Recently in productivity Category

iphone + mac + Things = productivity!

For years I've been wanting to implement a GTD-like system for tracking the dozens of projects I'm juggling at any one point in time. Everything I tried, however, was too daunting in terms of data entry and access, so I continued to muddle along trying to fit everything I needed to remember in the oh-so-random access memory of my brain.

Then I got an iPhone 3G for Christmas and everything changed.

Back when I first got my iPod Touch, I downloaded a pre-release version of a productivity tool called Things. It was free at the time, and it had gotten some good online reviews. But because I seldom carried my Touch around with me, it really wasn't particularly useful.

Now that I carry the iPhone with me everywhere I go, including to bed (the charger is in our bedroom), it makes a lot more sense to have the to-do list on it and easily accessible. (I find that I most often remember that task I simply must do today when I'm in the bathroom drying my hair in the morning.)

It turns out that not only have the developers improved and updated the mobile application (which now costs $9.99 if you didn't grab it when it was free), they've also just released a Mac desktop version. Both have clean, simple, easy to use interfaces. Even better, they sync perfectly over wifi--if both apps are open, and both devices are on the same network, they'll sync automatically without my having to remember to do a thing, or hook up any cables.

So far, the only real downside to Things that I've found is that it doesn't support the GTD concept of "context", which allows you to see all the tasks associated with a given physical or virtual context. They do support tagging, but there's not a quick and easy way to view everything with a given tag on the iPhone version. (A quick perusal of the forums seems to indicate that an upcoming update will support tags, so that may well fix the problem for me!) [Update: I figured out how to do it, though it's still not quite as nice as having it available from the first screen.]

So, maybe 2009 will be the year when I finally get at least a little bit organized! So far, it looks promising.

(I plan on doing a series of posts about the iPhone apps that I find most helpful; I've added a new iPhone category to the blog to collect them.)

working on the road

I'm terrible at doing work from home when I'm traveling. When I'm away, I'm focused on the things in the new environment--in this case, Microsoft activities. It's easy to forget that back home, people are waiting for me to get things done. It takes an effort to remember that home isn't in a state of suspended animation until my return.

So, today I'm going to focus on RIT work. Grading, finishing up details on the upcoming lab workshops, and grant research. It's beautiful here today--through my hotel room window I can see blue sky, green trees, and mountaintops. The temperature's in the 60s. But I'll be spending the day in my room, not out in that pretty day.

Must. Work.


The relative quiet around here hasn't been a sign of malaise. Instead, it's been an indication that I've been deeply engaged in activities that take me away from the blogosphere...and for good reason.

At the beginning of the year, I think I tripped an internal circuit breaker on clutter--in my office, in my house, in my brain. I didn't make any resolutions, per se, but I started looking seriously at how I could find a way to reduce clutter and the stress that it causes.

For dealing with household clutter and disorganization, I started with FlyLady. But while the basic approach is wonderful, I find the constant all-caps email reminders too much to deal with. So I went to the library and acquired FlyLady's book "Sink Reflections." From that, I learned that much of her method is derived from the book Sidetracked Home Executives by Pam Young and Peggy Jones. And it turns out Pam and Peggy have another (more recent) book on organization called Get Your Act Together!: A 7-Day Get-Organized Program for the Overworked, Overbooked, and Overwhelmed that sounded like something Gerald and I could really use to get our day-to-day activities better organized. I bought that one via Amazon, and it was money well spent--the book is well-written, entertaining, and full of good practical do-able advice. We'll see how that goes.

I've also started tackling our most cluttered areas, one at a time, in an attempt to lighten my psyche a bit. I started with the drawers in the kitchen (a manageable hour-at-a-time project with clear rewards), and I was ruthless about throwing things away. It doesn't make sense to try to store old knives and ladles for a garage sale we'll probably never have time to hold. Then I moved on to the cupboards in the dining room, which have traditionally been where we hide everything before company comes over. That was a job, but it's done now. And Gerald and I are working on the basement disaster area, as well, starting from opposite sides (I'm working through baskets, wrapping, and old toys; he's starting with the workbench and tools) and trying to clear a path. As evidence of what pathological hoarders we've been, last night I found an old plastic garbage can (the kind people put in their bathrooms) filled with the contents of our junk drawer--from Tuscaloosa. We apparently dumped it out into this container and moved it up to Rochester back in '97...and hadn't touched it since. <sigh> But we're making real progress, as evidenced by the mounting piles of trash in the garage.

