From Consumption to Education and Creation

I’ve been trying to consume less in order to learn and create more. I’ve made good progress shifting from consumption to education, and here’s how I’ve done it so far.

Pruning Twitter

The first step I took was to prune back who I follow on Twitter. I was following way too many accounts to keep up with, some people I didn’t even remember why I was following them. I took the time to go through my whole list and unfollowed a large majority of accounts. To take it even further, as I noticed high volume accounts in my stream, I unfollowed them. If the tweets were something I might still be interested in, I added them to my lists.

Do away with guilt reading

I decided to get rid of Instapaper. I found myself saving countless articles that I then felt like I had to read. If something was really that important, wouldn’t I think to seek it out again when I had time? I ended up coming to a happy medium where I now save anything I might want to come back to on Pinboard[^1]. I made sure to not use any “read later” tags as well to avoid just moving my “guilt reading”. If what I’ve saved is actually important or useful, I will remember and come back to it.

Remove extraneous sources of news

Next up was my news/article sources. I tackled this by unsubscribing from newsletters, pruning my RSS feeds2 & podcasts3, and removing most news apps from my phone4. It’s amazing the echo chamber we tech nerds get stuck in, and it was actually refreshing to get away from some of that. After a while, I found myself unsubscribed from all email newsletters (except for one5) and aggressively deleting podcasts/podcast episodes that were not interesting. I also trimmed my RSS feeds down to 28, many of them being low volume feeds.

More thoughtful consumption

Now that I’ve freed myself from feeling like I have to consume media, I can make thoughtful choices about what I read. I’ve been reading more books and spending more time developing skills.

I’ve also found it helpful setting myself certain times of day when I can look at certain things like Twitter, RSS, news, etc. If it’s not within one of those windows and I find myself going for my phone, I open up a book (or even a Wikipedia article6) or do some writing.

Thoughtful consumption has been working well for me, and I hope to continue and make refinements along the way.

  1. I use Pinswift on iOS (adds a Share Sheet button and can automatically grab a nice link description for you). ↩︎
  2. I use Feedwrangler and Reeder to manage my RSS. ↩︎
  3. Overcast is my favorite iOS podcast client. ↩︎
  4. NYT Now is the only one left. I have a digital subscription so I don't have to worry about the paywall when I read more articles on my iPad (usually on the weekend). ↩︎
  5. I still really enjoy the Quartz Daily Brief, even with the release of the Quartz app. ↩︎
  6. For some excellent ideas on ways to read/use Wikipedia on iOS, check out Gabe Weatherhead's excellent article. ↩︎

Doing More With the Same

Everyone’s heard the saying “do more with less”, but I’ve started to follow my own version, “do more with the same”. This stems from my previous thoughts on mindfulness and sales. Rather than purchasing something new to do something new, I always try to figure out if I can do it with what I already have.

Think about how many times you’ve upgraded just for the sake of upgrading? The latest Apple device is out? I’m an Apple fan and all my friends on Twitter are buying it, so I probably should too. This is the mindset I’m trying to move away from.

How I’m doing more with the same

I’ve been brewing beer for the past year and I still am using my starter 5 gallon kettle. I’ve been tempted many times to upgrade to one of the best kettles, but I’ve recently made myself stop and think. Most of the time, upgrades are put into my head by browsing beer forums and magazines. The logic goes like this — of course someone who makes amazing beer uses fancy equipment, so that means that’s just what I need to improve my beer. Right?

Of course that’s the wrong reasoning. The guy (or gal) who makes contest winning beer at home is not winning because of his equipment. He is winning because he has years of experience and puts a lot of time and effort into procuring the best (I will touch more on this later) ingredients and perfecting his recipes and brewing process. This gets him at least 90% of the way there. Equipment upgrades may get him the last 10%, but that only works if he already has the other 90% down.

Taking a step back to think, this logic makes complete sense. So now, rather than salivating over the shiny new kettle or latest brew gizmo, I’m working on better learning my current equipment and improving my technique. Even my “starter” epquipment allows me to do that.

