Archives for Technology
If you find yourself struggling under mountains of paper piles, you might also be yearning for the day when those piles are replaced by digital files that are easily searchable. That will mean less time sifting through documents and you’ll be able to find what you need quickly.
But, though it may seem that clutter is only attracted to the physical things you own, it can also creep into your computers and make a mess of your digital files. As Leo Babauta put it, “there are costs to such packrattery.” Whether you’re storing lots of photos, music, or documents on your devices, if you don’t have a system for easy retrieval (just like with your paper files), you’ll likely spend more time than necessary looking for the items you need. And, if you have an influx of files that you don’t use anymore, they will take up a lot of space and make your processor seem like it’s running on molasses.
To begin the digital clean up process, start by …
Purging duplicate files
Have you ever bought something only to discover that you already had it? Most likely, you just didn’t see the original or know where to find it, so you went ahead and got another one to replace it. Duplicate files can be like that, too. When you can’t find the file you want, it might seem easier to just download, recreate, purchase or somehow duplicate what you already have. You will then end up with multiple copies of the same thing, which can make using your laptop or PC more complicated than it needs to be. And, like unnecessary multiples of anything, they will consume space that could be put to better use.
- If you find documents with the same name followed by numbers in parenthesis, like XYZ.doc(1) and XYZ.doc(2), they’re likely to be the same document that you’ve downloaded several times. Use Duplicate Cleaner, Easy Duplicate Finder, Double Killer, or Tidy Up (for Mac) to remove multiple copies of the same files.
- Schedule purging sessions at regular intervals (once/month, once/quarter) to remove your duplicates.
- Start tagging your files with names that are easy for you to remember, and consider using the same structure (e.g. YearMonthDay_filename.extension, 20121024_digital.jpg). Before downloading or saving a new file, use the search feature on your PC or mobile device to ensure you don’t already have it.
Remove programs on your mobile devices you no longer use
Grab your smart phone or tablet. How many apps are on the home screen? How many do you use on a regular basis? If there are apps that you no longer use or like, it’s time to give them the boot. Keeping them on your device eats up space, may slow down your device, and stop your phone from being backed up. In my case, I had too many pictures (along with some apps I didn’t use anymore) stored on my iPhone and iCloud declined to run the backup. After reducing them, the backups resumed.
- Starting with your home screens, remove your unused apps.
- After purging, take a few minutes to arrange the apps in a way that makes sense to you.
- iPhone and Android users (with Apps Organizer) can group similar apps together in one folder (music, finance, games, productivity, etc).
Organize your contacts
Digital contacts, like business cards, can linger around long after they’re useful. This is another area that duplicates can creep in, so look through your contacts list to remove them.
- Delete duplicates and update contacts with current information.
- When possible, separate your personal and business contacts.
- Keep your address book organized with programs like Google Goggles or Evernote Hello.
Cleaning up the clutter on all your devices may take a bit of time up front, but once you begin the process, maintenance will be easier. You’ll also immediately notice how much easier it is to locate specific information and you’ll have more room for the programs and files you need.
Many people use their computers to manage four things: work, browsing the Internet, music, and photos. For my family, photographs are a big deal. My iPhoto library is bulging at 32 GB, and that’s with 2009 – 2010 archived on an external drive. In short, my wife and I take a lot of pictures with our digital cameras and smart phones.
Keeping the lot organized is a challenge. Not to mention sharing with far-flung family and friends, as well as finding that one shot you’re after. While I love Apple’s iPhoto, I’ve been looking for something that’s platform-agnostic (Mac, Windows, whatever), easy, tidy and even fun. There are many contenders, but for right now, This Life is what we’re using.
There are a few things I like about This Life, and I’ll describe my favorites. It recently came out of its beta testing period and is now available to the public.
Getting Photos Into This Life
You can’t start using This Life until you fill it with photos. Fortunately, the process is easy. The company has made a free “uploader” application for both Macintosh and Windows. Simply download it, open it and follow the instructions. It will begin uploading any photos you throw at it. Depending on how big your library is, it may take a while, so go make a sandwich.
Once your photos are in This Life, it’s time to start organizing.
Many photo-management applications offer face recognition, but I haven’t found one that works as well as This Life’s. Facial recognition technology lets you give a name to a face in one of your photos. This Life then looks for that same face in the other photos and assigns that name to it. The idea being that you can search photos by face (“Jane Smith”). It isn’t 100 percent accurate but, boy, does it work well. It also runs in the background so you can do other things on your machine.
Once you give it a name/face combination to ponder, This Life gets to work. The next time you launch it, you’ll be given a few guesses to confirm. The next time, a few more. As This Life gets more confident, it does greater and greater batches and eventually leaves you alone. It works well.
This Life also handles duplicates very well. Specifically, if it finds two copies of the exact same photograph, it keeps the one with the highest resolution and deletes the others. That’s very handy and saves me from having to find those on my own.
There’s no This Life application for the Mac or Windows (aside from that uploader utility). Instead, you use it in a web browser. It’s organized in a very clever way. By default there are two “views,” or ways to look at your photos: My Story and Library.
The library view presents all of of your photos at once, in chronological order, from left to right (oldest on the left, newest on the right). There are three rows of photos and a pretty little drop shadow makes them appear to be resting on a big table. A slider on the bottom of the screen lets you move back and forth, and if you have a mouse with a scroll wheel, that will work, too.
Click any photo to zoom in and share via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or email. You can also leave a comment and perform simple editing tasks like “Image Magic,” which attempts to correct for lighting and color balance (hit or miss in my testing) and rotation. Finally, you can delete the image or download the full-resolution original to your computer.
That’s great, but the real beauty is in Stories.
This Life lets you group photos into what it calls Stories. You can think of Stories as albums, but they’re more than that. This Life’s developers refer to them as “living albums — they are a dynamic collection of photos, videos and notes.” I’m a big fan of This Life Stories.
