What I read in September 2020

This was a non-fiction month. Although I started reading a fiction book (Kenobi by John Jackson Miller), all the books I finished were non-fiction. I was into productivity and delighted with Scott Adams writings during the first weeks then got to this awesome commentary from the 80’s about our current cultural moment with “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. We just have to replace “TV” with “anything we consume on the Internet right now” to make this book 100% relevant!

  1. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams, 248p: Such an enjoyable read! I love the Dilbert comics and it was interesting to get into the head of Scott Adams. He talks about his failures and also his recipe to live well. So it’s part memoir part recommendations on how to live a good life. And we get to know that he had to overcome significant obstacles to success in his life. But he persisted and that makes for an inspiring story. He makes good points, summarizing the main areas of focus to succeed, even if you are failing miserably. Like the importance of having a system, not goals. And taking care of our personal energy: exercise, diet, and sleep are essential. Not all his recommendations are applicable to everybody (and he makes it very clear in the book) but reading about his struggles and his plans to live better got me thinking about my own habits. Savvy and fun read.
  2. How to Write Better: Improve your writing of letters, essays, stories, articles, papers and books using quick, easy and proven techniques by  Martin Li, 81p: It had some good techniques but I felt they were focused on travel review writing mostly.
  3. Organize Tomorrow Today: 8 Ways to Retrain Your Mind to Optimize Performance at Work and in Life by Jason Selk, Tom Bartow, 242p: I enjoyed the first couple chapters on prioritizing and planning ahead our days. It brings lots of references and parallels from the sports world which I was not that excited about. I’m not into professional sports so some of the arguments and references did not make too much sense to me.
  4. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman, 208p: Yeah, Huxley was right. I thought this book would feel totally outdated because it was written in the 80’s. Quite the contrary! We just have to replace “TV” with “anything we consume on the Internet right now” to make this book current. It is a thought provoking analysis of our Information Age and how media formats can shape our culture. It gives a clear distinction between the typographic era, when information was written, and the “show business” model we have today with lots of images, short messages and barely no reflection. Highly recommended!

What I read in August 2020

The end a long fantasy saga, some Scottish historical fiction and an average productivity book.

  1. The Pride of Lions (Scotland Trilogy Book 1) by Marsha Canham, 212p: It’s a rich historical fiction set in Scotland in the 18th century. Kinda like Outlander but without time travel. It’s well done in terms of world building with lots of historical references regarding the Jacobite rising of 1745. It’s an exciting book and the rhythm is good. There was one thing that caused me uneasiness in this book: the prevalence of a raping theme. I know it’s historical and you can argue that that’s how things were back then, but it’s a fictional romance novel and I expected less of it. For example, even though it’s not explicit, the “male hero” (Alexander) clearly uses the implicit idea of rape to frighten the heroine (Catherine). Every men on the road that encounters Catherine (or any women for that matter) thinks about “taking advantage” of her. So maybe the setting was too historical/realistic for me?
  2. The Lady of the Lake (The Witcher, #5) by Andrzej Sapkowski, 560p: The last book of The Witcher saga! I loved the first half of the book with its parallel universes and the fact that the story of The Witcher is viewed as a type of “distant land fairy tale”. One thing that this author can do is create complex characters, meaning, no one is ever lawful good, everybody is chaotic (neutral, good or evil). Themes like misogyny, slavery and racial discrimination are all present in the story. Everybody is looking for Ciri because of her extraordinary powers. Elves can be as evil as humans and sorceresses. Ciri is on her own quest to escape what everybody think is her destiny. I think the story is brilliantly written, with varying points of view, snippets of Dandelion’s memoir “Half a Century of Poetry”, a huge battle being described through its actual combatants suffering and the healers in a war field hospital. But people die. Lots of characters die. And that’s what makes this series “dark fantasy” in my opinion. It has the feel of a fairy tale without the happy ending. Or maybe the ending is happy depending on how you interpret it. Excellent series overall with rich world building and interesting characters. It was a nice ride!
  3. Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less  by  Michael Hyatt , 256p: I was curious to read this book to know a little a bit more about focus. I already use GTD as my productivity system and it’s clear that some sections are a GTD derivative with a different name. I was a little bit annoyed that I had to go to the author’s website to take the initial assessment, leave my e-mail and then I started receiving all these promotional e-mails to buy his planner. That threw me off a little bit. But the message in the book is not unlike any other good productivity system: eliminate non essentials, group similar tasks for efficiency, eliminate distractions and use time blocking to focus.

