Breaking up the band

Celebrating two years of Rebooting, and embracing the chaos of the unfragmented life.

Good morning! Sorry for the delay this week, but we’re back to celebrate a very special issue: we just passed two years since I launched Rebooting, and I would like to thank you all for tuning in. I promise not to do this more than once or twice a year, but if you enjoy this newsletter, please tell your friends! Every share helps. On with the show. 

In 1999—shortly after singer Wayne Coyne’s father died of cancer—The Flaming Lips releasedThe Soft Bulletin, a lush, radiant album teeming with magic, as if it’s proudly screaming in your face that life can be beautiful until the message seeps so deep into your pores it awakens your woeful heart. Though the album itself isn’t about grief in the same sense as Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell or Queen’s Innuendo, The Soft Bulletin demonstrates what it means to take the aimless search through the crevices of your memories for meaning that accompanies grief and turn it into something extraordinary.

In an interview with The Guardian, Coyne said of the album:

After my father died I realized I didn’t know if I wanted to keep knowing how brutal the world can be. The Soft Bulletin is a quest. It’s saying ‘I think life is more beautiful than it is horrible,’ but I don’t really believe that. I think the world is more horrible than it is beautiful. But we have to make it beautiful. 

For Coyne, that meant making a great album. For my Tata Howard, making the world beautiful meant being prepared to take on its turmoil and inconvenience, so that you may be ready to embrace its magnificence when it crosses your path. You couldn’t find my tata without his trusty tools: a pocket knife for ad-hoc tinkering, a magnifying glass to get a closer look at things, a notebook for jotting down all his thoughts, plans, and tasks, as well as anything useful he could stuff into his jacket pockets or the sides of his car doors—everything had its place. With him around, you could rest easy that, should any small pickles emerge, he had a plan or a tool handy to keep things in check.

Without those tools, though, my tata certainly would’ve found another way to radiate that sense of comfort and readiness. His mind seemed perfectly-tuned to sift through the cruft, identify a problem, and without too much fretting, identify the best way to fix it. Sometimes that meant a quick patchwork job that brushed things under the rug until he could drop by the hardware store, others it meant spending a day in the shed drafting blueprints for his latest home improvement project so that once he got to work, there’d be no hiccups or fusses. The world was too big, and there was too much to do, for my tata to get bogged down in the minutiae of finding the right tool in the moment—he preferred laying it all out ahead of time, so when the work arrived, he could get it over with and get back to enjoying the sunsets and hummingbirds with my nana and their pups.

Not all of us work in sheds, nor do many of us need a small army’s worth of Victorinox knives, but life’s been more manageable for me since I started trying to replicate my tata’s philosophy of always having the perfect tool for the job handy, and having plans in place for when things go awry. In the digital world, that’s pretty easy: since there’s an app for everything, you can spend anywhere from a few minutes to a few months trying out or obsessing over the best apps or tools for your needs, and usually something will hit the mark.

To prevent my scattered brain from losing track of all my obligations, I have designated apps for my tasks, writing, notes, ideas, appointments, journaling, habits, and time tracking. I could probably whittle this down into a more streamlined setup with just a few apps and better organization—a totally valid approach—but my unstructured brain needs to know exactly what it’ll be doing when I tap into an app, otherwise my mission will get lost in a sea of foggy thoughts, and I’ll aimlessly stare at my screen until I remember what I was doing.

For those who may not need such a rigorous ensemble of utilities, a one-size-fits-all approach can be tempting. Rather than having to hop into your todo list to see what’s on your plate, then jumping into your productivity app of choice to get the thing done, Swiss-army-knife apps like Notion intend to serve as a sort of blank canvas for your work, with enough tools and features to get things just right. By removing the friction of switching between apps, you can stick to focusing on the task at hand, get in, and get out. 

Appealing as that may be, though, lumping all your tools into one bucket won’t save you from the burnout of work creep, and in some cases may facilitate it. If you’re going to use one of these all-encompassing apps, you should implement rigorous boundaries between different areas of your life to prevent things from bleeding into each other and wearing you down.

