Improving Instapaper in Fever° part deux

I recently wrote about improving the Instapaper function in Fever°.

It occurred to me that a small pop-up window would be much better than having a full-size browser window come up just for a second. Then I wondered if I could put a javascript: URL into the Fever° settings. And whaddya know, it works!

The new link I’m using (wrapped for readability):

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javascript:window.open(
  'http://mysite.com/instapaper.php?url=%u&title=%t&selection=%e',
  'instapaper',
  'width=300,height=200,toolbar=0,scrollbars=0,resizable=1'
);

Right-click this link to copy it: Instapaper

Improving Instapaper support in Fever°

I recently switched from Google Reader to Fever°. I am happy I switched, but I quickly missed the ease with which I could save articles to Instapaper. The Instapaper bookmarklet has some way of divining which article you’re focused on in Google Reader, so you can add the article right from the feed page, instead of opening the article itself, then adding it to Instapaper. It’s very convenient, and fast.

Fever° also has Instapaper support, but it works a little differently. When focused on an article, you tap i to open a new window containing a pre-filled Instapaper form, then click the Add button. The item is added, and you’re left with a window showing your Instapaper unread items.

That’s not bad, but I didn’t want that window hanging around. I had to wait for it to load, then get rid of it. I had to take my hand off the keyboard to click the Add button. It worked, but was less graceful than what I had before.

I spent a few minutes with PHP and came up with a solution. It’s not as pretty as what I had with Google Reader, but it’s just as fast, and works without any mousing, clicking, or lingering windows. I tap i on an article, and a window pops up, says ‘Saved,’ and disappears on its own after a second or so. (If there’s a problem, you see an error instead and the window does not go away.)

First, create a script on your site. I named mine instapaper.php and put it at the root of my Fever° site. But you can put it anywhere, including on another domain entirely. You just need to know the URL to configure Fever° later.

instapaper.php
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<?php

$api = 'https://www.instapaper.com/api/add';
$close_timer = 750; // how many ms to display 'Saved!'

// Your instapaper.com credentials
$user = 'my_username';
$pass = 'my_password';

$u = urlencode($_GET['url']);
$t = urlencode($_GET['title']);
$s = urlencode($_GET['selection']);

$curl_url = "$api?username=$user&password=$pass&url=$u&title=$t&selection=$s";

$ch = curl_init($curl_url);
curl_setopt($ch, CURLOPT_RETURNTRANSFER, TRUE);
$ret = curl_exec($ch);
curl_close($ch);

if ($ret == '201'):
?>

<h2>Saved!</h2>
<script language="javascript">
setTimeout("self.close();",<?php echo $close_timer ?>) 
</script>

<?php else: ?>

<p>ERROR: instead of response code 201, we got:<br />
<?php echo $ret ?></p>

<?php endif ?>

Now, go into your Fever° preferences and click the Sharing tab. I suggest removing the i key from the Instapaper item, and changing its name (I used ‘ORIGINAL Instapaper’). That way it’s still there if you ever want to switch back.

Click the + icon to add a new service. Name it ‘Instapaper,’ set the key to i or whatever you prefer, and set the URL as follows. You’ll need to substitute the path to your script.

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http://mysite.com/fever/instapaper.php?url=%u&title=%t&selection=%e

Click Save and you’re done.

(I’ll write more about Fever° itself after I’ve used it for a while longer.)

Mislabeling Apple

iPad Launch Day is upon us, and with it comes another wave of articles and opinions. This week I’ve read several times about the coming death of the tinkerer class. Old-school hackers bemoaning the closed nature of the iPad/iPhone ecosystem, theorizing that if iPad were the state of the art when they came of age, they would never have become programmers. They dangle this theory like a specter: a future is coming when young people won’t have the opportunity to tinker, to become entranced by technology, or to ultimately grow up and become as awesome as they are.

These people are utterly missing the point.

Human beings are, by our nature, tinkerers. Nothing is going to stop that. We started out in caves and straw huts, and a mere few thousand years later, we have walked on the moon and created objects that would have seemed like magic to our ancestors. The iPad is not going to kill that spirit.

What these people are completely ignoring is what Apple is. I know the common wisdom: Apple is a hardware company. They make software, but only to sell hardware. In a sense that’s true. But that’s not really what Apple is, at least not anymore.

Apple is an experience company.

Apple isn’t selling a pound and a half of silicon, aluminum and glass. They’re not selling you a machine. What Apple sells is an end-to-end experience, one that they want to work perfectly. That takes quality control.

By “quality control” I mean the App Store approval process. I’ve read many arguments against it. It goes against free software principles. It is the Disneyfication of software. It allows Apple to exercise great power over developers.

