Thinking About My Writing

Improving Notes

I recently noticed that my writing is a bit cold and impersonal in my reading and watching notes. Although these posts were meant to give a summary of the book/talk, I think adding in my thoughts or reflecting on how the content relates to my work would make a better blog post. 

For example, I could write about how the book Design for Real Life has taught me how much of our everyday product decisions affect people’s lives. I could write about how it opened my eyes to the far-reaching effects of my own biases.

Increasing Frequency and Vulnerability

I don’t write as often as I’d like because I think of this blog as a medium for showcasing my work and my side projects. I want my posts to be polished because I see them as an extension of my CV. But because of this mindset, my posts end up lacking personality and vulnerability. 

Contrast my writing here to my writing on personal.jagtalon.com. On that blog, I freely share my struggles (a recent surgery or my lack of productivity) and my personal goals (like my donation goals). I think this is because I’m not trying to perform or prove anything on that blog. I’m just writing to share.

So I think it would be good to adopt that mindset: focus on sharing instead of performing. In future posts, I’d like to share what I’ve been learning recently and the struggles that I run into when working on a project.

Watching: Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World

A screenshot of the video Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World

I’ve been setting aside some of my free time to either watch talks or read books about design. Last weekend, I watched a recorded talk from An Event Apart called “Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World.”

To me, the gist was about how we can make people feel smart and confident about their decisions. People see many inconsistencies in the world—from politicians who flip-flop on issues to companies who say one thing but do the exact opposite. As a result, people have become skeptical and even cynical. Inconsistency undermines trust, she says.

Because of this, people are starting to look inward: they’re making decisions based on what they believe in. Since people are looking inward for information, maybe we can meet them there, informing and persuading them on their terms. Here are the three tools that we can use to do that:

Voice

Champion familiarity over precision and consistency over novelty.

Example: When Mailchimp released a suite of e-commerce services, they didn’t want to alienate their long-time customers. They didn’t want people to worry and to feel like they would get lost in the shuffle. So they continued to make themselves vulnerable and open and fun, which was consistent with Mailchimp’s way of communicating. They went further and also opened up a store to tell people what they’re learning along the way while using their own e-commerce tools. This brand consistency made people more familiar and confident about the future of Mailchimp.

Volume

Offer enough detail to convey a complete story and make the user feel smart.

Example: America’s Test Kitchen creates a lot of content. They want to empower people whether they’re novices who are trying to get something right the first time, or experts who want to learn more about the history and chemistry of a dish. You can get the short, pithy version, or the long, deep read on a recipe.

Another example: Gov.uk has the opposite problem: too much content. So people end up going somewhere else online to understand gov’t services and information. (I do the same when I’m on IRS.gov. I feel like I need to search online to summarize things for me.) They since reduced the amount of content, getting people to stick around instead of shying away from the official sources.

Vulnerability

Compare, don’t exclude, and prototype in public to work with users, not for them.

Example: Buzzfeed opened themselves up to feedback when they were working on their newsletter. Similar to what Mailchimp did when they publicly dogfooded their own e-commerce product, they made themselves vulnerable to their audience and involved them in the process.

Up Next

Here’s what I’m planning on doing next:

What I’m doing these days

I think I’m starting to feel more at ease about my lack of productivity outside of work. At the beginning of March, I wanted to take full advantage of my time at home, busying myself with personal projects and hobbies. I thought I could go through the unread books on my shelf, write software, make candles, and work on different fermentation projects. Unfortunately, the reality is that I end up feeling spent on most days.

It was frustrating at first, but I’m grateful that at least I have work when 30 million people in the US don’t. So these days, I’ve focused more on maintaining a routine instead of striving to do more.

Routine

Setting up a routine was difficult at first because I’ve gotten used to matching my activities with the right environment. If I wanted to exercise, I’d be at the gym. If I wanted to work, I’d be at the library or my coworking space. If I wanted to relax, I’d be at the park.

So the challenge in the first few weeks was to build new habits in the same environment. There was this excellent and surprisingly practical article from retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly that I found useful. He talks about how crucial schedules are for helping people adjust to a different environment.

6am to 9am: Booting up and doing chores

Having some time for myself in the morning to shower, drink coffee, journalbudget, and meditate has been an essential part of my routine in the last two months. I feel that it’s almost non-negotiable. It gives me some space to slowly ramp up my day instead of immediately jumping into work. This is also the time when I write on this blog/newsletter.

