Do you have a tech-friendly organization devotee on your holiday shopping list? Then you are in luck because this is among the easiest, most fun groups to shop for. A tech geek — for lack of a better term — is always willing to try out a new gadget, system, or tool, just in case it’s an improvement over what she/he is already using. As a tech geek, I’m speaking from experience.
The following are several gift ideas that are likely to make the tech geek in your life happy:
- The Doxie Flip Scanner. The newest addition to the Doxie family of scanners (released just a couple of weeks ago), is a delightful little device. This portable (about 6.5 x 10 x 1 inches and 1 lb 7.3 oz.), battery-powered, flatbed scanner is perfect for scanning photos, books, sketches, manuals and so much more. It easily fits into almost any bag and saves scans to an SD card for easy transfer. Here’s a cool tip: If you have a wireless-capable Eye-Fi card, skip the middle man and scan directly to your computer over Wi-Fi.
- New Trent Travelpak. The Travelpak is a portable recharging device that can supply extra juice to anything that accepts a charge via USB. That means iPhones, iPods, iPads, tablets, cameras and smartphones of all kinds. It stores enough power to keep most smartphones going for a days under normal use. And, it’s barely bigger than a phone, so it fits into a bag or pocket easily. Useful and portable? That’s a winning combo to me.
- BookBook Travel Journal. This one is for the iPad-wielding traveler. The BookBook Travel Journal from Twelve South is a tidy, organized, and absolutely fantastic-looking carrying case for an iPad and myriad of accessories. You can store the tablet plus a charger (like the awesome PlugBug), set of headphones, keyboard case, stylus, notebook, and pen. Twelve South makes fantastic products (check out similar carriers for the iPhone, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air) and the Travel Journal is no exception. Tidy, attractive, and best of all, useful.
- CoverBot Dual USB High Output Car Charger. Here’s another wonderfully unobtrusive device that will keep all your favorite tech geek’s devices charged. The CoverBot Duo is a car charger with two USB-ready ports. Each is fully powered, so you can get two devices up and running at the same pace. As with the New Trent Travelpak, the CoverBot Duo works with any device that will accept a charge via USB.
- Philips HF3500/60 Wake-Up Light. Now this is just cool. The Wake-Up Light wakes you up by growing gradually brighter over a 30-minute period. This process, according to Phillips, stimulates your body to wake up naturally, as opposed to the jarring audio alert of most alarm clocks. Phillips sent us one to review and we’re glad they did. Additionally, once fully illuminated, it easily lights up a bedroom. Replace that lamp and save some space on your nightstand, too.
- BLaNKcraft Cable Manager. With two iPhones and an iPod in the house, I spend way too much time plugging, unplugging, replacing, or searching for cables. It’s worse when we’re traveling, as one pocket of my bag ends up holding a rat’s nest of white cable. The BLaNKcraft Cable Manager can rescue your tech geek from cable chaos. This handmade, leather strap is so simple and so clever that I just love it. Bind your cables with the snap, tuck it into a bag, pocket, or drawer and you’re good to go. As an alternative, the Cord Taco is another great choice.
- Tile. This clever little fob attaches to your valuables (up to 10) and lets you track their location with an iOS app. Lose the keys? Misplace a wallet? Don’t know where the kids’ backpacks have gone? You’re a tap away from solving the mystery.
- Automatic. This is among my top gadgets of the year. The Automatic is a little device that plugs into your car’s data port (check if your car is supported here) and shares a host of useful information. For example, if you car’s “Check Engine” light comes on, the Automatic will tell you what’s wrong via the companion smartphone app (iOS and Android). If it detects an accident has occurred, it notifies local authorities. It remembers where you parked and even helps you drive in a more economical manner. It even supports multiple drivers.
- The Quirky Plug Hub. Finally, here’s another great way to rid yourself of a rat’s nest of cables. Put a power strip inside and use the three holes in the top to thread six plugs through neatly. You don’t have to look at the ugly plug unit once it’s tucked inside. Take things a step further and add some labels to those plugs so you’ll know what’s going where.
Want more gift-giving ideas? Explore Unclutterer’s full 2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide.
“Where can I plug this in?” is a dilemma of the contemporary age.
As phones and tablets become more popular, two problems arise. First, most wall sockets only accommodate two items each. That’s easily remedied by connecting a power strip. One plug becomes five or six, and you’re good to go.
But the solution to the first problem begets problem number two: the jumble of cables and wires is just ugly. Plus, they get tangled, swapped, and misplaced. You could spend money on a decent-looking solution or whip up your own home charging station. The following are 10 great examples I found while poking around the Internet. Each charges several devices simultaneously and looks a lot better than a power strip and a rat’s nest of wires.
- Hidden in a drawer. I first saw this solution on Pinterest. It keeps everything out of sight completely by placing the whole lot inside a drawer. The setup is simple: drill a hole in the back of the drawer, thread the power strip cord through and plug it in. You might want to fasten the power strip to the bottom of the drawer to keep it from wobbling around with double-sided tape or velcro.
- Converted storage box. This rig was inspired by ribbon boxes that store the ribbon inside and feed it through a small hole. Here, holes were cut into a storage box that you can find at any craft store. The holes were reinforced with oval bookplates, held in place with small brad nails. From there, the power strip was placed inside and the device cables fed through the new holes. It looks great and there’s really no need to open it.
