Have you ever felt at your limit? Perhaps emotionally you’re feeling on the edge. Or perhaps there is little to no breathing room with finances right now. Or physically, you’re just tired and feeling overwhelmed.

We all need breathing room in our lives. As my friend James Clear says, that margin of safety acts as a buffer against the unknown and the unseen.

Over on The Focus Course blog, we just published an article about how to include in Margin as part of your decision-making process. It includes some questions you can ask yourself when you are setting goals and planning out your week or you month. It also includes a few bullet points to help you identify if you are good on margin or if you’re lacking it.

It’s a fantastic article, and it was written by my production manager, Isaac Smith.

Check it out: How to Include Margin as Part of Your Decision-Making Process

Consider Margin

Noise Cancelling Headphone Review Showdown: Sony XM3 vs B&O H9i

A few months ago I bought two pairs of noise-cancelling headphones:

  1. Sony XM3
  2. B&O H9i

First of all, noise-cancelling headphones are amazing! Where have these things been all my life?

Secondly, it’s safe to say that both of these headphones are fantastic.

These are arguably the two best pairs of noise cancelling headphones on the planet right now.

When I set out to get a pair of headphones, all I wanted was:

  1. Incredible sound.
  2. Something that would be comfortable to wear for several hours in a row.
  3. Something that could cancel out annoying background noise of people talking and kids running around in the next room.

I read tons of reviews. Watched all sorts of comparison videos. Asked around to different friends who already had headphones of their own. Even spoke directly with my friend Marius who wrote our own comparison review of these same headphones for an article on The Sweet Setup.

Now, what I should have done was simply pick one of the above two pairs of headphones and move on with my life.

But no. for whatever reason, I couldn’t just take other people’s words for it. I couldn’t just pick one and trust that it’d be great. I had to compare them for myself… Whatchagonnado?

I spent 29 days comparing them both and using them both. And to be honest, these two headphones are pretty much neck and neck.

There are subtle differences between the two. But the differences are so small that no normal person should bother themselves taking the time to obsessing over the small details between these two sets of headphones.

But, let’s be honest. We’re not here because we’re normal.

No, we’re here because we’re nerds who have been known to obsess over the details that nobody else may notice.

So, okay then. Let’s dive in.

Sound

I like a clear sound profile with full bass. And this is pretty much what the B&O headphones sound like out of the box, though I like the bass turned up a bit more.

After listening back and forth between a bunch of my favorite albums with both the B&Os and the Sonys, I think the sound quality is just about equal between the two. And by that, what I mean is that both of these headphones sound amazing and you will be able to EQ either of them to sound exactly how you prefer.

Both headphones come with an iOS app that allows you to adjust the EQ and sound profile. The Sony app has much more control and lets you really fine-tune the EQ to get exactly the sound profile you want.

The B&O app leaves much to be desired in terms of setting your EQ. They call it “ToneTouch” and basically all you can do is move an orb around inside a bigger orb to find a balance between “Warm”, “Excited”, “Relaxed”, and “Bright”. Which I’m honestly not even sure what those mean.

However, between the iOS Music EQ presets and the B&O Sound Profile settings, I’m able to get a pretty great EQ mix for the H9i.

Above screenshots: I have my iOS Music App EQ set to “Classical” and the B&O app’s ToneTouch set to the “Bass” preset, which puts the orb between pretty warm and excited. (Don’t look at me; I didn’t choose those labels.)

To adjust your EQ presets in the iOS Music app, go to the Settings app → Music → EQ.

I was curious what the actual Classical preset was doing. So, I went to Apple Music app on my Mac, where you can select a preset but then also adjust the individual levels. This is what the Classical preset levels look like on Mac:

Above: I like the Classical preset on iOS because (assuming it’s the same as on the Mac) it boosts both the bass and the treble. I wish I could push the highs up a bit more, but this is good enough.




Noise Cancelling

Neither of the headphones eliminate all noise. I had heard such crazy reviews and testimonials (especially regarding the Sonys) that I somewhat expected them to eliminate the sound in a room down to nothing at all. And, sadly, while they do work well they don’t work that well.

When comparing them side by side the Sonys were somewhat better for noise cancelling. Both sets of headphones cancelled out the same types of sounds — but the Sonys seemed to reduce ambient sounds by a few more decibels than the B&Os.

