I love my AirPods. In fact, I just about loved them to death. By the time they were about two years old, I had used them so much their battery life had declined to the point where I was only getting about 90 minutes of listening time out of them. One of my uses for them is going on 2-hour walks, so this was a problem.
I use my AirPods every day: walking to and from work, exercising, taking longer walks on the weekends. They’re one of my most used devices. I use them enough and find the advantages over wired headphones big enough that replacing them if they were lost or broken would be a top priority.
Given how much I use them and the state of my original AirPods I was definitely in the market for some new ones. I hoped that I could nurse my existing pair along until Apple announced an updated version, but if it got to the point where my original pair became truly unusable, I would have bought an identical set of replacements.
So when Apple released the 2nd generation AirPods I hardly even bothered looking at the spec sheet. I just went straight to the Apple website and ordered a pair. The only real decision was whether to splurge on the new wireless charging case (they’re available both with a Qi-compatible wireless charging case and a regular case). I was a bit uncertain about whether the extra $40 would be worth it, but I decided to give it a go.
The new AirPods look identical to the old ones. The wireless charging case is slightly different, with the LED indicator migrating from inside the case to the front of the case and the hinge now being made out of aluminum rather than stainless steel.
On the inside, the new AirPods support “Hey Siri” to activate the Apple voice assistant. They’re also advertised as having longer talk time, but I hardly ever use mine for phone calls.
I’m glad I got the wireless charging case. I bought another Qi charger and set it up in the hallway/mud room where I leave my stuff when I come home. It’s much easier to just drop the AirPods case on the charger every day than it is to try to keep track of how much battery life the case has left and remember to plug it into a lighting cable every couple of days (with my old AirPods I’d been caught out by forgetting to charge the case a couple of times).
When you put it on the charger, the LED comes on momentarily, but it doesn’t stay on. It would be nice if that would display colors indicating “charging” and “charged” like the old MagSafe connectors on Mac laptops.
The “Hey Siri” functionality works well. While I still feel self-conscious about it, I may be more apt to use “Hey Siri” in public than I was to activate Siri manually. The activation phrase makes it obvious what I’m doing in a way that tapping an AirPod did not.
On my old AirPods I set it up so tapping the right AirPod brought up Siri while tapping the left one skipped forward (which was set to skip ahead 30 seconds when listening to a podcast in Overcast). Now that I can rely on voice activation for Siri, I have tapping the right AirPod skip forward and tapping the left one skip back. Having both forward and back is useful for navigating podcasts.
Given the state of my old AirPods, perhaps the biggest feature of the new ones is their battery life. The advertised listening time isn’t any different on the new models, but by merely being fresh out of the box their battery life is much greater. On my old ones, 90 minutes of listening to podcasts was enough to give me a low battery warning. The new AirPods are still above 65% after an hour and a half.
Something I’ve found myself doing lately, almost by accident, is having a much more consistent morning routine. Rather than setting out with this in mind, it’s been a side effect of two of the goals that I set at my last personal retreat.
First off, I set a goal of writing every single day. No specific target for how much, or what to write. It could be 5 minutes working on a blog post or an hour working on a novel (or vice versa). The goal is just to sit down and spend some time moving the cursor every single day (and if you look at the number of blog articles I’ve published in the past few months it’s obvious that it’s having a positive effect on my output).
The hard part was finding time to do this. I already established a habit of exercising every morning (it was pretty much the only thing in my morning routine that was consistent). I didn’t want to give that up. While I don’t have a fixed time when I’m required to be at my desk at work most days, I didn’t want to push that any later than I was already doing. I did have a bunch of time that I was spending messing around on the internet (including reading through the overnight posts on the MPU forum). I found that this aimless messing around online was often the monster that ate the rest of my morning routine. Imposing a bit of order on that could help me find some time to write, but not as much as I wanted.
I decided to bite the bullet and move my alarm back from 6am to 5:30. The extra half hour, combined with imposing some discipline on my morning internet usage, would give me some time to write.