- Night Stand recharging station. This one wins the prize for most dramatic before-and-after photos, as an upturned cardboard box is replaced by a nice-looking end table. Holes will drilled in the rear of the unit and the charging cables fed through. Just don’t look behind it, though. I fear there’s an hidden rat’s nest against that wall.
- Super easy plastic bin. This one isn’t long on looks but it’s probably the least expensive solution here. Plus, it gets the job done. Small holes were cut into the rear and lid so that cables could be fed through. Sure, you can see inside but it’s still nice to not have to deal with what’s inside.
- Vintage case. Here’s a solution that is long on looks. Ryan at Weekly Geek, who put this together, describes his love of de-tangling electronic cables: “Jaws clenched and temples throbbing the world silently fades as my focus gets narrower and more fierce. That mess is broken, and I have to fix it. Why won’t they let me fix it?” His vintage-valise-as-charging-station is a thing to behold and not for he feint of heart. You can review what’s required here. The results, however, are very nice indeed.
- Converted IKEA storage unit. I’ll admit that I love IKEA. Even those little meatballs in the cafeteria are good. In this example, an enterprising soul at IKEA Hackers converted the company’s Estetisk storage unit into a nice-looking charging station. Holes were drilled into the back and the “cubbies” were outfitted with custom plywood inserts. Well done.
- Re-purposed plastic bottle. You got me, this only charges a single item. But look at how cute and convenient it is! By deftly cutting a plastic lotion bottle and applying some decoration, Ashley at Make It & Love It has a great-looking holder that hangs on the charger itself and corrals the phone and its cable. Very nice.
- Old books. Some of you will balk at the idea of chopping up an old book, but the rest should check this out. Yes, it’s a single-device solution again, but it’s very nice-looking. There are several available in this Etsy shop, but I’m sure you could figure it out for yourself with an X-Acto knife and some time.
- Converted shoe box. Here’s another quick-and-dirty solution that works well. This is similar to the storage box – you’re cutting holes in a shoe box, reinforcing them with grommets and feeding the cables through – but less expensive. Plus, since you’re starting with a shoe box, do some decorating to get it looking nice. Time to break out the Mod Podge.
- Vintage breadbox. Finally, a converted vintage bread box. This one requires the most work and some basic carpentry skills (and the right decor) but you’d never guess there’s a jumble of wires and charging electronics inside of there.
I hope you found this list inspirational. You do have to charge your gadgets but the process needn’t result in a jumbled mess. Go forth and make a great little charging station.
A few weeks ago, my family traveled to New York City. Part of my preparation was to add a few TV shows to my iPad for the kids to watch on our way there and then back. Of course, I found out right away that I did not have enough free space available on my iPad, so I had to decide which apps, photos, ebooks, etc. to delete.
That process highlighted just how cluttered my device had become. The thing was filled with unused apps, partially watched TV shows, and there wasn’t any order to anything. Before we left, I did a quick deletion of items to free up some emergency space, then after we returned from vacation I did a good house cleaning on my iPad. You can, too, on whatever smart phone and/or tablet you may have.
- Delete unused apps. It’s so tempting to leave an app on your device because you might need it “someday.” In my experience, that someday almost never comes. Months later, I had well over two dozen apps installed that I hadn’t launched in twice as long. I deleted them. Now, if that day does come that I need that one special app, I can re-download it for free then and there.
- Organize the keepers. Operating systems on smart phones and tablets give you much control over the placement and grouping of your device’s apps. On an Apple product, to move things around tap and hold onto any app until they start dancing around. I call this “Jiggle Mode.” Now you can move then onto other screens, or create folders of like apps by dropping them onto each other. Just be sure to avoid …
- Folders on the Home Screen. Your device’s Home Screen should contain only the apps you use most often (Unsure? Keep a running list for a week). It’s tempting to make, say, a “Work” folder on the Home Screen. But, avoid this. I like to have one-tap access to most of the apps on my home screen, so keep most of your folders on the second screen, third, etc.
- Keep photos under control. Photos can devour storage space fast. If you use Apple’s iPhoto to sync photos, you’re in luck. Create a “Smart Album” to automatically grab, say, the last six months’ worth of photos. Select New Smart Album from the file menu, then select “Date” and “Is within the range last six months.” Finally, with your device connected to iTunes, tell it to sync only that folder. That way you’ll always have the latest photos to show off and not those that are years old.
- Reclaim storage space. Launch the Settings app and then tap General and then Usage. You’ll get a list of your apps and how much space each is using. Some camera apps, like Camera +, maintain their own camera rolls of photos, in addition to what your iPhone’s Camera app maintains. Delete those duplicate photos to save a lot of space.
- Re-think iTunes sync. I’ve fallen in love with Rdio, a subscription service that lets me stream music to my iPad and iPhone for a monthly fee. In fact, I barely use iTunes or Apple’s Music app anymore. Therefore, I stopped syncing my music to my iPhone and iPad, saving a lot of space. If you use a third-party app for podcasts (like Instacast), disable podcast sync through iTunes, too.
- Give it a good scrubbing. Once in a while, remove your case and give it and your phone/tablet a good cleaning. There are many manufacturers who make wipes specifically for electronic devices. I’m partial to iKlear.
There you have it! My pre-vacation frustration is your gain. For those who really want to go hardcore clutter-free, I have one more tip. Note that it breaks my rule about folders on the Home Screen … but that’s okay.
