My Posts

The iPad Pro: A Welcome Relief From Multitasking

The New iPad Pros Can Help You Get More Done if You (And Whatever Software You Have) Let it

I’ve read a few reviews about the new iPad Pros that came out a couple of weeks ago. They seem to unanimously come to one conclusion: Great hardware, limiting software.

One of the lines I saw quoted on Twitter many times was one from Nilay Patel’s comprehensive review on The Verge:

I don’t think people should adapt to their computers. Computers should adapt to people.

The inflexibility of the iPad’s software to do what a person wants, most often in the way a person wants, seems to be a consistent refrain.

The problem is, we have spent decades adapting to our computers — either unwittingly or by choice. If you’re like me, a kid born in the late 70s or early 80s and later, you’ve spent the better part of your educational and professional career trying to get your computer to adapt to you. An objective look at this says we haven’t had a great track record. It takes practice or a willingness to try and fail to do the most basic things.

Take a simple copy and paste operation on a computer. It’s only natural to people because we’ve done it literally thousands of times. If you’ve spent time with someone learning how to work a computer for the first time, you know it’s anything but second nature. They’ll often use menus, hunting for the right command, rather than simple shortcuts and right-clicks of the mouse that we all eventually learn. Even things like mouse usage aren’t natural in the human sense, but simply natural in decades of computing.

My point isn’t to simply dive all in on Patel’s argument here. But I think the iPad’s limitations are actually a benefit to not just our relationship with technology, but with the way we do our work productively with the help of technology.

A multitasking myth

Humans don’t multitask. We’re very adept at switching between multiple tasks but there is a switching cost involved in all of those different changes. The cost of this multitasking is actually reduced capacity and productivity. People who claim to be good at multitasking are often as bad, or worse, than their more-aware counterparts.

I don’t pretend to be above this myth myself. I’ll answer emails at the playground with my daughter. I’ll be on Slack or chat during long conference calls where I’m primarily a listener taking notes. I have to fight against this learned instinct at every turn.

But, if I’m being honest with myself, I’m not doing any of these things well when I try to do multiple things at once. My primary attention is focused on one task but is being split in many different directions.

When I use MacOS, Windows, or ChromeOS, the only limit on multitasking is my monitor size, the capabilities of my machine to run multiple programs, and my ability to see everything. There is no gate on my ability to switch between email, chat, Slack, GoToMeeting, text messages, personal emails, sports sites, reddit, and more — all in the same screen.

These computers that boast productivity and power have the unique ability to hamper your ability to get stuff done, at least in an efficient manner.

The iPad: A singletasker’s dream

The alternative to multitasking is singletasking: Focusing on one thing, rather than impossibly dividing that attention between multiple things. Devora Zack’s Singletasking: Get More Done-One Thing at a Time gives you a framework for doing this by arranging your schedule and environment to make you more productive and sane.

There are all kinds of guides beyond Zack’s book that can help you create a system that works for you so I don’t want to create a primer on singletasking.

Three apps… kinda sucks. This is a good thing.

What I will tell you is that an iPad is uniquely capable of helping you focus this way, by design. Even on the largest iPad, you can only have three apps open and on your screen at once, two in split screen and one in pull over mode. In order to multitask on your iPad, you have to do so intentionally. You don’t accidentally get into multitasking mode.

Now, there’s one tweak that makes singletasking really shine on the iPad but I don’t think many will like it: Turn off your notifications. All of them if you can, but you can also use the do not disturb setting built into iOS to help you focus even more at the task at hand. My phone and watch do a better job of notifying me of truly important messages so I generally manage it through there. Outside of calendar notifications that keep me from missing meetings, I try to keep my notifications off or to a bare minimum.

There are apps that let you do similar things on Mac and PC to create a space for singletasking. But on a traditional laptop computer, you have to be intentional about going into singletask mode and the allure of multitasking is the default.

I’ve tried hard to be the boss of my schedule and technology. The iPad Pro is part of my strategy for reducing how many devices I have to switch between. Outside of productivity reasons, there’s another reason why traveling with my work-provided MacBook Pro has become even less and less important.

Better than a laptop in many ways

I’ve been on the iPad train for a long time, but until I got a cellular version of the iPad and a keyboard, I’d say my tablet use had been relegated to a couch or vacation device.

There are more than a few use cases where the iPad almost always gets pulled out, even if I already have my laptop.

  • Traveling: From tiny tray tables, to inconsistent hotspots, and the sheer versatility of being able to use with touch or keyboard, the iPad is fantastic. From quickly checking emails and travel schedules to downloading and watching movies from Netflix and Amazon Prime. Oh, forgot to download a magazine or a book on the Kindle app? No problem, even if you’re outside of the range of crappy airport WiFi.
  • Commuting: I just started commuting again after almost a decade of working from home. I already loved taking my iPad Pro to the coffee shop, but being able to work from a bus seat or the middle of San Francisco Bay on a ferry is great. I spend my commutes in looking at my calendar, my work tasks, and creating a plan for getting it all done. On the way home, I close up my day, archive emails, and maybe watch a TV show.
  • Meetings: I end up going to many meetings and an iPad not only keeps me connected but I am able to be more focused on the meeting and note taking. When we’ve dialed in other people, it makes a great speakerphone with its many microphones.
  • Around the house: My wife and I own a 15” MacBook Pro and an ancient Mac Mini that we share. The Mac Mini is basically a host for all of our backups, movies, and music and we share the MacBook Pro for when we need a computer. My wife also has an iPad Mini and my daughter a regular iPad. We both ended up selling our regular MacBook and MacBook Air because we would go weeks between using them. The iPad has basically stepped in for all of my personal computing outside of a few niche tasks (like our owned digital music and movie collection).
  • A second traveling screen: In the cases where I do need to bring my work MacBook Pro, the iPad gives me more screen real estate with the help of Duet (iOS, MacOS/Windows, $9.99). The problem with this I have less and less reason to bring a MacBook Pro with me. I generally leave it docked in the office except for the once a week I bring it home to back it up to Time Machine.

