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Field Notes Every Day

I never pictured myself becoming the kind of person who carries a Field Notes notebook. I hate the thought of not having all my information at my fingertips all the time. The main idea behind my workflow with nvALT, OmniFocus and Dropbox was a focus towards making things searchable and ubiquitous. Plain text and markdown furthered that goal as well.

Another issue with writing things down was that my penmanship is terrible. I mean really terrible. My handwriting is a mish-mash of cursive letters, printed letters, cramped shapes and scribbles. Moving some of my note-taking to a written medium meant addressing how badly I expressed thoughts on the page. It was a project I didn’t want to deal with and have been effectively avoiding since high school.

Introducing a physical medium to gather my thoughts meant that I would now have multiple places to search when I wanted to find things I had written down unless I copied each page to one of my text files which, given how little time I have these days, was unlikely to happen. It all seemed like a lot of hassle and the last thing I needed was another workflow to forget.

So about two years ago, when the whole Field Notes thing blew up (at least in the circles I ran with), I decided that keeping notes electronically in plain text solved a lot of issues. I could easily search my notes for scraps of remembered text, I could avoid horrid penmanship and I would have my notes in one place in a format that was more or less bulletproof from a backward compatibility perspective. As things like markdown and plain text editors started to grow in popularity, it became clear that I had chosen well and I never looked back.

“That’s a relief. No need for pens or Field Notes or more pocket clutter.”, I thought. Bullet dodged.

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After seeing a buddy’s Field Notes and Fisher Space Pen being useful on a recent trip, I noticed there were some advantages to go along with the disadvantages of having to lug additional crap around.

For one, I tend to remember things visually. Often it is the shape of my notes on the page or the formatting of titles that jog my memory more than remembering the actual content. That’s why outlines and mindmaps work so well for me. They play to the strengths of how I remember things on the page or screen. Sketchnotes is something that intrigued me because it was a way to take note-taking to its visual endgame. A way to showcase your remembered facts in a visual way rather than worry about getting all of the words down in the right order.

Second, I liked the way Field Notes books look. There are Tumblrs and Flickr groups devoted to their aesthetic appeal and they appeal to those enjoy a joining of form and function. Can you get by with a few folded 3”x5” cards? Sure. But wouldn’t you rather pull this out of your pocket?

The other thing that Field Notes books did for me was make small writing notebooks less precious. I had been given various Moleskine books over the years and never made a dent in them because I was too precious about the empty pages. Poised with pen above paper, I would second guess myself. Is this thought really important enough to capture on paper this nice? With that thought, the pen cap would be replaced, the book would be closed and the pages would remain unused. I was a sucker for a well-made blank notebook but I had learned my lesson – buying them was a waste of money and desk space with the evidence of this fact being a handful of empty notebooks littering the bottom of a desk drawer.

Field Notes, on the other hand, are forty-eight pages of dot grids (my personal preference) on thin (but high quality) paper. There is nothing intimidating about them. Fill one up, move to the next. I am as apt to use a page to write down a take-out order as I am to write down a design idea. Sold relatively-inexpensively in packs of 3, using a page here or there for a doodle doesn’t have the gravitas of sullying an acid-free, archival quality notebook page from a book of fifty.

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So where does that leave things on the “analog technology” front? Well a more comprehensive post will cover that, but for this post, I’ll sum up by saying I’ve been carrying around Field Notes and a Space Pen for about two months now. I have filled up three books and I am about to start a fourth and they have proven useful in ways I hadn’t envisioned before I started this little experiment. Given that I use them so freely, I decided to buy a Field Notes COLORS subscription so I have a deep supply of new books to write in.

I needed to expand my Field Notes supply because my wife has started using the books too. She’s doing garden layouts and planning in her Arts & Sciences edition book (she wanted the Science one, dammit!) and she loves the form factor. I still think the Arts & Sciences books are too big for my purposes. Portability is king for me and the Arts & Sciences books are just too big to carry around with me. They are confined to my desk and I use them to do larger form designs but that’s about it.

That said, I am using my Field Notes books every day and that’s more than I can say for most things. We will see how this experiment unfolds but for now I’m enjoying hauling out these little books to get things done.

App Developers, The Sky Is Not Falling

Unread is a really nice RSS reader for iPhone. I eventually bought it after Newsblur support was added and found that the app is designed with some really nice features that set it apart from its peers. I’ve enjoyed using Jared Sinclair’s apps (like the stellar Riposte) and bought Unread more out of a desire to support Sinclair’s development efforts than my need for an iOS RSS app. I suspect many who appreciated Jared’s previous work did the same thing.

Sinclair recently wrote a post with some revealing data about Unread’s earnings along some details about its design process and some decisions involving the app’s App store distribution. As his blog post made its rounds on the echosphere, developers and pundits alike were pounding out stories about how the App economy is dead since Unread, by all accounts a fantastic app, couldn’t earn above poverty wages.

