The right tools

Choosing the right tools is a long process. Choosing the best – is a never ending story. Here is the story of my search for the best digital tools. But is it just about tools? Behind every choice we make there is a reason, and I want to tell you more about my reasons today.


Basic Apple apps

Basic organizational tools are the ones I use for notes, reminders, and calendars 1 The most important ones are the basic ones. I decided a few years ago to stick with the standard applications. I had two reasons: I didn’t want to pay for something I didn’t need, and I wanted to have tools that used Apple’s native design language. I like the look of Apple apps, but even more important is consistency. My brain needs to be familiar with my tools, and that’s the factor I’ll use later when choosing other tools.

My reluctance to pay isn’t caused by stinginess, but rather by awareness and purpose. If I am going to pay for something, I have to be sure that I need it and that I will use it. I’ve fallen into the trap of buying apps I don’t use a few times, and I don’t want to make that mistake again.

I use Notes for just about everything. I use it for sketches, blog post ideas, business and project notes, meeting minutes, and even saved webpages. How I use my Notes app deserves a blog post of its own, but I want to emphasize one thing here. I don’t care too much about my notes. If they disappear one day, I won’t miss them. They are important, but they are just a starting point for things I do elsewhere. Even if I lost the meeting notes, I don’t care because the meetings are in the past and I have never had the need to dig through summaries from years ago. If I suspect I’ll need to prove something years from now, I’ll save the notes as a txt file with proper metadata. Then I make a few backups. But notes that remain in the Notes application? They are inherently ephemeral. The same relationship I have with tasks, reminders, and calendars. That’s why I’m not afraid to use Apple’s closed apps. Their biggest threat is being kicked out of the garden, which means losing all the data. I solved this by not storing critical data there. Critical data is stored as documents.


Finder and stuff…

Everything I need permanently, I save as a document. I use the good old Finder with iCloud sync enabled. I don’t use iCloud as a backup system, but I like the sync a lot. It has some flaws, it’s not perfect, but it works well for me. I already pay for the Apple One subscription and I like the integration into the ecosystem. But documents are different from notes or reminders because I cannot lose them. If Apple kicked me off my account, I would be miserable. That’s why I keep a backup on the encrypted external drive (in addition to the basic Time Machine backup) where I store my documents, well, as documents. I can use these files on any other machine I need. This category includes my writings, drawings, work files, important notes or summaries, scans of all my documents, and more.

There is one tool that I use regularly and hate passionately, and that’s MS Office. For all my documents I use Pages, Keynote and Numbers (backup is the PDF version) because they are good enough and I already have them. But the whole world doesn’t want to give up the MS applications and if I want to work with others (and I do) I have to obey. Microsoft is also actively pushing the subscription model. I’ve been thinking for some time about buying a one-time-payment version of Office, but it’s limited to one machine and doesn’t work on the iPad. But I’m getting closer to that decision as I’m using the iPad less and less for office work2


Apple Notes to Everlog

I treat journal entries the same way I treat notes. They are ephemeral by nature and I can live without them. Journaling is important to me in the moment I’m doing it, not later. It’s a method of meditation, of clearing my mind, not a way to store my history. That’s why I decided to use the same system I use for notes. I used Apple Notes some time ago and was happy with it until I wasn’t. Notes was fine when I had about fifty entries, later when I had thousands it was a disaster. The natural step was to find another way to keep the journal. I didn’t want to clutter up my drives with those little files 3 and I decided to put them in a database. The real question was which application to use. Many people recommend Day One, which I tried and hated. I also don’t trust external sync services. After trying a few others (a lot, to be honest) I settled on a small, not widely known app called Everlog. It uses the Apple design language with some additions (it’s even nicer), it’s a one-time payment, the developer seems to take it seriously, and it uses iCloud as a sync mechanism. The main drawback, unfortunately, is that it’s a Mac app that isn’t really a Mac app, and it shows. But it’s good enough until something better comes along. I can also use iAWriter to write my entries and simply copy and paste them into Everlog, which understands markdown very well.


