This is a quarterly update and review of new tools and products that I recently added to my personal productivity stack.
Spoonbill I’ve been looking for a product like this for a while: Spoonbill connects with your Twitter (and GitHub) account and sends you diff-updates on the bios of the people you follow. You can receive updates via email and RSS. Someone should build this for LinkedIn.
Noto Noto is an app to send email notes to yourself. The app opens directly to the input screen – a simple swipe then sends the note to a pre-defined email address. This is ideal for people like me who use their inbox as their primary productivity control center and to-do list. You can add up to six different email addresses which becomes pretty powerful in combination with Superhuman’s split inbox feature. I wish a note functionality like this was built directly into the iOS lock screen.
Zenly This is one of the most interesting apps I’ve played around with lately. Zenly is essentially the Gen Z version of Foursquare: A location-first social network, but instead of manually checking into places, users constantly share their live location (as well as other data such as your current battery status). What I find most interesting though, is the app’s fog of war-like map that shows you exactly which areas you’ve already explored (plus the exact discovery percentage number per city). This is a great way to quantify my movement patterns and set monthly or yearly discovery goals (I currently do this with Swarm).
To me, newsletters feel more like a rebirth of blogs and RSS: Both typically have long-form, high quality content and they are distributed via an open standard.
Substack and Revue are essentially trying to become the WordPress of newsletters, while Stoop is trying to build a Google Reader equivalent to capture the demand side.
What’s interesting about newsletters is that consumers are willing to pay for them. While blogs have never really figured out monetization (apart from ads), Substack alone claims more than 50,000 paying subscribers.
This might partly be a timing thing (blogs were popular during a time when people weren’t used to the concept of paying for digital content yet), but I wonder if it’s also driven by the nature of how newsletters work: You have to wait to receive them – like an Amazon package. Maybe that makes the medium feel more tangible and thus worth paying for?
Some have argued that newsletters create a more intimate relationship between writers and readers and that it’s this intimacy that consumers are willing to pay for. I don’t disagree with that theory but would argue that blogs are even more intimate than newsletters. If a newsletter is a personal message from a writer, a blog is the writer’s personal home the reader gets invited to.
What’s special about personal blogs is not just the actual writing, it’s also the design the content is presented in. Newsletters lack the unique design aspect that blogs have.
Side Note: I firmly believe that the lack of design customization options is one of the main reasons Medium has never lived up to its potential.
It also seems like newsletters are less discoverable than blogs. Blog posts would often reference other blogs (remember blog rolls and trackbacks?), which is how readers would discover new content. Newsletters feel more isolated. (Someone should start a newsletter-recommendation-newsletter)
02 Alternative Trade Routes
So what then explains the newsletter hype? Simple: Distribution.
Every medium is essentially a two-sided market that needs to solve a chicken-and-egg-problem in order to take off. You need content suppliers to attract consumers and vice-versa.
While blogs could in theory be read by anyone with a browser, the technology that really mattered on the consumer side were RSS readers – and those were never adopted en masse.
Social networks on the other hand have become a victim of their own success: The amount of consumers has attracted so many players on the supply side that platforms needed to introduce algorithmic feeds to handle the abundance of content.
This is why writers like newsletters so much. As other distribution channels are becoming increasingly crowded, email provides an alternative trade route.
That problem is that the nature of cross-side network effects will ultimately lead to newsletters facing the same dilemma: As long as the number of subscribers increases, so will the number of newsletter publishers. Users’ email inboxes – already full with non-newsletter-emails – will get as crowded as social media newsfeeds. Just wait until Gmail introduces an algorithmic feed for your newsletter inbox.
Perhaps a more interesting question, then, is to ask what’s the alternative trade route to email?
03 Alternative Alternative Trade Routes
I’ve been fascinated by the rise of Telegram blogs in recent months.
Tucked between personal messages from friends, Telegram blogs are read in an even more intimate setting than email. In contrast to newsletters, readers can see the entire history at once (less ephemeral) and engage with the author and/or other readers via built-in community features.