Sure, the App Store has some downsides, in the eyes of a certain class of user. But for the other 99.9% of the world, it has one huge, huge upside. You aren’t going to get malware from the App Store. You aren’t going to get porn in the App Store. And, within reason, you won’t get horribly buggy crap from the App Store.

You can trust the App Store.

That’s huge. We are told constantly that it’s not safe out there; you can’t open an attachment in an email; you have to constantly update your system with patches. In the traditional computer world, you can’t trust anything. Any program you find on the Internet could have a malicious purpose; you just don’t know.

That concern goes away on an iPhone or iPad.

And that’s a great experience.

Back that thing up

Yesterday afternoon, my wife lost her grip on her MacBook, and it fell to the floor, resulting in a catastrophic hard drive failure. The disk utilities could no longer even detect there was a drive installed.

I created a temporary account on my laptop for her, and prepared myself for a major headache recovering data the next day.

This morning, I picked up a new disk at Best Buy. (That I can now buy 250GB, at retail, for only $60, is mind-boggling.) It took only a few minutes to swap the disks physically, and another ten or so to boot from the Snow Leopard DVD, plug in the Time Machine backup disk, and start a restore. It told me to come back in about two hours, and when I did, the machine was ready to go.

Wow. Just wow.

I’ve been using and managing computers for a long time, and I’ve never recovered from a major failure so smoothly. This is why Apple made such a big deal about Time Machine when it was introduced.

By the way: if you have both a desktop and a laptop Mac, you do not need a Time Capsule to do backups over your wireless network. Any shared USB disk attached to your desktop will work. Just turn on file sharing, mount the volume on your laptop, and tell Time Machine to use the mounted volume. You don’t even need to figure out how to get the volume to mount at boot; Time Machine will remember it and mount as needed, and even unmount when finished.

It’s very polished, and more importantly, automatic. Non-automated backups are not much better than no backups at all. (I learned that lesson the hard way.)

Tear it down

SPOILER ALERT: This post discusses the film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are.” It came out quite a while ago. If you wanted to see it, you probably already have. Still, if you don’t want any spoilers, mosey on along.

I saw “Where the Wild Things Are” with my wife, back when it was in theaters. I didn’t see it because I had any particular attachment to the book from my childhood. Nor because of the controversy at the time surrounding the question of whether it was too visceral or violent for children (though I now realize young children are not, and never were, its audience). I saw it because we hadn’t gone to a movie in a while, and we had a sitter.

After, we walked out into the blinding afternoon sun, and my wife asked what I thought. I recall not saying much, because I didn’t really know yet. So I turned the question back to her, and I remember that she sounded unimpressed, and a little confused. What on earth was the point of that movie, she wanted to know. It’s a fair question, given such a short story stretched to the length of a feature film. She was looking for the moral, I guess. But where was it?

  • Max gets into trouble at home.
  • Max runs away to an island full of Wild Things.
  • Max becomes their king and has adventures.
  • Max goes home, hopefully wiser.

The plot is hardly more complex than the book. Maybe the point was to take something familiar and show it in a funhouse mirror under a blacklight. (A technique known as Tim Burtoning.)

What I’ve since come to realize is the reason she didn’t get the movie. It’s because her parents are still married.

In the beginning of the movie, it’s apparent that Max’s dad is gone. I don’t recall if it’s spelled out where he’s gone, but given modern American culture, the default assumption is divorce.

Max is alone a lot of the time. He seems to have no friends. He acts up. He gets into trouble. Frankly, he’s a bit weird, wearing a wolf costume and wrestling his dog. You can see that Max has been profoundly affected by his situation. He’s changed, for the worse.

When Max reaches the island, he sees one of the Wild Things (Carol) in a rage. Carol is wandering around destroying things. He’s saying it’s all wrong; it needs to be destroyed; we need to start again. He smashes the Wild Thing huts. He smashes everything he can. Max comes out of hiding and joins the destruction. This makes sense to him. This feels right.

The Wild Things, seeing him, encircle him and try to figure him out. Logically, you know they aren’t going to eat the star of the film so early, yet you’re kind of afraid they just might. I mean, they’re wild things after all. Max is beset on all sides by seemingly insurmountable opponents, gnashing their teeth, towering over him, blotting out the sky.

Max takes charge, and convinces them he is their king. Madcap adventure ensues. I’m not going to rehash the entire plot; either you’ve already seen it, or you haven’t (in which case I don’t want to ruin every scene, right?)

The initial scenes are what tie it all together. It’s not about Max being on a fantasy adventure. It doesn’t matter that he’s on an island, or that the creatures he’s cavorting with are ten feet tall with razor-sharp teeth and conflated species. That’s just eye candy.

