Grounded & Steadfast

The journal of Chris Bowler, a collection of thoughts on faith, business, design, and the creative process. Also working on Idea Cafe.

Singular Focus

With the recent announcements made by the Dropbox team yesterday, I wonder if the file storage genius has lost its way a little. As a user of the service who has been paying for an account for 3-4 years, I've been a free evangelist since I started using it. I still am today.

But as the news hit , I started to wonder if Drew Houston and his team have started to shift their gaze as they've grown. And whether or not that's good news for the company and their customers.

Too Much Choice?

The primary cause for my thinking is the options that are now available. When I signed up for this service in 2009, there was one option. Just sign up. Your only choice was to use the free account with limited storage, or pay a monthly fee for a lot more storage. Today? My teammate Tim Swan summed it up well in our chat room yesterday:

Dropbox, Dropbox for business, Dropbox teams, Dropbox for personal and work... I'm getting awfully confused by Dropbox.

If a savvy designer who's been using the service for years feels this way, how will Joe User feel with all the options. Maybe some of the options are not targeted at Joe User, but if Drew Houston wants to compete with Apple as a digital hub for consumers, they'll have to focus on Joe and his kind.

Maybe it doesn't matter. As a happy user of the service, whose needs have been met by the original, simple option, I haven't paid a lot of attention to the newer options that have come available the past two years. But if I were to try to explain to someone the differences between Dropbox for Business and Dropbox for Teams, I'd be at a loss.

Perhaps that's not an issue at all. Certainly, people who've used Dropbox in a team environment have felt the pain points, which is the driving force behind these options being available. But, like a man in a grocery store looking for that one option his wife sent him for, I feel a small bit of pain at the number of choices Dropbox now offers.

Carousel

Creating a separate app for viewing the photos you already store in your account is a no brainer for current users, simply giving them another way to view what's there (I love that icon). And it's a potential incentive for those free users, the ones on the 2GB plan, to sign up and pay and move all those photos to a backed up location.

But if you do not use Dropbox to store your photos, I wonder how Dropbox thinks this app will work. Of the three announcements they made yesterday, carousel was most focused on Joe User. The blog post from Drew yesterday was titled, A Home for Life, a clear indicator that the focus is on making the digital lives of the common American easier.

But what if you use Dropbox for work purposes? If you were to add your family photos to your Dropbox account, are they mixed in amongst photoshop comps and design assets for your website? Screenshots you made for that blog post? I guess this is where the Dropbox for Business option comes in handy, allowing you to use the service for both purposes, but with intermixing the two.

But that seems a tad complicated. Personally, I currently store my photo files in Dropbox as a part of iPhoto libraries. But I use Picturelife as a way to have another backup of those files, as well as a way to view the view photos themselves. Will Dropbox and Carousel make options like Picturelife redundant? Perhaps.

I've been so pleased with how Picturelife presents my photos to me, that I currently have no plans to stop using it, despite it being another monthly bill.

But I suspect that in time, many people will feel that mixing their file storage needs with their usage of consumable items (photos, movies, music) leaves a bad taste. This might be an example where two separate apps(services) might make more sense. Two options has the appearance of more complexity than one, but that can be an illusion when the one option requires complexity to attempt to meet multiple needs.

Mailbox for OS X

Last, they announced two additional versions of Mailbox. It's available now for Android, and a long anticipated version for OS X is in the works. If tackling file storage can be considered boring and un-sexy, email is the next logical thing to tackle. And a desktop version is the next step.

Email clients are easily interchangeable as most of us user services that sit behind the client, accessed via IMAP (do people still use POP3?). For this reason, I've been looking forward to trying Mailbox on my desktop.

Although mobile email usage is king of the hill, I personally do most of my email work on the desktop, simply using my phone for reading and some triaging. It'll be interesting to see if the features that made Mailbox popular will have the same effect on the desktop. Or, maybe the Mailbox team has some new ideas for the desktop.


