Nathan Hwang

Tools I Use

I’ve been thinking about whether the tools I use to get things done are good enough. Where are the gaps in my toolset? Do I need to make new tools for myself? Do I need to make tools that can make more tools[1]?

Before diving too deep, though, I thought it would be helpful to list out the tools I use today, why I use them, and how I think they could be better. It’s a bit of a dry list, but perhaps you’ll find one of these tools is useful for you, too.


Getting Things Done

Habitica/HabitRPG

Say what you will about gamification, but when it works, it works.

I wasn’t a habitual child, adolescent, or young adult. I had the standard brush/floss teeth habit when going to sleep, and nothing much beyond that. Sure, I tried to cultivate the habit of practicing the violin consistently, but that culminated with only moderate success in my early college years.

Then I picked up HabitRPG (now Habitica) in 2014, and suddenly I had to keep a central list of habits up to date on a daily basis, or I would face the threat of digital death. Previous attempts at holding myself to habits would track my progress on a weekly basis, or fail to track anything at all, but the daily do-or-die mentality built into Habitica got me to keep my stated goals at the forefront of my mind. Could I afford to let this habit go unpracticed? Am I falling into this consistent pattern of inaction which will get me killed in the long run? It was far from a cure-all, but it was a good first step to getting me to overcome my akrasia and do the things that needed to be done[2].

Currently, I only use the daily check-in features (“Dailies”): at first I also used the todo list, but it turned out that I wanted much, much more flexibility in my todo system than Habitica could provide, so I eventually ditched it for another tool (detailed below). I simply never got into using the merit/demerit system after setting up merits and demerits for myself.

org-mode

I have tried making todo lists since I was a young teenager. The usual pattern would start with making a todo list, crossing a couple items off it over a week, and then I would forget about it for months. Upon picking it back up I would realize each item on the list was done, or had passed a deadline, or I didn’t have the motivation for the task while looking at the list. At that point I would throw the list out; if I felt really ambitious in the moment, I would start a new list, and this time I wouldn’t let it fade into obsolescence…

Habitica fixed this problem by getting me into the habit of checking up on my todo list on a regular basis, which meant my todo lists stopped getting stale, but the todo list built into the app was just too simple: it worked when I had simple one-step tasks like “buy trebuchet from Amazon” on the list, but complicated things like “build a trebuchet” would just sit on the list. It never felt like I was making forward progress on those large items, even when I worked for hours on it, and breaking up the task into parts felt like cheating (since you get rewarded for completing any one task[3]), but more importantly it made my todo list long, cluttered, and impossible to sort. Additionally, I wanted to put things onto the list that I wanted to do, but weren’t urgent, which would just compound how cluttered the list would be. For scale, I made a todo spreadsheet in college that accumulated 129 items, and most of which weren’t done by the end of college and would have taken weeks of work.

So I needed two things: a way to track all of the projects I wanted to do, even the stupid ones I wouldn’t end up doing for years, and a way to track projects while letting me break them down into manageable tasks.

After a brief stint of looking at existing todo apps, and even foraying into commercial project management tools, I decided I was a special unique flower and had to build my own task tracker, and started coding.

After weeks of this, one of my friends started raving about org-mode, the flexible list-making/organization system built inside of Emacs (the text editor; I talk about it some more below). He told me that I should stop re-implementing the wheel: since I was already using Emacs, why not just hack the fancy extra stuff I wanted from a todo system on top of org-mode, instead of tediously re-implementing all the simple stuff I was bogged down in? So I tried it, and it’s worked out in exactly that way. The basics are sane and easy to use, and since it’s just an Emacs package, I can configure and extend it however I want.

Like I implied earlier, I use my org-mode file as a place to toss all the things that I want to do, or have wanted to do; it’s my data pack-rat haven. For example, I have an item that tracks “make an animated feature length film”[4], which I’m pretty sure will never happen, but I keep it around anyways because the peace of mind I can purchase with a few bytes of hard drive space is an absolute bargain. It doesn’t matter that most of my tasks are marked “maybe start 10 years from now”, just that they’re on paper disk and out of my head.

And like I implied earlier, org-mode really got me to start breaking down tasks into smaller items. “Build a trebuchet” is a long task with an intimidating number of things to do hidden by a short goal statement; breaking it down into “acquire timber” and “acquire chainsaw” and “acquire boulders” is easier to think about, and makes it clearer how I’m making progress (or failing to do so).

