Impressions of the iPad 2

I’ve had an iPad 2 for almost a week now and while I’m late to the game I’m ready to share my impressions. By the way when I say late I mean really late, as in I skipped the first iPad and this is the first one I have owned. My feeling a year ago was that the iPad was a terrific product that would become fully mature with a second release. Given everything I’ve read on the subject it seems that I was correct. I can’t talk about the increased speed of the iPad 2 or any other improvements over the original but I will give my perspective on the device and how I think I’ll be using it.

Just a Big iPhone?

When I first started using the iPad I couldn’t help but compare it to the iPhone 4 I’ve had for almost a year. I love how the home screen adjusts with the orientation of the device (unlike the iPhone), I love how the wifi signal stays strong throughout my home (unlike the iPhone) and I like typing on the iPad (unlike the iPhone). I’m still not sure how I like reading on the iPad though – even with its much smaller screen the iPhone’s retina display makes reading more pleasant to my eyes than the iPad’s pixelated text. No doubt this issue will become moot within another release cycle or two.

The iPad impresses me most of all as a computer. My two year old son calls the iPhone simply “phone”. When he first saw the iPad he said “little ‘puter” (it was adorable, truly). I’m finding myself using the iPad to do all the things I would usually rather do on my laptop: process email, write notes, visit web sites, etc. In some ways these tasks are even more enjoyable on the iPad especially since I can so them more easily on the sofa without waiting for a computer to start up or shut down when I’m finished. As I mentioned earlier I’m even liking typing on the iPad, especially with the benefit of auto correction, which although a mixed bag I’m still finding more of a help than a hindrance.

So Close to Perfection

After all this gushing I’ll bring up one quibble. Although it’s great that the home screens can display properly in landscape mode it’s a pain that it changes the layout of the icons. For me, recognition of each icon has a lot to do with its relative position on the screen and it’s confusing for that position to change when I rotate the device.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about the iPad as I continue to use it and learn how it’s going to fit into my life and workflows. Meanwhile I continue to be inspired by what I feel is the beginning of a real revolution in computing interfaces.

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Thank You Mr. Terpstra

If you work on a Mac go check out Brett Terpstra’s Site right now. He has developed Some amazing tools, one of which I’m using to compose this post. Plus he’s made a terrific version of Notational Velocity called nvAlt, a bunch of TextExpander Snippets and so much more. I’m so impressed that I dropped a few bucks in his tip jar, and you know how cheap I am.

There are people who look at the tools they have and say “Good Enough”, there are those who try to expand their toolset to be more effective, and then there are folks like Brett who make existing tools better for everybody.

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Never Enough Time

We’ve all thought it at some point: there just aren’t enough hours in the day. But enough for what? And more to the point, compared to what? There’s never been more than 24 hours in any day; we’re not dealing with a relative scarcity of time. In fact, thanks to the convenience afforded by so much of our technology we probably have more time to do fewer necessary tasks.

If you still feel strapped for time check out Creative Block #3 by Mark McGuinness at the Lateral Action blog. It’s humbling how some people have accomplished so much with a lot less time on their hands than many of us enjoy. Mark offers a bunch of tips to maximize your time and put your creativity to work in those spare moments.

Most of all we need to cultivate a sense of abundance around the time we have.

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Taking Control of Your Schedule

A post on Signal vs. Noise reminded me of an article that I read a little while ago on fixed schedule productivity. The article is fairly long but the point of it is very simple: decide when and how much you want to work and build your schedule around that.

Sounds almost too easy, but I imagine it’s also fairly rare that people are able to work on their own schedule. First, many of us work for somebody else who sets our schedule (or some of it) for us. Second, we generally allow external forces to control what we do during the work day. I think both of these obstacles can be overcome, at least to some degree.

