This post is part of a 6 article series about productivity.
If you’re confused right now about reading this in the blog of a VFX artist, I’d recommend that you start from the introduction. Otherwise, here’s all the articles in order, in case you’d like to jump to any specific part once they’re all available. I hope you enjoy!
In this part I’ll move on to start covering the actual tools that I use for productivity. This might be the most personal set of decisions from the whole topic, as luckily there’s thousands of amazing software and hardware on the market, and each person will gravitate towards a unique set of characteristics in the tools they decide (and get) to use.
As I mentioned before, I love simplicity, efficiency and beauty. And I also love technology and automation in equal measure, so this probably transpires into the exact setup that I ended up easing into.
Your setup can look completely different and still be what best contributes to your own productivity, so please just take this as another person’s cherrypicked tools at a specific moment in time, and at most as an example of details you could consider when planning what works for your own system.
By the way, I have zero financial incentive for any of this, as it’s just a raw collection of my thoughts, as usual. Ok, without further ado, let’s talk about some tools!
"Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid."
(Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope)
Things is my task manager of choice. It is a clean and really beautiful (but Apple-only) app for task capturing and all task management.
Why I use it:
What I love about Things is that while being really powerful under the hood, it just sticks to the basics.
It lacks features that some productivity aficionados might miss, such as collaboration options, location-based reminders, image embedding or sub-areas. However this also brings an added simplicity and sense of “just use it for what it is” that I surprisingly find quite freeing. Helps not to clutter your possibilities and make the most out of the basic features it has. And what it does, it does in such a beautiful and simple way! The animations, typography, and UX in general is so smooth that at least for me it makes such a pleasant experience to add tasks, move them around and mark them as done, which if you think about it is 90% of what it all boils down to.
Also, Things 3 is an offline-first app, and syncs between your devices via their own cloud. Super fast to open the app and to add new ToDos.
How I use it:
My personal workflows with Things are mostly inspired by a typical GTD methodology, which the tool is quite well designed for:
I have a super quick capture setup from the iPhone (via widgets, via Siri and even on the Lock Screen) and from the Mac (with a shortcut), so any time I have a thought I’d like to write down as a task I can do it in a breeze, and this will add new ToDos to the Inbox in Things.
Then, each morning the first thing I do is spend some minutes (5-10) going through the Inbox and processing it (generally on the Mac): clarifying, scheduling, tagging and moving the ToDos to their respective areas or projects: I have different projects inside each Area, as well as some “ongoing projects” which are not meant to be completed. An icon next to the project name is my way of knowing it will not be checked off. Here’s the areas I’m using in this moment:
Below you can also see the tags I use (and the shortcuts I assigned to each). Tags are a really powerful feature for me, and their goal is not to waste your time by over-categorising anything, but instead to have a trained muscle memory to quickly set the tasks into contexts so that you can later just filter for what’s relevant to each moment and location.
My task processing also involves scheduling the tasks. I follow a simple logic here:
- If it has to be done at a specific date, set the date.
- If it has to be completed before a specific date, don’t set the date but set a deadline instead.
- If it doesn’t have a date but I still want to do it, let it be and it’ll go to Anytime (the section to check every day after completing the Today tasks).
- If it’s a task I simply wish to do some time in the future, set it to Someday, so it doesn’t clutter the more short-term actionable things.
- Plan the day!
After I’m finished processing the inbox, I’ll go ahead and look at the Today tasks and decide how to organise the day. This will let me schedule my time blocks, while not missing anything important. In the next part I’ll show how I use a nice integration that Things has with Apple Calendar to set time blocks.
- Do stuff!
Then, through the day I’ll basically be checking what I need to do (making use of the filters to only see what’s relevant now) and doing it, then crossing things off the Today view in Things. Additionally, every few hours I’ll take a moment to evaluate if I’m spending my time well (I’m doing something relevant and I’m being efficient at it) or I should better switch to something else. Finally, if I complete all the Today tasks, I go into Anytime and see what tasks I can jump on next. Luckily they’ll already be roughly sorted by priority.
