State Of The Apps 2023
State of the Apps is a yearly review of the technology I use regularly in my life and work.
By far my favourite app is Flighty. It’s a beautifully designed piece of software that does one thing very elegantly – track all the flights you take. Every year it gives you a nice end-of-year summary, like Spotify Wrapped, but for air travel. You see the miles you flew, countries you visited, airports you took off from and touched down at, even how many days you spent in the air!
Looking at my 2023 summary, I see that I’ve travelled quite a lot. Not as much as in 2022. But more than in 2019 and of course 2020, when travel ground to halt after a few months.
But something else also stands out. While I’ve covered a lot of distance I haven’t visited as many countries or airports as in previous years. A lot of flights. Not much variety.
In a way that’s a metaphor for the whole of 2023. Something that’s shaped how I have used apps and tools this year.
A lot of work. Not much variety.
But this isn’t a full review of 2023 and everything that happened. I’ll save most of that for next week’s year in review. For now, let’s look at the apps and tools I used in 2023, which ones changed, and what I’m carrying into 2024.
The Focus of 2023
Professionally, my goal for 2023 was pretty simple. I wanted to diversify the kind of writing I did and where it was published. In recent years my focus has been on writing a lot of blogposts, essays about creativity and technology, here on this site.
I wanted to explore other modes of writing; memoir, creative non-fiction, lyric essay, even flash fiction. And I wanted to try and get published in other places, such as literary journals. Finally, I wanted to see if there was any interest from agents and publishers in a book proposal I’d developed.
The results were, well, let’s call them mixed. I had one essay published in the wonderful Wilde Magazine. A lot of rejections. Many with helpful advice and feedback. All of which means I have a varied body of work to keep submitting in 2024.
But in terms of apps, it’s meant very little change in what I use and very little need to experiment. This wasn’t a year of trying new things. In fact the number of apps I use regularly is down, compared to last year.
Writing, Notes, and Research
What didn’t change in 2023 was the core group of apps (Obsidian, Readwise, and Scrivener) that I use in my daily reading, thinking, research, and writing. You can read about how I use those in The Journey of a Note and Compostable Knowledge.
I also continued to make journal entries in a Leuchtturm1917 notebook, both for personal reflections and for the kind of experimental writing I mentioned above. There’s something free and loose about the way I write when using a fountain pen. I end up with longer sentences and more vivid imagery. A lot of my more experimental writing, and increasingly the introductions to these essays, first take shape there.
The biggest change in 2023 is that I’ve almost stopped using Notion. There isn’t anything wrong with Notion. But writing fewer blogposts means I need the editorial calendar. I also don’t need the collaborative features I was using a few years ago. And Notion wants you to be online all the time, so I was increasingly finding that things like personal databases and collections of information worked just as well as spreadsheets in Numbers, or text in Apple Notes.
Yes, Numbers and Notes.
This year I rediscovered how useful spreadsheets can be. I’ve always wanted to have an offline database of all my blogposts, going back to 2004. Something I can use to quickly track the topics I’ve covered. I built it in Notion but it always felt a bit flakey. Turns out it works great in Numbers, with a page for each year and a solid interface. And I can refer to it offline whenever I want.
Another big change: I’ve started using Apple Notes instead of Bear for incidental notes. Bear is so cute, so functional. But also disruptively quirky at times. Bear did odd things to the formatting of text that I cut and pasted frequently, such as queries and submissions to agents. Notes is faster and cleaner.
Increasingly, this is what I want from every app I use in this space – fast and clean.
Unfortunately, Microsoft Word is on the list. Journals mostly want submissions in Word. Same for agents and publishers. And participants on writing workshops, readers from services like Pencilhouse, and many editors, offer their suggestions and comments in Word.
I hate Word. Word gives me a kind of creative PTSD. I started out on WordPerfect, which was a great writing tool, given what computers were capable of back in the 90s. But Word became the default, at least in the academic circles I was in at the time. It was clunky and unreliable, prone to crash all the time, but especially at 5am after you had been working all night to finish an assignment and meet a deadline. All my old folders from those days were full of multiple copies of the same document, saved over and over again, in case a crash wiped everything out.
Word crashes less these days. But it still has an ugly and confusing interface, and is still full of distractions. Everything seems to be harder than it need be.
For 2024 I’m looking for a way around this Word impasse. In particular I want to be able to format work for submission without having to pass it though Word. I’d also like to be able to handle Track Changes, when they come through, without using Word. Basically, I want to be Word-less.
Everything else can stay the same. As I’ve written before, there’s a reason pros tend not to switch apps all the time. Why Pros Don’t Always Upgrade.
