Erin Brooks is one of my favorite photographers.

She is constantly capturing amazing, candid shots of her two daughters. Her iPhone photos have been featured by Apple. And she has a style to her photos that is really unique.

The reason Erin has been an inspiration to me is because of how well she tells stories and stays vulnerable in her photography. Not to mention the fact that she is constantly finding new and creative ways to make amazing photos right in her own home.

Last year, Erin wrote a guide for The Sweet Setup on how to take great holiday photos. I have definitely been taking her advice and finding inspiration in the photos that she shares.

Here are a few of my own holiday photos from the past couple of years…

(Looks like my photo skills still have a long ways to go!)

As we head into Thanksgiving, I asked Erin if she would update her guide for 2019. She added some new ideas and tactics, plus new photos as well.

Here are a few tips and tricks for how you can take better photos of your family. Happy holidays, and happy shooting!

How to Take Great Holiday Photos

A Blank iPhone First Home Screen

About a week ago I moved all the icons off my iPhone’s first Home screen.

Basically I moved everything over by one screen. So the first Home screen became the second, the second became third, etc. Now, my iPhone’s first Home screen is blank.

I just finished the book Make Time, by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. And one of their suggestions for reclaiming time in your day and improving your focus is to remove all the apps from your first Home screen.

In the same way that a small little meteor rock can strike the earth and create a huge crater — so too can small little interactions with our phones end up creating huge craters of time in our day.

In terms of absolute efficiency, a blank Home screen is not exactly the most efficient Home screen. By moving everything away from the first Home screen, it means my most-used apps — aside from those 3 in the Dock — are now one additional swipe away.

But I’m okay with that added bit of friction. It ensures that I’m being a bit more mindful and intentional when using my phone. I don’t know how many times I have unlocked my iPhone to do something, but then forgot what that thing was the moment I was at the Home screen. Over the past week, when I’m presented with that blank Home screen it helps me stay on track with what I’m on my phone for.

Secondly, I think the blank Home screen looks pretty great.

Lastly, I’ve found that the blank Home screen makes it easier to stop using my iPhone when I’m done with a task.

I always swipe up and up in order to exit out of the app I’m using and then exit back to my first Home screen. And so now when I do that, I end up back at the empty Home screen. And for some reason, that brings a sense of closure.

Side note: moving all my apps was a giant pain in the app. I had to move each folder one by one, from screen to screen. You can tap-and-hold to get into wiggly-app mode, and then once you’ve selected one app you can tap on other apps to select a whole bunch and move them all at once. It took me about 15 minutes — but it was actually a bit cathartic, and I deleted / rearranged some apps in the process.

A Blank iPhone First Home Screen

Sneak Peek at This Week’s Project

This week was my deadline for wrapping up the final version of a very special, very new project. And then, today, we recorded a bunch of videos for our upcoming 2020 Plan Your Year update.

That’s why, unfortunately, I didn’t quite keep up with publishing very day this week. But now that everything has been wrapped up, the NaNoBlogMo can continue!

Here’s a little sneak peek at what I’ve been designing and building all week…

Sneak Peek at This Week’s Project

Speaking of book lists, my production manager, Isaac Smith, put together a short list of excellent historical stories over on The Focus Course blog:

With the overwhelming noise we’re faced with on a daily basis, I’ve found more than ever the need for high quality content.

And by “high quality” I mean content that has been thoroughly and thoughtfully constructed. (Usually not found on Twitter.)

While there are a few mediums that would qualify, physical books are my preferred format. The ideas presented in a book must stand the test of rigorous rounds of scrutiny and editing, whereas the waterfall of commotion found on Twitter could be anything from angry rants of some poor soul stuck in rush hour traffic or an original idea whilst sitting on the throne of glory.

The bottom line is social feeds most generally present fast food ideas, while books offer well-prepared meals.