Here’s what matters: fracture, change, growth, illumination.

Max was once, we assume, a fairly normal kid, now scarred. Nothing is as it should be for him. Like Carol, he feels a desire to start over, to tear it all down. To start fresh, because it can’t get better from where he’s standing. No, from here every direction leads downhill. He is surrounded by impossible problems, staring up at them from the bottom of a pit he can’t see a way to climb out of.

Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure that everyone does. I suspect anyone who has lived inside a system and had that system suddenly disintegrate around them knows. Everything makes perfect sense, and then boom—the fundamental assumptions you have lived under turn out to be bullshit. What now? You want to destroy everything and go back to the drawing board. You’re the proverbial author at the typewriter who’s given up on the page, crumpling it up and tossing it away. That new, blank sheet holds so much promise, doesn’t it? It hasn’t been soiled by reality yet. It still looks so perfect.

Tear it Down, Start Again. A feeling familiar to Tyler Durden, Noah’s God, Carol, Max, and myself. It’s liberating and confining, all at once.

But does my wife know this feeling? Honestly, I don’t know, and I haven’t asked her. But if I had to guess, I would say no, not really. In another form, maybe. But not the way I think of it.

Changing the game

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about iPad by now.

Given the rhetoric that Apple is using, it’s no surprise that there’s an insane amount of discussion (and argument) going on in the blogosphere and the media.

iPad is, as Apple has said, a new category of product. It’s not a handheld, but it’s not a computer, or a netbook. Using the traditional definition of a tablet computer, it’s not that either. When I saw it in the keynote, the first thing I thought of was those pads everybody carried around in Star Trek: The Next Generation (incidentally, those are called PADDs). Which puts Apple around 300 years ahead of the curve. It makes me hope Levar Burton already pre-ordered his.

I think iPad is going to change the game. Maybe not this year (though I think it will sell well right out of the gate). But in five years, the landscape will be quite different because of iPad and its siblings.

Even ignoring Apple’s current cachet in the marketplace, iPad is going to appeal to the public for a few key reasons.

Ease of use

Here’s something a lot of geeks tend to forget: regular people don’t buy something because it can do 4,000 things adequately and lets you peek under the covers. They want to do something.

Traditional computers are tools. No matter what OS you prefer, they carry a relatively heavy learning curve.

First you have to adapt to using some sort of pointing device, be it a mouse, a trackpad, whatever. You have to learn the different actions the pointing device enables. Clicking. Dragging. Double-clicking. Right-clicking. The scroll wheel featured on most mice now.

Now you have to learn about menus. Buttons. Text fields. If you want to make the most of it, hotkey combos like Cmd-C and Cmd-V to copy and paste.

You have to adjust to the abstraction of moving your hand over in one area on a desk and how that maps to the disembodied pointer that you see on a screen. You have to learn how fast to move one to move the other. Fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. You have to learn how to switch between windows and between applications. How to pick up a window and move it around. How to resize it. You have to keep a mental model of what’s open, because you end up with applications covering each other on the screen.

And the complexity! Open up a common application like Microsoft Word or your web browser sometime. Look at the menus available to you. That’s a lot of stuff! Have you used half of it? Do you even know what half of it actually does? Probably not. If you’re talking about something like Word, Excel or Photoshop, you probably haven’t used a fifth of it.

For some people this is all second nature. For quite a lot of people it’s a struggle, especially people who didn’t grow up with computers as kids. If you’re 20, your relationship with your computer is very different than someone who’s 50.

On the other hand, my three-year-old can figure out many iPhone apps with barely any help. The basic skills he has learned manipulating objects in the first years of life are all he needs in order to manage the universal input device used on an iPhone: the finger. It’s the first tool we learn to use.

The main stumbling block he runs into is figuring out which button does what (he can’t read yet). He guesses right surprisingly often. I wonder how smooth he’ll sail along once he can read the labels.

So the only prerequisites to using an iPhone are:

  1. Knowing how to use fingers.
  2. Knowing how to read.

My mother-in-law has had a computer in her house for as long as I can remember. But she’s never moved beyond playing Freecell. It’s not that she has no reason to learn more; if nothing else, she has a son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild living out of state that the rest of us keep in touch with online. The computer intimidates her. Maybe she’s afraid she won’t be able to figure it out, or she’ll break it.

iPad could would well be perfect for her. She would be able to use it without the anxiety that traditional computers often instill in people.

It Just Works

Apple fans have been trotting out this line for longer than I’ve been a Mac user. And compared to Windows, there’s something to it. But the honest truth is that Macs don’t always “just work.” They work a heck of a lot better than Windows machines, in my experience, and they’re considerably easier to use, too. But anybody who tries to tell you their Mac “Just Works” 100% of the time is lying to your face.