Ulysses to iAWriter

This leads directly to the writing tools. During last week’s cleanup, I got rid of Ulysses, which I’ve been using since March. I’m back to iAWriter. I write exclusively in iAWriter as I did before my brief adventure with Ulysses. All my blog posts, books, most of the shorter Mastodon posts, all documents, everything starts here. I make a distinction between word processors and word editors, all my writing starts in a word processor (iAWriter) and is edited later in a word editor (Pages, Affinity Publisher, Word).

Now it’s time to write a few words about switching back from Ulysses to iAWriter. I’ll skip the subscription part (here and elsewhere later) because it’s starting to bore me. The truth is that Ulysses is a great application, well designed, well organized, maybe even too well. But iAWriter is the king of the writing environment. Typewriter mode, which is crucial for me, worked mediocrely in Ulysses and was hidden. Turning it on and off was absolutely frustrating and I’m changing that setting a lot. I write with typewriter mode on because it helps me focus, but it’s impossible to edit the text later when it’s on. iAWriter is also faster. Starting new text is faster, the interface is more fluid (even more raw), and I feel like the letters appear on the screen faster. And I’m a fast writer. It also works on the files, not on a proprietary database, which again becomes important to me. After considering these arguments, Ulysses’ days were numbered.

Mind maps

MindNode to Zavala

Another category of apps that needed my attention were mind mapping apps. I’ve been using MindNode for some time (probably years), and I decided it was also the best time to move on. MindNode is subscription based (disadvantage) and works with files (advantage), but the developers are working on a new version that will use a database. They promised that the old version will remain available, but I have a trust problem lately.

However, the biggest argument in this case was that… I don’t like mind mapping for some time. I’ve been using MindNode almost exclusively in outline mode lately, so I decided to use… outliner app. It’s that simple. And there is a great app for that called Zavala. It’s made by Maurice Parker, one of the main developers behind NetNewsWire. It’s free (so no subscription model, although I’d buy it if I could), it’s well-designed using Apple’s design language, and it uses a database. Fortunately, outlines are as important to me as notes and tasks, it’s just a starting point for my text. After creating the outline, I export it and work on the text in iAWriter. I’ll never go back to the outlines, I might as well delete them altogether.

At some point I need something more visual, something to think about. Fortunately, this need can be satisfied by the Freeform app, which is even better than MindNode because it allows me to draw freely on the big canvas. I use Zavala for strict outlining and Freeform for free thinking. Both are database-based, but I’m fine with that as long as they don’t contain anything very important.


NetNewsWire, GoodLinks, Books

I use the Internet through an RSS reader. I rarely visit websites directly or use search engines. When I do search, I use DuckDuckGo. But my Internet is the RSS reader. By RSS reader I mean NetNewsWire. It’s the best application I’ve ever tried in the reader category, and one of the best at all. The downside, of course, is that it’s only available for MacOS and iOS. This is fine for me as I do most of my reading on the iPad. Using NNW exclusively allows me to use iCloud as a sync engine, which works flawlessly, it’s built-in, free and secure. If I had to use another sync service, I would use Feedbin.
I’ve been using Safari’s Reading List to collect articles for later, but recently I decided it was time to integrate something more sophisticated. Safari does its job, but Reading List needs some love from Apple.

I bought GoodLinks and I’m happy with it. Native look and feel, one-time payment, iCloud as the sync engine. It’s perfect. I don’t have a lot of use cases for it yet, but it’s perfect.

There’s another category in the “reading” drawer. Books. I read on my iPad. I tried e-ink readers (including Kindle), and I prefer the glossy iPad screen over them. I prefer iPad to… paper books. I don’t know why, but my brain processes reading better on that high-resolution, full-color screen. I like it, I use the Books app because I buy books, I don’t rent them (remember the paragraph about my feelings about subscriptions?).

Watching and listening

iTunes, Music, TV

I have a similar approach to watching as I do to reading. I like to own movies, I use iTunes to buy them and keep them. Streaming services are a necessary evil and I only use them when there is a show I want to watch. I often wait until the end of the season, subscribe for a month, and binge watch whatever I want. The exception is Apple TV, but only because I already pay for Apple One.

