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.

Text expansion and failure with Merlin Mann

5by5.tv podcast station is one of my favorite podcasting networks. Since they produce a lot very good content it’s not always possible to listen it all and keep up with all the shows. Last week I was catching up on two shows that were sitting in my queue both featured Merlin Mann who is a bit of a hero in the productivity sphere whether he accepts this title or not.

Lets start with Back to Work episode 108 was a great introduction to text expansion. If you haven’t heard about it before or you’ve heard about it before but don’t know where to go this episode is for you. Merlin’s advice is very simple every time you find yourself typing or accessing something more than two times set up a key phrase for that. Things that immediately spring to mind are signatures, email addresses, canned responses etc. Beyond that is launching common documents and websites. Merlin goes even further describing how he uses two three letter key phrases to search his gmail etc.

On Mac OS the default choice of software is Text Expander, on Windows there are few choices like TexterBreevy or my preffered tool PhraseExpress.

Second podcast worth listening to is Systematic where Merlin and Brett talk about failure and it’s place in the creation process. It’s a great conversation that goes in all kinds of directions and still gives a lot food for thought on failures that lead to success and seemingly perfect plans that end up as big flop  Do give it a go and think about your own failures and successes.

Shawn Blanc’s plain text workflow

A while ago I relied on plain text to serve me as the database of everything. Simple reference notes, blog post ideas, project notes, research and reading notes etc. I was a good setup but it was lacking for me a little in terms of functionality. In the end I’ve settled on Evernote as the center of my reference information because it allows me to store any type and format of information. 

Now if your choice is plain text then I definitely recommend reading Shawn Blanc’s overview of his setup and the corresponding workflow. The post goes into a great depth explaining the role of Simplenote, NVAlt, use of individual files and the sync issues that may occur. Shawn also looks at the various alternatives to Simplenote based workflow and putting reliance on Dropbox to handle all the files.   

It’s definitely very good read with quite a few possible takeaways for yourself.

A Foray Into Simplenote Alternatives

Elephant Task app

Browsing through Google+ GTD Community my attention was caught by this very interesting task manager which looks to help you with managing your GTD flow. The application is call Elephant Task.

At the moment the application is in development but so far a really like what I’ve seen. The interface is very clean and nicely laid out. Everything is based on text input making it super efficient and to add new items and navigating between the lists. The app looks to leverage from things like contexts, projects, topics and contacts the further categorize next actions. 

Once it’s fully developed it will be very interesting to see how it performs, for now you can see a short demo which was posted by the app developer on you tube.

Omnifocus 2 announced

Although I focus primarily on the Windows  productivity tools, I must mention recent developments on the Mac side. Last week a new version of Omnifocus has been announced.
Omnifocus seems like a reference application for anyone trying to implement GTD in their life and I’m pretty sure there any many Windows users which envy Mac users for this applications. Although a lot can be said that it’s not  the tool but a robust process and execution makes person productive nonetheless a good tool can help. Omnifocus seems to be this app, plus it have very prominent supporters like Merlin Mann, David Sparks, Mike Vardy etc.

If you’re interested in this application and would like to know about the direction of changes below are couple of likes that you may check out.

Preview of Omnifocus 2 for Mac

Debut of Omnifocus 2

Interview with Ken CAse on Omnifocus 2

I’m pretty sure there will few more reviews coming over the next couple of week so I recommend that you keep an eye on these sites.

Asian Efficiency

Productivityst.com

BetterMess.com

Managing areas of focus with Remember the Milk

Lets kick off with explaining what areas of responsibility are? In the GTD methodology your primary focus is on next actions and projects. These two elements reflect the tactical level of the productivity system i.e. the things you do now or as soon as possible.
A one level above that sits areas of responsibility which define different aspects of life. Rather than show a specific outcome, they point to an ongoing activity or quality that you want to achieve like job responsibilities, family, health, finances etc. Their main purpose is to act a reminders for all the different strands of life that you’re engaged in. Because they rarely reflect finished state they help with spurring ideas about things so each may spur new project or action ideas. Regular review of areas of responsibility can assist in bringing some balance or surface a need to look at an area that was neglected for a while.

