I wanted to take the time to collect and share all the digital tools I use on a regular basis for writing notes and organizing tasks. This is the first part of a multi part series exploring digital tools of various kinds. This one focuses on writing and productivity software. These are not hypothetical reviews or paid sponsorship like so many articles, these are the actual apps I use every day and a few of the ones I tried in the process.
In order to share our ideas, we must first organize our thoughts. Writing helps us achieve both. Just the process of writing ideas down, either for work or personal journaling, helps our brain process and organize them. And of course once they are written down it makes sharing those ideas much easier.
How I use it - Notes and Personal Knowledge Management
There’s a lot of hype these days around productivity circles of “PKM” systems, or Personal Knowledge Management. And for the most part, I find it pretty compelling. I think it’s a good idea to use a tool that helps us express our thoughts but also organize them. Therefore things like backlinks and wiki style document writing has become more common features among all these apps.
The thing that makes Bear stand apart for me is its simplicity. It’s just a joy to use, and there’s something magical about the writing experience. I’ve tried many other writing apps, but somehow they all have quirks or rough edges that give you digital paper cuts. Bear though? It’s smooth, and so although it doesn’t have all the features of say, Obsidian, I find in Bear I actually want to write instead of Obsidian feels a bit intimidating to even get started.
I should note, I also use Apple Notes for much the same reason, and I enjoy that both Bear and Apple Notes support robust Apple Pencil support on iPad. In truth, I should commit to one or the other, but I find Bear has markdown and organization features I find worth paying for, while Apple is built into the system in some nice ways. So I use Apple Notes as a kind of quick notes inbox, and Bear for more organized notes or journaling.
- Apple Notes
How I use it - Writing and publishing blogs and stories
This is how I write and publish the very blog you are reading. Ulysses is one of the few apps that allow me to write in markdown, organize effectively, and publish to several online services including Micro.blog and Medium.
To be honest however, I am not in love with this app in the same way that I am with Bear. In fact, if Bear had some more publishing features, I would only use that instead of Ulysses. Ulysses has a few paper cuts I mentioned that just irk me, for example, adding markdown characters like a
# for a header, it doesn’t automatically add a space like Bear does, and its not clear if you should have a space or not. The organization system, while robust, is not nearly as intuitive as Bear’s either. Bear has a simple but effective system of nested tags whereas Ulysses has folders, tags, projects, and groups; and it’s not really clear what is even different about them.
I do enjoy however that for the most part I get a similar writing experience and the space to organize my stories and blogs and publish them all in one spot. That’s what keeps me here, and keeps me recommending it. I tried Mars Edit, another popular blogging tool, but found it surprisingly unintuitive. A tool that is a strong contender with Ulysses is iA Writer, perhaps the most famous markdown writing app of all. I’ve considered switching, but there hasn’t been sufficient pain for me to change my workflow even though I’m sure iA Writer is quality software.
- iA Writer
- Mars Edit
The land of productivity software is a vast and interesting one. It’s constantly changing, and old categories like task managers, documents, or calendars don’t really sufficiently explain what the software does anymore. That’s because most modern productivity tools converge and cover multiple of these topics, with the most famous one probably being Notion. Notion has revolutionized what it means to be a “doc” while at the same time adding task management, wiki and other features to the mix. On the other hand apps like Routine and Cron are redefining what a calendar is with built in notes and tasks.
How I use it - Daily task manager
I realize I just spent a paragraph talking about new paradigm converging productivity software, but at the end of the day what I use the most is a simple kanban board and todo list. And there is no better kanban todo list app than Todoist. Much like Bear, I find this software an absolute joy to use and sublime in ways hard to describe. One example, when typing your task, it’s very seamless to add a due date, category, project, all in line while you type.
There is a new app that combines Notes, Tasks, and a calendar but despite all that I haven’t found it beats the elegance of Bear and Todoist. I’ve also long considered Things, however the lack of kanban support is a dealbreaker for me. Furthermore, while Trello of course does kanban, it’s Todoist’s way of handling both lists and cards that keeps it my top choice and an app I use every day.
- Apple Reminders
How I use it - Organizing data and rapid prototyping
Now of course, I could just use Notion for all these things. For writing, publishing, task management, and general productivity, but for me Notion is just good for one thing. The database powered tables. The thing is, with Notion I find it a jack of all trades and master of none kind of application. While it is nice to have all my data interconnected, the lack of solid offline support and just the native speed and feel breaks it for me. I tried writing in Notion but went back to Bear. I tried using the tasks but went back to Todoist. So why is Notion on my list? Because Notion is magical at creating interesting spreadsheets of connected data and publishing them to websites. I use it to organize ideas with tables, and as a rapid prototyping system to publish and share web pages. In fact, after several iterations, I use Notion to make my Design Portfolio. It’s simple, easy, and looks good so I can focus on the content of my work, not how to display my work.
Three apps that have caught my eye recently are Craft, Coda and AnyType. Craft is an exceptional app in its own however its lack of robust databases and high cost prevent me from using it. Since I can’t replace both Bear and Notion with it, it becomes not useful to me. Coda is pretty much a Notion knock off except they seem to know what to focus on better than Notion. They are all in on publishing with semi interactive apps and actually I think this is better for my use case; I may switch in the near future. AnyType is the most radical of them all, using a decentralized database and promising robust offline support. If this can deliver, I may need to rewrite this entire list.
Apple Calendar and Cal
At the beginning of this section on productivity, I noted some new apps that combined calendars and tasks, Cron and Routine. By all accounts both seem to be quality apps, I’ve tried Cron and I’m on the waitlist for Routine. However, I just don’t think I need the feature set, as I’m not sure it would unseat Todoist for me.
On the other hand, there is the need for a calendar to plan your life, everything from just setting up your week to automatic scheduling and figuring out meetings. I tried fantastical after it has rave reviews, but I just couldn’t quite get it. Besides a nice UI, it didn’t seem to do anything Apple’s built in Calendar or Google Calendar can’t already do, and they want a subscription. And so, my pick here is just the built in calendar for your system of choice, in my case Apple Calendar.
For scheduling I’ve used and enjoyed Calendly, but the free tier is rather basic and otherwise gets expensive. I’ve found a recent alternative with a better free tier which I enjoy, simply named Cal.