This is one of the most underrated and important parts of the process, as it ensures the system stays smooth. I’ll typically do one review per week, around Friday, and it involves going through the different areas, projects and tasks, and assessing if all that’s important has been done, if I wasted time in parts that didn’t matter, and which things I did well. I also use it as an opportunity to check all future tasks and see which ones are not relevant anymore, which ones I can archive or postpone (turning it into a future wish to leave room for more pressing matters), and finally do a quick sort on the remaining “do next” tasks by dragging them up and down in order of priority. This review never takes longer than 15-20min and it’s once a week.
Finally, for any tasks that are recurring I set a recurring interval, so they come back again every time that’s needed. For instance, I have a “Daily Plan” task that corresponds to my morning process explained above, and it repeats every morning.
This is roughly my way of using Things. I tried to do a super brief summary… it’s probably a lot of info all at once but this was just to talk about the tools! Also, each person’s preferred workflows will be different.
Generally, I’d just try to remember that often simple is better than complex.
Probably my second favourite would be Todoist, as it’s very similar to Things while offering many more options, and being multi-platform as well (Apple, Windows, Android and even Linux). However, so far nothing outweighs the aspects that I love about Things. And even if I use a Linux or Windows machine at work, I always have my iPhone with me so I’m never away from my ToDos!
Lots of brainpower delegated to this app 🧠❤️
Things 3 is a paid product, with a one-time purchase of around 10€ for iPhone, 25€ on iPad and 60€ for Mac. This will be very personal, but for my needs it’s clearly worth it.
Bear is my chosen weapon for capturing and developing notes in general, before they get their way into the structured Notion (though most times they don’t ever need to).
Why I use it:
Bear is Apple-only, and subscription based, but again… simple, fast and beautiful. And for me, that’s enough to beat all alternatives. And since they released Bear 2.0, it’s by far the smoothest native markdown editor I’ve ever tried.
It just feels good to write in Bear, and you can guess where I’m writing right now.
Similar to Things, Bear 2 is offline-first (notes get saved locally) and then syncs to your devices via your iCloud storage. It’s blazing fast to launch on iPhone, iPad and Mac, and it offers quick shortcuts on all devices. It lets you categorise all notes by tags, subtags, and link between pages. Then you can get useful info for each page, and even backlinks (“what pages link to this one”). And finally, export your notes in your preferred format.
How I use it:
Above all, I treat Bear as the main point of entry for non-actionable information. Thoughts, journaling, notes through a random call, etc! It’s so quick to bring up a new note that it even beats having a notebook open on the table.
Then, I make sure to quickly tag my notes in a way that they fall into the right category “for whenever the moment comes”.
I’m not too much of a note gardener as I only tend to be interested in the current system or thing at hand. However, just some super simple tagging and linking between notes proves very practical and barely needs any extra effort! Right now for example, I’m writing this article on a Bear note with some links to the other related notes and references, and the only tags at the top are #blog and #draft.
I use Bear as a rudimentary version of a Zettlekasten, which is a powerful system for PKM (Personal Knowledge Management), but my note taking tends to be mostly quick and unstructured. Apart from active projects which I might want to have a specific tag for (which I archive once I complete the project), I’ll just have some basic categories that I can quickly throw stuff into… #recipes, #drafts, #lyrics, #health, #personal, #ideas, #meetings, and not much more.
Then, the moment something requires some structure… I’m easily inclined to build a nice database around it and switch straight to Notion!
There’s a million ways to go about note taking, and all have their strengths. After trying so many of them, I truly recommend that you stick with whatever works for you based on your priorities.
There’s no good or bad decision here as long as… well, it lets you write text and read it later.
- Google Keep or Apple Notes could well be the perfect tool for you. Both super powerful and seamless between devices and web browsers.
- Another option is GoodNotes (or Notability), if you’re an iPad and handwriting person. I actually use them on shoots and preproduction of films, though more as a sketchbook for hand annotations over scripts or pictures than a proper notebook. They let you write visually and even search in your handwriting — can’t recommend them enough. Even more so if you’re an analog person looking to go digital.
