apps

Mind Maps

I have a small set of criteria which I use to choose amongst the mind map tools available right now.

Low friction

Entering information must be fast, as must the process of reorganizing it. I'm prepared to sacrifice high-end features in order to achieve this.

Ubiquity

Since this is a tool which is used to capture information, it must be available on as many of my personal devices as possible, sharing information between them, preferably automatically.

Compatibility

It's rare for a mind map to be the final form that a piece of information will take. Rather, I use them to capture and process information before using a different tool to turn them info the finished article. For me, that usually means text or diagrams. As such, it's important to be able to take information out of the mind map, either as a plain text outline or a standard outline file format such as OPML. The ability to export as an image or PDF is also useful for those occasions where I want to take advantage of the efficiency of a mind map to share information with others.

MindNode by IdeasOnCanvas matches these criteria very nicely. A close second is iThoughts, although I find that while the latter is more powerful, it's not quite as intuitive and synchronization isn't quite as seamless as MindNode.

Task Manager

The job I'm asking my task manager to do is probably the most important of any of my software choices. In essense, it houses my second brain.

I've been using OmniFocus several times a day, on various devices, since 2009. It's probably the most sophisticated task management tool that exists, and I would happily pay triple what Omni Group charged. Here's why:

Prescriptive

Many task managers allow you to form your own system for working with tasks. I feel that this is intellectually-lazy. It creates a mess of due dates, priorities, inconsistent folders, and tags that don't mean anything. I'm attracted to tools which are built around a process or a philosophy. OmniFocus employs David Allen's Getting Things Done method, a method which has informed so much of my own. This prescriptive approach is opinionated, brave, and highly effective. 

Ubiquity

The Omni Group have shipped versions of OmniFocus for Mac, iPad and iPhone. This means that my task system is ubiquitous, whether taking notes, studying in depth or in a pocket. This is important because it makes it easy to capture and review tasks, but more important than that, easy to habitualize the capture and review of tasks.

Perspectives

I also really like the fact that OmniFocus makes it relatively simple to build custom perspectives, giving you a particular view of your data. I have perspectives for all of my likely situations, displaying available tasks deferred to the contexts which constitute those situations. This means that if I tap the "Study" perspective, I see all tasks which are appropriate to that situation. I'm working on a paper describing this process in more detail. I also recommend Kourosh Dini's excellent book, Creating Flow with OmniFocus.

Reviews

Where OmniFocus really shines is its ability to conduct a review of captured tasks and projects. It's easy enough to capture information, but that's useless unless you have an easy system to review the right information at the right time. Reviewing the actions in a particular situation is made easy with perspectives, and freshly-captured tasks can be seen using the Inbox view. However, to conduct a regular review of projects, there is a dedicated Review mode built into the iPad and Mac version of OmniFocus; and coming soon to the iPhone. This makes it quite easy to go through every outstanding project, check that it has at least one available or deferred task, then say whether the project is current, paused, done, or to be dropped.

I've yet to see any task manager implement this mode as effectively as OmniFocus has; yet it is essential for keeping your system maintained and up to date.

The company

I have a lot of respect for The Omni Group as a company; and that is important for the vendor of such an important tool. I've found them to be very conservative when it comes to features that could compromise the stability and security of data, and their post-sales support has been consistently excellent. They are more expensive; but this is a situation where a high price is a good thing, because it inclines them to look after me as a customer. 

Competition

There are lots of task managers on the market, but the only other tool which I think is worth considering is Todoist. Unlike OmniFocus, Todoist supports many more platforms, including Windows, Android, and has a native web version. While not quite as a focused as OmniFocus it is reassuringly expensive which gives me confidence about the intentions of the company behind it.

Conclusion

This is an area where you want to spend money. You'd buy yourself the best pacemaker if you could; by the same logic you should buy yourself the best task manager. I depend on OmniFocus. It works best when you buy into the process that it's built to support; unlike other task managers it won't work for you if you go against the grain. That said, if you're trying to implement the habits I described in The Productivity Habits, or similar systems, OmniFocus will serve you very well.

