We're going to be talking about software today. And we're going to be talking about it A LOT. I know that's not the kind of thing that brought all of you to the yard, so let's leave the big stuff for later and get the fun bits and pieces out of the way so that those of you who aren't interested can go about your day...
It has been a busy few weeks. I've been working on a movie script, a TV pilot, the next series of Aldrich Kemp, and making some early in-roads into Lovecraft Investigations 4 (I had forgotten how complicated that show is to write). In addition, there has been the usual round of pitching new ideas, dealing with plans and admin for our company, Storypunk, and coming up with some new projects for 2023.
I really like this time of year. Rain, darkness, cold; it provides the ideal atmosphere for writing (note: I am not doing a lot of rom-coms). I generally find it a lot easier to get deep into stuff in the Autumn, and it doesn't hurt that Hollywood basically slows to a halt in the lead up to Thanksgiving and doesn't really come back in full force again until January.
You'll note that I am steadfastly avoiding the actual bin-fire that is US and UK politics at the moment, Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter, the fact that Suella Braverman has a job, or that Rishi Sunak has this morning informed us that we can't expect government to solve all of our problems (true, but it would be nice if they didn't cause 90% of them).
This is a really difficult time for an awful lot of people. A great many of the problems we face could have been easily avoided. Failing that, we could have smart people in charge with the ability to find solutions. But we are where we are because, as a species, we have a tendency to believe unlikely promises, to pay more attention to what a politician says than to what they do, and we are really easily suckered into blaming some random third party for the problems that occur in our lives.
As a result of this, we have, in the UK, a government that is a daily source of embarrassment and shame to any sensible person. Almost no one in the cabinet achieves a baseline level of competence. And yet what are we to do? No one is likely to invite us to a polling station in the very near future and, when they do, the likes of the Daily Mail and the Express will ramp up the anti-immigrant rhetoric and persuade a large portion of the electorate to vote the same shower back in. (Side note: I saw the Express front page yesterday, which was lamenting the state of the emergency services and wondering what happened to them - you did, guys, you happened to them.)
Anyway, politics is hardly my metier. Let's get off the subject. If you want a dose of grown-ups talking about things that matter, I recommend two podcasts: The News Agents and The Rest Is Politics. Both are excellent.
And if you need to be reminded that there is a whole world of stuff going on outside the UK and US, some of it insanely weird, joyful and clever, head over to The Monocle, who do a range of beautifully produced podcasts covering world events and culture that you don't really get to hear about anywhere else.
To the links... Here's the stuff that I've sifted from my Raindrop collection this time around:
Also, if you're not subscribing to Oliver Burkeman's newsletter, you should rectify that immediately. A friend reminded me of it the other day, and it's so good.
On the subject of newsletters, I have been really impressed with the Substack app, which collates all of your Substack subscriptions together in one place, and I am noodling with Matter, which is a hybrid read-it-later/subscriptions app that seems like it might be really useful.
Currently listening to Leif Ove Andsnes's album "Dvorak: Poetic Tone Pictures", which is nice light Autumnal work music (I'm sure that's just what Dvorak was aiming for).
And I'm reading William Gibson's "Spook Country" because I never got to it first time around. It's predictably great. I'm also liking Bono's autobiography/memoir/stream of consciousness "Surrender" a lot.
On TV, we're up to date with The Old Man on Disney+, which is AMAZING and have also just started looking at The Flight Attendant, which is really fun.
The Night House is my movie recommendation, even though I just missed Halloween by a few days - it's VERY clever and very scary and Rebecca Hall is brilliant in it.
And that's it for those that don't want to read about my productivity crisis. This is your off-ramp. I beg you to take it and I'll see you next time...
Seriously, go, save yourselves.
Are you sure?
Well, OK then, on your head be it...
The Productivity Death Spiral
The past couple of weeks have seen me in a procrastination spiral. Faced with a slew of deadlines, I somehow decided that the best use of my time would be to make some small tweaks to my project management system. Small tweaks turned into a massive overhaul and deadline after deadline flew by as I wrestled with how best to design a system to ensure that I hit all my deadlines (insert whacky mad-face emoji here).