- And for the people out there that simply enjoy the satisfaction of writing down with a real-world pen on real-world paper, my only message for you is “enjoy!!!”. I totally relate to the pleasant feeling of adding ink while crossing down stuff, and for most things (like the relevant 90%) it holds the exact same purpose as the other systems. No need to over-sophisticate what already works.
- However, if you do want to get all sophisticated, to solve a more complex information challenge or better manage all your knowledge in a networked way, you might prefer Roam Research or the powerful Obsidian, which I’m a big fan of. It’s a markdown editor with so many features. All gets stored locally on vaults and as plain markdown files (so your data isn’t event dependent on Obsidian), you can use it completely for free and store your own data, and they have a strong community developing all sorts of open-source plugins for it. It’s a system that allows you to see a natural interconectedness of your thoughts arise through time. If I ever get more complex in my PKM and “grow out of Bear”, I am prepared to export all notes as markdown (.md) and move them straight into my Obsidian vault. But… this hasn’t happened so far. Bear 2.0 basically improves 90% of things that almost made me fully jump to Obsidian in the previous version. And it’s just too slick to change now.
Bear 2 is a subscription-based app, with a Free version for local notes without sync between devices (but great features for the rest), and if it becomes useful enough to use it, then the more customisable Pro version with sync and other features will be around $30 per year.
Notion is probably the software that has most changed how I share my brain power with technology. I consider it my work copilot, or “live second brain during focused work”. With its relational databases and incredibly adaptable structure, it has the power to morph and fit how you need to think inside a specific project, and for me it’s become an essential tool to help organise work.
How I use it:
I’ll typically have Notion open in the background while working on projects that already have a setup & running structure. I use it for so many things, from my website or courses, the groceries list or tools development, all the way to work meetings and education.
For instance, here’s part of the Notion database that I used while creating my course Python for Nuke Artists:
Each database row is really just another whole page where I was able to develop all contents of the lesson. This recursive and nestable structure is what gives Notion so much flexibility.
Here’s a page where I track what I’m building (or want to build) for some tool:
And here’s another example database, which I use for organising all the contents I teach on the Masters in Digital Compositing (Spanish). I’ll always have it open on my Macbook while I’m teaching, and each of the items of the database is a full page with all my contents for the subject!
One other super powerful aspect of notion is collaboration. It’s by far the most collaboration-friendly tool I use, so I’ll also use it for any systems that I need other people to contribute to, or that needs a big structure with expressions and relationships and statuses changing.
For instance, the VFX podcast I recently started with 3 colleagues, benefits from a Notion page in which we all can easily collaborate!
As you see it’s a completely different beast to normal task or note-taking apps like Things or Bear, and it has a different set of use cases. But I love it and use it for so many things for which it has no rival. Great for companies too, big and small.
There’s a number of sources where you can learn to power-use Notion (normal usage for notes and tasks I’d argue you don’t even need a tutorial). My favourite channel by far is Thomas Frank Explains. I’ve learned a lot from him and taken loads of inspiration on good practices for Notion page design.
You can use the free version of Notion for most things. You’ll only start finding limitations once you start wanting to collaborate with other users, upload many files or keep a long history of changes. And still, this will be around 8 US$ per user per month for small teams, and 15 US$ per user per month for teams with more advanced requirements. Full specs on the tool’s website.
But… if Notion is so powerful, why not just use it for all my notes and tasks?
My first instinct when I started using Notion and I saw how powerful it was, was to try to make a perfect system, all integrated, which would let me capture and process all my notes, tasks and projects. That seemed like such a smart idea. Being so flexible it could probably fulfil my dream for a whole second brain inside a single app! So “simple” and tidy! There’s even some super thorough templates you can purchase online with this purpose, such as Thomas Frank’s Ultimate Brain.
However, the moment I tried to push myself to do it (and even using all the templates I could find), I quickly started seeing all the hidden disadvantages of trying to use Notion for everything:
- 🤖 A Notion page always feels like a prototyping platform and not like a finished product.
You’re so flexible to adapt the views of the databases and pages, and make nice templates, but at the same time you never lose this flexibility.
