Having tools is half of success. The other half is using the tools. In my previous post I described what tools I have and why I have them. Now I want to say a few words about how I use those tools. I won’t write about everything for two reasons. One is that I don’t see any point in explaining how I use Pages, Word, Affinity Designer, or Final Cut Pro. These applications work on files, the process is always the same: create a file, do your work, close the file. The second reason is that I’m not really an expert in these applications. I use them, not study them.
That’s actually one of my general rules. Tools are for making things, not for studying tools. I learn what’s necessary to get the job done and nothing more. When I need additional features, I learn them. Not before, it doesn’t make sense, my brain can’t hold unlimited knowledge. And I don’t see any added value in using Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) tools. I’ll get there soon.
For those who didn’t read the previous post, I’ll add subheadings with the name of the app I’m using. These are mostly stock Apple apps, which isn’t really a problem. Years ago, when I was using Windows and Android, I also used stock apps. The brand or name of the app doesn’t matter, what matters is keeping things as simple as possible and avoiding any overhead when managing calendars, tasks, or notes. I’ll say it again and again: tools are for doing things, not for maintaining tools.
There’s another important thing to keep in mind. I don’t believe in the separation of work and personal life. I have one energy level, one day, one life, and I have to deal with it all. Splitting projects or notes into two categories seems artificial to me, so I don’t do that. And I can still manage these things quite efficiently.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Stock iOS and macOS Calendar apps
The primary idea of having a calendar was to have a place where we could put upcoming events and meetings. This is how I use my calendar app. I put my meetings there. With some extra stuff if I need to.
I have five different calendars in the app, each dedicated to different things. All five are iCloud calendars.
- Calendar – yes, I just named the calendar in my Calendar app “Calendar”. This is where I keep every personal meeting I have.
- Planner – this calendar is for planning things ahead. Not meetings or events, but things like weekly reviews or time blocks for the most important tasks. These are my meetings with myself.
- Wellness – I’m trying to focus more on taking care of myself, so this calendar is my attempt to block time for walking or meditation. With very limited success, but that’s another story.
- Events – the place where I keep all my socially engaging meetings. Like conferences I need or must (rather must) attend, or gatherings of friends. It has a different color that I can see in the month view. I have to manage how much time I spent in groups, it’s one of the most exhausting activities for me.
- Shared – meetings, events, things I share with my partner and we do together. It’s basically empty because she consistently rejects the idea of a shared calendar.
That’s it, that’s my approach to managing calendars. I don’t put tasks there unless I’m working on something very important and it needs to be done in a very specific time. That’s why I have a “Planner” calendar.
There is also a whole category called “Work”, which I handle in an even simpler way. If I work for a company that requires me to use the company phone, I keep my calendar there and nothing changes. When I’m able to use my device, I add the company account (Exchange, iCloud, Google) to my devices and that account is visible in the calendar app. I have a calendar called “Calendar” in the business calendar. Yes, I know how many calendar words I’ve used.
This can look complicated when described (mainly due to the many “calendar” words), but the idea is as simple as possible. Keep everything in one bucket, unless it’s a special category that’s important or needs special attention. I could use a category, but stock apps don’t allow you to color code events, and I tried it once in Outlook and the chaos was spectacular.
Stock iOS and macOS Reminders app
I have several lists and groups, the number varies depending on the context and character of my work, but the general rules are more or less constant.
- Reminders – the very basic list where I keep all my short-term reminders.
- Personal – self-explanatory, everything related to my personal life.
- Business – as above, but for all general work tasks.
- Company – if I run my own small business, this is where I keep everything it needs (like bills to pay or contracts to review).
- Technical – maintenance tasks like paying bills, backing up websites or hard drives, paying subscriptions, etc. 1.
- GROUP: Projects – each project has its own list, project management tasks vary a lot depending on the project, clients or company. Personal projects are also here, I use two different colors for work related and personal projects and that’s the only difference. I explained why in the introduction.
- GROUP: Backlog – here are things I want to do at some point, sorted by activity type. There are five lists in the group: Writing, Design, Movies, Photos, Other. Each list contains potential future projects. I check them regularly and pick a few things to elevate to a project and get their own list in the Projects group.
I don’t keep any kind of archive of completed tasks or projects, I don’t care about things that are in the past. I’ve done them and they’re done. After each project, I keep the list for a few weeks until I’m sure the client isn’t coming back with additional work, and then I remove the list completely. The project is done, there’s no reason to keep it.
Stock iOS and macOS Notes apps
My aversion to the idea of personal knowledge management is a very strong one. I don’t judge people who use it, that’s not the case. I don’t find it useful anymore. I used to have a few thousand notes, but I have removed almost all of them and I do not miss any of them. That means they weren’t as important as I thought they were. I think people generally overestimate the importance of the stuff they keep.
My notes application has a few folders grouped like this.
- Notes folder – it’s only called Notes because the default app won’t let me change the name. This is the inbox for my notes, I keep everything new here. Most of the stuff in this folder is deleted after it is no longer useful. Why should I keep the scan of last year’s prescription? I keep the names of the medications in a separate note called… “Medications I use”.
