Build a visual to-do list in Evernote

We’ve written about Evernote several times on Unclutterer, and for good reason — it’s a fantastic service. I use it as my external brain, having it “remember” things for me, same as a scratch pad, text editor, or journal.

Many people, myself included, use Evernote as a to-do manager. I combine the to-do item with the photo notes feature, and I’ve got a visual to-do list.

When you create a new note in Evernote, you’ve got five options: Text, Photo, Reminder, List, and Audio snippet. In the instance of a visual to-do list, create a Photo. Using the Evernote app on your smartphone, simply take a photo of that long-lingering project: the baseboard that needs replacing, the drywall that could use a patch, the past-its-prime laundry basket that needs to be put out to pasture. Now you have an image representing the task that needs to be completed. But you’re not done yet.

You can add text to any note, so be liberal with the notes. “Buy two-by-four to replace this baseboard” or “Get a laundry basket while at the mall” will do nicely. Take it a step further by adding tags. Try tags like “high priority” or “low priority” and then sort when it comes time to do things. Or, tag by context with terms like “errands” or “home.” Perhaps you’ll sort by tasks for work and those for your personal life.

Now, a visual list like this won’t work for everyone, but often times quickly glancing at an image will quickly jog your memory. Also, you don’t always have time to stop and write things down. Snapping a quick reference photo can fix that problem. Additionally, Evernote is so ubiquitous that your list can be instantly synced to almost any device.

Offloading unwanted stuff

Receiving gifts at the holidays is fun, but it also means there’s now more stuff in your home. A few years ago, we outlined what to do with unwanted toys, including donation, repurposing, and selling. This time, we’ll look at options for moving your unwanted items of all kinds out of your home.

Yerdle

The premise is simple: “Post a pic of your unused stuff and swap it for what you want.” Take a nice photo of an item you no longer need (a tutorial on taking great product photos from the folks at Ebay will serve you well). Next, post your photos to Yerdle with a brief description. When someone likes what you have, they’ll request it. The folks at Yerdle will send you a shipping label (as long as your package is under 10 pounds). You then earn “Yerdle Bucks” that you can spend on items that you want.

Gone

Another option is Gone. The goal with Gone is to make the offloading process as easy as possible. In fact, once you’ve listed what you’ve got for sale, the folks at Gone find the best possible price for your item for you, as well as providing shipping labels and getting you paid via check, PayPal, or Amazon.com Gift Card.

OfferUp

OfferUp focuses on what’s available to you locally. It’s got more of a focus on buying than selling (the site looks like store), but you can definitely offload items to OfferUp.

Selling/donating older phones and tablets

Many people use the December holidays as the opportunity to upgrade their smartphones and tablets. While you can find a new role for your old tablet or phone, you’ve also got the option to sell or donate it.

Be sure to prepare a smartphone or table for resale or donation, including:

  1. Removing all data, and
  2. Finding the vendor you’ll use to sell or donate your phone

Companies like Apple, AT&T and Sprint (among others) have buy-back programs, while groups like Cell Phones for Soldiers and Goodwill will accept your donations.

As for choosing a vendor, you have several options if you wish to sell your device. Gazelle and GreenCitizen will both buy your devices if they meet their guidelines.

Old standbys

Of course, you can’t deny old favorites like Ebay and Craigslist. Additionally, a few years ago we looked at four ways to sell unwanted stuff, like yard sales and and consignment shops. Finally, we know it can be hard to part with sentimental items, and we addressed that issue in 2010.

The take-away here is to make room for the wonderful new things that will enter your home this holiday season.

Is organizing email into folders a waste of time?

Recent research conducted by IBM Research [PDF] suggests that people who searched their inboxes found emails slightly faster than those who had filed them by folder. Email management is something I struggle with every day, so this study grabbed my attention. Even after reading it, I don’t know how to feel.

Many years ago I was meeting with a supervisor who wanted me to see an email she had received. “Just a minute,” she said, and opened up her email software. For the next few minutes, I watched as she scrolled through thousands of messages, looking for the one I needed to see. It was frustrating for both of us, and at that moment I swore I’d never be in that position. In the very first post I ever wrote for Unclutterer, I described my reasoning for never storing messages in my email software. But was that the right move?