As things currently stand, this utility application is the backbone of my computing setup and works like a charm. The changes yesterday can be a part of a larger focus; to be the hub of your computing setup. And if Dropbox has a vision to be a hub of all your computer usage, tackling file storage and email is a brilliant strategy.

But whenever I become uncertain of how the available options apply to me, I wonder about the overall focus or vision of the company behind them. But if there's a team other than Apple or Facebook that has my confidence, it's Dropbox. I have faith.

The Right Mix

When I first began to write online, I focused mostly on software and personal task management. Both topics fit well on a site titled The Weekly Review. Over the years, I've settled into my own comfort zone in regards to managing my tasks and haven't dedicated a lot of time to writing on this topic.

But during this last year, I have to admit I've been searching once again for a task management tool that better suits how I work. While I've experimented with a few options, I've kept some notes on both how these types of tools are designed and how we try to mould them to our personal habits.

Here are a few of my observations.

Making the Switch

First, changing from one task management tool to another isn't quite as simple as switching Twitter or email clients. Those categories of software tie into a central source and simply display the same information in slightly different ways. It's slightly more complicated than that, but not by much. I can easily switch from Tweetbot to Twitterific, or from Apple Mail to Airmail at the drop of a hat.

Task management tools take a little more work. But if, like me, you have a fairly lean way of managing your responsibilities, it's an exercise that can take less than an hour.

Uniqueness

One thing that has caused me to try the many different options available (besides my fetish with software and a lack of discipline) is that none of them feel quite right. Why is it so hard to find tools that fit our personal needs?

Partly because the everyone is a little different and no developer or team can meet the needs of each individual. I would imagine that many developers write apps for themselves first, believing that others will have the same needs as them. Some teams build the tools to adhere strictly to a particular philosophy. Whatever the reason, it means that many tools will fit 80–90% of your needs.

But it's that 10% that keeps you looking at the other options.

Include Your Vision

It can be easy to fit your concrete projects and their small steps into a task based tool. But what about your larger goals? Items like "Teach the children to be critical thinkers" or "Pursue my wife like we're not yet married" are the kinds of things we think about at New Years, but they should really be meditated on over the year if you want to see progress. Why not include them in your tool of choice?

I've had thoughts in this vein over the years. But I've tended to have a regular review of items in my journal (paper or digital) to keep the higher level items in focus.

This recent video from Paul Boag discussing the OmniFocus 2 beta struck a chord with me (the pertinent bit starts at 7:15 into the video). He keeps his high level goals as the top most folders in OmniFocus. If a project comes his way and doesn't fit into one of those folders, he asks himself whether he should really be spending time and energy on it.

Which is always a wonderful question to be asking of anything. Time and energy are limited; we have to choose where to spend it.

The Candidates

When I first became interested in this category of software, fresh off of reading Getting Things Done, the options were less plentiful. Much so. At the time, I was working in IT for a large corporation, meaning Windows was my daily OS … the options were almost nonexistent.

So when Things came along, it was love at first sight.

Over time, I tried all the options as the editor of a site focused on web software. Finally, I settled into OmniFocus and found the tool that best suited my workflow and habits. The iPad version especially; it's the best task management tools I've ever used.

However, if found myself once again seeking other options last year. There were two causes of this and I hope I'm mature enough now to say that an itchy finger and curiosity were not included.

The first was that I now lead a team of men at my church in taking care of the building and grounds itself, as well as various legal and tax related responsibilities. OmniFocus (and most desktop based options in this category) is not well suited for sharing tasks with others. The second is that I am a little slower to update to the newest version of a piece of software these days. And with the entire lineup of OmniFocus apps due for a major version change and hence, a new transaction required, I knew I'd be paying more money to stay up to date.

And so I was back to looking for a better tool.

Teuxdeux

Late last year, I made the switch to using Teuxdeux as my primary tool for managing tasks. Coming from OmnFocus to Teuxdeux is a little like switching from a Swiss Army Knife, one with all the bells and whistles and toothpicks and nail clippers, to a simple pocket knife. Albeit a very well designed, quality pocket knife.