9am to 5pm: Work time

I find that running a website blocker and putting on some background noise helps me switch from lounge mode to work mode. I’m fortunate that I didn’t have to adjust the way I work since I’ve been working remotely for 7 years now. Still, I do miss the option of being in a coworking space/library/coffee shop.

5pm to 6pm: Exercising

Since I no longer sprint to catch the bus, climb up the stairs, or carry heavy loads of groceries, I’ve been prioritizing exercise at home. I got a pull-up bar and some resistance bands in March, and I’m actually surprised by the exercises that you can do with minimal equipment. I also got creative with some empty milk jugs by filling them with water and cramming them in my backpack to make a weighted vest.

6pm to 10pm: Spending time with people

I used to fill this time with personal projects, but now I’ve opted to dedicate this block of time for people. I’ve recently been spending this time with Andrea (making dinner, watching TV, or playing games) and calling my friends/family. I rarely called people on the phone before all this, but I find that hearing people’s voices is almost necessary for me these days.

Watching: Slow Design for an Anxious World

A screenshot from the video of Slow Design for an Anxious World

I’m currently going through videos from AEA DC 2019, and I wanted to share my notes on Jeffrey Zeldman’s talk called Slow Design for an Anxious World.

When we need fast

  • Fast is great for service-oriented designs. 80% of the time, we want to create designs that reduces friction and gets out of the way so that people can get things done.
  • This is especially important for transactions like donating to a charity or buying a product. The faster you can get a person from start to finish, the better.
  • Time = friction

When we need slow

  • The rest of the time when comprehension is involved, we have to slow things down.
  • We want to focus on absorption not conversion when it comes to comprehension.
  • Readability = it wants to be read
  • Legibility = it’s readable
  • Readability transcends legibility

Some history and observations

  • There was a service called Readability that made reading pleasant on the web. It removed “info junk” like banners and navigation so that you can focus on the content. The website has been discontinued since, but the open source code is alive in Safari’s Reader.
  • These days, you can use Mercury Reader if you use Chrome.
  • There’s an A List Apart article that talked about creating a simpler page on the web. It breaks reading distances into three categories:
    • Bed (Close to face): Reading a novel on your stomach, lying in bed with the iPad propped up on a pillow.
    • Knee (Medium distance from face): Sitting on the couch or perhaps the Eurostar on your way to Paris, the iPad on your knee, catching up on Instapaper.
    • Breakfast (Far from face): The iPad, propped up by the Apple case at a comfortable angle, behind your breakfast coffee and bagel, allowing for handsfree news reading as you wipe cream cheese from the corner of your mouth.
  • Jeffrey Zeldman wanted to create a more relaxed reading experience on the web. He wanted a web that can be read from afar (Breakfast category) and with a relaxed posture. He experimented on his personal website and wrote about it in 2012.
  • Medium.com came out and it focused on content. Big type. Lots of whitespace. (2012)
  • The New York Times came out with a redesign that is “clean, quiet reading interface and a typographic style that’s increasingly visually connected to other incarnations of the Times” (2014)
  • The New Yorker also came out with a redesign. “While before, reading the New Yorker on mobile was a tortuous experience of pinching screens and zooming in and out, the new mobile site is one long scrollable joyride. Sharp text at a good size and unfussy navigation make the site a vast improvement on what went before.” (2014)
  • Aside from big type, art direction can also be used
    • A bit difficult to have different art directions in each content because you need to have time and resources.
    • ProPublica and Fray are examples.
  • Whitespace is important
    • There’s macro whitespace: Whitespace between the major elements in a composition
    • There’s micro whitespace: The space between list items, between a caption and an image, or between words and letters. The itty-bitty stuff.
    • Adds legibility
    • Conveys luxury: Look at the whitespace around brands like Apple or Chanel.
    • Also see Jeffrey’s style guide for content.
  • It has to be branded. When all sites look the same, all content appears equal. Facebook posts are an example: A reputable news site looks the same in a post as a disreputable blog.
  • It should also be authoritative. It should convey that you put in a lot of time and effort into it.

Slow design toolkit:

  • Big type
  • Hierarchy
  • Minimalism
  • Art direction
  • Whitespace
  • Branded
  • Authoritative

Stuck at Home: Easy Recipes

A plate of sauteed sardines with rice and egg.