This study looked at the behavior of 345 subjects. Noting that email “critically affects productivity,” the authors state that “…despite people’s reliance on email, fundamental aspects of its usage are still poorly understood.” They looked at people who simply use their email software’s search function to find what they’re after vs. those who set up folders by topic. The results, surprisingly, were in favor of the former:

“People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding.”

In other words, the time spent setting up folders did not improve retrieval. People instead found that they now had multiple inboxes to go through and worse, started using their email software as a to-do manager. That’s definitely a bad idea (calendars, project management programs, and to-do list are more effective).

At work, I receive an obscene amount of email. To combat this, I stated creating topic-specific folders. As of now, I’ve got nearly three dozen folders. Is that helpful? I’m too sure. On one hand, I know where everything is. On the other, I do spend a lot of time working through the various folders. Conversely, Erin reads messages and then files everything into a giant Archive folder that she then uses the search functionality in her email program to look for specific key words, senders, subject lines, dates, attachments, etc. when she needs to retrieve an email. She calls this the “bucket method.” (It all goes into a metaphorical bucket.) The only exception to this are emails about potential unitaskers, which she files in a Unitasker Ideas folder.

I ask you, readers, which method do you use in email? Folders? No folders? Simple search? Something else entirely? Share what you do and how effective you think your method is in the comments. Email is a beast that we all must battle daily, and so far I’ve not found the perfect weapon.

Up your keyboard shortcut game with TextExpander

A few years ago on Unclutterer, we made a couple suggestions for increasing your computing productivity with keyboard shortcuts. I’m a huge fan of this practice and suggest everyone spend less time with the mouse and more time learning the keyboard-based equivalents of the tasks you perform most often. But, if you’re really ready to ramp up your keyboard wizardry, look no further than a program called TextExpander ($49.95).

TextExpander is a Mac utility that lets you replace one string of text with another. And do not fret, Windows users, I have not left you users out in the cold. PhraseExpress (starting at $49.95) is fully compatible with TextExpander, and syncs shortcuts between the two.

Also, I shouldn’t have to state this outright, but I’m going to: I pay for this utility myself, it’s what I use, and I’m not being compensated in anyway to write this product recommendation. Phew, now that’s out of the way …

Why would you want to use a utility like TextExpander? The short answer is that it saves you a lot of typing. Let’s say you own a small business and must produce a boilerplate email to customers who write requesting certain information. The response is just three short paragraphs long, but the time spent writing it over and over adds up. TextExpander lets you define a brief string of text, say “.response”. We’ll call that the trigger snippet. When you type .response, it’s immediately replaced with the three-paragraph email.

Or, let’s say you’re a developer who must use the same bits of code over and over. You can create a trigger snippet that’s replaced with the code in question, saving you time and reducing the likelihood of a typing error. As you use TextEpander you begin to realize its magic simplicity.

Today, I use TextExpander to:

  • Replace commonly misspelled words
  • Replace the surnames I often get wrong
  • Add a lengthy URL when I need to
  • Reduce the potential for human error when pasting complex code

TextExpander offers advanced features that make it even more useful. For example, you can opt to have it place your cursor at any point in the replacement text, which is great for those times when just one part will change. You can also turn it on or off in specific programs, so you don’t have to use it.

Get the most out of Netflix streaming by being organized

Like many of you, I love Netflix. For just a few bucks a month, I can watch a slew of TV shows and movies on demand, across devices. Identifying what I want to watch is easy. So easy that my “queue” of videos gets out of control quickly. Perhaps this sounds familiar? Fortunately, there are things you can do to organize and take control of your Netflix account.

My kids watch shows on Netflix as do I. That’s fine until Netflix starts suggesting I watch Pokemon and Uncle Grandpa. No thanks, Netflix. The solution to keeping what you watch separate from what others in your house watch is to create a specific profile for each person. Thankfully, profiles are pretty easy to create.