Creating a new Story is simple. Just click “New Story” in the upper left and give it a name. Adding photos and/or videos to a story is even easier: just place your mouse over it and click the heart that appears. That’s it. Honestly, you can add dozens of photos to a Story in seconds. To switch to a different Story, select it in the drop-down menu and resume clicking hearts.
Stories are also collaborative. You can invite others to contribute to a story and upload their own photos and videos. My family has a reunion ever year, and everyone takes pictures. It was fun to invite them to my “Family Vacation ’12” Story and see their contributions come in.
There’s more to love like searching by location, which shows all photos taken at a certain geographic location, and tags, which lets you describe what’s happening in the image. This makes search very powerful, as you can enter “Jane eating cake at Grandma’s house” and find exactly those shots. Super.
Sign Up Options
This Life is free to use for up to a certain amount of storage, and additional plans increase based on the amount of storage you require. There are many photo management options out there, and This Life is definitely worth your consideration.
When you want to remember to do something — especially something that spontaneously pops into your mind — it’s best to record it as quickly as possible so that it doesn’t float away as quickly as it came. You can do that by using a post-it note, you can put a reminder in your Notes or Evernote app, or you can try Due, a simple (new to me) task and reminder app. I tried the app over the weekend and immediately liked it when I realized that I could get started right away. I didn’t need access to the internet, nor did I need to create an account (great time saver).
Here are some additional features I found helpful …
Easy to create reminders
Creating a reminder is intuitive and requires only two steps: adding a title and selecting the date/time for the alert. The app also offers four pre-set times that you can quickly choose from.
Save time by recycling your reminders
All your old reminders are saved in Due’s logbook so you can track and reuse them by creating new ones (with the same title and reminder times). You’ll save a bit of time by recycling instead of recreating the alert.
Set multiple timers at the same time
Need to check the roast in the oven in 20 minutes or to call a client at a particular time? Want to get that 3-minute egg done just right? Due lets you set a timers for each one simultaneously (something the native iPhone app doesn’t allow you to do). And, you can start the timer with just one tap, or rather, flick of the switch.
There is much more that Due can do (like sync your reminders with iCloud or Dropbox, assignable tones for each alert, integrate with other apps), so take a closer look to see if this app is for you.
Platform: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch (iOS 5 or later)
Other iOS apps like it: Beep Me (Free for basic version, $4.99 for paid version), Sorted 2 ($0.99)
Android apps like it: QuickTodo Lite (free), Due Today ($2.99)
What are your favorite reminder applications? Share your recommendations in the comments.
The last time I wrote a post about IFTTT a few people sent along questions about how it might be used to back up photographs you take with a smartphone. I can understand this desire as I haven’t always transfered photos from my phone to my computer as often as I should have. Two years ago, I lost a phone to the Delaware river, and many vacation photos went with it. My now-in-place IFTTT recipes would have prevented the loss of images. Here’s how to set up an automatic backup of your mobile photos. You’ll want to download Evernote, Instagram and IFTTT. (As an additional step, Dropbox is optional.)
First, a quick look at the applications.
- An action step
- A project
- Reference material
Evernote holds my reference material. This is information that doesn’t require an action but might be useful in the future. Evernote stores information in “notes” that are gathered together in “notebooks.” As of this writing I have 44 notebooks and 263 notes. Some examples are “Books to Read,” “Erin’s Wedding” (my sister), “Gift Ideas” and “Receipts.”
In this case, I’ll create a notebook called “Instagram Backups.” It will hold all of my photos for me.
Evernote is available across nearly every platform, including Apple, Windows, iPhone/iPad and Android. I wouldn’t want to work without it.
The social photo-sharing app is owned by Facebook and on smartphones everywhere (it’s available for the iPhone and Android). It lets you take photos, apply a variety of artistic filters and share easily with family and friends. You can even note where you took a given photo. It’s useful and easy to use.
IFTTT (If This Then That) is the scripting tool I’ve mentioned previously. You can create helpful, automatic little “workflows” without having to know any code or specialized computer programming. It’s my favorite thing to come out of the Internet in a long time.
Putting It Together
The idea here is that IFTTT will notice when you snap a photo with Instagram and place a copy in Evernote for you. This creates a backup and makes that photo available to you across every device that’s running Evernote for you. To get it working, follow these steps.
- Log into IFTTT and enable the Instagram and Evernote channels.
- Click “Create a Recipe.” The “If this then that” prompt appears.
- Click “This” to choose the “trigger.” Navigate to Instagram and click it.
- Several options appear. Choose “A new photo by you” and then click “Create Trigger.”
- The prompt returns with Instragram in place of the “This.” Now, click “That.”
- The “Action Channel” list appears. Click “Evernote.”
- Select “Create image note from URL.” This will create a new note in Evernote with your photo attached.
- Several options appear. In the field labeled “Notebook,” enter the name of the notebook you created in Evernote. In my case, it’s “Instagram Backups.”
- Click “Create Action.”
The screen will look like this:
That’s it! Now, every time you shoot a photo with Instagram, a copy will be sent to Evernote automatically. Nice!
I mentioned that Dropbox was optional. (Dropbox is an online back up service for your computer. There are numerous online back up services available, this is just an example.) If you want to use it as your backup repository instead of Evernote, follow the steps above swapping Evernote for Dropbox (or whatever service you use). Or, make a second recipe with Dropbox to create two backup copies simultaneously. Have fun!
How many unprocessed messages are in your inbox right now? Is getting to inbox zero one of your daily goals? I’ve heard of some (brave) people who declare email bankruptcy (deleting everything) because of how time consuming it would be to process every message. That might seem a bit extreme, but it’s easy to understand why someone would want to start from scratch.
