The Daily Capture

Capturing. It’s an action that I repeat every day. Although I don’t have exact figures for it, I probably manage about fifty captures a day depending on the context of the capture. Bookmarks, snippets, thoughts, images, posts, code and more. They’re all captured into various places and then reviewed, read or actioned on at a later date. Here’s a few examples of the things I’m capturing during the day.

Thoughts and ideas

I’m now getting into the habit of journaling about four times a day. Through the day I’ll capture ideas, thoughts and challenges that I’ve faced. I might come across an idea for a small application or I’ll make a note about a bit of work that needs to be automated. It like a private social feed back to myself. At the end of the day is my review of the day. I do this every day.

Web pages

Web pages get captured in three places at the moment. The first place is Evernote. Anything that’s interesting on App.net is starred. I have a recipe on IFTTT that reads my favourited posts from my timeline there and posts them to my Evernote account.

The second place is the Safari Reading List. I moved for this from Instapaper a few weeks ago. This tends to be for posts that I’ve found interesting in Feedbin and would like to look at later on.

The third and last place is my private bookmarking application. A couple of months back, I decided to roll my own bookmarking application. It’s far from complete but it serves it’s purpose for the moment.

Actions

Actions are still a work in progress. Previously I would capture all actions in TaskPaper and then during my weekly review, assign them to a list. For reasons I mentioned in another post, I decided to switch to Todoist for all my list management needs. Anything that requires actioning is added here to the inbox list so that I can assign it to a project or folder during my weekly review.

Emails

This wouldn’t be a capture post unless I wrote about my inbox. I tend to keep my inbox fairly clutter free. I carefully vet email subscriptions on a monthly basis and I use a lot of rules that shuffle emails about to various folders. I don’t think of my email as multiple inboxes, I tend to view as just one. I have the keyboard navigation pretty much memorised so that I can switch from one folder to another and read and organise emails as I need too.

Most of the emails I do receive are either deleted or filed away on folders, but for a small percentage of them though I forward them onto Evernote. After losing a few important emails a couple of months ago, I’ve decided to invest in Evernote as a place for important information that I can’t afford to lose.

Still too many inboxes

One thing that has become clear from these captures that I do the most is that I still have too many inboxes to maintain. All in I’m sitting at five inboxes at the moment. That’s still too many for me.

In a perfect world I would have one inbox that is connected to all the other products and services that I use and lets me move and organise items according to their context, but that’s an idea for another day.

At the moment, I think the best I can do is identify a place where I capture the most items and make it integrate with other inboxes with some kind of automated workflow. I can do this easily enough with the tools I have on my MacBook Pro possibly using scripts, but the challenge will be making this work on my iPhone or iPad.

Resistance

Resistance is a natural response when you’re faced with a big challenge or project. It can be all too easy to simply shrug off the challenge and look elsewhere for something else to do. I have to admit, there have been a few days over the course of this year I did exactly that. Looking back, my reasons for resisting to step up to the challenge were varied.

Decisions

We make hundreds of decisions everyday, but when a decision is part of a long term commitment, it can be difficult to sometimes make that decision. What if I make the wrong choice? Can I change my mind at a later date?

The details of decisions cost me a lot of time this year. The decisions I was making were not huge decisions, they were simply decisions that would have a small effect on the outcome of a project.

I should have shrugged of the resistance to not making a decision and just committed to a choice, an outcome. If I made a mistake then it’s just time lost in finding the right decision. We can’t make good decisions all the time.

Confidence

Or should I put it as lack of confidence? Despite having worked on many software development projects over the years, my confidence isn’t 100% when faced with a challenge or a problem.

As a kid I would rarely put my hand up to answer a question in class for fear of getting it wrong and looking stupid. It’s weird because a couple of weeks ago at my oldest son’s parents night at school, the teacher told me that my son lacked confidence in answering questions in class. Bit of a family trait then.

Anyway, regardless of the size of the challenge or problem, I started to see that the way to build confidence when faced with a challenge is to do it a little bit at a time. Just a few small wins can do wonders for your confidence, and as long as you’re making significant progress, any bumps on the road will only knock your confidence slightly, which is easier to recover from.

Small steps

And that leads me onto steps, or small steps in this case. When faced with a challenge, it can be easy to view it as one challenge, one step, one action if you will.

