Posts Tagged “tools”

Benefiting from the Constraints of Pen and Paper to Tame Tasks

In the last 18 months, I’ve moved from using a task manager application to using pen and notebook and a technique called bullet journaling. The transition to this method hasn’t been without its challenges, but there’s one thing that it provides that I don’t get with any task manager application that I’ve used. And that is constraints.

Task management applications like to sell lots of benefits like being able to go with me wherever I go, work wherever I am and manage anything I throw at it. That last advantage is quite interesting because it’s here that I find that task management applications work quite well for me for a while, but I usually end up over-committing with a crazy list of tasks sometimes running into hundreds.

Thanks to improvements in technology, we have these little portable devices in our pockets that can potentially hold thousands (perhaps even millions) of tasks. These same devices also make it simple to add more tasks with the ability to type, speak or automate the process of creating new tasks. There are very few constraints in creating new tasks other than perhaps losing the wi-fi signal or running out of battery. These are not big constraints given that the world is more connected than ever and we have portable chargers to keep our devices topped up.

I keep all my tasks together at the back of my notebook. Written by hand and double-spaced. Sounds labourious right? Bear with me.

With each new task added, I often find myself questioning the value of the task and whether it is even worth writing down. I also look at the number of tasks I have decided if I need to focus on those first before adding anything else.

When it comes to moving tasks from one page to another, again I question the value of the task and whether it is worth moving.

My master list of tasks is usually about three pages long. Take into account that the notebook is smaller than A4 and my writing is double-spaced, that’s not a lot of tasks to do. The constraints of time to write a task and the effort in maintaining it when using paper mean that my complete list of tasks is manageable.

You can enforce these constraints on your favourite task management application, but I’ve often found that this is difficult to do given how easy to use these types of applications are.

Now, I’m not saying that bullet journaling is the silver bullet solution to all productivity hacks; it isn’t. However, the constraints of notebooks are why I find that bullet journaling works so well. It allows me to manage a smaller and more focused list of tasks and that in turns stops me from over-committing.

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No Resolutions, Just Good Habits

I’m not making any resolutions for the year ahead.

In my experience, it’s a self-defeating exercise that always ends up with me not seeing it through to the end of the year.

If you’re thinking along the same lines, then what’s the alternative to making improvements without failing?

Have you ever noticed how bad habits stick like watching television, sitting on the couch, and mindlessly thumbing through timelines on social media? These are not good habits to get into, but the thing about them is that they’re easy to do. They just don’t require any thought whatsoever.

What if we could just as quickly get into good habits rather than bad habits?

Well, this is what worked for me when I first started building good habits.

I started with just one habit.

I started getting into the habit of writing every day. To help remind myself to write, I set the alarm on my phone to give me the nudge to start writing. When my phone went off, I would then start writing. That’s all I did for a whole month. A habit built up every day. And it worked. It’s still working. I’m writing this, aren’t I?

The following month I added another alarm on my phone to do something else the next month and kept it going through the year. By the end of the year, I had built up some good habits that helped me through the day.

The problem many people face with new year resolutions is that they try to do too much at once. It’s like trying to lift weights at the gym. You just can’t bench press 100kg unless you’ve trained your body to get into the habit of being able to bench press 100kg. To achieve such a weight, you need to start with a smaller load and then gradually build up to the target weight.

Habits are the same.

You start small (ideally with one) and then build them up.

Tracking your habits is a great way to build them up. I’ve tried some habit tracking apps over the last year, but the one that works for me is Productive. It was the first habit tracking app that I tried, and nothing else I’ve tried has been as easy to use.

The good thing about tracking apps is that they give you a sense of success when you’ve reached a significant milestone like completing the habit for a week or even a month. Productive and other habit tracking apps have reminders built in as well, so it keeps all your habit building needs in the one place.

So, forget the new year resolutions and set yourself a short-term habit to achieve for the next few days. Once you’ve completed a few days with it, extend the practice for a few more days and keep at it. In no time you’ll find that you’ve been able to get into your intended habit daily and by the end of a period of a few weeks it will become more of something that you just do.

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Scaling Back

For a long time I’ve wrestled with a number of different terminal apps and tools in the hope of improving my productivity at the command line. Initially I used iTerm2, a terminal emulator for macOS, as my preferred terminal app. Then I also started using tmux, a terminal multiplexer, on top of that. Then came along Vim, the open source text editor, and I started using that as well.

