"One app to rule them all"

"One app to rule them all"
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(Jeremy Wells, EA) #1

Over in “Mindmapping and goals,” @JoeBuhlig mentioned TheBrain as a potential “one app to rule them all.” This got me thinking about some of the major productivity apps that have come to do more and more and take new functionalities. I immediately thought about how OmniFocus 3 and Things 3 integrate calendar appointments into the task list in order to help plan the day’s work around them. Todoist’s integration with Google Calendar works in the opposite direction, putting scheduled tasks on your calendar.

A while back, when I was trying to be a good Evernote user, I tried to turn it into my ultimate inbox: I rerouted email newsletters into Evernote, scanned all paper documents into it, and even started saving PDFs into notes. Quickly I realized I had taken it too far for myself. When it comes to documents, I want them stored in a folder system, such as Dropbox (Dropbox’s iOS app now has a built-in document scanner, so that took over that function as well). I also quickly realized I was even more likely to ignore a newsletter in Evernote—especially after it made the layout all wonky trying to work it into a note—than I was in email. I know Evernote’s checklists and reminders make it possible to use it as a task manager, and some have made full-blown cases for it being a good GTD app.

In general, I go back and forth on this idea of a single productivity app that combines the three fundamental features (calendar, tasks/projects, and notes). Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a one-stop-shop approach, but then based on my experience I keep returning to a system that features single-function apps.

I suppose in some ways this may be more of a meta-productivity discussion than a “digital tools” discussion (I’ve tried similar analog approaches, such as Michael Motta’s Long-Term/Short-Term Journals system. How do you feel about consolidating multiple functions into apps or relying on single-function apps (digital or analog)?


Analog Revenge and MPU
(Justin DiRose) #2

I think you have to weigh what you’re putting in the :ring: app.

If you’re putting in a ton of data, the system is going to need to have ways to slice ‘n’ dice that data, or great ways to quickly locate it. I’ve tried to throw everything in once place before. It gets overwhelming really fast.

That is, unless you aren’t putting a ton in. For example, if you put everything in OneNote or Evernote and you’re not using a full-on GTD style system for task management and you don’t care about documenting everything, it could work.

Where doing this breaks down is if the information you’re introducing to the system creates friction. Once there’s friction, every time you hit that friction can make it less likely you’ll keep the system up to date. And we all know how helpful an out of date system is.


(Joe Buhlig) #3

I find that using different apps for different aspects of my system leads to different mindsets at different times. It’s hard for me to think about scheduling when I have a list of my notes in front of me. And it’s difficult to brainstorm a project when my schedule for the day is right there.

Separation has a lot of benefits because it forces you to focus on that area of thought. If they are all together in one app, chaos can ensue because focus is even harder to develop.

This isn’t to say it’s impossible, just a big challenge to accomplish and to do well.


(Ivan) #4

I’ve found this to be a big problem for me because app separation is hard for me and I naturally prefer the one app approach. Whatever app I use the most in the moment tend to accumulate all the digital cruft that accompanies thinking.

If I focus on organizing my tasks in a task manager (OF or Things mostly, I’ve also tried Todoist, 2Do), it quickly becomes a mess of everything that is not really tasks (huge someday/maybe lists, projects in incubation, dozens of unprocessed inbox items). If I start moving all this stuff somewhere else (like a notes app), this results in shifting gears – I start to spend more time in notes mode, my thinking happens there and I naturally start organizing tasks in the notes app and working from those notes, neglecting my task manager. My systems are mostly write-only, I loathe the process of transferring data between apps (i.e. brainstorming in a mind map and then moving tasks to the task manager. It is much simplier to define task and start working in a mind map or either brainstorm in a task manager).

I’ve found somewhat good balance in flexible systems which provide some structure but are not very rigid. A good example is a mind map – it lets me organize a zillion of things in a very relaxed and yet structured manner. In mind map everything is just a thought and you can mark it as a next action if you want. Next actions flow organically from a project plan. It obviously lacks some advanced features like deferring tasks into the future and what not (if you are not using some monstrous professional mindmapping software), but hey, you gotta compromise on something.

In a task manager everything is represented as a task by default (even if in reality it’s an unprocessed thought), which creates loads of anxiety usually.

Regarding @joebuhlig comment, I find it peculiar that I find the same context switching to be a barrier for me. It was always a struggle for me to use calendar for productivity, because when I open my calendar to plan things for the next week my mind just goes empty – I don’t see the list of things to plan (because they are in my task manager). And when I open my task manager, there are things which, if I expect them to be done, realistically should be put on a calendar, but that thought doesn’t cross my mind – I don’t see the calendar at the moment.


(Simon) #5

I have been searching for the reality of this myth for over a decade! Emacs comes pretty close, but falls down on maintenance and ubiquity in that it doesn’t play nice with other systems without serious hacking.

The problem with this question is that we all have different information that we are dealing with so a catch all seems highly unlikely.

Devonthink has long been my junk drawer, although slowly over the years it has morphed into an indispensable repository of gigabytes of data that I’m happy I can actually find again. I am currently flirting with 2Do as although I like my emacs setup I need tasks on my phone, although some would argue that if I was well enough organised I wouldn’t!

Would it be better to start with the end in mind? Asking what the “one app” would need to do and see where that gets us?

For me the app would need to do the following:

  1. Manage calendar entries
  2. Manage projects and tasks
  3. Manage notes
    • About calendar events
    • About projects and tasks
    • Capture journalling about the above
  4. Manage email and allow it to be linked to the above
  5. Capture IM messages related to the above.
  6. Link all the above together when needed.
  7. Search showing the line on which the search criteria is met.
  8. Quick capture facility for phone calls and ideas.
  9. Manage contacts and link information related to that contact.