Most of us only use a few apps consistently. For me, Mail, Apple’s Camera, Twitterrific for Twitter, Calendar, Apple’s Podcasts and Safari are the big six. Yet, I’ve got twenty icons on my home screen. Why? In fact, it’s possible to have up to 48 apps immediately accessible from the home screen without creating a cluttered mess. Instead, you’ll be able to look at your favorite photo unhindered. Here’s how.
First, identify your most frequently-used apps. Don’t worry if it’s more than six. Like I said, you can keep up to 48. Next, follow these steps:
- Enter “Jiggle Mode” and gather the apps into a folder(s). You can store up to 12 apps in a folder, and the dock will hold four folders.
- Give each folder a descriptive name, like “Work,” “Reading” or “Games.”
- Drag the folders into the Dock, displacing apps you use less frequently.
- Clear the rest off of your home screen by dragging them to other pages.
Your’e done! Now you can access your favorite apps easily while enjoying a clutter-free home screen. Of course, you aren’t restricted to the iPhone. Below is a screenshot of this setup on my iPad.
Now, get out your iPad, iPhone, smartphone and/or tablet and unclutter it.
My main computer is a MacBook Air. I love it dearly. The thin little thing has traveled with me, and I wrote my books on it. It’s a super little machine. It’s got 128 GB of internal flash storage, which sounds like a lot, yet I get that “your startup disk is almost full” warning all the time. The fact that I photograph my kids all the time doesn’t help. I also love music, movies, and trying new software. Those are all space-hogging activities. What can I do?
If you’re in the same boat — irrespective if you’re on a Mac or PC — this post is for you. I’ve collected several tips for freeing up disk space on your computer. Put them into practice and reclaim a little bit of that precious storage space.
To the cloud!
First and foremost, take advantage of cloud storage. Flickr offers users one terabyte of storage for free. That’s huge. I use Everpix, which syncs photos taken with my iPhone and my wife’s iPhone automatically. Those shots aren’t stored on my Mac at all, saving me huge amounts of space.
Music is another opportunity to save space. For example, many people buy an external disk and move their music (like iTunes) library to it. That way your computer’s internal storage is free of your huge music library. Apple’s iCloud also lets you store music on their own servers which you can stream on demand, if you own a Mac.
Other stream-only services like Rdio, Spotify and Pandora let customers stream music to their devices for a monthly fee. I’ve been using Rdio for years and love it. I can listen to all the music I want without any of it living on my hard drive.
What about documents? Dropbox is great, but it stores local copies of all your flies. Actually, not all. In the app’s preferences, select “Selective Sync.” This lets you determine which of your Dropbox folders are copied to your computer.
While researching this article, I came across this post from MacRumors. It lists several great options for freeing up disk space, including:
- Empty the trash. You’d be surprised how often I see digital trash cans that are bulging with files. The act of simply moving a file into the trash doesn’t get rid of it. Empty that virtual trash can. Individual applications (like iPhoto on my Mac and my email program) may also have separate Trash cans and Spam folders that should be emptied, too.
- Delete software and files you don’t use. I’m the guy who downloads software just to see what it does. That means I accumulate a lot of apps I don’t use. Trash them. AppZapper for the Mac is good at removing an app and all its related files, if you’re on a Mac. If you know of a similar PC product, please share that in the comments.
It is also good to go through the files you have saved and trash all those you no longer need. The grocery list you made eight months ago can probably go, even if it’s not taking up a lot of room. All those little files are only cluttering up your computer’s hard drive.
- Empty your browser caches. Most web browsers will cache sites to improve their performance. These cache files can grow over time. You’ll find an option to clear your cache in your browser’s preferences.
It’s also a good idea to run software that’s designed to find and eliminate unnecessary files. I rely on Clean My Mac. It’s great at finding things like hidden iPhoto duplicates, language files that I don’t use, and a lot more. I’ve reclaimed several gigabytes of space thanks to Clean My Mac. Again, if you rely on a PC product, please share that in the comments. And, if you’re on a PC, don’t forget to defragment your drive after you delete programs to help it run more efficiently.
Add physical storage
You might have an option to add more physical storage to your computer. For example, the cool StorEDGE from PNY is a little flash storage module that fits inside an SDXC slot (provided that it has one, my Air does not) and adds either 64 GB or 128 GB of storage.
There you have a few strategies for reclaiming a little precious disk space. Try them out and de-clutter your computer.
Like many of you, I enjoy the convenience and fun of owning a smartphone. However, I detest loud, obnoxious ring tones. It’s jarring to be in a room with someone whose phone suddenly begins blaring a Metallica riff. My iPhone shipped with several options for ring tones, and several are acceptable. But, there is still much to be desired.
I had an opportunity to review Cleartones, which are non-obnoxious and downright minimal ringtones and alert sounds for the iPhone and Android. (Thanks to Cleartones for letting me give these a try.) After a week of testing these sounds, I can safely say they’re the least annoying ringtones I’ve heard.
When I’m picking a ringtone, I’m looking for three things:
- It can’t be embarrassing in a professional or more formal setting. Something goofy might amuse my friends over the weekend, but that won’t cut it when with a client.
- It must be loud enough to be heard while in a pocket. This might be a function of my age, but I don’t always hear my iPhone ring when it’s in my pocket. I dislike the vibrate function, so the tone I choose must be loud enough for me to hear through clothing from a few feet away.
- It can’t be insistent. People think I’m crazy on this one, but hear me out. A ringtone’s job is to let me know when someone is calling. It rings, I hear it, and then I respond. There are many rings out there that repeat almost instantly, over and over. I want a good “five Mississippi” between rings. I know someone’s calling, and I’ll get to it when I get to it.