One giant step can make most people think twice before committing to a challenge. However, breaking this giant step down into smaller steps can make it look more manageable than the action of one massive step. As I said previously about confidence, taking something and breaking it down into the smallest bits you can manage can make that giant step look much more easier to accomplish.

I resisted for so long on a couple of projects this year due to the above factors, but having worked through one of these projects, I was surprised to see that I could make it work. Overcoming those factors that contribute to resistance can all of a sudden make that death-march project look more appealing and doable.

Limiting Your Social Networks

Many of you will know through my posts that I’m a big App.net fan. It’s my goto place when I want to drop in on conversations, strike up news ones with others and also just as a place to post what I am doing. It’s also the one public social network that I participate in.

I’ve never been interested in creating a Facebook account as I simply seeing as being too much of an overhead to maintain. I also deleted my Twitter account this year. It was coincidental that the timing of this action happened at the same time as Twitter were enforcing new rules on the use of their API. I just felt that I wasn’t getting anything back from Twitter in terms of value.

Since switching to a single public social network, I’ve noticed a number of positive things that have occurred as a result of my limiting action.

No more drowning in micro-information

The first thing I immediately noticed was that I was no longer constantly checking my Twitter timeline. Looking back I wonder now why I even had an account there in the first place. It’s a social network for micro-updates that only offers limited information in each post. I did find it interesting hearing what other people were working on, but Twitter’s post limit of 140 characters seriously limits the amount of context you can put on a post.

Less apps and services to use

With just one social network to my name, I have less apps on all my devices. It’s a minor thing but having less apps on my devices means less time updating them, searching for new ones and of course less time checking them. I also work with a ‘one in, one out rule’. As much as possible I will try and keep the number of products and services I use down to a minimum. That means that more often than not, I will replace older apps with new apps rather than running two at the same time.

Less of a digital footprint

I like keeping a small digital footprint. Nothing to do with trying to stay under the radar in terms of the government spying on you, but more to do with my own data and it’s safety. As soon as I stop using a product or service I try and delete the account I had with that product or service. I do this because I don’t want my login details lying around on another companies database when it doesn’t need to.

It’s not for everyone

Limiting yourself isn’t for everyone, but it was amazing to see how little I depended on Twitter after just a couple of weeks of deleting my account. I used to think of social networks as places to find more information on topics, but the truth is that I find everything I need in the form of blogs, newsletters and podcasts.

I now see social networks as more of a place for conversation. Fortunately App.net does this aspect of interaction very well and I’m happy to remain a paying subscriber to it.

My Seven Essential Daily Tools

I’m always reviewing the tools I’m using on a daily basis, and last week I wondered what tools I was using that I used the most on a daily basis. This wasn’t compiled from a list of measured interactions with all my tools, but simply an informed guess at the tools that I use daily.

Safari

The web browser. Every web developers main application for running and testing their applications. For me as well though, it’s a window to the Internet. Having previously ditched Chrome, I used Firefox for about six months. As web browsers go I couldn’t complain about it’s speed, features and developer tools.

I tried Safari for a week just as an experiment about a month ago and found that there was nothing in Safari I couldn’t do in Firefox. Since then it’s been Safari all the way.

One good thing to come out of it was that I also dropped my Instapaper account in favour of Safari’s built in reading list that also syncs to my iPhone. Not only am I always looking for new services to use and try, I also like to keep the number of applications and services I’m using down to a minimum. By using Safari I was able to delete Firefox and also my Instapaper account.

Mail

Apple’s Mail client isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the way I see it is that if it does everything for me that I need it to do then why not? It supports multiple accounts, interacts with my contacts list and works well with FastMail.

Trello

Project management tools are a rare thing for web developers that practice agile methods like stand ups. Agile methodologies like Extreme Programming and Kanban will rely on index cards and boards as the main point of interaction for a team with a project. Until Trello was launched, applications that tried to replicate this in code didn’t always get it right.

Working on my own means that communicating with others on the project remotely is more important than practices such as stand ups. Every day I enjoy using Trello for the needs of my clients and for the needs of my own projects. It’s flexible layout means that it can be tailored to lots of different workflows.

Evernote

I’ve only been using Evernote for a week now but it has become a growing part of my day to day work flow. With a tool like this I now have a place that I can put information that I might need at a later date. I’ve found so many uses for it in the last few days.

