My computer rules

Over the last few weeks I’ve been quite busy with evaluating my computer rules. I decided it was about time to define the ways I store information that’s valuable to me and whom do I trust on the web. Sounds serious and I suppose it is after all it’s my data and should take a good care of it so that it’s not lost or corrupted.
What really sparked my interest in this area is the most recent scandal with privacy issues and spying by some governments and in general worry that someone else has control over my information.

It’s very contentious topic and possibly not easy to solve, perhaps even impossible to solve.

Ben Brooks put things into nice perspective for me in a post from couple weeks ago.

As consequence of that I put together a list of couple basic rules that I’ve been implementing to make sure I’m controlling my information as much as possible. This means that certain tasks have become a bit more cumbersome but I’m pretty sure I will be able to navigate around them and find some good solutions. Over time I will try to share them here too.

Use native formats

Keep critical data in formats that been here very long like: txt, html, pdf, jpg. This will ensure that no matter what I can still access my information. These formats are not impacted by applications that gone stale, databases that got corrupted etc. All I need is a program that can read these format.

Export to native format

If using proprietary applications make sure there is easy and clean export into native formats. This not only ensure that I have a good backup of data but I can also move it somewhere else. New programs are coming up everyday so getting stuck isn’t an option anymore.

Proprietary files

If there is a need to use proprietary files make sure it’s for non-critical information and on temporary basis. Certain projects will require some very specific tools that keep data in custom type files. That’s inevitable but the key is that once the project is finished make sure data can be exported into native format.

One exception I’m willing to make is passwords, I need a good password manager and that need to be stored in an encrypted container.

Encrypted backups

Making backup is a first step in ensuring data is safe, the second one is to make sure it’s safe. They contain as much precious and private information as our laptops so making sure they are encrypted and well secured. Perhaps consider having two or three copies stored with family or friends you can trust. Yes, sacrifice convenience for that purpose.

Access to backup

My rule is that I don’t let other application to store my backups in their custom file formats. If I ever lose access the that application (lose registration code etc) I’m stuck but if backup is in the native format I can still access my data. Linux combined with TrueCrypt are easy way to get access to encrypted backups.

Keep an clean image.

Drives do die, systems can’t boot. Having a clean image of hard disk will let easily revert to previous or at least basic configuration and setup. It’s much better to reinstate the image than fully reinstall operating system.
Best to do it as soon as you’ve put a fresh install on your machine as down the road things can get a bit more messy.

Know your software

Make a list of all you primary tools so you know what needs to be installed as priority.

Trusty Providers

Find providers that you can trust whether it’s Google, Apple, Dropbox or your hosting company. Unless you are willing to spend time and energy on building your own stuff you need to trust some one and be happy with it.

Evernote with Jamie Todd Rubin

Evernote has been the center of my workflow for good number of months and as I continue to refine it I’m always on the look for people writing about it.

Fairly recently I came across Jamie Todd Rubin a science fiction writer who makes a massive use of Evernote.  

Over the last number of months he’s been sharing his experience with going paperless and leveraging Evernote for that purpose. He’s also Evernote’s Paperless Living Ambassador.

I’ve picked up some nice tips and reconsidered some elements of my workflow after reading some if his post hence I would recommend that you have a look at his blog. I will definitely make a good weekend read. 

You will find all of his Evernote tagged articles by following below link.

Evernote – Jamie Todd Rubin

Windows PC toolkit

Over the last few months I’ve been looking at different tools and applications to make my workflow better, to help me create the things that I wanted. I’ve used a myriad of different applications and programs that have similar feature sets. There was a little to and fro between a one tool for everything approach and find a good tool for a specific purpose. In the end I settled somewhere in the middle finding few applications that serve multiple purposes as wells as added few more that I use for specific tasks. There is a considerable amount of writers that are big fans of Mac platform showing off its capabilities, interesting apps etc. Although I would agree that there are some neat solutions moving to Mac platform comes at a considerable premium that has both advantages and disadvantages both financial and other. In effect what I’m hoping to achieve with this post is to show to any Windows user that may envy those tool that Windows platform also has a good selection of programs. They really can help you be more productive, organised and achieve the things you want.

NOTES REFERENCE AND WRITING

Some will frown upon the number of tools in this category after all if you need to write a Notepad app or something similar should be sufficient. Perhaps this is true and it’s some form of flaw however I find that these tools really help me with the things I want to do.