Depending on your choice you can either track your areas of focus more intuitively and keep them on a list in your notetaking application or you can embed them right into your system. I happen to go for a mixed solution where I have list of areas of responsibility created in Evernote but I also like keep an eye on where my attention goes and for that purpose I’ve leveraged Remember the Milk. This approach allows me to analyze my tasks and really see what has my attention and where my time goes.

For the tactical element of my task management I rely on tags and smart lists to create context based next action lists as well as keep track of project and waiting fors. For monitoring of the areas of focus I’ve decided to use static lists.

If you haven’t defined your areas of focus now might be a good time.

Simply pick up a pen and piece of paper or open new document in your program of choice and start thinking about different areas of your life. Think in broad and generic terms, what are you responsible, how depends on you etc.

Jot these down and refine further, look for emerging common themes. Most likely you will have between 8-12 items but less is ok too. A higher number might be too big and you may need to refine things further or seriously reassess your commitments and obligations.

Static Lists

Static lists are the foundation of RTM application. They allow for creation of all the different lists that you may need. You can create unlimited number of lists, any task can only belong to a single static list i.e. if you add task to your HOME list than it will not show up in the WORK list.

This is significantly different from smart list which can show you any task that meets the search criteria regardless of the static list it belongs to.

Once task is assigned to a static list it’s in a separate silo which makes it excellent tool for analysis of how many task are created/completed in list. If you name list your lists based on your areas of focus you gain immediate access to understanding what has your attention. Simply the more tasks you have in any given list the more important the area it represents.

Managing static lists happens through the Settings panel and the Lists tab where you can create, archive, merge or delete lists. Because of the additional steps required to manage them they are less likely to be useful at the tactical level where a more rapid list creation occurs. Yet this makes them good tools for managing areas of responsibility as these don’t tend to change very often.

A small note on deleting lists, even if you delete a list your tasks will remain intact and they will simply be added to your default list. This is useful if you are still in the process of redefining your areas of focus and things are yet to settle.

How it works for me

My system relies on three primary static lists of which two reflect the focus of my personal system (Note I have a separate system for work tasks).

INBOX – this is my default list which mean any new task added which is not assigned to a static list will be in my inbox. When I’m in the processing mode each task in this section will be looked at assigned to one my other two lists.

ME – this list reflects all the actions and project related to my personal life and will include pretty much anything that is not related to my BLOG list.

BLOG – this is my third list that I heavily rely on and it reflects all of my endeavours related to this very blog, anything that is related to work that I put here will be assigned to this list.

I always make sure that tasks are processed every couple of days. At that stage I apply relevant tags, due date etc which define which smart list will pick it up. I also assign the static list name to indicate where a given task belong to.

This setup allows my to keep an eye the primary areas of my life. Every time I’m completing a more in-depth review of my stuff I look at the number of tasks and projects completed under each list. Since I use A bit better RTM extension I can see this number right next to the list name.

You may ask, so where are the other areas of focus? As I mentioned a more detailed list is included in Evernote which I review on regular basis. However in my personal experience these two are enough.

You circumstance may be different and you may prefer a bit more granularity. It that’s the case simply set up additional lists which reflect your areas of life in greater detail.

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

 

23 tips for a Remember the Milk user

Few weeks ago Remember the Milk (RTM) has celebrated 7th year anniversary. I’ve used this web app for almost three years both as free and paid user. I think it’s a good time to look at it again and get a reminder of all the different features available to RTM users that can take the app to the next level. I hope you will find some useful ideas.