Isaac Smith’s List of Books Worth Reading

In his fantastic review of the iPhone 11 Pro camera, Austin dropped in this nugget:

We MUST understand our tools in order to successfully move through the creative process. If we don’t know about our cameras’ strengths and weaknesses and why they’re there, it’s really hard to solve problems and achieve our vision.

The more you understand your tools and how they work, then more capable those tools become in your hands as you use them to solve creative problems and do your best work.

Think about this beyond just cameras. Think about the apps you use; the team workflows you all rely on; the physical gear you employ. Do you understand them? Are they helping you solve problems and achieve the vision you have for your work?

Austin Mann on Tools and Creativity

Some Good Fiction to Read (During the Holidays)

One of my favorite things to do over the holidays is read in the corner while everyone else is doing something else.

Holidays or not, it has always been difficult for me to fully enjoy my down time without getting stir crazy. I almost always need to be doing. Something. For instance, on my most recent sabbatical week, I installed recessed lighting and smart light switches in our basement.

But there is something I’ve discovered about myself over the years: when I am with family I don’t feel the need to be actively productive. It’s as if being around family is the productive thing I am doing. Which I think is the reason for why I feel more at ease to just rest and relax during times of family-get-togethers.

Here are a few books I’ve read that I’d heartily recommend if you’re looking for some good fiction. As I was compiling the list, I realized that they’re all on the sci-fi end of the spectrum. Hope you enjoy!

Past Faves

Here are a few books that I just can’t stop recommending. When I read Black Matter, I literally didn’t do any work for 2 days; I just read it straight through until I finished.

Current Faves

Apparently 2019 has been the year of dystopian future, science fiction books for me.

Wool, by Hugh Howey. I grabbed the first Silo Trilogy book at a Barnes and Noble in January before a long-weekend staycation with Anna. I could barely put the book down. I bought the second book in the series — Shift — but only made it about 1/3 through before slowing down and moving on to something else. Though I’ve heard from many folks that I am missing out by not finishing it, and that the whole trilogy is worth it. So I plan to pick it back up once I’m done with what I’m currently reading…

(Side-note: There is a recent podcast interview with Silo author, Hugh Howey, and Shane Parish that is excellent. They talk about creative habits, self-publishing, and more.)

The Red Rising Series, by Pierce Brown. It seemed as if everyone was talking about this series on Twitter earlier this year. So I bought the first book — Red Rising — to see for myself. I could barely put it down. I have been plowing through whole series since the summer. (Currently about 20% through book 4, Iron Gold, and it feels like it may be the best book yet.)

Future Faves (I Hope)

There are few things both better and worse than finishing a great book. Having another great book in the waiting can help ease the pain. Here are some of the books in my nonfiction queue that I’m looking forward to reading.

Some Good Fiction to Read (During the Holidays)

An Unexpected Google Search Trick

I’m not sure if it’s the changing weather, or something else, but whatever the reason may be, my personal interest in photography feels like it has been exploding over the past few months.

And so, much of my free time at home has been spent reading through reviews of the Leica Q (and Q2) to get some inspiration for how others are using my same camera.

Also, of course I have been itching to get out more than normal to take some shots. And as I think about what 2020 looks like, I’m considering a personal goal of traveling to at least 2 unique destinations for the sole purpose of making some photos. So if you have any suggestions, please do let me know.

Anyway, as I’ve been reading, there is an interesting “trick” I employed for the Google search results as I have been searching for camera reviews and stories….

Most of the best camera and photography reviews that I have found are on pages 3 and 4 of the Google search results.

You see, I wanted to get some real life, normal-person, story-based reviews of the camera — as opposed to the sterile, press-release regurgitation articles that are on so many of the high-ranking websites that appear on page 1 of Google results.

And so, in order to get to the good stuff — the articles that were written by normal folks with normal blogs who had been using the camera for a while before they wrote their review — I had to skip past the first page.