  • Evernote – this is an example of an application that serves multiple purposes. I use it to take notes, keep lists, capture ideas, store web clips, purchase receipts, pdf documents etc. Almost anything that I want to keep for later I store it Evernote. I’ve experimented with plain text as a main tool earlier this year. In the end I decided that having a tool that allows me to keep all my information in a single place is much better choice.
  • WriteMonkey – is an excellent, distraction free writing tool. The reason I use it is that I separate process of capturing ideas (Evernote) from actual writing, also since I write in plain text and use markdown WriteMonkey is perfect for that. There are many more features that I haven’t really touched here making it fantastic writing tool for short pieces like blog posts.
  • ResophNote – as I mentioned I keep my posts in plain text files using markdown. In order to maintain them and keep them searchable I use ResophNotes. It provides a nice front end to all the files that I store in my notes folder, plus it allows me to quickly find some older content, rename files or start a new blog post and finish it off using WriteMonkey.
  • Scrivener – I use this application for more complicated and longer writing projects. In short Scrivener is described as an application for writers, journalist, screen writers etc. It’s a tool that allows you to capture all the ideas, expand on them and organise and publish a finished product. I’ve seen many people swear by it. As I finish my current project you should see the result of it soon

TASK AND TIME MANAGEMENT

Finding a proper task manager i.e. one the I like to use and use it consistently took some time. As many of you I’ve went through a lengthy discovery process. Once I settled on an app I kept at despite few attempts to change it. In the end I realised that the power of task manager came primarily from the information it contained not necessarily the amount of bells and whistles.

  • Remember the Milk – is my task manager of choice. It contains all of my lists of actions, projects and waiting fors. Every item that I want to to-do ends up there. This is the best application I’ve found to manage my GTD implementation that work both on my Windows PC and Android phone and tablet. It’s very powerful and flexible app that will cater to many needs. I wrote about some of it’s features here before.
  • Google Calendar – my tool of choice for managing so called hard landscape i.e. any appointments, day and time specific events end up there. It’s possibly the most powerful calendar application out there that lets you manage your life plus it works on every platform.
  • GMinder – is a neat system tray tool which alerts you of upcoming meetings and events. It connects to Google Calendar and displays all your calendars in one place. It does work when you’re offline unfortunately you won’t be able to add new items in that mode . Great little app that does reminders well.

IDEA MANAGEMENT

Mind mapping is regular activity of mine. I use it to organise thoughts, concepts and ideas. Very often when I’m starting a new project I create a new mind map to essentially dump everything that comes to my mind in relation to the project. There are three applications that I use depending on what I’m trying to achieve or what will I do with output.

  • Freeplane– is my primary mind-mapping application. It’s open source and platform independent tool based on Java that started as an offshoot of Freemind which is a very popular tool. As result of its heritage, Freeplane is very powerful and feature rich but its interface is little bit clunky. I use it primarily because of the number of available features and the fact that it’s using the .mm format which is bit of a standard making files readable by other mind mapping applications. One more compelling reason to stick with this app is the upcoming support for .mm files in Scrivener which means I will be able to draft ideas in Freeplane and then drop them into Scrivener to write the full piece.
  • MindMaple – This app is bit of a sidekick to FreePlane. Two elements that I particularly like and use this app as text import and export. I heavily rely on text files for creating my content so ability to export mind maps into text is very important. MindMaple lets me organise my thoughts and then export them into text for further processing. On top of that mind maps created with it are very nice visually which makes it good presentation tool. What usually happens is that I open up Freemind and start working on the map once I’m happy with it I open MindMaple (as it reads .mm files) and use it to export the content to plain text.
  • UV Outliner – this is an fantastic outlining app that lets me create nice looking hierarchical structures for my projects and ideas. Again I mainly use it at the initial stages of planning or organisation of a project or idea. Once I’m clear on the outcome I usually export it to Evernote which serves as primary project support material repository.

MISCELLANY

This category contains a mix of applications that primarily help me make a more effective use of my Windows laptop, remove unnecessary steps, provide security and piece of mind or allow me to work while away from a computer.