Sifting through emails can be tedious, especially if you don’t have strategies for processing all your messages. It doesn’t have to be difficult, though, and you can use technology to help to keep your inbox from getting out of control. Take, for instance, The E-mail Game. It turns your inbox into a game and you get points each time you read, delete, boomerang, or reply to a message. You’re also timed, so you need to make a decision about what to do with each message pretty quickly (usually a three to five minute window). I’ve played it many times (and still do) to keep personal inbox uncluttered.
Recently, I’ve found two free web-based programs that remove email clutter that help me to pay attention to priority messages: Unsubscriber by OtherInbox and Unroll.me. Both let you unsubscribe from unwanted emails (like newsletters you signed up for but you don’t want anymore) and redirect specific messages from your inbox so that you can keep the important ones more visible.
Have a look …
Unsubscriber by OtherInbox
After signing up, you’ll need to give Unsubscriber permission to access your email account. The app then checks your messages and looks for the ones it thinks you may want to unsubscribe from. You can also select the ones you really don’t want.
The app also adds an “Unsubscriber” folder to your inbox. To stop getting unwanted emails, drag and drop them to that folder. Unsubscriber then tells the sender of those unwanted messages that you want to stop receiving them. While that’s being worked on, all new mail from that sender is routed to the Unsubscriber folder. Note that this folder is not for spam (you already have a folder for that). This app can be used with Gmail, AOL, and Yahoo mail.
Unroll.me, though similiar to Unsubscriber, is slightly different. Once you sign up and give access to your e-mail account (Gmail and Google Apps users only), the app scans your mail for subscriptions and then adds them to a “rollup,” or daily digest that is sent to you once per day. New subscriptions are automatically added to your rollup. A nice feature is that Unroll.me organizes your email into specific categories (Unsubscriber has a similar feature with it’s sister app, Organizer).
You still have control over your messages and can edit your rollup by returning some emails to your inbox or permanently unsubscribing. As you can see, I have 149 messages that have been filtered to my rollup, some of which I will probably delete permanently. Not having to scroll through them in order to get to the messages I really need to see makes processing email a lot quicker. The key, of course, is to check your rollup once daily and maintain it so it doesn’t become a repository for junk messages.
Both apps are easy to use and help you to keep your eye on your most important messages. This means you’ll be able to respond to messages more quickly without having to weed through less time-sensitive emails. And, you just might get a bit closer to inbox zero.
“Weren’t computers supposed to make our lives easier?” How often have you heard that question in a sarcastic or exasperated tone? The answer is simple, but unexpected. First of all, yes, computers are meant to make our lives easier. But, the reason it often seems they don’t is because computers are dumb. That is to say, they are machines and can only do what we tell time to do.
That can be a hindrance, such as when you can’t figure out the steps necessary to accomplish a task. But it’s also out greatest asset, especially when the steps are simple, clear and effective. One of the best examples I can think of is automation, and my favorite automation tool is something called IFTTT.
Automate Tasks with IFTTT
IFTTT stands for If This, Then That. You can use it to build actions, or recipes, to accomplish tasks for you. A recipe consists of two steps. The second step is triggered when — and only when — the first steps happens. To put it plainly:
If [this happens], then [do this other thing].
Let’s look at a few examples to get a feel for it. I post lots of photos to Facebook. I also like to maintain an archive of those photos outside of Facebook, for posterity and as a backup. I could do so manually, dragging each one to my desktop and then into an app like Evernote. It’s not a hassle, but I’m likely to forget a step. Instead, I have IFTTT do it for me. After signing up for a free account, I’m ready to make recipes. Here’s how:
- Click Create a Recipe.
- A new screen appears with “ifthisthenthat” in bold letters. Note that “this” is a link. Click it.
- Time to pick step one! This is the “thing” that must happen in order for step two to take place. Click “Facebook,” and give IFTTT permission to access it.
- Choose your Trigger. This is the thing Facebook must “do” in order to trigger step two. In this example, I choose “you upload a new photo.” Click Create Trigger to confirm.
- We’re back to those bold letters, but now the Facebook logo has replaced “this.” Click “that.”
- Choose your action from the grid. In our case, Evernote.
- Click “create image note from URL.”
- Finally, click “create action,” confirm that you see “if [Facebook] then [Evernote]”, click “create recipe” and you’re done!
Now, every time I post a photo to Facebook, it’s added to my Evernote account. It doesn’t matter if I use my phone, computer or camera. Off the image goes to Evernote, saving me time.
Using an Existing Recipe
If you like the idea of the service but don’t want to make recipes, that’s no problem. There are hundreds of recipes to choose from, all ready to go. Some popular ones include:
- Send an email message to Evernote.
- Get updates on what’s new on Netflix.
- Receive the day’s weather forecast as a text message.
- Receive an email if it’s going to rain, reminding you to pack an umbrella.
- Send starred RSS items to Evernote or Pocket for later reading.
It goes on and on. There’s so much you can do, from receiving or sending reminders, watching certain feeds for changes or, my favorite, completing mundane and time-consuming tasks automatically. Create an IFTTT account, start cooking recipes and see what you can do.
I feel like I have been unintentionally collecting links to great articles recently. I’ll spot something clutter/organizing/productivity-related in the news, immediately think it would make such a terrific topic for an Unclutterer post, save the link to a text file of post ideas, and then do nothing further. Apparently, I want ALL the links for myself. All of them. Mine.
Since this is ridiculous and there is no good reason for me to be collecting all these links and not sharing them, I thought an ol’ fashion link roundup post was in order. Please enjoy all of these links that have been catching our attention:
- “Why aren’t hoarders bothered by all that junk? Scientists find a clue“This article from NBC looks at a recent brain study by psychologist David Tolin that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. According to the research, clinically diagnosed hoarders’ brains respond differently to physical stuff than the brains of the general population. As a result, their ability to make decisions is significantly limited.
- “Three habits that drive down productivity“I’m still trying to decide what I think about this article from the Memphis Business Journal. The article references a study that analyzes the work product and attendance records of employees with very different lifestyles at three large corporations. The article concludes that healthier people are more productive workers and it specifically names smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise as productivity killers.
