During the summer of last year I decided to go all-in on iPad only for work. I had been working with my trusted iPad Mini with an external keyboard for a while, but the screen real estate was just too small. After purchasing an iPad Pro 10.5 with Apple Smart Keyboard and the Apple Pencil I had no reason not to jump off the deep end, so I did.
Why not stick with the high performance Surface Pro my employer provided me with? I am not a Windows adept, having worked with Mac for most of the past 10 years of my professional life. My employer also opted to go all-in on Windows Office 365, which has good applications for iPad.
Who am I
In order to assess my work needs, it’s important to understand my roles. By day I am the director of Public Benefits, Public Affairs and the Transformation Office for Sodexo Benefits & Rewards Services in Belgium. In a couple of words, one of my teams managed the three service voucher systems in Belgium (Public Benefits), a 3 billion EUR business volume activity, while another team’s main responsibility (Transformation Office) is to provide project/program management capabilities to our Belgian activities en making sure we create a space in which business and IT can find, meet and understand each other. The Public Affairs team represents Sodexo BRS Belgium with its stakeholders and coordinates some of the lobbying work we do. By night, I teach, as a professor internal audit with a focus on governance at one of Belgium’s management schools, AMS. You can find out more about me here.
In all of these roles, I spend a lot of time in meetings, taking notes. I also think a lot, either with a group of people or alone, and I write. I write notes, position documents, emails (way too many …), presentations etc. Some activities require heavy internet use for research and exploration, which requires me to have a good system of capture and retrieval, in order for me to easily integrate what I found in my thinking and writing.
And I really, really aim to be as efficient as possible. There is a lot going on all the time, and I do have a wonderful wife and two great kids that I want to spend time with as well.
Can it be done? Can you get your work done with iPad only?
If you are just here for the conclusion, the answer is simple, yet nuanced. It’s a “yes, almost.” It is not a “yes, but” which would have indicated there were significant trade-offs. There are some, but they are not significant nor impossible to live with. However, there are some attention points you need to keep in mind. Again, this works for my specific use case, not necessarily for yours. Caveat Emptor. The paragraph “who am I” above should give you some feel for what I do.
I currently only need a PC equivalent for password updates linked to our local IT environment and for some of the more complex Excel or PowerPoint work, especially work involving macros.
But let’s explore the tools that I use, the way in which I use them and the limitations I encounter.
Office 365 suite
Central to my work is iPad’s Office 365 suite of applications. While I remain a bit frustrated by the fact that there is still no functional parity with Windows 10 applications, I can do most of what I need to do with these tools. But, and this is a big but, most of my work does not start here. More on that below.
The lack of functional parity is most visible with the Outlook and OneNote integration. On Windows 10, it’s easy to link an agenda item to a OneNote note … on iPad, no such luck.
On the whole, the tools function as they should, and can easily be called from either the web interface (via office.com) or via the Sharepoint application. The Teams application, a Slack alternative, appears to lag behind in its development as compared to its Windows 10 counterpart, but is usable on the whole. Outlook works as one of the better, if not the best mail and calendar app out there. The only two issues I have are the fact it does not easily allow for drag & drop of mail messages to link to my task manager, Things 3, and the lack of integration with Drafts. But I can quickly switch to Apple Mail for that. I have my professional mail account set-up in that application as well.
The gold star for the Office 365 suite goes to the OneDrive app and its integration with the iOS Files app. With the exception of research, I save pretty much everything I create in either OneDrive or in Sharepoint, and the OneDrive integration is almost seamless.
But, as I mentioned, this is not where my workflow starts. I’m a visual thinker, and mindmapping really works for me. My weapon of choice for this on iPad is the excellent MindNode app. It is simple, it does not confuse me with too many options, but it’s flexible in its export. I think it, I add it to my mindmap. I want to move it, it’s done.
On any given day, I have about 20 to 30 mindmaps brewing. I scan through them in the morning, often even just reading their titles, and I add during the day. It’s almost frictionless. I am sure there is an optimisation to be found when using Drafts, but that’s a to do for the far future. Right now, this works.
Once a mindmap, such as this article, feels ready, I export via markdown export to the next tool in my belt.
The markdown editor of choice, this is where I do most of my longer form writing, such as notes, papers, articles, blog posts … Ulysses allows you to edit texts, providing you with all the tools you need without getting in your way. Actually, the opposite of Word, which offers you lots of tools you don’t need and which tend to get in your way.
