bookmark_borderGetting Organised

I read some advice the other day that suggested that, instead of reading up on how best to be productive, you’d be better served actually doing the things you need to do rather than trying to figure out the best way to ‘be productive’.

I guess the premise being that many people spend a lot of time researching methodologies, trying out applications and processes when, for most of the tasks they are tracking, they would be better to just do the damn thing already.

I fall squarely into that group of people. I’m very guilty of spending too much time figuring out the ‘best’ way to keep myself organised, sometimes at the expense of just doing things.

So, why do I even need any kind of system?

Well, mostly to counteract my awful memory but also, partly, to keep track of random ideas that float through my head, things I don’t need to act on straight away but I know are good enough to log somewhere with a view of revisiting them later.

But what do I actually need?

Let’s break things down. Fundamentally I need to keep three types of things organised:

  • Tasks
  • Information
  • Schedule

For all of these I want to be able to access them all from any device I want, be it my laptops (work and personal), my iPhone or my iPad. Simple enough, right?


There are tasks that I need to do and, broadly speaking, I can break them down across three categories: Work (capital W, day job), Personal, and work (lowercase w, side jobs).
Some of the tasks have a hard deadline (given to me, or driven by external forces), some of notional deadlines that I apply myself (or I won’t do them), and others fall into the ‘some time’ bucket (essentially these are the ideas that I need to follow up but which have no real urgency).

So I need categories, but I’m not fussed about sub-categories, and I need the ability to schedule repeating tasks because … well did I mention my awful memory?


Wunderlist. No, No, Reminders. Dammit.

It’s here where I struggle to find an ideal solution but I can see light at the end of the tunnel.

For now, I’m sticking with Wunderlist.

I love the app but there is no website (or OSX app) to allow me more power and easier editing. No matter how hard I try, this is a must have for me so after a couple of months of I’ve switched back to Wunderlist (I considered Remember The Milk again but it’s user interface just doesn’t feel nice any more). Wunderlist has iOS apps and and an OSX app, allows for categories and repeating alarms.

The future development of Apple’s Reminders app may sway me away from Wunderlist. Tighter integration with the OS makes it very slick and (work proxy issues aside) the ability to sync my Reminders to iCloud (and so across all my devices) makes it very slick. If the UI improves I can see it being my go to app in the future. Add in tagging, something I’m keen to see in the upcoming Mavericks release of OSX, and the power of the Apple ecosystem, across apps becomes a different prospect again. But that’s for the future.


There is also information I need to store. Be it documents of information, files to backup or share, lists of contacts, or other pieces of digital media that I need to keep organised.

Occasionally the information is snippets, not a full document, but the need is the same.


Dropbox – for file storage. Not just because I can access it from anywhere, and share folders with others if I need to, but because many iOS/OSX apps integrate with it, allowing me to use it for draft posts, for example, so I can work on them at any time. For the inquisitive, I’m using Byword on both OSes to write my blog posts these days.

Evernote deserves a mention here too. For shorter pieces of information, and particularly for clipping information from the web, it’s excellent. It means I can grab recipes, add to my Evernote powered wishlist, and just generally use it as a database of things that might be useful to me in the future.

I should also mention the Drafts app for iOS here. It’s a simple text based editor which has several ways to take what you’ve just typed and fire out an email, send it as a note to Evernote and more. It’s a good quick way ‘in’ to my information system.


Finally there is my schedule/calendar.

Due to personal circumstance this area is a lot more critical than it used to be, as I need to be able to schedule my leisure activities based on the whereabouts and plans of three other people.


Google Calendar – which allows me to share my own calendar and view those of others, making planning a night with one or more (or all) of those people a lot easier.


One item I’ve not included in this waffling ramble is email. Quite simply because I have an excellent solution.

Gmail + Mailbox

My personal email is all filtered into Gmail. I can access it anywhere I want on any device I have. Where the real bonus for me is that, by using Mailbox for iOS I can now manage my emails much better. If I can quickly reply, I will. If something needs followed up I can quickly schedule it to ‘reappear’ in my inbox.

And that’s where I am currently. I don’t stick to a productivity methodology, I try and just do things when I can, but for now I have a system that works for me and does get massively in the way of me actually doing things.

bookmark_borderAll is not me

Having my iPhone not quite working properly over the past few days made me realise just how hooked into the ‘online world’ I am. I think I have a good balance though, it’s not like I spend all day staring at screens of information, cherry-picking things I’m interested in, things I might find useful in the future, or things that I think others might want to read.