Sautéed Sardines

Fried sardines with fried rice and fried egg were one of my favorite meals to eat when I was growing up in the Philippines. It’s really easy, and it’s basically the same as this Jamaican recipe. I personally like to eat it with vinegar on the side, but that’s optional.

Ingredients:

  • 1 can sardines in oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 Small onion
  • Black pepper
  • 1 egg
  • Rice

Instructions:

  1. Heat up the oil from the sardine can in the pan
  2. Sauté garlic and onion until caramelized
  3. Add sardines and cook for a little bit
  4. Add pepper to taste. Depending on the sardines, it might already be salty.
  5. Fry the egg and the rice in the residual oil

Mackerel in Coconut Milk

I had some mackerel in my freezer that I didn’t know what to do with, but Andrea found this Filipino recipe online called Ginataang Mackerel. Ginataan means “done in coconut milk.” This was also pretty easy to do, and I like how forgiving it is when you’re missing some of the ingredients. Instead of fish sauce, you can use salt. Instead of chili, you can use cayenne and chili flakes.

Shrimp and Tilapia in Coconut Milk

After I ran out of mackerel, I made a modified version of the ginataan but with shrimp and tilapia. It’s mostly the same recipe, but just make sure to add the shrimp at the very end. You don’t want to over cook it!

Chana Masala with Cauliflower

This is one of my go-to recipes when I’m feeling lazy. I follow this recipe, but I substitute heavy cream with coconut milk. I don’t have naan, so I use flour tortillas as a substitute.

Reading: Design for Real Life

A picture of the book Design for Real Life

I recently read the book called Design for Real Life, and I wanted to share some of the notes that I wrote down while reading the book.

  • Advocates for designing for the most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users. If you make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.
  • There are a lot of edge cases where our design fails. See Facebook’s Year In Review, Flickr auto-tags, and Medium’s inappropriate copy.
  • Edge cases = Stress cases. Instead of thinking about these things as edge cases, we should think about them as stress cases. These are scenarios where our design and content fail, and they should be treated like a failing unit test or integration test.
  • Make a list of potential user scenarios. Here’s an example from the book:
    • People who want to share
      • Had a great year
      • Had a horrible year
    • People who don’t want to share
      • But want to relive it
      • Great year
        • Horrible year
      • And don’t want to relive it
        • Great year
        • Horrible year
  • Find fractures in your design by challenging assumptions and finding stress cases.
  • Make space in your design and accept a broader range of answers to accommodate your users:
    • Names: “Juan Antonio Gabriel Ancajas Talon,” for example, doesn’t fit in most input fields. Also, what is a real name?
    • Gender: Consider how a binary input field would leave people out.
    • Race: Consider how a generic “Multiracial” field would make people feel.
  • Design to include: What if your period tracking app doesn’t support people outside of: “avoiding pregnancy,” “trying to conceive,” or “fertility treatments”?
  • Classic edge-case thinking: “We’re designing for the 90%, not the 10%” or “That’s a difficult use case that I don’t want to think about.”
  • “For now” can lead to “forever” for a busy team.
  • Everyday stress cases (this can be people in crisis or something mundane going wrong). Examples from the book:
    • A person who as received a threat from a previously unknown stalker, and needs to delete or make private every public account as quickly as possible.
    • A university student whose roommate has declared they intend to commit suicide, and needs information on what to do.
    • Someone who has discovered their mortgage’s auto-pay has failed two months in a row, and is afraid they’ll be foreclosed on.
    • A person working two jobs whose only car was damaged in an accident, and is trying to submit incident information to their insurance company late at night, after they’ve finally gotten off work.
  • Stress cases are also technical failures:
    • Low battery
    • Slow Internet
  • Create personas that are real: Instead of thinking about ideal people who are smiling and have ideal lives, think about people who are distracted, short on time, have bills to pay, has dinner to prepare, and have kids to take care of.
  • Just like mobile-first design, try stress-first design.
  • Add contexts in your user journey. Consider who goes to the hospital in the morning, late afternoon, and at midnight. You’d find out that people who visit the hospital at midnight are people who are in crisis because normal visiting hours are over.
A table that represents the time of day. It allows people to contextualize where each persona falls into.
A table that represents the time of day. It allows people to contextualize where each persona falls into.
  • Add intention to designs: Do you really need to ask income level, real name, mailing address, salutation, or level of education? Consider how people would feel: “Why do they need my postcode? Why do they need my gender?”
  • Touchy subjects: Things that are likely to cause stress or make the reader uncomfortable (not just money, religion, or politics):
    • Error messages
    • Warnings
    • System alerts
    • Financial and privacy-related updates
    • Legal agreements
  • Compassion is more than being nice. It’s accepting people as they come—in all their pain, with all their challenges—and not just feeling empathy towards them but doing something with that empathy. Compassion is not meant to soften bad news or coddling. It’s understanding and kindness.
  • The premortem: Evaluate the project before it happens to check our biases.
  • The question protocol: Ensure that every piece of information you ask is intentional and appropriate by asking:
    • Who within the organization uses the answer
    • What they use them for
    • Whether an answer is required or optional
    • If an answer is required, what happens if a user enters any old thing just to get them through the form
  • The designated dissenter: Assign someone in the project to assess every decision underlying the project, and asking how changes in context or assumptions might subvert those decisions.

