Going totally remote WFH over 2021 tweaked choices. I really tried to simplify tooling and focus on process though experimented (particularly between org-mode, notion, and logseq for GTD.).
Flirting with Zettelkasten did not work for me. Spent more time curating notes then action, and wanted a system which defaulted to doing (though some ZK practices made me better at absorbing material and acting on it).
For the interested, you can see the toolchain evolution through 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017 editions of these posts as well if you’re digging for some possibly better ways to do things, especially as we’re in the new year and year two of the pandemic.
Here’s the major components of how that system looks:
Much as I hate to admit it, because Notion is kinda terrible at task management, the organization and high-level overviews Notion does well (and its excellent UI), just allow me to stay focused on big picture things that Logseq did not (also, numerous bugs and stability issues in Logseq hampered me trusting it with essential work.).
While I miss the level of detail and task tracking I get in both org-mode and logseq, Notion seems to keep me focused on the high level things and not get lost in the weeds. I am still trying to come up with a better way to handle task management with Notion (and hate the fact the desktop client does not work on planes), but until logseq stabilizes and complex queries becomes easier, this seems the way.
You trade off task management, bi-directional linking, offline mode, and speed, but it works.
Alfred is still this amazing little utility you don’t even notice you have. It effectively means I launch and search and do other things via the keyboard which just makes me quicker and keeps me in the flow when using the machine. Alfred, Cmd-left and right (for my CLI), and the CMD-Tab are the main shortcuts used on my system daily. The other killer feature Alfred has is a good clipboard manager and its snipper manager. Both of which I abuse rigorously every day. Worth the money, though largely because rofi, its lInux equivalent, is not available on OSX.
Devs use terminals. And a fast terminal is better UX. Kitty offloads rendering to the GPU on most modern machines which makes for a cleaner, snappier experience. It also has a simple, clean config. I use the Nord theme to match the dark theme of the rest of my machine.
I use fish shell and tmux (backed by tmuxp for saved configs) to give myself a nice, aesthetic windowed layout for using multiple terminal apps.
So, much is in the browser these days it’s no longer just an afterthought for browsing the web.
Firefox is fast, privacy-respecting, Mozilla-backed, cross-platform, and has a fantastic extensions ecosystem. The password manager in Firefox has replaced GoPass bridge for me since 2021 (though if bridge got better would totally switch back. Even better, a way for Firefox to use
gopass would be a dream.).
These are the plugins I use currently:
- Instapaper (for saving things for reading later - a process super saver)
- Save to Notion (awesome for clipping stuff into my Resonance Calendar for later review)
- Video Speed Controller (for watching Youtube at 1.X speeds - especially lectures)
- Simpler Gmail (for a cleaner gmail experience - paid)
- Minimal Theme for Twitter
- AdNauseum (for ad blocking and obfuscation)
As I’ve also started messing with crypto a bit (who hasn’t, it’s un-ignorable at this point), I also have the Metamask and Phantom wallet plugins in my Firefox though am not a big fan of either (Phantom > Metamask imho).
It has kinda shocked me how far VS Code has come along. While it’s certainly nowhere near as fast as vim or Sublime, it is a great development environment and its ecosystem of plugins is amazing. And the integrated terminal has made it effectively my go-to code editor for everything these days (to the point I almost considered using it for note taking as well.).
I’m mainly developing in Rust, Go, and Python these days, all of which have amazing support in the editor (I also like the Jupyter notebooks support). It’s also where this blog gets built from via Hugo.
My biggest worry is MS increasingly exerting an integrated approach on this through things like their acquisition of Github, but for now it’s still what I find the best thing to use. Not quite as good an experience on Linux as OSX, but cross-platform enough.
Arq has been a great, no-nonsense backup client. If you are not backing up regularly and automatically, stop what you are doing right now, and sort that out. Today. Your data is vastly more important than your machine.
Arq dumps block level, encrypted backups, in the background, on a schedule you specify, to a specific storage media (for me, Amazon S3 though there are a range of storage options and I used to use Dropbox in the past.).
Restores are painless. And it has saved my bacon in a catastrophic hardware failure.
Much like almost every other person working for a major company on the planet, the last year has made me use Zoom a lot more. I cannot say I’m a fan and its recent purchase of Slack is terrifying considering how much productive time gets burned in both these apps. But, to Zoom’s credit, especially with international teleconferencing, Zoom’s video seems the best and its ability to deal with large groups is impressive and definitely better than Google Meets. It’s app window screensharing is super useful and a lifesaver for deep discussions around docs and silent meetings. I am bitter it still does not support Sway on Linux yet for screensharing (and is not a great UX experience in Linux in general), so it means I’m forced to OSX for business purposes (Zoom, please take note of this. Improve Zoom on Linux!).
I kinda considered myself a digital nomad before the term was actually popular (though in the slowest moving incarnation of the sense). This means that both friends and (since I work for a global firm) colleagues are strung across timezones separated from me by as much as 16 hours and often in multiple locations for touchpoints. This simple menu bar drop down gives me calendar and multiple timezones at a glance for when I need to contact people or coordinate meetings or just organize things around time and dates in general. Very useful.