This is an application that has been designed purposefully. It's intended to be minimal. It sports a clean design and the layout encourages you to only include the things you want or have to do each day. It fits my needs really well in one aspect. I tend to keep all my tasks and responsibilities in my tool of choice, but I work day to day off of paper. I always have. Teuxdeux fits nicely into that way of working.

Where it breaks down for me was the totality of everything I need to track. I really appreciate the design and if I had less going on in my life, it might have been the tool of choice for me. Here's what I like about it:

Here's what didn't work for me:

To get into that last point a little further, I have several majors areas of responsibility in my life. Each of those has recurring tasks I have to remember (I used a single items project in OmniFocus to manage these) as well as various other projects that have a specific end goal. Teuxdeux includes lists at the bottom half of he interface that can be used for specific projects. That works somewhat well, but once the number of those lists grows large enough, the usage becomes problematic.

Overall, this is a great tool that I enjoyed. But the points of friction were enough to keep me looking.

Asana

Truth be told, I started to use Asana while still using OmniFocus and Teuxdeux last year. Why? It works very well with teams.

I gave Asana a look when it was first available, but no more than a glance. Over time, it matured quite nicely and being web based on focused on teams, it was a solid option for me to assign tasks to my guys at church. When I decided that Teuxdeux was not quite going to fit, I decided to try keeping everything in one place. Since I was using Asana for some of my church projects, trying it for everything was a logical choice.

Again, this is another well designed service that has been built purposefully. It's intended for teams, completely.

Likes:

Dislikes:

On this last point, I found Asana less than ideal. I don't keep a browser open at all times, so having to open Safari, type Asa, then add a task to the correct workspace was more cumbersome than other options. Asana does allow for emailing tasks, but it comes with problems. Each workspace requires a different email address to specify which workspace to put the task. If you forget to specify the correct from address in the email, the task can end up in the workspace. To make it worse, you cannot drag and drop a task from one workspace to another in Asana.

At the end of it all, the ability to quickly dump something from my head into my Inbox was vital. Any friction at all in that process was problematic … I hate needless tasks being in my task list, but it's better than missing important tasks because they didn't end up in the right spot. A good review will take care of tasks that don't belong in there or aren't worth my time and energy.

Again, this is another nice tool that works well for 80% of my needs. I'd recommend it to anyone who works in a team environment and it's a nice alternative to Basecamp.

Full Circle

Here I am today, back to OmniFocus as my tool of choice. It's ease of use on the desktop are top notch. And if it's overkill for my needs, it's designed well enough that the features I don't need do not get in the way. And the improvements in the desktop version make it an even better choice.

I have no idea how Forecast and Review work on the iPhone … I'm still on version 1.

The sync between versions (and online backup) and easy entry alone make OmniFocus great. But the Forecast and Review features of the iPad and desktop beta versions are fantastic. I've yet to see another GTD type of tool that incporporates these concepts into the UI. I live in the Forecast view about 90% of the time I'm using this tool.

You could look at all this as a waste of time, but I consider it time well spent as it causes me to evaluate how I process my work and ideas.


I'm convinced that unless we all build tools for ourselves, we'll never find ones that fit perfectly. That's okay.

There's always going to be a little elbow grease involved to mold our tools to how we work rather than the other way around. And as long as I'm seeing progress in my work, I'm happy to check out new options from time to time. I'll get to the right mix one way or another.

Memberships, Newsletters, and Hot Sauce

It's been just over a year since I added a support page to this site and made it possible for readers to become members. In return, members would receive updates on my personal projects and the site newsletter. It's pretty typical of site memberships — nothing radical.

Why earn anything at all off writing? Anyone who has run a site consistently knows the time and effort involved. It's not mandatory — the content will still be published here. But if readers want to help out and feel the content is worth something, it's nice to have the option available. So for the price of a coffee each month, you can support this site and my writing. I personally like to support the writers I enjoy when I can.