Stuck at Home: Yogurt

A picture of milk and yogurt.

So I’ve been making yogurt at home again. I figured it’s worth it since I eat quite a bit of yogurt every week, and it isn’t exactly cheap. Target, for example, sells their cheapest yogurt for about $0.09/oz ($2.99 per 32oz container), but it also sells milk for about $0.03/oz ($4.19 a gallon). Since a gallon of milk turns into a gallon of yogurt (unless you strain the liquid out to make greek yogurt), I can have yogurt for just a third of the cost!

The first time I made yogurt was four years ago, and I’m still surprised that all you really need are two things:

  • Milk
  • Plain store-bought yogurt

Of course, there’s the optional fruit or honey or sugar that you can add to it depending on your preferences. The milk can be whole milk, 2% fat, or 0% fat—as long as it’s not lactose-free, you should be fine. You need the lactose because that’s what the bacteria eats. Where do you get the bacteria? You can get that from yogurt that you bought at the store. Make sure it has live and active cultures in it.

There are good resources online that teach you how to make yogurt like Bon Appétit and NYT Cooking, but the gist is:

  1. Heat the milk until it starts to steam. Make sure to heat it slowly and occasionally stir so that you don’t burn the milk.
  2. Let the milk cool down. For me, I just let it sit to cool for around 20 mins or until it’s just warm to the touch. (Wash your hands! I’d use a thermometer, but I unfortunately don’t have one at home.)
  3. Add your store-bought yogurt. Mix thoroughly until it dissolves to distribute the bacteria evenly.
  4. Put it in the oven with just the light on. This should keep it warm enough to encourage the bacteria to grow.
  5. Wait for 12 to 24 hours. The longer it ferments, the thicker and more sour it gets.
  6. Take it out and put it in the fridge. The yogurt will thicken even more as it cools down.

And you’re done! You can use this yogurt to make even more yogurt in the future.

Hello, Auto Layout

A demonstration of a component with autolayout and without autolayout.

Figma has a new-ish feature called Auto Layout that I’ve been trying to get the hang of lately. What it does is it lets you specify how your designs will adapt once you adjust the contents inside it.

That’s a bit abstract, so here’s a more concrete example: You can automatically set the height of a button to increase or decrease depending on the length of the text within it. This can be useful for making quick changes in the copy without worrying about text overflowing. Without Auto Layout, you would have had to adjust things by hand or install a plugin to get the same results.

As you can see, padding around the button is preserved, and the height of the button increased to accommodate the text.

It very much mimics how production environments like webpages actually work. In fact, they borrow some concepts from the CSS box model to make Auto Layout:

After trying many different approaches, including some rather non-conventional ones, we felt the best way to marry the two worlds was to add a few core concepts from the CSS box model (specifically flexbox) directly into Figma. And by introducing Auto Layout as a property, you have the flexibility and power to apply Auto Layout to any frame, whether it’s in a component or not.

Design more, resize less, with Auto Layout
It’s definitely useful for translations, too. Just copy paste the text and the design changes accordingly.

So if you’ve written CSS before, you might be familiar with some of the things that you can do in Auto Layout:

  • You can make an element take up the whole width or height of its parent.
  • You can specify the padding around a container and between the children nodes.
  • You can make a set of elements stack either horizontally or vertically. (Just like flexbox.)

And it doesn’t just work with text. Modifying, adding, or removing any sort of node in a Frame that has Auto Layout—whether that’s text, an image, or another Frame—will change the dimensions of the design.

Auto Layout demo: The design adapts when you change the button and lorem ipsum text.

