Category Archives: Tools

Applications, services, devices or any other tool I use to get work done — privately or professionally

Toggl: efficient time tracking for individuals and teams

Note: I do not receive any payment or other commercial benefit for writing this post.

I’m an indie consultant and need to track the work I do for multiple projects and multiple clients.

My needs are simple:

  • Time tracking needs to reliable, and
  • It needs to get out of my way.

Toggl is a great fit on both counts. It’s built by a small company headquartered in Talinn, Estonia, so I don’t need to worry much about privacy concerns — GDPR not only applies, but is enforceable relatively easily.

My approach to time tracking is simple: Toggle allows me define clients and projects associated to the clients. When I start to work, I start the tracker, select the project and write a short description of what I’m actually doing. When I stop working, I stop the timer.

There are several built-in reports which give me all I need to invoice my work effectively.

In fact, Toggl allows you to do much more. For example, it supports time-tracking for teams. It also allows you to pre-define tasks and track time against pre-defined tasks (useful if you have submitted a task-based offer). I currently have no need for any of these features.

I use Toggle on the web, my Mac and my iPhone. It just works, is easy to use and hasn’t failed me so far. Toggl’s subscription fees are very reasonable.

Toggl’s support people are highly knowledgeable, very friendly and quick. I think I have only ever contacted them to discuss minor feature requests — I don’t think I’ve had any real problem yet.

I see me being a customer for years to come.

My distributed work audio and video setup

What has been helpful

Much has been written about audio and video setup for your home office already. I found Jorge Arango’s blog post describing his recording gear and INNOQ’s Effective Home Office guide helpful – and refreshingly brief.

What has been less helpful

As in any other field supported by technical equipment, you can spend a lot of money on gear without getting the results you were hoping for. Many forums and Youtube channels focused on gear review don’t really help you to make meaningful decisions. You might be led to spend much more money than necessary.

Your current gear will probably get you through the current crisis

Think hard before spending on gear during the current COVID-19 crisis – this money might be better spent elsewhere. Obviously, I’m in not position to judge your current situation or needs, but keep in mind that your current gear may well be good enough for the moment.

Some people may have hard requirements for high-end gear, but the rest of us can probably make do with what we got. Interestingly, I’ve seen plenty of pictures and tweets suggesting that “the rest of us” includes professional radio and TV journalists locked down at home.

The camera and mic on your smartphone are probably really good and will probably handle video conferences, voice and even video recordings well enough.

Your laptop camera and mic may well be good enough for video conferences – a little light and an elevated laptop position can improve results greatly.

My work gear

Note: I have paid regular prices for all of the gear I mention. I have not received and will not receive any payment or other commercial benefit from writing this post.

I have been mostly working from home for years. After running in circles for a while, I have ended up with the following:

  • Logitech StreamCam – a relatively new USB-C webcam; many other webcams will do
  • Røde VideoMic NTG – a relatively new mic with USB-C and 3.5mm connections, provides direct monitoring output
  • Elgato Multi-Mount with flex arm for the mic – this is robust enough for my needs, takes up little space, and is relatively unobtrusive visually. It’s also relatively cheap compared to some alternatives. If I wanted a dedicated video light or a green screen, I’d look at their stuff first.
  • Audio output from the speakers of my LG UltraFine 4K Display.

These are recent purchases. They worked out of the box without problems. So far, I’m happy with results from video calls on several different systems and some voice recordings. [Update 2020-04-26: Three and half weeks later, I’m still happy. Many more video calls and some more audio recordings without any problems. Other people on the calls where happy with the quality when I asked.]

The audio output from the speakers does not seem to interfere with the audio input from the mic.

The mic is an “on-camera shotgun mic”. It is very short but gives me enough distance to make work comfortable.

This is not the cheapest gear you can buy but fairly modest compared to what many Youtubers or streamers would suggest. It’s sufficient for my needs.

I wish I’d known – well, believed – this before.

Final thoughts

Your mileage will vary. Your needs and preferences will be different from mine. This seems to work for me, but it may not work for you.

Many other aspects have a significant impact on the quality of your video and audio recordings other than the type of gear I’ve discussed here.

I’m looking to improve my distributed conversations, presentation and workshop game. This gear may make this more comfortable, but the hard work and the drivers of success are somewhere else.

Ulysses app and third-party Word documents

Increased productivity, and perhaps quality, too

I have recently started taking another look at the Ulysses writing app and I’m very impressed: it seems to make me more productive and the increased focus seems to increase the quality of my thinking and my writing.

It feels like these improvements are fairly significant, but I’ll withhold definitive judgment until I have a little more experience. I haven’t tried created many or very large documents yet, but the ones I created in Ulysses weren’t completely trivial either.

The problem

As an independent consultant, I often create the initial versions of (Word) documents for my clients. We usually collaborate on finalising these documents, e.g. for submission to end clients. At some point, my clients take ownership of these documents for future use and evolution.

Ulysses has been great for drafting such documents and it’s fairly easy to make exported documents visually match a client’s document templates. Ulysses has a style sheet approach to exporting documents, has a large library of export styles (and editor themes) and provides excellent documentation on customising styles.

But given the usage scenario I described, exporting a document that visually matches a client’s template isn’t sufficient. Future work on the document must be efficient and natural to client staff, i.e. things need to work just like in any other of their documents. To properly support my clients’ tooling, the document I hand over needs to use the client’s template just as if I had created the document in Word.

My solution

I have modified one of the built-in styles (Swiss Knife) and removed almost all visual styling — in particular, most font styling and paragraph spacing. I have kept some document-level basics and adjusted the indentation of lists. Where needed, I have specified the Word style names for specific Ulysses styles (e.g. “List Paragraph”).

In this way, Ulysses exports a Word document that applies the appropriate Word style to paragraphs and inline text without additional styling information: I get “Heading 1” and not something like “Heading 1 + Before: 10pt”, which is significant with regard to further editing in Word. (Note that Ulysses’ layout capabilities and flexibility are a great asset for its core usage scenario.)

The resulting document is well-formatted from a structural point of view. Visually, it looks like a document produced on a typewriter — without the flair of created by the mechanical device.

I then apply the client’s Word template to the document which results in a document with the appropriate structural and visual layout.

If the client doesn’t have a proper Word template it’s easy to create one from a sample document (via Save as Template).

Conclusion

This isn’t the core use case that Ulysses was built to serve: Ulysses is great at exporting well laid out documents that you don’t have to touch after export. This approach works great for documents that you don’t modify outside Ulysses, and I’m using it for this scenario.

But Indie life can be more complicated than that and so is the usage scenario I described above. It took me a little while to figure out this approach, but now it seems to work well for me. It seems both effective and efficient.

Ulysses’ documentation and its style library have been very helpful here. And so has been Ulysses’ customer support team who have been very responsive and have even provided me with a simplified export style — a big ‘Thank you’ and a shout-out to Franz!

I look forward to using Ulysses more and seeing what it does to my practice as I get more familiar with its finer details. And just so you know, I’m not getting paid to write this post and I don’t get any other commercial benefits from doing so.