Because if I did that, then I’d probably (knowing myself as well as I do) have to have a system or two in place to cope with that “information overload”.

So, for example, I might use Instapaper to track blog posts that I want to read later (either from the website or using the iPhone app), or articles that might feature in the ISTC newsletter column I write. I would probably be monitoring RSS feeds to find the articles or blog posts, checking for things for either personal perusal or professional pondering, or perhaps I’d be using a Twitter client on my iPhone that supported Instapaper to capture some of the links that people post there.

I could use to store links to useful bits and bobs that I might want to refer to later on, and I may even use Tumblr (which I could also use on my iPhone) as a means to capture those items of digital detritus that zip past me every day.

Of course it wouldn’t ALL be about consuming information, I do produce some things myself and if I wanted I could use Flickr to host my photos (and maybe use the excellent Flickit app for my iPhone to upload photos as well), not mention the not inconsiderable amount of waffle I’ve posted to a couple of the blogs I’ve setup over the years (I don’t just blog, I write, and tell tales).

Speaking of waffle, if I really wanted to have an outlet for the randomness that all of this information prompts in my head, I guess Twitter would be the place for that, and just because I like to be organised I’d probably set up a separate Twitter account for my professional ramblings as well.

And to make sure I’m properly organised I would need a calendar and a way to track my tasks (both at work and at home).

I’d probably use Google Calendar for appointments and as Remember the Milk have an excellent iPhone app, I guess it would make sense to use that service to track my tasks. Similarly I’d probably look to Simplenote to provide a central place to store snippets of useful information, and they too have an excellent iPhone app which, considering I have my iPhone on me at all times, would be very useful.

Of course that would all be just too much hassle to deal with and make me look like I’m some kind of geek that spends his life connected to the internet, whereas I actually spend most of my time sleeping, eating, reading books and partying.


bookmark_border37signals needs icons

Over the past few years, I’ve linked to various new web applications and many of them were created by 37signals (Basecamp, TaDa, BackPack and so on). I still use some of their apps but not as frequently as those offered by that other small web app company, Google.

Now I’ve contacted them about this in the past, but I think they need to better “productise” their applications. By that I mean, almost solely, that they need to provide icons, distinct well designed icons, for their applications.


Well this came to light recently as I tried, yet again, to tweak and streamline my browser (the application I use more frequently than any other). It also highlighted why I’m still using Firefox, namely because I’ve yet to find a need that a Firefox extension won’t scratch… meet.. whatever.

I’m a big fan of maximising space, particularly as I use a lot of web-based applications these days, and the more space they can get the better. However, those self-same, often used, web-based apps provide a problem. How do I quickly and easily access them? Well Firefox has a bookmark toolbar which you can customise to your own needs (right-click an existing link to delete, drag from the address bar (or any web link) to create a new link in the toolbar), and so I have my most often used applications linked from there.

For the record, those applications are:

  1. Google Mail
  2. Google Reader
  3. Google Calendar
  4. Google Docs & Sheets
  5. Google Calendar
  6. Remember the Milk
  7. 37signals TaDa List
  8. Side Job Track
  9. 37signals Highrise
  10. 37signals Basecamp for current project
  11. Google Reader Subscribe favelet

And here they are (with thanks to the Smart Bookmarks Bar and Favicon Picker extensions):

Firefox Bookmarks Bar

And yes, the order is quite specific. I use Mail and Reader multiple times a day, the Calendar and Docs & Sheets, and Remember the Milk a few times a week, the Ta Da list once a week or less. Side Job Track is used ad-hoc, I’m still testing Highrise, and the Basecamp link isn’t permanent. The Subscribe link on the far-right lets me “one-click” to add an RSS feed to Google Reader, and it’s easy to hit as it’s on the end of the list.

Ohh and the Smart Bookmarks Bar extension expands to show the text next to the icon, in case you were wondering.

So, having setup that toolbar, I immediately noticed that none of the 37signals links had icons attached to them. This is purely because they don’t have “favicons” assigned to their website, but it made me realise that Google are certainly taking the whole “product” thing seriously. There are plenty of rumours around that with a couple of extra purchases they will soon be placed, and may formally start to bundle, an Office equivalent. All free, all online.

Whilst the 37signals apps are all excellent, I think they are missing that leap. The leap that pulls people from their desktop apps, and it may just be that a simple icon is all that it takes.

If you start to think about your browser as a web desktop, then the bookmark toolbar becomes the place where your desktop icons live. It’s not a huge leap, and not an original thought either, I know others have pondered the same.

