Starting with Text Expansion

This little gem from Brett Terpstra illustrates just one of the ways text expansion can be used. One of my as yet unstated goals with this blog is to hopefully lower the barrier for entry to some of the wonderful, simple automation tools available on the Mac. For anyone dipping their toes in the automation water for the first time, I will often suggest text-expansion as an ideal place to start. There are numerous utilities available for this, from apps like QuickKey, TypeIt4Me and Typinator to what is considered the gold standard in TextExpander.


Learn Anything Mind Map

Where to start with this. In the developer's own words: ‘The main goal of this project is to expose human knowledge in a visual and structured way to accelerate learning'. The result is a kind of meta-mind map of research pathways across the internet. If it hardly scratches the surface of some areas, it offers a start at least, and where the internet is concerned that is always more than it seems. Moreover, this is an open source, living project with different implementations. The title link will take you to the version hosted by Mindnode, but the Github project is well worth exploring.

Note-taking Part II: Handwritten Notes

There is still a lot to say for keeping it old school with note-taking.  Handwriting after all is a key tool for comprehension and retention. Although, judging by the wall of glowing Apples one sees in lecture halls these days, that does not appear particularly persuasive with regard to note-taking. Still, this intersection between technological trend and learning technique is, I believe, just one among many things that make the iPad such an excellent device for study. While you can get pretty serious about handwriting on glass with an iPad pro and Apple Pencil, even with the standard model you can benefit from some of the great handwriting apps on iOS.

It is true that there are clear advantages to maintaining typewritten notes. Combining lecture notes, PDF annotations and other general research materials into a searchable database is hugely advantageous for both writing and revision. Luckily, none of this necessarily means handwriting should be excluded from a note-taking workflow. The only question is how integrated you want it to be. As ever, there are options.

Goodnotes

Goodnotes iOS
Goodnotes is considered the go-to app for handwriting recognition

 

For a lot of people, Goodnotes is the standout app for handwriting on the iPad, and with good reason. Although, it still holds to somewhat dated skeuomorphic design elements, that is a bit of a double-edged sword, as much of the app’s appeal lies with the convincing replication of an analogue writing workflow. Its real killer feature though, is handwriting recognition and text conversion. This means you have the choice between searchable handwritten notes, or converting your handwritten notes to text for use in the app itself, or for export if you keep your notes elsewhere. Possibly the most underrated aspect of Goodnotes is its PDF annotation, which I find to be smoother and more intuitive than any of the myriad specialty PDF apps I have owned and used. If handwritten notes and document markup are the extent of your workflow, then Goodnotes may even be all you need; especially now that it has a solid macOS companion app.

Notability

Notability’s audio capture feature makes it an ideal choice for lecture notes
Notability’s audio capture feature makes it an ideal choice for lecture notes

Notability is another sound writing app, although one that comes as something of a tradeoff. Notability does not have handwriting recognition, so handwritten notes can neither be searched, nor converted to text. Nonetheless, it does have its own marque feature with its ability to capture audio. The appealing simplicity of recording a lecture and taking notes in the same app can account for much of Notability’s popularity among students. Furthermore, Notability is a nicely designed software, and many will find its interface to be much more appealing than other similar apps. Moreover, its palm rejection is frankly much better than Goodnotes, the PDF markup tools are again very good, and its own macOS app is more fully featured and polished. The lack of handwriting recognition is a little disappointing, but you don’t have to go far to find people, students especially, who see audio recording as a more significant feature. Again, there is enough in this app that it may even be the one to rule them all for you.

Handwriting Hacks

If you're an EverNote  user, then Penultimate is a free app that will integrate your written notes with the rest of your Evernote database, including search-ability. I’m not a big fan of the app, but it works as advertised, so if you are deep in the Evernote ecosystem then you will no doubt get at least some of the requisite mileage from Penultimate. There was a time I was all in with Evernote. A combination of becoming wise to the problematic nature of proprietary databases, and my increasing discomfort with their privacy policy fumbles has driven me away. In saying all that, I’m not churlish enough for absolute dismissal of its utility. Ease of use, and impressive integration with practically everything remain its strengths. One example of its enduring usefulness is a hybrid workflow using Carbo for digitising paper notes. And, while we are on this track, both Evernote and One Note allow you to scan handwritten notes directly into the app for searchable text with OCR.