One of the ways I’ve imposed that discipline is my goal to time block each day. In fact, the morning has become by far the most consistent part of my schedule (particularly on weekdays). On weekdays I could basically copy and paste everything before 9am and only have to deviate from it a couple of days per month.
With the help of multiple alarms on my phone and a clock radio across the room, so I physically have to get out of bed to shut it off, I get up at 5:30 every morning. The “every morning” bit is important. I am not naturally a morning person. If I sleep late one morning, it throws off my sleep schedule for days afterward.
From 5:30 to 6 I drink a glass of water and read the MPU forum and the news on my iPad. At 6 I pry myself away from the internet and do my morning exercise routine. This generally takes a little over an hour. Throw in a shower and some breakfast and about 7:45 I’m ready to start writing. I’ve got 45 minutes to write before I have to head out the door to work.
Recently I posted about how I schedule my whole day using time blocking. This sort of thing can be controversial, and it clearly doesn’t work for everybody. Some of the conversation around this got me thinking about what makes it more suited for some folks than others.
I think a lot of it has a lot to do with what kind of work you do. Think of work as a spectrum: On one end of the spectrum is work that’s completely interrupt driven. For instance, a manager who spends all of his time responding to emails and phone calls from other people and dealing with urgent issues as they come up. On the other end of a spectrum is work that’s completely predictable and consistent. Say, assembly line work.
If your work is very interrupt driven, where most of your day is spent reacting to stuff that comes in, time blocking probably isn’t going to be very useful. There’s just not enough predictability to plan out your day in advance.
It might seem that time blocking would be helpful for very routine work, but if the routine is totally consistent time blocking isn’t really that helpful. There’s no reason to sit down time block each day if all you’re doing is repeating the same schedule over and over.
Where time blocking really works best is in the middle of the spectrum. The work is variable enough that planning is useful but consistent enough that planning is possible. This really boils down to lead time. If you can’t know what you’ll be working on 15 minutes from now, time blocking is impossible. If you know what you’ll be working on at any given time next week or next month, time blocking is unnecessary. The sweet spot is when you can plan out the rest of the day or tomorrow’s work with reasonable certainty.
Of course, this is an oversimplification. Lots of people’s work is a mix of different types. There are times when you get interrupted even in the most consistent of jobs. And even in very interruption-driven jobs, there might be some things that are totally consistent, like weekly meetings.
While time blocking is most useful in situations where most of the work falls on the middle of that spectrum any time blocking system needs to be adaptable to some level of interruption and some level of consistency. Of these, dealing with consistency is much easier. Those regularly scheduled events can be the skeleton that you build your time blocks around.
Interruptions are trickier. At a basic level, it may just amount to staying flexible and not getting too committed to your time blocked schedule. If it’s a quick interruption, you may be able to deal with it and get back to your planned time block, but sometimes you just have to roll with the punches blow up the schedule. I like David Sparks’ description that, “A calendar is a soup, not a puzzle.” Sometimes you need to stir the soup.
Another alternative might be scheduling your interruptions. “Scheduling interruptions” may seem like an oxymoron, but depending on how time sensitive the interruption is, it may be possible. If most of your interruptions can wait a few hours, you might be able to do something like scheduling a block of time at 11 o’clock to deal with all the interruptions that came in that morning (this is effectively what the advice to only check your email twice a day is doing). Similarly, you may be able to set up “office hours” when you’ll be available for walk-ins from colleagues and others while walling off other time in your schedule to do deep work.
My time blocking practice evolved out of some of the things Shawn Blanc talks about in The Focus Course, mixing in some ideas from the “Ideal Week” exercise that Mike Schmitz covers in his Personal Retreat Handbook, and some of David Sparks’ posts on scheduling his day (see posts here, here, and here.
The basic idea is to plan out a schedule for each day. This serves a couple of purposes. The main reason I first tried time blocking a couple of years ago is that I don’t have to make as many decisions about what to work on in the moment it lowers the “activation energy” to get started on a task.