Not for every use case

Now, I will admit, I have an ideal case to use an iPad. My work uses Google’s G-Suite for productivity. Their apps are all more than fine for my use and we’ve built letterhead and slides templates to let me quickly and easily create new docs. The only other app I use a ton is Bear (iOS, MacOS, $15/year) for note taking and research compilation. I’ve used on occasion the Microsoft Office Suite (free with subscription), which seems to be pretty outside of certain functionality, particularly in Excel — an app I hope I never have to be a heavy user of.

In my work as a practice director for a marketing agency, document and slide creation are my typical deliverables for work and I’ve typed hundreds of thousands of words on my iPad. I’d love to have support for the mouse so I can plug the iPad into a giant screen and manipulate it, but not at the expense of the intuitive touch experience. If it’s a choice between one or the other, I’ll take the iPad as it is today.

My glowing review aside, there are some issues primarily driven by apps. For example, until recently, our project management system Workfront wasn’t available on iPad. Even now, tracking time against client work isn’t always so straightforward and seeing my Flash-based capacity allocation report simply isn’t possible (this will soon be fixed, I’m told).

Most of the problems I’ve encountered look like this one: A particular piece of web-based software is difficult to run or incapable of running on iPad. Or, an app that only runs on Windows or Mac and has no web-based alternative.

The reasons why people are still using these pieces of software or sites are usually for both good and bad reasons: They run some critical piece of their business and it may get updated, some day. In enterprise software, mobile capability is often dumbed down rather than gracefully made easier to use.

Even consumer apps, like Google’s Gmail app (iOS, free), don’t always play nicely with features on the iPad, such as split view

As a consumer, we can make decisions to use software that works nicely with our devices but most of us aren’t lucky enough to do so with work applications.

If you’re in that unfortunate case, and that software is the center of your world, you’ll certainly get less value out of an iPad. But, I think for many casual home computer users with minimal niche software needs, an iPad (or even Chromebook) is a better choice than a full featured operating system.

Changing yourself is tough

A full operating system might feel more familiar but let’s not pretend that we have been trained by our computers to do things in a certain way.

For those who never felt at home on a computer or might never have to be at home on a computer, an iPad can feel like a more natural experience. I can jump right into my iPad and read a book where I left off or watch a show. Similarly, I can pick up this post where I left off in three taps.

Retraining my brain to prefer the get in, get out approach to iPad to the world of multiple apps on the laptop that I could open all at once, always at the ready for me was the toughest part about the transition. There are some things that are slower, like copying and pasting from other apps, or moving documents from one place to another. I’ve learned some shortcuts that make it easier, but ultimately, you have to decide if the savings a few seconds when you’re going back and forth copying and pasting between docs is worth the time lost in a multitasking black hole.

That said, it feels good working on my laptop — even if it might not get my work done faster or better on it. But singletasking feels good for how much I can complete and how good it feels to focus, especially on ideas. The versatility to turn from that into a device that is as easy to enjoy live sports, movies, games, and music on as well makes the iPad my favorite computing device since my first smartphone.

Can you get real work done?

This question has popped up again and again in thinking about the iPad’s place in a person’s tech stack. While it’s an individual determination, I can say with full confidence that yes, real work can get done on an iPad. I’ve researched, outlined, created, and delivered reports and presentations with my iPad as my primary device. I got paid real money to do this work, too.

Here’s the thing: I couldn’t imagine getting this work done as well without it. The fact is at the bare minimum, it stands in for significant portions of my work — especially researching and outlining — makes it a key piece of how I can get work done at a reasonable quantity and quality.

It’s enough that I’m happy to bypass other upgrades to my technology to keep my iPad up to date, and spend $20 a month to keep it connected to my unlimited cell plan.

Can the iPad Pro do the same for you?

It does depend, but in looking at the way many of my friends and colleagues do work, I would bet that many of them certainly could replace their use of laptops and may even find themselves getting more done by eliminating another source of multitasking. What’s seen as a shortcoming of functionality can actually boost productivity. Intentional or otherwise, the iPad’s limitations have made me better at focused work.

Disclosures: Other than this section, I used my 11 inch iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard Folio to write the entirety of this article. All of the things I’ve written over the past 18 months personally have been written on the iPad Pro 10.5 inch I had before. I wrote this post in the Medium iOS app but had to come to the Medium website (in desktop mode) to add tags and schedule the post. So, why did I have to come here on my Mac? Because Medium’s app and desktop site on Safari do not support the ability to resize the header and body image in this story. That’s it.