This was the first time in a long time that I had started using all three again. The benefit of using this combination of tools is that I could run both my command line and text editor within a single app and very rarely have to switch away from it.

One huge pain point I couldn’t get round though was the simple act of copying and pasting text between Vim and other apps. Despite a number of attempts to get it working I’ve decided to call it a day on this trio of tools.

  • Vim is a great text editor, but to be honest I’m faster coding with Sublime Text or even Atom for that fact. Yes, I use the mouse and yes I want to have features and plugins that don’t require me to mess about with command line.
  • tmux is great for managing different command line sessions within a single terminal emulator but I don’t think it’s a necessity. Lately I’ve been doing away with split panes and using multiple tabs.
  • Which brings me to iTerm2. As great an application as it is, there’s nothing that it offers that I can’t get from Apple’s own terminal emulator, Terminal.

So I stopped using Vim, tmux and iTerm2 and fell back to using Terminal and Sublime Text.

I’ve went full circle from starting with the basics, adding more tools to the stack, before reducing the tools I need for the terminal right down to the absolute basics. One app for the terminal and one app for editing source code.

I can see the case for using tools like tmux and Vim. Maybe you spend most of your day in a terminal as a system administrator and you’re faster with Vim. Maybe you need to manage multiple servers on a daily basis so splitting panes in tmux suits your line of work. I get it. I understand why these tools exist and why you would use them.

Sometimes though scaling back is just as much a benefit.

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How to Find a Great Task Manager

Finding a great task manager can be a daunting affair. Aside from the fact there are so many of them, there’s only so much time that you can dedicate to trying them out. You’ll never pick the right one first time, so how do you find a good matching task manager?

After three years of using Todoist I know that it works for me. A week ago I dabbled with Wunderlist out of curiosity, but I couldn’t adjust to the different interface that Wunderlist offered. It’s nothing to do with Wunderlist itself, it’s a great task manager but it just didn’t work for me. That’s the key thing to look for when assessing task managers. Find the right one that works for you. Here’s how to do it.

Ask yourself what’s the three critical features that you need from your task manager. It might be portability, it might be integration with other services, it might even be important to you to use a hand-written notes. Whatever is important to you then add it to a list.

This is important because if you’re blindly testing task managers without knowing what works best for you, then you’re going to find it hard to find one that works for you.

I chose Todoist because it has three features that I think are essential to how I work.

  1. Todoist has great email integration. The inbox and each project includes their own email address so that I can quickly capture tasks on the go and while I work.
  2. Todoist has a minimal user-interface. This is important to me because it lets me focus on reviewing tasks, picking the next one and moving on. Todoist’s user-interface is simple and offers little in the way of distractions.
  3. Todoist is easy to use. Click, drag, type. The hallmarks of any desktop or web based application, but Todoist makes it easy to move tasks, edit tasks and find tasks.

If Todoist was to close down overnight and I had to pick a new task manager then I would look for a new task manager that matched at least two of these requirements. Three would be a better match, but it’s not essential that the task manager you pick meets all three requirements.

By identifying the features that are essential to me, I’ve been able to find a task manager that doesn’t distract and gets the job done. Your requirements might be different though so that’s what you need to look for. Find your own essential requirements and you’ll find it easier to find a task manager that works for you.

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Managing Your Time Online with Automation and Filters

Left unchecked, you could easily waste away your time online. Posting, bookmarking, pinning, reading, uploading, downloading, torrenting and streaming. We’ve entered into an era of the Internet where there’s growing demand for you to be connected to anything and everything. If it’s not managed properly you could easily get sucked into an almost endless zombie state of clicking, scrolling and swiping. It’s something that I’ve grown more aware of over the years, but with kids in the house, you suddenly become more aware of how much time you spend being connected. I don’t want my kids to remember their parents as “those two with their heads creaking into their phones”.

With this in mind, I’ve started being a little bit more selective of how I manage my time being connected. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I only class the time I’m on the Internet, this can include any form contact with my laptop and smartphone. Cutting back on the this time is the key, but how do we do this?

In the last couple of weeks I’ve made a few changes to the apps I’m using and how I use them, and I’ve found that there’s two key places where you can improve severing that attachment to technology. Automation and filtering.

