A Medium post on making sure you always have a new idea ready to go.
I used to always be on the lookout for another, better text editor. No matter what I used, I was convinced there was something better. And it’s not like I have particularly intense requirements for a text editor. I basically want something with a running word count, a spell-check, and a way to quickly render Markdown.
But then I moved to Ubuntu 16.04 and the gedit Markdown plugin no longer work. I couldn’t find an immediate answer so I started looking at the current state of Markdown editors. And that’s when I found Remarkable. It’s a simple Markdown editor that renders Markdown live, gives a running word count, and has a spellchecker.
That’s it. And that’s why it’s perfect. It’s essentially gedit with the Markdown plugin already installed. And the live preview is much better than gedit’s, which needed to be manually updated.
I’ve been using it for a few weeks and it’s been wonderfully uneventful.
Remarkable doesn’t have many configuration options. You can choose your font and it has a variety of themes. The default setting is to have text on the left and rendering on the right. I had the opposite setup in gedit. You can swap the screens, but Remarkable doesn’t remember the next time you use it and I’ve quickly adjusted to the Remarkable default.
To activate the spellecheck, you either have to install a Python package through your repository or via pip. It was hardly a burden, but it would be nice if the instructions and/or method were available within the program, since it’s a fairly standard feature.
Interestingly, it does offer some text conversion, like converting to title case, lower case, or upper case. It’s a feature I use a few times a year, and one for which I usually pop into a word processor (because I’m too lazy to retype…)
Remarkable is very specific, although it works fine as a plain text editor, too. But if you are someone who loves to work in Markdown, you’ll find it very convenient. I’m also happy they’re working on a Windows version, since MarkdownPad 2, my Windows Markdown editor of choice, has gotten very slow (although it looks like a new version might be on the way).
Remarkable is the text editor I’ve been looking for, and, as is often the case with these things, I found it after I stopped looking. gedit is still great, but Remarkable is a better fit for my text editor usage. If you’re a regular Markdown user and you want something that gives you some convenient features without veering into becoming a full-blown word processor, Remarkable is worth a look.
What works: Simple Markdown editor with not too many features
What doesn’t work: Could use just a few more bells and whistles, like an easier way to activate the spellcheck
Who should work with it: Anyone who regularly works with Markdown
A productivity guest post by me, so people can head into the holidays more relaxed…
Technology won’t save us. We have to make it work for us so the tech is working and we’re focusing on living life.
Technology aside, the best way to be productive is to figure out what needs to be done and then do it in an orderly manner.
I switched from Outlook.com to FastMail a few weeks ago. There were three variables behind the switch:
- I felt bad using a Microsoft product—albeit a fantastic one!
- My girlfriend switched and was a big fan.
- The nagging sense that Microsoft would eventually bail on custom domain support for Outlook.com (they bailed on new custom domain support two years ago but have continued to support existing setups, which is pretty nice but not encouraging).
I had heard nothing but good things about FastMail and while my initial experiment with it two years ago wasn’t great, I felt more committed this time.
I’m not sure if FastMail’s documentation got better or if I was just in a better headspace this time, but getting it configured was pretty easy. I have a lot of old email addresses from old web projects but setting up the domain records was simple, with detailed steps from FastMail. I had one issue that the help desk resolved fairly quickly (FastMail has great email support).
I was shocked how fast their servers are. I never considered Outlook.com sluggish, but Fastmail flies. I get email notifications within nanoseconds of the mail hitting the server—across all of my devices.
FastMail makes it very simple to manage multiple email accounts from its web interface. Sending mail from different accounts/domains is easy and adding accounts is also easy. I’m not using Fastmail to check other email service accounts, like Yahoo! or Gmail, but the documentation says that’s possible.
The web interface is nice. There are shortcuts and in general, the web interface feels like a client, which is important to me.
Last time I used FastMail, the spam filtering was awful, but it’s been just about flawless this time around.
Fastmail has an Android client that crashed a lot on me so I use CloudMagic and there haven’t been any issues.
Fastmail also has a calendar that uses CalDAV. As long as I was switching off of Outlook, it seemed like a good time to finally get off of Google Calendar, which I don’t use that much anymore, anyway. I moved a bunch of birthdays and personal appointments to the FastMail calendar and I’m now officially done with Google Calendar. I’m able to get the FastMail calendar on my phone with CalDAV, although I did have to pay for an app to make that happen. The Fastmail calendar is great. It has a simple interface, does reminders, and shows dates and times, which is sort of the life’s purpose for a calendar.