The iPhone, on the other hand… I’ve had mine for years and I can seriously say that (mostly) it Just Works. I’ve had to hard reset it once or twice in three years. That’s infrequent enough that I consider it a rounding error. I run into bugs in apps, sure. But I don’t have any of the problems that plagued me when I ran Windows, and I have far less trouble with it than with a “real” computer (even a Mac).

I’ve lived in the IT world for a long time. And if I can say anything about computers generally, it’s that people are sick and tired of having to play administrator on their own machines. People don’t want to deal with virus scanners. They don’t want to deal with defragmentation, or blue screens of death, or any of this other nonsense. They just want to do work or play games. Talk to their grandkids. Email. Buy some stuff on the web. Whatever.

Traditional computers create friction. You are taken away from what you want to do, in order to deal with some nonsense. A frequent example taken from my daily life is that my keyboard just stops working. My mouse works, but I can’t type anything. The keyboard is on, and it’s plugged in, and the LEDs even work (e.g. Caps Lock). The only cure is to unplug the keyboard from the USB hub and plug it back in. This happens to me at least once a week. It’s so stupid, and it only takes a moment to fix, but it irritates me every single time, because I am in the middle of something I actually want to do, and I have to get up and go deal with this dumb problem that shouldn’t even happen.

What’s a filesystem?

One thing users just don’t get is the filesystem. I know the argument. It’s supposed to act like a file cabinet, you put things in folders, blah blah blah. People don’t get it. It doesn’t make any sense to them. I think it’s because it’s too raw.

I’ve noticed this in my wife more times than I can count. And let me stress: my wife is a perfectly capable, intelligent woman. She’s more computer-savvy than most people I know who don’t make their living at it. She is college-educated and she’s conversant in topics way beyond my ken, like anatomy, physiology, and surgical instrumentation. But I have had to intervene and locate various documents on her hard drive several times over the years. Why? Because she’s working on something and saves it, and later she comes back and the machine has decided to look in some other folder, and the file’s not where she thought she left it.

Apple has been slowly moving the user away from the filesystem for years. Look at two of their most popular programs for the Mac: iTunes and iPhoto. Both of these are essentially “black boxes” into which you put files (music and photos, respectively) and after that, they’re just handled by the software. They exist in the filesystem, but you don’t have to know or care at all about where they are. You just know they’re in the program. If, for some reason, you want to get the file back out of there, just drag it into another program, or onto your desktop (the one filesystem location users do understand).

So it’s only logical that they took it to the next level with iPhone, and now iPad. The filesystem is totally obscured. And really? Thank God. Finally.

I’m not saying filesystems are going the way of the dodo, or that they should. I wouldn’t accept this sort of thing on my servers, or the web hosting service I use (where I primarily access a Linux prompt via SSH). But it’s perfectly fine on my iPhone. I have no need or desire to get at the filesystem there. I don’t want to play admin on my iPhone. I bought it because it Just Works.

Give ‘em what they didn’t know they wanted

Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

The world may not think that what it wants is an iPad revolution… yet. We’ll see. If I were a netbook manufacturer, I’d be scrambling right now.

A Kindle paradox

The Story of Stuff discusses the environmental and social impacts of the American “obsession with stuff,” including our habit of buying items that live a relatively short useful life and then end up in a landfill. It is not available for the Kindle.

The Case for Books, as its title suggests, makes the case that printed books are not going away any time soon. It is available for the Kindle.

Logger town

Logger town, Ketchikan, Alaska. Colored pencil on Bristol vellum.

Completed 6/3/2007. I didn’t think to do scans for a progression.

I believe the photo was taken here.

Source image.

Work-at-home dad

I have been working from home full-time for nine years, and I’ve been very happy with the arrangement. But when I became a father almost two years ago, I found that working at home with a baby around brings some new challenges.

Sure, I can step away from my desk almost whenever I want and hang out with my son for a while. I can relieve my wife if she’s having a rough day or has errands to run. We can go to the park, or just play in the yard. I don’t have complete freedom from my desk, but I have a very flexible schedule.

On the other hand, some days it’s hard to get anything done. Going downstairs to play is easy and fun. Before you know it, two hours have gone by. Sometimes after a baby-induced bad night I’m too tired to think, and find myself staring blankly at my monitor.

But in general the main problem I have is keeping on top of things. Life has become much more hectic around here, and it’s harder to keep track of what needs to be done. This article is about the changes I’ve made in my work habits to cope with new demands on my time.

None of the below is particularly insightful or original. It’s an amalgam of advice I’ve read online and adopted from people I know. I don’t pretend to be an organizational guru, but this has been working for me so far.

