Category Archives: productivity

Finally Settled on Some Task Apps

It took me a long time to find something that works for me to organize both my Google calendar(s) and a todo task list together on my Android phone. For the longest time I had set up a makeshift todo calendar in Google, but really the Google Calendar isn’t great at task based items.

I was always hesitant about using Google Tasks because of the lack of integration with Android’s native calendar. It made for 2 separate lists, which adds complexity and resistance.

With the help of 2 apps, I can now combine both calendar items and task items and view them together on one simple list.

The first app is GTasks by Dato. It’s a simple interface that integrates with Google Tasks. It makes for viewing, adding, and checking off new tasks very fast and easy.

The second app is Android Agenda Widget by Everybody All The Time. This hooks into both the Android calendar and GTasks and displays a complete list of items on one of my home screens. Both appointments and tasks display in one merged list for a very easy view of the day’s items. And each item can be clicked on and managed with only the one click. Very simple.

For the longest time, I kept a paper notepad with me at all times. It’s a good practice to carry a notepad for when it’s not possible to access the phone or computer. But I was finding that I didn’t efficiently get items off the paper list and into the calendar(s). And I was probably using it more because it was easier than entering something on my phone. But now with GTasks, it’s very easy (and faster) to enter the item right into the app on the phone. So now the paper notepad is just in case of an emergency (and not an extra step).

When I’m at the computer, everything is synced seamlessly. So there are no duplicate or conflicting lists to deal with.

There is one small thing. Google Tasks doesn’t allow for recurring tasks. I saw a feature request thread on their forum and they said that they are going to be working on it. Once that’s in place, my system is complete. Until them, recurring tasks/reminders still have to live in a Google calendar (not task list).

My Cross Jotter Hack, Part II

First I cringe at the word hack. It has jumped the shark. Even the expression “jumped the shark” had jumped the shark. But that’s not today’s topic…

This is Part II of my Cross jotter alteration. Pretty soon, it won’t be Cross at all. See Part I here, where I replaced the shoddy original pad with a better one from Mead.

Over a year later, I’ve finally found another pen that fits the jotter case. Granted I didn’t search too far or too wide, but I did do a fair amount of searching for a small pen (about 4”) that doesn’t have a removable cap and has a retractable tip.

Why no removable cap you ask? Well the purpose of the jotter is to quickly and easily jot down things as they come to mind–whenever and wherever I am.

I touched this a little on my productivity vs. resistance post a while back. The slightest bit of resistance can throw productivity off track. Part of the GTD system is to have a “capture device” ready at all times. I have to say, this advice has been very helpful for me in remembering things and “getting things done.”

What the heck does this have to do with the pen? What the heck am I talking about?

Most ideas or thoughts that I want to take down (and remember) happen when I’m driving or at other inconvenient times. So I need fast access to the pad and pen—when driving I’ll wait until I come to a red light of course. It turns out the pen the jotter came with, while is high quality, has a cap. And the cap is a PITA because it doesn’t fit on the back of the pen. So I either have to hold the cap, throw it on the passenger seat, or hold it in my mouth or something. I usually end up fumbling around with it or dropping it–then having to look for it. Just this tiny little seemingly insignificant inconvenience makes me not want to use the jotter at times. This may be silly, but it’s true.

Also, my G1 phone can fill in sometimes at a note taker, but let’s face it. Writing something down is 10 times faster than flipping open the phone, launching an app, and taking a simple note.

So, what’d I get? A Zebra SL-F1 Extendable Ballpoint Pen at Perfect! It’s small. It writes well. It opens up quickly and smoothly. It fits the jotter’s pen slot. And it feels sturdy. It solved my little dilemma! The bonus is it’s extendable. While very small when closed, it’s a regular sized pen when extended and ready to write. It has a cool telescopic action.

Productivity Tidbit via Daily Quote

I read this daily quote on my iGoogle page today. How it rings so true. It’s essential to avoid this if you’re trying to apply a productivity system.

I write down everything I want to remember. That way, instead of spending a lot of time trying to remember what it is I wrote down, I spend the time looking for the paper I wrote it down on.
– Beryl Pfizer

The tip of the day is to make sure your lists are accessible to you at all times.

I’m going to give Evernote a shot

I’ve written about productivity a few times before. For me to adopt something new it has to be easy to use and available everywhere. Also there has to be a real need for me to try it. And when I try it, I need to commit to really trying it out.

I have one problem with bookmarking services. I currently use Google Bookmarks and Delicious. The problem for me is context. A lot of times I want to read something later, or remind myself to do something later. With traditional bookmarking services, I’m limited to the tag. And although with both you can write comments, it’s not nearly flexible enough. So I end up never getting back to what I’ve tagged as “actionable.”

Since I’m now using Chrome full time, I’ve lessened my addiction to Google’s toolbar (not fully however as I still want it badly for site search and other things). Instead of toolbars, I now rely on bookmarklets.

I don’t want to get into a full comparison of features among Evernote, Google Bookmarks, and Delicious. Rather, I’ll just explain why I’m excited about Evernote, which I’m going to give a serious test drive.

What Evernote allows you to do in one swoop is highlight a part of a webpage (images and/or text) and use the bookmarklet to “clip” it. You can then save what’s clipped, the url, and the page title (which can be edited). You can add a tag and note to the clip as well. So where this picks up from where the other bookmark services leave off is the ability to easily add in why I’m saving it (like what I need to do), along with the “clip” of the site I’ve saved. Delicious is close, but not as robust.