An example of a real-world use: About a month ago we had a late-season snow storm, and around 10 in the morning my neighbor got his snow blower out in order to clear his driveway. My office window is about 30 feet from my neighbor’s driveway. His gas-powered snow blower sounds like a lawn mower. I put my headphones on and I could still hear the engine gurgling. But then, I turned on the noise cancelling and I literally could not hear the snow blower at all. Pretty amazing.

Lastly, one thing that is important for me is that neither of the headphones cause any sense of pressure on the ear-drum (like the Bose Quiet Comfort headphones do).

Comfort

For me, the comfort issue ultimately comes down to the headband padding.

Alas, I don’t have much hair left on the top of my head, and what is left I keep pretty short. So whatever headphones I wear, it helps if there is extra padding on the headphone band.

In this regard, the Sony headband is just a bit softer than that of the B&O, thus making the Sonys a bit more comfortable. But for long-term usage, it didn’t really seem to matter.

After 3-4 hours of wearing either pair of headphones, I will get a bit of discomfort at the crown of my head where the headband rests. And so, alas, if I had more hair then I think maybe this wouldn’t be an issue for me.

Build and Style

No comparison here. The B&O are gorgeous, high-quality, and built to last.

The Sonys look nice and have some cool brass accents, but they also look more generic; they don’t have the quality feel that the B&Os do.

I also can speak to the overall quality of B&O in general.

I have a different, 4-year-old pair of B&O H7 headphones that I have used constantly since I bought them in 2015. I have traveled with them all over the country — never once putting them in a case — and they still look and sound brand new. The only reason I am “upgrading” to a new pair of headphones is because I wanted to get active noise cancelling.

Bluetooth Pairing

Look. If your headphones don’t support multi-device pairing then they’re doing it wrong.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

  • You sit down at your Mac or iPad to do some work.
  • You put on your headphones or AirPods.
  • But they pair with your iPhone that’s in your pocket.
  • So you go to the settings app on your aforementioned Mac or iPad and get your headhones to pair with the device you’re actually in front of.
  • Repeat every day.

Imagine instead a scenario where you sit down to do some work, you put on your headphones, and they are automatically paired with the device you’re using. Because they can pair with multiple devices at once! I can tell you: it’s wonderful.

The B&O H9i headphones can be paired with multiple devices at the same time. When I turn them on, they simultaneously pair and connect with my iPad and my iPhone. Then, whatever device I play music from, or watch a video from, etc. They just work.

I didn’t realize how incredibly helpful and frictionless this was until experiencing it. In fact, after having this “always connected / it just works” experience with the B&O headphones it has made my AirPods feel outdated. (I can’t believe Apple didn’t include multi-device pairing in the recent AirPod update.)

In contrast, the Sony headphones can only be actively paired with one device at a time. Like an animal.

Other Tidbits

  • The B&Os have an accelerometer feature where they can pause your music if you take the headphones off, and then they un-pause the music when you put your headphones back on. However, in my usage, it was always getting false positives and it was super annoying. Fortunately you can disable the feature — though it’s an incredibly obscure process that you would never know without reading the manual or searching for a solution. I’m not sure why this isn’t at least a toggle within the iOS app.

  • The stated battery life on the Sony is 30 hours compared to 18 hours for the B&Os. I never really did an in-depth test of the batter usage. But since February I can only recall one or two times that I’ve charged the B&O headphones, and I wear them for a few hours every workday. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that they get plenty amazing battery life for me.

  • USB-C! Yay. One less cable that I have to carry around and use. And it means my iPad can charge them.

  • The Sony headphones fold up and collapse better than the B&O headphones which, well, don’t really fold up at all. The Sonys also come with a nice, hard-shell carrying case. The B&Os come with a cloth bag.







My Pick: The B&O H9i

After all my comparing and side-by-side usage, I went with the B&Os.

To sum it all up for my preference as to why:

The B&Os sound better to me. They are full, with lots of clear bass while also having a natural and clean sound.

The B&O headphones have a much better build quality than the Sonys. Plus, they look cooler.

While I do think the Sonys had better noise cancelling, it wasn’t enough to tip the scales.