Info Dump

In The Productivity Habits, I wrote about the need to create an "info dump" into which you can archive complete information. This includes work you have finished yourself, notes, documents, articles, even emails. 

The interesting thing about archived information is that it's neither alive; like your current projects, nor dead; like the stuff you've deleted. It's unconscious. It has no immediately usefulness, but lots of potential usefulness. 

This means that the way live information is dealt with doesn't strictly apply. An example is filetypes on your computer. Knowing whether a particular file is a text document, a spreadsheet, a PDF or an image is very important when you're actually working on it. But it's meaningless in an archive.

A good archiving tool must be able to store multiple types of information together, and treat them equally.

DEVONthink

DEVONthink Pro Office is my preferred choice. It's the most sophisticated and powerful knowledge manager that I've tested. I generally prefer simple tools, so why the exception in this case?

DEVONthink is, in my ways, the epitome of the ideal info dump. You can drag pretty much any kind of file into the app and it will make sense of it. Everything from Microsoft Office files to PDFs, web links, text notes, and more. The Pro Office version, which I use, has the ability to archive emails from Apple Mail using sophisticated date filters. This is invaluable to me. I have a repeating task set every six months to archive my email into DEVONthink before I delete it from the mail server. Additionally, the DEVONthink Pro Office integrates nicely with Fujitsu's excellent ScanSnap series of scanners. I don't have much use for this personally, but for anyone who deals with reams of paper, the ability to archive that information into accurage, searchable PDFs will save a lot of time. 

DEVONthink Pro Office also integrates a powerful OCR feature. This can digitize the text in scans and images, turning them into searchable files. This is incredibly useful if you're in the habit of screenshotting or photographing images with text.

While it's very easy to get stuff into DEVONthink it's also quite easy to organize it. Folders can be nested inside folders, making it easy to replicate your Importance Tree structure in DEVONthink. Tagging is especially useful for people who need to finely organize data in a very large project, although I don't make much use of that feature myself.

Asides from capturing data, the most important role of a knowledge manager is that of retrieval. Even if it was easy to capture information, the tool would be useless if it was difficult to find the right piece of information. DEVONthink's "Find" function is reasonable, although I rely on the more powerful "Search" function under the Tools menu. This makes it easy to find tune the search and to deploy DEVONthink's secret weapon: the "See Also & Classify" function. When you select an item in your DEVONthink database and enable See Also & Classify, you will see a dossier of items which relate to whatever you've selected. This can include any file type. It's a game-changer.

Local data

The other thing that draws me to DEVONthink is that it stores my data locally, on my computer, without relying on a cloud service. The information contained in my DEVONthink database is incredibly personal; including complete work, thoughts for future projects, and an archive of my communications. Keeping this data secure and safe is very important and, frankly, I don't quite trust services like Evernote to do a good job at keeping my information from prying eyes. DEVONthink data, by contrast, is not transferred to any third party. The fact that it's data is local means that a comprehensive backup strategy is likely to include your DEVONthink data.

This strength is also a limitation. I would like to see DEVONthink offer the ability to encrypt the database before hosting it on Amazon S3, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and the like. This would combine pre-internet encryption and modern sync capabilities. Synchronization, while possible, is a pain right now. As such I think it's a tool for people who use a laptop as their only computer. Their mobile app, while perfectly usable, is also very limited. I would like to see an mobile version of DEVONthink which, at the least, features the See Also & Classify function.

DEVONthink maintains DEVONthink Personal, Pro and Pro Office. I think that this is confusing and unnecessary. The best version of DEVONthink for anyone who deals with information in a serious way is Pro Office. At less than $150, it's very reasonably priced considering the problems it's capable of solving.

These issues aside, it remains the most powerful knowledge manager tool available and I recommend it to anyone who would like to use a powerful, secure tool for archiving their data. If you'd prefer to sacrifice power and security for the sake of better ease of use, and the benefits of having your data everywhere, Evernote is an excellent alternative. 