In the upper right-hand corner of your screen, you’ll see a link for “manage profiles.” When you click it, a new window will appear with the option to “Add Profile.” Give everyone in your house an icon and a name and you’re good. The new profile will join your list and you can even edit restrictions for kids, which I recommend doing.

If you don’t have kids, or if you’re the only one watching Netflix, you can still make use of profiles. You can make up to five per account, so set them up for genres you like. Comedies, horror, documentaries, etc. That way, you’ll get great genre-specific recommendations … which leads me to my next point.

Rate what you watch. Netflix’s algorithm is pretty good at learning what you like — and dislike — and making recommendations based on those preferences. The best way to improve those results is to rate everything you watch accurately. You can do this in the Netflix viewing app or through their website, if you wish to bulk rate things you have watched in the past.

Next, I recommend using a third-party website to find what you want to watch. Sure, you can scroll through Netflix’s suggestions, but it’s faster to make use of a website that’s designed to help you find something decent. For example, What Is On Netflix lets you browse titles that are top rated by Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and more. Instawatcher is another good choice, as it lists what’s popular as well as each title’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

If you plan on watching on your computer, learn some keyboard shortcuts. They can save a lot of time:

Enter/Spacebar: Toggle pause/play
Left Arrow: Rewind
Right Arrow: Fast Forward
Up Arrow: Volume Up
Down Arrow: Volume Down
M: Mute

Streaming video services can be quite convenient. I enjoy Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Streaming, and others. (So does Erin, she doesn’t even have a cable television subscription any longer.) With a little effort and organizing, the experience gets even better.

Organize your Facebook friends

For many, Facebook is the primary way they communicate with far-flung family and friends. Keeping those contacts organized is pretty easy, if you know where to look.

Many people complain about Facebook — and it does have its problems — but for no-hassle communication it works easily. One of its biggest issues is organization. After a few weeks, months or even years of casually adding friends, you end up with a big, disorganized list. Thankfully, there are ways to fix this issue.

To get started, visit your account’s page and click “Friends” in the left-hand column. A new page will appear with the full list of every account you’ve marked as a friend. Next to each name and photo, you’ll see a drop-down menu labeled “Friends.” Click it to reveal several options.

Close Friends

Facebook doesn’t put every update that your friends post into your timeline. If they did, the result would be unreadable for anyone with a reasonably large list. Instead, the Facebook software uses an algorithm to guess as to what information you’d most like to see and features those posts based on your previous commenting and liking. You can force this system to see particular people’s posts by adding people to the “Close Friends” list. These folks’ posts will appear in your timeline more often, and you’ll be notified every time they publish something new. It’s best to add people to this list who mean the most to you. Leave acquaintances to be organized by using custom lists.

Custom lists

Next to the name of your friend or acquaintance, hover over the Friends’ drop-down list and click “Add to another list…”. There are two types of lists there. Those with a little lightning bolt icon are “smart lists.” Facebook creates these self-maintaining lists for you. Your friends are sorted by variables like work place, college, geography, etc. As your friends make changes to their own accounts, they’re moved among these lists.

As you scroll all the way to the bottom, you’ll see “New list.” Use this function to create a new list manually. Simply create lists and move contacts into them. “Sorority pledge class” or “First cousins” are types of subcategories you might make into lists.

Organizing your friends on Facebook is a bit time-consuming, but usually worth it. Why? Because you can determine who sees what you post. The next time you create a post, click the “Public” drop-down menu, and then “More options.” Now you can pick from the lists you made and send a post directly to one group or another. Don’t want your work colleagues to see your Throwback Thursday pictures? This is simple when you have lists established and can easily exclude everyone in your office from seeing your photo.

Mobile apps for smart, organized travel

A good vacation, like so many other things in life, will be more successful with ample planning. If you have one, your smartphone is more than up to the task of helping you in this area. There are smartphone apps that can help you back up important information about your trip, pack your things in an orderly way, and finally find tickets for a plane, a train, or bus if you plans change mid-journey.