The downside of Auto Layout is that it’s quite different from how I’m used to designing. It’s a bit hard to master and it’s definitely frustrating for me to use sometimes. Every so often I get stuck, and I find myself falling back into the warm embrace of constraints.

And because of that, I’m finding that it’s better for me to use Auto Layout in the later stages of the design process. I feel that it ends up slowing me down a lot when I’m using it in the exploration stage.

When I’m converting a design to Auto Layout, I find that it’s best to start from the deepest layers to minimize the issues that I run into. Then I work my way up.

But I hope that this changes in the future. I’d like to use Auto Layout sooner in the process so that I could take advantage of its features. But I guess that will come naturally as I become more familiar with it.

I love that we’re now able to describe behavior in UI designs, and I hope that more design tools follow this direction. I think what I’m looking forward to is how this will make playing around with real data easier. Imagine not having to worry about the design breaking because the text is too long.

Puerto Rico

Horses in Vieques

Day 1 – San Juan

The first place that we stayed in was an Airbnb near the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. We had planned on staying in Old San Juan first, but we realized that we’d probably be too tired to do anything when we got to Puerto Rico at 12 midnight.

When we got up in the morning, we walked to a nearby restaurant and got a Puerto Rican dish called mofongo, a dense ball of fried-then-mashed plantains. Mofongo can come with a variety of sides, but we got mofongo relleno de bistec or mofongo filled with thin slices of steak. A heavy Puerto Rican breakfast and strong café con leche was definitely a good way to start our first day on the island.

We then got an Uber to check in to our next hotel in Old San Juan. We loved how walkable the barrio was and how beautiful the buildings were. It was a bit touristy, but that didn’t take away from our experience.

What we really wanted to visit was a citadel called the El Morro or Castillo San Felipe del Morro which, just like the Philippines, was named after King Philip II of Spain. (At least according to Wikipedia.)

The grass was so green and lush that we decided to relax on the lawn for a bit before we entered. It was also cold in Philly that we opted to just relish the sun while we were in Puerto Rico.

The citadel itself was massive. We wondered, as we walked along its halls, how much work must have gone into building this fortress. It tired us out a bit because it wasn’t only vast, it also had steep inclines that you have to use to get anywhere.

We were craving some food after all that walking so we went to a panaderia or bakery called La Bombonera and got a mallorca, a puffy bun that’s showered in confectioner’s sugar. We especially loved mallorca con jamon y queso which is a grilled mallorca with ham and cheese. It had a delightful mix of both sweet and salty.

That evening, we had longaniza de pollo or chicken sausage and sancocho, a traditional soup in Puerto Rico.

Andrea told me that the most useful set of words that you can say to learn Spanish is ¿Cómo se dice? or “How do you say … ?” For example you would say, ¿Cómo se dice ‘for here’? and they would say, para llevar.

Day 2 – El Yunque National Forest and Luquillo Kioskos

Ubers and taxis are only available in the metro area. So if you wanted to get around, you have to rent a car. (You can take publicos which are buses that can take you outside of metro areas, but we got a car instead for convenience.)

Since it was the second day, we wanted to do some exploring. First up was El Yunque National Forest. Getting to El Yunque was a little terrifying because of the narrow roads, but we were rewarded with some fantastic views of Puerto Rico as we went up the mountain.

Some trails were unfortunately closed because of Hurricane Maria, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the forest. It was especially beautiful when we got to the top of Yokahú Tower.

After a whole morning of driving and walking, we wanted to reward ourselves with some food. A local had previously told us about the kioskos in Luquillo, and how good the food was and how deliciously fried they were. They said that it was definitely something that we shouldn’t miss, so we drove over there after exploring El Yunque.

It didn’t disappoint. I’ve forgotten the names of all the fried things that we ate, but what I remembered the most was arepa rellena de camarones or shrimp arepas.

Day 3 – Cueva Ventana and Isabela

Our next Airbnb was in Isabela, a beach town which looked a bit like a tropical San Diego to me. But before we went there, we stopped by to go on a tour inside Cueva Ventana or window cave. Our tour guide talked a lot about the ecology around the cave and Puerto Rico in general. She mentioned a lot of facts, but what I remember the most was that there were no venomous animals on the island and that the fruit bat population was heavily affected by Hurricane Maria because they had trouble finding food.