An Unexpected Google Search Trick

Review: The New Tiki Fire Pit

Tiki Fire Pit

A few weeks ago, a giant, heavy box arrived on my front porch. Inside was the new fire pit made by the folks at Tiki.

My 3-year-old and I set it up in about 10 minutes. And when I say set it up I mean that he ran around with the fire poker while I attached the main basin to the legs while trying not to get stabbed in the head.

Tiki Fire Pit

Tiki Fire Pit

Everything about the Tiki fire pit is heavy duty and high-quality.

The basin itself is heavy. It’s sturdy, thick, and built to last. But it’s not so heavy that it’s difficult to move around — you can easily carry it by an edge around the top ring of the basin.

I wanted to fire it up and test it on my back deck. But after skimming the included instructions, I saw that Tiki recommends a 15-foot clearance on all sides.

Since I was literally playing with fire, I decided that for the initial test run I would light it up in the yard instead of on the wood deck. And I’m glad I did. The Wood Pack (which I’ll explain in a minute) produces a significant bonfire. And it is this 2-part combo of the fire pit plus the wood packs that make the Tiki Fire Pit unique.

The way it works is that there is a removable cone which you can set inside the fire pit. You then balance the Wood Pack bag on top of the cone, light the 4 corners of the bag, and you’re done.

Inside the bag are about 5 pounds worth of wood pellets. These are a special kind of wood pellets that have been mixed with a bit of lighter fluid, so they easily light right up. (Which also means that you won’t want to cook any food or roast any marshmallows over the Wood Pack flame.)

As the bag burns, the pellets fall out, and — thanks to the cone in the center — they get evenly distributed around the internal ring of the fire pit.

Tiki Fire Pit

Tiki Fire Pit

Tiki Fire Pit

Within a few minutes you’ve got a huge fire going. The pellets will burn for about a half hour. You can drop in another Wood Pack bag to keep the fire going or place some normal wood logs logs into the flame.

We had the fire pit going on a nice evening earlier this month, so my wife and all three of our boys were outside enjoying the fire. We kept it burning by adding some logs of Christmas trees past that we keep stored next to the shed.

And it is worth mentioning that you do not have to use the Wood Pack bags. You can also build a traditional wood-log fire in there if you’d like. But I love the idea of having a stash of the Wood Pack bags in my shed, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Tiki Fire Pit

I am extremely impressed with everything about the Tiki Fire Pit.

The build quality is fantastic. The details are all considered. The overall design of the Fire Pit is one of the best I’ve seen — it just looks cool (no anti-pun intended). And the Wood Pack bags make it very easy to get a real fire going with no effort at all.

Moreover, the slotted drum-style design of the Tiki Fire Pit helps to reduce smoke and collect the ash in a tray that sits below the basin. (Somewhat similar to the popular, but not nearly as handsome, Solo Stove.)

Tiki Fire Pit

As of this review, you can back the Fire Pit on Kickstarter for $305 (and trust me — you will want to back the “Extended Burn Package” so you can get those additional 5 Wood Pack bags).

I was told that once the Fire Pit and Wood Packs become publicly available, the Wood Pack bags will be available for purchase in sets of 4 or 6 for $31 and $40 respectively. That’s about $7 / each, which is a little more than 2x the price of a Duraflame log. And while the Duraflame log is great for getting a fire started super easily, it isn’t going to give you that huge bonfire like the Wood Pack bags.

So, yes, even at its discounted Kickstarter price, the Tiki Fire Pit is definitely on the high end of the fire pit price spectrum. But that’s because you are purchasing a high-end product. The build quality, the design, and the ease of use are all there. This thing is top-of-the line and it shows.

Tiki Fire Pit

. . . .

For years, my wife and I have had a cheap fire pit hiding in the corner of our back yard. It’s basically just a metal bowl on legs that we bought at Home Depot 10 years ago. And I can’t remember the last time we had a fire out there.

Being outdoors, sitting around a fire, is an excellent way to spend an evening — alone or with friends.