- “Plan of Work for a Small Servantless House (3 or 4 in family)“After the war in Britain, many homes and estates that once had servants found themselves unable to afford any servants in the house. To help women learn how to keep house, someone (the British government?) published this guide for how a woman should spend her time. My friend Julie introduced me to this page from the I Love Charts tumblr, and I think it is a fabulous look back in time. I’m still confused as to how a woman with one or two children only seems to attend to them for an hour and a half each day “if necessary,” but maybe “servantless” doesn’t include nannies?
- “Re:Re:Fw:Re: Workers Spend 650 Hours a Year on Email“This article from The Atlantic confirms that most people with desk jobs (referred to as an “office stiff” in the text) spend “13 hours a week, or 28 percent of our office time, on email.” A quarter of one’s job is consumed with reading and answering email. The article also reports that time spent on tasks specific to one’s role at the company only consumes 39 percent of one’s time at work.
- “You Probably Have Too Much Stuff“This short piece from The New York Times looks at the burdens of being “over-prepared.” I like the use of the phrase “over-prepared” in the article because it so aptly reflects the “I might need this one day” mentality.
As you also know, I’ve been doing some writing for the Women and Co. website lately. Most of what I’ve been writing continues to be about home and office organizing, but they’ve been letting me branch out a bit and pick up some other topics. It reminds me of the days I wrote the Sunday news for the local commercial radio station in Lawrence, Kansas, so very, very, very long ago …
Anyway, this is what I wrote in July:
- “Is Your Child’s Lemonade Stand Against the Law?“
- “Tips to Staying Sane When Working from Home“
- “Resources for Walking and Biking in U.S. Cities“
- “How to Organize Your Back-to-School Shopping“
Several years ago, I purchased David Allen’s landmark productivity book Getting Things Done. Allen describes an elaborate and effective method of, well, getting things done. One ingredient is the “ubiquitous capture tool,” which you can think of as a mobile inbox. It’s something that’s always with you, ready to capture anything you need to remember (David uses “capture” as a fancy way of saying, “write it down.”).
When I finished reading the book for the first time, I was inspired and eager to start. I bought some equipment, like a plastic in-tray for my desk, some 3×5 index cards, a label maker and a pricey Palm Treo (I realize I just dated myself). The Treo would be my ubiquitous capture tool. It was sleek, powerful and portable. I imagined myself using it to complete important and productive tasks. I’d whip it out at meetings with an air of gainful nonchalance. “This thing? Oh it’s just my electronic capture tool. Watch as I use it to get many things accomplished.”
Two months later, I recognized what was really happening: I was making lists. I was using a two-hundred dollar PDA to write lists. In other words, I was swatting a fly with a Buick. I sold it on eBay, put a stack of index cards in my pocket, and haven’t looked back.
Today, I use a pocket-sized notebook and a Fisher Space Pen (they write in any condition or orientation). That experience prompted me to examine other areas of my life in which I was prone to overkill. Computers are one of those areas. As a nerd, I’m often tempted by the latest and greatest piece of technology. Yet, I keep an 8-year-old iMac around because it’s great for writing. (The keyboard attached to it is 20 years old.)
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having fun toys, especially when it comes to productivity. If you like the tools you have, you’ll be more likely to use them. So use what you like. At the same time, be aware of any instances of overkill.
So, are you swatting any flies with Buicks?
As a junior-high student I learned two strategies for tackling writing projects: brainstorming and outlining. The former was free-form and messy; the latter tightly organized and formal. The idea was to brainstorm first and get all the ideas out of your head, without hesitation or editing. Imagine a dump truck depositing a payload of sand onto the ground. It’s effective, but you’ve got to do some clean-up work before you can move on with your project.
After sifting through to find the usable nuggets, the next step was to arrange them in a tidy outline, which served as the backbone of the final project. Today, I still do these things, but with one change. The brainstorm has given way to a mind map, which combines the avalanche of sand with a little more order, akin to an outline. In short, think of a mind map as an uncluttered brainstorm.
There’s lots of great software to help you create a mind map, though a pen and paper will do. Here’s how to create one, reap the benefits and find a software solution that works for you.
You’ll find many definitions of what a mind map is, but mine goes like this: A mind map is a diagram used to organize a brainstorm. It starts with a single word — often the topic or heart of your project — inside a circle. Supporting ideas are drawn around the main idea inside their own circles and connected with lines. As an example, here’s a mind map I used for this article (at left).
I started by writing “Mind Mapping” in the center, and then began to think about the topic. What about mind mapping do I want to share? That triggered the brainstorm and ideas came, like why do it, software available, organizational benefits, and so on. Each idea got its own “node” on the map. You’ll notice that “Software options” has three nodes of its own: Mac, PC and iOS. Those are referred to as “children,” as they all relate to the “parent” node, “Software options.” That’s where the organization comes into the process. Instead of generating a simple list during a brainstorm with no rhyme or reason to its order, a mind dump lets you group related ideas as you go, without hindering the brainstorm process. As you think of more ideas, just keep going, adding lines and nodes. Eventually you’ll reach the point of exhaustion and you’ll know you’re done.
At this point, I’ll review the diagram I produced and use it to create an outline and finally begin my writing project. This method really helps me feel on top of my project, doesn’t produce a jumbled mess that must be sorted into an outline, and results in a better final product every time.
As I said, there are many pieces of software available to help you create a mind map. I’ll introduce you to four: one for the Mac, one for Windows, and two for the iPad.
Mind Node (Mac, free lite version or $9.99 for Mind Node Pro)
My favorite mind mapping software for the Mac is Mind Node. It’s no-frills interface lets you focus on your project instead of getting stuck fiddling with colors and other little tweaks. Branches are color-coded (you can adjust with the colors if you like) and there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts if that’s your thing. Also, built-in Dropbox synchronization keeps your mind maps available across Macs or even with Mind Node Touch for iPad. Nearly every writing project I complete, from a book to a blog post, begins life as a mind map in Mind Node.