  • use a bit better RTM – this browser extension adds three nice features to the web client. First you can drag and drop items between lists, second you can create new static lists straight from the main view, third see the number of tasks in each list – handy for getting a better picture of where you are. I covered this on my blog before.
  • use smart add – is one of the best features of RTM, not only you can add new tasks but you can specify all the necessary meta information like the list it should go to, tags, location, duration, due date etc. If you already know where the tasks goes, smart add greatly reduces time required to manage them. Learning the few special characters is easy and if you use mobile client you can even see handy tip with each character explained. RTM site has a good overview of this.
  • use smart list – are you familiar with smart playlist in you iTunes or other media player? This is the same but done for tasks. Rather than painstakingly move tasks between lists make sure you put relevant attributes to them and then setup a list based on those elements. You want to see all your @home tasks simply type @home into search and then save it as your list. This functionality goes beyond that. If you spend some time understanding the syntax you can create a much more powerful lists based on multiple criteria e.g showing tasks due today and those overdue, showing items with specific context and priority. The number of different combinations is astounding and would fit everyone’s needs. I will be posting bit more about this in near future but you can start on the basics here.
  • use smartphone client – having access to your tasks on the go is an important aspect of staying productive and effective. throughout every week there are unexpected moments of downtime, meetings are cancelled at last-minute, trains are missed etc. These are perfect opportunities to pick up your list and review what’s there. RTM has excellent smartphone apps for both iPhone and Android. They provide offline access to all of your current tasks and lists. Plus if you use location feature they we alert you if you are near the store or other place you have assigned your tasks to.
  • use email to add tasks – when you setup your RTM account you are given two email address where you can send your tasks to. One for adding individual items and one for bulk import. Add them to your contact list so they are handy. If you receive an email that you need to do something about simply send it to RTM and put the task name and corresponding meta information in the subject line. RTM will add it to your task list. To import multiple tasks via email put the list name into subject line and list all your tasks in the message content. Don’t forget to add any tags, due dates and location as they can be added too. Frankly thins is what I did when I use Evernote to manage my project support material. Once my project was ready I would email the note to RTM and have all of my task there.
  • pin in browser – Remember the Milk does not have a native Windows client which I find lacking.  In order to keep easy access to your tasks make sure that the RTM page is always there when you open your browser. One way to do that is to simply pin the RTM tab in your browser so every time you open your laptop and go online the RTM will be one of the default tabs that are launched.
  • learn keyboard shortcuts – using mouse is the default way of pointing object on the screen yet it isn’t most effective. A much better and faster way is to use keyboard shortcuts. Many people know CTRL+C or CTRL+A ect but rarely go beyond that if you learn few additional shortcuts to make respective actions easier it will appear almost magical. Thing will and people will be stunned. Every time you find yourself navigating through menus and icons more than few times check if there is a keyboard for it or create one using Keyboard Maestro or PhraseExpress. Over the course of months you will save hours of menial mouse navigation. A handy list of keyboard shortcuts is here.
  • print weekly plan – this very neat feature lets you see how many tasks you have planned for a week. Although as primary I check the website or rely on mobile reminders to keep on top of my tasks a printed list adds visual representation to my commitments. Often it’s easier and quicker to see what are the commitments and where is the focus. Print the weekly plan, put it somewhere where you can see it and look at it regularly.
  • use locations to power the reminders – unless you have a good habit of referring to your lists you can forget to check that hardware store list that you’ve just left. Remember the Milk mobile client offers you a location-based reminders so once you set a location of your tasks RTM will give you a prompt once you’re in that place. You can set the triggers to act when you’re exactly on the spot or with in few miles making it easy for you to decide if you want to detour to that place. It’s yet another example how technology can help offload remembering things and free up that space for more important items.
  • share or publish your list (only for a fixed list) – we rarely live is social vacuum and more often than not we work with other people whether they are co-workers or wife  husband, kids etc. If you have items that you want them to-do you can easily share the list or sent it via email then simply track the completion. Sharing works best if both people use RTM but if they don’t you can’t provide email them tasks or provide a link for reference. This feature is perfect for maintaining agenda lists with family and co-workers so they know what are you expecting them to do.