As we entered the cave, our tour guide mentioned that you had to keep your mouth closed whenever you looked up because there were a lot of bats on the ceiling that could poop on you at any time. We did, in fact, see a lot of bats clustered on the ceiling. They looked a bit like this. We weren’t allowed to point the flashlight directly at them, but you could dim the light by using your hand to get a better look at them. The guide also showed us some petroglyphs in the cave that the Taínos—the indigenous people of the Caribbean—drew 600 years ago.

After that, we went to Isabela to drop our things off at the Airbnb and enjoy the beach. That night we had red snapper mofongo. We were unsure at first because we didn’t really know how red snappers tasted, but we ended up loving the richness and garlic-y-ness of the dish.

Day 4 – Isabela

This was our recovery day, and all we did was eat and stay at the beach. We started the day by going to a nearby panaderia to eat breakfast and get lunch and dulce or dessert to go. We also went to the grocery store to get snacks, and we learned that Puerto Ricans call orange juice jugo de china instead of jugo de naranja. The beach in Isabela had strong currents, so we didn’t spend too much time in the water. But we did enjoy reading books and lounging in our beach chairs.

We also drove to Jobos beach where we watched the sunset while the waves crashed against the rock that we were standing on.

Day 5 – La Ruta Del Lechón & Vieques

The next day we drove to the other side of Puerto Rico to go to the La Ruta Del Lechón or Pork Highway where we had some delicious roast pork (lechón), blood sausage (morcilla), and yellow rice with pigeon peas (arroz con gandules). We went to a place called Lechonera Los Pinos. The Lechón is very similar to the variant in the Philippines, except Filipinos grew up eating it with Mang Tomas sauce.

We then drove to Ceiba to take a ferry to Vieques, a small island municipality of Puerto Rico. We wanted to go there to see all the wild horses that roamed around the beaches and also see its famous bioluminescent bay. Also we learned that, golf carts are road legal in Vieques, so we rented one to get around the island.

That night we went on a tour of the bioluminescent bay. It was magical. I don’t have any pictures of it, but you can watch videos of it online. Apparently, the tiny microorganisms that live in the water produce a bright cobalt blue light with even the smallest agitation. So every time you paddle or glide your fingers across the water, a trail of blue light will appear in the water. We were lucky to have a transparent kayak because the fish that were swimming underwater also lit up the bay.

Day 6 – Vieques and San Juan

We couldn’t stay in Vieques for too long because we had to fly back the next day, but at least we were able to relax for a bit on Caracas beach. It was recommended to us by our Airbnb host, and it was probably the calmest beach that I’ve ever been to. There was no crowd, the sand was soft beneath our feet, the water was warm, and there were barely any waves.

Before we hopped back in to the ferry, we got to try salmon with trifongo which was a mofongo variety that’s made of cassava, ripe plantains, and green plantains. We really couldn’t get enough of mofongo, and I wish I could get it here in Philly.

We then drove back to Old San Juan and stayed at a slightly more upscale hotel called Wind Chimes Hotel where we spent the night watching Spanish-dubbed Air Bud on cable TV.

After-hours Setup

A screenshot of Apple's to-do list app.

I used to ignore anything that looked like responsibility. I didn’t read my mail, I often forgot about appointments, I didn’t plan ahead, and I could never tell where my money was going. Although my strategy surprisingly worked for a couple of years, I eventually reached a tipping point where I was spiraling with guilt and mounting obligations. I’m happy that I’ve gotten to work on my ostrich-like hangups on life admin since then, and I think—for me at least—having the right software tools have helped along the way.

I often see people writing about the tools that they use to get their work done, but it’s rare for me to see much of anything on how people manage their lives outside of work. I’ve been reassessing my setup recently, so I thought I could share the things that have been working well for me and the tools that I’m currently playing around with.

You Need A Budget

In the past, I would budget my money by adding up all my recurring expenses each month and subtracting the total from my income. I’d put down the result as money that I’m allowed to spend. I figured that whatever is left behind after that can turn into my savings. It seemed like a good system: it was simple, and I didn’t have to do it that often.

But reality was very different. It felt like there was always that one “emergency” that would throw a wrench into the whole thing: a doctor’s appointment, going out to dinner with friends, a subscription that I forgot about. So even though I had a great system in place (I didn’t), I still couldn’t manage to put money towards my savings or my credit card debt. So I gave up and figured that I was just bad with money.