Fastmail also allows you to sync contacts with Thunderbird (via a plugin) and with your phone (via CardDAV). I’m not using CardDAV on my phone but I am using it with Thunderbird. What that means is between the calendar, mail, and contacts, that Thunderbird is like an enterprise client. I think of it as Outlook, only faster.
FastMail always had good security options but just pushed out a big update a few weeks ago. They simplified their security tools, making them more like other services. The updates included easier-to-implement two-factor authentication and application-specific passwords. What I like (and appreciate) about the application passwords is that they’re data-specific, so the CalDAV password Fastmail generated for my phone doesn’t provide access to my mail or contacts. And if you lose or retire a device, you can go into FastMail and pull the access. Just make sure you clearly name your application-specific credentials.
The web interface times out after a few hours of inactivity, which is actually kind of annoying on a personal level. But I’m enough of an adult to understand it’s a good feature from a security perspective.
FastMail is based in Australia, which is a privacy-centric country. Privacy wasn’t a huge factor in switching to FastMail, but it’s a nice plus.
FastMail isn’t free, although there is a free 30-day trial. Prices range from $30/year for barebones email without domain management to $90/year for a business class account. I’m grandfathered into $40/year package, but they have something comparable, with more storage, for $50/year. As I’ve mentioned before, I like paying for services since it gives me recourse if something doesn’t work. And less than $5/month is a small price to pay for something as important as email. And your calendar. And your contacts…
FastMail isn’t a Linux product per se, but it uses lots of open standards so that you can interface with it effectively using your own tools. You’re not locked in to one client or tool. And that’s the beauty and dream of Linux-—to use your own tools the way you want to.
I was looking for an old email a few days ago and I wound up in Google Inbox, which is an alternative interface to Gmail. It felt like Google was trying to handle my email for me and I didn’t appreciate it. FastMail lets me choose how my email is handled. Which is the way it should be.
I’m actually embarrassed I didn’t move to FastMail sooner. It’s a great, open product that any Linux user should love.
If you’re trapped in a proprietary email system, why not buy a domain, sign-up for FastMail, and free yourself?
What works: Everything! The email. The calendar. The speed. The service.
What doesn’t work: Nothing!
Who should work with it: Anyone who doesn’t want to be trapped in proprietary email and calendar environments.
I’m an email client guy.
Web interfaces are convenient, but they just don’t feel like a client. An email client is like riding in a Crown Victoria. Web clients, even good ones, feel like a rented subcompact. They’re fine and they’ll get you where you need to go, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
One of the things I disliked about Gmail was that the IMAP implementation was so weird. It didn’t work well with a client. You wound up with all kinds of weird labels.
But now that I’ve been using Outlook.com for a while, I’ve also been using Thunderbird to handle my email.
Thunderbird is great in that I don’t have to think about it. It handles my mail. The search is decent. The sorting is fine. There are lots of add-ons, if there’s functionality I want that it doesn’t have. Thunderbird is one of those pieces of software that works well because it’s not exciting or interesting. It just quietly does its job.
However, the interface is old. I read about Nylas N1, which is supposed to be an exciting new email client that’s also customizable—sort of like the email version of the Atom text editor. I decided to take Nylas N1 for a spin.
It does look snazzy. The look is a modern web client but with the responsiveness of a desktop one.
Nylas N1 is also easy to set up. There are pre-configured settings to get accounts going for most hosted email services (Gmail, Outlook.com, iCloud, and Yahoo; there are also Exchange and IMAP options).
Unfortunately, the look is the only thing about Nylas N1 that worked for me. Everything else felt too limiting. For instance, you only have two views: single panel, a la Gmail, and dual-panel. But you can’t control how the panels display. So if you want a horizontal preview, rather than a vertical, you’re out of luck.
You also can’t change the sort of your email. It’s always going to put the newest at the top, which is how I like my email 90% of the time. But sometimes, like when I’m looking for something, I want to sort by sender or subject.
There are some other features that were issues for me:
- You can’t open email in a new window, which can be frustrating if you’re trying to work with multiple messages
- There’s no way to get it to force-check email, which I sometimes do when I see a message come in on my phone (and I know it’s ridiculous I can’t wait a minute or two for a message).