Whilst there is a mindshift required and a couple of missing applications to be created (drag and drop files to… where? if you are in a web browser that is pretending to your desktop??), it is feasible to think that your local computer will only ever really be used as a storage device, with all your applications running online. Certainly for most general tasks that is already possible.

Not everyone will embrace this idea, in fact I’d guess that most people are still against moving to web apps at all, but for those that have bitten the bullet, these small details could be all it takes between adoption and desertion. If another web app comes along that offers similar functionality, but makes its play from a “product” point of view then maybe the 37signals guys may have a bit of a fight on their hands.

For now though, they are still the best around at what they choose to do, and if you don’t read either of their blogs, then you should. Plus the Official Google Blog, obv.

bookmark_borderCombine & Conquer

Combine and conquer

It’s been so long since I started this whole ‘oneman’ thing, combining all my online ‘identities’ into one amorphous mass, that it was quite good to take a break, step back and make sure that it’s working for me.

Ultimately the creation of was to stop the build up of “work” related thoughts and allow me somewhere to expand my musings on Technical Communications and explore web design theories in a little more depth than I have here.

That leaves Informationally Overloaded as my “pop culture/diary/splurge” site. Simple.

Of course running two personal blogs, maintaining a side job ( – which started the whole “oneman” thing), and keeping on top of Scottish Blogs means I need to stay pretty well organised and, as I don’t tend to plan my blog posting that far in advance, I have been relying on a pen drive and a scattering of text files to store various drafts of posts for both blogs, as well as other items to be tracked for Scottish Blogs and one man designs.

It’s a clunky system which leaves me completely stuck if I forget my pen drive or, god forbid, it dies on me but it stops me having to login to two different WordPress installs everytime I want to re-visit a draft post before publishing it (ohh yes, and sometimes I edit them too). Admittedly this issue has become more prevalent since starting the new blog (onemanwrites, do keep up) as I’m actually making the effort to edit what I write before posting over there and, as you’ll no doubt have noticed, I tend to just dump stuff on this site without too much editing beforehand… yeah yeah I know, it’s THAT obvious.

My “system” for coping with all this isn’t ideal and largely evolved by accident, it’s quirks are known and unfortunately it’s starting to creak at the edges. I’ve hunted around for a better way, of course, and hadn’t really found one until I stumbled across this post on Matt Haughey’s new blog where he outlines how he is using various Google Apps (and others) along with Google Browser sync to maintain browser sessions across multiple computers allowing him to “work” from anywhere. It was like being slapped around the chops with a damp halibut.

Now I know there are naysayers that say that Google is harvesting our souls and we’ll all end up as slaves to lucifer but, frankly, I stopped listening to them when I purchased (something else I was advised to be ‘careful’ about). It’s easy to be flippant when nothing has happened to you, but I’m a pretty easy going guy and file most of the frantic rhetoric on this issue in a big folder called “yeah… I guess…”. Don’t get me wrong, I value my privacy as much as the next person but I also quite enjoy living my life and not worrying the stuff like that too much. Shit happens, and gets dealt with as and when.

So, after noodling about a little I now have Google “Docs & Spreadsheets” as a central place to hold draft posts for both my blogs and a simple to do list, Google Calendar which syncs with Outlook at work, Google Mail for.. well.. all my personal email, and Google Reader to check what you lot are posting.

I now have one place for draft posts, one place to maintain simple To do lists (until such times as Thinking Rock goes ‘online’ that is), and one place for my calendar and email. I still ‘backup’ my email to Thunderbird, and I still use Outlook at work as my main desktop calendar app (syncing with Google Calendar) but, in the main, I am now solely using web apps for all of my personal information needs.

The key advantage to drafting posts in Google Docs is that it allows you to publish straight to your blog. It comes with a stack of APIs so most blog platforms are covered and it also handles having more than one blog. I’ve been using it this way for the past few weeks, and it is smooooth. Of course there are some quirks and funnies and I really do wish they had done something smarter with photo handling (in other words I wish Google had bought Flickr rather than Yahoo) but I can’t fault it on many counts.

The major, and obvious, gotcha is that I’m now solely dependant on the internet as part of my “workflow” but that really hasn’t changed. Sure I used to work offline but I still need to be online to post, or send/check email and so on and on.

All in all it’s working for me, and I have to admit that, privacy concerns aside, Google are pretty damn good at creating web apps. Or at the very least, buying the successful ones and adding their own little tweaks.