(1) Some argue that email (like blogs) are better for content creators than social networks because the medium’s open standard means that they “own their audience”. What people seem to fail to see is that an open standard doesn’t matter much when the demand side is controlled by an aggregator. Bloggers lost thousands of subscribers when Google Reader shut down. Gmail has more than a billion users.
Kevin Kwok posted an excellent article a while back about The Arc of Collaboration. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but the main argument is that productivity and collaboration have always been handled as two separate workflows:
We started with individual files that we sent back and forth via email
Then Dropbox came along and enabled collaboration within documents, but communication about these docs remained a separate channel
Slack wants to become the central communication channel for all productivity apps
The problem, Kevin argues, is that productivity and collaboration shouldn’t be treated separately. Instead, they should go hand in hand and that’s exactly what a lot of the latest productivity tools do: Figma, Notion, Airtable, etc all have messaging natively built in to their apps.
While these functional workflows work great on their own, they are still separate silos between which you have to switch back and forth. The solution might be a meta layer on top of the productivity stack that works horizontally across all function workflows.
It’s not clear yet what exactly this meta layer would look like but it might be something similar to what Discord is to gaming.
I mostly agree with the points Kevin makes, but I see the role of Slack slightly different. While I don’t think that Slack will become the meta layer, I do think it came closer to that idea than people give it credit for.
Instead of Slack, I believe that email – and more importantly Superhuman – will return to become the center of gravity for productivity.
02 Notifications & the Multiple Inbox Problem
With more and more productivity apps creating their own messaging systems, users suddenly face a new problem: Multiple inboxes. You now have to check notifications in Github, Trello, Google Docs and half a dozen (if not more) other tools in your productivity stack.
Slack basically wants to be the unified notification center that captures all those incoming alerts from your productivity tools – a high frequency communications layer that ties everything together.
The way I see it notifications serve three important functions:
Being notified about (relevant) new developments
Taking actions on these developments (if necessary)
Building a (personalized) history of company records
As Kevin points out in his article, Slack only really handles the “being notified” part. Whenever you want to take action on notifications you have to switch to whatever app you’ve received the notification from. Productivity and collaboration remain separate.
But Slack isn’t the perfect tool to manage notifications. Incoming alerts aren’t really bundled in one place but appear across different channels and between different messages. This makes it really hard to keep track of which notifications you have seen and which you have taken action on.
You need a single notification stream that allows you to treat notifications like tasks. Slack isn’t that. But you know what is? Email!
03 Emails as To-Do’s
Back in 2013, the Mailbox team built an email client that looked more like a to-do list than an inbox. With a simple swipe users could simply mark an email as done, add to it to a list or snooze it to deal with it later. Emails became tasks.
While Mailbox eventually got deprecated (after Dropbox acquired it), the emails-as-tasks concept lives on. Snoozing emails and Inbox Zero are now standard features in most email apps.
I’ve always wondered why no one ever developed the idea further: Why stop at snoozing emails? Why not add other actions to your email inbox? Inspired by these questions, I briefly worked on an idea a while back that can be summarized as an inbox that only lets you reply with pre-defined actions.
Sounds confusing? Let’s look at a few examples.
Example A:Your colleague Lisa invites you to a meeting
→ A right swipe accepts the meeting and adds the event to your calendar ← A left swipe declines the meeting and lets you propose a different time
You never have to open the message or write a lengthy response – you can only react with a swipe.
Google Calendar notifications in Gmail are actually already pretty close to this, so let’s look at a more sophisticated example.
Example B:The New York Times notifies you about a new article they just published
○ A simple tap just opens the article ⇥ A short right swipe adds the article to Pocket → A long right swipe saves in Evernote ← A right swipe sends the article to your Kindle
The problem with this idea is that you are limited to just a handful of actions (because you can’t fit more on the screen) and that it’s difficult to predict which actions are most relevant for each message you receive.
This is where Superhuman comes in.
04 Superhuman as the center of gravity for productivity
Superhuman, for those unfamiliar with it, is an email client that – among other features – lets you manage your inbox by just using your keyboard.
There are keyboard shortcuts for literally every single command you can think of: Compose a new email? Hit c. Discard a draft? Press ⌘, Shift and b. Reply to an introduction email with a Thank You note and move the original sender to bcc? Press ⌘, Shift and i (yes, this actually exists).
