I’m Not a Mac #16–The ADHD Magic of Google Reminders

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This post is part of my “I’m Not a Mac” series, chronicling my migration away from Apple after many years as a Mac user–and my journey back again. Find other entries in the “I’m Not a Mac” series archive.

Another year, another round of reconsideration of my mobile platform choices. Yes, after many years as an Apple user, I jumped completely into the Windows and Google ecosystems, and then a few years later I jumped right back to Apple. For the past couple of years, I have written about my return to the Apple ecosystem, and since last summer, my jump completely into iOS, Apple’s mobile platform for iPhones and iPads. Since returning to the Apple fold, I have had cause both to celebrate and complain about Apple’s walled garden–just like I did the first time I played in it, and like I eventually did about Android, as well. Nothing’s perfect.

For most of the time that I have been back in the Apple ecosystem, and especially for the year I have exclusively used iOS (as in, I haven’t had a laptop or desktop Mac since last June), I have done my best to use Apple’s stock apps. Not because they’re essentially better than third-party solutions, but because I wanted as few distractions as possible to letting the iOS ecosystem work as intended to help me get things done.

There’s a reason I’ve cross-categorized this post in both my now anachronistically named “I’m Not a Mac” series and my ADHD category. Regular readers will know I have adult ADHD. Another imprecise appellation since no one develops it late in life, I’ve always had the condition. I fly without meds, which means I manage my ADHD via diet, behavioral techniques, over-the-counter supplements, and especially via app-based strategies.

That last part means I use apps and even entire OS ecosystems to download out of my occasionally unwilling brain and into the cloud information I need to remember and manage–including keeping mental notes, prioritizing tasks, managing accounts, prioritizing email, remembering important information I have to review, and keeping it all synced together and synced back with me when I need it to keep on keeping on successfully. Early after my return to the Apple ecosystem, I started to realize that Apple’s stock apps weren’t very good at helping me do all that. Little by little, I looked for alternatives to the stock apps I was using to manage email, manage calendars, keep track of tasks, read news, take and organize notes, and search and browse the web.

First to go was Apple’s stock iOS note-taking app, Notes. With a skeumorphic faux-textured background, no lined- or graph-paper guides, a flat categorization system, and a badly implemented method of taking and viewing handwritten notes, the app was and is embarrassingly outdated. The more powerful Evernote was a better choice for a while, especially when I used it with their associated handwriting app, Penultimate. But using two apps to accomplish what should be the job of one was still a burden for me, and their pricing became prohibitive.

I already had an Office 365 subscription to use Microsoft’s mobile office apps and I knew them to be awesome. (From the start, I knew better than to really attempt to exclusively use Apple’s stock, clumsy mobile office suite.) So I migrated my notes into Microsoft OneNote, which for the past year has perfectly served my needs for typed and handwritten note-taking, multi-layered categorization, and ease of syncing to the cloud. You couldn’t pay my ADHD brain to go back to Apple Notes.

With this app-based ADHD success strategy under my belt, I wanted to explore further ways to go beyond Apple’s stock iOS apps. I spent several months playing with third-party email, calendar, and reminder apps, looking for the Holy Grail of perfect inter-app and cloud syncing, to help keep me on track in all areas (email, calendar, tasks, etc.) simultaneously and with ease. I went through Spark, Outlook, Fantastical, Wunderlist, and flirted on and off–mostly off–with Google Calendar. Outlook came closest to meeting my needs, since it can display reminders from Apple’s stock reminder app–but what good is it if it can’t sync with my contacts? What I really wanted was Apple’s stock Reminders app to sync closely with Apple’s stock Calendar app–but incredibly, Apple actually removed that function a few years ago with no explanation why.

And then a few weeks ago, I read this: How to Turn Google Into the Best To-Do App Ever. Ordinarily, I don’t read a lot of Wired, but the title made my Scooby Ears stand up and go, “Hruh?” The idea of the post is that Google’s real secret sauce in terms of app-based strategies to get things done lies in the way that “reminders”–basically, Google’s replacement for its older “tasks”–are editable and sync perfectly among many of Google’s core apps. That single premise sounded a lot like what I’ve wished for from Apple for years, and was so attractive to me that I started researching and playing with those core apps.

I felt very Apple-guilty at first. (I know, I know, but I did.) I installed and uninstalled Google’s Gmail, Inbox, Calendar, Google App, Google Assistant, Chrome browser, and Google Play Newsstand over and over again. But the more I played with them, the more I realized that when I used all–or at least, most–of them together, I seemed to unexpectedly develop the magical ability–highly magical for anyone with ADHD–to almost effortlessly keep track of things and get them done.

And I wanted that feeling. Anyone with ADHD loves that feeling. It’s an awesome feeling. So about a month ago I took the plunge and migrated back to my old (and honestly, beloved) Gmail address and Google calendar. But I didn’t stop there. I also switched back to Google Maps as an alternative to Apple’s Find My Friends for sharing my location with my partner. (And really, for reliable and, unlike Apple Maps, nearly universal public-transit information.) I downloaded and began to rely on the Google App for voice-based searches that I didn’t have to repeat three times just to be understood. (I’m looking at you, Siri.) I downloaded and started using Google Assistant to dictate reminders and alerts. I downloaded Chrome to consider as an alternative to Safari and Google Play Newsstand as an alternative to the already mostly awesome third-party Feedly.