I’ve also been tempted to upgrade my photography setup, but I’ve decided not to buy a new camera (a Fuji X100T, thanks Ben). This has allowed me to re-discover taking photos with my iPhone (it’s really true that you’ll take more photos if you always carry your camera). While there are some limitations, I’ve been happy with my setup. I always have my old DSLR to go back to if I want, so why upgrade if it still works? Again, it’s always an analysis of what capabilities am I truly missing out on by not upgrading.

Some other things I also recently decided not to upgrade include my boots (Why not wear out my current pair first?) and my work and travel bags (thanks again to Ben). By not upgrading my boots, I’ve learned the art of reviving and caring for leather. This will prepare me for buying something more high quality (the best) for my next pair. And in not buying bags, I’ve not created the hassle of selling/donating my old one (or more realistically, wasting space in my house).

Why are you depriving yourself?

I don’t feel that way at all. My wife and I want to spend more of our time (and money) on making memories rather than having things. For Christmas this year, we agreed to just get some small presents for each other and put the rest towards vacations for 2016. We plan to make a list of destinations soon so we can actually plan ahead and have something to look forward to.

Now every time I buy something instead of using what I have, I think of it in terms of how it affects my vacations. Want a new bag? That’s a lower quality hotel. Want to upgrade your camera? Now it’s only a long weekend instead of a weeks vacation.

How to choose what to buy

In some cases, the value of purchasing something new or upgrading makes sense in this new way of thinking. The next decision that comes is whether to buy the best or not. The way I look at it is to think about how I will use something and how long I will use it.

In the case of my beer brewing equipment, I chose to get a relatively inexpensive starter kit because I wanted to see how I would like the hobby. While I didn’t purchase the best, I did make a selection that wouldn’t need replacement if I got into the hobby. Of course, that brought the temptation later, but reframing my thinking helped me to see that isn’t yet necessary. This could also apply to something like a tool you need to fix something or any new hobby. A good chef could cook a great meal even with an average knife.

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes it makes sense to buy the best. This benefits you twofold – you get something that will perform to the highest standards and you don’t have to waste your time thinking about purchasing the item again in the near future (or maybe at all). A good example of this would be my boots. While I’m currently wearing a relatively inexpensive pair, now that I know I wear them a lot, I plan to buy the best when I wear out my current pair. This is a commitment though. When you decide to invest in something in this category, you have to make sure you are committed to any maintenance required. If you don’t take care of what you have, even if it is the best, it won’t last.

Of course, buying only what will make a difference in your life, and buying the best when appropriate also creates less waste, but that’s another topic.

What’s next?

This change in how I think has been in development for a while now, but really started to kick in leading into the holiday season. My wife and I are feeling good about it, and it has actually helped me to make some good decisions. We will see how it works out through the holidays and next year. Hopefully I’ll have some great memories to talk about!

Mindfulness and Sales

In trying to be more mindful with my possessions, I’ve started to think about how sales play into mindful purchasing. How many times have you seen something on sale or on a “deals” site and purchased it simply because it was a great deal? We’ve all been there, and if you want to put an end to it you need to change your relationship with your things.

I think of mindfulness as it relates to possessions as making sure everything has a use and is enjoyable to use. It can also be extended into buying the best you can afford1. If you only purchase what you will use often and enjoy, it makes sense to pick an item that will last you a lifetime. Of course this comes at a higher cost, however, can save you in the long run (not to mention the environmental impact of disposable items). These products also tend to come from companies you can feel good supporting.

Now that I’ve changed my outlook, I don’t browse the internet for deals and sales. Whenever I see a deal on Twitter (or elsewhere) that seems too good to pass up, I can let it go. If there is something new I want, after completing my research, I add the item to my wishlist. If I need it now and can fit it into my budget, I make the purchase. If it’s something that can wait or I don’t want to pay full price, I save up for it and keep an eye out for a good price (usually by checking the company’s website, email list, or Twitter account). Gradually acquiring these items spreads out the pain on the wallet, plus, there is no need to discard items you are replacing before their time is done.