  • add to your Google calendar – in GTD methodology calendar is primary tool to track time and day fixed commitments like meeting, flights, dinners etc. It’s the so called hard landscape. Each day comprises of those fixed commitments but there are times when you have and opening and can focus on anything. This is a perfect opportunity to look at you some of your task. Integrating Remember the Milk you not only can see on your calendar tasks that you planned for but also jump to your master list and pick something else to do.
  • sync with Outlook – Microsoft Outlook is a corporate standard yet if you’re allowed to use RTM for task management you can use MilkSync to merge the two together and access your home task at work and your work tasks at home. You can also use Outlook as a front end for your RTM account to keep both cloud and local copies of your tasks.
  • use twitter to interact with tasks – a tweet that you just read reminded you of something to do? Great you can add a task to your RTM task list simply by typing a tweet. Link your twiter account, then send a direct message to “@rtm” and press sent. Remember to include smart tags like @ # or !. New item will appear shortly on you list together with relevant details.
  • use RSS feed – to make something more with your tasks, leverage Yahoo Pipes or IFTTT to create additional interactions and automation. Not sure what that means have a look at the RTM forums for ideas and inspiration.
  • use a desktop app – if you don’t like to work in the web interface and use Mac or Linux you can try one of the few available desktop apps. These provide offline access as well as local backup of you tasks. You can take a look at list of apps. Unfortunately Windows users are out of luck at this point.
  • use notes to store extra info – for best results task should start with a verb and include necessary detail like “call Bob 12345678”. This way you can see the action and relevant information necessary to complete it i.e. the phone number. Sometimes however putting this extra details is not feasible  in such case you can rely on notes section of your tasks. You can put there any information that is relevant to the action that you need to accomplish. Once you add the extra info the task will have a little text file icon indicating there is a note associated with it. Although I don’t use this feature extensively it does come handy on regular basis.
  • use lists and tags – you can keep one long list of all your task but then you don’t really need RTM. If you however follow GTD methodology or like to keep your task nicely organised RTM will cater to almost all of your needs. You can assign tasks to lists which help creating silos that can divide work tasks from home, someday maybe from next actions etc. You can also apply tags which means items can be grouped based on a tag regardless of the list they are assigned to. This way you can collate all your @computer @call @person x actions in a single view with out a need of looking through all the different lists. It’s one of the more powerful elements of RTM and the reason it’s so flexible to-do manager.
  • link RTM and Evernote – for me Remember the Milk is for tasks and Evernote is for notes. My project list sits in RTM but all reference Material is in Evernote so the best way to gel the two is copy link note from Evernote and paste it into Remember the Milk. When I comes to reviewing my project list or adding new tasks I simply clik on that link and Evernote pops up with all my project notes. Then it’s just a matter of establishing where I’m and defining next set of action points and adding to RTM.
  • Add RTM tasks to Gmail – email client is one of those applications where we spend a ton of time. It’s also a major source of work and updates that come in our way. Adding RTM widget to Gmail makes it easy to see your tasks as well as to add new items quickly based on the incoming emails.
  • add tasks from Launchy – if you’re keyboard ninja and rely on applications like Launch to open programs, documents and websites you will want to do the same with your task manager. Launchy and FARR (it’s competitor) both have plugins allowing you to add tasks straight to RTM. When the inspiration strikes or you simply want be reminded of something you can open your launcher window and type relevant command and the task will be added to your master list. You will have to refer to web client to review those items.
  • use browser bookmarklet to add tasks – capture is one of the most basic habits that help you stay organised and effective. The easier it’s to capture things the better. If you live in your browser you can take advantage of RTM bookmklet which allows you to add tasks simply by clicking the icon on your bookmarks bar. Then populate necessary info and press ok. Your task will be added to your master list.
  • visit the forums – once you catch the RTM bug and decide to use it on regular basis you will inevitably look for ways to enhance the application and make it even more useful. User forums is great place for that. There are plenty of people sharing their experiences, tips and trick. Visit it regularly to see what’s new was posted.
  • buy a subscription (extra features + support your app) – by default Remember the Milk is free which may be sufficient if you are happy to use the web version only. However if you would like to take the full advantage of the mobile clients, instant sync and other features it’s worth becoming a premium user. You not only get those extra option but you also support the service so it can continue to exist.

