In a recent video I shared how I’m shifting my approach to deep work, moving from a rhythmic philosophy (which focuses on well-structured daily routines) to a journalistic philosophy (where you take advantage of opportunities for deep work as they arise).
I’m making that shift because parenthood is on the horizon. I will no longer have long stretches of the day to myself, so I’ll need to make use of smaller, more sporadic chunks of time.
To facilitate that transition I’m leaning more than ever on digital tools. I unintentionally set myself up well for this transition with our most recent course here at Verbal to Visual – Digital Sketchnoting. That led me down the rabbit hole of hardware and software for visual note-taking, project organizing, and presentation creation.
Here I’d like to sketch out the tools that I’ll be using during this experiment in going fully digital and explain how those tools work together in a way that embraces the journalistic approach to deep work.
On the hardware side, I’ve got a Macbook Pro, a first generation iPad Pro (the large one), an iPad Mini (which the newest addition to my toolkit), and an iPhone.
It might seem redundant to have both an iPad Pro and an iPad Mini, but the size difference matters. I love how big the iPad Pro is, but it’s not quite convenient enough to haul around the house, so it mostly stays in the office.
The iPad Mini is powerful because of it’s portability and ease of use in any environment. The screen is still plenty big enough for me to do my work of sketching out ideas and teaching others this skill.
For example, I sketched out this entire presentation on the mini one evening while sitting in a comfy chair by the fire. It was quite cozy.
Let’s talk about the apps that make this hardware useful.
There’s only one that spans all four devices, and that’s Notion. I started using Notion about three months ago, and I’m loving it for project and task management as well as knowledge storage. It’s where I store and tag all of my sketchnotes. It’s where I track work and family projects. It’s where I conduct weekly, monthly, and annual reviews. I’m even writing the script for this blog post in Notion. It’s powerful, and I’m really enjoying it.
Speaking of this video, I used Keynote to sketch it out, which I use on both of my iPads. With iCloud sync turned on, I can hop back and forth between those devices throughout the day, knowing that the progress I make on one device will show up on the other.
For that same reason of synced progress, I’ve begun reading books almost exclusively on the iPad Mini and my iPhone. As much as I love the experience of reading physical books, it’s pretty amazing to have your whole library in your pocket, and I’m reading more each day because of it.
I’ve turned vertical scrolling on, which is a much better digital reading experience than faux page-turning. I highlight while reading as the first step in my sketchnoting process. I also picked up the Paperlike screen cover for the iPad Mini. As I found out first with the iPad Pro, that screen cover dramatically improves both the sketching experience (by adding friction) and the reading experience (by adding texture to and removing glare from the screen).
I also use three other visual thinking apps regularly.
My favorite sketchnoting app right now is Concepts, which I’ve explored in a handful of videos on this channel, gathered in this playlist. They don’t yet have iCloud sync set up, so for now I’m only using that app on my iPad Pro, but that feature is on their road map, so whenever it’s added I’ll start using it on the mini as well.
In the meantime I’ve been using GoodNotes on the mini, mostly for a purely written journal. I start my day with a bit of stream of conscious journaling, and especially with the Paperlike cover on it, I’ve really been enjoying the mini + GoodNotes combo for that purpose. The page setup and top-to-bottom scrolling of GoodNotes are well set up for journaling (or for a single-column approach to sketchnoting).
I’ve also been using the collaborative whiteboard app Miro across my Macbook Pro and iPad Pro. That’s the tool that I use as a common workspace during coaching calls that I have with folks who are working on their sketchnoting skills (those coaching calls are included with a membership to Verbal to Visual, by the way).
Those calls take place on Zoom, and it’s great to have Miro pulled up on my Macbook so that I can share that window to Zoom, but then also have the same workspace pulled up within Miro on my iPad to do some sketching during the conversation.
Since I like to associate my iPads with creation more so than consumption, I limit YouTube watching to my MacBook when in the office and iPhone when I’m out and about.
I only listen to podcasts on my phone, usually while out on a walk, sometimes taking bullet point notes in Notion if I decide I’d like to sketchnote it later.
When it comes to storing photos, for now I only have those synced across my mobile devices. I view my laptop more as a place to transfer files to temporarily while working on a particular project, not as a place where I always needs access to everything. That might be an unnecessary limitation, though, if it’s only cloud storage that I’m accessing. So that’s a future tweak I might make to this system.
There are certain tools that I only use in the office while on my MacBook – those are Mighty Networks (the platform I use to host my courses and community that focus on sketchnoting), Adobe’s Creative Cloud (I edit my videos in Premiere), and email.
I leave those activities in the office for one of two reasons: because I need the power of a laptop to complete them (in the case of video editing) or because they’re the most likely to pull my attention away from family (in the case of Mighty Networks and email).
Let me expand on that second situation.
Even though I always have my phone on me and sometimes take my iPad Mini with me out of the office to do work elsewhere in the house, I’ve made it an explicit rule that when I’m not in my office I’m always interruptible. I want to be available to my wife right now in the later stages of pregnancy and then of course to our twin boys when they arrive in April.
So the tools that I take with me (the iPhone and iPad mini) as well as the apps and tasks I engage with are intentionally designed to be drop-down-able and pick-back-up-able, with the least likelihood of those tasks sticking with me mentally or emotionally (what’s called attention residue in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work). I’ve found that interacting with a community that I host and reading email often have high levels of attention residue, which is why I leave them in the office.
Let me pull back out of the weeds for a second to address the purpose of a system of tools like this.
I’ve got three big ideas in mind.
First, I want to emphasize creation over consumption. With these tools, I can always do some sort of creative work, no matter what specific device I have on me at the moment. And because I’m leaning primarily on tools that sync projects automatically, that work won’t have to be transferred or reformatted – it can be created in the same space where it needs to live, and where it can be picked up again later.
Second, the things that I’m creating are the building blocks of an online education business. The bullet point notes I’m taking, the presentations I’m sketching out, the workshops I’m drafting, and the scripts I’m writing – those are the small creative tasks that build up to the deliverables that have an actual impact on the audience I’m hoping to reach.
Many of those blocks take only 20 minutes of focused attention to create or move forward. So when a window opens up, I want to be able to do something meaningful with that time rather than scrolling Twitter or checking the latest headlines.
What this boils down to is this third, simple idea: access facilitates action. When I have access to my projects and the tools that I need to move them forward, I can take meaningful action as opportunities arise.
That doesn’t mean I have to take action in every single free moment of the day. But it gives me the option to, in a way that doesn’t impede my life outside of work.
Because for me this setup is just as much about being able to set the work down and forget about it as it is about being able to pick that work back up when opportunities arise. It’s both sides of that coin that I’m interested in.
That’s what will make the journalistic approach to deep work, actually work.