A year ago, my life was fairly simple. I was single, had a part-time day job, and was building up some work as a freelance writer. I had a robust social life, but that didn’t require a lot of planning and tracking. It was just me, my studio apartment (“the Lair”), and a Hipster PDA. I kept notes, contact information, and ideas in a Tiddlywiki on a thumb drive (and later, a Dropbox folder) so that I had access to my data on both my desktop and laptop computers.
Now I’m married, I no longer have a day job because my freelance career is taking off and I’m a full-time student and I’m running two home-based business and I’m actively involved in a church. I still have a robust social life, but it also include my wife, and as my life has gotten busier it seems that my friends’ lives have as well. Simple tools just don’t cut it any more, so I’ve had to make some productivity upgrades.
Better Ways to Keep It Simple
Rule #1: If it takes more time, it doesn’t save me time. Seems pretty obvious, but people who have played around with productivity tools know what I mean. If it’s the greatest thing in the world and I never look at it, it’s worthless. If it requires a special trip, another browser tab open, an additional login, it’s probably not worth it. I want everything to be as simple as the Hipster PDA — I think of something, I write it down, I review it and either act on it or file it for reference later. Period. My process might seem redundant to some people, writing things on a file card and then writing it in a wiki later, but for me it was simply reinforcement. It helped me remember things because I wrote them twice, it forced me to look at the file cards, and it forced me to look at the wiki. I don’t need more complexity, I need better ways to keep it simple.
Blame It On Google Plus
So along comes G+, and I sign up because a bunch of friends and professional contacts decide to bail on Facebook in favor of the hot new thing. These are people who already gave up on email in favor of social networking as their communications medium of choice. Gah. I’m still an email guy, and any messages sent to me via Facebook, Twitter, or G+ all end up in one inbox anyway. The problem is responding. All of these social networks want me to go to their page to reply, for understandable reasons. There are ways around that, and my favorite has been Threadsy. On one page, I had multiple email accounts, multiple Twitter accounts, and Facebook available on one page, a single browser tab, where I could post, read, and respond. The problem was that with the introduction of G+, which has yet to release its API so Threadsy can integrate it, I had to have a separate tab open for it.
Tracking my habits, I noticed that I usually have Facebook open anyway. I have a list with nothing but news organizations that I use as a sort of RSS feed. Then there was the RSS feed, Google Reader. So, Threadsy, Facebook, G+, Google Reader. Four tabs. The Google pages have a nav bar at the top that tells me when I have a G+ message, so I could close that, just leave Reader open, and open G+ as needed. Well, I needed a calendar, so I might as well begin using Google Calendar again. Okay, I can pull in all of my email accounts into Gmail, Facebook and Twitter messages get emailed there, I can get to G+, Calendar, and Reader with a click.
Gmail became my new homepage. Calendar, Reader, and G+ are opened and closed as needed. Facebook and Twitter stay open, that’s three. Google has won.
If Google would seed Gmail and Reader the way it does G+, telling me how many messages I have on those services the way it does G+, it would be even more awesome.
I needed a calendar. I did not want to start lugging a day planner around again. I cannot afford an iPad. Google Calendar wins. Since I’m using Gmail, I can create events from Gmail, based on emails received. I can save a week or a month as a PDF, which I do, to print out and scribble notes on and have on my laptop in case I’m somewhere without internet access (it happens). The problem is that the Task list is not robust. It’s great for one-off things (today I had to remember to RSVP to two weddings, for example), but not for recurring or complex tasks. Fortunately, and I am getting a little ahead of myself here, there is an Evernote gadget that can be set up in Google Calendar that’s much better, and it sets right where the Task list does. If nothing else, it reminds me to look at Evernote.
Ah, Evernote. It does everything my Tiddlywiki did for me, and more. I installed it on both my desktop and laptop computers, and added the address to my phone contacts that allows me to add a note via email.
Caveat: I don’t keep anything in Evernote that would cause me to have a stroke if my account got hacked. I know there are people who keep personal information like bank account numbers, credit card info, prescription information, passwords, and things like that. No. No no no no no. Bad idea.
Mostly because I move between a laptop and desktop computer (my desk is surrounded by physical books, snail mail, and other non-electronic things I sometimes need), Dropbox is vital storage for works in progress. The e-textbook for my current classes, manuscripts for projects, things I’m collaborating on with other people, all get kept in Dropbox and backed up on a thumb drive to satisfy my sense o paranoia.
Pulling It All Together
Here’s how it works now:
On Google Calendar, I have chunks of time blocked throughout the week with broad labels, such as “school” or “freelancing” or “church projects”. No specifics, it just marks time set side for those purposes. It helps me look down from 50,000 feet and make a broad plan for how I spend my time. If I know that I have a big deadline and a light school load, I allocate more time to “freelancing” and less to “school”. I also block in “screw-around time”, to give myself some mental breaks and by extension permission to not work (I’m not a workaholic, I’m a super-achiever, but don’t ask me to quantify the difference). I also plug in time to read, because I never have enough time to read, but that’s a whole other post.
In Evernote, I set up notebooks that correspond to the blocks of time. So during school time, I open the school notebook, and there’s information on the paper I have to write and the research I’ve done so far. During freelancing time, I open the freelancing notebook and see what needs to be done there. I do this because of the way my mind works; if I blocked out time for “Project A” and got done early, my mind wants to consider the rest of the block free time where I can do whatever I want. By calling it “freelancing”, when I finish Project A I’ll move on to Project B, because it’s not a block for a specific project, it’s a block for working on a group of tasks or in a specific way. It’s about defining the level of commitment that I’m making, to the concept of work and not to a specific job.
In Dropbox, I have folders set up that correspond to the Evernote notebooks/Google Calendar blocks. There are folders within folders, or course. So when it’s Project time, I check Evernote, then go to Dropbox and open the Project folder and access the appropriate docs.
When I’m out and about and have an idea, I send a text message to the Evernote email address. All I need to include is a pointer to the notebook I want it to land in (“@school” for school stuff, etc). I review Evernote the way I reviewed my file cards, dealing with it or deferring. One-off tasks get added to the Google Calendar task list, so when I get a free moment it’s staring me in the face and I get the satisfaction of checking something off a list.
The Tiddlywiki still exists for contacts and sensitive data that I want to archive. It sits on an encrypted thumb drive. I still use Dropbox for files, such as my school e-textbooks that may need to share between computers. The Hipster PDA, because I do not have a smart phone, has been relegated to holding the grocery list, the errand list, business cards people give me, driving directions, and other hardcopy miscellanea.