And, of course, there is the fact that the B&Os can be paired with multiple devices at the same time! As I said in this section above, multi-device pairing removes a huge point of daily friction which ended up being one of the big things that pushed these headphones to get the win.

If you’re on the hunt for the best pair of noise cancelling headphones you can buy, then my suggestion is that you get the B&O H9i and enjoy.

Noise Cancelling Headphone Review Showdown: Sony XM3 vs B&O H9i

Over on The Sweet Setup, Curtis McHale wrote a detailed comparison between what we think are three of the best note-taking, writing, and research apps: Ulysses, Bear, and Apple Notes.

Now, I realize there are LOT of other apps out there in this space. I can think of several other excellent apps right the top of my head. But we chose to focus on three apps that are most commonly top-of-mind for most folks right now.

For me, personally, it’s no secret that I use Ulysses for just about everything. (I’m writing this very link post in Ulysses right now.) I also use Bear quite a bit — as my central spot for “throwaway notes” such as shopping lists, errands, and other tidbits of short-term data. I would prefer to use Apple Notes, but its UI is a deal breaker for me.

Ulysses, Bear, or Apple Notes?

If so, then I’d love your feedback in this brief survey.

Why? Well… there are some ideas that I’ve been mulling over at The Sweet Setup, and it’s time now to begin moving forward with making something new.

Of course, before we get started, I would love your feedback.

So, if you have 3 minutes, then would you mind providing your feedback on this brief quiz? Your opinions and ideas would be invaluable. Thanks!

Do You Get Email?

Todd Henry’s Challenge Stability Matrix

Todd Henry Herding Tigers Workshop

Last week my production manager, Isaac, and I went to a workshop hosted by Todd Henry. And it was absolutely incredible.

(I’ll tell you more about the workshop in just a second.)

Todd is the author of Accidental Creative and an absolute inspiration to me personally. He does so well at articulating the challenges of creative life while offering truly helpful solutions. A few years ago I was able to connect with Todd for an interview discussing how to thrive under creative pressure, how to stay creatively focused, and the “myth” of work-life balance.

Todd’s workshop here in Kansas City was from on his book most-recent, Herding Tigers, which is all about leadership. (Todd has an online course version here.)

Specifically, the workshop hit on the challenges of leading a creative team.

Since the creative process is largely opaque — with a lot of complexity and intricacies that aren’t always obvious or measurable — then there can be a natural pressure and strain within the workplace.

Needless to say, I took copious notes.

So. Many. Notes.

One thing I especially loved, which was brand new to me, was the Challenge / Stability Matrix.

As a leader, you need to ensure that your company, your team, and each person within your team has the proper balance of challenging work plus stability.

This balance is unique for each team, as well as unique for each person.

You have your own needs and definitions for work that you consider challenging. And you also have your own different needs for what helps you feel stable and supported to do that work.

As you increase a team members challenges at work, you also need to increase their stability. Otherwise people will feel as if you are expecting things from them without giving them the resources they need. They will feel angry.

With the proper balance of challenge and stability, then people will be able to thrive.

Todd Henry Challenge Stability Matrix

This balance of challenge and stability is variable for every organization as well as every person on your team….

If someone on your team often acts irrationally angry, then perhaps they don’t have enough stability.

Or if someone is always asking for more work, then perhaps they are not being challenged enough.

Consider yourself, your co-workers, those you lead, and ask yourself if there is the proper blend of challenging work along with the stability needed to be able to thrive.

Todd Henry’s Challenge Stability Matrix

Productivity and Promises

Your productivity and your moral character are not intertwined.

Meaning: Getting things done does not make you a good or better person. And, conversely, failing to be “productive” does not make you a bad person.

Now…

There is, of course, a connection between your character and your follow-through.

If you tell someone that you will do something, or if you commit to something, then, of course, you want to follow through on your commitment. You want to keep your promises.

So, in that way, productivity is a means by which we can consistently follow through on our word and our commitments.

But productivity can only be connected to our moral character in as much as it helps us to be the people we have set out to be.

But this has gotten blurry. Because many “productive type things” get thrust upon us by other people. People who have expectations which they’ve projected upon us without our consent!

They want us to reply to their email within their desired timeframe. Or they want us to be available on Slack when they need us. Or whatever.