Sadly, my review unit only came with one Wood Pack bag. Otherwise I would have used the Fire Pit several more times by now.

You can check out the Tiki Fire Pit on Kickstarter. If you back it now, they’ll be shipping just in time for early spring — which is right at the beginning of when you’ll want to be using it.

Review: The New Tiki Fire Pit

On Quiet, Undistracted Alone Time

A few days ago Mike Schmitz wrote our pick on The Sweet Setup for the best meditation app.

I have long been a proponent and practitioner of regular, quiet, alone time — it is something that has (mostly) been part of my normal day for more than 20 years. (Even as someone who is 100% on the extrovert scale.)

If you read my article from yesterday, I shared about how to have an Apple Watch recovery day by using the Mind & Body workout type on the Apple Watch.

And, as I hinted at in that article, there is additional reason I like the Mind & Body workout type beyond using it as a recovery day workout.

I also like the Mind & Body workout type as a way to help me purposefully set aside 15 – 30 minutes of my day for some device-free, undistracted, quite alone time.

Now, of course, you don’t need an Apple Watch or a meditation app in order to set aside and have some quite, undistracted alone time. But if either of those are tools that can help you, then by all means you should take advantage of them.

. . . . .

Back in 2014 I recorded a podcast and wrote an article about something I call “The Just Checks”.

The Just Checks is about the habit of checking our inboxes: Twitter, Instagram, Email, Facebook, et al.

And the problem behind the The Just Checks is that they rob us of our ability to focus and do deep work (by training our brains to resort to inboxes when we are bored, or challenged). And this habit robs us of any quiet alone time. Why?

Because checking Twitter does not qualify as quiet alone time.

Though we may be physically alone, we are distracted and are not alone with our own thoughts — we’re scrolling other people’s thoughts, stories, inputs, ideas, opinions, etc.

And so, if our moments of down time are filled with inboxes and social media, then we’re never actually being alone. And over time this lack of solitude — “Solitude Deprivation” — can be a serious issue that can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.

My challenge to you this week: Set aside 15 minutes sometime this week to have some quiet, undistracted, alone time.

P.S. On my shelf are two recent books on the matter: Digital Minimalist by Cal Newport and Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday. To be honest, I haven’t yet read these books. But they are in my queue.

On Quiet, Undistracted Alone Time

How to Have a Recovery Day With the Apple Watch

There are a few things I have learned over the past year of perfect Apple Watch Activity, and one of them is how to have a recovery day without breaking your workout and activity streak.

Sometimes I think the Apple Watch fitness tracking is amazing.

And sometimes I feel that my Apple Watch is trying to kill me.

For example… My November 2019 challenge is to get a total of 1,690 exercise minutes, which is an average of 56 minutes every single day. Almost double my normal goal. No thanks.

Or, consider the “stand trend”. The whole point of these trends is that you are supposed to be always trending upward! But, at what point is enough standing enough? Some of us sleep while lying down…

Anyway, my point is that the Apple Watch is always pushing and challenging. And even though I joke about it, for the most part I do like that my Watch is pushing me to stay active.

But, at the end of the day, I am the one in charge of my health and fitness. My Watch is not a personal trainer.

That’s why I have been happily taking recovery days without breaking my activity streak.

Here’s how…

. . .

On the Apple Watch there are several default workout types, but all of them are active. (Well, walking and yoga could be a bit on the chill side.)

But there are also about 60 more workout types that are buried within the Other workout option.

One of those buried workout types is called Mind and Body. The Mind and Body workout is one that I have been using for the past few months as part of my recovery day “workout” each week. I have also begun using it in order to track my times of quiet meditation.

How to Unlock the Apple Watch’s Other Workout options

As I mentioned, there are about 60 other workouts. But you wouldn’t know it unless you went through a specific series of actions.

