My friction-filled information workflow

Every 18 months or so I find myself feeling that my personal information workflow is working against me. Sometimes I end up diving into an inevitably fruitless quest to find an application that could be ‘the answer to everything’.

Last year I thought that some of the friction might have been coming from where I am able to access each application that I use. In my personal life I have an iPhone, an iPad and a MacBook, but at work I use a Windows laptop. I always prefer web applications as they can, in theory, be accessed from anywhere. However, it’s difficult to find web apps that have all of the features that I want.

My whiteboard from December 2021 trying to work all of this out.

My whiteboard from December 2021 trying to work all of this out.

Mapping out each of the applications was useful; it made me realise that I could move my old documents and notes archive in Evernote over to OneNote, saving money on a subscription. After wrestling with the migration over a few days, that was that. Things got busy and I didn’t look at my personal workflow again. Until now.

After getting ‘the itch’ again, this time I’ve tried to map out exactly what my current personal workflow looks like, regardless of where the applications are accessible. Here is the resulting mess:

My workflow, such as it is, today.

My workflow, such as it is, today. (Click to enlarge.)

I haven’t decided where to go from here. What I do know is that I need to ponder this for a bit before making any changes. Experience tells me that the problems I have (or feel that I have) are less about the applications and more about the purposeful habits that I need to form.

Some disorganised thoughts:

  • There is still definitely an issue with where I can access each of the components from. Every time I need to switch devices, there is friction.
  • Finding apps that are super secure — i.e. those that encrypt data locally before being sent to the application’s cloud storage — do exist, but at the moment they feel like using a cheese grater to shave your legs. Yes, I could use Standard Notes everywhere, but the friction of working with it is much higher than being forced onto my Apple devices to use Ulysses.
  • Some of the apps are replacements for each other in theory, but not in practice.
    • Readwise Reader can keep YouTube videos I want to watch later, but they then become slightly less accessible if I am sitting down to watch them in front of a TV.
    • Readwise Reader can also accept RSS feeds, but at the moment the implementation is nowhere near as good as Feedbin. I tried it through exporting my OPML file of feed subscriptions and importing it into Reader, but when it wasn’t working for me I found I had to painstakingly back out my RSS subscriptions one by one.
  • I’m still searching for a good way to curate my reading backlog. I estimate that I have over 1,000 ebooks1, hundreds of physical books, hundreds of PDFs and nearly 9,000 articles saved to my ‘read later’ app. I’ve already done the maths to work out that even if I live to a ripe old age, there is not enough time left to get through all of the books that I’ve bought. As Ben Thompson has been saying: in an age of abundance, the most precious and valuable thing becomes attention. I have lists of all my books in Dynalist, but still rely on serendipity when it’s time to pick up another one to read.
  • I need to work out the best way to distinguish between the things I have to do versus the things I want to do. Not that these are absolutes; the amount of things that I absolutely, positively have to do is probably minimal. I might save a YouTube video that would be super helpful for my job right now, and want to prioritise this above others that I have saved for broader learning or entertainment. What’s the easiest way to distinguish them and be purposeful about what I pick up next?
  • Similarly, where should a list of ‘check out concept x’ tasks go? These aren’t really ‘tasks’. When is the right time to pick one of these up?
  • I’m finding that using Kanban for projects is much easier than long lists of tasks in a to-do app. At work we use Planview AgilePlace (formerly known as LeanKit) which from what I can tell is the most incredible Kaban tool out there; if you can imagine the swimlanes, you can probably draw them in AgilePlace. But it’s difficult to justify the cost of $20/month for a personal licence. I’m using Trello for now.
  • Needing to look at different apps to decide what to do next is a problem. But how much worse is it than using one app and changing focus between project views and task views?
  • Are date-based reminders (put the bins out, clean the dishwasher, replace the cycle helmet, stain the garden fence) a different class of tasks altogether? Are they the only things that should be put in a classic ‘to do’ tool?
  • One of the main sticking points of my current workflow is items hanging around for too long in my capture tools (Drafts and Dynalist) when they should be moved off somewhere else. Taking the time to regularly review any of these lists is also a key practice. Sometimes I haven’t decided what I want to do with a thing so it doesn’t move on anywhere, which is also a problem. I need to get more decisive the first time I capture a thing.
  • Document storage is a lost art. After I drew the diagram above, I’ve consolidated all of my cloud documents onto one platform — OneDrive — but now need to go through and file what’s there.