On the work and mind clearing front, I've joined the growing number of geeks gone wild over David Allen's Getting Things Done method. There's no question in my mind that it's the most valuable book I've bought in a long time (and at only $10.20 on Amazon, you'd be nuts not to get your own copy). I'm carrying it everywhere with me right now. (Scoble, I'm so jealous that you got a house call!) I've got the book, and the only blog I've been reading regularly over the past week is Merlin Mann's 43 Folders.

My office has been mostly cleaned out, my piles are greatly diminished, and my files are starting to take shape. I've also jumped on the Moleskine love train, and have acquired both pocket and standard-sized notebooks, as well as a fabulous Fisher Bullet Space Pen (black matte). It turns out that all those people who say that having a high-quality notebook and pen makes a difference in your willingness to carry them with you and use them are absolutely right. I love the silky feel of the Moleskine paper, and the solid feel (and durability) of the Fisher pen. It's freed me from feeling lost and unable to work when I don't have my computer with me, and allows me to sit anywhere--not just near a power outlet!

I've still got a ways to go in implementing a full GTD approach, but even my baby steps thus far are helping me to feel less overwhelmed and out of control. And Allen's ideas for visualizing "WILD SUCCESS!" (with no "Yeah, but..."s) has helped me in getting unstuck from some important work that had really been stalled.

My next challenge will be figuring out how to balance and integrate the digital part of my GTD approach with the analog version. I've acquired DevonThink and OmniOutliner, and haven't really been able to figure out how to use them well--until this week, when I found some great sites describing how others are using them. That's how I learn best--by modifying what others have done. If you're in the same boat, I highly recommend Steven Johnson's recent post on DevonThink (and the NYTimes Book Review article he wrote on the subject), Frasier Spears' post on OmniOutliner Pro, and on the analog side, Omar Shanine's "How the Moleskine Rocked My World."

So yes, I'm still here. And doing well, thanks. I suspect I'll be blogging regularly again soon (I've even set aside a section of one of my Moleskines for blog post ideas).

multiple urls in os x address book?

Recently, it's occurred to me that I'd really love to be able to integrate my address book more with the social tools I use online. For example, Quicksilver makes it easy for me to go to a person's card in my address book and send them email, chat with them via IM, or copy their snail mail address or phone number. But what if I could, from the same screen, view their bookmarks, or their Flickr photos?

At first I was thinking that these would need to be customized fields, but then I realized that it's just an issue of adding additional URLs. Which would be simple, except that in Address Book you can't add more than one URL. That's stupid. Most of us have more than one URL that we'd like associated with us (or with others).

So, is there a plugin or hack for Address Book that allows adding additional URLs? So that QS will recognize them as launchable URLs? And if not, could someone please write one?

how i used quicksilver today

A few colleagues have asked me what makes Quicksilver better than other launcher programs that they already use (besides the fact that it's free). I thought I'd keep some notes today about how I used the software so that the day-to-day value was more obvious.

  1. After turning on the computer, I wanted to go to the comments moderation page for my blog. I've got a bookmark in Firefox called "comments," so I invoked Quicksilver and typed "comm". Quicksilver immediately suggested the comments bookmark, so I pressed enter. Firefox launched and went right to the page I wanted.
  2. I wanted to listen to Sarah McLachlan's Afterglow album while I worked, so I invoked Quicksilver and typed Browse. I arrowed down to "Browse Albums," then used right arrow to see my list of albums. I typed "Afterglow" and pressed enter. iTunes launched and started playing the album.
  3. Today's grading day. I use an excel spreadsheet to store student names and URLs, and to record marks for individual components of the assignment. I invoked QS and typed "409-042 grades" to find the spreadsheet (409 is the course number, 042 is the current quarter; I use this naming convention for all course-related materials), and enter to launch it in Excel.
  4. My dock icon for Adium started jumping to tell me I had an incoming IM. I invoked QS and typed "ad" to bring up Adium, and pressed enter to make it the active application.
  5. While grading, I had to send out an advising alert for a student who hadn't turned in an assignment. I have a bookmark for the Advising system, so I invoked QS and typed "advising" to find the bookmark and then enter to open it in Firefox.
  6. I noticed that there was still a PDF article that I'd downloaded yesterday sitting on my desktop. I invoked QS, typed the name of the document (well, the first few characters, actually). Then I pressed tab and typed "move", and tab again and typed the name of the research folder that the document belonged in. Pressing enter resulted in the document disappearing from the desktop and magically being relocated to the appropriate folder.
  7. I remembered that I'd promised a family member that I'd get some information from a mutual friend, so I invoked QS and typed the friend's name. When her entry from my address book appeared, I pressed tab and typed "mail" to find the "Email" command. I selected it with the down arrow, then pressed enter. Mail became the active application (it was already open in the background; otherwise it would have been launched), opened a new message addressed to the friend.