Even if you work for an employer, you probably have more control of your time than you might think. Do you really need to attend every meeting that you’re invited to? Usually it’s possible to convince the caller of a meeting that your attendance isn’t necessary if that’s the truth. Also it’s generally possible to decide what kinds of work you want to do at different times of the day. Feel better getting email over with first thing? You can probably get away with checking in the morning and not touching email again until a review closer to the end of the day. Like to do creative work in a big chunk of time? Put it in your schedule so you won’t be available for meetings and such during that time.

As for letting external forces control our time: this really has to do with our perception of time rather than any reality. Think about the way you approach time, whether you’re generally overwhelmed or feel in control, have too much time on your hands or too little. I would guess that this perception of time stays with you whether you’re at work, or at home or even on vacation.

The key I think is to approach time as a background reality, a landscape within which we all live. Where we choose to go within that landscape is up to us.

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A Text Processor that Quiets the Chattering Monkey

I’m writing this on a new text processer called Ommwriter, which adds another entry to the list of immersive text editors that aim to remove distractions and simply put your writing front and center. Ommwriter goes further than most into focusing on the experience of writing itself. Like other apps, it opens full screen but also includes background music, keystroke sounds and an adjustable writing area.

The vision behind the app is solid and the the name, Ommwriter, really nails the meditative effect that’s created by the experience of writing with it. Just writing these couple of paragraphs has created a tranquil feeling, and the resulting text does feel like it’s being generated more organically than usual.

I don’t expect the experience of using Ommwriter will be for everybody, but for those seeking some zen with their writing it works remarkably well, probably because it doesn’t try to do too much outside the extraordinary atmospherics it creates. I’ll be coming back to this app for certain to see if it handles all writted content as well as it does short blog posts like this.

Ommwriter is in beta for Macs only. Invitations to the beta are open and can be easily obtained at the Ommwriter website.

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Practice, Repetition and Memory

Jack Cheng nails it in his post Thirty Minutes a Day. I’ve talked a lot about the benefits of incremental activity, repetition, habit, etc. but Cheng explains beautifully why all of this works, with reference to the work of famed language educator, Paul Pimsleur. Pimsleurs method of Graduated Interval Recall models how well-timed repetitions of information aid memory.

Simply put, we forget stuff unless we repeat it and the more we repeat it sooner the less we have to repeat it later. This is why I have to practice a new technique on the guitar (or lately the ukelele) daily for a while or I lose it, but I can easily play something familiar that I haven’t done in months. I suspect the frequency of repetition vs. memorability is related to the amount of time it takes to form a habit.

Another implication of this principle is that it should be possible to stagger learning experiences. In other words, it would be best to start learning only one new thing at a time, but since the repetition of lessons gets more spread out over time it wouldn’t be long before there was plenty of time to pick up a new skill or practice.

Jack Cheng explains all of this much more eloquently than I have, so be sure to check out his article. Then read it again in a week, and again a month from then, and again six months later…

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Makers and Managers

You may have come across it before, but I have to mention a great article by Paul Graham: Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. In this article Graham points out what I’ve long suspected: those who make things (designers, developers, etc.) live on very different time than the managers with whom they interact on a regular basis. In short the makers need large chunks of uninterrupted time in which to work, and the managers need to hop from call to call, meeting to meeting, rarely focusing on one thing for very long.

Having been both a maker and a manager I can attest to the truth of this hypothesis and the necessity of respecting these schedules. Otherwise you end up with people being unproductive, frustrated and not able to perform to their potential.

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Staying Focused in a Scattered World

My last post discussed the evils of multi-tasking; today I came across an article on the related probem of context switching. Many of us need to accomplish a wide variety of tasks in our work. Managing people, handling clients or customers, producing deliverables, conducting research – sometimes these are all part of the job. The problem is that the more different kinds of things we have to do, the more difficult it becomes to do each one.

I’ve been in a position lately where my work involves interaction design, analysis, web development and product development across a few different project areas and business units. It’s a real challenge to maintain an optimal level of performance in all these areas. I came across a possible solution in an article titled: Reclaim Focus, One Day at a Time. This article suggests chunking work by type and dedicating each day to each chunk. It’s an interesting idea. I’ll certainly be adding the source of the article, 99% to my reading list.