Perform a backup

This next bit of advice isn’t about an app, but it is vitally important for organized traveling: before you leave for vacation (or on a trip for work), back up your smartphone. It’s likely that you won’t be able to do so while you’re away, and possible that your phone could be lost, stolen, or damaged on the road. While most mobile app purchases can be replaced for free, your pictures, home videos, and certain app data cannot. Performing a backup before you leave means you’ll be able to perform a clean restoration, if necessary, when you return home. Refer to your device’s instructions for making a backup.

It’s also a good idea to export your contacts to a separate file (like a .csv to your desktop or the cloud), just to be safe. For example, the utility called Easy Backup (free) can export your iPhone contacts as a .csv (.csv stands for comma separated value and is easily read by Excel).

Create a packing list

Few things are as satisfying as scratching something off a list. Your smartphone lets you ditch the pencil and create an electronic list to use on the go. There are many list apps available, and I encourage you to conduct a search with the terms “List” and “Packing.”

I’m a fan of the Kayak app (free, and pictured above) because in addition to booking transportation and hotels, Kayak lets you create shopping and packing lists. Its approach is unique: list templates are populated with items you might take on one of several types of trips, family, business, romantic and general. It has pre-populated lists and you can create your own lists. Erin is fond of PackingPro ($3), which is good because it allows different groups of lists and is sharable for families.

Make travel arrangements

Flights
I’ll admit I love finding and tracking flights with my smartphone. I can remember the hours I used to spend on the phone and even in front of my computer trying to find a flight. Not to mention scrambling to find my gate and read the information displays at the airport. Now I do all of it with the pocket-sized computer I keep in my pocket.

Again, I primarily use Kayak to look for air travel. The app polls several top travel sites and airlines for flights that match your criteria. The results can be filtered by airline, number of stops, airport, price and duration. You can also sort by cost, duration and departure time (leaving soonest). You can use the app even if you booked your flight with another site.

Individual airlines have apps, too, which may be helpful to you if you are a loyalty member on a specific carrier. A little research before you purchase your tickets can let you know if booking through the airline’s app will get you a better price.

Land travel

Of course, traveling doesn’t always mean flying. I often travel between Boston and New York City by train. Once again, the smartphone replaces time spent at a desk or on the phone with several handy apps. For train travel, I use the Amtrack app (Free), which allows you to
buy tickets, track a train, browse schedules, share your status with waiting family and friends, and more. Some stations in the US are even testing paperless check-in with smartphone customers through the app.

Bus travel is a little less organized right now, so it’s best to do a Google search to find all the carriers in the area where you’ll be visiting and then find their specific apps. Many have mobile apps as robust as the Amtrack one. Same goes for hired cars (like Uber and Lyft), local taxi services, and metropolitan bus and subway systems.

Defining technology and increasing your productivity

Recently, my 10-year-old son reminded me that technology doesn’t have to be a collection of wires and software, but can be the simplest of devices and still wonderfully productive.

His teacher asked him to write about his favorite subject. He chose science, and broke his writing project into a few aspects of scientific study, including technology, which he defined as “a tool to help you do things better.”

“Well,” I thought, “that’s right.”

Years ago, when I worked as an IT director and had many computers — and computer users — it was quite the task to keep all my work and equipment all organized. It was around that time I discovered David Seah, a designer who often writes about his efforts to become more productive online. He makes lots of cool paper-based productivity tools, including the delightful Task Order Up sheets, which I used religiously. (And Erin loves the sticky version of his Emergent Task Planner, too.)

They were inspired by the order tickets you might see in a deli or restaurant where short-order cooks whip up pancakes, chowder, and slabs of meatloaf on a regular basis. Each sheet represents a single project, with fields for the project’s title and all of the actions that must be completed before the project can me marked as “done.”

There are also fields for marking down the amount of time you’ve spent on a given project, time spent on each action step, and the date. Best of all, they look like the tickets from a deli counter, so you can line them up at your desk and then pull then down as each “order” is completed. Dave even recommends using an order check rail for added authenticity.

Of course you can just use index cards if you like, but I believe that the tools we use can be useful, attractive AND fun. Technology really is any tool that helps you do things better.

Using Slack for families

I enjoy pointing out technologies and tools that can help groups of people to be productive and organized. Every now and then, a great example pops up that seems to have taken on a life of its own. This week, I want to highlight the current tech darling of San Francisco, Slack.