Automation

Automation is the ability to take a number of manual steps and make them run on their own without any human intervention. Sounds a bit daunting to start with, but there are in fact a number of great services that can make detaching from technology easier.

I’ve used IFTTT for the last couple of years to automate a few things between different services I use. I wouldn’t call myself a power user, but it’s easy to set up recipes means that you can schedule all manner of action between the different channels you might use.

I’ve only just started using Zapier in the last couple of weeks. IFTTT is great but I’ve heard good reviews about Zapier as well. My first impressions of it are good, and while they don’t cover all the same channels that IFTTT does, they do have a vast catalog of services that you can hook into.

Using tools like this can handle the mundane tasks for you, like backing up your photographs to Dropbox or builing lists on Twitter for an event you’re attending. Each step might only take a few seconds to do, but given that you’ll probably end up repeating these steps time and time again, it’s worth looking at tools like IFTTT and Zapier to handle them for you.

Filtering

Filtering is where we want to pick out the signals from the noise. What’s the important stuff? It’s something I haven’t used much in the past, but I’ve finding it to be more and more useful to limit my time online.

Perhaps the first place you might have came across filtering is on a number of Twitter clients. Tweetbot and Echofon allow you to mute keywords in your stream. This comes in handy when you don’t want to see tweets about a particular topic. I recently muted keywords for the Apple Watch event a couple of weeks ago and recently also blocked tweets from the SXSW event. Both topics weren not in my interests and so to stop my timeline being polluted with links to these I muted them in Echofon.

The last place I’ve seen filtering avaialble but haven’t used yet is in the RSS reader application, Feedbin. For each of the RSS feeds you have, Feedbin gives you the option to mute a feed. I haven’t used this yet but knowing this feature is here means that I’m abit more open to subscribing to other RSS feeds. I can mute feeds that are perhaps covering a specific topic over a number of days or weeks and if it’s something I’m not interested in, I can mute for that period of time.

This is just a couple of ways in which I manage the daily onslaught of information. I would be interested to hear of other suggestions that you use to manage and reduce your time being connected to the digital world.

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Simplifying Again

In the pursuit of workflow zen, I’ve been simplifying things a bit. It’s been a positive change so far.

Data is everywhere. We create and consume vast quantities of data everyday without giving a second thought to how much. Emails, tweets, posts, pictures, videos, messages and audio are just a few examples of the data that we interact with on a daily basis. And there’s no shortage of software to manage your data either. For each type or format of data you have, there could be hundreds of different options available to you to manage that data. Apps, web applications, scripts, services, products.

Not only are there tools that mostly persist and manipulate your data, there’s a new type of service available that pushes your data to other services based on triggers. Services like Zapier and IFTTT have the means to collect and distribute your data to other places depending on the triggers and services you specify. It can become mind boggling and complicated.

It was last year when I realised that I was pushing more data around different services than I needed. I started making some changes:

  • I stopped using a dedicated bookmarking service and instead opted to routinely drop a list of formatted markdown links into my blog.
  • I stopped using Evernote and instead starting using text files to manage lists and collections. Evernote is a great tool for keeping all your data together but I found it difficult to keep my data organised. The idea of notebooks and groups is good but I just couldn’t make it work. This isn’t a complaint against Evernote, it’s a great tool, it’s just not for me.
  • I started using plain text files for a lot of things. Check-lists, ideas, outlines and anything else that I needed to keep a note of.

After doing this I noticed a change. The number of places I need to check to find something was greatly reduced. I had a collection of files in my Dropbox that I used on a daily basis. Then there was my task manager, my reading list and a few boards on Trello. I didn’t have to search anywhere else beyond that. Then the number of tools I needed started to fall as well. I started uninstalling apps from my MacBook and cancelling some subscriptions.

It’s been a refreshing change. Gone are all the connected services and triggers I used and instead I have a low maintenance set of tools that I can use easily. I can find the data I need for easily and most importantly I do less moving about of data.

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Getting the Most from Feedbin

There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of years that RSS is dead and it certainly didn’t look good when Google closed their RSS reading service, Google Reader. Since the news that it was closing though there has been a number of new RSS services that aim to fill the gap. Having tried a couple I evetually choose Feedbin. It looked promising from the start and I’m glad to see that today it has grown into an amazing application and makes managing and reading your RSS feeds easy.