The last big feature of org-mode that I use is time tracking, allowing me to track time to certain tasks. I do a weekly review, and org-mode lets me look at how I did certain tasks, and for how long. For example, I used to think that I wrote blog posts by doing continual short edit/revision cycles, but it turned out that I usually had the revision-level changes nailed down quickly, but then I had long editing cycles where I worried about all the minutia of my writing. Now I’m more realistic about how much time I spend writing, and how quickly I can actually write, instead of kidding myself that I’ll be happy with just an hour of editing[5].

Org-mode isn’t for everyone. It only really works on desktop OS’s (some mobile apps consume/edit the org-mode file format, but only somewhat), so it’s hard to use if you aren’t tied to a desktop/laptop. And the ability to extend it is tied up in knowing an arcane dialect of lisp and a willingness to wrestle with an old editor’s internals. And you might spend more time customizing the thing than actually getting things done. But, if you’re bound to a desktop anyways, and know lisp, and have the self discipline to not yak shave forever, then org-mode might work for you.

Inbox

Nothing out of the ordinary here, it’s just Google email. Aside from handling my email, I primarily use the reminders feature: if there are small recurring tasks (like “take vitamins”), then I just leave them in Inbox instead of working them into org-mode. At some point they’ll probably move into org-mode, but not yet.

Keep / Evernote

I started using Evernote from 2011 or so, and switched to Keep last year when Evernote tried to force everyone to pay for it. Originally, I bought into the marketing hype of Evernote circa 2011: “Remember Everything”. Use it as your external brain. Memorizing is for chumps, write it down instead.

And I took the “Everything” seriously. How much did I exercise today? What did I do this week? What was that interesting link about the ZFS scrub of death? Why did I decide to use an inverted transistor instead of an inverted zener diode in this circuit? It’s all a search away.

I recognize that this level of tracking is a bit weird, but recalling things with uncanny precision is helpful. For example, while I was doing NaNoWriMo in November, I had years of story ideas and quips as notes; if I sort of half-remembered that I had an idea where Groundhog Day was a desperate action movie instead of a comedy, I could just look up what sorts of plot directions I had been thinking about, or if I had more ideas about the plot over time, and bring to bear all that pent up creative energy.

Less importantly, I use my note taking stream as a mobile intake hopper for org-mode, since there aren’t any mobile org-mode apps I trust with my todo list.

Habit Group

And for something that isn’t electronic: I am part of a habit setting and tracking group. It’s a group of like-minded individuals that all want to be held accountable to their goals, so we get together and tell each other how we are doing while striving towards those goals. It’s using social pressure to get yourself to be the person you want to be, but without the rigid formality of tools like Stickk.


Mobile Apps

Anki

A spaced repetition app, free on Android. See Gwern for an introduction deep dive on spaced repetition.

I use it to remember pretty random things. There’s some language stuff, mainly useful for impressing my parents and niece with how easily I can pronounce Korean words. There’s some numbers of friends and family, in case I somehow lose my phone and find a functioning payphone. There’s a subset of the IPA alphabet, in case I need to argue about pronunciation.

I have some more plans to add to this, but mostly covering long-tail language scenarios. If you’ve read Gwern’s introduction above, you’ll remember that the research implies that mathematical and performance knowledge are not as effective to memorize through spaced repetition as language and motor skills, so I’m not really in a rush to throw everything into an Anki deck.

Google Authenticator

This is your reminder that if you’re not using two-factor authentication, you really should be. Two factor means needing two different types of things to log in: something you know (a password) and something you have (a phone, or other token). This way, if someone steals your password over the internet, you’re still safe if they also don’t mug you (applicable to most cybercriminals).

Password Manager

On a related note, if you aren’t using a password manager then you should be using one of those, too. The idea is to unlock your password manager with a single strong password, and the manager remembers your actual passwords for all your different accounts. Since you don’t have to remember your passwords, you can use a different strong random password for each different service, which is much more secure than using the same password for everything[6]. For a starting pointer, you can start with The Wirecutter’s best password manager recommendations[7].

Feedly

For reading RSS feeds. I follow some bloggers (SSC, Overcoming Bias), some science fiction authors (Stross, Watts), and the Tor.com short story feed.

However, Feedly isn’t especially good. The primary problem is the flaky offline support. Go into a tunnel? There’s no content cache, so you can’t read anything if you didn’t have the app open at the exact moment you went underground. (I imagine this is mostly a problem in NYC).

Plus, the screens are broken up into pages instead of being in one scrolling list, which is weird. It’s okay enough to get me to not leave, but I’m on the look out for a better RSS reader.