And then they have the audacity to be disappointed at us when we do not meet their unfair and un-agreed-upon expectations of what they consider to be “productive behavior”.

Well, shame on them. We had better things to do.

Productivity and Promises

An Excellent Sugar-Free BBQ Rub Recipe

Here at the Blanc house, we love to grill. We’re also trying to cut out sugar from our diet. Alas, brown sugar is one of the key ingredients in a good BBQ dry rub. So I made my own that is sugar free, and I think it turned out excellent.

But! Before I get ahead of myself… I’d first like to insert a few thousand words about traveling and discovering my inner chef. Then, I’d like to say something about the history of this recipe and how it has brought my family together in ways we never thought possible.

Sadly, I didn’t capture any photos of the food itself after being cooked. But I do have this neat iPhone photo of the spice jar I bought at Target filled with the spices.

Sugar-Free BBQ Rub

Okay. All joking aside, here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

The Recipe:

  • 2.5 Tablespoons Paprika
  • 1.5 Tablespoons Chili Powder
  • 1 Tablespoon Kosher Salt
  • 1 Tablespoon Garlic Powder
  • 1 Tablespoon Oregano
  • 1.5 Tablespoons Rosemary
  • 5 teaspoons Mustard Powder
  • 1 teaspoon Cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon Nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon Celery Salt
  • 2 teaspoons Ground Pepper
  • 2/3 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper

Directions: Put all the ingredients into a jar or whatever, mix them up, and use liberally as a dry rub or marinade before and during cooking. Goes great with chicken, beef, and pork.

An Excellent Sugar-Free BBQ Rub Recipe

This article by Kevin Kelly is absolutely delightful and fascinating. Don’t miss out on page 2, where he shares a whole bunch of interesting tidbits about his photography and film during his travels:

I was photographing with 35mm film. I left home with 500 rolls of film in my backpack. I had 500 rolls of cellophane-wrapped boxes of film, worth a lot of money in those parts back then, and yet over 10 years, no one ever looked inside my backpack, incuding coming back to the US.

I would send home maybe 20 or 30 rolls of film at a time in a box. I asked my mom to put them in a freezer when she got them. The first thing I would do when I was back home and earning money was to start getting my rolls of film developed. It was close to $5 a photo in today’s money just to develop and print the photos. So I had to really think about it each time I pressed that shutter. It was almost too expensive to experiment. It sounds crazy now, but I often didn’t see my pictures until years after taking them! So as you could imagine, there was this really long feedback loop between when I took the picture and when I got to actually see what it looked like. That’s a horrible way to do photography where you never see your images. To make it worse, I only had a manual camera, not automatic, so my exposure and focusing could be off and I wouldn’t know it. Every few months I would buy a roll of black and white film and get it developed locally just to make sure my cameras were working.

I was shooting two rolls of film a day while traveling, about 70 photos. When I was growing up, my family would shoot a roll of 24 photos in a year, which was pretty typical. You’d have three holidays on one roll. It was considered radical, extreme to be shooting as many photos as I was. When I would tell people I shot 70 per day their jaws would drop. They couldn’t imagine how you could find 70 things to take a photo of in one day! That many pictures in a day was considered insane.

It’s amazing how much the accessibility of photography and its workflows have changed since then. And as a result, it seems as if the general interest in and love of photography is exploding.

Kevin Kelly: Backpacker and Photographer in Asia in the 1970s

After 191 Workouts in a Row, Here are Three Things That Have Helped Me

Six months and nine days ago it was the first of October 2018 and I decided to do a workout every single day for the whole month. And I’ve been able to keep that streak going. According to the activity app in my phone I am up to 191 workouts in a row so far…

As I shared with newsletter subscribers back in early December when I was just 70 workouts in, there are a few things that have helped me to keep this going. Here they are, revisited after an additional 120 workouts…

  • Just 15 minutes per day. I’ve discovered that I don’t have to focus on closing all my rings. Instead, all I have to do is get in a single, 15-minute workout. With that, pretty much everything else takes care of itself and I am almost certain to close all my rings.

  • Having a plan: By knowing when and where I am going to work out each day, I am far more likely to actually show up. (This goes for anything, by the way: from writing, to practicing basketball, to reading with your kids.) Knowing the when and where takes out all the stress and procrastination — all that’s left is to show up.