First there’s interaction. There’s just so many ways of interacting with Evernote such as the web clipper, by email and of course there are a number of other apps in the Evernote marketplace that make getting information you have from one app to Evernote easy.

Then there’s accessibility. With apps for the desktop, phone and tablet, I can access my Evernote stuff from anywhere. My iPad has now become more of a day to day writing tool again thanks to the access I have to Evernote on it.

Evernote fills the gap of a knowledge management tool for me nicely now. All the information I need is now in one place and easy to access and search.

iTerm 2

iTerm2 is my terminal of choice. Having used it for a few years now, I’m familiar with most of the keyboard shortcuts and it just works.

Sublime Text

Sublime Text has worked well for me over the last few years. I’m still discovering some of the keyboard shortcuts and I’m have to admit that I am not using all of it’s features on a day to day basis, but for writing code it serves me well.

Notebook

A list of daily tools wouldn’t be complete without a notebook or two. I have two on the go at the moment.

The first notebook was initially used for tracking client work, but this has evolved into a task journal for all my work using the dash plus system. Where as Trello is used for mostly tracking progress on projects, my task journal is for tasks that come from features in Trello, ad-hoc client tasks or tasks from my own master list.

The second notebook is mostly for the initial capture of ideas, thoughts, posts and sketches. I use it maybe once or twice a week, but it’s always sitting on my desk within easy reach. When I’m tired of sitting at my desk, I’ll move to a more comfortable chair and review my capture notebook or simply do some writing straight into it.

As brilliant as technology is, sometimes you can think better with just pen and paper.

Settling for Defaults

One thing that’s clear from my list is that if there’s a default tool on my MacBook that is adequate for the job then I will use it. I dislike having my MacBook cluttered with different tools and applications that serve the same purpose.

The one exception here is my choice of terminal. Apple’s default application Terminal still doesn’t allow vertical split panes whereas iTerm2 does. A small feature, but given that I always have two panes open side by side, it makes sense to use iTerm2 over Terminal.

Skipping the Support Apps

A few of might be wondering about apps such as Alfred, PopClip or even Fantastical. Well, while I use these as well on a daily basis, I tend to view them as support applications to my seven above. They’re still bloody useful tools to have but sitting in the background there’s always open and frequently support the seven tools that I have listed above.

There we have it, my seven essential daily tools. I put forth the question to you now. What’s your seven essential daily tools and how do they make you work better?

Removing the Digital Deadwood

Programmers have always got old code lying around. Forgotten applications, libraries, ideas and other files and folders. Remnants of days perhaps when ideas were rife and ambitions were high. I have those days as well. I have an idea for something, I mock up a quick test with some code and then most of the time decide that it’s not simply worth my time investing in it further. What remains behind is a filing system littered with dead folders and files.

Today I started cleaning up those dead end projects.

I deleted old applications that I’m not hosting anymore, deleted ideas for applications and products that I know are not going to work and also deleted a few repositories from Github account. I cleared out a few forked repositories that I had high ambitions of working on but haven’t contributed to them.

From there I then started to remove a few applications from my MacBook Pro. I only deleted a few applications, but better to remove them than to have them sitting idly doing nothing. More deadwood gone.

Then I moved onto the online tools and services I subscribe to and removed a couple of them also. A few more dollars back in my pocket each month and that great feeling of removing yourself from a service or subscription that might distract you with an email each week, but you quickly delete it.

Just like clearing your desk or work environment of deadwood files, folders and other junk on your desk, it’s also important to remove the digital deadwood as well. Start with your laptop or tablet and remove the applications you don’t use, the old folders and files that are no longer relevant. Once your immediate work environment is clear, move on to your work environment in the cloud and trim those services that you don’t use anymore.

Keeping a clean digital environment is just as important as keeping your physical work environment clear. You might just end up saving yourself some money or even getting some space back on your laptop. Even better, you might just have rid yourself of a few unwanted notifications each month.

What Is LinkedIn For?

Yesterday I read a blog post about a LinkedIn user who was unhappy with the service and had opted to delete his account. I’ve been here before as well.

Back in my previous job as an ERP developer, I wasn’t actively using my LinkedIn account and the only emails and connections I got were from recruiting agencies.

Why am I on this network and what is it for? I simply couldn’t get my head around the right way to use LinkedIn. I spoke to a few people about it and all of the said you must be on LinkedIn, even if it’s just to have your details there and you never use it again.