Slack is a communication tool meant for businesses and groups. It provides real-time conversations between team members, file sharing, a very powerful search, what amounts to topic-focused “chat rooms,” and more. I’ve been using it in a professional sense for months now. Only recently did it dawn me on what an effective family communication tool it could be as well.

If you’ve ever participated in a group text or a chat room, you’ve got the basic idea of Slack. Once you’ve signed up (there is a free plan as well as paid options, starting at $6.67 per user per month that is billed annually), you’ll get a domain like “smith.slack.com.” And from there, you can create an account for mom, dad, the kids, etc. You can add as many people as you like.

You’ll start with a chat room (Slack calls them “channels”) called “General.” Posting a message into the channel is as simple as typing it out and hitting Return. Once you’re all comfortable, start making your own channels. This is where it gets good.

You could create a channel for activities, like ballet or sports. Perhaps there’s a trip coming up, or an ongoing volunteer activity that some of you do every week. Making a channel for each gives you a destination for conversations on those topics. Those who are interested can follow along. Those who aren’t, don’t. Additionally, if someone who isn’t typically involved with, say, the park clean-up committee suddenly needs to be, he can go in and read the whole history in that channel to get up to speed.

Sharing files is another area in which Slack shines. You can share all manner of files with Slack, and they remain searchable and easy to find for all involved. Slack indexes the full body of a shared file, not just the title. So, if you know there’s park clean-up this weekend but can’t remember where, simply search “park” to bring up the PDF that was shared a week ago.

Lastly, Slack can eliminate texting and email. Slack has several notification options, from the fire hose (which alerts you every time something new is posted) to a more controlled approach (like whenever your name is mentioned in a chat). Finally, I’ve found that people begin to communicate in Slack more often than email once they’re used to it, as it lends itself to real-time communication and won’t get your stuff lost in a bottomless inbox.

There’s so much more to this fantastic service — like free desktop and mobile apps, so you can constantly be in touch with your family if necessary. Yes, Slack is a business tool, but it can certainly have a place with your family, too. And that’s an essential part of organizing: seeing tools that already exist and using them to meet your needs.

The importance of having tools you love

Think about the tools you use every day: to prepare your meals, to do your work, to clean your home, etc. Given how often you use these kinds of tools, it’s wise to look for ones that you enjoy using. This makes every day more pleasant, and it often saves money in the long term since you buy something once and don’t need to replace it.

What makes a tool enjoyable to use? Obviously, it must do its job very well. Good tools can make you more efficient and may also help you avoid procrastinating on a not-so-fun task. And sometimes one really good tool can replace a number of poorer quality tools, making your space less cluttered.

Another aspect of an enjoyable tool can be aesthetics. And sometimes there are also less tangible elements. For example, a product might bring back good memories.

You often don’t need to be extravagant to find such tools, either. The following are some examples I’ve come across recently:

Timer
I need a reminder to get up from my desk every 30 minutes and move a bit. I got the world’s simplest timer, and now I don’t forget. And it looks good sitting out on my desk, too.

Dish towels
Someone suggested flour sack dish towels to me some time ago, and I finally bought one. I really like it! I’m now planning to buy a few more, and pass my old towels along to someone else. Since my kitchen doesn’t have a dishwasher, I’m especially delighted to have towels that work so well for me, in a pattern that makes me smile.

Printer
Even though I try to go paperless as much as feasible, I still need a printer. I had an old HP printer that I could never make myself replace, even though it always annoyed me for purely emotional reasons. (I used to work for HP, and I feel sad about how the company has changed over the years.) When it broke a few weeks ago, I replaced it with an Epson, and now I wish I’d made the change earlier. I’m also delighted that the Epson is wireless, giving me one less cord needing to be controlled. I don’t know that I love this new printer, but I definitely like it a lot better than my previous one.

Smartphones and their apps
Sometimes the issue is not what to buy but how to configure the tool you’ve bought so it works well for you. I listened to a podcast where one speaker spent many hours arranging the icons on his iPhone based largely on functionality, but also based on creating a pleasing visual arrangement given the colors of the icons. The second part is not something I’d ever do, but I understand the aesthetic impulse. Getting the icon arrangement right was what he needed to do to make the smartphone a tool he loved.