With these points in in mind, here’s what I found from Cleartones.
The company offers two sets of tones, each with three packaging options. The original set is Cleartones Classic. These are mostly electronic-sounding tones, each super brief. The one called “A Clear Tone” is literally a single, electronic “ping” that repeats every six seconds. It’s like the Cleartone developers were reading my mind when they designed this one. Others, like “Loud & Clear” sound like an old ’90’s portable phone, while “The Friendly Tone” fades in and out quickly. The “Classics” set contains 50 tones for $10. Likewise, the Classics Notifications set offers 50 sounds to use with sms, email, voicemail and other alerts. It also sells for $10. Or, you can buy the lot — 100 sounds — for $17.
The other set of sounds is called Cleartones Organic, which feature acoustic instruments exclusively, like metal bells, glass bowls, a vibraphone, and more. This is my favorite set. “Hello There Wood” is very nice, as it’s three sharp raps on a wooden block, but my favorite is “Gamelong:” two quick taps on a glass bowl that repeats every five seconds. It meets all my criteria.
Just like the Classic set, Cleartones Organics ringtones and notifications sets (50 each) are available for $10, or you can buy all 100 for $17.
I should mention another company that sells pleasant ringtones called iRingPro. Their site was recently hacked, unfortunately, but you can still access their web store. iRingPro focuses more heavily on nature sounds.
They’re all worth checking out and, in most cases, are more pleasant and uncluttered than whatever shipped with your phone. Also, if you have another favorite set of uncluttered ringtones, please share your finds with everyone in the comments.
Dropbox is a service that offers online storage of your stuff. It’s tremendously convenient and used by lots of people world wide. Dropbox is a quick-and-dirty sharing and backup tool that many workers (including yours truly) couldn’t work without.
What many people don’t realize is that Dropbox is capable of a lot more than drag-and-drop storage of your files. There are numerous cool things you can do with it, but the following are 10 useful tricks I’ve discovered to help keep me organized and reduce my digital clutter.
Save space with selective sync
My personal computer is a MacBook Air with just 128 GB of storage. I know that sounds like a lot, but with a bulging music collection and photo collection, it gets full pretty quickly. Fortunately, my work computer can hold much more. I can hand pick which files get synchronized to Dropbox and then to my MacBook Air, and which get ignored.
To do this, open the Dropbox preferences on your computer. Select the advanced tab and then click Selective Sync. From there, tell Dropbox which folders to sync to that computer. Those you choose to ignore are still available at dropbox.com, they’re just not automatically synched. You still have access to them.
Access previous versions of files
Dropbox offers one huge benefit that many people overlook. It saves versions of your files for up to 30 days. That means, for example, if you make changes to a Word document you’ve got in Dropbox and then decided you wish you hadn’t, you can restore a version that existed before you made all of those regrettable edits.
Go to dropbox.com and find the file. Right-click on it and select Previous Versions from the resulting menu. A list appears; select the one you want. Easy.
Backup your smartphone photos automatically
This is a very nice feature that was introduced within the last year or so. Dropbox for iPhone and Android can automatically move a copy of every photo you shoot to a folder on the service. Check your mobile app’s preferences for the setting to enable this. It offers real peace of mind.
Mark files as favorites for offline access
I do this one quite a bit, especially when traveling. As you know, Dropbox stores your stuff on its servers. However, if you mark a file as a favorite, a copy will be downloaded to your mobile device, allowing you to view it even when you don’t have Internet access.
To mark an item as a favorite, simply navigate to it on your tablet or smartphone and tap the star icon.
Recover deleted files
“Ack! I didn’t mean to delete that!” No worries. If you delete a file, versions from the last 30 days remain. To get something back, go to dropbox.com and navigate to the folder where it used to be. Find the Show Deleted Files icon and click it. Then select it from the list.
Back up your blog, two ways
I use Dropbox to back up every post I publish to my blog. There are at least two ways to do this. I use a service called IFTTT, or If This Then That. You can use IFTTT to build actions or recipes to accomplish tasks for you. I have one that watches for any new post I publish to my blog. When it finds one, it copies the text to a file in my Dropbox account. If worse came to worst, I’d still have all of my posts.
If you don’t want to fiddle around with IFTTT (and you own a WordPress blog), check out this great plugin for one-click backups.
Print a PDF right to Dropbox
Here’s a great tip that’s reserved for you Mac users. You probably know that you can turn nearly any file into a PDF by choosing Save to PDF when printing something. What you may not know is that you can direct that PDF to save right to Dropbox.
When you click Save to PDF, you’ll see Edit Menu as the very last option. Click it, and then click the “+” in the resulting window. A new list appears. Navigate to your Dropbox (or any folder therein) and then click OK. Now, that folder will appear in the Save to PDF menu every time. Simply click it, and a PDF will be automatically shuffled off to Dropbox.
Back up your Instagram photos
Here’s another IFTTT trick. I’ve created a recipe to monitor my Instagram account for new photos. Whenever it finds one, it moves a copy to a folder on my Dropbox account. The photograph is backed up and I didn’t even have to lift a finger.
Publish a website (pancake)
A couple years ago, my wife and I succumbed to the fact that individual paper planners weren’t doing it for us. As much as I love jotting things down on paper and carrying a notebook of lists in my back pocket, it’s no good when two people are trying to coordinate Cub Scouts and ballet and play practice and Girl Scouts and chorus and homework, etc.