What I read in July 2020

I re-read two excellent productivity books that made me go back to basics and rethink my whole system. I can say it was a productive month! And I finished the fourth book in The Witcher series, which is excellent!

  1. Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life by David Allen, 286p: It’s the second time I read this book. The last time was 6 years ago. It’s a great if you’re already familiar with the GTD method since it connects the 5 steps workflow (capture, clarify, organize, reflect, engage) to the higher horizons (projects, areas of focus, goals, vision, purpose & principles). So it’s the glue between Control and Perspective. I loved re-reading it. It gave me some powerful insights and a deeper understanding of the GTD processes and how it can evolve over time.
  2. New Hope for Sciatica: End Your Pain Now with Solutions Even Your Doctor Won’t Tell You About by Duncan McCollum D.C., 125p: It’s more about the how healing works in 3 parts: physical, chemical and mental. One cannot work without the other. So it gives a high level overview of all the things that might be the cause of the pain. And it’s complicated! It creates awareness about underlying factors causing/worsening the pain, but it’s all about contacting a professional. So, there are no practical answers in this book, it talks about a few strategies but without diving in them too deep. For example: a diet with less inflammatory food suggesting ketogenic meals and intermittent fasting but it doesn’t explain how that can be done.
  3. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, 287p: This was my second read and more than ever I was convinced that we need to decide to do deep work and that means breaking many habits of today’s life. From finding space and time to concentrate to eliminating all that distracts us, the author shows reasons and evidence for all the strategies presented. And the message is simple, albeit not as easy as it seems: disconnect! Simple as that. This one is MUST READ for today’s work life.
  4. The Tower of the Swallow (The Witcher, #4) by Andrzej Sapkowski, 448p: So this book picks up right where the previous left, which ended in a little bit of a cliffhanger. I loved the writing style using different timelines, jumping back and forth, and varying points of view. It gets confusing sometimes but in the end everything clicks together. And the plot focus is Ciri, the last third of the book we don’t even hear about The Witcher anymore. There is lots of violence in this book, people getting killed, tortured, injured in a myriad of ways. I think it’s one of the darkest books in the series so far, and Ciri’s story is definitely harsh and cruel. I caught myself cringing a few times. Now, it’s the first time I ever saw a sword fighting scene on a frozen lake on ice skates! There are some great new characters, like the hermit Vysogota on the good guy side and the spine-chilling bounty hunter Bonhart, on the villain side. As always, I can’t wait to check out the next book in the series.

Discovering Metal Bands

I have been listening to a lot more music recently.

I usually have my own playlists and rarely rely on AI generated lists based on my “taste”. I mostly listen to rock music, going from 60’s/70’s rock classics, heavy metal, a little bit of progressive and symphonic/melodic metal.

I saw a playlist on my music streaming service called “Swords & Sorcery” and gave it a try. I ended up discovering cool metal bands and songs and immediately created my own “Epic Metal” curated playlist. For some reason this playlist is now my “work mode” soundtrack: I listen to it when I need to do deep work and it puts me in the zone!

Some of my favourites discoveries were:

Discovered Bands:

  • The HU: Mongolian heavy metal => loved the deep vocals (Mongolian throat singing) and traditional instrumentation translated to metal.
  • Spellblast: Italian Folk/Power Metal => reminds me of Rhapsody of Fire, loved the vocals and folk influences.
  • Wind Rose: another Italian Progressive/Power Metal/ Folk Metal band => it’s more on the heavier side because of lots of guttural vocals but they have some songs I enjoyed. It’s also a genre I never knew existed: Dwarf Metal!!
  • Korpiklaani: Folk Metal from Finland => most of the songs are in Finnish and a nice combination of heavy guitars/vocals with folk rhythms.
  • Glittertind: Viking/Folk Metal (early); Indie/Folk Rock (later) => they don’t seem to be active anymore, but the early albums seem to focus on old Norwegian folksongs.