I think the premise behind many of these pieces is flawed. They take a surface look at the App economy through the lens of an app that, while serving a fairly large overall market1, was ultimately targeting a niche market2 inside a niche market3 inside a niche market4 inside a niche market5.

We can’t know all of the decision points that pushed Sinclair to explore the RSS app market as his next target after Riposte and Whisper (both top shelf apps). While he did talk about some of his thought process in his visit to the App Story podcast (episode 4), we don’t know what type of competitive analysis he did or if it even mattered to him that he was entering a market in which the winners and losers were largely already decided. Doing a cursory look in the current RSS reader market, you can find many capable RSS apps that have been used on iOS devices for quite some time. Some of these apps are free and all perform the common functions of an RSS reader.

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When Google Reader shutdown last July everyone who used the service was forced to decide where they were going to land on the RSS reader front. It caused quite a shake-up since many people were using Google Reader, including me. Some decided to ditch RSS altogether and stick with Twitter, some decided on Feedly, and others decided on NewsBlur among others.

When Unread launched, it didn’t support all of the services that people had flocked to. I know when I saw its original release and noted that it didn’t support Newsblur, it meant that if I wanted to use Unread on my phone I would also need to switch RSS services. Since I had just signed up for a year-long Newsblur subscription, that didn’t sound like a solid idea either.

Sinclair also faced the difficulty in selling a reading app for the smallest iOS device, the iPhone. While he may have built a lot of innovation into the controls for managing feeds and reading one-handed, the truth is I tend to not read RSS on the iPhone, instead opting for a bigger screen which allows for richer navigation and visuals.

When I look at the things stacked against Unread doing well (RSS war fought and won on many fronts months before, readers generally wanting to read longform articles on larger devices, other capable free apps on the market, $5 price tag) I actually thought Unread sold fantastically well. It doesn’t really serve as the best example for why it is hard to make a living solely by publishing apps on the App Store. And as the man once said, “If it was that easy, everybody would be doing it.”


  1. As of 2013, RSS readers number in the 200-250m range. 

  2. Tech nerds who like opinionated software. 

  3. People who haven’t yet found an RSS reader they liked a year after the Google Reader shutdown. 

  4. People who want to read RSS on a small iPhone screen. 

  5. People willing to pay $5 for an app. 

Smaller, Not Larger, Phones

Here’s a good piece by Clark echoing many of the same thoughts I have about the seemingly-inevitable larger iPhone. The gist is that I would prefer a more efficient, smaller iPhone. The thought of a giant, pocket stuffing smartphone is annoying and goes against my goal of minimizing what I carry around every day.

Basically, I want my phone to disappear in my pocket, not fill it.

What I Am Carrying Lately

I have been trying to trim down what I carry around with me for a while now with mixed success. I have trimmed it down as much as I’m willing to and I’m OK with what I currently haul around in my pockets. It isn’t minimal but here it is.

iPhone 5S

I use this thing all the time, obviously. It is one of the greatest inventions ever.

Strider SMF Lego

This is a geniuinely serious folding knife and an amazing one at that. After hearing a lot of opinion back and forth about Strider knives, I eventually decided the only way to know for sure how good these knives are is to buy one and try it out. It has barely left my pocket ever since. There was a break-in period for both the pivot and the lock but it is incredibly smooth now. I have abused this knife and it just shrugs it off. It is a tank. Given how expensive this knife is and its fairly large size, it shouldn’t be at the top of everybody’s list but it is a solid piece of gear and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Keysmart

I hate noisy keys. I bought the Keysmart and now my keys are no longer noisy. Yup.

Atwood Atwrench

This little multitool was what I bought instead of the Gerber Shard and I actually use it a lot, especially the prybar/standard head screwdriver and the little wrench slot. It is quite possible that it is used it to open a bottle of beer now and then.

Fenix LD01 Flashlight

This little flashlight runs off of a single AAA battery and is quite bright. Connecting the Atwrench and the flashlight together with a rubberband further reduces noise.

NiteIze Slide-lock

I like the Slide-lock because I can lock both halves of the carabiner and never have to worry about losing my keychain or my keys. Before the Slide-lock, I had a few circumstances where my keys would get detached from my old carabiner and I got lucky that it was never a disaster.

Fisher Space Pen

This is the smallest, most reliable EDC pen out there. I am not sure why you’d carry something other than this handy little thing. It is awesome.

Field Notes - Pitch Black Edition

Gabe showed me how useful Field Notes could be on a recent trip and I bought a few packs when I got home to try them out. So far they’ve been coming in handy at the weirdest times. I got a few packs of the Field Notes Pitch Black books so I don’t get precious with them; I always tend to do that with Moleskine books given to me as gifts over the years.

My configuration does change now and then. I do have a Bellroy slim wallet that makes it into a front pocket, and I have a large and annoying car keyfob that gets hung on the Slide-lock as well. I try to keep things trimmed down the just the essentials but I use the items above all day long1.


  1. The Strider stays in my bag when I am at my normal job but outside of work, I tend to use it quite a bit. You do have to be sensible where and when to carry a knife, folks!