Come together

If you haven’t taken a dive into Productivity YouTube, you might be unfamiliar with Notion and its impressive rise in popularity. The multi-platform app first hit the scene in 2016, and quickly found a home among disgruntled Evernote users looking for a better note taking app. Evernote had grown bloated with unnecessary features and a dated interface, so Notion’s streamlined, elegant design resonated. In those days, the app lacked a web clipper—an indispensable tool for Evernote aficionados—and its performance on mobile was pretty choppy. It didn’t have to be perfect, though, it just had to let people take good notes.

A lot’s changed since then. Notion’s evolved far beyond its Evernote competitor days, with additional features such as nested pages, Excel-esque tables, Kanban boards akin to what you’d find on Trello, calendars, timelines, and custom databases. You can even add collaborators if you need a few extra hands. On paper, that shouldn’t work, but Notion’s team has managed to craft a robust tool that feels capable of handling most of what you throw at it without feeling tedious. In a world where the Internet is constantly pulling us in a thousand different directions, a great unifier sounds like a much-needed reprieve.

As Notion’s capabilities grew, so too did the ways its fans made use of it. A quick look at /r/notion’s top posts shows the impressive ways people have built their life around Notion, ranging from dashboards of everything you need to do, read, or think about in a given day, to full-blown project management hubs for everything your team needs to get the dang thing done. In terms of sheer capabilities, it’s tough to beat what Notion’s putting down. Best of all? Notion’s community-driven efforts allow you to quickly import templates from others to either use as is, or tailor to your own needs.

That’s all by design. According to this 2019 piece from Figma, Notion’s built on the idea that you should be able to create your own tools to solve your problems, and you shouldn’t have to know how to code to do that. It seems to be working, too. As Makena Kelly wrote for The Verge, Notion’s made its way to the teens via TikTok—turns out, the youths crave the unfragmented life.

Get it together

After a year of mostly interacting with the outside world through a screen, the unfragmented life sounds almost utopian. But, as I wrote in my last issue, there’s power in fragmentation: when you keep everything in one bucket—work tasks, errands, spreadsheets, you get it—those things are always with you, lurking just behind whatever’s covering your Notion window at the moment. If your work stuff follows you after hours via keeping Notion open, you can never really leave work. Maybe that’s not an issue for you right now, but we’ve all worked jobs that applied enough pressure that we’ve been tempted to do a bit of work after hours; just a bit. Do that once, though, and eventually you’ll start losing the boundaries between your personal life and work, effectively putting you on a speed run to burnout.

Using productivity apps for home use is nothing new, though. For The Atlantic in 2019, Taylor Lorenz and Joe Pinsker wrote about households who turned to enterprise apps to keep their homes in order:

But the Slack experiment lasted only three or four months—the kids soon gravitated toward apps that were “more fun.” After some reflection, Fjällström has concluded that using Slack with his family made home life feel more like work. “It helped at that point in time because it felt like life was a bit messy … but life is supposed to be a little bit messy.” There are things, he recognizes, that productivity software doesn’t optimize for, such as carving out quality family time and allowing children to “feel all the emotions.” “That’s what we’re aiming for at the moment,” he said, “not structure.”

So, sure, there’s certainly power in using productivity apps for getting your personal life in order—this newsletter wouldn’t exist without that premise, after all. The troubling part of Notion’s approach is that it all exists in one app. Fun as the customizable aesthetics of the app may be, keeping the same visual cues across your work and life management hubs doesn’t give you the chance to give them separate spaces in your mind. When work and life look the same and occupy the same space, whether physically or mentally, they start to become each other, and those threads are hard to untangle if you don’t snip them early.

To be clear, I don’t think Notion is inherently bad. It’s a great product with a ton of power to help you do your work in new, interesting, and better ways—it’s worth checking out if you haven’t yet, I’ll have some useful resources for getting started at the end. That said, even if you’re dead set on using it for everything, its shortcomings can still wear you down if you don’t tailor things just right.