My first piece of advice is not to overwhelm yourself with changes. Make one change at a time, judge whether it works, then keep it or dump it. If you change too many things at once, it’s hard to tell what is working, and you’ll end up spending all of your time managing the process itself instead of getting things done.

The below suggestions are not presented in any particular order.

Minimize distraction

Life is full of interruptions. But that doesn’t mean you have to invite them. Sometimes you need to concentrate. Maybe you’re writing code or documentation. Maybe you’re designing a circuit, or proofreading your novel. Whatever you’re doing, if you’re interrupted, it will take time to get back into the zone. When focus is required, take a few moments to create a less distracting environment.

  • Turn off your phone, or silence the ringer.
  • Shut down software that pops up to get your attention (IM or Twitter clients, email programs, RSS readers).
  • Hide or minimize windows you don’t need for the task at hand.
  • Try a virtual desktop manager like Apple’s Spaces, so can have a clean workspace for the current project.

Even when you aren’t in intense focus mode, distractions are a pain. You probably can’t work all day with your phone and IM turned off, but you can take other steps to minimize distractions.

One way to cut down on distraction significantly is having a door. If you’ve worked in both a private office and a cubicle, you know exactly what I mean. Converting that spare bedroom into an office will produce much better results than trying to work on a laptop at the kitchen table. If you don’t have a room to spare, try setting up your work area in a corner of the basement, or anywhere that your family won’t be likely to spend much time during the day. Get some headphones.

Tip: I avoid music with lyrics. Anything with words will drain some of your mental energy away, whether you realize it or not. I like instrumentals, or film soundtracks (e.g. John Williams). If music itself tends to distract you, try ambient noise (white noise, pink noise, or sounds like a waterfall, a rushing river, or wind).

Keep the lines of communication open

Have you heard the old maxim that communication is the key to a good marriage? If you’re married, or have lived with someone long enough that you may as well be, then you already know it’s true. What you may not yet realize is that parenthood makes it about ten times more so.

My wife is a stay-at-home mom, so all of us are here in the house all day. This is a situation that requires management. Communicating with your (husband, wife, girlfriend) is absolutely necessary. You need to agree on how the day will be managed. Which of you is going to get breakfast ready? Who is going to feed the child? What about at lunchtime? Does the caregiver get breaks during the day, relieved by you? If so, when and for how long? Is it acceptable for him/her to interrupt you randomly for non-urgent things? Should you block off pre-agreed chunks of the day when you should not be interrupted unless your child needs stitches?

The answers to these questions will be unique to every household. My point is that you have to handle these issues as a team. If everybody is not on the same page, you’re more likely to fail.

Take advantage of naptime

When you have a newborn around, you’ll hear this advice endlessly: “You should sleep when the baby sleeps.”

Yes. Absolutely, you should. At least when the baby’s still a newborn. Newborns take a lot of maintenance, especially if yours doesn’t sleep well, cries a lot, etc. So when the baby sleeps, take a nap yourself.

After a while you’ll fall into some sort of rhythm and won’t need to nap anymore. Then you can take advantage of naptime to do your more complex tasks. Everything will be much quieter. (At least, if the baby is your only child.)

If you’re a morning person, get up really early and get an hour or two in before the baby wakes up. If you’re a night person like me, put in an hour or two after they go to sleep for the night.

Take short breaks

You can’t power through for hours at a time and stay productive. The human brain doesn’t work that way. Take a break at least a couple of times a day, even if you just stretch your legs for 5 minutes. Walk out on the back deck. Go get the mail. Get a glass of water.

Empty your inbox

Keep control of your email. I use a three-folder approach to email. This is drastically different than what most people do, I know. It will sound like heresy. You will instinctively recoil from the idea. But trust me, it can work well (and does work well for me).

First, create three new folders in your email program. Name them “Action”, “Filed”, and “Later.” If you have other folders already, create a new folder called “Old folders” and put them in there to get them out of sight and out of mind.

From this point on, every time you open your inbox, read every message in it, applying these rules:

  • If no action is needed, and you won’t need the message again, just delete it. Yes, as a matter of fact, this is okay.
  • If action is needed, and you can handle it in the next couple of minutes, handle it right now.
  • If action is needed, but you don’t have time to deal with it right now, move it to the “Action” folder.
  • If it’s not time sensitive or important, move it to the “Later” folder.

The Action folder is a place to store things that need to be dealt with fairly soon. You should try not to let anything stay in the Action folder more than a few days at most.

The Later folder can be for anything not time-sensitive. That newsletter that you are going to read, eventually. The email from your cousin with the latest pictures of her kids. How long is too long for a message to stay in this folder depends on you. I get up to 2-3 weeks sometimes.