I’m sure there is more, but that covers my main criteria. There are other sections such as my teaching and preaching, but that can be in another bucket.


(Joe Buhlig) #6

That may be an indicator right there.

This is quite the list. And I would assume that each of these features would also have a variety of criteria on how they were handled. Is that a fair assumption?

If it is, it’s likely part of the reason these rarely get anywhere. Think about how many email apps are out there. We can’t even agree on that one piece!


(Justin DiRose) #7

That’s why the “one app to rule them all” is a system, not an app :smiley: We get to make it how we want individually.


(Simon) #8

I agree that it needs to be a system, the difficulty is in getting a system that works seamlessly with all the other component parts and will do into the future.


(Joe Buhlig) #9

4 posts were split to a new topic: What’s a good way to get into mind-mapping?


(Wilson Ng) #11

Would Microsoft Outlook be that attempt at one all-encompassing app? E-mail, tasks, calendar, note, contacts.

MarketCircle’s Daylite has most of these with the exception of an e-mail app.

I used to like the idea of the one app but I think i have other things to worry about.

I think it’s getting better. Automation is the buzz keyword trending nowadays. Apple’s Siri Shortcuts promises to help us automate separate apps and link them altogether. I get ready to leave the house to go to work. I hit a Siri shortcut. It goes to the Starbucks app and orders my coffee of choice. Then it closes my garage door about 10 minutes after I leave the house (jus in case I forgot to lock it. Next, my phone starts up today’s podcast queue. Then it opens up my omnifocus today Perspective for me to review when I finally arrive at Starbucks.

Stringing together different apps to make my system work sounds like an intriguing future.


(Joe Buhlig) #12

I broke off the mind-map discussion into its own topic so we can keep this one on task.

Good point, Wilson. I’ve not considered this of Outlook but you’re absolutely right. It used to be my defacto tool when I worked corporate. I combined it with Evernote and between the two, they did everything I needed. But, of course, once I started tracking my tasks at a deeper level, Outlook couldn’t keep up.

I looked into this one once! But I think I struggle to commit. It’s a big deal to move away from four or more apps all at once and go all-in with a replacement.


(Wilson Ng) #13

There is an author named Michael Linenberger who wrote a book about using Outlook as his main task manager. That might be worth a look if you’re into that kind of thing.

I’m not an Outlook user so I didn’t buy this one. Linenberger did distill the core essence and released this book:

It takes his Outlook book but strips out the Outlook stuff. So it’s a nice way to understand his workflow and apply it to other task managers.


(Joe Buhlig) #14

Don’t expect to hear about these on Bookworm. :laughing:


(Justin DiRose) #15

Come on, Joe. You need to have a better outlook on things.


(Simon) #16

How did you get on with this system? I’m just reading his book.


(Jeremy Wells, EA) #17

I really enjoyed it. I had some old, unused Moleskines, and I darn near filled them up in a just a few months. I tweaked the system to personalize it a bit more, and I even overhauled it to the point of combining the two journals into a single one. In the end, I decided to devote myself to a paperless process, so I gave it up, but I’ve kept a lot of what I learned about daily logging, thinking of projects as structured goals, and focusing on progress as a week-by-week process rather than a task-by-task process.


(Simon) #18

Therein lies the problem for me. If I really wanted one app to rule them all it would probably be pen and paper! I cannot seem to bring the same focus on a screen as I can on paper. Especially for thinking work. A desk and, a notebook, a pen and some quiet and I’m all good to go.

I’ve also made the discovery that whereas I will leaf through old journals I’ve never once clicked through my old digital journal. I have too many moments where I just want to pick up an old journal and leaf through.

This leads me on to the whole leafing through experience. I read somewhere (!) that what the eye/brain can scan from paper in 30 minutes takes 2 hours to scan through on a digital screen. Personally, I find that a paper notebook or printed matter makes scanning easier. I also find that my brain has a knack for remembering where things were written on the page. Ie, “that was somewhere on the left hand side near the top in blue ink”.

I’m finding that slowly I seem to be buying more paper products!


(Joe Buhlig) #19

Wait. Why is this a problem? :wink:

I recorded an episode of Whims with Drew a few days ago about my development of a hybrid system. Managing tasks (minimal projects) in OmniFocus and doing my thinking on paper. Oddly enough, I spend roughly the same amount of time with notebooks and yet I have a third of the amount of reasons to use paper.

I will say that I’ve been more clear-headed than normal lately as a result. But that’s not something I’ve ever experienced from an app or software of any kind. In theory, the one-app-for-everything concept should provide that level of clarity. But I’m yet to find someone who feels they’ve developed it through software.


(Mihai) #20

This is my biggest struggle too.

One app to rule them all: I tried emacs. I spent months configuring the workflow to my taste. However a big part of my day is spent commuting - and I like to have access to everything/anywhere. I know about beorg on iOS (I even donated to the dev) - but compared to some other native apps, it feels lacking. Another thing which I did not like, I had to keep tinkering. I tried to abstain from tinkering as much as I could, but there were times when I HAD to do it - because of a bug I didn’t notice on my config file initially. So I had to dive into lisp again and again to fix various things. My wish-list for configuring emacs was getting bigger than the projects I was working on.

So I decided to go back to separate apps. I settled on Things 3 and iCloud Notes. It’s not perfect though. But at least, I know the limitations and it stays out of my way when I need to get work done. However there are small things, small automatons in my flows I would like to implement - and I start day dreaming about emacs again.

TLDR: If there was a full iOS emacs client - I would probably switch to it.


(Avrum Nadigel) #21

@JWellsCFO - currently reading Motta’s book based on your suggestion. So far, it aligns with my workflow, in particular journals.

Did you do all the suggested exercises? Curious to hear what did/didn’t work for you?