” direction the more willpower and attention I can save for things that matter (like solving difficult problems and thinking creatively).

Clean up your working drive (i.e. brain) by trusting more of it to the gigantic external hard drive that surrounds you every day (i.e. the rest of the world).

On Micro-Transitions and a Sense of Momentum

Today’s snippet comes from my desire to figure out how I work best.

A micro-transition is any time during my day when I’m shifting from one state to another. For example, the transition from waking up to starting my morning routine or the transition between finishing lunch and getting back to work. There are a handful of these transitions that happen throughout the day that when handled correctly often have an inordinately huge impact on how productive I feel.

Focusing on these micro-transitions makes it less daunting to try improving larger aspects of my life. Instead of feeling like I have to nail the 4–5 aspects of my morning routine everyday I’ve learned that if I simply focus on the micro-transition of minimizing the time between my eyes opening and me standing in front of my coffee maker everything else tends to take care of itself. Once I’ve got the coffee process going I know the rest of the morning is going to be okay. If I wake up and then fiddle around with my phone in bed then I know I’ve messed up.

Another micro-transition I’ve been practicing is how I spend the first ten minutes after lunch. My inclination is to open Twitter or Reddit and find something to read. However, if I instead take those ten minutes getting organized or writing the rest of the day tends to go much better. It’s when I get sucked into a mindless browsing spiral immediately after lunch that I get frustrated with myself.

I may have buried the lede here but I think this concept can be extrapolated to organizations and teams, too. Obviously, each person in an organization has to deal with micro-transitions similar to the ones I described earlier but there’s a version of these that collectives experience. How does a team manage the transition from being in a meeting to getting back to work? How does a team manage the transition from the end of the weekend to Monday morning? Or from the end of a workshop to the first day after a workshop? There’s a line that needs to be traversed between celebrating feelings of progress (“That was a great meeting,” or “We crushed phase one of this project”) and keeping the momentum going over time. The most successful projects I’ve worked on have a steadily increasing level of momentum (often with a final spike right at the end) whereas the worst projects experienced extreme variations in momentum with often a final burst of panic at the end. Teams who manage their micro-transitions keep momentum building whereas teams who do a poor job optimizing transitions don’t.

We can experiment with creating structure in our environment or developing habits within our own minds to take the actions we know we need to take. The key is to focus on the micro-transition (just open our eyes and get to the coffee) and not the overall intention (have a killer morning routine). It may take some time to land on the behavior that unlocks this shift but it doesn’t have to be a mystery — it just needs to be uncovered through experimentation and self-reflection.

Clarifying and Pursuing Greatness

This snippet was prompted by a great article from This Is Going to be Big… called The Nature of Greatness.

The reason I’m so drawn to working with organizations is because there’s a huge opportunity to help people figure out their definition of greatness and then show them the tools and practices that will help them along that path. Making work great is a lot like making your health great — as much as we wish we could do it overnight or with one intense retreat it only ever works with consistent effort over time.

There aren’t many truly great athletes and there are even fewer truly great organizations. But every professional athlete, every professional sports team, and every organization should be on the path toward greatness. If you’re not — why are you even in the game (please note I’m not defining greatness for you)? Every decision, from mundane to monumental, is an opportunity to take a step on the path toward greatness or an opportunity to wander astray.

Good leaders, managers, and self-organizing groups setup guardrails, prompts and cues to encourage continued progress down the path of greatness. Bad ones either actively dissuade their employees from making the best decision or complicate matters to the point that the path toward greatness is diffused and impossible to detect.

What does greatness look like for your organization? For you? For your team? What’s one thing it seems like nobody else is doing that would set you on a path to be truly great?

Getting 1% Better

Sometimes work sucks.

Your colleagues can be morons, your bosses seem incompetent, your clients are clueless and... wait, no, not again, NOT AGAIN... someone finished off the coffee in the break room without starting a new pot.

Competence, let alone excellence, can often seem like a lost cause. In many cases, it can seem like the only way to get your organization from whatever it is today to something resembling excellence is to (figuratively) burn it to the ground and start fresh. While that path may be potentially cathartic I’d like to suggest a slightly different approach that starts with a simple idea that has the power to transform organizations of any size.

I often worry that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that organizations are comprised of people. Individual people who face a multitude of decisions everyday about how productive, engaged, and motivated they're going to be. Individuals who have their own intrinsic interests, motivations, quirks, pet peeves, conscious and sub-conscious desires, and proclivities for growth, challenge, security, and tolerance for ambiguity. What would happen if organizational improvement was re-framed in such a way that these individuals with all their strengths and weaknesses took center stage? Instead of being cogs that help run this system or follow that process individuals become the drivers and agents of positive organizational change.

In a nutshell, here's my basic idea -- if you have 1,000 people in your organization what would it look like if all 1,000 of them got 1% "better" (more productive, more inclined toward action, more reflective, more thoughtful, more engaged, more motivated, more empathetic, more whatever it is that you need more of in your organization)? And not only 1% better one time, but 1% better everyday. For years.