In other words, our Family, Inc., needed an appropriate tool. For us, it’s Trello.
Trello is a web-based collaboration tool that’s meant for teams, but it’s perfect for families. It runs in a browser so it doesn’t matter if you’re using a Mac or a PC, and it allows you to create “boards” that hold the tasks, assignments, reference materials, and so forth for a given project.
We have a board for each of the kids, as well as for ourselves. In addition to who needs to be where, we add things like what needs to go where (pack the script and change of ballet clothes for Tuesday drop-off) as well as who’s going to do each.
Trello’s emphasis is on speed and no-fuss teamwork. Essentially, a board holds several cards. Each card contains one item in the list of information that becomes the support material for a project. Each board (“William”) holds several boards (“Cub Scouts”). Here’s how we use Trello at Chez Caolo.
The need for quick capture of ideas and news
Items added to Trello from one device show up on another. For example, my wife can update a card on her iPhone and that edit shows up on mine. Likewise, I can make a note from my computer and it shows up on both phones. As we go about our days, it’s comforting and useful to know that we’re in touch and up to date, even on those days when we barley see each other between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (Perhaps you know how that goes?)
As I said, Trello works great in a modern web browser. There are apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, too. But, honestly, the website is smart enough to work and look great on a mobile device, so check it out before you install an app.
Trello is really meant to be used by business teams, but we’re getting a lot out of it as busy parents. In the end, we’re pretty happy with it. Trello is a near ubiquitous capture tool that is always in sync. Shortcuts make it fast and cloud sync lets me stay on top of things.
User manuals are a necessary evil. When you bring home that new TV, blender, or printer, you set it up, try it out, and tuck its user manual away somewhere. Chances are you’ll never look at it again. But, you might, and that’s why you can’t throw it away. So, it gets tossed into a junk drawer or set on a shelf in the basement or crammed into the closet with all the other manuals you’ve stashed in there, just in case. These things are the definition of clutter. They sit around and do nothing for years and years. Wouldn’t it be great to store them completely out of sight yet have them instantly available, whenever you need them? Digitizing them is the answer. With a little bit of time and some free software — plus one very cool trick — you can achieve User Manual Nirvana. In this article, I’ll show you how to:
- Get manuals into your computer.
- Use the nearly ubiquitous Evernote to make your manuals accessible from your digital devices.
- Ensure that every manual is ready as soon as you need it with NO searching required (the cool trick).
- Reduce frustration and repair time around the house.
The first step, of course, is to find digital versions of your paper manuals and get them into your computer. There are several ways to do this, and I’ll cover three.
Go To The Source
You best bet is to look online, and your first stop should be the manufacturer’s website. For example, here’s a link to the manual for HP’s Officejet 6500 Wireless All-in-One Printer. If you can’t find the manual you’re after by visiting the manufacturer’s site, you’re not out of luck.
Check Third-Party Websites
User-manuals.com offers a large selection of user and service manuals, mostly for large appliances. The manuals on this site aren’t free, and will charge you about $8.99 per manual. The site’s search feature works well, and lets you narrow your inquiry by brand. Another option is theusermanualsite.com. It stores thousands of product manuals and a huge, searchable list of brands and products. What’s really nice is that theusermanualsite.com is supported by an active community of users who will respond to your requests. Theusermanualsite.com requires a free membership. There are other manual sites available, but I’ve had the best luck with these two.
Scan It Yourself
If the manual is not too long, scan it. Many are only long because they contain several languages. You can scan the two, three or four pages that are in your language and disregard the rest. If you don’t have a scanner, don’t worry! There’s a great iPhone app called Piikki that’s useful in this situation. It’s meant for taking photos of receipts, but really you can use it with any piece of paper. Piikki is very good at identifying the edges of paper and grabbing a readable, useful image. From there, send it to your computer.
Of course, you can also take a photo with Evernote and get it right in your database that way. More on Evernote later in this post.
A quick note before I move on to the next section. Don’t overlook “homemade” manuals and similar supplements. A few years ago, I had to replace the belt on our clothes dryer that turns the drum. While I had the machine apart, I sketched how it came apart, where the parts belong, and how it all fits back together. Today, I’ve got a scan of that drawing for future reference (and yes, I got it back together again).
Now that you’ve got your digital user manuals, store them in a fantastic, nearly ubiquitous digital database called Evernote.
Evernote can be your digital database
We’ve written about Evernote before and for good reason. It’s a dead-simple way to store just about anything that’s digital, from manuals to ideas, from music to packing lists. Best of all, it’s nearly ubiquitous. There’s a version for just about any device you own, as well as the web. I treat Evernote as my digital filing cabinet. Evernote stores information in what it calls “notes.” Similar notes can be grouped into a “notebook.” In our case, one note will be one user manual, and all of those notes will be gathered into a single notebook called, you guessed it, “Manuals.” Here’s how to set things up.
Create a Notebook
First, create a notebook. Fortunately, the process couldn’t be simpler. On the left-hand side of your browser window, right-click (that’s Control-click for you Mac users) on the grey area where it says “Notebooks” and select “New Notebook.” Name it “Manuals” and you’re all set.
Create a Note
The exact steps required to create a note depend on the device you’re using (iPhone vs. Mac vs. Android device, etc.). I’ll review how to do it in a web browser, as that’s the same for everyone, and leave you to suss out the (similar) process on your computer/tablet/smartphone of choice.