Swarm

Location check-in app, throwing it back to 2012. Sure, it’s yet another way to leak out information about myself, like whether I’m on vacation, but governments and ginormous companies already can track me, so it’s more a question of whether I want to track myself. Swarm lets me do that, and do it in a way that is semantically meaningful instead of just raw long/lat coordinates.

Kobo eReader

My trusty e-reader, which I’ve written about before. It currently runs stock firmware, but I recently learned about an exciting custom firmware I had missed, koreader, which looks like it solves some of the PDF problems I had bemoaned before. We’ll see if I can scrounge up some time to check it out.


Desktop Software

Emacs

Text editor Operating system. What org-mode is layered on top of. If you’re clicking around with a mouse to move to the beginning of a paragraph so you can edit there, instead of hitting a couple of keys, you’re doing it wrong.

Also make sure to map your caps lock key to be another control, which is easily one of the higher impact things on this list that you can do today, even if you will never use Emacs. Now, you don’t have to contort your hand to reach the control keys when you copy-paste, or when you issue a stream of Emacs commands.

Ubuntu

Running 16.04 LTS, with a ton of customization layered on top. For example, I replaced my window manager with…

xmonad

Tiling window manager for Linux. All programs on the desktop are fully visible, all the time. This would be a problem with the number of programs I usually have open, but xmonad also lets you have tons of virtual desktops you can switch between with 2 key-presses. I suspect that this sort of setup covers at least part of the productivity gains from using additional monitors.

Caveat for the unwary: like org-mode, xmonad is power user software, which you can spend endless time customizing to an inane degree (to be fair, it’s usually a smaller amount of endless time than org-mode).

Redshift

Late night blue light is less than ideal. Redshift is a way to shift your screen color away from being so glaringly blue on Linux.

There are similar programs for other platforms:

However, the default behavior for most of these apps is to follow the sun: when the sun sets, the screen turns red. During the winter the sun sets at some unreasonable hour when I still want to be wide awake, so there’s some hacking involved to get the programs to follow a time-based schedule instead of a natural light schedule.

Crackbook/News Feed Eradicator (Chrome extensions)

I’m sure you’re aware of how addictive the internet can be (relevant XKCD). These extensions help me make sure I don’t mindlessly wander into time sinks.

I use Crackbook by blocking the link aggregators I frequent, hiding the screen for 10 seconds: if there’s actual content I need to see, or if I’m deliberately relaxing, then 10 seconds isn’t too much time to spend staring at a blank screen. But if I just tabbed over without thinking, then those 10 seconds are enough for second thoughts, which is usually enough to make me realize that I’ve wandered over by habit instead of intention, and by that point I just close the tab.

The News Feed Eradicator is pretty straightforward: it just removes Facebook’s infinite feed, without forcing a more drastic action, like deleting your Facebook. For example, it’s easy for me to see if anyone had invited me to an event[8], but I don’t get sucked into scrolling down the feed forever and ever.

This will not work for everyone: some people will go to extreme lengths to get their fix, and extensions are easy to disable. However, it might work for you[9].


Things I Made To Help Myself

Newsletter Aggregator Tool

I made a personal tool to create the monthly/quinannual/annual newsletters I send to the world. It’s my hacked up replacement for social networking.

Throughout the month/year/life, I keep the tool up to date with what’s happening, and then at the end of the month it packages everything up and sends it in one email. It’s not strictly necessary, since I could just write out the email at the end of the month/year, but it feels like less of a time sink, since I’m spreading the writing out over time instead of spending a day writing up a newsletter, and that means I’m willing to spend more time on each entry.

Writing Checker Tool

There are a number of writing checkers out there: some of them aren’t even human.

There’s the set of scripts a professor wrote to replace himself as a PhD advisor. There are some folks that are working on a prose linter (proselint, appropriately), which aims to raise the alarms only when things are obviously wrong with your prose (“god, even a robot could tell you ‘synergy’ is bullshit corporate-speak!”). There have been other attempts, like Word’s early grammar checker, and the obvious spellchecker, but they all stem from trying to automate the first line of writing feedback.

My own script isn’t anything exciting, since it uses other scripts to do the heavy lifting, like the aforementioned proselint and PhD scripts. So far the biggest thing I added to the linter is a way to check markdown links for doubled parentheses, like [this link](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solaris_(2002_film)): unless the inner parentheses are escaped with \, the link won’t include the last ), probably preventing the link from working, and a dangling ) will appear after the link.

There are more things I plan on adding (proper hyphenation in particular is a problem I need to work on), but I’ve already used the basic script for almost every blog post I’ve written in 2016. Notably, it’s helping me break my reliance on the word “very” as a very boring intensifier, and helped me think closely about whether all the adverbs I strew around by default are really necessary.