Favorite Songs (from the discovered bands or bands I already knew):

Wind Rose – Diggy Diggy Hole
Wind Rose – The Returning Race
The HU – Yuve Yuve Yu
The HU – Wolf Totem
TYR – Regin Smidur (Faroese Metal!)
Spellblast – Goblins’ Song
Ensiferum – Lai Lai Hei (Epic Folk Metal from Finland)
Korpiklaani – Mettänpeiton Valtiaalle
Glittertind – Rolandskvadet

What I read in June 2020

June was a tough month! I don’t know, the ongoing pandemic, the immense amount of accumulated work that suddenly appeared on my plate, Black Lives Matter protests… I just needed some comfort reading, so that’s when I turn to steampunk and sci-fi romances.

  1. Heart of Steel (Iron Seas, #2) by Meljean Brook : Steampunk alternate Victorian era in a world with dirigibles, nanoagents, mechanical flesh, zombies. I think I still like the first book better. However, this one has a strong lead female character who is an experienced badass captain of an Airship. Yasmeen, captain of Lady Corsair, and Archimedes Fox, adventurer, go out on a journey to search for a treasured sketch from Leonardo da Vinci. There is also revenge but that wasn’t too clear to me. Good fighting sequences with zombies, but in the end, I didn’t get who/what they were fighting against really.
  2. Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life  by Nir Eyal : The premise here is: we are also responsible for being addicted to technology so the author discusses some tactics to make us less prone to use it mindlessly. But, I don’t think it is for everyone. There are some drastic measures that I think might work for some. I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.
  3. Polaris Rising (Consortium Rebellion, #1) by Jessie Mihalik: I enjoyed this space-opera! Lots of adventures: boarding ships, cracking security codes and locks, dealing with smugglers, discussing ship layouts, sending encrypted messages and blending in a crowded port to avoid being recognized. The two main characters, Lady Ada and Loch, were equally strong and I liked that they were both highly skilled at their areas of expertise. And rescues! It happens a lot and for the most part the rescuing is done by Lady Ada (as opposed to the male hero always rescuing the damsel in distress). It had that old Star Wars feel but without aliens. Fun!

GTD Journey: My thoughts on switching to Nirvana

I’ve been following the GTD (Getting Things Done) method to organize my life since 2013. GTD is a method of organization and personal productivity created by David Allen (this is the book). The main objective is to “empty our minds” and have a trusted system to store and manage our actions, projects, events, goals, objectives and even life purpose.

I’ve just spent around year in the following cycle: trying Nirvana, loving it, using it for a while, then looking at other productivity apps, switching to Trello then Todoist, moving back and forth, then deciding I would stick with Nirvana.

Nirvana is a cloud-based task manager that can be accessed online on any platform and has Windows, iOS and Android apps as well.  There is a basic version with some limitations (like the number of projects), a complete Pro version or a Lifetime subscription (you can check their pricing here). Disclaimer: I’m not affiliated with the company in any way. It’s just an app that I love!

Nirvana is made by a small independent team in Canada. So don’t expect constant updates. The team is very deliberate on improvements and that makes the app extremely reliable.  It brings together  he GTD concepts  beautifully. The developers attended the GTD Summit in 2019.

Why Nirvana?

The one thing that made me fall in love with Nirvana at first sight was the global filter.  It is brilliant and I had never seen it working so seamlessly in other apps.

I can setup different Areas of Focus, like “Personal”, “Work” and “Blog”. The global filter works across the whole system, so I can focus on my Work related Actions and Projects being sure that nothing from the other area is showing as well. I can also see the whole picture grouping all my areas together.

Also, keyboard shortcuts make it even easier to switch between areas of focus. There is a good list of keyboard shortcuts for adding items to the Inbox, adding a next action or a new project, for example.

The second thing was the implementation itself: it is based on GTD. After I saw Nirvana I wanted to have the same experience while using Todoist, for example. I tried to mimic Nirvana’s setup on Todoist but it was not the same: trying to find the right combination of filters/tags/projects levels was not giving me the results I wanted (not to mention the time spent trying to get it right).

In Nirvana all Actions can be categorized into “GTD-style” buckets right there, “out of the box”:

It offers a way to easily send emails into the app so that it goes directly to the Inbox.

The projects can be set up as “Parallel” or “Sequential“:

  • Parallel: The actions are meant to be completed in any order.
  • Sequential: The first action is intended to be completed before the second, and so on.

