Good Watches

Recorded on September 17th, 2014

Junghans Max Bill Automatic, from www.junghans.de

The Apple Watch looks like a cool thing that I’ll probably want someday, but now it’s just making me pine for a well-made old or new mechanical watch more than ever. I can’t see myself having a black blob on my wrist all the time. A watch needs a dial and needs to be able to discreetly show the time without me flipping my wrist or making any obvious movements. Plus, I like old things, or old-styled things, and I recently discovered Hodinkee, an incredible website about high-end watches. (Thanks, Put This On and Daring Fireball.) Gorgeous high-resolution photos, long articles, and tons of watch-nerd minutiae. I haven’t been at the mercy of a website this severely in a long time.

The vast majority of the watches reviewed on Hodinkee are well out of my price range. I’ve never had a “nice” watch on my wrist, but I get it, especially when I see this video of John Mayer talking about his love for watches. I see those seconds ticking by as smoothly as butter and it all makes sense. And then there’s this video of Alfredo Paramico (coolest Italian watch buyer ever) with his astounding collection. All those new brands to learn about: Patek Philippe, IWC, Audemars Piguet. Mmmmmm.

I can’t claim to be a “watch guy”, but I love this quote by Mayer in his first entry from 2012:

Being a watch guy almost never equates to being a snob. I believe there’s a great watch to be had at any price point - The $400 Hamilton Khaki Field can say just as much about you as a $5,000 IWC Pilot’s chronograph does, and I believe that every major brand gets it right at least once every couple of years.

So of course the green Hamilton Khaki Field is the one I want next. Or maybe a black one: Hamilton Khaki Field Green on Amazon

And then there’s always the chance that an old Omega or Tissot or Junghans will pop up on eBay or Chrono24 in decent shape.

I never used to care about this stuff. I always thought I’d never want a watch that cost more than $30. But I can totally get behind things that are well made, especially when they seem like little mechanical miracles. It’s baffling, not that they work so well, but that they work at all.

Using Mailbox for Gmail

Recorded on September 10th, 2014

I’ve tried a bunch of different iOS email clients—Mail.app, Dispatch, Sparrow, Gmail’s native app, and the Gmail web interface on Mobile Safari. Mailbox by Dropbox is sticking for now.

On the desktop/laptop/non-mobile interface, I use Gmail’s automatic inbox tabs to slot messages into Primary, Social, Updates and Promotions. For a long time I’ve been using that same function on the native Gmail app on iPhone, but for me I realized it doesn’t map well to mobile. I found that the nice auto-sorting was making it way too easy to only pay attention to the high/important/priority bucket and ignore the rest of the nicely organized buckets (after furtively peeking at them like a hamster pressing a lever for a pellet). I even tried starring/flagging messages I wanted to respond to later, but I have zero discipline about going back into Gmail folders later to do stuff to messages. It hasn’t happened reliably since I got a Gmail account 10 years ago and I don’t expect things to change.

I needed to get back to “making sandwiches, not just reading orders”, as Merlin Mann says on Back to Work. Except I didn’t know I had a problem. I only realized it after trying Mailbox after hearing about it countless times. I like three things about Mailbox:

  1. It understands Gmail, which uses a non-standard flavor of IMAP, so it knows about Gmail Archiving and labels and won’t get confused like regular IMAP clients can.
  2. It doesn’t do Priority Inbox or the Inbox tabs. Everything that comes in is just in your good-ol’ dumb Inbox, one message after another. This means I have a handle on how much email I really get day-to-day.
  3. It can “snooze” a message to later. This is totally not the the GTD way, where you process your inbox one item at a time, respond/delete/archive and/or create a task (somewhere) to do whatever needs to be done to each message, and you don’t skip ahead or leave stuff in the inbox to revisit later.

Snoozing a message will whisk it away to “Later Today”, “Tomorrow”, “This Weekend”, some specific or random date in the future, or a few other options. When the time comes, Mailbox will pop the message back into your inbox as if it’s new again. For those messages from friends that aren’t project-related, but that I can’t respond to right away, I don’t want to bother creating a GTD task that says “Respond to Jack about Led Zeppelin video”. That’s dumb. And I may not want to respond instantly with a long message if I’m stuck with the iPhone keyboard. Snoozing works great as a way to get the message out of my inbox until I know I’ll be able to type a proper reply on a real keyboard. That forward momentum of processing (even if some of it is effectively just stalling) keeps me moving through the stack, responding to the ones I can more quickly than I did before Mailbox.