I know that there are no right answers. However, now that I can see it all, hopefully I can start to work out some purposeful, meaningful changes to how I manage all of this stuff. I’m going to make sure that I measure twice, cut once.

  1. The consequence of slowly building up a library as Kindle books were discounted. Aside from checking the Kindle Daily Deal page, I’ve largely stopped now. Looking back, I don’t think this was a great strategy. It seems much better to be mindful about making a few well-intentioned purchases, deliberately paying full price for books from authors I like. 

Unintentional driverless car

On Friday afternoon, our car decided to make a run for it.

We’ve had very cold weather for the past week, with temperatures occasionally reaching the dizzy heights of 0°C. Living on a hill with a very steep driveway means that at times like this we have to park on the street. The car was parked with its handbrake on and left in gear, facing down the road so that we can easily roll away when it’s time to use it again. And then this happened, as captured by our video doorbell:

The first thing we knew about it was when a neighbour appeared at the door to tell us that our car had escaped. It had come to rest in the middle of the road after hitting another neighbour’s parked car.

They have been very understanding. It’s our (car’s) fault and our insurance will cover the dent that they now have in their door. I feel very sorry for us having caused what will inevitably be admin and hassle to get the door repaired and paid for. I’m very grateful that their car was there to stop ours, and that nobody was walking up the road at the time.

We’ve lived in our house for nearly two decades and through a number of very cold winters, but have never seen anything like this happen before. I’m assuming that the tyres were warm from a recent trip, melted the ice beneath the car which then refroze and caused it to slip. But I really have no idea.

We’ve now gritted the space in front of our house and have started using the heavy rubber chocks that we usually put in front of the car wheels when it is parked on our driveway to stop it from happening again.

Exercise or sleep?

It was a struggle today. I only managed just over four hours’ sleep last night. I was up just very early this morning in order to fit my indoor bike trainer session in before an early work meeting.

I’m very surprised it was as high as 67%!

I’m very surprised it was as high as 67%!

I had planned to go to bed earlier, but we have a young teenager who has just moved into the ‘not tired at night’ phase and it doesn’t yet feel right to leave him to shut down the house while we ascend the wooden hill.

Due to the lockdown I am missing the hour of walking that used to be part of my daily commute to and from the office, so since March I’ve been prioritising exercise on most days. I enjoy exercise for its own sake, but it’s also motivating that there are numerous articles about how desk-based jobs are literally killing us:

Both the total volume of sedentary time and its accrual in prolonged, uninterrupted bouts are associated with all-cause mortality, suggesting that physical activity guidelines should target reducing and interrupting sedentary time to reduce risk for death.

But…other research says that lack of sleep may lead to Alzheimer’s disease in later life. I remember hearing how Margaret Thatcher got by on four hours’ sleep a night, making her the “best informed person in the room” according to her biographer; she suffered from dementia in her final years.

A wise man that once worked with me said “you can’t cheat the body”, and he’s right. But given the choice between exercising and sleeping, what’s the right balance to strike?

🚴‍♂️ Getting started with indoor bike training

Given how much time people are spending indoors due to the coronavirus, I thought it might be useful to write down some quick thoughts on how to get riding your road bike in your house.

My son’s road bike on the turbo trainer

My son’s road bike on the turbo trainer

It doesn’t cost that much to get started with an indoor setup. The main thing is to have the space to do it in, and some tolerant neighbours if you don’t live in a detached property. First, you’ll need a road bike — and this post assumes you have one already. From that point, you will need:

The basics

  • A turbo trainer
    • These range from low-end like the one I have, a Tacx Blue Motion for about £180, to very, very expensive.
    • The cheaper ones work by running your back tyre against a resistance wheel. Generally, the more you pay the greater the range of resistance, i.e. you can pedal harder. The trainers come with a ‘skewer’ that goes through the middle of the back wheel, replacing the one you already have, and this allows it to be seated into the clamp that keeps the bike in place (see picture below).