MyScript Handwriting Keyboard
The MyScript Handwriting Keyboard makes long-form note-taking an option in almost any text editor

The MyScript Handwriting Keyboard makes long-form note-taking an option in almost any text editor

Finally, if you want the cognitive benefits of deliberate long form note-taking, but you don’t care for the end result, there is something of a hack you might like to try. The MyScript Stylus Handwriting Keyboard allows direct, handwritten input into any app that you can use with a third-party keyboard. It hasn’t had any updates for a little while now, but it still works well. In fact, the handwriting recognition is impressive. You can use it as an input device with any text-editor or notes app that allows a third-party keyboard.

Honourable Mentions

  • Notes Plus is very similar to Goodnotes, with even more features. It even has audio recording. I find the interface to be a little too cluttered for my liking, and the user experience can be awkward at times. I suspect these relatively small quirks are what keeps it lagging a little behind Goodnotes in the popularity stakes, as the handwriting recognition engine is excellent.

  • Nebo is renown for handwriting recognition excellence. Underwritten by the my MyScript Ink engine, it has been winning awards and slowly gaining acclaim. The only problem is it requires an Apple Pencil to work, unless you are working on a Surface device that is, then your active pen will do fine.

Handwriting Without Apple Pencil

The 2018 iPad is a big deal for bringing Apple Pencil support to the cheaper model. There remain a lot of reasons to upgrade to one of the iPad Pro models, but Apple Pencil support is no longer one of them. However, if you're still rocking an iPad Air, or iPad Mini, you don't have to give up on handwriting altogether. A good old dumb, capacitive stylus can still work better than you might expect.

In my experience, the results from a capacitive stylus are just as good as any of the so-called Apple Pencil alternatives. When I was using the iPad Mini 4 as my main capture device for notes, I would come across all manner of claims around magic smart, bluetooth styli that make them Apple Pencil competitors. The truth is, they pretty much never work as advertised. None that I have tried work any better than a plain, dumb capacitive stylus. Why? Well, the Apple Pencil is not a third-party hardware device, it is an integrated input interface designed as part of the iPad itself. It is part of a system that works together. That said, there is good news, all modern iPads are fast enough now that, where handwriting is concerned, a capacitive stylus will give you a convincing writing experience. I have two that I particularly like, both from Adonit

For writing, the Adonit Jot Pro

 

And for marking up PDFs, or drawing the Adonit Mark.

If you only want one, get the Jot Pro

 

 

Note-taking Part I: Typewritten Notes

This is an ongoing battle, but for some there is a strange kind of jouissance in fiddling with one’s note-taking system. To state the obvious, note-taking is one of the more crucial academic skills. So it would seem there is a certain amount of justification in trying out different solutions to see what might stick. Whether this is new territory or not, there is always the question of where to begin. To drastically oversimplify the matter, the essence of note-taking is twofold: capture and retrieval. Naturally, there is a lot more to doing it well, but if you are just looking to get started then having these two things in mind can only help.

Typewritten Notes and Markdown

If you prefer to type your notes, then there is one simple piece of advice I would happily give anyone. If you don’t already know how, spend the brief amount of time needed to learn how to write in Markdown. Markdown will allow you to embrace plain text, which will not only future proof your work but it will make it as portable as possible and give you a uniquely focused medium for all your writing [1]. In turn you will be free to try different solutions while keeping your work intact, and this barely scratches the surface of Markdown’s usefulness.

I am yet to find a satisfactory source that makes a clear and concise account of the benefits in using Markdown for academic work. That is not to say there is nothing written, rather there is nothing I have found that doesn’t either run full geek into the weeds to soon, or treat the reader like an idiot. So here I will be brief. In fact, this is it. If you are willing to take 5–10 minutes and learn how to use a couple of basic tricks [2], you can free yourself from the clutches of bloated, archaic word processors and proprietary systems – and who knows, you might even start to enjoy writing. If that sounds appealing, have a look at this short tutorial.

Armed with Markdown, you can make an informed decision about your note-taking, and even how you approach writing in general.

Notes Apps

Yes, there are well-known names in this category. But, there is more than enough written about the likes of Evernote, OneNote, and even Apple Notes. Each of them are useful in their own right, but to my mind there are more interesting apps available.

Notebooks

macOS Plain Text Notes App

One of my favourite apps at the moment is Notebooks. I’m not always a big fan of software that tries to be more than one thing, and to be fair I only use Notebooks in a very specific way for one particular thing, but if I were a smarter, more efficient user I could just cut the tape here. Notebooks is an onion of an app, there are layers upon layers of functionality across macOS and iOS – it is a media rich repository for collecting, organising, searching and syncing any kind of research material you can throw at it. The markdown support is excellent and it even has task management support, which if setup properly for research and document review is kind of ingenious. The iOS version has PDF annotation tools, audio recording and handwriting/sketch support. Give it some thought and you will realise that Notebooks could handle a great many of your study and research needs, no matter what level your are working at. While it is certainly not perfect it is definitely going to be enough for a lot of people. If you are looking for a well-deigned, self-contained solution for note-taking and organising your research, or if you are looking to replace that gaudy green elephant, Notebooks is worth more than a cursory look.