Before time blocking I often found myself looking at my long list of tasks in OmniFocus trying to decide what I should work on next. Not only did these decisions take time, they also seemed to draw on the same reservoir of mental energy that’s required to do Deep Work. With time blocking I can make these decisions in advance. All I have to do in the moment is look at my schedule, and I’ll see what I’ve decided that I should be working on.
The other major benefit of time blocking is to help me be more intentional about how I spend my time. I’d been time blocking my workday for most of 2018, but towards the end of the year, I kind of fell off the wagon. I not only found this made me less productive, but I ended up spending a lot of time diddling around on the internet rather than getting stuff done. Often, this is because rather than expend the mental energy to make a decision about what to do I’ll just end up going online instead.
This is not something that’s confined to the workday either. When I was doing my personal retreat one of the things that came to the fore was the amount of leisure time I was spending on “low-quality recreation;” activities that just aren’t that interesting or rewarding but that I end up doing by default. I’d really like to be spending my leisure time on stuff that I find most enjoyable, rather than whatever’s easiest. When I picked time blocking back up after the personal retreat, I decided to do my entire day, every day, rather than just the workday.
While those are the big two, there are other benefits as well. Among them, time blocking helps me maintain a realistic idea of what tasks I can accomplish in a given day. If I’ve got lots of appointments or other obligations, I can (indeed, I’m forced) take that into account during the scheduling process.
For me, the key to making time blocking work is flexibility. I seldom have a day go precisely the way I planned it out. Stuff happens. Sometimes a task takes longer than anticipated. Sometimes something new pops up that needs to be done that day. Sometimes I find I can’t even get started on a task because I’m missing something critical.
When this happens, I just have to “roll with the punches” and adapt. I’ll push another task off until tomorrow, substitute a shorter task for a longer one, or drop something entirely. As David Sparks put it, “A calendar is a soup rather than a puzzle.” Sometimes you have to stir the soup.
That said, more often than not, my actual day is pretty close to the schedule I laid out. Even if I have to adapt, I find that starting with a schedule works better for me than doing everything on the fly.
When I first started time blocking last year, I incorporated a few elements of Bullet Jounrnaling. This time around, inspired by Ryder Carroll’s excellent book, The Bullet Journal Method, I decided to dive deeper into the bullet journal system.
The bullet journal method is a system using pen and paper to track tasks, appointments, and notes. It’s a nice blend of structure and flexibility that’s very adaptable to individual needs. The system is very modular; it’s built around daily, monthly, and yearly logs, collections of notes on particular subjects, and an index to help you find important notes.
While I’m using much more of the bullet journal system than I was in the past, I’m not using it as my primary task management system. OmniFocus is still the source of truth when it comes to what I have to do.
I’ve adapted the Bullet Journal Method’s Daily Log format to do my time blocking. I use a two-page spread in the bullet journal notebook with my schedule on the left-hand page and my most important tasks and daily log on the right.
The schedule uses half an hour per line, from 5:30am to 9:30pm. I’ve found that I generally don’t need more than half-hour resolution; I’m not trying to schedule everything down to the minute. Indeed, I’m finding that the fact that I can only easily schedule in half-hour increments is a benefit rather than a drawback since it adds flexibility for breaks, diversions, small tasks that come up, etc. It kind of leads naturally into a pomodoro-like way of working.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t use the Bullet Journal as my primary task management system. However, I do write the 3-5 most important tasks for the day in my daily log on the right-hand page of the day’s two-page spread. This is not everything I have to do today, just the biggest and/or most critical tasks.
Underneath the list of tasks, I have space to take notes about how the day went. I’d like to turn this into more of a daily journaling practice, but for now, it’s more of a random assortment of notes and events.
Finally, at the end of the day, I’ll use that right-hand page to note down one thing that I accomplished and two things that I’m grateful for. This is a habit that I picked up from The Focus Course, and I’ve been doing it for several years now. I find it’s useful to help me reflect on the positive things that happened during the day, even if that day didn’t seem to go well overall.
