The Snowball Effect and Serendipity

Every year in January, I take time to look at life in general, what happened last year, and how to go about accomplishing my goals for this year. Then I think about where I am and take a look to see if there are better tools or systems to use moving forward. Like most people, while I say that I am going to review things and make the changes necessary to improve my life. It usually ends up that it is easier to just keep doing whatever it is I am doing and call it good. After all, it is working reasonably well, I know the routines, and it is comfortable doing it this way. 


The problem was, that what I was doing, wasn’t working the way I wanted. Too many ideas, projects and yes, even TheWife’s honey-do lists items were being forgotten, lost or mishandled. As a result, this time I went deeper than I have in a long time, and the results are worth looking at, and yes, they go beyond just talking about running.

The Snowball Effect

Every so often we need a jolt to the system to get things moving again. Often it is something small that you really don’t think is that big of a deal at the time, at least until you look back on how that one thing became the snowball that initiated an unanticipated avalanche of changes. 


My tiny snowball was an Alexa device. 

This is one of those things that I said I would never have in my house, but when we got one for Christmas, we decided to set it up and see whether we liked it or not.

I don’t like having a device that listens in on everything we say and can also capture videos of what we are doing as a matter of course (we blocked the aperture). So, it has many features and abilities that we don’t intend to use, but we do like having music on in the background. I do have to admit, it is also fun and informative to ask those questions you have about something that pops into your head and hear what Alexa has to say.

Early on, we realized that we had to join Amazon Music to play the music we wanted to listen to on the new beast. So, while setting up Amazon Music, it got me thinking about how I use Apple Music and if I have to have Amazon Music did I need both? I played around with using Amazon Music on my Apple devices. While there was and is a learning curve, Amazon Music is working well enough that I will probably be terminating my Apple Music subscription at the end of January. Plus it is cheaper which is nice too.

The Alexa device became that tiny snowball that turned into an avalanche that had me thinking about and questioning why I was using the apps I was throughout the day.

Then I took something I learned from my running recently, and stopped to look at where I am now.

Where I am Now

Looking back, it was like I was sleepwalking, when the snowball came rolling along and made a hole in that carefully constructed walled garden that Apple built around me. That wall, had me believing that most of their products were the answer to my most obvious needs and that it was too much work to add different tools to the mix that weren’t Apple’s or didn’t play well with Apple’s products.

As a result of that snowball going through more than a few garden walls (Apple, Google, Microsoft, WordPress, etc.), I was able to see things from a different perspective and it became an opportunity to think about tools I preferred to use or might work better for me, versus what I had been using. 


The idea of actually using better processes and tools as I move towards my seventies and eighties while answering some other pertinent questions along the way was an appealing thought. Especially, since my productivity needs are very different now that I am retired than they were when I was in the workforce. I can’t continue to rely on the same methods or tools that may have worked well 5-10 years ago, when my priorities, needs, and workflows were significantly different.


The other part is, I had gotten lazy and rather unmotivated to keep up with stuff. Especially, the past couple of years with the pandemic, most of my days are more like the movie Ground Hog Day than something that I needed to stay on top of.


It also raised a few more questions:

1. How do I remain a proactive and productive learner? 


2. What tools do I use to easily store my thoughts and notes regarding what I read, watch, or listen to in a manner that I can retrieve them when I want that information?  


3. How to keep track of appointments, tasks, projects, deadlines, and all that kind of stuff that we all need to stay on top of, but no longer can simply do in my head now?

These were important parts of the puzzle that I kept coming back to whenever I looked at a different tool or process. 

The Avalanche of Change

RunLog Spreadsheet 

When I moved from Apple Music, I started thinking about my RunLog spreadsheet, which I had in Apple Numbers, and was consistently frustrated with how it didn’t work for me. I played around with Excel and Google Sheets a little to see if I liked them any better. Google Sheets did what I wanted, without a lot of muss or fuss. I moved back to it on the first of the year and have been happy with my choice.

You can read more about my reasons for leaving Apple’s Numbers. However, once I decided to change back to Google’s Numbers, it seemed like the snowball just started growing larger and began rolling along on its own.

Blogging

My blogging and writing were getting stale and needed some serious attention. I had moved from WordPress back in November primarily due to how much I hate the blog editor on WordPress and I had bumped into their data ceiling/pricing structure a couple of times.