What is the Filed folder for? It’s for anything you want to keep that no longer needs any particular attention, but that you want to keep around for reference. There are only two eventual destinations for any message: Filed, or Trash. The Action and Later folders are temporary holding pens, not permanent homes.

Some readers are now feeling a pit in their stomach, horrified at the idea of all archived mail being relegated to a single folder. They have carefully cultivated deeply nested trees of folders into which mail is neatly sorted and cataloged. I used to do that. But I’ve realized a couple of things.

  1. I almost never went back to reference any of it.
  2. On the rare occasions that I did, I didn’t look in the folder tree. I did a search, because it’s faster and easier.

Modern mail programs have very powerful search features. Instead of playing librarian and creating a folder for every conceivable purpose, it’s easier to throw it into one big pile and let search sort it out later. If you ever even need it again (you probably won’t).

The beauty of this system is that once you are done with an email scan, your inbox is empty. At the end of the day, your inbox is empty. It’s an indescribably good feeling.

Mac tip: Foldering is greatly sped up by using the MsgFiler plugin for Apple Mail. It’s more than worth the small registration fee.

If you find this approach is working for you, take it to the next level. Do a quick review of the stuff you already had sitting around in folders. Throw out what you decide you no longer need, and put the rest in Filed. No, don’t put the folders in Filed, put the contents of the folders in Filed. Filed should not have any subfolders.

No time to review old messages? No big deal, just throw everything in Filed unreviewed. You might waste some space, but disk space is cheap these days.

Segregate list mail

I’m on quite a few mailing lists, which generate a lot of email. I used to create rules in my mail program to file them into folders. Then, in theory, I would check the folders every few days, doing all of my list mail at once, so I wasn’t checking them multiple times a day. That didn’t work. I found myself reading list mail several times a day. Why? Because it was always right there in my email program.

My solution was to create a Gmail account specifically for list mail. I changed my list subscriptions to the Gmail address, and now it’s not in my face all the time. I don’t even think about list mail more than once a week. I often go two weeks. When I do read it, I’m done much more quickly.

Gmail tip: because email is organized by thread (“conversation”), you can quickly throw out a lot of mail you don’t care about by deleting one thread instead of dozens of messages that are all from the same thread.

Use RSS

I’m a big fan of RSS. I don’t visit any sites routinely. Instead, I have RSS feeds in Google Reader. Currently I have about 120 subscriptions there. Some are sites that get only one update a month. Some get one a day, some get many per day. But I never have to check them; Google checks them for me. I just get a list of what’s new, and I only read what look interesting. This alone saves vast amounts of time, every single day.

I prefer Google Reader because, like Gmail, it’s not running on my computer; it’s not in my face all the time. Also, I can access it from my iPhone, which is where I end up doing about 80% of my RSS reading.

I have written about RSS before, though that article is slightly out of date.

Don’t get trapped in your browser

How many times has this happened to you? You go into your browser to do something, and you happen across an interesting link. You don’t have time to read it right now, so you either bookmark it, mail it to yourself, or just leave the window open for when you do have time. Unfortunately that leads to bookmark clutter, email clutter, or worst of all, environment clutter (idling windows).

Worst, you might just follow the new thread you’ve discovered, and now you’re totally off track from where you started. It’s easy to lose an hour or two doing this.

What I do is add a Note in Google Reader. There is a javascript bookmarklet for this, which I named “read later.” I use Notes as a queue. Once I go back and read an article, I delete the note. If I want to keep the article permanently, I save it to Evernote.

If you don’t want to use Google Reader, you can do the same thing with other tools, such as Instapaper.

Clean up your bookmarks

How many bookmarks do you have in your web browser? Hundreds? Why? Seriously, do you use more than 10-20% of them?

I used to have hundreds of bookmarks, carefully organized into folders in my browser. (Hmmm… sounds like those email folders!)

What I found is that only about 10% of them were things I used routinely, or were work-related. All of the rest I moved to Evernote. I used to use Delicious for this, but I switched to Evernote because it can store the page contents as well as the URL, and I can add my own notes. I ran into one too many cases of link rot, where my bookmark led to a dead end. With Evernote, I know I can store the page contents instead of just a bookmark.

You can keep anything you want in Evernote, actually. Text blobs, PDF files, images, audio files. You can add notes, add tags, mark folders public for sharing, and it’s all searchable. I keep all kinds of things in Evernote. It’s a great collection point for all of the little bits of info you run across in a day that you think you might need again someday.

Distraction-free writing

WriteRoom is a very simple program for Mac OS X. It’s a text editor that runs in full-screen mode. When you use WriteRoom, you have nothing at all on your screen but the text you’re working on. No menu bar, no Dock, no toolbars, nothing. It’s great for writing and editing when you don’t need a bunch of clutter in your way. In fact, I’m writing this article in WriteRoom.