- Navigate to Evernote.com and log in.
- Tap “+ New Note”.
- The note creation screen appears. Enter a name for you note (like “DVD Player Manual”).
- Click “Show details” and enter “manuals” as the tag. This is important as you’ll see.
- Click the attachment icon (it resembles a paperclip), navigate to your manual and attach it to the note.
- Select “Manuals” from the Notebooks drop-down menu to put it in the proper notebook.
- Click “Done”.
That’s it. Repeat the process with all of your manuals. Once you’ve done this on one device, those notes will be available on every other device that you have that runs Evernote. Adding them can be boring, but now for the fun stuff.
Find manuals when you need them
I promised to teach you a cool trick. This isn’t it, though it’s still pretty nifty. You can search for a term in Evernote and then save that search so you don’t have to type it over and over again. Plus, Evernote is smart enough to update the results for you.
In the Evernote app for the desktop, enter “manuals” in the search field and hit Return. Look at the results to make sure they’re accurate, then click on the File menu, and then choose File and then Save Search. Give it a nice name (I suggest “Manuals”) and you’re all done. From now on, all you need to do is click the search field and “Manuals” will appear there for you. Just give it a click.
Here’s another cool bit: saved searches sync across devices. That means, once you’ve created the saved search on your computer, it will be available on your smartphone as well.
OK, here’s the super-cool trick I’ve been promising you.
Access manuals from the appliances themselves
While doing research for this article, I came across this brilliant idea from author Jamie Todd Rubin. His idea is to use QR codes, Evernote, and sticky paper to create almost immediate, no-search access to your digital user manuals.
QR Codes are those funky, square-shaped boxes of scanner code you might have seen, similar to the one at right. A QR Code reader (like this free one for the iPhone), can read the information it contains and perform a resulting action, most often opening a web page.
You can make your own QR Codes for free with a tool like this one at KAYAW QR Code by providing the link you’d like it to point to. Every Evernote note has a unique URL. To find it, simply open the note in your Evernote app and select Copy Note Link from the Note menu. Then make a QR Code with that URL, using the free QR Code generator linked above. Once that’s done, print the page, cut out the code and stick it to the side or back of your printer, blender, DVD player, what have you.
Now, whenever you need the manual for that device, all you need to do is scan it with a free QR reader app and presto! Evernote launches and opens that exact manual for you. No searching, no typing. Ingenious. If you don’t want to use the Note URL from the Evernote app, open the target note in a browser and copy its URL. That will work, too.
There you have it: digitize your user manuals to greatly reduce clutter, keep them close at hand on a smartphone, tablet, or computer, and use QR code stickers on your devices to let THEM retrieve your manuals for you. Have fun.
As Internet access becomes ubiquitous and bandwidth drops in price, so-called “cloud” services (which store your information on a server that’s accessed via the Internet) are growing in popularity. Many are very useful and help you perform tasks like sharing photos and video, storing files, and keeping up with family and friends. Most cloud services are inexpensive, some are free, and many offer great convenience.
The trouble starts when you subscribe to more than a few. I found myself checking Instagram for photos, Facebook for updates from friends, Dropbox for shared files, Path for updates from family, and Pocket and Instapaper for articles to read. Fortunately, I found Jolidrive, which lets me keep all of those services (and many more) in one, tidy, organized layout.
Jolidrive is free to use. You can create an account by signing in with your Facebook credentials or email address. Once you’ve done that and clicked the link in your confirmation email, you’re all set.
There are several “services” you can have Jolidrive connect to, including:
- Google Plus
- Ubuntu One
- Google Drive (formerly Google Documents)
As you add each service, you’ll be asked for your login credentials. Once the connection is made, it appears in the sidebar of Jolidrive’s beautifully designed web interface. Tap any one to explore.
For example, I can click the Instagram icon to get a beautiful grid of the latest photos in my feed. I can also browse my own photos and those I’ve liked, as well as the most popular photos across all of Instagram. Finally, I can see who I’m following, as well as who’s following me. All from the one web page. In fact, jolidrive has become my favorite way to browse Instagram.
It works much the same with Facebook. I can see my news feed and my own timeline, my list of friends, photo albums, and videos. Again, there’s no need to visit another site. It’s very convenient and tidy.
I’ve also got Pocket in my account, it lets me browse and read saved articles in a layout that is just as pretty as the Pocket iPad app.
But Jolidrive is not just pictures and articles. I can browse and interact with almost any file I’ve got stored on Dropbox, Box, or SkyDrive. The fact that I don’t have to navigate away to all those different sites or apps is a real time-saver. On top of that, it looks great.
If you’re like me and you subscribe to a large number of cloud services, consider jolidrive. It keeps everything organized into a single, great-looking website. I have and I’m glad I did.
As an independent worker, I’m learning to be the manager, technician, and boss of “Dave, Inc.” I’m also a devotee of productivity tools (read: junkie) and I’ve tried most of the major systems, techniques, and software. By far, the most effective strategy I’ve adopted is also the simplest, and possibly the oldest: write things down. Not only does it reduce the stress of possibly forgetting something important, it also helps answer the question, “What should I work on now?”
I write things down all day, from capturing ideas to outlining articles and ideas. However, the most important list is the one I make right before bed.