I was enjoying being on Blogger, but the name and URL weren’t the directions I wanted to go, and I moved again. This time before I moved, I looked at other blogging hosts like Ghost, SquareSpace and really didn’t see that they were any improvement over Blogger. Blogger isn’t perfect, but I am familiar with how it works, and that significantly reduces the learning curve. 


However, one of the things about moving to Blogger was that Ulysses didn’t publish it in either draft or final form. 

Which meant overhauling my blog post drafting workflow.

Drafting Written Work


For numerous reasons, I am not a huge fan of writing posts in the blog host online editor. If it crashes, you lose all the work and when it happens, it tends to happen at the worst time. Or, if you are like me and have changed blogs too often, your work goes the way of the Dodo Bird. 


I had been using Ulysses to draft, do the first revision and then share to WordPress as a draft for final review and publishing. Since Ulysses doesn’t natively share or publish to Blogger, I had to find a different method of preparing my blog posts. After many attempts, trying to use word processors, text editors, Mars Edit, and other stuff. I wasn’t satisfied with anyone’s way to draft and get the post to Blogger for publishing.

As a result of the other changes I was doing, I stopped and sat down to think about how I actually write a blog post. However, this time instead of making it a streamlined, easy-to-publish a blog post, I purposely made it cumbersome. I took some of my worst habits into consideration — I have a tendency to draft, sort of revise, then immediately hit publish, and then go back to correct what I missed.  

Now – while it takes me longer to write a blog post, this stickier draft to publishing process makes me look at and revise my draft posts multiple times. Complete at least a couple of checks for grammar or spelling mistakes, which I seem to make far too many of. The end result is that yes, it take more time to publish a blog post, but the stickiness is having the desired effect of making my blog posts a better product when I do hit the publishing button.

This process also showed me another weakness in my workflow, where were my sources for all those great blog posts I have planned?

Note-taking App 

I need one place to put all the articles that I read, notes that I make, email, newsletters, quotes, etc., that I save. Plus, I wanted a single app that was usable across devices and tech silos. Along with that, having easy integration with a calendar and task programs would be a huge bonus. Moreover, I wanted to avoid a long learning curve, so whatever app I decide to go with, I want to be able to start using it right away.

When that snowball smashed through everything, I had a mishmash of Ulysses, Drive, OneNote, Keep, Apple Notes, (none of which I really liked for this purpose – they were already blackholes for anything I saved to them). I had deleted The Brain and Evernote accounts a few years back (because the free ones were useless) and I didn’t think the prices were at points I was willing to maintain over the long term.

While I could have used any of the above and looked at Notion, Roam, along with a few others, in the end, I decided to go back into the world of Evernote. Although Notion was something that I wanted to look closer at (and still might), the learning curve seemed rather intimidating, and I wanted something that I could start using now.

The new features of Tasks and integrating with Google Calendar were the features that I had thought were missing when I used Evernote regularly in the past. When a special offer came up, I sprung for the Personal Plan at 50% off for the first year. The free plan is still next to useless, but I will be honest without the special offer, I am not certain that I would have moved as quickly back to Evernote. 

There are other new to me apps that might end up feeding information into Evernote, like Liner, Readwise, Bookcision, and others. However, for now, I am focusing on learning more about Evernote and how to use it effectively.

Setting up my organizational structure in Evernote showed another flaw in my process. How to organize Evernote to best meet my needs, not some productivity model that was geared more toward school or business. 

Idea Management System

Believe it or not, I am moving more into the world of being more of a creative, and the getting things done methodology or other similar models wasn’t the direction I wanted or needed to go with a productivity model. And I was for a long time a GTD fanboi.

When I got to looking around at different productivity systems, online articles and YouTube, one name seemed to keep coming up, Tiago Forte. So, I did a deep dive (and still am) on his P.A.R.A. organizational setup and Building a Second Brain (BASB) productivity system. 

A lot of what he was doing and presenting fit well with how I see myself storing, organizing, retrieving, using information, and eventually writing for publishing on my blog or sharing elsewhere. Enough that I pre-ordered his book that is due out in August.

I have been learning more about Forte’s Building a Second Brain system, and attempting to implement it as I go. Not ideal, but I am getting the hang of how his vision of the Second Brain productivity system works, with a few restarts. While adding in things that makes more sense for how I do things. 


My Evernote Notebook Structure

The system seems to be working well with Evernote, but even so, I have gone down the how BASB would look in Keep, OneNote, and Notion rabbit holes, none of which were good enough for me to move to them now, when it would be much easier than it would be later. While going down into these rabbit holes, I found out that Evernote doesn’t play well with exporting or importing easily – for me. This is a weakness, especially if I decide at some future point that it isn’t the correct tool for how I want to do things.