If you have examples of tools you love, I would enjoy hearing about them in the comments.

Make printing less painful and more productive with Google Cloud Print

Years ago, when I worked as an IT Director/help desk for a residential school, the one thing I loathed to hear — more than server issues, backup recovery or Wi-Fi woes — was this simple, three-word sentence: “I can’t print.”

Computers continue to improve by leaps and bounds, while it feels as if printers are just as cumbersome and unreliable as ever.

At least one printing problems appears to have found a fairly simply solution. If you’ve ever had need to print out a document and mail it, now you can skip the mailing step and simply have the document printed at its destination. (The opposite is also true, if you’ve ever needed a document someone can have it printed on your printer.) This act of sharing is possible via Google Cloud Print. This is a solution that lets you connect to a printer via the web, instead of a USB cable or the local network in your home or office. Once you set up your account, you can easily give anyone you want — wherever they are — access to your printer. When it comes to documents that you need to have a physical copy in hand, this is a great and productive option.

My parents will fly to my house from Florida for a visit. Before leaving the house, they use Google Cloud Print to print their return flight boarding passes on the printer here at my house. They don’t have to send me an email, I don’t have to open the email, and I don’t have to print the document. It saves both of us time and improves our productivity.

Another case: You’ve left work and realize you forgot to print a contract for your boss to sign later that evening. No problem, just connect to the work printer from home and fire it off right then and there. You won’t have to drive back to work and your boss won’t be late to her next meeting.

My favorite time-saving advantage is that you can print directly from an iPhone, iPad, or Android device using an app. While we’re on the subject, Google Cloud Print doesn’t care what platform you’re using, so Mac and PC users can both enjoy the service. Earlier today, I was able to print files from my MacBook Pro, my iPhone, and my daughter’s Google Chromebook all to our little Epson via Cloud Print. No fussing with drivers, software, installer CDs, or any of that stuff.

Isn’t in nice when technology actually does make our lives easier and save us time?

While nice, Google Cloud Print doesn’t solve everything. Printers are still sub-par devices that eat time, paper, and money. However, consider this as one way to take the sting out of having to print. Now, if only I could remotely remove paper jams …

Computer desktop clutter

There are two types of people in the world — those who are okay with this, and those who aren’t:

Computers have been a part of my daily life since about 1994. The machines and technologies we used back then would be almost unrecognizable today, with one exception: files saved on the desktop. When Apple released the first Macintosh in 1984, it featured what we think of as the desktop today, with files, a trash can, a clock, and little program icons.

Since then, people have taken to saving digital files to the desktop, much as one does with a physical desk. We’ll call these people the “desktop group.” Others prefer to keep things sorted by folders tucked inside the hard drive itself, not visible from the desktop. We’ll call this second group of people the “folders group.”

I have a strong opinion on this, but first let me share both sides. The desktop group would claim that their method keeps everything within sight and within reach. Files that are necessary for the task at hand are right there, as are reference materials that will be useful in the future. This is how Erin works: she has all her files for her current project’s work saved to her desktop and then at the end of a project she carefully organizes everything into folders in her Documents area of her computer. For long-term projects, she makes alias folders on her desktop from her Documents area so that she can save directly to her desktop and access the folders from her desktop, but the files aren’t actually stored there. She says that working from the desktop saves her time during the work day but also allows her to delete temporary files easily so that they don’t clutter up her well-organized Documents area of her computer.

The folder group would assert that the desktop group’s method is cluttered, the icons strewn across the desktop a complete mess that can slow down the memory on the computer, and that a series of clearly-labeled folders is the way to go, despite taking a little navigation to reach them.

Unlike Erin, I fall squarely with the folders group. I really dislike the visual clutter of a desktop strewn with icons and must have my desktop free of as much clutter as my computer will allow. It barely takes me any time at all to save information to well-organized folders and it saves me time later from having to go back and clean up everything.

So, which method do you espouse and why? Let’s see what we can learn from each other.