Making a space to work in

I did a thing on Saturday, running a little writing session for some children in Birmingham, and for the first part of it, I got us all hiding under the tables. “I don’t want Santa to hear this,” I said. And I was in full-on performance mode, loads of ideas, all ready to fire, when I realised that the tables reminded me of something.

When I was the age of these same children, Blue Peter used to have a regular feature about toy trains. Even then I used to wonder what could you say in episode 2. And I’m not into trains. All power to you if you are, or at least all steam power. But I loved the desk they had it on.

It was big and enclosed: you had to clamber underneath and pop up in the middle. That’s what I was minded of on Saturday.

And it made me realise that I have lived with how much I loved that idea for all these years. Because my office may not have this circular desk but it has half of one. The desk goes down one wall and curves around the side. I work mostly in that curve. And admittedly the rest of the desk is a mess. But that curve matters to me.

Mind you, so does the iMac.

But the space you work in matters. I used to believe I could write anywhere and in fact right now I’m writing to you from my living room when I really should be in my office on a deadline. So plainly it’s not so wonderful that I’m drawn back to it irresistibly. Still, at 5am tomorrow morning I will sit on my Captain’s Chair (it’s a thing, that’s a type of furniture, it’s not a Star Trek reference) and I’ll pop headphones on and I will feel like I’ve climbed into my writing space.

All of which comes up chiefly because of Saturday but also now because of two completely different podcasts that just happen to cover this topic. They cover it in completely different but interesting ways. First up, MacPowerUsers interviews ex-Macworld writer Jason Snell on how he set up his home office now that he is indeed ex-Macworld. Listen to MacPowerUsers.

But then there’s 99U which was devoted an entire edition to Building the Perfect Workspace.

Beaten to it: the Christmas productivity gift guide

Well, it’s really the techie or geeky Christmas gift guide. And there’s much in it that I wouldn’t have thought of, let alone picked. But if they only picked the things I would, there’d be no point telling you about them.

And them is Katie Floyd and David Sparks of MacPowerUsers. The latest edition of the podcast is their annual gift guide. They have a thing about not repeating gift recommendations from previous years and I see the point but I don’t see the point: if it’s still the best thing to buy, it’s still the best thing to buy.

Still, here are the best things to buy for Christmas according to MacPowerUsers.

The way you work is not the way I work

I think that’s obvious. And I hope I’m aware of it all the time. For instance, I might well ram OmniFocus down your throat but I doubt there’s a time I’ve actually recommended it that I didn’t also give you the important reasons why you might not want it. (OmniFocus is astonishingly great and transforming but it doesn’t run on Windows or Android so if you do, it’s no use to you. Also, I think it’s more than worth the money but it does cost more than most so that is a factor.)

Similarly, I might ram iOS and Apple down your throat but I fully accept that there are reasons to like using Windows, even if I’ve yet to discover any.

But I’m worrying about this today because I’m listening to David Allen on Mac Power Users. That’s an interesting mix. Allen is a very clever guy whose Getting Things Done book has helped me greatly – I give him a lot of credit in my Blank Screen workshops and where I don’t promote my own books from the stage in those, I do promote his. Yet every time I listen to him, I feel he doesn’t get it for writers and creatives.

He’s very clear and strident and adamant about the thinking behind getting things done, which I think is fine, but he’s pretty clear and strident and adamant about the specific tools he uses. And where.

For some years I’ve wondered why he doesn’t update his book to reflect how much the world has moved on. Getting Things Done presumes, for instance, that you can only make business calls from your office and that you can only get emails from there or your home, not from your phone on the way. It is what it is, it was written back in the Victorian era of around 2001. And I was very alert to this MPU interview where he mentions that he is finally doing a new version.

It’s just that the more I heard, the more I suspect it’ll be pretty much the same thing with perhaps the odd nod to newer technology. I should and I will have to wait until early next year when it comes out, but amongst all the really excellent and clever ideas he mentioned on MPU, it was still that he is clear and strident and adamant. Maybe you can now email on your phone or your iPad as you go between work and home, but you shouldn’t.

He doesn’t. He won’t. He likes to do this stuff at his desk and that’s where he’ll do it. Fine. Whatever. But that’s not the mark of someone who’s grasped how much things have changed.

I was waiting for MPU’s David Sparks and Katie Floyd to press him on technology and they did. Floyd mentioned how there hadn’t been all this stuff back when Allen wrote the book and he disagreed. Said that there had been the Palm Pilot then and nothing has ever come close to how great that was.


Also, he writes his tasks down on paper he keeps in his wallet and says if you use electronic methods, well, good luck. Specifically, you’re going to end up with tasks in many places – which is precisely what I think of people who use scraps of paper.