  • Accountability: I’ve got two forms of accountability: (1) my twice-weekly spin class and (2) my Apple Watch friends. Having these two groups of folks that expect me to show up is a pretty great motivator to help me actually show up consistently when I’m not feeling it.

    (Also, the achiever in me does not want to break the chain of all those closed rings and green dots on my Activity app.)

When I first began, it took a lot of mental energy to do a workout every single day. It was all I thought about — and it felt super inconvenient. It felt disruptive to my whole day.

However…

If you choose the right actions long enough, they begin to choose you back.

At first, you are pushing yourself toward your healthy habits. But then, after a while, your healthy habits begin to pull you forward.

After 191 Workouts in a Row, Here are Three Things That Have Helped Me

Austin Kleon’s new book just came out a few days ago. My copy arrived on Tuesday, and I’m excited to read it.

The book starts out with Austin sharing about how he has been writing and making art for over a decade, and yet it has not been getting any easier.

He writes:

Everything got better for me when I made peace with the fact that it might not ever get easier. The world is crazy. Creative work is hard. Life is short and art is long.

Whether you’re burned out, starting out, starting over, or wildly successful, the question is always the same: How to keep going?

Austin’s book came out at just the right time for me. Today — April 4 — happens to be the 8-year anniversary of when I began writing and blogging as my full-time gig. Yay!

I can definitely attest that it does not get “easier” and there is always a challenge to keep going. A lot has changed in the past 8 years. But wow, what a fun time and what a great job it has been so far. Let’s keep going!

Keep Going

This is what my Ulysses writing interface looks like on my iPad (which is where I spend about 90% of my writing time):

I’m currently using a modified and simplified version of the default Freestraction theme along with the custom font, iA Writer Duospace.

What I like about Ulysses’ ability to let you adjust your own theme is that you can design the look and feel of your writing app to suit your own writing needs and preferences.

It sounds kinda obvious, but I actually think it’s a big deal.

You and I have have different writing styles, goals, and preferences. And having the ability to create a writing environment that you actually like is important.

For me, I want my text formatting to be nearly invisible.

Because, when writing, you want to focus on the feel of the text not the think of it (which is the entire point behind why John Gruber created Markdown in the first place).

Anyway…

With all that said, today we just posted a quick-start guide that shows you how to find, download, install, and customize your own themes within Ulysses.

When you are writing, what is the feel of the text that best helps you to focus and do your best work? If you don’t love the feel of Ulysses, here’s how to change it to suit your mood. Heck, you could even set up a Day Theme and a Night Theme.

How to Customize the Look of Ulysses

True story. I was up until 11:45 last night getting a few final details in place for this new course launch. (For context, I normally go to bed at 9:30.)

Even though we’ve been working on this update to Learn Ulysses for the past 4 months, a few things still came down to the wire (for me, at least).

And I have to say that wow, I am just so happy with how this course turned out! It never would have happened without the incredible team at The Sweet Setup — everyone worked together on this new course to make it something world-class. A huge thanks to Mike, Matthew, Josh, Jeff, Isaac, Chris, and Joanna!

I am someone who is constantly trying to wrangle ideas and keep my writing organized. And I am so glad that I went “all in” with Ulysses a few years ago — it has been a game changer for me. And even more so now that I use my iPad for just about everything. (The Ulysses iPad app is phenomenal.)

The whole reason The Sweet Setup exists is to help people find and use the very best apps. And so I love being able to put together these training courses for my “must-have” apps like Ulysses, et al.

Anyway…

Right now, since it’s the launch week, the new Pro tier of Learn Ulysses is on sale for 20% off. (That will be until Friday.)

And if you are one of the 2,500 folks who bought the original version of Learn Ulysses before today’s update then we’ve got upgrade info for you right here.

The All-New Learn Ulysses Course

Matthew Cassinelli put together this fantastic guide for quick capture in Ulysses on iOS. He goes over the built-in share sheet (which is what I use about 5 times a day). And he also gives several examples of custom Shortcuts (with download links) for automating the capture of ideas, notes, and more.

Side note: On this Tuesday 26 March, we are shipping a huge update our Learn Ulysses course over on The Sweet Setup. This article on Quick Capture is taken from one of the lessons in the new course.

The Ultimate Guide to Quick Capture in Ulysses