Imagine you want to create your personal notebook in notion. You work on it for a few hours and you get all the automation in place. It becomes your powerful note-taking tool, but it would have a very hard time competing with a version of the same note-taking tool that was coded from the ground up with that single purpose in mind, if it existed. It’d probably be more optimised, faster, lighter, and only have the buttons and options that it needs. Reducing clutter and probably focusing more on a pleasant user experience in its reduced set of features.
- 🐌 It’s slow to capture data and load the page you want.
Albeit so powerful, Notion is also pretty slow to load and navigate when we compare it with most of the simpler and local-first apps, such as Bear or Things. They have less features to load, less contexts of info to account for and they keep and work with all their info locally on your device, so the time to get to the data is much less. As we’re still only talking about seconds this isn’t important for many situations (like when you’re on a computer with time to work and focus), however it becomes exponentially important when you’re on the go and just want to quickly jot down an idea with a few clicks. You don’t want to wait or search for anything, just to get it out of your mind. And for that, “some seconds” is something where we can do better. And this takes me to the third point:
- 📡 It requires internet connection.
One of Notion’s greatest advantages is also one of its weaknesses. All information you work with lives on their servers, which allows you to work live on different devices or collaborate with different people. But at the same time this means that you won’t be able to quickly access the page you need if you aren’t in a place with nice internet connection. Underground, mountain, airplane, or who-knows-where where you might just want to write new stuff and move through your databases.
So for me it all boils down to this question, which you can ask yourself every time you face the decision whether to find a specialised tool for your goal or prototype it yourself:
…and 90% of times my answer to this question is “Hell yes! 😃”, so I make it in Notion. However, it’s also a clear No for some other things, such as my calendar, my personal notes, and general tasks.
But… What about the overlap? How should we go about moving info between different programs or choosing which one to use for one specific purpose?
When to choose Notion vs a specialised app
I had these questions all the time but it’s gradually gotten pretty natural and straightforward.
For unstructured thought or capture of ideas of any kind on the go, I’ll do the following:
- Is it something to do or to check when you get the time?
Then, I’ll just use the amazing shortcuts in iPhone or Mac to quickly capture a ToDo to Things.
- iPhone: On my second homepage I keep a Today list widget which lets you directly cross off tasks, and it has a Plus button to make a new ToDo on the inbox. One tap, write a few words, and another tap to Add. Done! Also using the “+” widget on the Lock Screen, so I can’t think how quick capture could get more quick than that!
- Mac: the convenient shortcut Ctrl+Space will show a Things popup to create a new ToDo, at any moment and from within any app!
- Is it thoughts I’m having or a conversation to annotate, journal or keep as reference?
Straight to Bear! Which is another app that doesn’t fall short of convenient widgets, in this case to open a new note from a single click. On iPhone, on the lock screen, and I also assigned the same thing to option+Space on Mac.
- Is it something that has a specific date and time to do?
A meeting with a person, going to the cinema or taking a flight. Well, then it can go straight to the Calendar. Important not to postpone this scheduling for any later. The moment you know you’ll be busy on Friday at 5pm for X reason, adding it to the digital calendar takes like 20 seconds (or less with a shortcut). I’ll be talking about my digital calendar of choice in the next part.
Then, for structured thinking which belongs to a big/active project, I’d mostly do it while sitting down with the computer, so I’ll probably do it in Notion. I also have the other programs at hand all the time so it’s very quick to move info between them.
A thought might get captured in Things, then clarified and finally crossed out when it’s done.
A quick inspiration might get written down in Bear and then stay there for reference (or get Archived).
However, one specific idea might also get captured in Things, just as a few words, then move on to be developed in Bear as a note or collection of thoughts, and then end up making its way to the structured Notion if it’s something that has a specific place to live inside the organised projects. Such as this article, for example!
This has been an overview of why and how I use my main productivity tools for note taking, tasks and project management.
In the next part I’ll cover my other Weapons of Choice, which are equally crucial for my productivity.
Isn’t technology cool!
If you’d like to know when the other parts are up, read some random thoughts or stay updated on my posts, tools or courses, you can join my (still-upcoming) newsletter. I won’t write often, but when I do I’ll make sure it is condensed and interesting. You can join the newsletter here.