Making this adjustment can take some time, especially if you aren’t used to prices of high quality items, but it is worth it in the long run. My hope is to eventually only have things that are pleasing to use and can be repaired so they will last a lifetime.

  1. Of course this doesn't always apply. For example, if there is a tool I need for a single house project and I can't find one to borrow, I won't always buy the best. ↩︎

Due For All Tasks

Ben Brooks recently wrote about how he uses Due as his high priority reminder system. He started out using it as most do, for static, repeating reminders (take out the trash, stop for dinner, etc.). The power started to come out when he started adding his short term tasks that are easy to forget (like calling someone in 15 minutes or sending an update in a few hours).

For those of you not familiar with Due, it is a task list app that allows you to have constant reminders of a due task (the interval can be customized from any minute to any hour). These reminders will alert you on your iOS devices and/or Apple Watch. There are a few more features, but it is “auto snooze” that is the killer feature here.

I started using Due for similar purposes to Ben and then took it a step further to manage all my tasks. I had been using OmniFocus for a long time because it was the power user’s choice. Still a great task management app (and even better now that the iOS app finally supports Push sync), it really had too much power for my lists. After floating around between some simple list apps and falling down the TaskPaper rabbit hole, I settled on Due back in February. I think I am well on my way to cementing Due into my routine (and hopefully it will continue to stick).

@scientifics @jeffhunsberger Indeed, but revamps are seductive and don’t necessarily work better long term. The stuff that sticks is hard.— macdrifter (@macdrifter) March 8, 2015

Why I Returned My Apple Watch

Last week my wife surprised me with a trip to the Apple Store to purchase an Apple Watch. Ultimately I decided to return the watch, but let’s start with the positives.

Positives

During my time with Apple Watch I did appreciate getting notifications on my wrist. It was convenient to be able to see important notifications without having to pull my phone out of my pocket. Having Siri on my wrist was also a plus, however, it is not always appropriate (in public) or feasible (in a noisy environment) to talk to your wrist. The battery life was also good, always lasting me a whole day (even when spending time playing with it).

Negatives

With the limited capability of a small screen for input, Apple Watch relies heavily on Siri for capturing text. While I found Siri to work well, the usefulness was greatly diminished in noisy locations (even just at home with the TV on). Also working a corporate job in a cube, Siri provided me no utility during the work day.

Apple Watch also seems slow: glances don’t update in a timely fashion and apps need to load before most interactions can occur. For me, the glances are a key feature. Without regular and reliable updates of the glances, I cannot depend on being able to quickly check the weather or see if I have any upcoming tasks in OmniFocus. I’m sure watchOS updates will improve the overall slowness, but I’m not willing to take the chance that it might take a hardware revision.

Interaction is also an issue for me. I really like the Digital Crown and wish it was available for more interactions. I find hitting the right touch target on the screen difficult sometimes, and can think of many ways the Digital Crown could make things easier.

Health Features

With a heart rate monitor, Apple Watch has the potential to be a better workout companion than the standard step tracker. In reality, it’s not. Let’s get something straight first though: no “fitness tracker” will ever accurately measure your calorie burn (and as for intake, a calorie is not just a calorie).

The step tracker portion of Apple Watch seems to work as well as any other device, however, the heart rate monitor falls short. I found it to be slow when using it during a run.

One of the software features other users have been talking about is the Activity feature (concentric circles that fill based on movement, exercise, and standing). I was disappointed to find that only activity measured with the watch counted towards these goals (this will change with watchOS 2).

Overall, Apple Watch is a fine step tracker, but it doesn’t provide anything more (in my mind at least) than the cheaper options on the market. For serious fitness, we still lack a good way to track strength training, and for heart rate monitoring, a chest monitor works better.

Turning Point

After getting over the gadget nerd excitement and newness of Apple Watch, I started to think about the value I was getting out of my interactions with the watch. Is it really worth $450 to be able to check notifications and interact with Siri on my wrist? Ultimately the decision was no, or at least not yet. Looking back at the first iPhone, I see a future of great improvements for Apple Watch. I’m sure all my issues will be ironed out and I will be a believer in the future.