Looking at Notion setup videos on YouTube or scrolling through Notion Pages, you’ll see that many people use the app for task management. It’s like having Trello alongside all your meeting notes and appointments so you can easily plan out your day. That setup works, as I noted in my guide to the best to-do list apps for Wirecutter. But there’s a reason I use Things: the team is laser-focused on creating the best way to get your tasks in order. It’s just a different objective, and it shows in the details.

Cliché as it is, the shortcomings of the Jack of All Trades mentality leave each bit of Notion’s blocks (what they call the different modules like databases and timelines) feeling rudimentary and limiting in comparison to more specialized apps. That may not present an issue at first, but our workflows change, and the apps we use need to be able to grow and adapt alongside that. When those hurdles arise and push you to a boiling point, if your needs surpass the capabilities of your app, you’ll have to spend a bit of time sifting through reviews of alternatives and testing them out, then tinkering with all the settings until you get things just right. That all takes time and energy. In a time where we’re all spread pretty thin, that’s only going to make matters worse.

I think we should break up

Whether you choose to go the Notion route or not, it’s worth looking at how some other apps are thinking about the unfragmented life. When my time with Notion came to an end in 2019, I struggled to find the perfect replacement. After trying out several options, I hopped on the beta of Craft, which is available for download now.

Think of Craft as a native-app version of Notion for Apple devices, with less of a focus on being an all-encompassing productivity machine and more of a focus on giving you everything you need to create excellent notes. It has blocks like Notion, but they’re all meant to incorporate different formats and media into your notes, not expanding the tools that you can access as you type your heart away.

Earlier this month, Craft released Connect, a feature that allows Craft to talk to and send information between other apps like Ulysses, Day One, Things, and Drafts (one of my all-time favorite apps), should you realize a note is more appropriate somewhere else. It’s like a more polished take on iOS’s old x-callback-url, and it opens the door for you to evaluate where your thoughts and ideas belong without having to know right away. Where Notion wants to be the home for everything you do, Craft wants you to find the best place for everything you do, regardless of how it all ends up.

Then, there’s Beeper, the recently-launched service targeting the fragmentation of messaging. You’ve probably got a folder full of messaging apps—iMessage, Signal, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram DMs, and all the various Slacks and Discords you’ve stumbled into over the years—and at some point, you’ve probably groaned at the thought of having to sift through all those red bubbles. Beeper’s trying to solve that by providing a one-stop shop for all your messages (it currently supports 18 services), so you don’t have to remind yourself which of your friends will only respond if you bug them on Instagram—just hop into Beeper and start chatting, no friction necessary.

That do-it-all approach might sound pretty similar to Notion, but that’s not what Beeper is going for. Here’s David Pierce writing about Beeper for Protocol:

The list of places people message seems to get longer every day, and Migicovsky wants Beeper to support them all. “I want to build LinkedIn and Snapchat, and I’m not dating but a lot of people want Tinder messages on this,” he said. He’s not trying to replace those apps entirely, though. “Discord’s amazing,” he said, by way of example. “It has cool animations, you have the audio chat that’s really good, it’s got this social element.” For Discord things, people should use Discord. But texting with friends or sharing photos shouldn’t be a Discord thing. Or an Instagram thing, or a WhatsApp thing, or a Signal thing, or a Slack thing. It definitely shouldn’t be all of those, separately.

That’s a bit different from what Notion’s trying to do. Where the darling note-taking app wants to replace all your various tools and services—a tempting offer in a world of subscription-based apps—Beeper’s goal is to give you a way to quickly shoot a message out to your pals without all the fluff. Remove the cruft whenever possible, embrace the mess when it serves as a power-up.

Those approaches, while not entirely new, don’t induce the same anxiety I get from thinking about putting all my eggs in one digital basket, because they actually allow different areas of your life room to breathe. Even with the most rigorous organization structure, keeping everything in Notion still leaves everything in Notion. If you dread opening your work-related app on days when the task at hand feels too heavy, those negative associations will carry on to your after-work errands, and it’ll all feel the same regardless of why you’re opening the app. You owe it to yourself to give yourself the room to breathe.