I recognise this frequent pattern in myself and it irritates the hell out of me, but I nonetheless seem to fall into it about once a year. I'm out the other side of this one now and, even while acknowledging that it was ninety percent make-work, I have nonetheless returned to sanity with a few new bits and bobs and some insights into what does and doesn't work for me in this space.
So let's look at where I started from...
I generally have several big writing projects on the go at any one time and each one of those projects is broken down into bite-sized tasks so that I can make meaningful progress through the workload on any given day. I need to be able to let people know when scripts will be delivered, so that means that everything has to be timetabled. And if a task drops off a day, I need to be able to account for that in the overall timetable. Moving tasks along the calendar individually is a pain, so I need a system whereby one delay shifts the whole project along, and updates the new delivery date, as automatically as possible. This is basic project management stuff and it tends to be a little much for traditional to do apps like Things, Todoist and OmniFocus to handle. Tick Tick can just about cope, but it doesn't do it brilliantly.
(To illustrate, if I have ten tasks in a project and the first one gets delayed by a day, then apps like Todoist and Things require me to go into each task individually and manually change the dates of every task to create a new schedule. TickTick at least allows you to drag tasks along the timeline, which is easier and faster and pleasantly visual).
So what I had been using was Notion. Notion is basically computer-Lego. You build the system you want out of the blocks available. It has a fairly steep learning curve and the set-up is time-intensive. But the results can be amazing. Some people use Notion as a database system, some use it for notes and journals, others use it to create blogs, some use it for project management. It's that versatile. And it's that good.
My Notion iteration took an age to build and perfect, but I got it to the point that it was doing pretty much everything I needed it to do.
And then I got bored with it.
And that is a very real trigger for professional procrastinators like me. The idea that there might be a better system out there, that I just haven't kicked the tyres hard enough on the alternatives. Somewhere in the jungle of apps there is an El Dorado that will transform my life and make me twice as efficient and effective.
And so I strapped on my bullwhip, pulled my fedora down to a jaunty angle and set off on the quest...
The first thing you realise when you're looking at productivity apps is that Google Calendar is going to become a thing in your life. I have always avoided Google Calendar because of a vague, but largely unsubstantiated, suspicion that Google is an evil empire bent on stealing every aspect of my digital life and selling it to some douchebag working a laptop in a beachside cafe halfway around the world, who drop-ships health supplements for a living. I suspect Google does want to do this, but there are ways of stopping them and you just have to be careful about what boxes you're ticking when you sign up for your account.
I needed to get into Google Calendar because they make it easy for project management apps to interact with your calendar in a way that Apple and Outlook just don't. One of the downsides of Notion is that, while it is amazing at telling me what work I'm supposed to be doing on any given day, it has absolutely no idea what else I have planned. So I either have to run two apps side-by side or else manually enter all my appointments, zoom calls etc into Notion.
With Google Calendar set up, a whole world of possibilities opens up.
First up: ClickUp, which I wrote about in Cartoon Gravity 9 - Organising your time.. ClickUp has every bell and whistle imaginable; timelines, GANTT charts, reminders, built in documents... Wow, it has everything. AND it interacts with Google Calendar and allows you to time block your day, which is a big thing for me. And it all works.
ClickUp is great and solid and it does everything and... It isn't very much fun. And I realise that I just used the word "fun" in a section about project management, and I appreciate that fun is not what we came here for. But ClickUp just feels a little corporate, like you should be managing a team of people who are working hard to patch version 5.7 of something. And if that's what you actually do for a living, then I heartily recommend ClickUp. I'm not sure why it isn't "clicking" with me, but it just feels a little rigid and business-y. I feel like I should be wearing a lanyard while I'm using it.
AirTable, on the other hand, feels like it was put together by some people with a keen eye for design. It's beautiful to look at, feels incredibly solid, works on every thing and has all the gizmos and pretty much all the extensions you could want. But it's not cheap. And if it integrates with Google Calendar I'm not sure how (it claims to, I just couldn't get it to happen).
But my main beef with AirTable (and if you use it, feel free to tell me I just needed to spend more time figuring it out) is that there's just a LOT of clicking and waiting. Whenever you move from one project to another, or from one area to another, you click and then you wait... And wait... And wait... That became annoying very quickly. Also, getting an overview of everything you need to do happens through dashboards, which aren't really interactive; they're like looking at all of your stuff through a window without being able to touch anything. And the dashboards take a while to set up. Actually, everything in AirTable seems to take a while to set up. But maybe I never got the hang of it. It looks nice. I might go back to it in the future, especially if someone reading this points out all the ways in which I'm wrong about it. I'd quite like to figure it out. But not now. It is pretty though...