And that's just an hour or two of computer use. There are lots of other nifty tricks that you can use once you master the tool. I highly recommend reading 43 Folders for ongoing ideas and tricks.

geeking out with os x tools

As part of this whole "get things organized" kick I've been on, I'm also taking a hard look at the tools I use on my computer, and trying to find a way to streamline my workflow there. The first step was Quicksilver, but there's more than I'm working on.

First of all, I just installed Adium as an alternative for iChat. Don't get me wrong--I love iChat. I love the way it works, the way it looks, the AV support, etc. But it only allows me to log into an AIM account--and only one AIM account at that. I maintain two AIM accounts, one for day-to-day personal and professional work, and one specifically for students and office hours. It was a pain to have to log out of one to be in the other, or to have to run two different programs. Adium lets me log into more than one AIM account at once, so that's a big bonus. It also supports multiple protocols, so I can also be logged into Yahoo, MSN Messenger, Jabber, etc. Since not everyone I want to chat with is on AIM, this is also very helpful. And finally, it integrates nicely with Quicksilver (I can start QS, type in a contact's name, hit tab, type "IM", and Quicksilver uses Adium to open a chat window with them. Sweet.)

Adium's not as pretty as iChat, and I don't think there's an equivalent to my beloved "iChat Status" plug-in, which is how I put whatever song I was listening to in iTunes in my status message. And, of course, there's no AV support. :( That means I'll still have to use iChat when I want to do a video chat--but since that's not all that frequent a need, it's not a major issue.

Other tools I've just acquired (or will be receiving this week) include OminOutliner Pro, DevonThink, and VooDooPad. All have been mentioned positively by other OS X geeks, and since they weren't outrageously priced I figured I'd give them a shot. As I try them I'll report back here. In addition, I'm getting a copy of Aladdin's Spring Cleaning, and the 8.0 upgrade to my BBEdit 7.0.

On the non-computer side, I've ordered a Moleskine notebook and Fisher Bullet Space Pen, just because I know that I do better work when I have nice things to do the work with, and I'm a lot less likely to lose an expensive notebook and pen than a cheap one (the notebook was far less expensive that I thought it would be, though).

Finally, I got rid of about 25 books from my office today, and then set up my 43-folder tickler file. I've still got a ways to go before I hit the "mind like water" state of productivity. But as they say in recovery, "progress, not perfection."

falling in love again

It's been a while since I fell in love with a software application (apologies to those who thought they were going to get some juicy personal tidbits here). But it's happened, so I feel the need to share my happiness with the world. :)

The application in question this time is Quicksilver, an amazing tool that allows you to locate and launch documents, applications, and URLs quickly and easily. And to add icing to the cake, it's free! Yes, that's right. Free.

For years I've been using the very nice DragThing, which often draws queries from students and others who watch me using my system. But DragThing can be a pain to maintain--adding and removing folders and documents, making sure that the applications I'm using at the moment are in the launcher, etc. Plus it requires taking my fingers off the keyboard to click with the mouse/trackpad, which can slow things down.

Quicksilver is different. Once it's been installed, it runs in the background, and can be called up at any time by pressing a key combination. By default, the combination is ctrl-space, but I've changed it to command-space because that's easier to reach with my thumbs. (The reason it's no longer command-space by default is that OS X uses that key combination to switch between input menus in the character palette--that means those of us with Japanese language support enabled with find ourselves accidentally triggering Japanese character input when we press command-space unless you go into system preferences and delete that mapping.)