I forget how, but I came across an app called You Need A Budget around two years ago. I had a hard time using it at first because I couldn’t wrap my head around the philosophy of only budgeting the money that I currently have. I also struggled because I didn’t understand that I needed to be proactive with budgeting. I didn’t know that I had to:

  • Actively look at what’s left of my budget to guide my decisions
  • Figure out what categories I needed to prioritize
  • Plan and set goals

But after a couple of failed attempts, I eventually joined their workshops and learned how to use the app. I’m not going to go into detail about its features (there’s a bunch), but the gist is that it’s super useful for life admin. Those “emergencies” that I talked about earlier? They’re basically things that YNAB helps me prepare for. If I know that I’ll be getting my wisdom teeth removed soon, I can start putting money towards a category called “Oral Surgery.”

I also have a thing called a “wish farm” to budget my discretionary money into categories like future travel or a pair of boots.

Fantastical

I couldn’t find a single calendar event before 2016, so I don’t really know how I managed to remember things before that year. I think I had this idea that calendars were only for very busy people. Normal people like me, I thought, don’t really have a use for it outside of work. Unfortunately, I wasn’t any good at keeping tabs on my appointments and get-togethers. I realized that computers were a lot better at remembering dates than I am.

I have my calendar hosted on Fastmail, and I started to use it a lot more when I found Fantastical. I think what got me to use it was how ridiculously easy it is to add an event in the calendar. Basically, you just type in “Water plants every other Friday” and it’ll automatically create a recurring event just for that. It suddenly made remembering events easy for me to do.

With YNAB, you can only budget the money that you already have.

One other feature that I love about Fantastical is that it lets me bundle calendars into different sets. This means I can switch between different contexts throughout the week:

  • A set that just shows my personal calendars. (Perfect for weekends or when on holiday.)
  • A set that just shows my work calendars. (This gives me an overview of my work.)
  • A set that combines personal & work calendars. (This is usually my view during the week because, naturally, I don’t want to miss any work meetings or personal appointments.)

Reminders

I don’t have any complex to-do list requirements, so I’ve found popular apps like Things and Todoist to be a bit too much for my personal needs. I didn’t think it was worth paying for features that I wasn’t going to use. Paper, on the other hand, is often inconvenient to carry around and to write in while I’m on the bus or train or at the grocery store.

I was doing some research on to-do lists, and it turns out that most calendars already support simple task management. I thought this would be great at first because the bulk of my tasks are basically events that I want to check off like “Take the trash outside at 9pm every Monday” or “Change out your contact lenses every two weeks.” The downside is that it the more tasks I made, the more cluttered my calendar looked.

The solution for me was to switch to Apple’s built-in Reminders app. It actually syncs with my calendar on Fastmail which meant that I didn’t have to migrate my tasks over to another system.

Reminders makes it easy to for me to create to-do lists that sync with my calendar.

To-do lists are at the heart of my life admin because I would forget a lot of things if I didn’t have it. It has a lot of those recurring items that I used to forget like paying off my credit card every month or taking the compost bin out. Since it’s also on my phone, it’s also really useful for remembering those responsibilities that bubble up when I’m commuting. “Oh yeah I need to get some onions for dinner later.”

Monica

In the past, Facebook was my contact list. I could message friends easily, I could hop on a video call with them, I knew what people were up to, and I knew if their birthdays were coming up. It worked pretty well up until I stopped using Facebook. And at that point, I didn’t realize just how much I relied on it for keeping in touch with friends.

Fortunately, a friend told me about this website called Monica. It’s basically a CRM but without all the business-y language around it. I managed to use it for a couple of months, but my motivation died out soon after.

I tried Airtable for a little bit, but that ended up being even more work. I just wanted something that didn’t require me to build the scaffolding so that I could get on with the actual work. So recently, I started using Monica again, but now I also have a reminder to update it every other day so that I don’t forget about it. I also made it into a “desktop app” using Fluid, so that I’m reminded of it whenever I’m on my computer.

It’s too early for me to say if it’s working for me, but I’m glad that there’s a way for me to keep track of when I last hung out with someone, the names of their pets, and the things that we talked about. It’s almost a complement to my journal. I also appreciate that I get reminders from Monica that basically says, “Hey, you should really keep in touch with this person.”

That’s it

You made it! The invisible work of life admin isn’t glamorous, but thanks for letting me geek out and reading all the way to the bottom. If you have tools that you use to manage your daily life, I’d be happy to hear about it.