For me, the great irony of Nylas N1 is that while it’s billed as being extensible, you need to be a developer to change it. So for a user like myself, it’s actually a pretty limited tool. I’m sure that will change as more people develop plugins for it, but I’ve been looking at it on-and-off for a few months and I haven’t seen a plugin ecosystem coalesce. As of this writing, there are less than 15 built-in plugins.
Nylas N1 is also moving to a paid model. I appreciate anyone showing that free and open source software is a viable business model, but the proposed $7/month is steep when you consider that you have to bring your own email service to the table. Fastmail, a very well-regarded email service, is only $50/year.
I wish the Nylas N1 team the best. I love that they took the time to build a Linux client. I love the idea of a hackable email client. But Nylas N1, as it stands now, is very limited. If you happen to like the defaults, you’re in for a treat. But if you’re looking for an email client that bends to your will and that you can easily customize as a non-developer, you’re probably better off with Thunderbird (especially now that people are thinking about its future). Thunderbird isn’t pretty—certainly not as pretty as Nylas N1—but it lets you build it into whatever email client you want it to be.
What works: Modern interface.
What doesn’t work: Not customizable enough yet.
Who should work with it: Anyone not particular about their email client.
I had a complex relationship with Evernote. I used it for quite a while but recently began to have trouble finding stuff in it. It had gradually become a junk drawer where I stuck things I wasn’t sure what to do with. The problem was when I would return to Evernote, I couldn’t effectively see what I had saved. It was essentially a giant pile of notes and while there was an order, reviewing what I had was still tough.
The Evernote interface had also come to feel clunky to me. For example, the web client would return me to the top of my list of saved items whenever I deleted or moved something, which was annoying in notebooks with long lists. The mobile client took a while to open, so it wasn’t great for capturing stuff on the fly. The only things I loved were the Chrome Web Clipper, which I used to screenshot maps and directions into my phone and the ability to email notes into my account. Other than those two features, using Evernote felt like a chore.
It was time to find another note-taking tool.
I ran through the usual suspects for online note-taking. I found Thinkery and loved it but it’s no longer supported and the plans for it seemed amorphous at best. I opted into a Dropbox Papers trial, but it was really more of a word processor than a note-taking tool. It didn’t support tags and there wasn’t a mobile client. OneNote also didn’t have a simple tagging concept and also felt like overkill. It’s a great tool, but way more than I needed for my basic notes to myself. I also took another look at SimpleNote, but the web interface felt uncomfortably slow to me. As with Remember the Milk, I saw recommendations for Emacs and org-mode and as with Remember the Milk, it seemed like a lot more work than I was willing to commit to. I was aware of Google Keep, but stayed away from it because of Google’s awful track record with services. If Google hadn’t kept Notebook going, would they really hang on to Keep?
I also looked into the various tools available via Sandstorm, but nothing looked very good to me in terms of interfaces. I wanted to choose an open source tool, but not at the expense of usability. It’s the same reason I rejected a text file solution—it seemed tough to deal with on mobile.
Unfortunately, I never found anything that worked for me, so I gave Google Keep a try, emboldened by the fact that you could easily save notes into Drive. I figured when Google killed Keep, it would be easy to get my notes out. Keep turned out to be a good interim solution; so far it’s working for me.
Google Keep has a nice, simple interface. There’s no way to format text and you can upload images, but not other file formats. You can change the color of your note, you can add checkboxes, and you can add labels, but that’s about it. All of these limitations make Keep incredibly fast. You’re limited to 50 labels, which feels arbitrary to me, but other than that, it does what I need it to.
What’s been more helpful than Keep is the process of going through my old Evernote notes, while moving to Keep.
Reviewing those notes and seeing what I had used and not used informed my approach to Keep.
For instance, I had a lot of disparate links to bars and restaurants that were pretty much impossible to find. So in transitioning to Keep, I put them all in a single note, organized by borough. I had gift ideas spread across different notes, so I consolidated them. Some of my issues with Evernote weren’t Evernote issues, but my own. Note-taking software isn’t a junk drawer. You need to organize your ideas. You can’t just cram everything into a tool and expect the tool to make sense of things for you.
