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


On Twitter, I have been posting links to my daily articles with a preface of which NaNoBlogMo day it is. Like so:

Several folks have asked me if, technically, it should be “NaBloWriMo” instead?

You see, the original and popular name for writing in November is NaNoWriMo for National Novel Writing Month.

And so shouldn’t my change be NanBloWriMo for National Blog Writing Month?

Maybe. But, for one, it’s not really national blog writing month. I only know a handful of folks who are participating.

And, secondly, I prefer the spin and the play on words with NaNoBlogMo

…I like how it says “blog more” right there, in the name.

(h/t @jamesclear)


Annoyed Today, Nostalgic Tomorrow

Yesterday, after putting my 3 boys to bed, I was walking upstairs and encountered a fight scene on pause…

After dinner, all three boys had been at the top of the stairs playing together. My older two were having a battle with their dragon and triceratops LEGOs while my youngest was casually driving his little red fire truck around.

They had to stop playing LEGOs once it was time to get ready for bed, so they just up and left everything right where they were playing with it. And so, after the crazy-time bedtime routine, once everyone was asleep and I was walking up the stairs to my room, that’s when I encountered the fight scene which had been left there on the very top step.

I had to step up and over it all to avoid breaking anything.

And, to be candid, the left-out LEGOs totally frustrated me.

I was annoyed at my boys for leaving their toys out and forgetting to clean up before bed.

I was annoyed at myself for not noticing they had left their toys out and thus not reminding them — and “teaching” them — to clean up after themselves.

I honestly thought about “accidentally” stepping on the dragon and then telling my son it wasn’t my fault because he shouldn’t have left it there. (Let that be a lesson!)

I thought about what if there was an emergency in the middle of the night and I had to rush down the stairs but stepped on the dragon in the process and how bad that would hurt with bare feet and what if it even caused me to tumble forwards down the steps and break my wrist. Don’t my kids think about these things when they decide to leave their toys at the top of my stairs?

Yeah. So much drama for so little of a thing.

. . . . .

And so, as I picked up the dragon and the dino, and moved them over to the side near the wall, I considered the fact that in a few years from now I will miss these on-pause toy fight scenes.

One day, my boys will be grown and they will move out to live on their own. And my wife and I will finally live in a clean and quiet house. And we will miss the days, like this one, when toys were left on our steps and our boys were at home in the evenings to play and to laugh and fight about whose turn it is to brush their teeth first.

And so I try to remind myself in those moments of annoyance that the things which frustrate me now will one day be the things I will miss terribly and wish for again.

Annoyed Today, Nostalgic Tomorrow

How to Edit and Organize the Shortcuts in Your iPad Home Screen Widget

One of the best new features in iPadOS has been the addition of the Today View on the iPad Home Screen.

There are a few reasons I like it. For one, it just looks better than the plain grid of icons. But, more importantly, the Today View improves the functionality of the first Home Screen by turning the Home Screen into a home base rather than just a spring board.

I have especially love having the iOS Shortcuts Widget right there on the Home Screen, allowing me to have one-tap actions and automations at my fingertips.

Now, by default, the order of the shortcuts that appear on your Shortcuts Widget are the same as those in your primary Shortcuts Library within the Shortcuts app. Showing all the Shortcuts that you’ve ever created and which were toggled to “Show in the Widget”.

If you find that you have too many shortcuts in your Home Screen Widget, it can be a bit overwhelming. You may realize you don’t need all those shortcuts to be right there all the time.

This is something that has bugged me for quite a while, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I just discovered the solution to it yesterday.

Fortunately, there is an easy — albeit somewhat hidden (at least, it was hidden to me) — way to edit and organize the shortcuts that are on your Home Screen Widget.

To edit and organize your Shortcuts Widget:

  1. Tap the top-right carrot arrow in the Shortcuts widget to expand it completely.

  2. Then, at the bottom, you’ll see the option to “Customize in Shortcuts”.

Tap the “Customize in Shortcuts” button and you’ll be taken to the Shortcuts app with a special settings window that is specifically for the Shortcuts Widget.

From here you can now rearrange the order of the Shortcuts that are displayed in the Home Screen Widget and you can quickly select the check marks for which Shortcuts you do and do not want to show up in the widget.

How to Edit and Organize the Shortcuts in Your iPad Home Screen Widget

Today: A Nerdy, Live, iPad-Centric Webinar with Yours Truly

Update: Thanks to everyone who joined us live. It was a blast. We had around 400 folks join us live for the call. We went through quite a bit of tips and tricks and also answered a whole bunch of questions around GoodNotes, iOS Shortcuts, productivity workflows, and more.