A traditional take on getting the organization to "work better" often includes one or more of the following: restructuring, arbitrary rules or guidelines from "the boss", requiring the use of a new piece of software or process for doing something, and threats. Each of these approaches ignores the fact that we're dealing with human beings. Human beings who have a remarkable ability to adapt, a desire to do meaningful work, and powerful intrinsic motivation toward feeling autonomous, competent, and related to each other (e.g. see Self-Determination Theory).  These approaches can be attractive because they have the appearance of making broad change very swiftly. A memo here, a decree there, some newly installed software here, some training, maybe a workshop or two and voilà, organizational change!

Not so much.

What would encouraging your people to get 1% better (whatever that looks like for your organization) look like? What barriers would need to be lifted? What changes would need to be made to the organizational environment or culture to encourage people to push themselves to get better? How do you facilitate the trust among a group of people that makes someone feel safe enough to take the step outside their comfort zone that growth requires? What kind of leadership does that require?

Answering those questions for your specific organization and context takes time, experimentation, and effort. What works for your company may not work for someone else's. A good starting point, though, are some examples of what 1% better in various areas might look like at your organization:

  • Everybody developing the habit to constantly ask "what's the next action?"

  • Encouraging people to keep a log of what they've worked on to help build momentum and a sense of progress (with iDoneThis, perhaps?)

  • Developing the expectation that you will leave a meeting crystal clear about the decisions that have been made and who is doing what

  • Starting and ending meetings on time as a matter of course

  • Being vigilant in finding and rooting out friction and small annoyances borne of inattention

  • Cultivating the ability to concentrate when working on a tough problem

  • Developing a healthy relationship with information overload and digital distractions

  • Not sending unimportant/non-urgent emails to colleagues on evenings and weekends

  • Giving a coworker the benefit of doubt when hit with unpleasantness from them

  • Leaving work each day with a plan for tomorrow

  • Not being afraid to ask a question versus toiling in uncertainty

I think you get where I'm going with this. None of these ideas have anything to do with mandates "from the top," new systems, new processes, or mass organizational upheaval or restructuring. In fact most of these may seem asininely simple. That's what's so beautiful and maddening about this entire topic -- all of our work lives would be so much better and our organizations more effective if everyone took the asinine, the simple, and the obvious more seriously. Each of these ideas are about individual people being a little bit courageous and a little bit driven to make their immediate experience at work a little bit better.

I've experienced this as a virtuous cycle, a positive upward spiral inspired by the people around me. I notice the people in my team getting a little bit better, being more on top of their game, and pushing themselves a little bit more and it causes me to do the same. Nobody likes the feeling of being left behind. I stop showing up to meetings late after the fifth meeting in a row a key decision was made without me in the room because I was late. I stop turning in projects late when the norm in the department becomes promptness. Social comparison can be a powerful force (and not just for keeping up with the Joneses). I get better, my team notices, and they get even better. And then I get better. And so on.Oversimplification? Perhaps.I'll admit, I make it seem simpler than it is. How do you handle social loafers, out of touch management, or a scarcity of resources that precludes any thought of getting better because it takes every bit of effort to simply survive? How do you go about hiring, retaining, and promoting the type of person who is energized by the idea of getting a little bit better every day? How do you cultivate the culture that supports this mindset? All of these are tough, honest, and relevant questions.

But, for now, let's just sit with the idea of what everyone in your organization getting 1% better in whatever metrics matter to your organization would look like. We’ll tackle those challenges in time but we can’t do anything if we’re not on board with the idea that we can each be a little bit better and that the idea of getting better isn’t insane. Not saying it won’t be difficult, just that it’s possible, right?

Making your organization better is going to have to start with you. Here’s a couple ideas to get you started:

  1. Assess your typical day/workflows and figure out what is less than optimal in whatever manner matters to you. Make a list.

  2. Take one item off that list and figure out a couple ways you could address it. Hate the weekly staff meeting? See if you can figure out a way to make it a tiny bit better. At the very least, you have control over your portion of the meeting and how prepared you are. Try to set a high bar for everyone else.

  3. Before you leave work today take a look at your calendar, your to-do list, and everything else you have going on and make a plan for the first 90 minutes of your day tomorrow. What can you do to ensure tomorrow will be a tiny bit better today?

Have other ideas? Share your thoughts about how you plan to get 1% better in the comments below!

My Research Needs Your Help

[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2f26X2fwo4&w=854&h=480]

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If you've been reading this website for a while you undoubtedly know I'm a PhD student. As such, I'm expected to do research. Today, I'd like to invite you to participate in that research.

This project is aimed at better understanding the world of work, particularly in terms of what makes work meaningful, enjoyable, and desirable. To participate in this study you simply need to be an adult and be involved in some kind of employment (full-time, part-time, self-employed, student, or some combination thereof). The study consists of two 10-minute surveys. One you take immediately and the second one you will be emailed a week later. After you've finished both surveys you will a.) be entered in a raffle to win a $50 Amazon gift card and b.) have the option to participate in a second study involving the opportunity participate in an online training course (and the potential to win another gift card).

-- SURVEY CLOSED --

EDIT - This survey has been closed. Thank you to all who participated! If you'd still like to participate in future research you can join my research mailing list here and be notified of future opportunities.

Photo by janneke staaks