Adding tasks to Remember the Milk. The smart way.

Smart add is this neat feature that lets you add tasks to your master lists and include all the relevant meta information like list name, tag, location etc. As opposed to normal task manager where you need to input task name in one line and then navigate to different fields to select other meta data smart add let you do all that in single line. Simply start adding new task and then use one of the below special characters to define due date, location or tag as necessary then press enter. RTM will add a new task and populate other fields as you defined them. Here is an example: new task #Project1 #Computer @Home ^monday. Once this is added to RTM it will be displayed as new task added to list ‘Project1’ with tag ‘Computer’, location set to ‘Home’ and due date set for Monday.
Smart add works on web, your smartphone app, Gmail add-on and emails that you send to RTM

list of characters and their meaning:

  • ^ – adds due date
  • ! – adds priority 1,2,3
  • # – adds tag or a list name
  • @ – adds location
  • * – adds repeat cycle
  • = – adds duration

There is also a good smart add guide on the Remember the Milk website which will help you understand how it works.

If I’m capturing something and I’m not sure about it I will type the idea/tasks and let it land in my inbox. If however I now where particular task should go or when should I be reminded of it I will always use smart add to include relevant meta data. Some people shrug their shoulders on this and will consider too much overhead but I personally find it very useful.

On avoidance of stuff

Few weeks ago I contemplated spending some time installing Ubuntu Linux and learning more about the platform and it’s capabilities. When you look at the images and videos of the most recent version you can clearly see that it’s very compelling offer. Even before I started, I somewhat new that I would not move there permanently  the whole experiment would be a failure and I will be back using Windows in no time. All I wanted to do was just to play with something different.
I shared this with my wife and she asked one question that sorted everything out.

What are you avoiding?

So simple and so powerful!! We spoke briefly about the stuff that seemed to underlay the issue. I thought about this more later that evening and realised that “playing with apps and tools” is somewhat a default response to being challenged with bigger or more difficult problems. Solving them takes time and effort and for while you can’t see any results.

In the end I went back and looked at things that I was avoiding and not willing to do. I needed to spend more time clarifying them and figuring out what I wanted to do and how to approach them. I’m still in the process getting clear on some of those things. Sometimes it’s painfully slow and difficult yet I believe that with the right amount of time and effort I will get what I want. I no longer look at Ubuntu (regardless how cool it looks) or other tools for that matter as a solution. Solutions to your problems and questions are results of thinking and planning, tools help only craft the solutions and make them a reality.

What are you doing to avoid your important stuff?

How to Mind Map

Mind mapping is tremendously useful technique for getting thoughts out of your head.
If you struggle with gaining clarity on big project that you need to run, trying to make a big decision, writing a book mind map will help you out. Mind mapping lets you capture all the ideas about a topic and then find a structure based on the common themes, connections etc.

Lifehack.org share extensive guide on how to use this tool which is worth checking out if you are not familiar with it.

How to mind-map is three easy steps

Weekly Links: email archives,text expantion, planning on paper and coffee

Kicking off again with a weekly post were I share some interesting links from around the web on productivity, tools, creativity, email, GTD, projects.

How to Use Gmail Search to Clean up Your Email Archive

Lifehack.org has a very interesing post on cleaning up your email archive from unnecessary cruft of system notifications, twitter updates, comments notifications etc. Good read if you want clean up your archive.

Text Expander 4

Text expantion is fantastic way to save time in writing repetive things and speeding up filling forms and other documents. If you on Windows have a look at PhraseExpress. App with ton of potential.

Ten Ways To Get More Done At Work

A good reminder of simple strategies that can help you focus on your actual work.

What You Don’t Know About How To Use A Calendar

A list of ideas what calendar is for. My favorite –  if it has a date and time put it on calendar.

A Beginners Guide To Planning On Paper

Paper still have a place in productivity arsenal of even most die hard technology users. Michael share some very interesting observations on how paper assited him in planning.

The Search for The Ideal Coffeemaker

To many coffee is synonimous with productivity and getting a kick to get thigs done. Mike Vardy shares some thoughts on finding ideal device to make your coffee.