WriteRoom doesn’t make a lot of sense for simple editing work, but if you’re going to write something fairly substantial, it’s a great environment to work in.

Using Windows? Try Darkroom.

Centralize your tasks

If you’re like me, you have a never-ending to-do list. Just keeping track of what you need to get done can be a huge challenge. At one point I had tasks in all of these places simultaneously.

  • Email, and saved notes in my email program
  • Tickets in our tracking system at work
  • Sticky notes (both the software and paper kinds)
  • Random scraps of paper or envelopes on my desk
  • Notes on my phone (both text and voice)
  • Voicemail on my cellphone and my work phone
  • Worst of all: in my head

As you can see, trying to stay on top of what tasks need to be done first, or what tasks are available to do at any given time, would be challenging at best, and impossible at worst, using this approach. Worse yet, tasks get lost. You forget to check the voice notes on your phone for a couple of weeks. You lose a scrap of paper, or an envelope you scribbled a note on. And the ultimate sin—a task in your brain, never committed to a tangible medium—is simply lost to forgetfulness or distraction.

The answer to this problem is surprisingly simple: centralize. Choose one location where all tasks go. Internalize this truth:

Tasks not in the central list are not likely to be done.

There are myriad approaches for this. Software such as OmniGroup’s OmniFocus or Cultured Code’s Things. David Allen’s well-regarded Getting Things Done. I’m not going to write much about this because it’s all been written before, at great length. What has worked best for me is simple, low-tech, and reliable. It’s almost an exact replica of what my friend Jon uses, so I give him full credit for it.

Get a notepad. Choose one that will stand up to a lot of use without falling apart, and has a good enough paper quality that you won’t be aggravated writing on it. Because you will be writing on it a whole lot. I like this pad.

Get a pen. Choose a pen that is comfortable in your hand and comfortable to write with. In particular, avoid gel pens with a thick tip. They take forever to dry, and bleed on many papers. My writing is somewhat small, so I have a problem using large-tip pens. I like the Pilot G2 extra-fine. They’re gel-based, fast-drying, with a fairly fine tip.

Strictly speaking, you’re ready to go. At the top of your pad, in the big empty space before the first line, write today’s date in big print on the left hand side. When you eventually finish with this pad, write the ending date to the right of it.

In the left margin on the first line, print today’s date. Next to it, draw a line across the whole page. Start each day with a date line.

When you get a task, draw a square box just left of the margin line, and then write the task to the right of it. It doesn’t need to fit on one line. When you complete the task, draw a check-mark in the box to indicate it’s complete.

You can use other symbols as well. For instance, if there is a task that I want to keep track of, but I’m waiting on someone else before I can do anything, I use a circle instead of a square. When it’s done I mark it with a check-mark.

Sometimes a task is canceled. Perhaps made irrelevant by circumstances. Maybe the project is canceled. Or you decide it’s not important and you aren’t going to do it. Draw an X through the box, to indicate the task has been “deleted.”

As time wears on, you’ll find that some tasks get left behind. You’ll have one lonely incomplete task a few pages back from where your current tasks are. In that case it’s best to just move it, so you can check off that old page and close it out. When I move a task like this, I first copy the task to the new page, then put a diagonal line through the old box, to indicate it hasn’t been done, only moved.

You can use other symbols in the left margin if you so choose. Perhaps you can put a star or an exclamation mark next to urgent tasks. Perhaps some other symbol to indicate that the task should be brought up at a meeting. There are many possibilities, but I suggest you keep things relatively simple. The more complexity you build into your system, the more aggravating you will find it. Use symbols sparingly, or you may find yourself forgetting what some of them mean.

Tip: if you find it necessary to write down a symbol key somewhere, your system has become too complicated.

Buying one more accessory will give some additional benefits. Pick up a pack of reusable adhesive tabs with at least three colors. I like this set by Post-It.

When I start a new pad, I put a blue tab at the top left of the first page. As soon as at least one page has been cleared (no more open items), I move the blue tab to the back of the page before my oldest page that has unfinished tasks. Then I can grab the blue tab, flip using it as a handle, and I arrive at the oldest page that has unfinished tasks. All pages before that point are no longer relevant. As pages are cleared (all checked), I move the blue tab deeper into the notepad.

Go to the back of the pad, count a few pages backward, and at the top of the page, write “Active Projects.” On the back of the page before this one, affix a red tab. Now you can grab the red tab, flip, and arrive here. The Active Projects page is a list of larger projects you are working on: things you know will take more than a week or two. You don’t want those hanging around in your task stream. Use the same symbols as elsewhere: boxes, circles, checkmarks, etc.

