State of the Software in 2022: A Review of the Tools I Use to Live and Work
Originally published on SamSpurlin.com on December 13th, 2022
As a knowledge worker, the software I use determines a lot of my experience at work. I seek software that either gets so out of my way I never think about it (like a reliable appliance) or even better, gets out of my way while somehow being simultaneously delightful to use (like a reliable appliance with knobs that feel amazing). I take the task of selecting, learning how to operate, and evaluating the software I use to live my life and do my work seriously. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m always looking for something new (which you’ll see as most of the list that I’m about to share below has remained unchanged for years), but that I’m always reflecting on my workflows, tools, needs, and figuring out how I can most directly and simply take aim at what I’m actually trying to do with as little distraction as possible. I want tools that will help me narrow the distance between my intention and my impact.
What follows below is a list of most of the software I use and a few words about why I use it. It’s a mix of stuff that I choose for myself and stuff that I have to use for reasons other than, “I like it,” (like because it’s what my company has decided we’re going to use).
My hope is that you a.) find a tool that better suits your needs or, more importantly, b.) are simply inspired to bring a little bit more deliberate attention to your existing set of tools.
See previous versions of my yearly software recaps here:
Safari has been my primary browser on mobile and desktop for basically as long as I can remember. It’s mostly rock solid (except when it isn’t) so I only find myself opening Chrome when I’ve hit some sort of web app that won’t work (or won’t work well) with Safari. I also keep Brave around for some of my crypto-related activities which I’ve been doing more of over the past year and a half. There are definitely things getting added to Safari that I don’t really use (hello, tab groups) but as long as any important functionality doesn’t break or regress, I don’t see myself moving away from it any time soon.
I’ll periodically peek over the fence toward Apple Music for a week or two, but I’ve come back to Spotify every single time and felt a sense of relief to do so. I used to ding Spotify for having a subpar design as compared to Apple Music, but I don’t feel that way any more. I’m not sure if I’ve just gotten used to how Spotify works and looks, if Apple Music has failed to evolve, or maybe both — but I actually prefer Spotify’s design language and UX nowadays. My Discover Weekly playlist continues to be a banger every Monday morning. I don’t love that they keep trying to push podcasts and audiobooks in front of my face. If that ramps up in the coming years I may have to give Apple Music another chance.
Overcast continues to be the only podcast player I use and it continues to be great. I don’t care about my podcast player surfacing new podcasts — I just want it to be amazing at playing the ones I choose to subscribe to. I also enjoy using it because I like listening to Marco Arment talk about developing it on Accidental Tech Podcast and Under the Radar. It’s always interesting to see the changes he has been talking about roll into the app and I like supporting an indie developer.
I’m fortunate to not receive a ton of email, so my choice of email software is not as consequential as it might be for most. That being said, I still want to interact with my email as fluidly and sparingly as possible while still using a native (i.e. not browser window) app. I like being able to use keyboard shortcuts without modifier keys (like Gmail in the browser) to handle my email and since my work is willing to pay for my Superhuman account, I’ll happily use it. If I had to drop my own money, I’d probably just go back to Airmail or the default Apple Mail app.
I feel similarly to Fantastical as I do about Things. It has an incredibly high level of polish and is just generally pleasant to use. I haven’t really leaned into any of their new scheduling features (since I’m still using Calendly when I need someone to find some time with me). So, like with Safari, I’m kind of stuck in the past in the sense that I don’t care about or use many of the newer features that have been added. I mentioned Cron in the 2021 State of the Tools article but haven’t felt the desire to explore that tool any more.
Ephemeral Note Taking
In 2022 I continued to use Bear as the “default writing space” on my computer. Any time I needed to quickly begin writing I opened Bear and just got to typing. I figure out what to do with it (save it somewhere more permanent, send an email, send a Slack message, etc.) afterward. You’ll notice I’m using the past tense in those previous sentences because in the past couple weeks I have retired Bear in favor of Obsidian. I’ve built a fairly robust note-taking system in Obsidian and it felt increasingly foolish to split out ad hoc note taking into Bear since theoretically I’d love to have that content accessible to my note taking system. So, it’s still early days of seeing whether Obsidian can step into the role Bear played but I’m optimistic it can do the job. Which, honestly, is kind of sad because I think Bear is a great app. You should use it if you’re looking for a beautiful place to take notes.