Rather than going with the advice of many I spoke to, I deleted my LinkedIn account.

A couple of years rolled by and I changed jobs twice. It wasn’t until the end of last year that I re-created my LinkedIn profile due to the fact that I had been paid off. I wanted to broaden my scope for a job so wide that I was willing to go back on LinkedIn and have my profile searchable by everyone there.

Now that I am grudgingly back on LinkedIn, I’m back to where I was previously, what is LinkedIn for? I understand that as a network, LinkedIn does require some time to be spent on it updating your profile, making new connections, sharing interesting links, taking part in LinkedIn’s groups, but I tend to forget about doing this and it’s only when I receive a notification that I end up spending five minutes or so reviewing my profile, maybe adding a skill to my profile that I have picked up in the last couple of months.

Faced with the prospect of deleting my LinkedIn account again or just sucking it up and trying to invest some time in my LinkedIn profile, I’ve decided to opt for the latter. I should be using LinkedIn to market myself as a freelance Rails developer, but how do I go about doing this? Here’s one idea I had:

Sharing Rails How To Guides - In order to attract clients to my profile, I should write a number of “how to” guides on using Rails and share these on LinkedIn. These won’t be small blog posts, but in fact detailed guides to some aspect of implementing a generic feature in a Rails application that will demonstrate my knowledge of Rails and what I can offer in terms of knowledge as a developer.

I’m still slightly perplexed by LinkedIn as a network and what I can do to make better use of it. Perhaps you have some idea on using LinkedIn effectively? If so, contact me with your thoughts on using LinkedIn. I’d like to get more out of LinkedIn rather than it just sitting there not doing very much.

My iPhone Setup

I wanted to share my apps setup on my iPhone for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to see if any one had similar setups on their devices and secondly, it’s something worth writing about.

So how do I have my iPhone setup?

Right from the first day I got my iPhone I had my own specific setup in mind. The setup I’m describing is very similar to the setup I had on my previous Android phone. The first screen, the home screen, on my iPhone is limited to apps I use on a daily basis.

Home screen

For a long time now I’ve stuck to the same types of apps on my home screen with just a few changes to the actual apps in the last six months. Here’s what’s on my home screen just now.

  • Fantastical - I started using this a few months ago, was previously Google Calendar synced to Calendar app.
  • TaskPaper - I’ve tried Wunderlist, TodoList, Things and others. I keep coming back to TaskPaper due to it’s easy to use UI and use of a flat text file for my lists.
  • Reeder - I started using within the last month, I was previously using Feedly synced to Google Reader.
  • Path - I’ve had this on my phone since day one.
  • Forecast - Started using this year.
  • Felix - Started using this year, I was previously using Wedge but Felix has really came on in the last six months.
  • Instapaper - I’ve had this on my phone since day one.
  • Pop - Started using this year at the recommendation of Patrick Rhone. It’s really handy as just a scratchpad or dumping ground for thoughts and ideas.

These are the apps that I use every day. I purposely keep this screen limited to just eight apps as it leaves some screen space so that I can see my wallpaper if it’s a nice photo.

On the second screen is the rest of the apps that I use but instead they are categorised into folders.

Folders screen

I initially had these folders grouped by the verb that describes the action of each app after reading about the idea on Gina Trapani’s Smarterware blog, but grouping them by a verb was difficult for some of the apps. Instead I just a name them to something that makes sense to me.

  • Schedule - Scheduling and timekeeping tools.
  • Network - All my App.net apps. It’s the only social network I actively take part in now.
  • Words - Writing and reading apps.
  • Bytes - Apps for services that I use online like Trello, Github and Pinboard.
  • Photos - Camera apps and photo albums.
  • Listen - iTunes, Instacast and other apps related to consuming visual and audio media.
  • Shop - Finance related apps.
  • Setup - Setup and connectivity apps.
  • Games - Handy when we’re out and about and I need my oldest to sit at piece for a few minutes.
  • Travel - Hardly used.

I’ve tried in the past to limit myself to eight folders on this screen however it just wasn’t possible. I have enabled most of the notifications on this screen as a reminder that I have things that need to be done or reviewed. I very rarely switch to this screen unless I have a notification for one of these apps. Bookstand is also sitting on this screen awaiting the release of iOS 7 when I can finally put it in a folder.