Here's a quick illustrated overview of how it works--or, at least, how I'm using it:

broken windows and technical debt

Just stumbled across an article called "Don't Live with Broken Windows: A Conversation with Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas," by Bill Venners. The summary says "Pragmatic Programmers Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas talk with Bill Venners about software craftsmanship and the importance of fixing the small problems in your code, the 'broken windows,' so they don't grow into large problems." But there's a lot more to it than that. Here's a great passage from near the beginning of the article.

Bill Venners: What is the broken window theory?

Andy Hunt: Researchers studying urban decay wanted to find out why some neighborhoods escape the ravages of the inner city, and others right next door—with the same demographics and economic makeup—would become a hell hole where the cops were scared to go in. They wanted to figure out what made the difference.

The researchers did a test. They took a nice car, like a Jaguar, and parked it in the South Bronx in New York. They retreated back to a duck blind, and watched to see what would happen. They left the car parked there for something like four days, and nothing happened. It wasn't touched. So they went up and broke a little window on the side, and went back to the blind. In something like four hours, the car was turned upside down, torched, and stripped—the whole works.

They did more studies and developed a "Broken Window Theory." A window gets broken at an apartment building, but no one fixes it. It's left broken. Then something else gets broken. Maybe it's an accident, maybe not, but it isn't fixed either. Graffiti starts to appear. More and more damage accumulates. Very quickly you get an exponential ramp. The whole building decays. Tenants move out. Crime moves in. And you've lost the game. It's all over.

We use the broken window theory as a metaphor for managing technical debt on a project.

Bill Venners: What is technical debt?

Andy Hunt: That's a term from Ward's Wiki. (See Resources.) Every time you postpone a fix, you incur a debt. You may know something is broken, but you don't have time to fix it right now. Boom. That goes in the ledger. You're in debt. There's something you've got to fix. Like real debt, that may be fine if you manage it. If you've got a couple of those--even a lot of those--if you're on top of it, that's fine. You do a release get it out on time. Then you go back and patch a few things up. But just like real debt, it doesn't take much to get to the point where you can never pay it back, where you have so many problems you can never go back and address them.

I've been in organizational debt for a long time now. It will take me a while to climb out of the hole, but I'm determined to do it--at home and at work. This week I've had a taste of what debt-free living could feel like, and it's awfully nice.

fun with flying and folders

I'm making some changes in the way I deal with the chaos and stress in my life, and it's already resulting in my feeling better.

The FlyLady approach to cleaning is working out pretty well so far. My sink is shining, and I know where my laundry is. The boys are learning to put dishes into the dishwasher instead of on the counter, and I'm putting out fires in my "hotspots" (the places where clutter gathers first, like coffee tables) every night so that they don't have time to get out of control. Can I keep this up? I don't know. But I'm sure going to try, because it makes me feel so much better to walk into the house at the end of the day, or wake up and go into the kitchen in the morning, and not be confronted with acres of clutter and cleaning to do.

I've posted chore charts in the boys' rooms, too, so that we can cut down on the "but I fed the lizards yesterday" arguments. And part of their chores from now on will be to alternate days wiping down their bathroom so that it doesn't reach the "I can't take this anymore!" stage. They were not thrilled about that assignment, but I'm okay with that.

That still leaves the minor detail of my day job, which is a non-trivial source of stress and chaos in my life. For that, I'm doing two things. First, I've started reading the highly-recommended book Getting Things Done, by David Allen. It's brilliant. My first key take-away from it is that I've been trying to keep way too much information in my head, and I need to start offloading it into external storage.

Towards that end, I've also started reading Merlin Mann's excellent blog 43 Folders, which is essentially about how to adapt Allen's GTD approach to a digital lifestyle. ("43 folders" refers to the tickler file that Allen recommends, with 31 daily folders and 12 monthly folders.) Based on what I've read there, I've started a projects text file in BBEdit, and I've also installed Quicksilver (a killer launch/productivity application that's even free!) that lets me get to the file (and add to it) more easily.

I'm also trying to implement some of Allen's other suggestions--for example, if an incoming task (email, phone call, hallway request) can be done in 2 minutes or less, I need to just do it, not put it off. This is helping me get through my email more effectively. And what I can't do right away is going into my projects list, so that I don't lose track of it as it scrolls up in my inbox.

I have no idea how long this burst of productivity and organization will last. Taking a leaf from my recovery, however, I'm only focusing on getting through today. And for the past 24 hours, I've been doing pretty well. Tomorrow's a new day--with luck, it will be as satisfying as today has been.

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