- Analyses – Things I use to think. If I analyze the usability and sanity of the blockchain and cryptocurrencies – I do it here and keep it forever. Yes, I did this kind of analysis a few years ago, the result was that it’s bullshit and I don’t want to spend any more time on it. But the note remains.
- Business – like in Reminders application. Things related to business – notes about clients, offers I made, or strategic goals.
- Company – same as in Reminders app. Registration data, quotes, client notes.
- Concepts – new things I’d like to work on, one day they become analysis or projects and move to another place.
- Projects – this is probably the most important folder I keep in my notes. Each project has its own note, and only one note. In this note I keep everything related to this projects, including contract, scope, timeline, contacts, some notes about how to deliver this project, and a few things.
- GROUP: Notepads – that’s it, I named the folder Notepads, and I keep… notepads there. Subfolders are basically like paper notepads here.
- Insights – things that are smart, clever and that I discovered on my own or read somewhere.
- Reviews – reviews of books, movies, music albums, TV shows…
- Minutes – meeting notes, both personal and professional.
- GROUP: Database – things I want to keep for a long time
- Expertise – things I learned and now know. My work experience is here.
- Wellness – here I keep the aforementioned note called “Medications I take” and a few others with similar information.
- Systems – technical stuff, access code, some invitations for Bluesky I got and don’t want to use.
- Lifestyle – List of my favorite shoes and clothes, gift ideas, favorite food or wine.
- GROUP: Collection – art stuff, it’s my personal curated exhibition.
- Articles – anything worth keeping for a long time. I don’t keep a lot, and I try to keep PDFs in case the source suddenly disappears from the internet.
- Comics – okay, let’s be honest, mostly memes.
- Design – nice looking stuff that I want to make or reproduce some day. Lots of inspiration.
Quotes – words from people who were smarter and wiser than me. Mostly dead people.
That’s about it. I rarely use backlinks, I don’t need the visualization of the connection between notes, I don’t need their longevity. I use notes as a temporary collection of things that may be useful. The main rule I use to manage my notes is that if it takes me more than five seconds to decide where to put something, it means my system is too complicated for me.
Stock iOS and macOS Mail apps
I use an email application to send and read email. Mailbox is neither a task manager nor a calendar. I get email, I read email, I process email, and I leave it where it is. If there’s a task, I put it in Reminders app. If there’s a meeting, I put it in Calendar app. If there’s an important attachment, I put it in the appropriate folder or note (almost always a project note). I do not use folders in the Mail application, either personal or business. Everything stays in the inbox until the end of the year, when I move everything to the archive and start all over again. I’ve found that the time spent putting emails into folders doesn’t pay off. I was using the search function anyway, so why bother? I stick to the search and can find everything pretty fast. Especially considering that I have already moved everything important either to the file system or to a sticky note. Mail is a chat app, nothing more. Sometimes I mark some items, mostly when I want to reply later, and I do it mostly to keep the time it takes to find the email I want to reply to as orderly as possible. No more than five, maybe six emails have a flag at the same time. But I do it very rarely, mostly I prefer to put those emails on the to-do list. It’s easy on macOS, just drag the email to the to-do list and that’s it.
Safari, NetNewsWire, GoodLinks
My browser of choice is Safari. Mainly because it’s pre-installed and I didn’t want to take the time and energy to find something else. Also, my internet is almost exclusively the RSS reader. I don’t even use an adblocker or content blocker in Safari, or any other extension. I don’t care about extensions. I use DuckDuckGo sometimes when I need to, but basically I only read the sites I have in my reader. There’s nothing smart or funny on the web anymore, so – again – why bother? I spend a lot of time in the reader and use NetNewsWire, which I described in the previous post. Articles that I find interesting I keep starred in NNW for a while, then I either move them to my notes or remove them. I’ve been testing the GoodLinks app lately because I’m tired of Safari’s reading list, but I’m not sure if it’s going to stick, so I won’t describe it here. And that’s it, that’s the whole story of how I use browsers and reading apps. There’s no big workflow in the background or a great tool for browsing the web. Basic stuff.
There are other applications and tools that I use on a regular basis, I mentioned them in the previous post, but there’s nothing special about how I use them. I chat with people like everyone else, I draw things, I write things, I do things. I used to have a great productivity system, I did. But I discovered there’s no point in keeping one. I have managed multi-million euros projects, I have led teams of dozens of people, I have worked for several different companies and for dozens of clients. I’ve used the system described above for all of them, and… it’s really enough. I have even seen managers go on to do even greater things using pen and paper. I strongly believe that productivity tools are overrated because productivity isn’t about the tools, it’s about the approach to work and the mindset of the person doing the work. That’s one thing. The second thing is that I’m not a keeper. I use things and move on, and I can’t think of a situation where I missed deleting a note or a task from my simple system. I don’t. If someone took all my applications, I wouldn’t cry. I would take an external hard drive with my files, plug it into the other machine, and do my work. I would take a paper notebook, write down some basic next tasks, and move on. The most important thing is to do things, to deliver projects and to execute tasks. An efficient system can help a lot, and it’s important to have one. But do we really need so many complicated applications, do we really need to see every task and every meeting and every email in one place? Maybe some people do. I don’t. For me, effectiveness is in simplicity.
Even if the payments are automated, I keep it here just so I know what’s going on with my accounts ↩︎