As for the lack of auto-categorizing, I love the simplicity of not having all those Gmail buckets on the phone, where I do a bunch of email triage anyway. The emails I get are either important enough to keep getting and dealing with, or they’re not and need to be unsubscribed from. When everything is in one list, I can tell quickly if I’m getting too much to keep up with in a day.

Give Mailbox a try. I’d pay for it if it weren’t free.

Listen Better, Type Less

Recorded on September 3rd, 2014

Sometimes, if I pay attention, I’ll hear variations on a theme from more than one person, and they’ll all point in the same general direction. If I’m really good and open-minded, I’ll make a change that would have never occurred to me on my own.

I went to An Event Apart D.C. in July and got to see Kevin Hoffman speak about “Co-Design, Not Redesign”. His talk was dense with examples about how to run better collaborative meetings, where small groups of people actually make decisions and generate designs instead of just talking about them. The line he said that still reverberates in my head was, roughly:

“You guys need to stop transcribing every sentence of your meetings into your laptops. You distribute your notes after the meeting, no-one reads them, and you lose meaning. Have a neutral facilitator do public recording instead, where you summarize and synthesize.”

Transcribing every sentence of a meeting was what I did, man. I had been over-notating for years, and the advances in desktop search made it easier and easier to just keep writing everything down and pick the good stuff out later. Except later never came. The tasks were never plucked out and put into a Trusted System (© DavidCo, 2001). The minor points mixed in hopelessly with the major ones. It was a security blanket. Sure, I could instantly search all of my meeting notes going back two years, but those search results were filled with false positives, and it became harder to find the nugget I was looking for.

Plus, the meeting notes I took in outline form were very linear. It was impossible to draw lines between ideas to show relationships. (No, mind-mapping doesn’t work for me for meeting notes.) And I was making no effort at picking out the important points. I was just heads-down in the laptop.

Right after An Event Apart, I was talking to a friend about fancy pens and fancy paper—two things he now invests in and loves. This is a dude who used to love taking meeting notes on his iPad, and before that, he’d regularly whip out OmniFocus on his iPhone in a meeting to enter tasks as they came up. But he started to wonder what co-workers thought he was doing with those devices.

He found that even if people were ok with electronics in the meeting, their use didn’t contribute anything great to the atmosphere. When he asked them their impressions, they said, “Well, I guess you’re probably taking notes or working on the meeting, but I don’t really know what you’re doing.”

He was also advised by an older, wiser friend, “Take fewer notes.” What he had been missing was the power of having a real conversation. Now he leaves the laptop and tablet behind and uses paper to capture just the high points and next actions, and he makes time later to process those. (Or sometimes—gasp—he leaves the notes in the notebook and just flips back a few pages if he needs to refer to something.) He loses a bit of efficiency but gains effectiveness.

The third person I paid attention to, right around this time, was Mike Monteiro of Mule Design Studio. He does an excellent podcast called “Let’s Make Mistakes” with Jessie Char. On episode #140 about Design Tests, he gave an example of a meeting they had with a client to show some new design possibilities. His firm got sign-off, but he sensed something still wasn’t sitting right with the client as they presented. He waited a day, called the client, and got them to admit that they had issues with the design they had just approved.

The point of the story was that he needed the client to be honest with him and his firm, so they could help solve the design problem they were hired to solve. But what really hit me was that Mike Monteiro’s ESP wouldn’t have kicked in if he’d been logging every sentence in the meeting. My guess is that he was present, paying attention, and noticing unspoken subtleties. That made me wonder: Could I get more value out of taking fewer notes if I paid better attention to the humans in the room in the meantime? Maybe I could use the relative slowness of writing with pen and paper, and the limitations of the size of a notebook page, to make myself better prioritize the main points I write down.

So I’ve tried listening more, recording less, and bringing my laptop less often. My experiment isn’t done yet, but I’ve noticed that as I rely on my spiral notebook more, I let go of wanting to record every detail. I’m more relaxed in meetings and actively searching for the most important points. I’m able to contribute better, and people probably wonder less about what I’m doing. I still need to work on making time to process what’s locked in those pages, but I’ve seen no world-ending crises from not being able to machine-index the notes from every meeting.

The black-belt next level would be to introduce the “public recorder” role Kevin Hoffman talked about, where meeting notes are shaped and refined into something useful in front of everyone. For now, I’m happy just to not be the self-appointed court stenographer anymore.