Notes Update

Back in April I wrote about how I used nvALT, Simplenote, and Evernote for my note taking needs. Since then, I have made some changes:

Plain Text

Anything that is suitable for plain text gets stored in nvALT/Simplenote rather than Evernote. For me, the speed and simplicity of plain text is important. I have notes with everything from lists, frequent flyer numbers, and keyboard shortcuts I commonly forget.

I have decided that the convenience of using just one app everywhere outweighs the speed of plain text notes. I now use Evernote for everything. For quick entry on OS X, the menu bar icon with a keyboard shortcut comes in handy. On iOS, I use Drafts to quickly capture text. Drafts then allows me to send the text to Evernote. I’ve even set up some custom actions that allow me to append text to certain notes.

Tags

As for tags, I use them in Evernote for ease of finding documents.

For simplicity I’ve done away with tags. With the excellent search and OCR capabilities of Evernote, I find that between the titles and content of all my notes/documents, I have no trouble finding what I need.

Offline Notebooks

I’ve found offline notebooks (Evernote Premium feature) incredibly useful with this change. I made my notebook for my quick notes (what I used to keep in plain text) offline so I have easy access to it on my iPhone if I don’t have an internet connection.

Fitness in Marriage

Coming up on ten months of marriage, I am still discovering new reasons why marriage is amazing. Soon after our wedding, my wife and I decided that we wanted to make an effort to eat better and become more fit. We both purchased FitBit Zip exercise trackers, started counting our calories with MyFitnessPal, and started exercising regularly.

Where does marriage come into play?

As a married couple, we are committed to being our best and always supporting each other. We are finding ways that we are complementary all the time, including with our push to become more fit. My wife is always the one to encourage healthy eating choices (I love my desserts, especially chocolate, a bit too much). I am the one that motivates us to get out the door and exercise. It is amazing to see how strengths in one partner can correct for weakness in the other.

How has it been going?

We’ve both been doing well, loosing weight gradually and keeping up with regular exercise. This past week our streak became derailed with some unhealthy eating choices and the inevitable weight gain. This morning, realizing we were unhappy with our recent performance, we discussed what we could do to get back on track.

With our success, we had started getting lax with counting calories. Underlying all diets is the basic idea that you loose weight when you eat less calories than you burn. Without a good idea of how many calories you ate and how many were expended during the day, it is easy to start moving back to your old habits. This was our main issue.

How are we going to fix it?

  • Be strict about counting calories again (MyFitnessPal for food and FitBit to track activity)
  • Make sure we eat a well-rounded diet (we signed up for a CSA for the summer)
  • Provide each other with support for eating well and exercising
  • Now that the weather is good, get outside more

With all these changes, we should hopefully be back on track soon!

Plain Text Notes and Evernote

As a follow-up to my Tools & Toys Guide to Research Implements, I will go into more detail about how I use plain text notes and Evernote.

Plain Text

I use nvALT and Simplenote for my plain text notes. nvALT runs on my desktop, stores my notes as plain text files in Dropbox, and syncs with Simplenote, my preferred iOS plain text solution. I have my nvALT hotkey set to ⌥ + Space, allowing quick access to my notes anywhere in OS X. On iOS, I keep Simplenote in the dock. While tagging is an option, search in both apps works well, so I don’t use any tags.

Anything that is suitable for plain text gets stored in nvALT/Simplenote rather than Evernote. For me, the speed and simplicity of plain text is important. I have notes with everything from lists, frequent flyer numbers, and keyboard shortcuts I commonly forget.

Evernote

My main use for Evernote is my “paperless file cabinet”. Storing PDF scans of any paper documents I need to keep in Evernote allows me to quickly search not only the name of the document, but the OCRed content as well, making it easy to find what I’m looking for.1 I also store magazine pages from my iPad, photos of handwritten notes2, MS Office/iWork documents I need for reference3, and archives of plain text notes I no longer need.