Over the course of the last year or two, Feedbin has added a number of great features to the service. I thought I would round up some of my favourite features that I use daily to manage my RSS feeds.

Time To Unsubscribe?

One of the problems I had with Google Reader was that it was difficult to see when a feed was last updated and how active it was. Overtime people lose interest in keeping their site updated so eventually feeds start to stagnate. It was hard to see this in Google Reader. Unless you were aware of the decline in posts, which is easy if you only follow so many accounts, there wasn’t a way to check your feeds to see which were active and in-active.

Feedbin solves this problem on the feeds page of your account. Not only can you search and unsubscribe from feeds, you can also sort them according to when they were last updated and also how active the feed is. This makes it easy to spot the sites that are slowing down in posting and might be worth unsubscribing from.

Showing the feed activity on Feedbin

Take A Shortcut

Google Reader had a great set of keyboard shortcuts. I even created a mind map for the shortcuts to help me memorise them. They were essential in allowing me to quickly scan through all my feeds and mark those that were worth reading later on in the day. You’ll be glad to hear then that Feedbin also has a great collection of keyboard shortcuts at your disposal. With these you can navigate around your feeds, search, action articles and even share them to your own connected services such as App.net and Twitter.

If you’re not a software developer then you might be more familiar with using the mouse when it comes to navigating your applications. For applications such as Feedbin, I say give the keyboard a try. While you might hit a few stumbling blocks at the start, trying to remember what key does what, keep at it. Using the keyboard is a much faster way of interacting with the computer and the keyboard shortcuts for Feedbin are minimal. There are only 20 sets of shortcuts to remember with most of them being a single key, but even learning just a quarter of these will make such a difference. And the best part, just press ‘?’ on your keyboard while using Feedbin and it will display all the shortcuts you need.

Action!

One of my early gripes with Google Reader was the lack of automation. Some feeds I subscribed too always needed a specific action or used for logging purposes. For these feeds I wanted them starred or marked as read as soon as they came in. In Google Reader this wasn’t possible, but it can be in Feedbin.

Feedbin has a section in the setting page called Actions. Here you can define actions that meet one or multiple feeds. The two actions available are starring an article or marking an article as read. There might be more in the future but for now these make automating the management of your feeds a lot easier. Why would you do this though?

Showing the actions for Feedbin

Some feeds are always interesting. I subscribe to the Caesura Letters newsletter through an RSS feed. I star the article every day so that I can find it at lunchtime for further reading. It’s one less action to do on a daily basis but it still saves a bit of time.

Searching your RSS feeds is a routine thing for me. Maybe I’m looking for a specific set of articles or articles that feature a specific keyword. What happens though when you want to do that search over and over again? Well you save it!

Feedbin has a great feature called saved searches that lets you save the searches you carry out over your feeds. These appear in your sidebar with the search icon beside them so that you can differentiate them from the rest of your feeds. One saved search I have is my ‘Recently Mentioned’ search.

Showing my saved search from Feedbin

I follow a number of blogs that are part of an relaxed circle of bloggers. We link to each other’s posts for other people to see. It’s not a traffic building thing, we just link the stuff we find interesting from each other on our blogs. I was getting mentioned a few times when I thought about having a search for this. With my saved search now, I can see when I was last mentioned. You might call it an ego thing, but I prefer to think of it as a validation tool to see what people find interesting. It helps to find out what people link to on my blog and whether I should publish similar content.

Use Your Favourite Reading App

Feedbin also has an API that allows other apps to connect to Feedbin. While Feedbin excels as a great application on the big screen of a desktop, laptop and tablet, I find the mobile interface not that easy to use for scanning feeds. My app of choice for checking my feeds on my iPhone is the wonderful Unread by Jared Sinclair. With simple gestures for quickly scanning and actioning articles, it is by far the best app I have found yet that connects to my Feedbin account.

Feedbin is a great RSS reader and I use it daily, often multiple times a day. The best part of Feedbin though is the automation. The actions and sharing to your favourite services are the best time savers for me. With feeds handled automatically in the background and one key press to share to other services like Instapaper, I can breeze through hundreds of articles on a daily basis.

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Mastery takes time

Yesterday I mentioned I was embarking on a last attempt to master a different text editor. If I’m to succeed at this, then one truth I must face is that this will take time, just like mastering any new skill does.