Real Life

The 7 Minute Workout

Exercising is good for you, but it wasn’t clear to me how I should exercise. Do I go to the gym? That’s placing a pretty big barrier in front of me actually exercising, given that gyms are outside and gym culture is kind of foreign to me. Do I go running? It’s a bit hard to do so in the middle of the city, and I’ve heard it’s not good for the knees[10]. Places to swim are even harder to reach than gyms, so that’s right out.

What about calisthenics? Push ups, sit ups, squats and the like. It requires barely any equipment, which means I can do it in my room, whenever I wanted. While thinking about this approach, I came across the 7 minute workout as detailed by the NY Times. Is it optimal? Certainly not; it won’t build muscle mass quickly or burn the most calories[11]. Is it good enough, in the sense of “good is the enemy of perfect”? Probably! So I started doing the routine and have been doing it for 3.5 years.

I’ve made my own tweaks to the routine: I use reps instead of time, use dumbbells for some exercises, and swapped out some parts that weren’t working. For example, I didn’t own any chairs tall enough to do good tricep dips on, so I substituted it with overhead triceps extensions.

And, well, I haven’t died yet, so it’s working so far.

Cleaning Checklist

After reading The Checklist Manifesto, I only made one checklist (separate from my daily Habitica list, which I was already using), but I have been using that checklist on a weekly basis for more than a year.

It’s a cleaning checklist. I use it to keep track of when I should clean my apartment, and how: not every week is “vacuum the shelves” week, but every week is “take out the trash” week. It has been helpful for making sure I don’t allow my surroundings to descend into chaos, which was especially helpful when I lived alone.

Meditation and Gratitude Journaling

Meditation I touch on in an earlier blog post; it builds up your ability to stay calm and think, even when your instinct rages to respond. Gratitude journaling is the practice of writing down the things and people you are grateful for, which emphasizes to yourself that even when things are bad, there’s some good in your life.

I’m wary about whether either of these actually work, or are otherwise worth it, but lots of people claim they do, and to a certain extent, they feel like they do. In a perfect world I would have already run through a meta-analysis to convince myself, but I don’t know how to do that yet, so I just do both meditation and gratitude journaling; they’re low cost, so even if they turn out to not do anything it’s not too big a loss.

Book/Paper Lists

I keep spreadsheets with the books I am reading, have read, and want to read. I do the same with academic papers.

It’s not just “I read this, on this date”: I also keep track of whether I generally recommend them, and a short summary of what I thought of the book, which is helpful when people ask whether I recommend any books I read recently. On the flipside, I also use the list as a wishlist to make sure I always have something interesting to read.


That’s it for now! We’ll see how this list might change over the next while…


[1] And when I do make tools that make tools, should it be a broom or bucket?

[2] Obviously, this won’t work for everyone. If you’re not motivated by points and levels going upwards, but the general concept appeals to you, Beeminder might be more motivating, since it actually takes your money instead of imaginary internet points.

[3] Conceivably, you could make this work by creating tasks to take a certain amount of time (like 30 minutes) so each item is time based instead of result based, and treat that as Just The Way You Use The Habitica Todo List.

[4] Don’t worry, it’s more fleshed out than this: I’m not keen on doing something for the sake of doing something, like “write my magnum opus, doesn’t matter what it’s about”. Come on, it has to matter somehow!

[5] It’s certainly possible that I should try to edit faster, or move towards that short and repeated revise-edit cycle, but this is more about having a clear view of what I’m actually doing now, after which I can decide how I should change things.

[6] If you use the same password everywhere, then your password is only as secure as the least secure site you use. Suppose you use the same password at your bank and InternetPetsForum, and InternetPetsForum hasn’t updated their forum software in 12 years. If InternetPetsForum is hacked, and your password was stored without any obfuscation, the hackers are only a hop and skip away from logging into your bank account, too.

[7] I’m declining to state exactly which password manager to use; while security through obscurity isn’t really viable for larger targets, I’ve picked up enough residual paranoia that disclosing exactly which service/tool I use seems to needlessly throw away secrecy I don’t need to throw away.

[8] lol

[9] And if you want something that’s less easy to disable, then SelfControl or Freedom might be more your speed. I can’t personally vouch for either.

[10] Honestly not really a true objection, but saying “running is hard” makes me feel like a lazy bum. I already did 20 pushups, what more do you want?!

[11] If you are interested in optimality in exercise, I’ve heard good things about Starting Strength.

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