  • PhraseExpress – a tool that completely changed the way I write text. Almost anything that gets typed on regular basis is transformed into a template and stored in the app. The next time I need to type my signature, open a website, type my email or respond to someone I simply type relevant key combination and the text I’ve saved appears on the screen. The functionality goes way beyond text expansion, you can use macros, create forms, etc. I’ve personally scratched surface on it and planning to spend this year exploring it in more depth. There are limitless possibilities bar the size of memory allowing me to remember all the combinations.
  • LibreOffice – this is a free office productivity suite that I mainly use for creating presentations and spreadsheets like my training log. It’s a solid alternative to Microsoft’s product although it is not as polished. Beyond the two mentioned above it provides writing, database, sketching tools too.
  • Dropbox – this is almost a default app for any one using more that one device. For me it works as place to store current projects and items I want to share with other people or make available on phone or tablet. It’s key app where I store drafts of may blog post so that I can work on them using my laptop or smartphone. Also any picture I take as saved to it as well which makes it super easy to pick it up at my laptop and process it. No need to connect using cables and all the hassle. I think this app although fairly widely known definitely deserved a bit more detailed look in a future blog post.
  • Crashplan – primary offsite backup solution for all my files. I find it reliable and very flexible. For those conscious of privacy, you can encrypt all your data using your own key before it’s sent to Crashplan servers. On top of the online backup you can use the application to send files to external hard drive of a family or friend if they also use Crashplan.
  • Orzeszek Timer – from time to time I need to apply Pomodoro technique to kick things off. For that purpose I use Orzeszek Timer which is very small app that lets me set a timer for any time I want using human language. I simply type 25min and the time counts down 25 minutes. Great aid for helping we keep the focus on task at hand.
  • CutePDF – is very little app that lets me print anything into pdf file. So anytime I need to save a copy of an online purchase or bill I simply use CutePDF which is set as my default printer and save pdf file to a folder or Evernote. It definitely helps with maintaining a paperless workflow.

 

Photo Flickr: Florianric

 

Weekly Links for 15th of August

A weekly collection of posts and articles about productivity, time management, tools and technology.

    How To Drive Your Professional Development With A Self-Directed Learning Program
    WorkFlowy – Organize your brain.
    Are You An Armchair Creative? :: Tips :: The 99 Percent
    Action Plan Guide: 7 Questions, 7 Answers
    MPU 054: Q&A: Your Questions & An Announcement « Mac Power Users

If you have any interesting articles please share them in the comments section.

Productivity and Security

balance scale

With advent of Internet based productivity tools we gain access to useful tools, convenience and flexibility of working anywhere but this does not happen with out any costs and risks. The main one is that you store your data o someone’s computer. That is not wrong but it requires certain degree of precautions and consideration of costs and benfits.

The whole market of internet productivity tools is booming. I’m not talking about just online calendars or task manager there are many more tools, full office suites comprising of word processors, presentation creators, spread sheet tools, mind mapping, chart plotting. You name it probably exists. On top of that there are services that allow us backup, store and share information on internet. There are even computers being sold that only have  a browser.

This boom of internet services is great, it benefits us all in many different ways but it does not come for free. We are trading part of the security and privacy  in order to gain a convenience , ease of use and access. We are passing our information to a third party and as result we no longer have 100% control over it.

Mark Hurst in the book makes a good point re owning the data:

Bits are truly owned by the user only when they’re…

stored on the user’s own hardware, not on someone else’s website

accessible via the file system,not locked up in an application saved in a non-proprietary,

DRM-free format like ASCII, not a proprietary format like Word.

(Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload (Mark Hurst)Page 164)

In the last few months there was a number of hacks and security breaches at different companies. Sony was hacked numerous times while company running Dropbox allowed user to login with out a password and changed their terms of service that aggravated many. As result some decided to abandon Dropbox completely, you can read about this here and here.

Before jumping on board with any online service check few things:

  • define what is private and should remain such?
  • use encryption and password protection before sending stuff online
  • decide on level of privacy and security you’re comfortable with
  • make sure your read and understand terms of service.

GTD Project series – project tools.

IMAG0063
This is part two of series of posts focusing on GTD and project. Last week I’ve covered the natural planning model. This week I want to focus on some of the tools which you could use to make the process of managing projects a lot easier. Having the right tools around can assist in making sure that the project was fully captured and we can access the plan to review next actions and track progress.

When working on a project there are three categories of information that need to be taken care of.

  • Brainstorming – this is where you collect all your ideas that are related to a project. Key element in the idea creation stage is to let them flow freely and record as quickly and easy as possible.
  • Project plans – once you’re collected all your ideas related to a project you can start organising them into sections, components, next actions.
  • Project support material – a major project will require a lot of research, planning, idea creation sessions, setting up new relationships, testing documentation etc. All these documents need to be kept on file and in one place so one can always refer to them when needed.