He does use technology, though: he has a To Do manager built for him on top of Lotus Notes. I had to Google whether Lotus Notes still exists and, actually, no, not so much. It’s long been IBM Notes and I can’t tell if it’s radically improved from when I had to use it back in the 1990s, but even Allen says nobody’s going to go out and buy [Lotus] Notes to run a To Do manager.

He does swap back and forth between that and OmniFocus. And the reason he goes back to Notes is that someone in his company is developing their To Do app. I can easily, readily see that having a tool custom built is going to be good, just not on Notes.

I’m wrong to rant, I feel. The new version of the book may change my mind, it may address everything I feel needs translation and conversion in the original. But yet again during an interview with him, I went from oooooh to oh.

But I’m going to watch how clear and strident and adamant I get when I’m talking to you about how I work and how you could.

In the meantime, have a listen to this smart man on Mac Power Users.

MacPowerUsers: How and whether to use a To Do app

This is really more an iOS thing than a Mac one and there is a spot of Android-osity in it too, but this week’s edition of the MacPowerUsers podcast is all about whether you actually need a To Do app.

Spoiler: you probably do.

But not definitely.

Listen to David Sparks and Katie Floyd discuss the topic and if you don’t use a task manager app, you might feel good about it. If you do, you might learn something. And if you’re in between, if you’re looking to use an app but don’t know which of the myriad ones available, you’ll certainly learn a lot.

MacPowerUsers episode 210: Task Management

David Sparks’ Presentation book now out

This book was released sometime overnight, I got it around 8am, I’m maybe a third of the way through the text – I’ve not looked at the many videos yet – and I have a complaint.

He’s so persuasive about preparing your presentation before you ever go near Keynote or PowerPoint that I resent the bejaysis out of him. I have one presentation to give tonight and three tomorrow. I wanted a quick fix! I wanted a magic sauce!

I do have the very smugly gratifying fact that a few of the things he says I do already swear by. So it’s not as if my talks this week will be bad, exactly. God, I was nervous enough already, thanks a bunch for this. But I do also recognise and am persuaded of how they could be better. So you just wait for next week’s talks.

Presentations: A MacSparky Field Guide is now out in the iBooks Store (and only the iBooks Store) for a truly ridiculously cheap £5.99 UK or $9.99 US.

This week’s MacPowerUsers podcast is all about the book and the topic of presentations so you can get a good idea of whether you’ll like the book from that. But, spoiler alert, you will.


MacPowerUsers podcasts hits 200th edition

This is now a weekly fix for me: every Monday there is a 90-minute audio podcast on a single Mac topic such as Evernote or handling email. There’s the odd edition that has just no interest for me or, whisper it, when it’s focused on a guest who is a bit dull, but otherwise, MacPowerUsers is now an automatic thing on a Monday morning.

It started for me when I wanted to know about the Hazel application and a Google search came up with one episode of MacPowerUsers. Listened to that, bought Hazel, barely use it.

But instead I kept coming back to look up more episodes and after a while I realised I must’ve listened to eighty. That was a year or more ago now so the odds are that I’ve listened to forty more since.

The 200th episode, now available, is look back at the series so far which is probably therefore more interesting for existing listeners. It’s fun for existing listeners. If you’re new to it and fancy a dabble, try the recent Evernote episode, Calendars and Contacts and just keep on going.

Recommendation – Mac Power Users podcast

This is just a general recommendation for the whole series. Around a year ago, I was looking into whether it was worth my buying a Mac application called Hazel and my research led me to an edition of Mac Power Users. I remember listening to that on my way somewhere and learning that it was episode 79. They're now, today, on episode 187.

I'm sure I haven't listened to all of them but without doubt I've heard more than ninety of them.

Katie Floyd and David Sparks present this weekly show about Macs, iPads, iPhones and suchforth. Typically they'll take a topic – today it's a rather general one on word processing but it can concentrate on something more specific like Hazel or Evernote – and will bat through the basics and on to tips about it all. Even if you know the topic, they tend to have found new angels on it and it is a running joke that every listener ends up spending more money than they want because we've been convinced about some new software or hardware.

The topic interests me because I am pretty fully in the Apple scheme of working and if you aren't, there is nothing here for you.

But there are many podcasts about Mac things and I've tried a lot of them yet rarely got through an entire episode. Generally they are so poorly produced that the BBC Radio man in me starts twitching. Turn up that microphone. Stop leaving dead air. Bother to learn how to pronounce your guest's name. Things like that stop me listening and Mac Power Users is far more professional than that.

It also avoids the other main thing that stops me listening to various podcasts. Floyd and Sparks are equally knowledgeable and have similar experiences but they are sufficiently different that when one of them tells the other something, you believe that other one doesn't know it. I loathe the common format where one presenter tells another some amazing fact and the second one is appropriately amazed – but I can't help thinking they mustn't have read the script or paid attention during the rehearsals.

At least two presenters are better than many. There's a type of show that used to be known in UK radio as the zoo format: many presenters all together and chatting. Invariably, they sound like they're having a fantastic time. But we're not.