Basic resistance wheel trainer, bike clamped in place

Basic resistance wheel trainer, bike clamped in place

  • The more expensive ones let you remove your back wheel and plug your bike straight onto a set of cogs. They can sometimes also electronically adjust the resistance as you ride along, to simulate going up a hill, for example.
    • It’s probably worth getting a cheaper one first to see if you can develop the habit, you can always eBay it afterwards if you want to upgrade.
  • A mat
    • To keep sweat off of your floor. You will sweat a lot on a turbo trainer so this is well worth an investment.
    • I have a Giant mat, which is about £30, and comes with a bag for storage.
    • Any other exercise mat will probably work just as well.
  • A water bottle
    • To replace the sweat!
  • A floor standing fan
    • I think I already mentioned that you sweat a lot when riding indoors. Trust me, you need this. Even on days where it is so cold you can barely stand around in your shorts, you need this to be on maximum before you get going.

That’s the basics. You can happily hop on and ride along, watching TV or listening to your favourite workout music. BUT…it is pretty boring, and tough to go for longer than half an hour without wanting to get off.

Making it fun

To do this, you’ll need a couple of extra things:

  • A speed and cadence sensor
    • These attach to the bike and will measure how fast you are going (by how often your back wheel is rotating) and how quickly you are pedalling. The data will feed into an app that you set up on your computer/tablet/phone via Bluetooth.
    • A good one is the Wahoo RPM. It will set you back around £55.
  • A heart rate monitor (optional)
    • Not essential by any means, but very useful to see how hard you are working. You will get used to knowing when your heart is reaching maximum output and can get feedback from the various apps to see how hard you have been pushing.
    • You may already have one if you own a smart watch.
    • I have a Wahoo Tickr (about £40) which straps across my chest and pairs with apps via Bluetooth.
  • Apps
    • With the speed and cadence sensor you can download an app to your phone such as Polar Beat, Wahoo Fitness, or loads of others, pair up your devices and just ride. They will track all of the data and keep a record of what you’ve done. You can then upload your workouts to Strava and share with your friends.
    • More fun is to use an app. Zwift is really popular as it looks like an arcade game, and the harder you pedal the faster you move through the virtual terrain.
    • I use TrainerRoad which is a bit more data-focused; you tell it what turbo trainer you are using and what resistance setting you are on and then it will give you a workout programme where you have to continually hit a target power output. It takes the bordom away completely, and there’s a massive sense of accomplishment at the end of a long or hard ride.
    • There are loads of other apps available.

You can go further than this. I have a cheap spare wheel which has a specific indoor training tyre attached to it, so I don’t wear out the one I use on the road too quickly. But the best advice is to make a small investment — you can always upgrade later if you find that you get the bug.

Difficult decisions

For the past two days we’ve had major debates in our house about whether our children should be in school. I’m now working from home, and am certainly not planning on being out of the house much. Our soon-to-be 13-year-old made some very reasoned arguments this morning about why he shouldn’t go. I tend to agree with him. As he gets older I’m less sure of myself in terms of how much control we should have over his life. I’d never let him stay home from school on a regular day, but what’s happening in the world right now is so irregular that I’m not sure the old rules apply.

From The Guardian: How do coronavirus containment measures vary across Europe? — 16 March 2020

From The Guardian: How do coronavirus containment measures vary across Europe? — 16 March 2020

Despite the almost all of the rest of Europe deciding to keep their children at home, the UK has decided not to. I am deeply distrustful of the government, but I can see the reasoning as to why they would be kept open:
– Parents who are unable to work from home may need to ask elderly relatives to look after the children
– We have vulnerable children across the country who rely on free school meals to keep them nourished
– Schools aren’t really set up for teaching via remote means.
For our family, we are fortunate enough where only the last point impacts us.

It’s still not a slam-dunk. My wife works as a teaching assistant in a primary school and she is providing a valuable service to society by continuing to go, for all the reasons above. (She is amazing.) I’m a Vice-Chair of Governors at another primary school; we have to rely on advice from government, Public Health England and others on what to do, and my role is to support the school in this. We also have a friend who works as a Paediatric Matron at a local NHS hospital, and she is still sending her children to school — if she felt that the risk was significant, she would keep them at home.

It’s a tricky one with no easy answers, and I am sure that there are so many people going through similar dilemmas right now.

Just set a new PB for mowing the front lawn. House presentability has now been marginally upgraded from ‘oh, that poor family must have died’ to ‘if we have to go in and the inside is as bad as the outside, don’t sit down on anything’.

Almost nine weeks on

I’m at a departure gate at Zürich airport waiting for a flight home and thought I’d check in. Our little man is almost nine weeks old now and he’s advancing in every way – it’s really amazing to see how much change he goes through right in front of your eyes. For example, three weeks ago he just started smiling – it was as sudden as that. One minute he doesn’t smile, the next minute he does. And when he does…we just fall in love with him again and again. I honestly can’t tell you how brilliant it is to see your son smile at you. We can’t help ourselves from trying to make him smile all the time.