Most importantly though, users can trigger a command line interface so you can just write down the action you want to take without having to remember the exact keyboard shortcut. The NLP engine behind this thing works remarkably well and understands what you want to do no matter how you phrase it (this might be Superhuman’s most underrated feature).
At the moment, Superhuman commands are limited to typical email actions (snooze, send later, etc), but the obvious next step, in my opinion, is to add commands that work across different apps.
That meeting request your colleague Lisa sent you? Instead of just sending a reply why that time she proposed doesn’t work for you, you should just be able to also send an updated calendar event without having to leave the Superhuman app.
But you should also be able to block 30 minutes in your calendar before the meeting so you can prepare – without having to switch over to your calendar app and add the events there. Hit ⌘K and type “Add 30 min buffer before event“. Done.
I suspect that Superhuman will build their own calendar features (as well as to-do list functionalities) and then start integrating third-party applications to become an actual platform.
With a strong enough NLP engine behind the command line interface, the possibilities become endless:
Add that New York Times article to your Pocket queue or send it directly to your Kindle to read it later
Re-assign Jira tickets directly from Superhuman or send them to your to-do list
Pay invoices or send money to a friend
You never have to leave the Superhuman app – the command line becomes your personal assistant that takes care of all your productivity tasks.
Side note: Opening up to 3rd-party developers and thus becoming a platform is also how you build a moat on top of an open standard like email and make the business more defensible.
05 Managing the information firehose
Once you can react to email notifications right from your inbox, you can forward all your 3rd-party notifications to your email inbox and manage them from one place. This is how you solve the multiple inbox problem we discussed earlier.
Having all notifications in one place sounds scary: People are already struggling to stay on top of their inbox today and risk missing important messages. This is where Superhuman’s Split Inbox feature comes in handy. Your main inbox is still reserved for only the most important emails you receive. For everything else you set up dedicated split inboxes.
You could set up an inbox for all your newsletters, a dedicated inbox for just your Github notifications (or any other tool) or group your emails by teams or projects.
Collecting all notifications in one place has another benefit: Building a (personalized) history of company records. In the current world of multiple inboxes your information is dispersed across a dozen different services and whenever you try looking for something you never know where to find it.
This aspect feels like a very underrated benefit of a unified notifications inbox.
06 Closing Thoughts
I’m aware that this idea isn’t really the meta-layer that Kevin outlined in his article. Email and productivity would still remain separate workflows, but Superhuman would become the center of gravity from which all other tools are being managed.
An actual meta-layer might look closer to something like Tandem, but I could also imagine a Superhuman Command Line that lives outside of the Superhuman app – similar to what Command E are building.
Publish 52 blog posts This is my number one goal for 2020. I want to start publishing quality content on a regular basis and improve my writing skills. I’ll donate €100 to charity for every week I miss.
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Read 20 books
Watch less TV
Last year: 125 hours
Swim a total distance of 120km
Go for a swim at least once a week
Back exercise every second day
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Ship a redesign of this blog
Finish work on my daily uniform
Conduct a 2020 Quantified Self Project This will be my biggest QS project since 2013. I’m tracking more than 70 metrics across 10 categories this year.
Publish my 2019 Quantified Self Report before end of Jan
Build a Personal CRM system
Limit meat consumption to 24 days
No alcohol if I have to work the next day
Visit 1 country I haven’t been to before
Explore more new places 25% of my Swarm check-ins should be places I’ve never visited before
Go for a swim at least once a week ✅
Like in 2018, I didn’t miss a single week this year. My swim streak is now at 171 weeks.
Swim more than in 2018 ✅
I barely managed to achieve this goal: I swam 132km this year, compared to 129km in 2018 (+2.3% YoY)
Back exercise daily ❌
I did my back exercise training on just 29.6% of the last 365 days. My average perceived back pain increased to 2.45/5 (up from 1.45 in 2018). For 2020 I have set myself a 50% exercise goal.
██████ ███████████████████ █████ ❌
Spend less time on social media ✅
I definitely spent *at least* as much time on Twitter this year as in the year before.
