My iPhone Productivity System Explained
In the continuing effort to make my iPhone work for me, and not against me, I’ve settled into a new notification system, optimized my home screen, and now I’ve a found a system for productivity that I really like.
My workflow centers around three main apps: Ulysses, Things, and Fantasical. In fact, these are the three apps in my dock, so I can easily access them from anywhere on my phone. These apps are used as the foundation for what I’m calling the three pillars of my productivity workflow:
Simplicity in all things
Bias towards action
By ‘everything’ I mean all of the things I need to, or want to, accomplish. So this means stuff like tasks, projects, ideas, notes, events, memories, and so on. I want to capture all of these things because I consider them important enough to remember either in the short-term or the long-term. My brain is constantly thinking about the next thing so chances are if I don’t capture something in the moment I won’t remember it when I need to.
So how do I capture everything?
I use a carefully curated set of apps on my iPhone and iPad that I’ve spent years refining. I’ve tried out more apps in more categories than I care to share, so I feel extremely confident with the apps that have made it into my current system. With that said, here are the apps I use to keep myself productive and accountable:
Ulysses is my depot for anything text related. I have folders for article ideas, book notes, Bible notes, quotes, my podcast network, any online classes I’ve taken, personal development, and miscellaneous notes. Each of these folders is full of sheets with everything from finished articles to the dimensions of my dining room table.
I keep all of this in Ulysses for a few reasons:
Ulysses is really pretty.
Having everything in one place prevents me from ever having to remember where I put a specific note.
All text in Ulysses is searchable so I don’t have to remember the title of a file or remember what folder it’s hiding in. I just search the keyword(s) I’m looking for and Ulysses presents me with the file(s) I’m looking for.
Ulysses is available on iPhone, iPad, and Mac and it all syncs so you have everything on each device.
All of these things make Ulysses friction-less and a joy to use.
Things is my task manager of choice because it allows me to plan for the present and the future in pretty much anyway I choose. Things allows me to create single tasks, projects, and even establish different areas of my life within which to organize my tasks. You can set reminders, start dates, end dates, add notes or checklists to tasks, and so much more. It really is an incredibly powerful life management tool.
Fantastical is my calendar app of choice for one specific reason: natural language parsing. This feature allows me to enter a calendar event as if I were speaking to another human. For example, I can type “Dinner with Meredith on Friday at 7pm at La Siesta” and Fantastical will create a calendar event called “Dinner with Meredith” on Friday at 7pm with the location set to “La Siesta”.
Of course Fantastical has all of the other options you would want from a calendar app but my main concern with Fantastical is taking advantage of the natural language parsing. It may seem silly to buy a calendar app just for this feature but because I have a varying work schedule it can be a pain in the butt to enter my weekly schedule without this feature. One thing I do to make this even easier is use the built in dictation feature in the iPhone keyboard (the microphone to the left of the space bar) and simply talk to Fantastical. It makes bulk entry of calendar events a breeze.
One last feature that Fantastical sports is the ability to select which calendar you want each event to be associated with. So continuing with the example above, I could add “/family” to the end of “Dinner with Meredith on Friday at 7pm at La Siesta” and Fantastical would add that event to our shared “Family” calendar. This is a feature I didn’t realize Fantastical had until about three weeks ago and it drove me nuts having to manually choose the calendar after entering event information. Being able to quickly choose the calendar when entering the event is exactly what I was hoping for and now that I know about it, I use this feature every single time I enter a new event.
Day One is a journaling app that I use to store memories and life milestones. It’s a pretty powerful app that can capture a lot of different types of data like text, images, location, weather, activity statistics, and even voice memos. All of that is nice but I don’t find myself using a lot of the advanced features. I tend to simply enter some text, maybe add an image, and call it good.
Toggl is my preferred app for Time Tracking. I try to track as much of my time as I can, though some days are better than others. I do this for one main reason: I want to know how I’m using the time that I have.
We only get one shot at life and I’m prone to spend a lot of my time doing unimportant things. Because I know this about myself I want to have data to show me two things:
How much time I wasted each week
Use that to remind myself that I do have time to accomplish my goals.
My hope is that with clear data I can refine how I use my time. I’ll report back on this in a few months, once I’ve had time to get a useful amount of data.
Just Press Record
The final app I use to “Capture Everything” is Just Press Record. This app helps me capture important stuff when typing it out isn’t an option, say when I’m driving. I can just press record and speak whatever is on my mind. When I’m done, I stop the recording and Just Press Record will then transcribe that audio into text, so when I’m done driving I can grab that text and move it to where it needs to be.
Simplicity In All Things
As I’ve stated multiple times before, I want my iPhone to work for me and not against me. Another way that I try to accomplish this goal is by focusing on simplicity. The way that I choose to organize my Home Screen is tuned to how my brain works, that’s why apps are sorted by color and frequency of use and not category. That I have specific apps for very specific tasks also lends itself towards my desire for simplicity. If I have to complete a certain action I know, because of the system I employ, exactly what app to use and where it is located on my phone, so that I no longer have to think about the actual execution of input. It is simply muscle memory now.
This is why I want simplicity in all things, so that when it’s time to execute I don’t have to think about it, I can just do it.
Bias Towards Action
Hopefully arriving at this section makes complete sense after reading the previous two. If I’m able to capture everything, and do so simply, I have given myself a solid foundation to execute from. It is up to me, at this point, then to take the momentum my system has provided me and run with it, to have a bias towards action.
One way that I force myself to take action is with notifications. I hate notifications on my phone, they are a nuisance and a distraction, but because I know this I can take advantage of my annoyance and use it to push myself. I use notifications and due dates for every article, every podcast, every editing session, every important task, even for boring tasks like taking out the trash on Tuesday nights.
This only works because I have the notifications on my phone completely locked down so that only important information gets delivered and also because I hate notifications. If they didn’t bother me or I had the flood gates open the notifications wouldn’t carry the power they currently do. Essentially, I’m using my own glitches against myself to try and force myself to take action.
I’ve taken the time and spent the money to identify the apps that work the best and fill the needs that I have. I’ve molded them into a system that allows me to capture everything, creates simplicity in the process, and forces me to have a bias towards action. The biggest glitch in the system, however, is me. I can just say no, or change a deadline, or leave my phone in the other room and ignore it.
I love my system but I’m still working on me. In fact this article was supposed to be published weeks ago but I made excuses and put it off and even ignored the super hard deadline I set for myself of two days ago. So no matter how highly-tuned my system is I am still the variable, I’m the one that can ramp it up and get a ton done but I’m also the one that can say, “nah, I’ll get to it tomorrow.” And perhaps that is what this article was really about, knowing yourself, how you think, and how you work. I’ve got a system in place that is tuned to me and my needs but I’ve also got to the take the time to work on me, so that I’m not afraid to do the actual work.