I always find that learning something new starts out to be fun. I have a clear goal in mind of what I want the end goal to be and with that in mind I start. Whether it’s a new programming language or an application, those first few days are where my positiveness is at a high. After a few days though, the stumbling blocks kick in. I don’t feel as productive as I did before. Even though I know I’m in unfamilair terroritory, I start to wonder if this is in fact the right time to be learning something new. A few days further on and I’ve only mastered a small subset of this new topic or skill. Questioning myself again, I throw in the towel and abandon the learning process. I’ve done this so many times in the past.

The recurring mistake I’ve made in the past is forgetting that learning takes time. Mastery takes even longer.

For the moment I’m content to simply learn Vim. This means getting to a stage where for most of my day I can write and manipulate code without resorting to looking up keyboard shortcuts. Finding files, finding text in files, managing files in different panes, navigating a file, search and replacing within a file and basic text manipulation represent groups of keyboard shortcuts that I need to learn in order to use Vim effectively. I’ve given myself a month to learn most of these shortcuts. After a month I should be able to assess what I can and can’t do in Vim. For all the things I can’t do, these will become the focus for the next month of using Vim. Repeating this process for six months will evenutally get me to the place where I want to be. To have mastered Vim.

Learning can take hours or days, but true mastery can take weeks, months, even years depending on what you want to master. This is the key to successful learning and mastery, you need to put the time in.

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Software Isn't for Life

Software is a form of product that will deteriorate and expire with time. With this in mind, how easy would it be for you to switch software from your preferred tools set to a new one?

I try and not be too dependent on the software that I use on a daily basis. I do have a favourite set of tools that I use but I’m always conscious of the fact that whatever I’m using might not be around tomorrow.

Take for instance my to do list. I’ve been using Todoist for some time now. What would happen if Todoist stopped trading next month? Or even next week? Barring a natural disaster, I’m pretty confident that most services, including Todoist, will allow a small window of time for you to transfer your data across to another application of your choice before that company closes down.

The good thing about software as a product is that there’s plenty of it. We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to software and with the now common place app stores from various technology companies, there’s an app store for most major hardware platforms.

What happens though when software becomes a dependency?

I’ve heard many people say that their preferred software product for a particular task is ‘X’ and that they just couldn’t do their job without it. Perhaps that’s true if you’re in a specialist job working on the next wave of new technology and innovation, but for most of us this just shouldn’t be the case. We should not be dependent on just one particular brand of software to get the job done. If you’re so dependent on one particular software product then I’d say that you’re narrowing your choices down too much.

The text editor is my daily tool for writing and cutting code. My preferred text editor is Sublime Text, but for any reason that Sublime Text was to stop being supported or even cease to exist, then what’s my options?

We’ll I’ve played with Vim enough over the years to make the jump to that, and there’s a number of other text editors that I could pick up like Chocolat that would do the job just fine. Yes, I may have invested a considerable amount of time getting to know the shortcuts keys of Sublime Text but if I had to then I would comfortable picking up something else. We should always have options to fall back on for the selected tools that we use on a daily basis. In most cases this second set of software might be products we’ve tried in the past or something that we previously have experience with.

Investing time and effort into a particular software product is fine if it’s something that you will use on a daily basis for about 8 hours a day, but anything else is simply a product or tool that could be replaced with alternatives already on the market or a custom made option if needed. Software isn’t for life, it’s simply a temporary means to an end until we find something better that works for us. With this in mind, are you to dependent on the software you use?

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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?

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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.

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Keeping a schedule

Last week I started work on an idea for application. Just a small prototype of the idea really. No tests, no fancy user-interface, just the bare bones of the idea. In typical agile fashion I wrote out some of the basic features that I needed for the prototype as user stories on index cards and then set to work. Then a call from a client came in and before I know it, it’s two days later and I’ve not started work on the prototype.

My problem is that I’m starting client work as it comes in and my own projects are getting done in really small pieces. I am not keeping a daily schedule.

Truth is I haven’t kept a schedule of my work for at least a couple of years now. Not since I worked at a consultancy where you could plan your day most days. There was days where you would have interruptions to your schedule, but as it was customer support calls, you had determine if the customer’s support issue was that important that it had to be resolved there and then. With interruptions like this mounting on daily basis, I abandoned my calendar of work and just did work ad-hoc.

Now though I am more in control of my own time and schedule. I am my own company and I need to schedule work to ensure that client work gets done most days, but I also allow for some time to work on ideas and products.