Every night, I review what I’ve accomplished and what’s outstanding. Next, I write down the three most important tasks that I must complete the next day. This practice has two main benefits. First, it shuts off my brain. Tell me if this sounds familiar: your body is ready to go to sleep but your brain decides it’s party time! So it starts to review everything that needs to be done. Good times! When I’ve got those things out of my brain and committed to a list that I’ll see in the morning, the plug gets pulled on that party.
Second, it lets me avoid the overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to begin. Many of us have 10, 20, or more outstanding projects. It can be hard to know where to start when you have so many. Deciding before I sit down helps alleviate that feeling and provide direction.
Conversely, approaching the workday without a list of observable, clearly-defined actions creates one of two scenarios. Either you’ll attend to every distraction that pops into your mind and make insignificant progress on many projects, or you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time on a project that’s less critical than others.
Every night between 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., I review my project lists and pick the three mission-critical tasks that MUST be completed the following day. Then, I gather 5–6 other tasks that can wait a day but would be the icing on the cake if completed within the next 24 hours.
I then take a pen and a notebook and write them down. This simple practice reduces my anxiety tremendously, lets me sleep, and gives me direction in the morning. When it’s noon and I’ve completed all three critical tasks, I feel fantastic.
There are a huge number of tools available for creating such a list of actions. I use David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner. It lets me create a list, track how much time I actually spend on each (instead of my estimate), and gather incoming “stuff” as it shows up. It’s super useful.
Of course, most computers come with a quick note-type app. If you’re happy with just a bullet list, give it a try.
I’ve also started exploring these other programs:
The Pomodoro Technique. I use a modified implementation of this method. At its heart, it’s a way to alternate timed work sessions with break sessions. I work for 25 minutes straight and then take a 5-minute break. When the break’s over, I start again with another 25-minute work session. After three rotations, the break extends to 15 minutes, the I go back to 25 on, 5 off.
Mac users who want to try it out will love BreakTime. This unobtrusive utility lives in my Menu Bar and times your work/break sessions all on its own. Others should consider Focus Booster, a free, browser-based timer that looks great and works well.
Boomerang for Gmail. I usually check email at 9:00 a.m., noon and then 2:00 p.m. I, like so many others, had become a slave to the inbox and I don’t want to do that anymore. I use Gmail for a lot of work-related email, and Boomerang lets me schedule when I interact with it. I can determine when messages will be sent, but even better, select when I want to see certain messages. During my morning sweep, I can use Boomerang to remind me of certain messages while I’m processing email again at noon.
Like many of you, I’m still struggling with the best way to manage all of this. These practices and apps have helped quite a bit. If you’re doing something similar (or completely different), let me know.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been completing my three mandatory tasks by 3:00. It feels great.
I had an amazing college gig. My job was to deliver papers and envelopes to medical offices around town. I’d show up at work and pick up a van full of deliveries, and, when the van was empty, my work was done. Afterward, I would return the van and go back to my apartment. Guess how many times I thought about delivering papers between drop-off and the next morning?
That was what David Allen would call a “widget-cranking job.” You show up to find a bunch of un-cranked widgets. Once they’re all cranked, you go home. The job description is cut and dry.
Today, my job is quite different. I write and edit articles. I produce one podcast and participate in another. I’m working on a book. I’ve also got the responsibilities of a husband, father, brother, and son. In comparison, my job requires more attention than driving a van around town while listening to music and drinking a soda.
A good number of jobs can be overwhelming. The good news is that any job can be a widget-cranking job. The trick is identifying the widgets and getting them in front of yourself in a timely manner and on a friendly, non-intimidating list.
How do you get almost any job into a widget-cranking job? Try these steps:
Identify the widgets
This is the most crucial and the most difficult step. It often takes more time and attention than you initially assume. I think a case study will be the best way to illustrate the process.
Next week, I’ll produce another episode of my podcast, Home Work. There’s a lot to be done each week, like think of a topic, communicate that idea to my co-host, conduct research once a topic has been agreed upon, share notes, confirm sponsorship details, ensure that my software and hardware works, and so on. It’s easy to look at that and think, “Where do I begin?”
To find the answer, I ask myself this question: “If I had nothing else to do in the world but work on the podcast, absolutely nothing at all, what could I do right now to make progress on it?” And by do I mean a concrete, observable action. Let’s say my answer comes back, “brainstorm topic ideas.” OK, great. What do I need to do that? Well, a piece of paper and a pencil.
OK, but bah! My beloved brainstorming notebook is out of scratch paper. I guess I need to get more. So, the next step on the project Produce the Podcast is “drive to Staples and buy my favorite notebook paper.”
That’s a widget. “Think of a good topic” is hard. “Buy paper” is easy.
From there, I continue to my next step, which is “brainstorm ideas.” Then, I identify two or three good ones for the podcast. Next, I need to “share list of good ideas with my co-host.” All of these actions are easily-cranked widgets. Put them on a list and you’re good to go.
To-do management apps
All you need to crank these widgets is a simple list. High-powered project management software is overkill here. Below are several examples of simple and effective task management applications that might work for you.
- Remember the Milk. This handy little app is available for the iPhone and Android phones. It works with Gmail, Google Calendar, Twitter, and has a nice web interface. It’s been around for a few years and works quite well.
- Todo List. Todo List can be used entirely browser-based so it will work with just about any smartphone and any computer. You’ll also find apps for Android, the iPhone, Windows Phone, and the Mac OS. It features handy color coding and nearly infinite list sizes, so go nuts.