How you do that will differ based on how your brain works, what sets you off, and what empowers you to do your best work. I suggest embracing the chaos of the fragmented life, and finding calm in the ability to close an app at the end of the day and not need to look at it again until you clock back in. If you’ve got a lot of tasks to manage between your work and personal life, make sure your todo list app is organized enough to keep your work stuff out of the way when it isn’t needed. If you like to get more wild than that, you could try having a separate task app for work, and keep your errands and other obligations elsewhere.

I’ve also found that simple things like using Chrome for work-related browsing and Safari for after-hours scrolling helps me avoid bumping into my work browsing history, the various plugins I need to do my job, and keeps my fun bookmarks front and center as they should be.

However you set up your productivity apps, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re more than your work, and what you do shouldn’t dictate how you live your life. If our tools don’t reflect that, we leave those boundaries vulnerable to cracks that let the stresses of work drip through.

Cracks grow, and trickles turn to floods; without proactively seeking distinctions between the different buckets of our lives, we lose the ability to juggle everything effectively. If you take the time to assess what your needs are in various aspects of your lives, and ask where your tools facilitate that, as well as where they may inhibit your process. At the end of it all, you may find your tools serve you perfectly fine, which is a relief all on its own. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll find some spots where you can make your life a little easier and tinker with your settings to get you there. It’s been a rough year, a little respite goes a long way.

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📚 Good Reads:

The battle inside Signal (Platformer): Signal’s seen a boom in popularity recently, after a policy-related kerfuffle over at WhatsApp pushed users to jump ship. Casey Newton reports on the ways that Signal’s growth may be inhibiting its mission.

Lyft test program offers drivers more rides in exchange for 10% pay cut (CNET): Lyft recently launched a new feature, called Priority Mode, which lets drivers—who don’t have to be considered employees in the state of California thanks to Prop 22—give up 10% of their pay in order to get more rides. Like Instacart’s recent firing of 1,800 workers (including all who voted to unionize), these moves should give us pause regarding what apps we choose to use, and how they impact the livelihoods of the people on the other end. 

The Berne Sanders meme proves the internet is resetting (WIRED): Since the Biden inauguration and the deplatforming of Donald Trump, the internet’s felt a little weird. After four years of constant rage-inducing stimuli, a lot of us weren’t sure what things might look like. Then, along came Bernie with his trademark parka and cozy mittens. You couldn’t tap through a friend’s story without seeing a Bernie meme or two, and it happened almost instantly. After four years of a tumultuous timeline, it’s a nice little escape. 

🌐 Just Browsing:

🔒 The privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo grew by 62% in 2020 👀Remember the Game Boy Camera? It ruled. 🚨OneZero on the moderation problems that have emerged in the wildly popular game, Among Us. ✨ There’s never a bad time to catch up with Mariah Carey 🏦 Explore the architecture of gentrification. 🐔You might stan Gardein and its lineup of tasty meatless meals, but it turns out, fake meat tracks back to Medieval China. 🎤Alex Morris with the Dua Lipa profile we’ve all been waiting for.

🔧 Toolkit:

💕 And now, here’s something we hope you’ll really like:

If you haven’t yet watched Netflix’s Song Exploder, take some time this weekend to pop into a few episodes. Each one is a delight (though I’m partial to Dua Lipa and R.E.M.’s episodes), and they’re all fairly short, so you can dip in and out of them as you go about your day. It’s hard not to finish an episode without feeling inspired to go out and make something awesome. 

📄 Follow Up

After my last issue on building boundaries between the different zones of your life, reader Anu reached out with some tips for Windows users on how to create different “spaces” for work and play. Thanks, Anu! 

One more that I can add - on a PC, windows + tab allows you to open a “new desktop” - it’s pretty much the closest thing to going to a fully different computer and I generally love to toggle between these when I am moving from work to home mode and vice versa :)

✉️ You’ve got mail:

I want to hear from you! How can you build better spaces for yourself? Let me know down in the comments, or drop me a line on Twitter.

My thanks to Medea Giordano for editing this issue. And special thanks to Daniel Varghese for editing the first issues and helping to get this newsletter off the ground.