Having him around has of course made a massive change to our lives. Time is so much more precious; you find yourself thinking about what you can do with every ‘spare’ few minutes that come along. I’ve been trying to get home at a more reasonable hour from work and in order to make up some time have taken to sorting my work emails on the train. I’ve lost the personal time but I do get to see my family more, so it’s not really a negative thing – you’re just forced to be more organised.

I would expect my future posts here to be a little less frequent than they have been, but I will try!

New addition

I’m extremely pleased to announce that during the early hours of Sunday morning we became parents to a beautiful baby boy. It was a bit of a trauma and mum is still in hospital with the baby but they’re both doing well. Photos will be available soon! Needless to say, I feel like the happiest man alive at the moment. 🙂

Three days to go…

…and still no sign of the baby. We’re both getting a little itchy with anticipation now! Some of our friends from our NCT class have started to have theirs …I wonder when he or she will appear?

Four weeks to go

The weeks have been whizzing by so fast. I can’t believe we’ve got just under four weeks to go before the baby’s due date. Apparently if the baby makes an appearance after this week it would be considered as being ‘to term’ and not premature so we’re doing what we can to get ready just in case he or she is early. The hospital bag is packed, there’s petrol in the car and we rehearsed the route on Sunday when we went for a look around the hospital.

Now that our close friends had their baby last week it has just heightened the anticipation we’re both feeling. I’m very excited and just can’t wait.

Baby countdown

We’ve got just nine weeks to go now on the baby countdown front. All of a sudden Christmas and New Year have passed us by and we’re rushing towards our baby’s due date. He or she will be here before we know it (well, not literally, but you know what I mean) and we’ve got to get ourselves sorted out and prepared before the big day.

To be honest, we’re not doing too badly – we’ve decorated the baby’s room, bought most of the furniture, have got quite a few sets of clothes and we’re booked into NCT antenatal classes next month – but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that we’ve forgotten to do something.

One of the big remaining tasks on the list is to buy a car with more than two (or three) doors. Our current one is going to become a pain for getting the car seat in and out; it also has such a small boot that there won’t be enough room for all of the baby bits as well as mum and dad’s luggage if we ever decide to scoot off anywhere. The trouble is, I’m pretty clueless about cars. I’ve bought a Parker’s guide and although it’s reasonably helpful it’s still daunting. Even if we could decide on a hatchback, estate or saloon (which is the best for a small family with luggage?), it’s so difficult to narrow it down from there. What’s going to be roomy, comfortable, cheap, reliable and economical? Even if we looked at just one model there are still a zillion sub-models to chose from (engine size, bodywork, strange things like ‘Ghia’ etc.) and even more target prices to aim for (according to Parker’s) depending on whether you buy it from a dealer (of which there are two types, apparently), an auction, a car supermarket or a private sale. We’re limited by the fact that we also have a small budget – a new car is out of the question. Where do you even begin?

Baby update

My wife and I have been getting ever more prepared for our impending new arrival. Last Friday we took the day off work to do a little Christmas shopping and to attend an appointment at John Lewis in Oxford Street. They offer a really great service where you can spend a couple of hours with an assistant who will show you round the entire nursery department and talk you through all of the things you need to buy and consider for your baby. It was mind-boggling stuff – I never knew there were so many different makes, styles and configurations of prams, cots, cot mattresses, moses baskets, sterilisation equipment and even breast pumps! I was a bit skeptical about some of the things we saw; I know that a newborn baby needs to have sterile milk and we will probably have to get one of the many sterilisation machines that are on offer but it left me wondering how many people around the world get by without any sterilisation whatsoever. I also I know that zillions of us grew up without anti-fungal coatings on our mattreses – is it really necessary? I think that babies need to be exposed to a little bit of natural dirt and grime so that they build up their immune system, so we steered clear of that. Still, it was a very good visit and we were grateful for the insight into everything we need to buy. We were even given a free coffee and pastry while we waited for the lady to produce a ‘gift list’ containing all of the items we had chosen for our personal use.

So you can imagine the collective tinge of guilt we felt when we found ourselves looking at a bargain in Mamas and Papas on Regent Street. They had on display a lovely cot that was considerably cheaper than the one we had been considering a few hours before. Still, a saving is a saving and we do have a baby on the way so we went for it.