All items (even projects!) can be assigned to totally customizable labels (as GTD contexts like: @home, @calls, @errands, etc.)

There is even the option to assign levels of energy and time to each action so that we can filter using these parameters.

This Quick Guide shows all the main features of the app.

Nirvana versus Todoist

So right before moving to Nirvana I was using Todoist.

To be honest I enjoyed adding emojis to my projects and tags, getting a little elephant icon whenever I linked a note from Evernote, changing projects colors, the seamless Google Calendar integration, etc. And I knew that was only possible if I used Todoist (or some other similar app). But, during my quest to try to make Todoist behave like Nirvana, I just got frustrated. I tried hard! But it never ended up as simple and elegant as Nirvana.

So after I realized I was spending too much time tinkering with an app trying to make it become something else, I looked back at Nirvana and listed all the things I would miss if I did the switch.

These were the features I used in Todoist that I thought I would miss:

  1. The Groceries list => it could be implemented in Evernote or OneNote, so no big deal
  2. Integration with Google Calendar => I thought it was crucial, but is it really?? (I discovered it was not!)
  3. Emojis => no alternative, just live without it = less distraction
  4. HTML links on the task title => I can use the Notes field on Nirvana for links
  5. The little Evernote icon when I added a link to an Evernote note in Todost => no big deal
  6. Colors => no alternative, just live without it = less distraction
  7. My Book List => I used to have a book checklist on Todoist. I already use Goodreads to track my reading, so this list in Todoist was duplicated anyway.

I understood that all those bells and whistles were not an essential part of my GTD system. So I went back to Nirvana and moved everything I had in Todoist to it. This is a screenshot that shows the same projects on both apps after I did the move:

Todoist versus Nirvana

This image compares the Projects view (Work Area of Focus). You can see that my Todoist was all colorful and beautiful, but I had a lot of different filters to try to emulate Nirvana’s global filter, and I got maybe too excited about creating contexts and putting them all in my favorites list on Todoist.

What I like about Nirvana is that I can see at a glance the full picture: my active projects, what is inactive, what is in “someday/maybe”, what is incubated (I use the “Later” option in Nirvana to park incubated projects). And it’s super easy so go through the Next, Later and Waiting lists for each of my Areas of Focus or for all of them at once!  In every view there is the option to filter by the labels (contexts) as well.

Seriously, simply classifying my projects between “Active” and “Inactive” has been a power struggle for me for years! I could never get it right! I realized I needed it to be clear and in front of me: the way Nirvana does.

Nirvana organizes the information better and that works pretty well with my agitated brain.  Everything  is listed in such an orderly manner: Inbox, Next, Later, Waiting, Scheduled, Someday, Projects, Reference. Projects in blue are active, Inactive projects are grey! Awesome for weekly reviews!

Also, I have a clear understanding now of the hard edges between my Calendar and my to-do list. I confess that with Todoist, given the focus it has on dates, I was “blurring” my calendar with my next actions and it was getting rather messy!

The “Focus” feature is another reason I love Nirvana! Focusing items gives them a star ⭐ and makes them appear in the Focus list. I tried to do that with my “Highlight Today” filter in Todoist, but it was too manual (I was using the priority flags to filter them… it was not as easy and clean as Nirvana). Also  in Nirvana items will show up automatically in the focus list if it’s been scheduled or assigned a start date or due date. When the date arrives, the item appears in my Focus list.

It’s true Nirvana lacks some hot exciting features (like Calendar integration or attachments), but it’s all about having the essentials and getting rid of the superfluous.

After using Todoist for a while I missed something simpler with no distractions. Todoist is a good app…but…too many personalization options were making me spend too much time “tinkering” with the system instead of  actually executing my next actions.

My Final Setup

So I’ve finally settled with the trio:

  • Google Calendar: for all events, reminders, day-time-specific stuff. (**)
  • Nirvana: for all projects and next actions.
  • OneDrive + OneNote: for reference and notes.

Nirvana is powerful and simple. Without a doubt an excellent implementation of the GTD framework!

(**) As a side note, although I have a personal Microsoft account my work is all about Google and it was easier to  centralize both my Personal and Work Calendar in Google Calendar due to synchronization issues between Outlook and Google.