Another case of the tool not being the reason I didn’t use it very much this year. With my writing output way down I found myself using Ulysses a lot less than I’d hope. Not really Ulysses’ fault. It’s a well made app that has left me with almost nothing but positive feelings. And yet, it’s another one that is currently in the process of being ingested by Obsidian. Over the past few weeks it felt weirdly artificial to have my note-taking and my writing happening in two separate apps so I’m trying to do all my longform writing in Obisidan for the foreseeable future. We’ll see if it sticks.
Things remains my favorite app and the linchpin to my personal productivity system. I occasionally need to do some annoying workarounds when I’m collaborating with colleagues on a shared project, but I think I’ve mostly figured out how to do it in a way that minimizes duplication. Other than the lack of collaboration functionality, Things remains an absolutely delightful piece of software. Fast, rock solid, full of whimsy… there’s not much more I can ask from a fundamental tool in my toolbox.
Carrot Weather (macOS/iOS)
Sometimes I’m annoyed by how much I pay for this app and I try to get by with the default weather app for awhile. I alwayscome back to Carrot. It’s too good. I’m not even talking about the snarky personality and witty retorts that it’s known for (if you’ve never heard of Carrot this is probably a confusing sentence for you). It’s the insane level of UI and data customization options that keeps me coming back.
Instapaper (iOS/browser) & Matter (iOS/browser)
I’m pretty sure Instapaper is the longest continuously used app on my phone. I’ve tried its competitors a handful of times here and there, but always found myself coming back to the simplicity of Instapaper. That’s why it feels somewhat momentous to say that I’m in the process of moving away from it, again, but this time I’m pretty sure it’s going to stick. Moving to Matter has allowed me to get my newsletters out of my email, my RSS feeds out of a dedicated app, and unite basically all of the internet-based reading I do in one app that is actually a pleasure to use. We’ll see if I’m still writing about Matter glowingly when I do the 2023 version of this article, but for now I’ve put Instapaper in a drawer and am living my best Matter life.
See above. Recently murdered by Matter, too. However — it is very good and if you’re looking for a standalone RSS reader Unread should be near the top of your list. I used it every day basically all year and it’s going to take awhile for me to break the muscle memory that my fingers learned with this app.
I bought 99% of my e-books on Amazon this year because although I’m always hearing the siren song of going full Apple, it gives me the option of reading on a Kindle or on my phone through the Kindle app (whereas buying on Apple Books would limit me to my phone or an iPad — which I don’t even own right now). The Kindle app has gotten better and my busted ass Kindle Oasis is still chugging along. I think I may have finally put the Apple Books vs. Kindle battle to rest.
I paused my membership for much of the year in order to work my way through a backlog of credits I somehow accumulated. I like to always have one audiobook going at all times and depending on how engrossing I find the book, I’ll either fly through it in a couple days or it will sit on my device for months. The Audible app itself is fine and generally stays out of the way, which is more or less what I want from an audiobook app. I wish I could populate my wish list with my Amazon wish list, though. Feels stupid to have to manage two different wish lists for books (albeit in different formats) when they are part of the same company.
I love this little app even thought it’s silly it even has to exist. My Mac feels incomplete without this running because I’m constantly throwing windows against the edges and corners of my screen to auto-size sindows into quarter-screen and half-screen modes. macOS should just let you do this but until it does Magnet will be one of the first things I install on every new computer.
Slack (iOS/macOS) & Discord (iOS/macOS)
We continue to use Slack at The Ready for all our internal communication. It’s fine. It’s an appliance at this point. I’d rather be in Slack than in email. Discord is my Slack but for crypto/DAO related stuff. I like it less than Slack but it is also fine.
Google Docs (browser)
Work Document Creation
We continue to use Google Docs at The Ready, although our usage has been trending down as we lean into Notion more and more. It’s still a big part of my day, though. It meets the bar for most of my work tools — it mostly stays out of the way and lets me do what I need to do without adding unneeded frustration.