So ClickUp and AirTable didn't work out. But the experiences had me looking back longingly at Notion. Maybe Notion was the solution all along... But how to get around the calendar thing? How to figure out effective time-blocking?
Enter Sunsama. Oh hello... Sunsama takes your Google Calendar and then imports tasks from pretty much wherever you want, including Notion and ClickUp, to provide you with a list of tasks that you can then drop onto your day AROUND whatever is already in your calendar. It's a task manager in its own right, but not a very powerful one. But as a front-end to something like ClickUp, Notion or Trello, it works incredibly well.
Sunsama wants you to block out your days for the coming week. And it holds your hand in quite a helpful way while you do it. And it does the same thing for your day plan every morning. It looks pretty and it works well. But...
Once tasks have been imported from Notion, they are kind of divorced from it. Sure, when I complete a task in Sunsama, it tells Notion the good news and Notion updates the status. But if I move a task from Tuesday to Wednesday in Sunsama, Notion remains oblivious. And that means if you do a big restructure in Notion, because a project gets delayed, or you get ahead or whatever, you either need to delete those items from Sunsama and re-sync it or else you have to mirror the changes across two apps. Both options are a time-suck you don't need.
So not Sunsama then, not for me at least, although I do think it does what it does very well.
And so to Google (Ecosia, actually, but the effect is the same) to look for alternatives to Sunsama - I know what I'm looking for now, the search has narrowed. I don't want an alternative to Notion, I want a front end that will present my Notion tasks WITH my calendar AND sync them properly if I move them around because, for instance, I've spent ages writing a newsletter that no one in their right mind is still reading when I was supposed to be editing a script... WAKE UP THIS WAS ALL A BAD DREAM.
My Google (Ecosia) search yielded one single useful result. Fanfare please...
Akiflow comes from a small company in Padua, Italy. I think they're very small. I think I know them all by name now. We're basically all friends. And that is because Akiflow didn't work...
There it was, the app I didn't know I'd been looking for, but which did everything I needed it to do. Except it didn't. Try as I might, it wouldn't sync my Notion tasks. Sometimes it would grab some of them, sometimes it wouldn't get any at all. It did grab stuff from Todoist and from ClickUp (Akiflow sets all ClickUp tasks to be done at 4am, which is incredibly irritating, but is a function of ClickUp's API, and nothing the Akiflow team can fix at their end).
So, on the brink of despair (despair is strong, but I had lost so much work time to this self-inflicted trawl through productivity hell that I badly needed to bring back a win), I clicked the handy button on the Akiflow interface that puts you in touch with a member of the team. And they were fast, and friendly, and diligent - these guys really can't help enough. Stefania talked me off the ledge while Michele dug into my Akiflow set-up AND my Notion set-up and figured out the problem (try to act surprised when I tell you that about 75% of the problem was me). And lo and behold, Akiflow worked!
I have my Notion tasks on the Akiflow screen. If I drag one from Tuesday to Wednesday, it updates the dates in Notion. And vice versa. Akiflow can handle repeating tasks (Notion can't) and it syncs to Google Calendar so not only can I add and change calendar items from within the app, as well as joining Zoom calls with the click of a button, but I can also (KILLER FEATURE ALERT) select free slots in my calendar and Akiflow will automatically generate an "available" list to send to anyone who is trying to schedule a meeting. WHAT?! Insanely good!
Now I can have Notion as the very powerful engine that runs everything in the background, and provides the big picture view of what I'm doing, spanning months or years if I want it to, showing project progress and how things link together etc. But Notion doesn't even need to be opened most days, because Akiflow is there on the screen, dealing with the minutiae of the hours, days and weeks.
If you need anything resembling project management software, or if you want to be able to time block with you existing data, I urge you to give Akiflow a try.
And so I'm happy, finally. And really behind on my work.
If you're still reading this, you're almost certainly now behind on something too. Sorry.
See you next time.
Fuck it. Send.