Uylsses

Ulysses Macos Plain Text Notes App
Note-taking is just one of many use cases for Ulysses

It is hard to go past Ulysses as a writing app. Whether you want to use it for note taking, essays, long-form writing, or really any kind of writing you can think of. It is another app that benefits from going all in, the more you add, the more you start to realise its potential. Where Ulysses shines is its ability to organise text, for my own purposes that makes it particularly useful for longer form writing. While I am using Scrivener to write my thesis, Ulysses would be more than up to the job for a text based thesis, such as my own. But, in keeping with the note-taking theme here, Ulysses is an excellent candidate. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite have the feature-set of Notebooks, but its careful and intuitive design on both iOS and macOS will appeal to purists. Ulysses also has hooks in automation, particularly with regards to its Workflow integration on iOS, which opens up all kinds of possibilities for note-taking on iOS.

Honourable Mentions

  • Bear is an intriguing markdown based, notes app. Attractively designed, with a unique tagging system and cross-note linking for database referencing, and feature parity on macOS. It still lacks features ideal for academic use, but it is still new, and in very active development. It has gained a loyal user base quickly, so worth keeping an eye on at least.
  • 1Writer is an iOS only app, but as if to prove a point, being plain text based you can use DropBox to sync it with any text editor you should choose on macOS. In fact, it is the preferred iOS companion app for old-schoolers still rolling with Brett Terpstra’s nvALT, which is still a useful app in itself. [3] What makes 1Writer truly unique is its Javascript automation engine . If you have a look through the Action Directory on the app’s website, you will see already includes some researched focused workflows. If you have a little scripting ability, then you can just about fill your boots.

 


  1. Not to mention, it will give you something to talk about with other nerds  ↩

  2. Yes, it’s called syntax  ↩

  3. Brett Terpstra is promising a commercial replacement to nvALT, with an app called BitWriter that is close to beta release  ↩

Academic Writing in Markdown

Nicholas Cifuentes-Goodbody has a series of Youtube videos on academic writing in plain text. This one covers Markdown, but he also looks at Latex, Pandox and Marked 2, among other things. This is an excellent introduction, especially if you are the kind of person who benefits from a visual guide. It includes a primer, but if you don't need the basics, you can skip to the demonstration that starts aroud 5:00

The entire channel is worth checking out.

Task Managers for University Life

University Task Managers

Back to School

Thinking about a friend of mine going back to school this year, I wanted to put together some ideas for setting up that shiny new device to make it useful for the classroom, and for just generally keeping everything together. These things can get a little carried away, so the intention is to break them up and post them in parts.

It is a little while ago now, but I returned to university after an intended break of a couple years turned into more than a decade of itinerant avoidance. What confronted me when I (re)started was a ludicrous sprawling bureaucracy that made about as much sense as a Trump tweet. Worse still, it was immediately clear that I had very little, if any, idea of how to organise myself in this new context. Enter technology. I would hardly call the geek in me latent, but here was an excuse to embrace an otherwise embarrassing fetish for details.

I have in mind what is useful for university life, but much of this will likely be true for anyone faced with juggling the demands of a saturated schedule. You have dozens of places to be at different times, assignment due dates, tests and exams. Kafkaesque administration, library book returns, transport timetables, study groups, meetings. And any number of things you should turn down but won't. In short, you have a shit load to keep track of.

My advice is to start using a decent task manager. Sure, you could muddle through with a shambling calendar, email, a fancy moleskin diary, writing on the back of your hand or licking your finger and shoving it in the air, but you know it will all start to unravel pretty quickly. I have a terrible relationship with the word ‘no'. I will overload my schedule by comedic proportions to avoid using that word. Using a task manager has not only meant having some kind of grasp on that particular issue, but it has saved me time and again from the consequences of marrying it to a terminally leaky memory and inability to grasp what is actually possible in a given amount of time. If a task manager can help me it can help anyone.