So one of the things I did with Keep was create a *to file tag, which I use when I add something new. This is a label I can revisit weekly for the purpose of properly organizing things I’m adding. If I see a cool bar I want to try, I’ll add it to Keep as *to file (the asterisk forces the label to the top of the label list), and then when I do my weekly review, I can put it someplace more meaningful, like on a list of Queens bars and restaurants or even on my Remember the Milk to-do list as a place to visit at a specific time.
I could use this same process with any note-taking tool. But moving all of my notes from Evernote to Keep clarified the workflow for me.
Keep has a Reminder feature I don’t use, but I imagine it could work as a to-do list, also. I haven’t used this, although the quick-and-easy way to automatically add checkboxes to text is fantastic for my weekly shopping list.
The mobile interface is also great. It opens quickly and makes it easy to jot down ideas. It’s so easy, I don’t miss emailing notes into my account, which I did a lot with Evernote. But that was partially because the Evernote interface was so tough to deal with; I was just trying to avoid it.
Google Keep has a fast, sparse mobile interface.
Evernote does everything, which is great, but for me, it became this black hole where I put everything, and that created a problem. When you have everything, you have nothing. So the narrower scope of Google Keep is a feature. Learning that a lot of the things I used Evernote for don’t require an online tool was also helpful. For example, I saved all of my electronic manuals in Evernote. But because Keep doesn’t support PDFs, I just have the files on my computer, which makes more sense.
I’m sort of zen about Google Keep. If it lives on, my notes are fine, and if Google bails on it, it’s simple enough to export my data into readable files. But I feel like I have a good handle on what’s in Keep, so if/when Google abandons it, moving to something else won’t be catastrophic.
What works: Great, fast interface
What doesn’t work: Google’s track record with non-search products
Who should work with it: Anyone looking for a very simple way to take text-based notes across devices.
I was never a big to-do list guy. I used Google Calendar to keep track of everything and it worked very well for a decade.
However, early last year, a number of things changed for me.
I signed a book contract and took on more responsibilities at work.
Using my calendar to track things quickly became a burden.
I couldn’t see what my day looked like because all of the untimed projects at the top took up all of my screen real estate.
My calendar was just a blocky mess.
So I decided to delve into the world to to-do lists.
I wound up using Remember the Milk and it’s been fantastic.
Full disclosure: I was always fairly efficient, so I don’t know that Remember the Milk has changed me, but it has certainly made it much easier to keep track of what needs to be done and what isn’t getting done.
This isn’t a Linux-specific post, but as you’ll see, a lot of the features of Remember the Milk will appeal to Linux users.
The Bake Off
I’m the kind of person who likes testing and choosing tools (as you might have guessed…), so I was actually excited about wading into the world of to-do list software.
And luckily for me, there are trillions of to-do list apps and sites. Like, by the time you get to the end of this sentence, three more will have launched.
I focused on the big ones: ToDoist; Wunderlist; Any.do; TickTick; and ToodleDo. I also saw some recommendations for Emacs and Org mode, which can be configured to work with mobile devices, but it seemed like overkill. I looked at Trello briefly but it didn’t feel quite right for me (Scott Nesbitt just posted a great piece on how he uses it, though). When I started this journey, I wasn’t sure of the to-do list features that mattered to me, since I’d never really used an electronic to-do list before. Using the various tools helped me see which features I needed.
- Wunderlist didn’t have keyboard shortcuts, which I quickly realized was important to me.
- I never understood the Any.do interface. I wanted a simple interface.
- ToodleDo also felt very complicated to me, although it came highly recommended.
- I used TickTick for a while, but there was a weird, temporary glitch and I lost a few hours of data. It was hardly catastrophic but annoying enough that I felt I couldn’t trust the product anymore.
- I also came to realize I wanted a tool I could pay for, so there was some accountability with it.
I wound up using ToDoist for a few months, because it had great keyboard shortcuts, a sparse interface, and a paid tier. The sorting concepts were sometimes confusing, the mobile app felt pretty limited (like I couldn’t change the sort), and there were oddities, like subtasks showing up twice in certain views, but for the most part it worked very well.
ToDoist also has a karma option, where you accrue points for knocking stuff off your list. Sadly, it made me happy to watch my karma go up, even though it was meaningless.