There are 7 tool types that can handle any project.

  • Pen and paper – pen and paper is one of most versatile project tools. It’s dead simple and readily available. However the key of it is that it can be used for any aspect of project flow. You can use if for brainstorming, for organising your ideas into project plans. As you go on your research again pen and paper that can help you capture the stories behind things, the images, the details etc. For me almost every project starts with some scribbles captured on paper. I find it super easy and super simple to get things going. There is nothing distracting me. To kick off any project simply grab a pen and some paper that’s around you and start writing.
  • Text outliners – another simple way to work your projects is to use text outliner. This application allow you to create multilevel structures that can be very easily reorganized and reshuffled when needed. For people who are fast typists using outliner can be a great way to dump all their ideas very quickly and then rearrange into a plan. There is no need to rewrite thing as you would do it on paper which some of you might find discouraging and waste of time. Due to simplicity text outliner can fulfil any purpose in project workflow. Although I’m no longer a big user of outliners I had some great results with applications like MS Onenote, Evernote and simple text file. If you’re big MS Word user the outline mode is pretty powerful.
  • Mind maps – if visual representation of your projects is important for you than mind maps are definitely a place to explore. The concept of mind map is very simple and it basically describes creating a web of ideas interconnected with lines and relationships starting from one central point. If you use mind maps on paper they are a great way to brainstorm an idea, flesh things out and clear your head. However if you go a step further and start using mind map on a computer the possibilities expand greatly. You are not only able to brainstorm but you can manage the whole project from establishing the purpose to tracking next actions. You can move things around, drag and drop them between branches. There can be added almost infinite amount of detail as you add layer after layer additional points. As maps can be expanded and collapsed you can set the see only the relevant amount of information. The reason I like mind map is twofold. First I like the visual side of mind maps including web like structure, colours and lines. Second element is flexibility to organize things exactly as I want.
  • Excel /Gantt charts – if you’re looking for little more advanced ways for managing projects and want to capture an lot detail associated with a task that later is analysed for various criteria excel and other spread sheet solutions might be for you. As oppose to mind maps this type of tool is most appropriate for actual tracking and laying out task rather than any creative work. It allows seeing the sequences and dependencies of various sections and elements of a project.
  • Project management software – if you need to do some heavy lifting in terms of managing projects you may turn to a specialised applications. These programs allow tracking multiple steps, dependencies, resources, critical paths etc. For most individuals and smaller companies using this type of software wouldn’t be necessary and more likely would require more work to manage to system than it’s worth.
  • Whiteboards – I must admit I don’t have a lot of experience with this tool but It’s inevitably great way to kick start a big project when you have to deal with a group of people. In a team or group setting the key is to make sure everyone has access to information. Whiteboard allow precisely that.During the brainstorming process every member of the group can see other ideas, build on them, purpose new solutions. Once the plan has been put in place whiteboards can become project dashboards communicating progress, current focus, obstacles etc.
  • Document databases – some project require gathering a substantial amount of information and research that need to be stored and accessible by the team of kept for archiving purposes.One of the easier ways to manage this is to use already existing file and folder structure to save documents, notes etc. The key element is to make sure that information can be easily located and retrieved and act as a trigger for further idea generation or project development.

Managing a project can be an art of itself and it’s super easy to get focused on little details, finding a 20th way to organise the actions. As result you end up using project management software to keep track tyre change. The key is to use tools that are just right enough and for majority of people and project they have to deal with a simple sheet of paper or text file with ideas will bring more clarity and progress than the fanciest management tool.

Your basic productivity tools

Image

Wakoopa

Many people consider productivity tools as applications like task managers, reference databases, calendars, diaries etc. they good for making us more organized more focused but not to produce any work, not to design presentations and writing reports.

When you look at the usage patters the primary productivity tools are not calendars or task managers but word processors,  spreadsheet applications, presentation design tools.

These are the programs that allow us to produce something. These are our tools that allow us getting the work done. We use them everyday, we write reports, read emails, compile data. Word, Excel, Keynote are our basic tools.

Office applications developed for over 20 years grew in features and became more sophisticated. Today’s workplace tools have hundreds of features and functions. User guides and tutorials have thousand and more pages. There are countless websites and forums devoted to answering all sort of questions about them.