I still plan my life digitally and live my days in analogue. I use Fantastical to schedule my commitments with the world: appointments, classes, flights, and entertainments. Omnifocus helps me manage my commitments to myself and the projects I undertake. Mindnode helps me create a graphical representation of the areas of my life and the priorities in each of them.
But at the start of every week, and during the course of the day, the things I do and the order in which I do them follow the notes and reminders I make on paper. I love the feeling of ink on paper; the commitment that comes with writing tasks down and the satisfaction of drawing a thick line through them upon completion.
In 2023 I continued my Don Quixote quest to limit the number of ways in which people can communicate with me. Each week finds me gently reminding people to use e-mail and messages, and not the thousands of other in-boxes that appear on every platform. The prevailing communication promiscuity is a madness which I will not indulge.
For 2024 I’d like to tame e-mail further. Despite using rules and unsubscribing voraciously, I still receive hundreds of unwanted e-mails every week.
And I’d like to find ways to make my personal productivity more sharable. I’m not sure if the solution is an app or an approach to how I discuss my planning with the people around me.
Apps played less of a role in travel in 2023. While I still used Verifly to do all the entry requirements to the US, there are no required apps for travel to Australia any more. It’s still an old-fashioned paper system. Japan now has a super-efficient digital system for immigration and customs, but it is browser-based and there’s no app.
I used the Qantas App on every flight. The JAL app doesn’t really work properly, but I do use JAL’s excellent lounge app to book a shower in the lounge or order freshly rolled sushi to be delivered to my quiet spot in some corner.
I still use Uber, at least when in the US. But sometimes you want a car that’s a bit nicer, driven by someone who isn’t in a hurry, and who will wait for you. That’s where Blacklane comes in handy.
And my favourite travel app is the aforementioned Flighty. This really is an essential download if you fly regularly, keeping you up to date with all delays, changes to gate and flight details, history, even the age of your plane!
For 2024 I hope to create some focus modes specifically for travel. Focus modes feel perfectly suited to the kind of hard app and communication switching that goes well with travel.
Social media just doesn’t feel urgent to me right now. There’s a mix of chaos, uncertainty, and confusion that makes it hard to justify investing much time and effort. Especially since no platform works well in bringing readers like yourself here.
Currently I have Bluesky, Instagram, and Threads on my iPhone. I don’t use apps for any of them on my iPad. I still check Twitter occasionally, but only through a Mac browser.
I still enjoy YouTube but I would guess my consumption of videos is way down compared to last year. A lot of YouTube creators I follow have slowed down the number of videos they put out. And after relentlessly trying new recipes during the worst of the pandemic, I’ve stopped watching so many cooking videos.
For 2024 I’m looking for someone like Hootsuite to support both Threads and Bluesky. Right now it seems you must post the same content to multiple platforms at the same time to try and find a scattered audience. In the future that will consolidate.
Other Honourable Mentions
2023 found me making more music and photos than 2022, but nowhere near as prolifically as pre-2019. I still use Logic Pro, Lightroom Classic, and Photoshop. I’m mostly using the FujiFilm X Pro 2 for photos, with the Fujinon 90 and 35 as my favourite lenses. But my studio is still in boxes after my last move.
I’m not using any notation software at the moment. Or editing video. Although I did pick up a DJI Osmo Pro 3 recently. So watch this space.
My listening cluster of apps is all Apple: Apple Classical Music, Apple Music, Apple Podcasts. I don’t have much interest in arguing whether these are all best-in-class. I use them because they work across all my devices. I can easily start listening to a podcast on one device and continue on another.
Eventually I will stop using Google Maps and switch to Apple Maps. Every time I try Apple Maps it feels like a better design, less clogged with distractions and errors. But after years of travel and exploration, I have so many places saved on Google Maps. If there were an easy way to import all those into Apple Maps, I would do it. But I haven’t found that yet.
For 2024 I just want to make more music and create more photos.
The Value of A Tech Audit
This year I’ve tried go beyond commenting on the tech I used, and to look forward to the way I might use that tech in 2024. This kind of exercise is useful because it encourages consideration of where our commitments and attention are going, whether there are better apps available, and how we want our lives to intersect with the technology that is available.
If you have some kind of public outlet, such as a blog, newsletter, or podcast, then it might be interesting to share your State of the Apps. I always find the exercise foments worthwhile conversations with my readers. Or you could just share some lists of the apps you used, and maybe the ones you recently switched, via social media or any message groups you participate in.
If you’re wondering how to choose the right tech for you, then I suggest reading How to Think about New Technology, where I set out some mental models for how to choose the kind of tech that will work for you.
Whatever 2024 brings, it feels like a good time to reflect on the tech we use, how reliable and trustworthy it is, and the amount of time we want to dedicate to choosing, using, and maintaining it.