I’ve had this setup on my phone for some time now, and I’m very unlikely to change it. I’m quite selective with my apps and I tend to stick to one app for one type of function. The only exception to this is the number of writing tools I have on my phone. I’ve had PlainText and Pop installed for some time, but I have been trying out Drafts recently.

My tips for keeping a journal

Keeping a journal seems quite an easy task to do, but remembering to update it and keep it going can be something else. I’ve kept my journal going for 18 months now and these little tips are what have helped me journal for this long.

Set a reminder

Set a reminder for your to do your journal entries. Last thing at night before you read a book or an hour before you go to bed are ideal times. Any kids you have will be sleeping, so you’ll get a few minutes of distraction free writing.

Setting this reminder will hopefully turn into a habit where you will pre-empt the reminder and journal every day without being prompted by a reminder. If you find yourself forgetting to journal, then simply set up your reminder again.

Journal just two or three sentences at a time

Keeping a journal doesn’t mean you should be writing epic chapter length journal entries every night. Just two or three sentences are sufficient. If you want to write more then do so, but just a summary of the day is sufficient for those non-eventful days.

Keep your journal close

Whether it’s pen and paper or journaling with your preferred app, keep your journal close for those times when you want to write something down. You never know when you’re going to want to write something down.

Don’t knock yourself for missing a day

Journaling every day can be difficult. Family life, career, holidays, work trips and other things can distract you from journaling for a day. If you miss a day then don’t worry about it. It’s only one day. Get back to writing a journal entry the following day and make sure your reminder is set for a few more days until you get back into the habit of writing a journal entry every day.

Have annual reviews had their day?

Yesterday I talked about annual reviews and how organisations can often get a simple process wrong, but are annual reviews immediately flawed due to their annual occurrence?

A year is a long time. A lot can happen in a year. I left a job, started a new job, got made redundant from the new job and then started freelancing all within a year. I hope you’re not as unlucky me to get made redundant, but maybe you move about a lot inside an organisation? What if you’re never in the same job for more than a couple of years. Does that make the annual review a redundant process?

In the UK there has been a rise in the last few years of self-employed workers and recently portfolio careers have proved to be popular with workers who want more of a variety in their career. The job for life is gone, so why are organisations still subjecting their workers to annual reviews?

Perhaps a more agile approach is needed with more frequent feedback. A year between reviews is too long, but what about quarterly reviews of your work with your line manager? How about monthly? At what point would your line manager know that you are enjoying your job and making a positive contribution to the company?

As a freelancer I have to continually look at my skill set and improve on areas that are rusty and also consider new programming languages and frameworks every few months. I have a core skill set that I am strong with but I also have to consider other skills if I want to make myself attractive to future clients. I give myself a review every month so that I know what work I have completed, whether I have completed it on time and what is in the pipeline ahead for me. I can afford to do this though as it is just me.

I’m just glad I don’t need to sit through anymore annual reviews for the foreseeable future.

The Annual Review Done Right

It was my oldest son’s parents night at his school tonight. We had a fair idea what his teacher was going to say about him and his progress. We weren’t disappointed.

The format is simple. You get 10 minutes with the teacher in which time they will go over the your child’s progress (that you have already read the week before) and then you get to ask any questions about your child and identify any area where they can try and make improvements. Fortunately our son is doing great so there was just a couple of minor areas for him to improve on.

If you think the format is familiar then you would be right. Parents night is just the kiddie version of the annual review that many permanent workers go through. However, how is it that organisations can get this wrong when the basic format seems so simple?

I’ve experienced the annual review first hand in a number of companies. Very few of them actually did an annual review on a regular basis and even fewer followed through from the previous annual review.

A neighbour of mine worked in a really well known international bank where annual reviews were not done by your line manager but by someone even higher up. In an organisation such as this where the number of employees runs into thousands, there was a good chance that the person doing your annual review doesn’t even know you to look at. In this case our friend did indeed get their annual review done by a director who had only met him twice. Not exactly a good example of an annual review.

Twice a year my son’s school give a parents night without fail. They provide a report for your child that you get a week before parents night so that you can raise any questions during parents night. They give feedback on your child’s progress and give suggestions on areas where your child can improve. They do it for all the kids in the school. That’s hundreds of kids.

It’s not hard to do.