I was also disappointed that Evernote didn’t have dictation (speech-to-text) abilities built into their mobile app, and decided to use Google Keep as my out on a walk or post-run idea catcher. Then I have to copy/paste it into Evernote. 

Productivity Suite 

Over the years I have used most of them and found that Microsoft Office is overkill for most things I do and while I maintain a 365 subscription for TheWife, I don’t use it unless I have to. Apple’s unnamed suite doesn’t really work as I do, and the rest are mostly niche apps that are nice enough, but not what I am looking for. 

What comes down to is that I like Google’s productivity suite of tools, in what is now rebranded to Workspace. I have use the various renditions of Google’s productivity offerings for several years, and know that I prefer Gmail and their calendar over the other options I have used.

Google’s Workspace tools are powerful enough to do everything that I want, but at the same time they are easy for me to use. However, there was always a piece that I wasn’t happy with, the lack of a native desktop app for my Mac. Doing everything in a browser window isn’t ideal. 

When I got to re-thinking everything this time, I started looking around for a Mac desktop app that integrated Gmail and Google’s Workspace. There were a couple of choices, but the one that seemed to be the best for me was Kiwi for Gmail. 

It was the difference maker that allowed me to go back to the productivity suite that I preferred since I do most things from my MacBook Air, and only a few things on my iPad Pro and iPhone 12 mini. Though I will keep the Microsoft and Apple productivity apps on my Mac until I do my 2022 mid-year review and then if I haven’t opened them, it might be time to get rid of them.

Begin Again

If you look at the mind map I put together in an attempt to visualize what happened, it looks like a crazy mess.

My processes probably never will be perfect, but I believe that they will be better than they were before. However, when I look at incorporating the changes into how I actually work, the new process and workflows have a synergy that was missing in the past.

What I learned

A LOT!

The main areas I needed to look at were:

  • A productivity process/philosophy

  • How it fits into life now

  • Tools/apps to use 

I have taken almost three weeks to think about the questions I had and where I want to be. There was a lot of researching, experimenting with different tools, and then determining which ones worked best for me.  


Since I have retired, the available technologies and apps are improving, allowing us to do things related to productivity differently than we did in the past. The choices I have made recently are based on what my priorities currently are now. These tools are different than they were when I was in the military, government, or education worlds. Identities that I attempted to hang on to even after I retired for too long. That didn’t and won’t work going forward for me.


The other part of this whole puzzle is that many/most apps have a subscription plan, that usually ties the features that I need/want to a certain amount per month. While I like the idea of supporting the companies that make these wonderful apps, the truth is that my budget doesn’t allow me to get them all. I have to be selective and pick only the ones that I have to have.

Also, I am locked into the Apple Silo when it comes to devices (MacBook Air, iPhone 12 mini, and iPad Pro 2017) for the next 3-5 years, and that is fine by me. I love the hardware and operating systems that each has now, even though there were a few growing pains that made me wonder for a while. I am not running out to buy anything different on the hardware front, in an attempt to move to a different tech silo.

The Building a Second Brain system from Tiago Forte has been a great revelation and is probably the productivity system/philosophy that I was looking for, even before this avalanche of changes happened. I am not going to give it an unqualified “this is great” quite yet, but it seems to be the direction I will be going unless something unforeseen comes into play.

Evernote is becoming more and more the central hub of idea and resource capture I have been looking for for a while. Though it is not perfect, it is good enough and is something that I can use. I don’t want to have seeking perfection getting in the way of good enough that is working. Otherwise, since finding Kiwi for Gmail, I am using a Google-centric set of tools or ones that play nicely with Google as my productivity suite. 


It will be an interesting journey over the next few months as I learn more about implementing Building a Second Brain into my life and how the tools I use help me move towards the direction I want to be going. As I move deeper into the BASB process, I know that I have a LOT more to learn.


The biggest thing that I have learned is that the snowball effect is real. It is often the little changes that you don’t really think about at first, that ends up being that important piece of the puzzle and is the beginning of an avalanche of changes to how you do things. 

Yes, it is quite strange how shifting a single piece of the puzzle results in finding so many other pieces that didn’t seem to belong or were sitting off to the side before you found that first piece.

Come with me now, the best is yet to be.

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