An Ante Chamber for Text

Creating a new message is a wildly different task than reading a message. But every email client is supposed to be a tool for reading emails as well as composing and replying. This arrangement forces people to see their unread emails whenever they intend to write one.

Email clients are problematic

This is bad. It tempts people to get sidetracked into making rash, responsive decisions about new messages. In turn this dissuades the positive habit of from setting aside the time to process an email inbox properly. It certainly doesn't help that inboxes can often be sprawling morasses of unactioned messages which require constant firefighting, and aren't very pleasant to work with.

Plus, mail clients aren't great writing tools. Asides from the potential for distraction there's always the fear of accidentally hitting the Send button before the message is ready.

Is it actually an email?

Beyond that, what's being written might not actually be an email. It's quite common to begin a message only to realise that it's better off as a text message, a tweet, a task, or even a whole document. In this scenario this text would normally need to be extracted, put in the right place and edited accordingly. This can be a real pain.

Ante Chamber

A tool which might solve this problem would behave like an "ante chamber" for text. It would be a space which accepts text then allows us to decide what to do with it.

Instead of having an idea, and having to decide what to do with it before it even leaves my brain, the scratch pad becomes the first port of call for any text I write on a smartphone or tablet. Once the text is externalised I can read back, and make much better decisions about what to do with it.

It's much more intuitive than having to decide between an intimidating plethora of apps, whilst still trying to keep hold of an idea in memory. This is a much simpler process:

  • Brain: Have an idea
  • Tool: Write it down
  • Brain: Decide what to do with it

Implementation

The best tool for this is Drafts by Agile Tortoise. It's a simple text editor for iPhone and iPad which accepts text, then can send it to any number of other apps and services, including sending it as a new email.

Drafts is an excellent, safe writing environment which doesn't force you to distract yourself by looking at the inbox. In addition, it's a great way to make text-heavy work easier to manage on a mobile device. For more advanced users it also integrates with Markdown and TextExpander making it possible to create sophisticated pieces of writing quickly and efficiently.

So, rather than trying to wrestle with email clients, it's possible to build a better process for handling any kind of text, which more closely matches the way you think.

Notability

Using your voice as a capture mechanism can be quite a challenge. Unlike using a tool to create a physical mark which can be looked at later on, sound is utterly ephemeral unless it is captured at the point where it is uttered. This means two things:

  • When a conversation gives you a great idea, disgorge your working memory of that idea immediately by writing it down using whatever capture tool you have to hand.
  • Plan in advance to record your conversation or your monologue.

Recording yourself can be surprisingly effective. You can capture a great deal of information, often containing strong ideas, very quickly. However, the trouble is reviewing that information later on. With old-fashioned tape recorders it was necessary to play back the entire recording, pen in hand, to record useful information. This could be time consuming and required deep attention. This would often cause information to build up, creating a blockage that required a long time to clear.

It's necessary to find an application which lets you record a conversation while simultaneously creating visual bookmarks to mark out a good idea. This will allow you to jump backwards and forwards in the recording to retrieve the relevant information.

Notability

There are several apps which do a great job at recording your voice, and it's certainly worth trying them out. However, my favourite is Notability by Ginger Labs. As the name suggests, the tool is designed around the problem of notetaking and it offers a fairly comprehensive set of tools. You can record a conversation while scribbling, typing, even highlighting your notes. Afterwards, by selecting text or a doodle, the soundtrack will jump to whatever was b eing recorded while you were writing or scribbling. 

This makes it great for marking out meaningful points in a conversation, but also adding your own private thoughts and observations.

The app has been around for a while and updated frequently and I've found it to be consistently reliable and very polished. I particularly like the ability to create "subjects" and "dividers" which make it easy to file the work. I don't make much use of this feature myself but I can see it being very useful for people who must attend several meetings before having the chance to write up their notes, or students who attend lectures and classes.

Beyond this, Notability has excellent sharing options, including the ability to export the recording and a PDF of the notes. The software is available for iPhone and iPad - where I tend to use it the most - and Mac, where I extract the useful information into OmniFocus. iCloud sync means that the data is kept up to date on all of these devices.