I’m using the Bullet Journal’s monthly log for some habit tracking (at the moment mainly noting days that I write and that I’ve time blocked for). However, I’m not getting a whole lot of use out of the yearly log or collections from the Bullet Journal system. Those sorts of things tend to go into my calendar or my notes app, respectively (Fantastical and iA Writer).
I’ve been back on the time blocking train for about two months now. It’s definitely helped me be more intentional with my time. I find myself spending less time randomly messing around on the internet and more time doing productive things or high-quality recreational activities. I’ve gotten more done at work and read many more books.
Back in 2017, I wrote an article on Inventorying my Tools, going through the software I use to get work done on a regular basis. Now, about two years on I thought it would be interesting to go through and see what’s changed.
This list focuses on work (and side project) related apps. It excludes purely personal and recreational apps like Reeder and Paprika. It also only covers things that I think of as “real apps” as opposed to menu bar applications or little utilities like Yoink or TextExpander (though that line is kind of fuzzy, given my inclusion of 1Password).
iPhone Mail app
Bullet Journal Notebook
Field Notes Steno Pad
Occasional But Vital
My office whiteboard
Changes from 2017
A fair number of apps have gone by the wayside. Bear, Byword, Ulysses, and Scrivener have all been replaced by iA Writer. Toggle has replaced Hours, and Sublime Text displaced TextWrangler. And, of course, Workflow has turned into Shortcuts.
There are some outright additions that represent categories that I didn’t even have on my list two years ago. Many of these are iPad apps like Files and Goodnotes, a consequence of my increased use of the iPad as a work and travel device. Others like Luna Display and Jump Desktop are related to my Mac mini home server.
As I said two years ago, I think part of the value of this exercise is not just listing the apps, but thinking about why I use these apps and whether there are any changes I could make to get my work done more effectively.
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?
For instance, last time around I’d expressed a desire to transition Word from something I use every day to an app that I use more occasionally. While I’ve probably reduced the amount of time I spend in Word, I haven’t been able to cut back as much as I would like. My writing generally starts in a text editor, but at the point where I need to share things with other people at work, it makes the transition to Microsoft Word.
One area where I have made progress since the last inventory is in reducing the number of text editors I use. Byword and Scrivener were already on the way out, but for most of that period, I divided my writing between Bear and Ulysses. Now that I’ve switched to iA Writer I’m down to one app for writing prose (with Sublime Text for writing code). That simplifies things in a lot of ways.
One area where I’m still in the midst of a transition is going from taking all my handwritten notes on paper to doing more of it on the iPad Pro using the pencil. The Field Notes Steno Pad still gets plenty of use, but probably about half of my notes are made on the iPad in Goodnotes. I’d like to continue to move in this direction.
I still don’t feel like I’m getting as much as I could out of Drafts or the Shortcuts app. My primary use case for both of them at the moment is as a front end for OmniFocus: Drafts as a quick entry tool and Shortcuts to set up templated projects. I think I’d benefit from delving deeper into these (as well as Scriptable, which didn’t even make the list).
Due to some changes in my work, I’m not doing as much coding as I used to. I’d like to exercise that muscle a little more, even if it’s just as for some sort of side project.
In addition to notebooks (Field Notes and Bullet Journal), the other analog tool on the list is the whiteboard in my office at work. A couple of years ago I was using it to keep track of progress on the many projects I was responsible for, but that has kind of fallen by the wayside as more and more of my time has gotten sucked up into one big project.
In an earlier article I related my experience spending a month using my iPad Pro with an external monitor. The external display has some real ergonomic benefits, putting the screen up at eye level rather than down on the desk. However, it does create an odd and unnatural divide between the display, where I can look while I read or type, and the iPad itself, where I need to look to swipe or tap.