Persistent Note Taking
Obsidian has already shown up in a couple places in this article, but I suppose it should get its own call out, too. In my 2021 recap I talked a little bit about starting a “digital garden” or “Zettelkasten” system in Obsidian. I’ve gone back and forth since then about whether I want to invest the time and effort into actually creating a system like this. After reading Tiago Forte’s “Building a Second Brain” book I think I finally have the bones of a system that I can work with for a long time. Since then I’ve been regularly interacting with Obsidian and as mentioned above, am trying to move more of my ad hoc writing and note taking to it as well. I’m excited to see what role this tool plays in my life in 2023.
Life Dashboard/Shared Project Management
We’ve used Notion as our central knowledge repository at The Ready for the past few years and it has generally been a good addition to our tool box. I’ve also spun up a personal instance that Emily and I use for shared life projects and reference material. I also moved most of my personal and financial tracking spreadsheets out of Numbers and into this personal Notion account. It has definitely grown into more of a shared “life dashboard” over the past few years.
Emily and I have really leaned into using the Shared Vault feature of 1Password this year. It’s nice to be able to put logins to services that we both need in a place where we can both easily access them without having to pester the other person. Sometimes I think I could or should get buy with just the built-in password features of iOS and macOS, but I think we’d miss the Shared Vault too much. If iOS/macOS handled family passwords better, that might make me leave 1Password.
99% of The Ready’s virtual meetings continue to happen in Zoom. Currently working with a client who uses Microsoft Teams and it makes me incredibly thankful that I’ve mostly gotten to use Zoom up to this point.
Rocket lets me easily add emoji anywhere I can type. Like Magnet, my computer feels like it’s broken if this isn’t running.
Strava (iOS) & TrainingPeaks (iOS)
I’ve gotten extremely into endurance sports in the past year and Strava is my go-to tool for keeping track of all the data I generate and connecting with a handful of friends who also train. I use TrainingPeaks with my coach which allows him to schedule workouts for me and see the data after I finish them.
I went for a big chunk of the year not using Streaks to track my daily habits, but not because the tool isn’t good. It was more of a personal experiment to see if not putting pressure on myself to track those things might be good for my mental health. As of a couple weeks ago, it’s back on my phone’s home screen.
I’m honestly skeptical of the quality/validity of the data AutoSleep collects, but I’ve been using it for so long at this point I feel like it’d be silly to stop. I don’t put too much credence into what it tells me about my sleep quality, but at the very least I think it helps keep me accountable to going to bed and getting up when I say I want to.
Day One (macOS/iOS)
I haven’t journaled as much as I wanted this year, but that’s not really Day One’s fault. This is another piece of software that is in a precarious moment because of my interest in Obsidian and the realization that it becomes a more powerful tool the more data I can feed into it. I realized that the writing I tend to do in Day One is often early drafts of things that started as streams of consciousness but ultimately become articles. That’s the type of thing I want with all my other notes — thus, Obsidian. We’ll see…
Backup is one of those things that you should never have to think about — until you do. Backblaze is always running silently on all my computers, waiting for the day where it can save my bacon.
Audio Hijack (macOS)
I haven’t put Audio Hijack in the yearly recap before, but I’ve been using it for years to record Fields of Work and now Ready to DAO It (internal The Ready podcast). It’s one of those tools where I know I’m using 1% of its power — but I’m okay with that.
Garage Band (macOS)
All podcast editing happens in here. Similarly, I barely understand how it works, but I’ve carved out one specific workflow that seems to work pretty well for editing and publishing podcasts.
Flighty reminds me of Things and Fantastical in that I feel like I’ve been using it forever and that the level of polish on this app makes it stand out. I don’t travel quite as much as I used to, so I don’t use it as much as I once did, but I still keep it around and enjoy using it.
Apple Maps (iOS)
Maps & Directions
Apple Maps + CarPlay + Apple Watch = the simplest and best way to get turn-by-turn directions, in my experience. Haven’t opened Google Maps all year, I don’t think.
Letterboxd, TV Time, Goodreads, GameTrack
I like to track what movies I’ve watched and want to watch, what TV shows I’m watching and want to watch, what I’m reading and want to read, and what I’m playing and want to play. These are the best options I’ve found for each. They also hold my various media backlogs so I won’t forget the recommendations that I collect from various people and places.