As for what’s different between the lite and pro versions, you’ll find features like image nodes, Wi-Fi sync between desktop and touch version, improved hyperlinks and improved printing options in the pro version.
Mindjet MindManager (Windows and Android; $399 for Windows version)
MindManager isn’t inexpensive but it’s extremely powerful. It will look familiar to anyone who has used Microsoft Office, as it uses a similar ribbon toolbar, which reduces the learning curve typical of new software, as does the built-in tutorial. Speaking of Office, there’s extensive support for Microsoft’s suite of apps built right in, and a number of export options, like PDF and Flash animations, making sharing easy, no matter what kind of computer your collaborators use.
There are two great options for the iPad. The first is MindNote Touch, the sibling to the desktop app. It works in much the same way, but “touching” your ideas — to use a market-friendly phrase — adds some fun. Thanks to Dropbox, you can sync mind maps you make on your iPad with your Mac and vice-versa, which is very convenient.
IThoughtsHD is another mind mapping app for the iPhone and iPad. There are a few features that set it apart but my favorite is the ease with which you can create nodes, child notes and sibling nodes. While MindNode requires you to move from the keyboard to the mind map itself to create and label nodes, iThoughtsHD lets you keep your hands on the keyboard at all times. For example, hitting the space bar three times in a row creates a new child mode. No need to move your hands up to the map. Likewise, hitting the Return key three times creates a sibling node. It’s very fast.
I use mind mapping for writing projects, but that’s hardly its only use. I’ve also created map to organize a vacation, chart a video project, plan for a wedding and more. Give it a try the next time you’ve got a project on your plate that’s large or small, business or personal. You still have that powerful brainstorming session, but will avoid sifting through the resulting mess before getting on with the rest of the work.
Sometimes technology, though often helpful, can be daunting. You can spend a lot of time trying to learn how to use a new app (or gadget) before really being able to use it to your benefit. That’s why it’s nice when you come across an app that is simple and easy to use while helping you keep a regular habit of getting things done. I recently discovered two that I’d like to share with you: Wonderful Day and iDoneThis.
Don't you just love an app with a happy sounding name? Well, it does a bit more than just sound happy. This app is based on Jerry Seinfeld's (not so secret anymore) productivity secret, also known as Don’t Break the Chain.
It’s a very simple concept – work on a task every day, and when you do, cross it off on your calendar. You’ll end up having a chain of X’s or check marks (or whatever mark you prefer) on your calendar. If you miss a day, then you will have a break in your chain. Over time, you’ll be motivated to keep the chain going, and if you’re like some people (moi), you won’t like seeing a broken chain.
Wonderful Day allows you to make your own chain sans the paper calendar. There’s nothing wrong with using paper, if that’s your preference. But, if you’re more tech inclined, this process can’t be any more simple. You can set multiple tasks that you want to focus on as well as the days you’ll work on them. You might have “exercise,” “write,” and “work in the garden” on your list — anything you think you’d like make a habit of doing. Each time you complete a task, you’ll see a green dot, and when you miss a task, you’ll see a red one. If you’re a visual person, this app may work very well for you.
iDoneThis is different from your usual to-do list because it’s more of a “done” list. Each day, the app asks you a very simple question: “What have you done today?” Add the tasks you did on the date you did them and the app will add a check mark for you. The more you get done, the more checks you’ll see. If you miss a day, you will see “No entries for today” and the app will send you a daily reminder, though you can turn off that feature if you’d like. You can also set future reminders along with a specific time that you’ll be notified. The developers describe it as sending a “message to your future self.”
iDoneThis is extremely simple and doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles (though you can sync with your web-based iDoneThis account). But, it’s very easy to use and can help you build a habit or routine of accomplishing a task every day. You will likely be motivated to get something done just to keep the “done” chain going.
Platform: iPhone, iPad
Cost: Free, monthly subscription fee for teams ($3/person/month)
Other apps like it: List
Reader Rachel submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
I know you are huge fan of David Allen and after years of “almost” using his GTD system I finally bought the book [Getting Things Done] and am working my way through it. As I prepare for my two day “gather, process and route,” I find myself with some clutter related questions. First some background points:
1. My husband is in the army, so i like to keep everything as modular and portable as possible, 2. I am currently prepping for a move, so I am currently in down-size mode, and 3. I love using my computer.
Okay, now for my questions: David talks a lot about the proper supplies and having a general reference file. I’m kind of resistant to the idea of investing in paper file folders and filing cabinets when there is so much technology and digital recording available that doesn’t take up near the amount of space. What have you found to be the best capture system for your files? Digital or old school?
I would like to start by saying that you’re right in pointing out that I have enormous respect for David Allen. He is able to communicate his ideas about information organizing and productivity better than anyone else writing on these subjects today. This art of communication is a true talent and it is rare. Most importantly it is extremely helpful for those of us looking for guidance and sanity as we work and live. If anyone reading this hasn’t read his books, I strongly recommend them.
That being said (i.e. I’ll stop being an exhuberent fangirl for a moment), I don’t use the GTD system exactly as he prescribes. It’s not that I think his system is flawed or bad or wrong; it just doesn’t completely work for me and my preferences. And, at least in my personal experience, I’ve found that this is the case for most GTD enthusiasts. We gobble up all we can from his advice and then put our spin on it so it will be something we benefit from and use over the longterm.
If you’re like me, a good amount of the information you collect likely comes to you already in digital form or can easily be scanned and/or digitized (images, emails, PDFs, calendar appointments, etc.). To take these out of a digital form during the processing and organizing phases would be a waste of time and resources, and Allen doesn’t advocate you print these out, either. The most important thing to do is to capture this information in a way so you can reliably process, review, and do all the things you need to do to get things done.