Despite the availability of information and training many knowledge workers simply don’t know the tools they are using. Most people spent hundred of hours every year using those tools yet they never go beyond the basics they have learned in their early years of office work.

Not many see the link that being proficient with the software helps get the work done.Many businesses are all about finding efficiencies and increasing productivity yet they look at software proficiency as one of the elements of their strategy. Perhaps they think that it’s enough what they know but is it really, can you really tell that you know everything about your field of work, can you really say that you don’t need to learn.

I think when you look are the obstacles that prevent you from moving forward ability to use software might be one of them. Think of this, if you were a writer would faster typing skills and better knowledge of word processing program not improve your chances or if you are an analyst would better understanding of spreadsheet and database software not improve your chances. 

By learning the ins and outs of the software you can save yourself a ton of time and use it on developing your knowledge and other skills. You can create custom phrases, improve the speed at which you operate, make thing more appealing, and finally go beyond simple ctrl+c or ctrl+x and abandon that mouse.

There are over 500 million Microsoft Office users worldwide that use Word, Excel and Outlook on daily basis. Therefore I’m listing just a dozen of various resources which help you increase your knowledge of above applications.

Keyboard shortcuts:

Keyboard shortcuts for Microsoft Word

Keyboard shortcuts for Microsoft Excel

Keyboard shortcuts for Microsoft Outlook

Functions, tips & tricks, how-tos:

Officeusers.org

Bnet.com/Microsoft office

MSOfficegurus.com

How to Geek/Microsoft office

Ultimate List Of Office 2010 Tips & Tricks

PC Unleashed

How to Outlook

MSoffice.us

Is computer blocking your productivity?

Chances are that you spend a lot of time at your computer. Chances are that most of the things you produce is through the use of a computer.
Using computer to complete any tasks creates an assumption that it will make you more productive, that you will finish tasks faster and with better quality.

This is possible once you learn how to use computer effectively.

Essentially computer is just a tool that we as users need to learn. It’s no different from hammer or wrench. To make the most out a tool you need to learn the tool, know it’s limitations and strengths.

There are four main barriers that prevent most people from using computers with maximum efficiency. Getting past these four obstacles will impact you in two ways.

  • It will save you time by reducing the amount needed to complete work.
  • It will allow you to increase your output.

And it’s not about learning crazy hacks and secret commands, it’s more about finding ways of smarter use of computer with solutions that are readily available.

  1. Slow typing – as most of the information that is passed through the computer is text a slow typing can be a real problem. Solution to this is to learn touch typing. This way you will increase your output and save time. There are plenty of online tools to learn speed typing. I’ve tried these two.  Also if you want to practice your speed and have some fun with it here is a list of touch typing games.
    And you you look for some tangible effects of learning touch typing check out this calculator. It should give you a rough idea.
  2. Mouse – mouse is a great pointing device and is very useful when you need precision. but doing anything with mouse is in most cases longer as you need to navigate various menu option to find the right command. You can increase speed and don’t break the motions by learning keyboard shortcuts for your mostly used actions and commands. Starting with the obvious for many like ctrl+c to copy etc. Go inline and look for a help of your favourite program see what are the mostly used actions and learning the shortcuts.
    You may think that learning this is a waste of time but consider the fact that computer and software are the work tools and to be a master of your work you need to MASTER the tools.
  3. Repeating text – if you are a writer or a programmer many times you write the same pieces of text time and time again. Even if you are in sales or any other job you find your self repeatedly writing signatures, web addresses, letter openings etc. The solution to this is using so called text expansion software. It allows to generate predefined text by typing single word or specific combination of letters. The widely popular  is TextExpander on Mac and Texter on Windows. I’m using a free version of well known Active Words program. If you wonder how much you can save by using this type of software here is a handy link to Harvard Busines Review blog post by Gina Trappani.
  4. Navigation – All of the  applications and documents are stored in folders and subfolders thus making it time consuming to navigate into right location and the added complication is remembering the location. The simplest solution to this is using a program launcher. The more popular are Launchy and FARR which beyond launching applications and documents can be expanded via additional add-on. This way you can post to twitter, facebook, update calendar add new tasks etc.  If you need something simpler I recommend using the Windows 7 and Vista search bar. It’s very simple to use -hit windows key and type the name of the document or program.

If you know any more tips and strategies which improve productivity and interaction with computer please share them in in the comments section.