Mathpix Snipping Tool
As I’ve been doing a lot more astrophysics of late, I’ve been looking at a lot of formulas. Getting these from books, lecture notes, or even videos into notes is a laborious process if you are having to type LaTeX manually in your notes. This damn useful menubar utility allows you to take a clip of section of your screen where the formula is and it uses some ML to derive the actual LaTeX of the formula without you puzzling out LaTeX’s (often) obtuse syntax for your notes. Love it.
Useful services enhance my workflow and desktop/mobile experience. Most of these either have a menu bar app or browser plugin which makes them relevant but keeps them out of the way of GTD except when needed.
I need to make sure I am secure. NordVPN is trouble-free, unobtrusive with its menu bar-only mode, and guarantees no tracking or logging. It implements the new Wireguard protocol and gets me around geoblocking for most things.
Nord is reliable, stable, had very wide country coverage, and is HQed in a safe-haven. For no-nonsense, reasonably priced, and available VPN in almost all countries, it’s a good option.
Instapaper is a “Read Later” service and helps deal with the deluge of newsletters and other auto-mails that would normally clog up my inbox and stress me out and feel disorganized.
I find its killer feature is its email forwarding feature though. I use filters in my google mail to automatically forward incoming mails to Instapaper and then try to go through things once a week. I use this for the Economist digital subscription I have, various technical and industry newsletters, and anything which may hit my inbox that would distract me so I keep on task. In terms of making me feel more organized and less stressed from an overflowing inbox, it’s made me feel way more tranquil and in control.
The big issue is that things pile up in Instapaper end up being way more than I can consume, but that’s a separate problem and I just need to cull and unsubscribe. Much like podcasts a while ago, and people starting youTube channels, people doing subscription substack newsletters have gotten out of hand, so a cull is necessary (I always feel guilty not staying across all the technologies my groups use across the globe.)
Instapaper also has a super handy browser extension for bookmarking which I use as soon as browser tabs get out of hand for things I should be reading later.
One addition this past year has been the use of Readwise as a service.
It takes my Kindle highlights from books, puts them in an easy to get to place and provides plenty of nice ways to export those so that I can review them later when summarizing and trying to get takeaways from the books I read. Reading is a daily habit so making sure I absorb and can action as much as possible is key to making it valuable and make sure I’m learning.
Readwise automatically syncs the highlights from my Kindle into Notion and then I use that to review the book when I’m reflecting on actions, review, key ideas, in my Resonance Calendar.
Ultimately, I think it’s helped me retain more of what I read longer (and there is a daily email service which pings you three highlights which helps with spaced repetition learning of what you’ve read though feel the highlights export is still the killer feature.).
While I use it almost exclusively for Kindle (it also works with Apple Books), you can highlight articles you read in Instapaper and it will even use Airr for podcasts, but the primary value for me is to get the most out of my book reading.
Spotify and Apple Music
I use both of these mostly because I have yet to find a music client I like which focuses on local files and mixes in a music service cross platform while easily allowing me to buy music online, and works on my iPhone.
I find curation and ease of use better on Apple (as well as music purchasing), but Spotify is handier for sharing stuff since everyone uses it and it works well with my home speaker setup.
Overall, I hate the idea of “renting” music and find the effect music services have on culture a bit terrifying. One of the reasons I don’t like them is that music I have from alternative sources is simply not available at all in either service or their versions of songs (particularly some amazing remixes I have) are unavailable at all.
Anyhow, this is one area where I’d love some recommendations. I’d love another music player which is local file ownership first but then extends to enhance things with a service but doesn’t attempt to take over the way you relate to music.
Steam made it easy for me to play quality games again which was something I previously had stopped doing since a console was too much friction and more casual a player than could justify one.
I love how Steam works, particularly on Linux (as it will play older Windows games I never got a chance to play), and have to say love you can do things like plug PS4 controllers into it to play your games that way.
Been great for letting me consume some great classics I had always wanted to play but never gotten around to.
Command line apps are minor superpowers. Some things really are way better on the command line, these are the key things that make my life better that may be interesting to you.
harsh is a minimalist habit tracking app for geeks I wrote.
It provides a simple way to track habits in a text-based log file as a data source, and gives you a clean, consistent graph of your habits, so you can spot patterns and get an idea of how you are tracking. It’s easy to install, onboards, and gives great visualizations. Unreasonably, quite happy with it and found it very useful. It’s now at 0.8.13. YMMV, but if you’re a geek and comfy on the command line, you might want to try it. Available for all architecture and cross-platform on linux, OSX, and Windows.
Newsboat (formerly Newsbeuter) is a great CLI app for ripping through rss and atom feeds. It radically reduces the amount of time I spend keeping across many diverse and interesting sources of content, and to be frank, I wish more sites would go back to using syndication feeds. It will also allow you to add in youtube subscribes and launch the videos direct (I use mpv), bookmark posts to bookmarking services, and is portable across OSX and Linux. Big fan and great addition to my workflow. You should really try it.