There’s really not long to go now. The baby’s room is nearly complete – we’ve got a carpet on order and the furniture will be with us soon as well, so it’s all starting to feel very real. The baby has also been kicking like crazy recently (which I can’t convey in this posting how amazing it is to feel!) and my wife’s been getting a good many seats offered to her on the tube. Life is good :-).


Badger footprints!Ever since we had our lawn relaid somebody or something has been busy beavering away in the dead of night digging holes. The damage wasn’t too bad at first, but recently a massive chunk of lawn was uprooted and we’ve had to completely reseed it. Still we didn’t know exactly what was causing the problem.

I found out on Tuesday. Arriving home very late from work, I felt that something was snuffling and rustling around on a neighbour’s drive. I had a look but I couldn’t see anything. The same sound seemed to be even louder in our back garden. I unlocked the door, popped my bag inside and grabbed the torch. Wandering up a big dark garden in the night isn’t a bag of laughs and I could feel every hair standing on end as I tried to locate what was making the noise. Suddenly I saw the unmistakable stripy head of a badger looking at me as it scrabbled through the gap between our fence and the shed. I legged it – I’ve read that badgers can be nasty creatures when they feel like it and I didn’t want to get into a fight. The badger made it through the gap, saw me and then sped off up the garden at a billion miles an hour. It was awesome.

Although they’re a pain for the lawn, they really are very very cool. Don’t ask me why, but they are. Now that it’s suddenly got a little frosty they’ve been leaving tracks all over our garden and I managed to grab a shot of some guilty-looking paw prints from our garden step. Can’t wait to see our little visitors again.

We’re having a baby!

Lilypie Expecting a baby Ticker

Baby scanYup, we’re pregnant and both over the moon! We had our 12-week scan a couple of weeks ago and things are fine. I’m very much looking forward to being a dad! I know that nine months is a long time but it seems to be rushing by so fast already – I’m sure our new addition will be with us before we know it.

Scans have now been uploaded to a new set on Flickr.

Return of the deer

Deer in our back gardenI got into work a little later than usual this morning, but for good reason. I’ve got the habit of taking a good look outside when I get up in the morning and to my surprise I saw that our deer friend was back. My cry of “Oh! Deer!” soon got my wife up as well as she must have thought we had been invaded by giant moles or something. I grabbed the camera and took a few shots, two of which came out okay.

The deer didn’t do much…just moseyed around a bit and nibbled at one or two flowers. It was absolutely gorgeous and seeing it was a lovely way to start the day!

Grim front garden

Hard work in the front gardenNow that we’ve got our back garden looking reasonably good we’ve turned our attention to the front. At the moment it’s a mass of overgrown green shrubs in a bed of compacted earth and stones. I am sure that people think that our house is something out of Elm Street instead of a leafy road in Berkhamsted. We spent about five hours or so out there today, clearing away old dead plants and some kind of vine creeper that has grabbed hold of everything in sight. There is still so much to do.

What you can see here is the remnants of a truly humungous holly bush that had established itself as the evil king of the garden. Today I tried to start to dig the roots out but I think I may have bitten off a little more than I can chew with my simple fork and spade. I’ve thrown the idea of a mini digger in the air (partly because I think it will do the job and partly because they look like a lot of fun) but my wife isn’t convinced. We’ll see…I’ll be out there tackling it again next weekend, no doubt!

Garden changes

Our back gardenFor the first time since we moved in I can really say that our garden looks gorgeous. We’ve had the sloping monstrosity levelled and a new lawn laid with three new steps leading up to it, all of which was done by Julian of Brook Green Landscapes. It really is transformed from how it used to look.

Shame we can’t say the same about the front garden, but that’s a project for when we’ve had a chance to save up again!

Dodgy skip

Rusty skipWork started on our garden today – we’re getting an old path removed and a lovely new lawn and borders put in. The landscape gardener doing the work ordered a skip a couple of days ago and this is what the monkeys at the skip company sent over. Ridiculous. It’s lucky we’re not getting rid of a few hundred sacks of marbles!

The gardener has given them a bell and hopefully we’ll get a new one soon.

Reminds me of a joke…

…so I called up the local building company. The lady on the phone said “Can I help you?” I said “I’d like a skip outside my house.” She said “I’m not stopping you.”