Time Management Apps

If you are looking move beyond a shambling calendar and perfunctory reminder system, here are some options:

Omnifocus

Omnifocus University Task Manager

If you are actually interested in this kind of stuff (and if you are, you know what I mean) then you have already heard of this. More than an app, this is a system. It requires some commitment and at least a little working knowledge of the getting things done methodology to make sense. Most students will justifiably balk at the price, and there is some complexity to setting it up. However, the payoff for adopting it is large. As an added bonus, Omnifocus itself can handle a fair share of your procrastination needs if you want to dive into automation and customisation. See links below to get you started in case you do want to jump off this particular bridge macOSiOS

2Do

2do University Task Manager

One of the most customisable task management applications you will come across. You can bend it to you will. This will be the best choice for most people who want much more than simple reminders, but don't want to go full nerd and join the GTD cult, although if even if you want that 2Do has you well covered. Also cross platform these days, so if you're mixing and matching devices you can just hook up dropbox, or any number of other options and sync away. You can pick it up on the app store for  macOS or iOS. It is also available with a Setapp subscription.

Todoist

Todoist University Task Manager

Natural language entry is undoubtedly the coolest thing about todoist. To add a task you simply type it in, e.g Essay on the Ontological Necessity of Modern Man's Existential Dilemma due on the 30th – Todoist magically turns what you write into the task parameters, adding an alarm for the date, and so on. If you are interested in nerding out on automation, then services like IFTTT or Zapier have you covered. You can use it right out of the box, but you will need to a subscription if you want to use some of the more advanced features. Unlike most of the other apps here, Todoist is also has genuine collaboration features. Also cross platform, but apple nerds can find it here: macOS and here: iOS

A Left Field Option

This is something a little different. Depending on how you work, employing a means for tracking what you have done can be just as important as remembering what you must do. It doesn't matter what level of academic work or research you are doing, you will, mostly be absorbing a lot of material — doing a lot of reading. keeping track of where you are with the material is more than usual. For this part of my own workflow I use Taskpaper.

Taskpaper

Taskpaper University Task Manager

I have flipped between the more fully featured task management apps above in different ways, and at different times. I'm happy to recommend all three. The natural language parsing has me sticking with Todoist, for the moment.  However, I find myself using Taskpaper more and more on a day to day basis for other things.  Its unique blend of outlining and task management make it ideal for research and writing, and you can dig right in if you want to put it to work in a more comprehensive way. I find it particularly useful for tasks that need to be broken down into a long checklist of smaller actions. Loading everything into your main task manager is not always the best idea, so having something like Taskpaper to supplement your time management is helpful.

Taskpaper is a deceptively powerful application, my use case is seriously underselling its potential. There is no reason you can't go all in with it. For some time using with iOS required implementing one or another minor hack, myself I use Editorial. However, the Tasmator app has received a little love recently, so it is iOS compliant.  You could do worse than to check out a demo of the app Taskpaper, or you can grab it from the Mac App Store. It is also available with a Setapp subscription.

Honorable mentions

  • TrelloTrello is a wonderful service for any number of things. It is especially useful for collaborative projects, but you can really put it to work in any way you want to. If you are a visual thinker, this may be it for you. iOS
  • WunderlistWunderlist is a great option if you want something fairly simple and visually appealing. I use it with my partner for any kind of list we want to share, shopping, travelling, or the secret locations of things we have hidden from our 2-year old. My partner is using it to write a thesis, so it is certainly capable enough. iOSmacOS

Cursory Advice

If I had to choose only one of these to recommend to somebody setting up a task manager for the first time, it would be 2Do. It is easy to learn, simple to setup and has everything you could possibly need in a task management application. If integration with other services, automation, and/or collaboration are what you are looking for, then start with Todoist. On the other hand, if you are want to turn productivity apps into a hobby or implement a full-on life encompassing system of organisation, then Omnifocus could be it for you. If you are into plain text solutions, tend to arrange your thoughts in outlines and like elegant simplicity, then try Taskpaper.

To Get You Started

Omnifocus

2Do

  • The 2Do official site is very useful, with loads of Tips & Tricks
  • You can find a (painfully) detailed (but very useful) introduction to the app at Macstories
  • A much more concise introduction here
  • Here is a comparison between 2Do and Todoist if such a thing might prove helpful Todoist vs. 2Do

Todoist

Taskpaper

  • Again, start with the official Taskpaper site. Try the FAQs and the blog
  • One of Taskpaper's more illustrious users, Brett Terpstra can attest to it's usefulness.
  • Gabe Weatherhead's Macdrifter is a great source for material on any number of things, Taskpaper being one of them. Macdrifter could have been listed in the Omnifocus links
  • Profhacker has a brief introduction to the app. Given the apparent focus of this site, that would seem appropriate.