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Multi-Tasking and its Discontents

Research has shown that multi-taskers are more easily distracted, have trouble learning, and are less productive. There’s even a new book on the subject whose title makes the thesis pretty clear: The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done.

Still, there are many who pride themselves on their ability to multitask and it seems to become more difficult to simply do one thing at a time. Lately I’ve been struggling to really pay attention to each task at hand. This is really really hard.

So let me define the problem by listing different kinds of multitasking behavior and their possible roots and solutions:

Self-distraction
There’s always the opportunity to find something else to pay attention to. Reading email, checking Facebook or Twitter, doing some “research” on the web. These are all ways of distracting oneself. This is also one of the easiest kinds of multi-tasking to stop, since it’s so clearly unnecessary.
Performing minor tasks while waiting for something else to happen.
Cause: Impatience.
Could be checking email, reading feeds, general web surfing while waiting for an application to load, while on hold on phone, etc. This kind of behavior seems harmless enough since it’s just filling time that would otherwise be wasted. Still, it requires shifting of focus and therefore has some cognitive cost. I’m trying to simply wait in these situations and it feels pretty good just doing nothing, staying focused on the task at hand even if I’m not doing anything about it in the moment.
Trying to listen and do something else at the same time.
Cause: Boredom
This is a major reason why meetings take more time and accomplish less than they should. Everybody is sitting at the meeting while working on their laptop or participating on the phone while doing who knows what. I wonder whether this would happen if everybody were truly interested in what was being said. Here’s an idea: if somebody show’s up to a meeting and spends the whole time on their laptop then they probably didn’t need to be invited to the meeting in the first place.
Interruptions
Cause: Other people
You’re working on something on your computer and then the phone rings, you pick it up talk for a minute, get back to work, then somebody taps you on the shoulder to ask you a question, which you answer then back to work, then you get an IM, etc. etc. etc. This kind of multitasking is especially difficult to curb since doing so requires changing other people’s expectations of your availability.

I’ve gone some way here in identifying the problem. Now the next step is to come up with some workable solutions.

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Rescue Time: Process vs. Product

A wile ago I signed up to try Rescue Time, a service that monitors how you are spending time on your computer and then crunches that data to show you how productive you are being. Recently the service has undergone some major changes, all of which make it easier to use, more intuitive and more useful. Nonetheless, I don’t use it much and may be putting it aside entirely soon.

The problem is that Rescue Time addresses a problem I’m not particularly interested in solving. I don’t really care what applications I’m running, what websites I’m visiting, etc. Am I wasting time reading newsfeeds or checking Twitter when I could be working? Yes. But I already know this and when I need to put those activities aside I’m usually able to do so.

The really tough distractions often occur offline (interruptions from the phone or in person taps on the shoulder) or online through apps that are otherwise productive (email, IM). Sometimes a 30 minute IM session is productive, sometimes not. And Rescue Time doesn’t know the difference.

The biggest problem is that time does not equal productivity, because productivity is not measured by the time you put into a process but what comes out of it. Sometimes a focused burst of activity can be more productive than hours of unfocused labor. What I want is an application that measures the product of my time rather than the process I’m engaged in. Did I produce more in the morning or the afternoon? Should I be coding at the beginning of the day and concentrating on design later on? When am I going to be most effective in communicating ideas to other people? Unfortunately I don’t know of any software that can answer these questions.

For many people, Rescue Time may be just the ticket to getting more out of each day. For me it’s mostly an additional distraction.

Update: ResueTime’s own Tony Wright has addressed a lot of my problems in his comment on this post (thanks Tony!). He points out some features I wasn’t aware of and makes the excellent point that RescueTime is great when measuring people’s time (esp. in terms of team management) is the goal. There’s a real fine line between a tool that is indispensable and one that just doesn’t produce enough return to justify the investment required for setup and maintenance. For me RescueTime falls on the wrong side of that line but I can see how it might be invaluable for folks with different requirements.

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