- TeuxDeux. This app lets you sort tasks by day and can be used in a browser. An iPhone app is also available. This one is very nice-looking in addition to being useful.
- To.DO. This a solution I’ve only recently started playing with. It’s available for Android, the iPhone, and Chrome. The Chrome browser plug-in is very nice. It syncs automatically with the smartphone apps and reminds you of what needs to be done.
- Astrid. Astrid takes your to-do list a step further and makes it easy to share task lists with co-workers, family, and friends. It’s available for the iPhone and Android.
Once you are clear as to what steps to take, work through your list of simple to-do items. As long as you stay current with your concrete actions, you’ll know exactly what you need to do. You can free your mind to think about non-work things during non-work time.
Services like Instapaper, Pocket and Readability are great for saving articles for later reading. But sometimes I want to read something right when I find it and, better yet, with a clutter-free layout like those services provide. This is when an in-browser reader like Apple’s Safari Reader, Instapaper’s Text Bookmarklet and Evernote’s Clearly come in handy.
Each has its own pros and cons, but which is the best? Everyone has their preferences, but I took a look at three options and picked my favorite. Here’s what I found while comparing Safari Reader, Instapaper Text, and Clearly:
Apple introduced Safari Reader with Safari 5. Like the others, it offers a distraction-free reading experience by presenting an article without ads, sidebar images, headers or footers. Instead, you get a center-aligned, black-on-white version of the article with any inline images intact. Plus, multi-page articles are displayed in one flow. That’s it.
It works by first detecting an article or post on a web page. Once it has, a grey “Reader” button appears in the URL field in place of the RSS button. Click it to view your article in the Reader interface (Command-Shift-R works, too).
The article appears on a white background in the center of Safari’s window. Also, the Reader button turns purple while the Reader view is active. Finally, a scrollbar on the right allows you to navigate the article.
There are several tools available while Reader is active. Move your cursor toward the bottom of Safari’s window and the toolbar appears. From left to right, you’ll find “-” and “+” re-sizing buttons, as well as options to email or print the article. Lastly, a big “X” closes the Reader UI and restores the original website (clicking outside of Reader does the same).
The best thing about Reader is that it works as advertised. The black text looks great and is highly legible. It loads quickly and lets you adjust the text size, print and share via email. Plus, it’s only available after a web page has fully loaded, so advertisers aren’t cheated out of impressions.
While Safari’s Reader for the Mac isn’t my favorite (more on that in a minute), it absolutely shines on mobile Safari. Especially on the iPhone. Typically I dislike long periods of reading on the iPhone because the screen and text is so small, but Reader fixes that. It commandeers the screen completely (unlike on the iPad, which still shows the toolbar and any open tabs), with big, legible text on a lightly textured background that just feels nice. An unobtrusive share button offers several options, like tweet, print, add to reading list and more.
My main gripe is that Reader doesn’t fill the browser window. Instead, the original web page is seen behind the Reader presentation. Even though it’s grayed out, I’m still aware of it, which defeats the “distraction-free” aspect. In fact, it’s a deal-breaker. Sorry, Apple.
Customization is also limited, though you can alter its look with a little work. It’s nice to re-size the type, but compared to others, it doesn’t do much. Finally, it’s restricted to Safari.
Reader is nice on the Mac, super on the iPad, and, hands-down, fan-flipping-tastic on the iPhone.
Instapaper Text Bookmarklet
Instapaper offers a bookmarkelt that lets you read an article in the service’s text view without saving it to your collection of stories. It offers black text on white like with Apple’s Safari Reader, but with more options for customization.
By default, the Instapaper Text Bookmarklet centers your text on a field of white. The customization tools are hidden until you click the font icon at the top left. Options include re-sizing the type, and I clicked the button 22 times and was obliged each time.
You can also single- or double-space the text and adjust the column width. Again, it seems happy to stretch the text as wide as I like, easily filling my 24″ display. Finally, there are four fonts to choose from: Geneva, Times, Helvetica and Veranda. There’s no button to send to Instapaper, however. For that you’ll need a different bookmarkelt.
Right off the bat I’m happy because it fills the browser window. Instapaper Text also offers more customization options than Apple. It also loads quickly, and is quite legible. Since it’s a bookmarklet, it’ll work in any browser and, like Safari’s reader, it displays multi-page articles on a single page.
Can’t think of a one.
I found this one recently and have been test driving it. Like the others, Clearly (formerly Readable) presents your target article without ads, a sidebar, header or footer. It’s an extension, not a bookmarkelt, and is available for Firefox and Google Chrome. Once it’s up and running, a click sends the article to your Evernote account. But, the single click action isn’t what I love most about it.
If looks are everything, Clearly is a bombshell. The whole point of these things is to display an article so that it looks great and is pleasant to read. Clearly succeeds better than the rest.
A click on the themes button on the right sidebar reveals multiple thematic options. By default there are three themes to choose from: Newsprint, Notable and Night Owl (pictured above). A fourth option lets you create a custom theme, with control over almost every aspect of how Clearly presents your pages. Finally, there’s a button to print the article and another to send it to Instapaper.
It’s not available on Apple’s Safari browser.
Evernote’s Clearly is my new favorite way to read articles without distraction in my browser. Yes, Instapaper is backed by a tremendous service that I love, but so is Clearly. Like I said, this is a beauty contest more than anything else and the team at Evernote has done a stellar job with Clearly. I’ll still send articles I wish to save to Instapaper, but will enjoy stories I want to read as I find them with Clearly.