During the webinar I got this note from Jerry V. who was attending it live:

“I am absolutely blown away by the quality of the information in the Webinar.”

If you weren’t able to join us, or if you are wondering about the replay, it will be added as a new lesson within our GoodNotes course. If you already have access to the course, we’ll be emailing you as soon as the video has been added. If you’d like to get access, you can sign up here.

Original Blog Post Below

Later today my friend and the Executive Editor for The Sweet Setup, Mike Schmitz, and I will be hosting a free, live webinar to share about iPad Productivity, workflows, and how to be gooder at using GoodNotes.

If want to use your iPad more, this is for you. And especially so if you’re a GoodNotes user.

Here are the details

What: A Nerdy, Live, iPad-Centric Webinar

When: Wednesday, November 6 — at 3pm EST / 8pm GMT

Here’s an outline of what we’ll be going through

  • The iPad productivity apps we use (and why).

  • Our iPad productivity workflows, including some examples of Shortcuts and how different apps serve different purposes.

  • Specific workflows for GoodNotes, including how to launch the app directly into a specific journal, how to auto-toggle Dark Mode, document scanning, and more.

  • Live Q&A

We are doing this in response to everyone who has purchased The Sweet Setup’s GoodNotes course and has been asking for additional, specific examples of iPad and GoodNotes workflows.

And so we thought it would be fun to host this webinar free and publicly for everyone on the Sweet Setup community.

If this is a topic that interests you, then I hope to see you on the video call.

Today: A Nerdy, Live, iPad-Centric Webinar with Yours Truly

Breckenridge Whiskey Barrels: Wallpaper Background

Breckenridge, Colorado is one of the best towns in Colorado.

It’s beautiful. It’s full of great things to do. It has a bunch of excellent food and drink spots. And, arguably, it’s home to one of the best bourbon distilleries in America.

I grew up not far from Breckenridge, and used to go up many times during the winters in order to snowboard. Nowadays I usually visit Breck with my family during the summer. And I’ve been hosting a small mastermind retreat there for the past 3 years in a row.

Earlier this summer as some friends and I were touring the Breck Distillery I snapped this photo of some of the stacked, aging barrels. It’s been my iPhone’s Home screen wallpaper for a while, and I wanted to share it for you to use if you’d like.

Download the full version directly here and save it to use as a device wallpaper on your Mac, iPad, or iPhone. Cheers!

Breckenridge Whiskey Barrels: Wallpaper Background

Start Your New Year’s Goals Now

The New Year is both a great and a terrible time to try and start a new habit.

It’s great because there are times and seasons during the year that are more conducive to starting something new. Spring and fall tend to be times when we take on new projects and goals. And, of course, the New Year also has its own momentum for starting fresh that we’ve even built into our culture.


How many New Year’s resolutions have you started that just didn’t stick?

The reason New Year can be a terrible time to start a new habit is because so many of us overcommit.

Why Most New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Last

Many folks’ New Year’s ResolutionS involve too much change all at once.

The problem with too much change too fast is that it’s very difficult to sustain.

When you start on a new habit or routine, it takes a certain amount of activation energy to get going and build momentum. And, the greater the change, the greater the activation energy required to implement that change.

For example: It takes much less energy to go on a 5-minute walk each day at lunchtime than it does to go on a 60-minute run every morning before work.

Keeping things simple was how I was able to recently complete 365 days in a row of perfect activity on my Apple Watch. For the whole year my main focus was to make sure I did a 15-minute workout every day. Just 15 minutes every day. That was it. And everything else pretty much took care of itself.

What Change Do You Want to Make in 2020?

As you consider the New Year, what new routine or lifestyle change do you want to make? Or what routine do you want to build upon?

Start by doing this:

Implement the easiest, and most simple version of that change now.

For example:

  • In 2020 if you want to build a writing habit, then start now by writing for 20 minutes one day a week.

  • If you want to begin exercising, then start now by doing a 30-minute workout once a week.

  • If you want to begin eating healthier, than begin now by making one simple, positive change to your diet.

  • If you want to learn a new skill, then start now by reading one chapter in a book, one day per week.

Consider it a head start on your New Year’s goals.

By startIng small now then it will help you build momentum and confidence heading into the New Year.

And then, as you start the New Year, you won’t be starting your new goals from scratch! You will already have a few months worth of momentum and experience that will give you a huge advantage so you can continue that momentum on into 2020.

Start Your New Year’s Goals Now