I committed to ToDoist, using it to handle all of my projects, and as a I said, it worked great, but I still had a nagging feeling something even better might be out there. I saw recommendations for Remember the Milk, but it hadn’t updated its interface since I first looked at it in the mid-2000s. But I saw they were working on a new interface that users could beta test, but only if they were paid users. I couldn’t find any screenshots of the new interface but on a whim, I decided to spend the $25 to become a pro user and join the beta. Mostly just to see what the new interface looked like.
I fell in love with Remember the Milk almost instantly. The interface was simple, the sorting made sense, and the shortcuts are amazing.
I wound up switching off of ToDoist and to Remember the Milk around two weeks later (I used both in parallel for two weeks, which was kind of harrowing) and I’ve been using it ever since.
There are two ways to organize items:
- Lists, which are basically projects. I use the major parts of my life: work, personal, blog and book.
- Tags, which I’ve recently gotten into in terms of getting different perspectives on what needs to be done. Like anything where I need to follow-up is tagged with followup. Anything I’m waiting on is tagged waiting (perhaps ironically, I got the idea from the ToDoist blog which is wonderfully helpful to anyone trying to stay organized). I have tags for the different parts of my life, like buy, read, article ideas, and even cleaning. All of these tags allow me to quickly see what needs to be done. Like if I want to see everything I’m waiting on, I just click on the tag and I can see it across all of my lists.
Tags are a great way to organize your tasks.
Remember the Milk also has a smart list concept which is a more complicated way to search across your lists and create lists based upon that search. So one of my smart lists is for things I need to give to other people, which grabs everything tagged with for-, which is how I consistently tag things for other people. I also have an action smart list that excludes anything I’m waiting on. That kind of flexibility helps me to make decisions in terms of what I should be doing in any given moment.
The shortcuts are also great: You can
- add tags and lists using the # sign, in both the web and the mobile client
- assign priority with an !
- postpone something one day with shift-p
- change the due date with d.
There’s a shortcut for pretty much everything which lets you just type without having to click on menus and options. Remember the Milk can even parse natural language, so you can set a task to every other week, just by using that phrase in the task.
Remember the Milk has its own syntax for quickly adding tasks—even on mobile.
For some reason, if you change the date of a task, it doesn’t impact the subtasks. That seems common across to-do lists and I’m not sure why that is.
Remember the Milk has been amazing for me. I have a lot of balls in the air and I feel like I’m pretty on top of all of them. The new interface is beautiful but the price is now up to $39 a year (there’s still a functional free tier, though). On the one hand, it’s high, especially considering the number of free and freemium products out there. But I also like the fact that there’s a revenue model around the product. I like that it’s a business. That makes me feel like it’s less likely a tool I love and depend upon will disappear because the people behind it need to get real jobs.
Another interesting side effect of moving to Remember the Milk is I’m no longer dependent upon Google Calendar. I’ve been trying to reduce my dependence upon Google tools but because I was such a heavy Calendar user, I never saw a way off of it. And I looked! However, now that I’m tracking all of my projects through Remember the Milk, my calendar has been reduced to birthdays and appointments, making it very easy to leave. I still use Google Calendar, but mostly as a web interface to display my work calendar (which is Outlook). I could easily leave Google Calendar with a few days’ notice. And knowing I can leave any time is enough to keep me in Google Calendar. For now.
I’m not a strict Getting Things Done adherent, but I do believe in getting stuff out of your head and into some kind of system that’s going to remind you what you need to do. I don’t think the tool matters that much as long as you commit to it, as long as it works for you, and as long as it makes sense to you. Remember the Milk is that tool for me and I suspect it’s that tool for a lot of other people. It’s simple and flexible and feels a lot like the command line. Remember the Milk has been around for a long time, but sadly, they didn’t update their look until earlier this year. I suspect a lot of people have looked at it over the years and decided not to use it because it looked so dated. I’m hoping the update will get users to give it a second (or third, depending upon your age) look.
Like any tool, it’s not going to change who you are or how you work. But it has allowed me to work more efficiently, capturing tasks and making them easy to track and complete. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, which for me is a bell and a whistle. The Pro price is steep, but good products are worth paying for. And it gives me confidence that Remember the Milk will be around for a while.
If you’re thinking about a to-do list or are unhappy with your current one, give Remember the Milk two weeks and see how it works for you.
Remember The Milk
What works: Simplicity and command-line syntax
What doesn’t work: Price for Pro level
Who should work with it: Anyone looking to keep track of projects and deadlines, but especially anyone looking to get ideas on and off their list very quickly.