Tasks Events and Android home screens

Not that long ago I used to use Filofax planner to keep tabs on calendar and tasks, now my android phone has replaced both. Although I still use paper notebook for capturing notes, ideas and general writing, I find that smartphone is much better for staying on top of my appointments and task list.
For any information to be useful it must be easily accessible and visible. If there are too many steps, clicks it will not be used. There will be too much friction. Some interesting thought about friction can be found on Michael’s blog.

As result this got me thinking on how to setup my phone, so that I can easily see what’s upcoming and what I need to do today.

A great feature of android phones is that they provide ability to create multiple homescreens which in turn can display widgets. In essence rather than refer to actual app on a phone or wait for it to remind you about something, I can quickly scan the latest information on my screen.

I created an addiotional homescreen completely dedicated to my calendar and task information.

For that purpose I decided to use Agenda Widget for Android to show my calendar information. It’s fairly chunky download but it provides very nice graphical representation of my calendars and appointments. It also has a tons of customisation so it should easily fit everyones needs.

As for the tasks, I’m using Remember the Milk which provides a number of wigdets to choose form. RTM has been my task manager of for a number of year so I really enjoy making the most of it. At the moment I’m using a widget to show me all tasks due today but I can swap it for any type of list.

On daily basis I refer to this screen to review what’s coming up next. I also at least try look at it every evening too so I can prepare for next day and see where I’m.

What do you use to stay on top of your daily agenda? Do you have any way of keeping your appointments and tasks visible?

Reading Workflow

Staying informed and making the best use of the information available is not an easy task if you consider the wealth of information available online. Over the last couple of months I’ve build a workflow which helps me deal with my reading. There are four elements in my little reading system: Discovery, Consumption, Retention, Action.
The primary tool which let’s my make the most of reading and helps me support this process is Instapaper. It’s fantastic web application that connects all the dots in my system. Although it’s geared toward iOS users (there are great apps for iPhone and iPad) I’m getting a ton of use on my laptop, Android phone and Kindle. If you look for an application to manage your reading I would give it a serious thought.

Discovery

There are two primary ways of discovering new and interesting content. First is Google Reader which let’s me subscribe to RSS feeds of favorite blogs and sites. My second way of finding content is Twitter and with good mix of similar minded people I can always find best content. Google+ is worth mentioning here as well although for me it’s primary discussion forum I suspect that over time it will become a information source.

Once I come across an interesting post or article I clip it into Instapaper or if I’m using my phone I add it to an app called Everpaper.

Consumption

My primary ways for consuming content are my laptop, smartphone and Kindle. Again Instapaper proves to be invaluable tool to make this possible. Ability to access my items on laptop and smartphone is very convenient but what’s more important is that I can send daily digest of 10 most recent articles into my Kindle. Additionally if I have a large number of articles to go through I can generate a file with all of them and then email it to my Kindle. Support for Kindle is one of the primary reasons I’m using Instapaper.

Retention

When I come across a particularly interesting article or blog post which I would like to keep I save it into my Pinboard account. This is my primary bookmarking service which lets me store my favorites online and have them tagged in every way I want. Ability to jot some note about bookmark and generate public RSS for tags makes it very versatile service. The app may not provide most eye candy but it definitely does get job done in quick and effective way. It’s worth to mention that Instapaper allows me to send any article to Pinboard. So each time I favorite an item it gets send to my bookmarking service for future reference. Then on weekly basis I review my recent items and add additional tags and notes if necessary.

Action

The point of increasing your knowledge is to make use out of it. For me there are three primary forms in which I interact with the content I found useful. First one is to share the content on Twitter, Tumbler or Google+. Second way is to use saved articles as inspiration for my own writing. For that I use a combination of WriteMonkey and text files to put down my thoughts and ideas and then publish on this site. A third option is to implements some of the ideas. This can be a tricky thing as it’s easy to collect dozens of ideas and not test any. In order to counter that I try to add only one to two things into my task manager and see how things work. Other ideas end up on my productivity mind map where I collect handy tips and tricks for later experimentation.