In year one, I was hoping to replace what I earned from having an ad on my site. And it did just that. This year, I'd like to make a more serious commitment.

The Newsletter

Last year, my newsletter was consistent. For about 6 months. It was monthly and I shared various items of note, plus the progress on various personal projects.

This year, it will be a weekly publication. I made the decision early in 2013 to remove link list style posts from my site, simply because those entries didn't seem to have a lot of lasting value in that format.

However, I really enjoy pointing out various articles or resources and sharing short pieces of opinion with my online acquaintances. That's part of what this newsletter will be. In addition to sharing items of interest to me, the newsletter will continue to give insight to my other work, as well as how to cultivate creativity in the midst of our busy lifestyles. As a father in a home with 4 homeschooled children, I hope I have some helpful tidbits to share.

So if you're interested in a lovely email coming your way each Saturday to enjoy with your weekend coffee, here's your chance!

The Giveaway

Another common tactic for promoting site memberships is to have some prizes. I like this approach for two reasons. First, as a reader, it gives me a chance to win a prize I'm probably going to enjoy. Since the people I read tend to have similar tastes to me, the prizes usually align with that.

Second, and more importantly, it gives me a chance as a writer to promote some of the services I enjoy or admire. It's the community that drew me to using a Mac and becoming involved in the web & design world. So having a chance to point readers to the products and services built by great people is something I enjoy. And giving stuff away is even better.

So here are the prizes available for all existing members and anyone who signs up by midnight, PDT on April 16th:

A huge thank you to all my friends who were willing to support me by making these great prizes available. Hugs & kisses all around!


The fact that we live in a time where small, independent creators can be supported is wonderful. For all who've supported my writing over the years, I thank you. I'll continue to do my best to honour the attention you give this space!

Join now: monthly or annual plans available

Weekly Sponsor - Creative VIP

Creative VIP is the exclusive membership club for creative professionals, writers, and designers. Here’s what membership includes:

Here’s what one of our members had to say: “Creative VIP is a no-nonsense service run by classy folks. The generous discounts on the world-class apps and web services are worth the price of entry alone.“

We couldn’t have put it better. As one of Chris Bowler’s readers, you can save 25% on your membership, forever. We’d love to welcome you as a member, so come and take a look around!


I love the idea of this service. The fellow behind it, David Appleyard, is one of the good guys who has a real feel for what the design community wants and needs. Be sure to give it a good look — the hosting savings alone are worth it.

Winning the Lottery

Driving to an appointment recently, I felt the familiar urge to check my email while waiting for a light to change. Ignoring for now the aspects of looking at our small screens while driving, there is a danger in this urge all on its own. The need to be up to date at all times is a lie. A myth. And it's one that should be removed, ruthlessly, from your thinking.

This is not really a new idea. In 2014, most of us are self aware and recognize that the incoming stream of "updates" are probably not healthy. But how many of us have taken concrete steps to stop the habit? Judging by the rise if mobile when it comes to metrics such as online payments, email opens, and page views … not many. Most of us need some help.

A change in perception is needed.

The Problem

As many studies are showing, the updates we receive stimulate our brains in ways similar to playing the lottery. Dopamine is involved and seeking pleasure is the name of the game. Each new email or Twitter reply holds the potential for something exciting. A win!

Now that we've had the Internet ingrained into most of what we do, we're experts at seeking out this potential. What's wrong with all this seeking? The reasons are plentiful; overstimulation, poor sleep, lack of engagement, and inability to focus are a few. The last really hits home for me. Making anything of value takes time and mastering a craft requires deep concentration.

But the real problem here is not the technology itself, but our perception of value. We've elevated the mundane to the top of our priority list and allowed the possibility of news from someone else to take precedence over our own work. That scares me.

To change our habits, we have to change our values.