There are a handful of what I call Life Scaffolding reminders that I need to see on various rhythms to make sure I’m taking care of super mundane stuff (water plants every Sunday evening, do laundry every Saturday morning, etc.) and Due is my favorite app for that because it will incessantly remind me on whatever cadence I want until I take action (whereas the default Reminders app just reminds you once at the appointed time).
I’m trying to use Reddit less and Apollo actively makes that goal difficult because it’s such a good app. If Reddit is part of your information diet do yourself a favor and check out Apollo.
I don’t regularly cook new recipes (although I tell myself I should) but I do have like three recipes that I cook frequently enough to remember the basics but not frequently enough to have fully memorized. Those recipes live in Mela. Someday I’ll be the type of guy who has a huge library of recipes that he’s regularly trying and Mela will be the perfect tool. For now, it’s where I go once a month to look up whether my pancake recipe requires baking soda or baking powder.
It’s where I write my newsletter. It seems to be where most people write their newsletters. I only interact with it when I have a new newsletter ready to send and I have to copy and paste it into the web app and hit send. It’s fine?
It’s where SamSpurlin.com and FieldsOfWork.com live. It’s fine?
It’s where I pay to have my firstname.lastname@example.org email hosted. It’s fine?
Sometimes I have to use sketchy public internet and turning on NordVPN makes me feel a little bit better about it. A couple times a year I need to convince ESPN+ I’m trying to watch a hockey game from New Mexico so it won’t blackout the game when the Red Wings play the Capitals in D.C.
If I’m hosting a virtual meeting or a workshop there’s a good chance we’re going to be in Mural together. It has become a huge part of my toolbox over the past couple years. It can be pretty janky and I feel like I kind of just fell into it (instead of comparing/contrasting it to other options) but it feels okay.
Collaborative Presentation Design
A relatively new tool at The Ready. Instead of passing around Keynote files (huge, not easily worked on simultaneously) or Google Slides links (barf), we’ve been using Pitch. Honestly, I haven’t built much in it yet, but I’ve definitely presented and tweaked lots of work my colleagues have done in it. I’m a fan so far.
The Ready spun out Murmur a couple years ago and in the past year the tool has really come into its own and become a major part of The Ready’s tech stack. It’s for helping organizations make and store agreements about how they work together.
I’ve tried to lean into creating super short but dense asynchronous videos as a communication tool with colleagues and clients this year. Loom makes it super easy.
I’m currently running an experiment with Gather at The Ready to see whether a “virtual office” is something we could benefit from. Early reactions are positive!
A Few Parting Thoughts
- Default vs. Best is still an active battle I find myself occasionally waging in my brain from time-to-time. Usually when I’m avoiding some sort of uncomfortable truth about what I should actually be doing or thinking about. I’ve proven to myself that I can get my work done using only the Default apps that come with my computer (for the most part) but it’s not particularly joyful or enjoyable. Luckily, Apple, as a company, has been pissing me off recently. This has been helping me let go of the idea of going “all in” on their software & services.
- I’m always looking for ways to simplify and use fewer tools and services while still using the best tool for the job. It’s interesting that Obsidian is currently in the process of eating several apps I used a lot in 2022: Ulysses, Bear, and maybe Day One. Matter ate three functions that were handled separately in 2022, too: read later (used to be Instapaper), newsletters (used to be in my email inbox), and RSS (used to be Unread). I think I am okay with this. Is there a future where Spotify would ever eat my podcasts and audiobooks, too?
- Best software is fast software. Best software feels like an extension of my mind and body. This is what makes me love Things and Fantastical so much. So damn fast.
- Started playing with Focus Modes on iOS a little bit in October. Other than the default Driving and Sleep ones, I set up a “Done Working” Focus Mode that automatically starts at the end of my work day and ends the following morning. It prevents work notifications (Slack, Email, Discord) from coming through. There’s probably more I could do with this at some point, but even this extremely small feature has been useful so far.
- It feels good that the vast majority of the tools listed above are not brand new. Most of these have been in my tech stack for many, many years at this point. I think I would be very okay to see this list remain mostly the same when I sit down to write next year’s version of this article.
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