Some of that didn’t work. Most of it, however did. Really well, in fact. Before I tell you about that, though, I really want to make a finer point about what my ADHD-wired brain has needed from Apple’s stock apps that they just don’t have to offer. Here’s what I can’t do with the stock iOS apps. I can’t check or manage my reminders when I’m looking at my calendar or reading my mail. I can’t even see them all unless I’m in the Reminders app. I can’t snooze incoming email in the Mail app–a standard feature in 2017, have my email automatically bundled into categories, or have my Gmail messages pushed to the app. I have no way to see all of my upcoming reminders, tasks, and events in one place–even on the iOS widgets screen it takes multiple widgets to accomplish that, and reminders that I haven’t gotten to by their deadline disappear from my upcoming agenda. I can’t even see an agenda view on my iPad Pro unless I turn it sideways, which defeats the purpose of using it with Apple’s own allegedly “Smart” Keyboard. More amazingly, I can’t see anything except an agenda view on my iPhone unless I similarly and annoyingly turn my phone sideways from the orientation in which it’s intended to be used.

Migrating back into the modern Google ecosystem to try and accomplish the same things blew my mind. Granted, the learning curve on Inbox by Gmail (what a wooden name for a terrific app!) is a bit inconvenient, but here’s what I can do now that I couldn’t do before. Using Inbox, Google Calendar, the Google App, and Google Assistant together, I now can have my incoming mail automatically bundled into smart categories, snooze incoming email, schedule, edit, and most importantly review my reminders from my email and calendar apps, schedule and review reminders and timers via the Google Assistant, receive reminder notifications and alerts via all four apps, see all my upcoming tasks and events in one, single Google Calendar lock-screen widget, and see every view imaginable in Google calendar no matter which orientation I’m using my iOS device in.

But wait, there’s more.

Because Inbox views email as tasks to be managed, my email never just sits there anymore without an appropriate response at an appropriate time. And my reminders no longer quietly morph into mostly forgotten “overdue reminders” hidden in a single stock reminder app. Instead, they conveniently follow me from day to day on my calendar, reminding me of what still needs to be done. No reminder left behind. Best of all, because scheduled reminders appear directly on my calendar, I can use that functionality to time-block each and every one of my tasks, effortlessly setting what are essentially calendar appointments with myself to get things done. This was an unnecessarily annoying, multi-step PITA to try and accomplish via Apple’s stock iOS apps. But using the Google apps, I can time-block my calendar from any Google app in which I can set scheduled reminders.

And time-blocking with ease really is the Holy Grail of getting things done for adult ADHDers. The modern reminders function baked into Inbox by Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Assistant makes time-blocking easier than I’ve ever experienced it. From an ADHDer perspective, the past month using the newest version of Google’s core apps has felt like being shot out of a big, happy attention cannon.

Some things didn’t work the way I hoped. I wanted to be able to migrate to Google’s Chrome browser and Google Play Newsstand to take full advantage of Google’s new “Feed”–a column of articles that now appears in the Google App and is based on your interests as gleaned from searches and browsing history. For ADHDers, topic focus is always a good thing. But the Chrome app currently puts bookmarks one step further out of the way than Safari does, and doesn’t offer any ad blocker to speak of. (And life without an ad-blocker for an ADHDer is squirrel.) And Google Play Newsstand only pulls in certain sites, not any site on the web. So I’m sticking with Safari and Feedly–for now–since they do the good job I need them to do.

HOWEVER. And it’s a BIG however. (See what I did there?) Google’s iOS versions of Inbox, Calendar, Google Assistant, and the Google App have taken my ability to manage my email, schedule, tasks, and, really, life to the next level better than any app-based ADHD management strategy I’ve ever used before. All the big and little things that made me feel like I had to get out and push Apple’s stock iOS apps along? The Google apps just do on their own. For ADHDers reading this, I can tell you it’s that feeling of being supported in the right way at the right time so that your creativity and productivity can move forward without having to worry all the time about keeping track of everything else. As an ADHDer, it’s a feeling of remarkable support that virtually guarantees I’ll never use Apple’s stock iOS Mail, Calendar, and Reminder apps again.

Yes, I know I’m late to the Inbox party. No, I haven’t explored ways that the modern Google apps and reminders sync with other third-party apps, including business productivity apps like Trello. But the amount I’ve been able to get done in the past month using the Google apps and the level of focus I’ve held while accomplishing it all has been greater than any app-based strategy I’ve ever used. So take that for what it’s worth.

A couple of years ago, Apple bloggers were complaining that the stock iOS apps were held back from modern greatness by being built on a decade-old software foundation, much in the same way Windows was held back for so long before Windows 10. Two years ago I didn’t believe that was the case, but I do now, especially after using the iOS version of the Google apps that are stock on Android. That doesn’t mean I don’t still prefer the iOS ecosystem. I do. Most of the time, Apple’s walled garden is more seamless than Google’s. I love Apple Music. I use Apple Photos (though for full disclosure, simultaneously now with Google Photos.) Our new Apple TV 4 and its deep iOS integration is a phenomenal experience for cordcutters like us. (An upcoming blog post on its own!) And the integration between Apple software and hardware can’t be beat.

But Apple’s stock Mail, Calendar, and Reminders apps definitely can be beat, and Google’s solutions beat them soundly. If you’re an ADHDer on iOS feeling hamstrung by Apple’s core mobile apps, I heartily recommend giving Google’s Inbox and Calendar a try. Yes, you might feel guilty.

But God, you’ll get sh*t done.

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