Read 20 books ✅
I started reading 34 books but finished only 19 of them.
Get a Switch and play Breath of the Wild ✅
Write 50 blog posts ❌
I shipped just 25 blog posts and many of them weren’t what I would consider real articles. I’ll try to make writing a bigger priority in 2020.
Write 365 tweets ❌
Limit meat consumption to 24 meals ❌
2019 was the first year I failed to achieve my meat consumption goal ever since I started tracking this in 2012.
Limit alcohol consumption to 2 days / week ❌
I failed to hit this goal. I reduced my beer consumption by 47% YoY, but had more cocktails and glasses of wine.
Improve my cooking skills ✅
Learned how to make sourdough bread, how to brew coffee with a Chemex and perfected my Old Fashioned skills, among others.
Explore more new places ✅
I measure this in form of Swarm check-ins to locations I haven’t been to before. My 2019 goal was to make every 4th check-in a new place (25%). In the end 43% of this year’s check-ins were at new places (777 out of 1806).
Visit a country I haven’t been to before ✅
Traveled to Japan and Finland.
I switched back to an iPhone a few ago after several years being on Android. Here are a few first impressions and thoughts:
Battery life on the iPhone 11 Pro is insane. I get almost two days on a single charge compared to less than a day on my Pixel 3. This has been the most noticeable difference so far.
The iPhone camera is great but doesn’t feel like an upgrade from the Pixel. In fact, when it comes to the software part of the camera the iPhone is clearly a step back. Portrait mode looks like a poor Photoshop job in 9 out of 10 cases. I’m surprised this isn’t highlighted more in iPhone vs Pixel reviews.
Notifications on iOS are a hot mess. It’s wild that Apple still hasn’t solved this. I don’t get why they don’t simply copy Android’s notification center design?
I miss having a Google search bar on my homescreen.
I haven’t used Siri even once – but I never used the Google Assistant much either. This still feels like a solution looking for a problem.
Similarly, I was looking forward to the Shortcuts feature on iOS but have barely used it so far. Any recommendations for useful shortcuts?
The quality of (third party) iOS apps is noticeably higher than that of their Android counterparts: Less bugs, nicer animations, even features I wasn’t aware existed.
I keep on accidentally turning on the flashlight (apparently I’m not the only one). Why can’t I remove this from the lock screen or – better even – replace it with something useful (e.g. notes)? The lack of customizability on iOS is frustrating.
Another example of this: Why can’t I freely arrange icons on my home screen the way I want to? (some on top of the screen, some on the bottom, for example)
Thinking about it, it’s pretty crazy that the design of home screens (or desktops) hasn’t really changed since the 90s. This is an area where Windows Phone was really onto something.
I was happy to see that pre-installed apps on iOS are finally deletable … until I realized that deleting apps doesn’t actually mean you get rid of them. You are permanently locked into a variety of Apple services that are vastly inferior to 3rd-party apps.
Why can’t I replace Apple Maps with Google Maps in 3rd party apps?
Why is it not possible to use another assistant but Siri?
Why am I not able to make back ups with Drive instead of iCloud?
Why do iPhones still have physical mute buttons? Feels unnecessary.
The Screen Time statistics feel better designed than Google’s Digital Wellbeing app. I wish Apple would make it harder to keep using apps which have reached their daily time limit though.
(Also: My name number one feature request for both Screen Time & Digital Wellbeing is an API so I can export data and set up more sophisticated IFTTT-type rules)
Face Unlock works better than I expected but isn’t as convenient as a finger pint sensor:
Face Unlock requires two actions: Holding the device in front of my face plus swiping up. Unlocking with fingerprint on the other hand is just one action (You simultaneously tell the device that you want to unlock it and authenticate yourself).
Face Unlock doesn’t seem to work as reliably as the fingerprint sensor on my Pixel (I’d guess 90% success rate for Face Unlock, compared to 95%+ for fingerprint)
As I’ve written before, the fingerprint sensor is underrated as a secondary interface. Android only used it to pull down the notification center, but I think you could do so much more with it.
The Apple Wallet app is great, especially at the airport. Surprising that Google has never built something similar.