Finished texts get exported to Word or PDF format for final review, some cosmetic make-up, if necessary, and then forwarded via Teams or Outlook.
I’ve experimented with Agenda for a while for all calendar related notes, such as meeting notes. It’s an excellent app, but it is yet another tool and currently lacks key integrations I need. Granted, doing this with Ulysses requires a bit more preparation – I need to create sheets for every meeting and I need to remember to fill them in – but Ulysses is central to my writing and note taking … except for one other tool.
And that tool is Drafts. It’s hard to fully describe Drafts, other than to say that it is a tool to write text in and do pretty much anything you want with that text, in a very streamlined manner.
Drafts for me is like the small notebook on the table or in the kitchen. I will quickly write down ideas, or stuff which I need to deal with later in one way or another. It is, in GTD parlance, a bucket.
I am most often using it for drafts of emails. I’ve had situations in which badly worded emails went out into the world without proper review, only to come back to bite me later. Drafting in drafts puts at least another barrier between you and the email app. Sadly, drafts does not integrate with outlook, but it integrates with mail, which I have set-up for both work and teaching purposes.
I also often export drafts to Things 3, my task manager of choice. Things is visually pleasing and just works without being too complicated.
I have this strange relationship with task managers on any platform. I tend to overdo it, losing time dealing with my task manager instead of doing the tasks already. So a task manager that does not push you to fill in all of the fields it offers is a good task manger for me.
What it comes down to is that GTD is not a religion. If tags, or contexts, or whatever have no added value, just don’t use them.
Even loving Things, I still remain convinced a paper task manager is probably the most intuitive if it weren’t for the work you need to put in to manage the tasks.
One of the things Things lacks, is the ability to attach documents. This is where Keep It comes to the rescue. Keep It is a document management application on iPad which allows you to quickly save a document, a weblink, a file to the app which then keeps that link in iCloud and makes it available for al your devices. It integrates with the iPad Files app to make the documents available and it allows for easy linking with for example Things through its URL scheme.
I prefer Keep It over DevonThink mobile because it is easier to learn and to use. DevonThink is pretty much overkill for me. It also is not as flexible as Keep It when creating links to documents.
MarginNote for PDF (ongoing experiment)
One of the types of documents I keep in Keep It are PDF’s. There are a lot of PDF’s in my life, and I need to annotate most of them. I used to work a lot with PDF Expert, which remains top of my list as a PDF editor, but I’ve lately been experimenting with MarginNote.
MarginNote has an interesting approach to the challenge of dealing with PDF’s in that it allows you to select a part of the text in the PDF and integrate it in a mindmap like view, where you can rearrange as you see fit. This is great if you are reading for understanding and want to be able to retrieve a document later and quickly review what is in it without having to reread the entire document.
I remain a fan of PDF Expert, but I’m interested in what MarginNote will add to my workflow.
Not fullfilled expectations
When purchasing the iPad Pro, I have some expectations which are yet to be fulfilled. The main disappointment to date has been the state of handwriting recognition. I have yet to see an app where the quality, the speed and the ability to export will allow me to put an app in my workflow between MindNode and Ulysses.
Ideally, I would brainstorm with the Apple Pencil in MindNode, have the writing recognised in Dutch, French or English and then export that mindmap to another writing app in which I can handwrite, then export that first draft to Ulysses for further development. Alas, that app does not exist.
And before anyone says “Windows 10 ink”, nope, not really. Not by a long shot. Trust me, I tried them all when I was actively using the Surface Pro. The handwriting experience and recognition does not come close to what I can do on the iPad, which is still not enough for my needs.
So, as you can read, yes, it is feasible to go iPad only for work. However, in my situation I prefer to call it iPad first. I will revert to the Surface Pro (or my Mac Mini at home) when I need to do macro based work, but that is rather exceptional.
The limitations I experience are actually an added value. They require me to focus on the task at hand. The iPad remains a mono tasking device, even with multitasking possibilities such as split screen.
I try to limit the tools on my tool belt, although I am lured from time to time to experiment. Agenda was one such experiment, and I am looking forward to further integrations. Right now, I’m sticking with Ulysses for meeting notes.
An often heard remark is the cost of Apple products. While this is true, the quality of the products and especially of the software in the ecosystem largely offsets this cost. I remain wanting for a real equivalent of Things or Ulysses on Windows 10.