In order to “unlock” one of the awesome, Other workouts, just do the following:

  1. Start a new workout on your Apple Watch and select Other as the workout type.
  2. Go about your workout.
  3. When you are done, you’ll be able to choose a name for the workout.
  4. Now, that workout type will be available to you in your list of workouts.

What are the “Other” Workouts?

There are about 60 of them. From Barre method to Curling, Fishing to Golf. You can see a complete list here.

The ones I use on a regular basis are Play, Mind & Body, Flexibility, Climbing, Indoor Cycle, Core Training, and Strength Training.

Using “Mind and Body” On Your Recover Day

A few months ago when I discovered the Mind and Body workout type, I began using it on my recovery days.

I would start the workout and then take 15-30 minutes to sit in quiet without any digital devices nearby. Sometimes I will have a book to read, or I will spend the time in personal prayer and meditation, or just sit in quiet.

And so I am still being intentional with that time — I am using it for quiet reflection — but I am not doing an intense or active workout.

Is this Cheating?

Nope! For me, it is a very fair and legit way to stay intentional about my health and my fitness while also being realistic about the fact that I don’t want to do an intense workout every single day of my life forever and ever until I die.

What’s great about having a recovery day workout is that I still get the motivation and momentum of keeping my workout streak going while also getting the benefits of a recovery and rest day.

The recovery day helps me keep going during the other days of the week. I’m able to take a break without breaking my streak, so to speak.

The Apple Watch is pretty great for tracking and managing your health and fitness. I’m incredibly thankful for how much it has helped me over the years. But the more I use it, the more I also see that it does still have a long way to go.

If I felt that I had to continually push myself further and further and further, eventually you can’t go any further. But the Apple Watch will never tell you that.

In fact, I’ve come to to be more and more thankful for this workout type. Because, by starting a Mind and Body workout for 15 minutes, I’m actively doing something: I am being intentional with my health. And it has helped me to be less restless and more focused during those times of quiet.

How to Have a Recovery Day With the Apple Watch

Golden Hour at McKenzie Pass

McKenzie Pass shot with the Leica Q

Earlier this summer my family spent several days in Fort Robinson, Nebraska for a huge family reunion on my wife’s side.

On the second-to-last day, I woke up extra early in order to get out for some sunrise and golden hour photos at the Red Cloud Buttes which were nearby to our cabins.

I had already scouted the route via Google Maps on my iPad, and so I had a pretty good idea of where I was going. So I woke up before the sunrise, brewed a cup of coffee, and hopped into my car to get going.

When I got to the trail head (which was a turn-off from the main highway out there), it was blocked by a chained-off gate. However, as I inspected it the gate I discovered that it wasn’t locked at all. The chains were just dangled around one another to help keep the two swinging gate doors closed.

McKenzie Pass shot with the Leica Q

So far as I could tell it was a public trail. So I opened up the gate and drove on through to get to McKenzie Pass.

I spent a couple of hours up there, walking around, shooting some photos and just sitting in the quiet with my coffee.

The weather didn’t quite cooperate with me, as, it was a very cloudy sunrise morning, so I didn’t really catch any epic shots. Though there was a moment where the clouds parted a bit, and the sun was shining onto one of the rock faces. It looked amazing and I tried to snap some photos, but none of them quite turned out the way I saw it in person. But that’s okay.

McKenzie Pass shot with the Leica Q

I’m glad I took the time to drive up there and was able to do some shooting. There are several more photos I took around Fort Robinson that I’ll share later this week.

McKenzie Pass shot with the Leica Q

McKenzie Pass shot with the Leica Q

McKenzie Pass shot with the Leica Q

McKenzie Pass shot with the Leica Q

McKenzie Pass shot with the Leica Q

McKenzie Pass shot with the Leica Q

McKenzie Pass shot with the Leica Q

McKenzie Pass shot with the Leica Q

All these photos were shot with my Leica Q, and then edited on my iPad Pro using Lightroom CC.

Golden Hour at McKenzie Pass