I use a couple plugins for my Mac-based email program Mail that are created by the company InDev: Act-On (which let lets you apply rules to incoming messages) and MailTags (which color codes emails with tags). These are nice for adapting GTD processing and organizing actions, as well as helping to creation action items. Even if you didn’t use the GTD system, these are great plug-ins for email management. I incorporate these plugins to work with my personal email filing system, which I’ve outlined in detail in Unclutter Your Life in One Week. In short, I use Archive, Project Folders, and Read Me folders. The Archive folder is where all messages go after I schedule the work on my calendar or in my project management system. The Project Folders are where I stash project-related information until I can move the email to the Archive folder (e.g. where I put Ask Unclutterer emails until I review them and decide which one I will select for the week’s column). And the Read Me folder is for long emails or emails containing links to articles, typically sent from friends or family, that don’t require immediate attention and that I can read in full the next time I’m standing in a line or waiting on hold. Once I read the Read Me emails, they are moved to the Archive folder.
People who use Outlook as their email client might benefit from a GTD-themed add-in from NetCentrics. And, if you’re a Gmail user, I’ve heard good things about using the ActiveInbox plug-in. (A good ActiveInbox tutorial can be found in the article “ActiveInbox Turns Your Gmail Labels Into an Effective GTD System” on Lifehacker.)
As far as my personal to-do list (action items) and calendar, I do keep these in paper form. I like the physical actions of writing and greatly enjoy crossing things off lists. For the past six months, I’ve been using an Arc customizable notebook from Staples for the list and calendar. I’ve tried to do it all digitally, but I always seem to come back to the paper items for these two things. Comfort is a powerful creature. For work, I keep everything in Basecamp so everyone on staff and our clients can see important dates, to-do items, as well as communicate with each other. It’s ridiculously simple to use, which oddly is why some people don’t like to use it. There are hundreds of digital to-do list and calendar programs on the market and a few are probably already installed on your computer — just find one you love and will use and review.
In regards to other digital paperwork (the general reference stuff), I have set up my Evernote account to mirror the GTD workflow. Everything digital is dumped into it and it syncs with all my handheld devices and can be accessed anywhere in the world there is an internet connection. I also back it up to my desktop and back my laptop up to an external hard drive and again to Backblaze (I’m a wee bit maniacal about backing up my data). I save all my documents locally in a document management program (DevonThink), which I’ve discussed recently in “What tools should I use to digitize my paper piles.” If Evernote and DevonThink aren’t your style, check out OmniFocus for Mac and I know many of our readers use OneNote who have the MicroSoft Office Suite (be sure to check out the free, downloadable templates from MicroSoft to save yourself time).
Thank you, Rachel, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help you in your pursuit to get things done and adopting Allen’s GTD system for your digital needs. Also be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers. I know we have numerous GTD enthusiasts who read the site and are active in our comments section.
Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.
Summer has kicked into high gear here in the northern hemisphere and this is when I like to retreat from the heat with a proverbial good book — but certainly not a “book” as my great-grandparents would have described one. Today, there are apps and devices that let you curate your summer reading from varied online resources and onto hand-held devices. With a little bit of time, an Internet connection and some free software, you can create your own digital reading experience and bring it to the beach, the hotel or even your favorite quiet corner of home.
Below, I’ve described several services that allow you to save or bookmark online articles for later reading. Once captured with the various apps, the articles are presented beautifully and legibly, as if you’re reading a digital book or magazine. Advertisements are stripped out, as are distracting sidebar ads and colors. You’re left with a great-looking and largely distraction-free reading experience. Best of all, these services are free and work on a variety of platforms, from iPads to Android devices to Nooks and Kindles.
Compatibility: iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, some Android devices, Amazon Kindle Fire, various web browsers
The web service Read It Later was recently re-branded as Pocket. Once you’ve created a free account online, you can add a special bookmarklet to your web browser. Then, when you come across an article you’d like to read later, simply click the bookmarklet. A small window will appear confirming that the story has been saved to your Pocket account. You can further organize things with tags at that point. For example, “beach reading,” “research” or “kids.”
When you’re out with your mobile device, launch Pocket and you’ll find all of the articles you’ve saved. Some of Pocket’s useful features let you browse articles by tag, add a star to favorites and view videos and images you’ve saved in addition to articles.
Compatibility: iPhone, iPad, some Android devices, Amazon Kindle, Nook Tablet, various web browsers
Readability works much like Pocket. Create a free account, install the bookmarklet in your browser and send articles to your mobile device. There are important differences, though. For starters, Readability’s bookmarklet is much more robust. You can opt to read an article right then if you like, and Readability with present it in a beautiful, distraction-free layout. You can also send it to your Kindle or Nook Tablet with a click. Once you’ve synced your devices, you can access your reading list when offline.
Cost: Free with optional subscription plan
Compatibility: iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, some Android devices, Amazon Kindle and Fire, Nook Color and Nook Tablet, various web browsers
Instapaper is among the first of these distraction-free reading services. Today it’s available on a huge number of devices and supported by a passionate developer and legions of fans. The iPhone and iPad version has some unique features, like tilt scrolling. This lets you scroll through a long article simply by tipping your device back and forth. There’s no need to swipe with a finger.
You’ll also find lots of layout customization options, like font size, several color schemes, spacing and brightness. After a minute or so of fiddling, you can get Instapaper’s articles to look just how you’d like.
Compatibility: iPad, iPhone, iPod touch and Android
Flipboard is unique in that you don’t add content to it. Instead, you tell Flipboard what to find for you. It will search the web for stories, photos and videos across several categories, including sports, technology, travel, photography, news, music, film and so much more. It will even pull content (articles your friends have linked to) from your Twitter and Facebook accounts, presenting all of it in a beautiful layout that’s reminiscent of a high-end design magazine. You can even add local news and your favorite RSS feeds. It’s such a great-looking app and has become my favorite way to browse Facebook.