I tend to have a slightly paranoid approach to security and like self-management so am a big fan of gopass which is an extension of the venerable bash-based
pass password manager which uses gpg to give you really nice security for your sensitive passwords. It’s fast, easy to use, and bullet proof with gpg under the hood and integrated with git for version control. It even has a nice iOS and Android version to use on your phone.
Ledger and Reckon
Ledger is a plain text, double-entry accounting program which I’ve been using to track my finances, stock portfolio, and business accounts for over a year now. While I have to say I’m philosophically aligned with a portable, grokable accounting format so far,Ledger has been the only program I’ve been able to find that can handle the international complexity of currencies, businesses and various classes of accounting I need with being a digital nomad with feet in several countries. No commercial app has worked giving me a proper overview of my finances.
I also use the excellent Reckon gem which predictively figures out how to classify accounting entries for me (cause entering them manually is a bit drudge) automatically and reduces my monthly accounting load through monthly bank statement exports to about an hour while still giving a great overview of my finances (I’d love to even more highly automate it, but it’s solid right now.).
Ledger has surprisingly wide support across editors with a superlative mode in emacs which also lets you know when you’re out of balance, avoiding errors till you correct it. Big fan of the emacs mode.
Other Miscellaneous CLI tools
There’s a bunch of other gems I tend to use sparingly use like specialty kitchen implements that tend to do one thing better than others. You can read about a few here. In that vein, I’d recommend visidata, git-delta, zoxide, dust, fd, duf, ripgrep, fzf, and mpv.
Other Useful Tools
I am often shocked Jellyfin is not much more popular than heavyweight apps Plex and Kodi. I find it a simpler, less fussy, easier server and video management application frontend that streams effortlessly from my laptop.
It runs quietly as a background service noted by its menu bar app on my Mac laptop (or as a systemd service on my linux laptop) and allows me to stream videos from my collection either directly to my TV via DLNA or through my AppleTV via using VLC for AppleTV to connect to it, select the videos, and steam that way.
Big fan and very happy with it. Watch a ridiculous number of movies this way that are not available on Netflix or Disney+.
Spreadsheets are handy but error-prone.
Whenever I have more intricate calculations I need to perform, I reach for Calca which is best described as a symbolic math calculator or markdown which knows math. Basically, it lets you write math formulas in plain english in the editor and have it calculate things for you.
Frankly, it’s great and as you can logically put things together formulaically, it is way less error prone than using spreadsheets in my experience. Huge fan. I wish this was available on Linux as well, cause it is a great program that really needs more exposure and I think it’s much better than other attempts at the same problem like Numi.
Bittorrent client of choice. Simple, fast, secure, no-nonsense, lightweight, and with a clear interface for selecting options like encrypted peers, controlling bandwidth, seeding, and concurrency.
I actually quite dislike Apple Photos. It keeps becoming progressively more irksome.
I simply want photos and videos on my phone to make it to an app where I can peruse and manage my photos. Now that Apple parses every photo and uses it for feeding its machine learning machine and I’m forced to pay for Apple iCloud to store everything (I have over 40k photos stretching back to 2001) it’s increasingly annoying.
I’d really love to migrate everything to another open source app that I have confidence in taking care of one of my most previous digital assets but I have not really been able to find anything I can could easily migrate it to and that I’d trust.
Much like my music problem above, would love some recommendations if you’ve found something that works for you.
Google Office Suite
Mail, calendaring and most documents are all handled via google in my browser for both work and my personal life.
It’s just easier having everything in the cloud and I’ve never been a fan of MS Word. I do enhance GMail with the (paid) SImplify GMail plugin just as it make the interface so much better and user friendly. I do wish Google would make this all more open so you could programmatically make changes to docs via markdown from programs since GDocs can be very irksome at times, but it works though I tend to draft in markdown and then move to GDocs for sharing and collaboration, which is an extra piece of friction (and probably market opportunity.).
On the iPhone, I use the Gmail and GCal apps as well.
Bear deserves a mention here since its ability to take speedy notes and delightful user experience means it’s the thing I reach for first on my phone when I need to take a quick note (and Notion is slow). Bear is speedy and a delight to use and I can just sync things via the OSX app on my desktop.
Most other choices here are more interchangeable or convenience-based. I use Skitch for screenshots (or grimshot on Linux), Telegram and Discord are preferred IM clients, I’m forced to use Slack for work (which I dislike), and a bunch of specialty astronomy software for my academic aspirations.
While it may not seem obvious, I’ve intentionally tried to simplify and reduce complexity in my toolchain for flow and focus. A lot of people love jumping to new tools thinking it’ll give a productivity boost, but I find this is rarely the case (and you can count the cost of migrating or adapting to a new app as productivity churn.).
I hope you made some discoveries in the post above or I convinced you to try some apps you might have been on the fence about or unaware of. If you did, lemme know! Always curious to hear how it’s gone for people or hear more about what works for you and your workflows or apps that have made a huge difference for you that I should take a shot at. Feel free to mention me on twitter @awws to let me know. Always curious to hear more about works for people and their workflows. Feel free to mention me as @awws on twitter or email me at via email firstname.lastname@example.org.