So considering that I used to produce a podcast, it became rare for me to listen to any. Mac Power Users is the only one I get regularly: every Monday morning, there's a new edition and I download it.

More useful than this new habit of mine, though, is the website catalogue of all the shows, all 187 editions so that you can look up any topic and leap right to it. Plus each edition has extensive notes online with links to the many products and other points brought up in the editions.

Try one. Here's the link to the official site though you can also subscribe through iTunes or every such route.

You don’t have to be creepy about it

But do your homework about people. I just had a terribly fun meeting with someone – er, I hope she enjoyed it as much as I did – and before I got to her, I'd read her blog. I'd seen her professional pages, I'd read what she did, I had an idea of some of the work she did.

I intended to stop there. The idea of coming to a meeting entirely cold makes me wince but equally I'm there to meet you, I'm not there to show off my deep research. I really want to meet you: easily the best part of journalism is that you get to bound off and say hello to people you might otherwise never come across. Utterly love that.

And I stopped intentionally looking into this woman's background. But I've been trying a free iPhone app called Mynd and it did some digging for me without my realising it.

Mynd is like a calendar assistant; I found it because I was exploring calendars and looking for why I nearly missed an appointment recently. I also found it because it got mentioned a few times by Katie Floyd on the Mac Power Users podcast. All it does, I thought, is show me my entire day in one screen: how many events I've got to get to, where the next one is, what the weather's like today. I also found that it calculates how long it's going to take me to drive to somewhere and it will say so right there on the screen: you need to leave in 10 minutes if you're going to make the appointment. Sometimes it sounds a notification too. I haven't figured out why it's only sometimes.

But I have figured out that it believes I drive everywhere when really it's more that I drive almost nowhere. So I got a Mynd notification that I ought to get out of Dodge and start the car right now when I was already on a train to London.

I was going to ditch it for doing that. I have Fantastical now that does all the work I need of managing my appointments and events. (Fantastical 2 for iPad is £6.99 UK, $9.99 US. Fantastical 2 for iPhone is £2.99 UK, $4.99 US. The iPad prices are launch offers and will shortly increase by about 33%.) Plus I don't care about the weather and when I do have a mind to wonder about whether it's going to rain, I ask Siri.


There is a panel on this Mynd screen called People and up to now it has always been blank. Today it showed a photo of the woman I was meeting. And it got that photo from LinkedIn. When I tapped on that photo, it showed me her short LinkedIn bio and then it had options for calling her. If you're running late, you open Mynd, tap the person's photo, then tap to send her a message. If you've got the number of her mobile, anyway. Or an email address.

That would be spectacularly handy if I were ever late for anything but usually I'm cripplingly early. Still, it's impressive.

What was even more impressive is that I scrolled to tomorrow, saw the first meeting had a fella's photo there – and behind it was a list of related Evernote documents. It's just reminded me of the last note I made when talking to him. Right there. I'd forgotten I'd ever made a note but there it is.

It's like Mynd gives you a personal briefing before you go to meet someone. I don't think that means you should skip looking in to them yourself, but I feel wildly efficient about tomorrow now. And I won't feel wildly stupid if he mentions the topic of my last note.

Mynd is free for iPhone on the App Store. There's no iPad or Android version.

Have a look at the Mynd website too. It proposes using the software as your sole calendar for a week and I've just learnt that you can do that. Bugger. I think I'll continue using it as an adjunct to Fantastical but it's handy to know that all the ordinary calendar functions are in this Mynd app as well.

Tremendous new book about mastering email

My own book, The Blank Screen, has plenty about when and how to use email so that you get what you want – at least a lot more of the time. And so that you get a lot more time for writing. But David Sparks has just published an entire iBook on emails and it is first class.

I've had email for thirty years and yet before I'd read two chapters of this, he'd changed my mind about the whole thing. I stopped reading long enough to do what he says and then I went right back to it.

Inevitably, there are whole sections that don't apply to everyone: I only use gmail when I have to, for instance, so I've no need of advice on how to make that a better experience. A shorter one, yes. (If you're a gmail fan then let me say first that I know it's very good, I just got burnt with trivial problems that left a bad taste. And since I get such a lot of strong, hassle-free use from Apple's own Mail app, I've not been compelled to try again. Then let me say second and more usefully, you in particular should get this book because it's got oodles of advice on gmail.)

There shouldn't be all that much you can say about email yet it turns out that there is and it turns out to be a very entertaining read. You can hear a lot on the same topic by the same man in the Mac Power Users podcast he does with Katie Floyd but just buy the book. Here's a link to the specific MPU episode:

He does say in that podcast that there is a PDF version: listen to it for brief details of that. Otherwise, Email: a MacSparky Field Guide by David Sparks is an iBooks exclusive that you can get here: