Productivity Tool Tips in the Wild

July 23, 2019

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By Steven Kaplan, Kovarus Cloud & Automation Practice Manager

When I was thinking through what I wanted to be my next post on off-the-wall topics, I floated the idea of a post on why I have so many different apps for taking notes and staying organized in general. The response I got back from my committee of friends was “YES!”, which I was kind of surprised by, honestly. Who’d have thought?! So, here I go, talking about more esoteric and functionally important things!

To level set, I am heavily entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, and I make a lot of my productivity decisions around having maximum flexibility to use whatever device I have at my disposal to accomplish a task (within reason, of course), whether I’m at home on a traditional laptop (personal and work Macs), or on the go (either my iPad Pro or iPhone)! Part of why this is important is because I travel a fair amount (roughly 35-40% of my time is spent away from home), so ubiquity of tools is important for me to stay productive whether I’m at home, at a customer, in the office, or on my way to one of those places.

To be clear, these are just things that I find to be useful, and I don’t necessarily expect that other people will necessarily see it the same way I do! Hopefully understanding how/why I use each of these will be just as helpful, if not more so, than the actual products themselves.

So, let’s get into it!!

Ulysses

I start with Ulysses because I’m actually writing this post inside of it. To sum it up, I’m going to use the blurb that the app developer uses on their site:

It’s a simple but bold statement that is, in my experience, true. But, how do I use it in my daily life, you ask? Well, for starters, I’ve been working on this blog post across my work-issued MacBook Pro and iPad Pro at this point, so that’s a good start, right?

Effectively, Ulysses serves as my core content editor. Whether it’s writing a blog post like this, or I’m preparing an outline with questions / notes / etc., this is where I start in creating content. There’s a lot of reasons for why I start here, but the top 3 are:

  1. Functional document management for how I work! Ulysses allows me to organize content with both folders for hierarchal organizations of content, as well as allowing me to assign tags to specific sheets, so I can generally find what I’m looking for pretty quick. Beyond that, iCloud sync “just works,” so I have freedom to work wherever I happen to be.
  2. Markdown support! I really, really like markdown. It doesn’t work for everybody, but it really does serve as a great formatting language. Ulysses takes that up a notch with their support and provides a richer experience where I can also inject graphics or other things directly into content as I’m writing, without sacrificing my preferred formatting! This also means that when I’m ready to let people read a draft, I can either just export to a .md file, or just paste it right into Slack using the snippets functionality and select the language as Markdown. It’s pretty great.
  3. Once I’m ready to evolve beyond the boundaries of markdown, I can easily export content to another format, typically a word document I’m shipping over to a technical writer for copy editing or send it off to whoever needed whatever I was working on.

Ulysses is sold on a subscription basis for either $4.99 a month or $39.99 a year and is available either through Apple’s various app stores or Setapp (I use Apple because I like having as few places to remember things as possible). You can find out more info here

Agenda

The second of my note taking apps is Agenda. It does a lot of the same things Ulysses does, but the primary reason I switch over to Agenda in certain scenarios is because it has a very distinct and unique feature: it integrates with your calendar and can link notes back to events. That alone is worth the price of admission for me, as I usually have to expend a ton of effort to either get meeting-specific info into a note for context and/or just properly annotating things so I can go back and easily reference them.

When setting up a new note and linking to the event in question or starting from the event and telling Agenda to create a new linked note, all of the relevant info on the calendar invite is populated into the note, and I can go through and cull whatever info I want to keep in there and what I don’t need… then I can use my beloved markdown formatting.

Like Ulysses, Agenda is available across the entire Apple ecosystem of operating systems and syncs data using iCloud, so my only constraint is how quickly I can type / get work done from the device at my disposal.

Agenda comes with a set of features that you can use for free, but also has a premium features that you can subscribe to for $24.99 a year. The interesting thing about how they have decided to do this, if you buy the premium features for a year, anything that was released and available as part that premium feature set continue to work even after the year ends, meaning you don’t have to technically continue to pay unless you want to keep getting those new features! You can find out more info here

MindNode

Here’s where things start to get fun and productivity starts to look a little differently. Mind mapping is very useful to help in organizing information into a hierarchal structure. Typically, you’re starting with a single principle/concept, and will leverage different branches to get into the details of what are typically very complex thoughts. I generally use mind mapping in cases where we’re trying to plan large demo buildouts (as I show below), or just simply preparing for a customer meeting. In fact, recently, I took a large-ish mind map I’d built out and used it as a blueprint for an all-day session with a new customer to try and get into some in-depth concepts. It’s honestly one of the rare things I do that seem to be universally appreciated by both technical and non-technical folks, as it presents information in very streamlined and hierarchal structures that most people can follow, regardless of how large it is.

My software choice here is MindNode. As with the previous two apps I detailed, a big part of my choice here had to do with being able to work “anywhere”… I put this in quotes because I can’t realistically do too much work on the sort of mind maps I build on a screen as small as an iPhone. I do, however, very routinely flip between laptop and tablet, so the ubiquity of being able to pick is still important! MindNode also has Apple Pencil support, which is nice!

Unlike Ulysses and Agenda, MindNode is not sold on a subscription basis. The MacOS app is $39.99 and the iOS app (universal) is $14.99. You can find out more info about MindNode here

Things

For keeping track of things that we want to have team / org / company visibility, the answer for Kovarus is to use Jira in the appropriate project. For my own uses, though, I needed something that offered a little bit more flexibility in how I organize and think about tasks and managing them. To say I went through a full gauntlet of options would be the understatement of the day. Ultimately, the app I found most closely aligned to how I operate was Things. There’re a few reasons around this!

To start, the way Things organizes information really speaks to me. Tasks are organized in a hierarchal structure that starts at the top level with an “Area.” I generally use areas for big categories such as “Personal” or “Pre-Sales,” with “Projects” that align to a specific area like specific customer names or, in some cases, a particular set of things for a specific area for a customer. This makes it relatively straightforward to find what I’m looking for! While all of that is really nice, it’s pretty straightforward, and honestly, not why I use Things! Once you get inside of a project, that’s where the real magic happens.

For each of the created projects, I can make annotations right there at the top of the project in the notes section. This serves as a place to put things I want to remember for the overall rationale of why this project exists. Then, within the project, I can add headings, or a construct for organizing of tasks inside the project (this is not mandatory). A great example of how I’m using this today is to keep tabs and annotate things I need to talk to the boss about. I can break up things I need to review with him into categories such as “KPSC” for our demo center tasks, or “travel” for travel-related things, or notes I’ve taken that he may need to know for whatever reason (such as information about customers).

Then you get into the tasks themselves, which is the part I really, really like and tend to leverage quite heavily. On all tasks, I can add the title for whatever it is as you would with any task app. Where things get fun is all of the other things I can have contained within the task itself. First, you can add notes you may want to take right there within the task, but you can also add a checklist within the task! I use these heavily because I’m one of those people who tends to get into the weeds, so being able to embed sub-tasks within a task speaks to me. Beyond those checklists, each task can be assigned both a due date and when to remind you a task is supposed to be completed, as well as tags that can be applied on a lot of these entities.

Lastly, Things can integrate with your calendars and reminders, there’s extensive support for tags, and like most everything on this list, and has apps for iOS and MacOS complete with syncing via Things Cloud (no cost).

Things is not the cheapest of apps in this category, but as I outline above, I feel like it’s worth the price of admission! The MacOS app costs $49.99, while the iPhone app is $9.99 and iPad app is $19.99. I find it somewhat frustrating that there isn’t a single universal app for the iOS platform, but after reviewing Culture Code (who develops Things), I was comfortable with my ROI! You can find out more info about Things here

SnippetsLab

SnippetsLab is the odd man out here, in the sense that unfortunately, there is no iOS app available. However, it’s still something I use most every day when I’m either building out new lab pods or just storing small bits of code for reusability or with the intent of uploading into our GitHub organization. The main benefit to using SnippetsLab for this, rather than say Ulysses, is that I can create multiple snippets within a particular item.

An example of this comes up with vCenter servers. I’m routinely installing/reinstalling/rebuilding environments, and with the number of pods we have out there, it’s a non-trivial task to remember what I did two days ago, let alone a few weeks or months ago. When I’m deploying a vCenter server, or any appliance for that matter, I can review what iteration of a deployment type I used by checking the overall command set I used the last time I deployed, as well as the appliance version, or any other info that may be part of the deployment data. Let’s say I’m upgrading from vCenter 6.5 to 6.7, I can have a tab under the same appliance for that upgrade so I can see, in context, what the command sets I used for that upgrade, as well as any variables designed (like say the path to the ISO to deploy, path to the JSON, etc.).

Since this is principally only something I do when I’m at a computer, I can live with the lack of mobile apps. This gets offset by the fact that I can take any of those items and upload them into gists inside of GitHub, so if there’s data that I need to have available to me on the go, I just throw it up into GitHub, as there’s less than 5 snippets that I ever really need to be able to get to from a non-laptop.

At a price of $9.99, with regular updates, SnippetsLab really enables me to keep track of artifacts and quick tasks I’ve done in recent memory. You can find out more info about Snippets Lab here

Dash

Last but not least, we come to Dash. This is probably the app I use least of all, but when I do need to get to it, I’m thankful it exists. Dash is an API documentation browser, as well as a code snippets manager (MacOS only). As part of the documentation browser, there’s a lot of available cheat sheets for things I use pretty regularly, like Visual Studio Code and Sublime Text that includes the commands and keyboard shortcuts to perform asks that I don’t always do the best job of remembering the sequence of. Having Dash there as a backstop, rather than relying on my internet search skills is a great thing.

Dash will cost you $29.99 for the MacOS app, but the iOS (universal) app is free! You can find out more info about Dash here

In closing

That’s the long and short of it. Are there other tools I use? Absolutely! These just happen to be the ones that I use most days in both my personal and professional life to keep myself on track and moving in the right direction. The important thing I hope gets taken away from this is a perspective on how to look at tools and make decisions based on what’s important to them! With any luck, I did just that!


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