This is Not a Hack

There's a reason the title of this article is not "5 Ways to Hack Your Brain". The solution to this problem isn't to trick your brain, as if it were an animal that needed training.

Instead, we need to believe that the value we receive from completing a piece of complicated, hard work is more valuable to us than the latest update. Or that a prolonged period of no stimulus is something to be enjoyed and savoured. That a lengthy deliberate conversation with a friend, neighbour, or child is worth our energy.

And if changing what we value more is the goal, the tool to make this change is not found in a list of bullet points. It's self discipline, nothing more.

Do not read this the wrong way. Self discipline is not the goal — it's simply what is required to help you start to change how you think. Once that change is in place, the discipline is no longer required because you seek your own pleasure. That's what we humans are the best at.

As adults, we learn to appreciate many acquired tastes. How many of us enjoyed that first cup of black coffee, or the first beer? Appreciating silence, purposeful periods of being unplugged, or deep concentration is something that can be learned. But it usually requires discipline at first to make yourself create the opportunity.

So give that to yourself. Take half a Sunday to unplug and take a walk. Or read a book. Or write something several thousand words long. Whatever you enjoy. Just be sure that you give yourself a long enough period of time that your mind says, “What's next?” And you answer, “Nothing … we're staying right here!”

Once you acquire the taste for depth, your perception of what is shallow will change accordingly.


I'm as bad as the next guy, but I'm learning. I do my best to squash that urge that comes when I'm waiting for the light to change, the line to move, or every time I have two spare minutes in my house. And batch email processing, scheduling social media breaks, and turning off the router at night all help.

But most of all I desire to have higher values.

Publish with Day One

Last week brought the launch of Publish from the folks at Day One. It’s not a new app, but simply a new feature of their existing app. And although I haven't used it yet, I must admit it feels like a potential big change, one that could move this fantastic tool in a new direction. Or, allow it to be used in a completely different way.

I've known it was coming and liked the potential of it. It's had me thinking about the implications of a personal journaling tool that allows for the creation of public entries. Is it good? Bad? Something I would never use? Will this type of thing take the focus of this team off the original purpose of this app?

I don't have those answers yet. But many users have now stated that this feature is something that will get them writing more, or using Day One as a blogging tool. This gets me thinking about the purpose of the app itself.

Everything Buckets

As I have begun to use Day One for an increasing number of different types of writing, I'm hesitant to make it an everything bucket. I do love the flexibility of the tool, but I've learned over time that I prefer to use the best tool for each job, rather than use a tool that serves multiple purposes decently well.

For an in-depth look at how I use Day One, check this interview yours truly on their blog.

To date, I'm using Day One for personal journal entries, logging home maintenance tasks, and for tracking progress (the lack thereof) of personal projects. I've considered using it for other purposes, such as writing draft blog posts, because Day One is a good writing environment.

But haven't taken that step to this point. Partly this is due to my hesitancy, but it's also partly due to the fact that I already have great software applications that are more specifically suited to those tasks. I still write mostly in iA Writer. And although I can see the utility of sharing personal journal entries with just family members, I already do that with Notabli.

A Blogging App

Shawn Blanc mentions that it's been an impetus for him to journal a little more often, in order to share entries. But what about just writing and publishing those items on your blog? Does adding a second place to write and store your shared thoughts add value or complexity?

I admit, when word of Publish first came out, I was excited about the potential. Time has caused my excitement to wane. But there are both positives and negatives to using Day One in this way.

Positives
Negatives

I'm hesitant to use it as a full blogging tool, but I can see myself sharing the occasional entry for now.


Full disclosure: these are all thoughts from one who has not even used the feature to this point. My mind my change, but I'm confident I'll stick to keeping personal stuff in Day One and keep posting items I wish to share right here or on Twitter.

But imagine if Day One ever included the ability to push content to other services (WP, tumblr, etc) à la Mars Edit. That would definitely push this tool in a new direction.

Day One is one of my favorite apps and I will continue to use it every day. How I use it is where I'm less sure.