There you have four services that will let you curate your summer reading, across several devices. Now start collecting, get reading, and enjoy these lovely, lazy days.
Reader Rose submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
Before I ask my question I have to tell you I am seriously not computer savvy. I don’t understand the lingo. My question is: Since technology changes so quickly and your article ["Scanning documents to reduce paper clutter"] was written 5 years ago, would you still recommend the same scanner, software etc. to be able to accomplish my purpose? Is it possible to use the scanner on my All-in-One printer? Does the software allow you to create categories to put the articles in? Please if you have a recommendation for the simplest to use of these items that would be so gratefully appreciated!
You’re asking a number of questions and all of them are fantastic! I’ll address them in my response, but be sure to check out the comments for even more answers from our readers.
Your first question is if I still recommend the same scanner and software for tackling a paper pile (or two or ten). The short answer is yes, I strongly recommend Fujitsu ScanSnaps, their scanning and optical character recognition (OCR) software, and DevonTHINK document organizing software. The long answer to that question is more nuanced.
In the long answer, I’ll tell you that you need to find equipment and software that works best for you. If you already own an all-in-one scanner, you likely have no need to go out and buy a new scanner. However, you may want to acquire software that provides OCR processing if the software with your scanner doesn’t have this capability. Or, if you’re comfortable with storing documents online, I suggest opening an Evernote account. After you scan a document, you can upload your files to Evernote, which can read words found on documents and in images and even some handwriting (and it lets you organize your papers, too, in a way that works best for you). And, if you want a great tutorial about Evernote, check out Brett Kelly’s terrific Evernote Essentials downloadable guide. There are numerous options available to you, not just the ScanSnap-DevonTHINK one I provided in the earlier article.
Since you don’t mention what all-in-one scanner you have, I don’t know if it has document organizing software as part of its package. Most don’t, but some do have these features. You can also just nicely organize the documents on your computer in folders like you do all the other work you save on your computer. I recommend saving all files as PDFs, because if this file type ever goes out of style, you can bet there will be conversion programs that will allow you to turn PDFs into whatever becomes the new standard. To save a file as a PDF, follow the instructions in “Printing to PDF.”
Next, you asked what is the simplest way to turn your physical paper pile into digital files — and the truth of the matter is the easiest way to do it is to have someone else do it for you. Simply do a search online to find local document scanning service providers. I also recommend checking out reviews on Angie’s List to be sure the company you’re going to have scan your papers is reputable and secure. Most companies will shred your documents after they scan them. There will still be some work for you before you hand off your papers and after you receive the digital files, but having someone other than yourself do the scanning is the easiest method. (Sort your papers before you give them to the scanning company so you are only paying for important documents to be scanned and then you’ll have to organize all the digital files once they have been scanned.)
My only additional notes are to be sure to back up all of your scanned documents saved on your computer to an online site like DropBox or the previously mentioned Evernote. The last thing you want to have happen is to lose all of the documents you so diligently digitized when the hard drive on your computer crashes (which it will). And, lastly, if you are doing the scanning yourself, don’t forget to shred all of your paperwork after you digitize it.
Thank you, Rose, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck digitizing your paper collection and kudos to you for taking on this worthwhile task. Since you were able to fill out a contact form on Unclutterer to send me this question, I already know you’re more computer savvy than you give yourself credit for being.
Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.
“I know the email is in here, just hold on.”
I was recently asked to forward an email I had received to someone else. I couldn’t remember the exact title of the message that I wanted, so I spent a few minutes searching and scrolling. Fortunately, I only had a couple dozen messages in my inbox. I’ve seen people scroll through thousands of messages in a desperate hunt for that one phone number, street address or appointment confirmation. It’s agonizing. Why do we do that to ourselves?
An interesting thing about email is that, for many, it’s both a delivery system and a storage facility. When we “check email,” we often open our email software, browse the many messages contained therein, and then quit the application without removing any of the messages.
Consider the paper mail that reaches your mailbox: you don’t open the box, sort through the envelopes and then close it back up again, leaving everything inside. Nor do you return from the grocery store and leave brimming bags on the kitchen counter. Yet, email is often ignored in this way, to our detriment.
I recommend using a simple four-step process to get your electronic mailbox as close to empty as you can, every day. The steps are:
- Decide what each message is.
- Decide what must be done.
- Do what must be done.
- Delete the message (or archive it in a separate folder, if that is what your employer directs).
It’s an adaptation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done method for processing email, which is a highly formalized system of productivity improvement. You can read David’s book (and I recommend that you do), but you needn’t follow his instructions in full to reap huge benefits. Here’s a simplified adaptation that I use for managing email.
Defining Work Time
Before we begin exploring the how, let’s define the when. The good news about email access is also the bad news: it’s nearly ubiquitous. You can send and receive email at various points of the day. For those of us with connected smartphones, email is almost available during every waking moment of our day.
As such, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to check it whenever the opportunity arises. Instead, tame that tendency by defining email time. I like to check email at 8:00 AM, 12:00 noon and 5:00 PM. This has several benefits. First, it familiarizes others with my communication schedule. It also helps me stay focused when I do sit down to work through email. Finally, it alleviates the guilt of not checking during off hours. Define a time to sit down with your computer, smart phone, or tablet and work with your email. All set? Now, let’s begin.
What is it?
When a new email message arrives, you must ask yourself, “What is this?” It sounds silly but it’s crucial. There are three possible answers:
- It’s garbage
- It’s something I need to do
- It’s something I might refer to later
That’s it. Every message you ever receive will fall into these three categories. Now that you’ve identified what each message is, proceed to step two.
Decide what must be done
The first one is simple: garbage. As soon as you see it, delete it. Spam, advertising you aren’t interested in, messages from old mailing lists you’ve lost interest in, etc. It’s all trash, so trash it. Immediately.