Count back a few pages from the red tab. Mark the top of this page “Maybe / Someday.” On the back of the page before this one, affix a yellow tab, so that you can grab the yellow tab and flip to arrive here. This list is for things that you want to get to at some point, or maybe they’ll never even happen. These are wish-list items and random ideas.

I have my tabs arranged at the bottom left of my pad, like this:

I keep a small binder clip stuck to the pad’s binding at the upper right corner. If I want to clip the pad closed (to keep the pages from getting messed up when stuck in a bag) or clip back the cleared pages so they are out of the way, I use the clip.

I will often do a small task, then record it on the pad as finished even though it’s already done. Then I have a record that I did it (and when), in case there’s a question later.

The notepad is not only for tasks, of course. When I’m taking notes, I leave a blank line, then write my notes, somewhat indented, followed by another blank line. The blank lines and indentation make notes stand out from tasks, so they are easy to find with a quick scan.

The most important thing is to put everything on the notepad. Sometimes you will need to jot something on a sticky note or email yourself, because the notepad isn’t with you. But the ultimate destination is always the notepad.

Don’t fear your task list

Not everything you write down has to be done. If a task has been sitting around for a long time, get it off your list. There are only four ways to do this.

  1. Delegate it to someone else. Then X it off on your list.
  2. Decide it isn’t going to happen, and just X it off. You are free!
  3. Move it to the “Maybe / Someday” page. When I do this, I draw a horizontal line through the middle of the box. I think of this as “moving it to the horizon.” Technically it’s still on the list, but the weight of “needs to be done” has been lifted.
  4. If you thought something was a task, but it’s grown up into a project, move it to the Active Projects page. When I do this, I draw a vertical line through the middle of the box.

Just do it

You will run into tasks now and then that you keep seeing, but there always seems to be an excuse why you can’t do it right now. It’ll take too long. I’m too tired to do that properly right now. I have this or that other thing to do. If you find yourself making excuses to avoid the task, buckle down and just do it. Right now. You will almost always find that it wasn’t as bad as you thought.

Get an iPhone

Okay, so you don’t have to get an iPhone. But I’ve found mine immensely useful. Instead of going all the way upstairs to fire off a quick email, or do a quick scan of my inbox, I can just pop my phone out of my pocket for a few minutes. Instead of doing RSS reading, or checking Facebook or Twitter from my desk, I generally do that stuff on my phone in the spare minute or two here and there throughout the day. This means that when I am sitting at my desk, I can get things done instead of idling away my time on this or that site. These opportunities come up more than you might think.

  • Waiting in lines
    • Grocery store
    • DMV
    • Drive-thrus
  • Waiting rooms
    • Dentist
    • Hair salon
    • Veterinarian
  • In your house
    • Waiting for the toaster to pop
    • Waiting for the microwave
    • TV commercial breaks (if you’re still pre-Tivo)

These chunks of 3, 4, 5 minutes pile up fast. Don’t believe me? Grab a stopwatch and start timing them. I bet you get to at least half an hour by the end of the day. Maybe more.

Schedule family time

Figure out what works for you. Set specific times that are just for family. If scheduling is too rigorous for your style, don’t be rigid. But still make time.

I try to always make sure I am done for the day by 5:15 or so at the latest, and we all sit down and have dinner together. Then I make up work time after my son goes to bed if I have to.

I try to do very little work on weekends (ideally none).

The first thing I do when I’m done for the day is go downstairs and ask my son if he wants to go get the mail. I have to get the mail anyway, it’s something that happens almost every day, and he loves it. It sets the expectation for him that when I come down and we get the mail, he’s going to have me around for the rest of the night, not just passing by now and again like the rest of the day. Kids like rituals and consistency.

In conclusion

What I’ve described above is not a holy grail. It won’t magically solve all of your problems. But I have realized some things that have helped me, and hopefully will help you.

Organization will set you free.

Keep track of everything, and what you should be doing next becomes obvious. You won’t find yourself scanning emails, sticky notes, and your subconscious mind trying to figure out what you could or should be doing. Just check your list.

Harness your interstitial time.

You have a lot of “in-between” time built into your life. For someone with no time to spare, those moments are precious. Find ways to use them. Don’t want to buy an iPhone? Carry a book with you and read a couple of pages here and there. Carry a notebook and do some writing, or a sketchbook for drawing. Carry a newspaper and do crosswords or sudoku.

It’s just work.

Get your work done. You have a family to support. But don’t work 80 hours a week. You also have a family to enjoy.

Through Grandpa’s eyes

My nephew, wearing his grandfather’s reading glasses.

Colored pencil on Bristol vellum. Background is pastel.