My initial reaction was that after spending a month with my iPad’s screen on a 27″ monitor, even the 12.9″ iPad seems tiny by comparison. It’s by no means too small to use, but there’s definitely a different feel to it than using a big external display with the iPad (or my 27″ iMac, for that matter).
Of course, the biggest change to interacting with the iPad on a tall stand is the need to reach up to interact with the screen. With the iPad in a Smart Keyboard Folio or the Elevation Labs DraftTable that I used with the external monitor reaching the screen is a matter of moving my hands a few inches. With the tall stand, it’s more like moving my hands a few feet. This is definitely “zombie arms” territory.
In contrast to using the iPad with an external display, there’s no confusion about where to look. As a display device, when reading or typing, the iPad works just fine. Once I got over my surprise at the size difference the screen was plenty large enough to read easily.
An advantage of having it on a stand like this is the ability to rotate it into portrait mode. The “sheet of paper”-like experience of working on a text document in portrait mode is quite nice. It might be one of the best ways to do extended writing in a single document on the iPad.2
The flip side of the ability to rotate into portrait is that it can be a bit of a challenge to get the iPad exactly level and centered in the stand. Maybe it’s just my OCD’ish tendencies, but I find this bothers me quite a bit. It’s also more trouble to get in and out of the stand. With the Elevation Labs DraftTable, I could just flip the Smart Keyboard around the back, set it on the stand and plug in the external monitor. With this stand, I have to take the iPad out of the Smart Keyboard Folio and go through a somewhat fiddly process to get it into the spring-loaded rubber clamp that keeps the iPad in place.
One minor annoyance is that in the stand I’m not able to put the Apple Pencil in its usual spot atop the iPad Pro. Always having the pencil available and ready to go is one of the best features of the iPad Pro. If I were to go with this sort of setup long-term, I’d definitely want some kind of pencil holder on my desk so that there would be a spot for it. For now, I’m just putting it on the desk between the keyboard and the base of the stand.
When I first started my experiment using my iPad Pro with an external display, the question I was trying to answer was “can an iPad Pro replace a Mac on my desktop at work?” Given that I’ve gone two months without needing to do anything substantiative on my Mac3, the answer seems to be yes.
Unlike a lot of people, my main challenge in using the iPad as my primary work computer was always ergonomic rather than about the software. Things I use my Mac for at work (editing text in iA Writer, managing tasks in OmniFocus, browsing the web in Safari, and reading and replying to email in Spark or Apple Mail) can all be done on the iPad. Any other tasks can be done on my work-issued PC. The challenge has always been that, for me, working for an extended period using an iPad in a Smart Keyboard (or a traditional laptop for that matter) was never that comfortable for me. I want better ergonomics, with a display up at eye level. Both using an iPad with an external display and putting it in a tall stand solve this ergonomic issue.
At another level, however, neither if these iPad setups really feels optimal. Using the iPad with an external display creates an awkward blend of direct and indirect manipulation. Using it on a tall stand requires my hands to come a long way up from the keyboard to manipulate the screen. If I had to pick one, it would probably be the external display, but it’s still a compromise. These disadvantages are significant enough that now that the experiment is over, I’m planning on going back to my MacBook Pro hooked up to a nice, ergonomically placed external monitor as my daily driver at work.
If my MacBook Pro were to die, though, that would put me in a difficult spot. Are the disadvantages of using the iPad in this role significant enough to justify dropping over a thousand dollars on a new Mac? That’s kind of a hard sell either way. The Mac definitely provides a more natural, compromise-free desktop experience, but a new laptop or Mac mini would be a pretty substantial outlay compared to an external display that I could use with the iPad Pro I already own.
At this point, I hope that my MacBook Pro will hold out long enough for Apple to make improvements that would make the iPad Pro a better fit for this kind of role. This could be support for external pointing devices, but it could also be better support for keyboard shortcuts (by both apps and the OS) so that I could get more done without tapping and swiping on the screen.
Yes, that entire thing is the name. And yes, they misspelled “Bussiness.” ↩︎