As for tags, I use them in Evernote for ease of finding documents. Since the default date for a note is the date of last modification, I want to be able to search through my paperless file cabinet by the date on the document. Rather than depending on OCR for that, I have a tag for each year and month. I use a few other tags to classify documents, but most of my organization comes from Notebooks and Stacks (groups of notebooks).

Note: If you have sensitive documents in Evernote that you don’t want stored and indexed in the cloud, you can create a local notebook. The downside to this is that you won’t have the ability to search within the document.4

Conclusion

Storing all my notes in the cloud gives me easy access to them from anywhere. If you are interested in learning more about Evernote and how to make it work the best way possible for you, I highly recommend reading Evernote Essentials. For nvALT, Macdrifter has some great tips.

  1. PDF OCR is only available if you have Evernote Premium. ↩︎
  2. Evernote OCR only recognizes handwriting in images. Image OCR is available to everyone. ↩︎
  3. Evernote recently added the ability to search within attached MS Office and iWork documents if you are a Premium subscriber. ↩︎
  4. If you decide this is a route you want to go but still want to have the search capability, PDFPen does a great job with OCR. If you save OCR to your PDF before you import it into Evernote, you can search the text of a document while still keeping it off the cloud. ↩︎

Running Unplugged

Last night I went for my second outdoor run of the year and I decided to leave my headphones at home. Being connected all day, it felt good to listen to my mind, body, and surroundings.

I could hear my feet hitting the pavement and my breating.

I could feel my heat beating.

My mind felt relaxed and I just let it wander.

I was able to take in the sounds of the city and of nature.

I am going to make running “unplugged” a habit.

Arq Backup and Amazon Glacier

After some issues with TimeMachine, I recently switched up my backups from TimeMachine/Crashplan+ to to CarbonCopyCloner/Arq Backup.

My choice to move to Arq Backup was fueled by the fact that while Crashplan+ Family Unlimited costs $149.99/year, Amazon offers storage on S3 for $0.130 per GB/month and on Glacier for $0.01 per GB/month. With the ~100 GB (inclusive of incremental backups) that I want backed up in the cloud, it will only cost me about $19.20/year (~95% of my data on Glacier) to store my backups with Amazon. Adding in the few dollars it will cost me in data transfer, PUT, and GET request charges from S3/Glacier, my yearly cost certainly won’t exceed $25-30. I justify storing most of my data in Glacier because I make regular backups of my home directory to my NAS using Carbon Copy Cloner. Every few months, I also make a full clone to an external drive. The data I backup to S3 is whatever I keep in Dropbox — any critical files and files I am currently working on.

What’s the catch? Amazon Glacier charges you a retrieval fee of $0.01/GB if you need to retrieve more than 5% of your average monthly storage, Also, if you delete data within 90 days of upload, you are charged a prorated $0.03/GB early deletion fee.

Within Arq, a great feature is the ability to limit your storage on S3 by either a monthly dollar or GB amount. When you hit your max, Arq automatically prunes the oldest incremental backups (leaving at least one for each backup folder). While many people complain about the lack of this feature for Glacier, it makes sense that it is not included due to the early deletion fee. After a great conversation on ADN, I learned that many were having trouble manually deleting their Arq Glacier backups. Since it looked like the feature was there, I decided to contact the developer to get the question answered.

Stefan responded:

If you remove a folder from Arq that’s being backed up to Glacier, Arq puts the folder in its “trash”.
If you then open Arq’s trash, select that folder, and click “Delete Permanently”, Arq will delete all the Glacier archives and attempt to delete the Glacier vault. The vault delete will fail because Amazon has to update its “inventory”, which it does once/day. The next day, browse under “Other Backup Sets” in Arq, find that vault, select it and click “Delete” to delete it.

It seems that the confusion stems from the fact that Amazon only inventories Glacier vaults once a day. Once you delete the backup folder from Arq, it gets disconnected from your Arq set and once the inventory is updated (sometime within the next day), you can then delete the backup on Glacier.