And now it’s time for a little hypocrisy. I rent music. I love music, and there are so many sounds I want to hear that I have no choice but to pay a subscription. They have me here and I cannot escape. I am slowly buying iTunes albums to build my personal library that I own, but it takes time and it takes money. For now, I’m paying a monthly fee for my mental health.


Photos, Affinity, Pixelmator

I take photos with my phone and don’t own a standalone camera. I’m not a professional photographer and never will be. I just like to take a few pictures and keep them as memories. It’s easy to use iCloud to sync them, and I do, but it’s not enough as a backup. All my photos are manually copied to the external hard drive on a monthly basis, where I store them as raw files. Photos are just as important to me as files, maybe more so, so I don’t trust iCloud or Apple in that area.

On a daily basis, however, I use Apple’s standard apps to take, store, and browse photos. I do use other apps to edit and process photos, but these are also one-off tools from smaller developers like Affinity Suite and Pixelmator Pro and Photomator.


iMessage, Mail, Signal, Mona

I don’t use any social media except Mastodon. I don’t use chat apps except for iMessage and recently Signal. My main communication platform is still email, and I like it. The default iOS and macOS Mail app is more than enough for me, as I don’t use any sophisticated tools for email processing. Mail inbox is not a task manager, and there’s no need to do more with emails than read them. iMessage is the main platform I use to communicate with my partner and friends, but I missed something to talk to other people around the globe who don’t use Apple devices (and some local colleagues as well). Signal looks like the best compromise for me. It’s a long way from perfect, the Mac app is a horrible Electron “thing”, developers romanticize cryptocurrency and sometimes don’t deliver on their promises. But it’s the best I know. Telegram, WhatsApp, Messenger, are excluded by definition, and others are so small that no one uses them. For now, Signal is the only option.

I closed my Glass account this week. I liked it, I liked the clear business model (at least for a social media platform), I was willing to pay the monthly fee (it’s more service than app), but I saw that I stopped using it at all. I don’t know why, but I stopped. It was time to let it go.

I’ve been using Ivory to browse Mastodon for a few months now, but lately I’ve been falling in love with Mona, a highly customizable Mastodon client that starts out ugly and often, with some tweaking, looks more native to Apple platforms than Ivory. And I can buy it without recurring payments.

I’ve been testing XMPP as a communication protocol lately, and I may add it to my list of tools someday, but not today. I need more time.

Other apps

There are some smaller tools that I use more or less regularly. It’s worth mentioning the Diagrams app, the whole Affinity Suite, Pixelmator apps, and ColorSlurp. Sometimes I have to use MS Teams or Slack, which I hate, but the whole world has decided that these are great tools to communicate and collaborate. For video calls, I prefer FaceTime, which recently added the ability to create links that can be used on any platform. Given the choice, I prefer to send FaceTime links instead of Teams. If someone urges me to use Zoom or Meet, I use them exclusively in the browser. And my browser of choice is Safari. It’s good enough, private enough, looks native, and works seamlessly. There are also very specific apps for my work, like TimeStory for creating timelines, SheetPlanner interchangeably with OmniPlan, or sometimes even CAD apps (I’m still an engineer).

One more thing

Consistency between my tools is the most important factor for me. The second is the ownership of my data and the third is synchronization. I’m used to working on different devices and I need synchronization. It’s a quality of my brain, some things are easier for me when I’m sitting in front of the big screen, but others – like preparing outlines for my text – I prefer to do on my phone while sitting on a bench in the park or on the balcony with a cup of coffee. Those three are key features, and I won’t consider an app that doesn’t have them. [Except for some minor and very specialized ones.]

It’s not a closed list, there are some very minor things I use and I’m sure I’ll add new tools in the future. But for now, those described above help me in both my personal and professional life, and they are sufficient to do one hundred percent of my work. I’m happy with my setup, especially after some cleaning I did this week. There is also a hardware part of my setup that I’ll describe someday, maybe even illustrate with some photos.

  1. There is also a much more sophisticated category called project management. That’s a huge topic I’ll cover someday, but it has more to do with my work philosophy than my tools. ↩︎

  2. But the price MS is asking for the commercial license is crazy. ↩︎

  3. As I said, I don’t take journal notes seriously… ↩︎