Scheduling your work in a calendar is a commitment to getting that work done. I have the benefit of having a laptop with an external monitor so I use my laptop as my secondary screen. On here I have my calendar and I leave it open while I am working as a reminder to stay focused on the task I have set myself.

I’m using Apple’s Calendar application and the iCloud service to synchronize my calendar to my phone. This makes it easy for me to schedule stuff in my calendar when I am away from my desk. I use the brilliant Fantastical app to manage my calendar from my phone. It has a great agenda view for upcoming appointments and it has a very easy appointment entry system that means you don’t need to fill in four different fields to make an appointment. It’s smart enough to know that “10am Meeting with client” should be scheduled for 10am.

Scheduling your day and your week is a great way to making a commitment to getting things done. It’s more structured than a to do list, but provides a way of breaking your day down into chunks so that you’re not working on the same thing for hours or days at a time.

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Comfortable tools

Software developers love their text editors. Those developers that invest a significant amount of time in one particular text editor are able to wield it with the proficiency a level 20 warrior. They’ll slice and dice the code with the mininal number of gestures needed. They have all the commands they need memorised right down to the last keystroke combination. Text editors are the primary weapon of software developers and so they need to know how to this tool with great effect if they want to make their day a productive one.

I chose Sublime Text 2 as my main text editor a couple of years ago. I just find it easy to work with. I know the commands that I need, I spent a fair amount of time getting the right plugins and setting them up so that they work well for me and of course I’ve tried hundreds of themes before getting the one that just feels right. So if I’m so happy with my chosen text editor, why the hell do I keep wanting to try another tool?The other tool I am referring to is Vim. It’s a text editor that is used by thousands of people and is over 20 years old. Every year, I ask myself, “Did I give Vim enough of a chance?”

I’ve tried Vim a few times as a replacement for Sublime but every time I try it, I find something that I don’t like and go back to Sublime. Fast forward a few months and I do the same thing again. For the last three years, I think I’ve tried Vim about five times. I’m not talking about a couple of days, I’m talking about a full on month of use. However, at the end of each month I simply switch back to Sublime. Is it a comfort thing? It might be.

Vim is a great text editor but I just don’t feel that comfortable using it.​

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Stop using email for internal company communication

​I have a love hate relationship with email.I love having a medium that allows me to communicate effectively with others all over the world. Being able to send some thoughts to a family member in Canada, or thanking your mentor for that little motivational book they sent you in the post. Yip, it’s hard to beat email as a form of communication.

Until of course you get to your desk at work at 9am on a Monday morning and the deluge of email in your inbox makes you regret that you didn’t just phone in sick that day. Yes there are ways of dealing with your email on a daily basis that let you work smarter and more effectively by implementing filters and such, but that doesn’t stop people sending email to you.You see, when you work in a team, department or in a small company, email is often that go to tool that let’s one person tell everyone else about something. That’s great, but when email becomes the standard form of communication for ideas, discussions and projects, that’s when you’re going to wish you never opened that your inbox again.

From my experience, I have found that email in the work place is an invasive form of communication that tries to grab your attention from the pressing, but productive work that you are doing. It aims to break your concentration. When you have processed that ‘urgent’ email, you then need to reset your focus and get back to what you were working before you were interrupted. Personally I can do without that kind of distraction.

So what’s the solution? Well it’s easy. Non-invasive forms of communication that let you see with others want you to see without distracting them from their work. Project and task management, customer relationship management, and intranets are all greats ways of communicating with others in your company without interrupting what they are working on. They let your team see the information they need to see and they can act upon that information in their own time.

And don’t be under the impression that the digital world is the only place you can communicate.

The daily stand up is a great way of communicating with your team and shouldn’t be thought as being for developers only. Anyone in a team, should consider the daily stand up where you want a status update from the previous day and to quickly plan what’s going to happen today.

Kanban boards are another great trick I learned to use from my days working in an agile development team. An overview of the work in progress is a great way for everyone to see what’s going on. It also increases verbal communication over work rather than team members continually pinging emails back and forward.

As a rule, email should be the last form of communication in any team, department or small company. There are so many other ways of communicating that are more productive and will also let your colleagues get their work done.

So next time you want to update the team on a project or want to discuss idea, find an alternative to the evil that is email. 

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