The next category is the action category. These messages require someone — typically you — to do something. For instance, “Call Jane about the committee meeting,” “Forward the presentation to Frank,” or “Ask Faith about the campout next week.” Once you’ve identified what the required action is, make note of it in the appropriate place (on your to-do list or calendar) and then delete the message. Yes, delete it. (Unless, again, your company requires you to retain your email for legal reasons. In this case, move it to an archive folder.)
The final category is reference material. These messages do not require action, but they do hold information that could be useful someday. Identify what that information is, store it in the appropriate place and then delete the email. Yes, delete it. On to step three.
Do what must be done (the appropriate place)
This step is a biggie. Just as you don’t pull a hot turkey out of the oven without first knowing where you’re going to set it down, you should’t delete that email message until you’ve identified a trusted place to put its important information. This is what David Allen calls a “trusted system.” Essentially, it’s an obvious, reliable stake in the ground that holds your information.
It can be anything you want. You might choose a paper notebook — I carry one around for jotting a daily task list. There’s lots of software available, from simple to involved, which you can use for this purpose. My choice is Evernote, because it’s simple to use, powerful, cross-platform (Mac, Windows, web browsers and an increasing number of mobile devices are supported) and above all, reliable. Evernote works by creating virtual Notebooks, each of which can contain several notes. Notes and notebooks can be sorted, categorized and organized to your heart’s content, and online sync keeps them up-to-date across all you devices. So, if you create a note on your computer, it will show up on your phone or iPad without you having to do a thing.
Evernote is fantastic for storing reference material, or what I call “cold storage.” Receipts from online purchases, how-to’s, restaurant menus, theatre schedules, the kids’ sporting information, contracts and more. Once you have the pertinent information in a reliable system you trust, you can delete the email message.
As for action items, how you handle these is up to you. Evernote will create an action list, if you decide to use it. You can also create a list in a notebook or task-oriented software like Remember The Milk, Teux Deux or even Omnifocus if you want to go hard-core.
The important thing is trust. You must have faith in the system you choose, whatever it is. That way your brain will stop pestering you and, more importantly, you’ll be able to delete those messages. So, to recap. When an email message arrives, follow these steps:
- Decide what it is.
- Decide what must be done (trash, define a task or place in cold storage).
- Do what must be done.
- Delete the message.
I’m always on the lookout for smart phone and iPad applications that can improve my productivity. It’s probably not a good idea to keep app switching all the time (it certainly makes more sense to stick with what works), but if I did that I wouldn’t have discovered Unstuck, a free iPad app.
Basically, if you’re stuck in a rut, Unstuck can help. It helps you to get rid of said rut, take action, and “live better every day.” I’ve decided to use it for a project that’s been hanging over my head for a bit, and it’s time to get it moving.
But, first, a test run. Here’s the process:
After downloading and registering, the app asks you to select three emotions in response to “How are you feeling in this stuck moment?” Some of your choices include hazy, high and dry, tired, unprepared, uninformed, indecisive, to name a few. Then, you get to rate how strongly you feel each emotion. I chose conflicted, uninformed, and up in the air, all with medium strength.
In this step, you drill down the type of stuck you’re in (personal, professional, or both) and who’s stuck with you (alone, you + another person, or you + other people). For my test, I chose professional and to go it alone, but if you select that you’re working with others, you’ll be asked to name the people in the rut with you.
You get to answer why you’re stuck and see examples of what others have written. I entered: “I’m stuck because there’s so much I want to do.” Even though this is a test, that statement is 100 percent true.
Now for the fun part. You get to sort your thoughts using these cool thought cards (they look like playing cards except they have words on them) that you drag and drop into two categories: So Me and Not Me.
Here are some of the cards:
- I thought I knew what to do but now I’m not sure
- I don’t know why this is not working
- It doesn’t seem real yet
- Remind me why this is important to me
- Maybe I need to ask somebody else what to do
- I NEED HELP
- Why is it so hard to decide?
- Doing a lot but getting nowhere
Can you see how these might be helpful? I really think this app forces you to think about the nuances of why things are not going the way you want them to.
Here, you’re asked to pick three (out of twelve) things you’re doing. I randomly chose:
- Letting yourself get distracted
- Doing busywork that gets nowhere
- Debating an issue over and over again
You wait a second or two until Unstuck diagnoses your problem. The app decided that based on my entries, I’m a Waffler. I may not like being called wishy-washy, but I like knowing that I’m not the only one in this spot. And, I know this because the app tells me that three other people, like Amy Tan, Ellen Degeneres, and Wallace Stevens, are just like me. Well, if they can get past that … you know the rest. I also learn that 9 percent of the Unstuck community is also having a “waffler” moment.
There’s an explanation of what it means to be a waffler, and I’m asked to confirm if this really sounds like me. I clicked yes, but when you click “no,” you get to start over, save and start a new stuck moment, or keep going. You also get a few tips.
This is where the work really begins as I’m asked to select a tool to help fix my flip-floppy self. But, first, I’m greeted by a lovely note that tells me not to give up and that change is a process. I’m also encouraged to be creative. I’m so in love with this app!
And, it loves me back by telling me to Take a stand, a.k.a., make a decision.
The next three steps really help you to do just that. It’s a very simple process, but that’s the beauty of it. It makes you think things through and gives you several tools (e.g., Map it out, Get your game on, Shake up your routine) so that you’re not just muddling through. If you don’t think that you’re quite through the woods, you can try out other tools.
So far, Unstuck seems different from all other project motivation apps I’ve seen. It seems to ask the right questions and help you to really think through your next steps. It’s similar to having a mentor or coach.
Could this app help you make life-altering decisions? Maybe. Could you get a few steps closer to a project’s goals? Definitely.
And, just to be clear, Unstuck didn’t pay me or reward me in any way for writing this post. I’m just really fond of it and think it can help anyone who is stuck on a project or problem.