Evernote also has a mobile phone interface which is nice. According to their blog, they are planning and developing an app for Android (they currently have one for the iPhone). If all goes well with my test, I’ll be psyched to have a native client on my G1.

Now lets see how it goes.

View Twitter Statuses in Google Reader

I figured this out! Yes! Well no not really, someone else did. But I pat myself on the back for finding it and then doing it for myself.

One reason I haven’t been on the Twitter bandwagon is that I find it hard to keep up with. I have almost all my favorite sites aggregated and published together in my Google Reader–rather than visiting every page. Now low and behold, there is a way to get Twitter updates in there too using Yahoo Pipes.

I’m not going to write how, rather I’ll give props to who has:

Thanks David!

Now I have to find other uses for Yahoo Pipes! There is a little mouse running on a wheel in my head.

In Defense of GTD and Productivity

I posted this response to a few blogs bashing productivity. While I totally agree that “productivity” can be taken way to far (see my Productivity vs. Resistance post) and cross over into being counter-productive, a lot of good can come out of adopting a solid system. I’ve benefited from GTD. I figured it’s a good enough response that I’ll host it on my own blog too!

There comes a point when you have a system down and it’s as good as it’ll ever be.

I guess some feel that when you reach this point, it’s wasteful to try to squeeze out more productivity since the effort will cross over and be more than the reward.

I think there is an insane bias in the backlash though. Because not everyone has mastered being productive. Or even started. I’m so glad I’ve found GTD and have adapted it to my life and work–even though I don’t follow it to the letter or worship it like a cult. I’m at the point where I don’t need to think about it. It’s a discipline/habit.

Perhaps the backlash is from those who have been there, done that, and talked about it ad nauseum. And are frustrated that they can’t achieve absolute perfection (because it doesn’t exist). Fine, then step away. But please don’t dismiss GTD or productivity for those who may need it.

Productivity vs. Resistance

Today I want to talk about productivity, productivity tools, and how resistance destroys adoption of productivity principals. For me anyway.

Like I wrote about before in my Getting Things Done post, I’ve adopted many of David Allen’s productivity principles. To the letter, no. Do I stick with it at all times, no. But for the most part, it’s instilled a discipline that has build some positive unbreakable momentum.

The only way any productivity tool or principle can work for me is if there is no resistance to it whatsoever. No frustration. No bugs. No workarounds. So the task of being productive doesn’t become unproductive in of itself. The best analogy I can think of is when my father used to say “I’m so organized that now I can’t find anything.” Funny yes, but something to think about seriously to try to avoid.

So for me, anything to help me be more productive has to be quick and easy and it has to serve a real valuable purpose (e.g. save time, reduce efforts, reduce wasted mental energy).

A lot of the productivity tools out there are what other productivity geeks and gurus often refer to as productivity pr0n. Managing down to a microscopic level is counterproductive 99.9% of the time. For me, there is always something that produces resistance. I’ve tried and tested out most of the online to do list apps. All fail for me in that it takes too much work to add, maintain, view, access, etc. They are not ubiquitous. I need things at my fingertips at all time. I need them to work cross-platform. A click or two away. Fast. That’s why for to do lists, at work I use a simple pen and paper (how novel!) and for personal things Google Calendar. I’ll get into how to use Google Calendaras a todo list in another post.

For lists, docs, bookmarks, etc I require access to the files and lists from 1) home computer, 2) G1 Phone, and 3) Work Computer. Therefore any tool, besides my paper work to do list, needs to be web based and be accessible seamlessly cross-platform.

Regarding reference folders. They need to be painfully easy to manage. They fail me whenever I have to think for a split second “where do I file this again?” Paid phone bills go in a phone bill folder, car insurance goes in a car insurance folder, etc. I have one misc folder for anything that I think I might need to keep, but is too random to have it’s own folder. Then it’s safe, secure, and out of sight and out of mind. Duplicate folders need to be avoided too.

I use Google’s offerings for just about everything. Docs, Google Calendar, Bookmarks, GMail, Reader, even Picasa. It helps here that there is one login, so I don’t have to remember x number of usernames and logins (aka resistance).

Until Google launches their GDrive (hopefully it’s not a rumor), I’ll continue to use to store electronic reference documents. Google docs and speadsheets are ok, but I don’t want to convert every file to their format and then have to reconvert it back to .doc or .xls if I need to use it again. Sorry Google, MS Office will always dominate. As much as I’m not a fan of Vista and a huge fan of Google, I think MS Office can’t be topped anytime soon.

Some other time saving, mind freeing things:

  • Receipts go in a receipt box. Purged regularity.
  • Almost all services are on auto pay, with a reminder in Google Calendar to check that transactions go through on time and for the right amounts.
  • And for bills not on autopay, Google Calendar is set up with every bill due date to make sure bills are always on time.

My productivity tools:

  • Google Reader – I’m subscribed to all my favorite blogs, news sites, and industry sites.
  • Google Bookmarks – can capture what I may want to read later in addition to saving all my fav places.
  • Google Calendar – I’ll never miss a birthday, event, appointment, bill, etc
  • GMail – No brainer.
  • – store reference docs.
  • File folder – simple structure for easy filing.
  • Receipt box – get those annoying paper distractions out of site and out of mind.
  • Pen and notepad – ha. Can’t get easier than this.
  • Jotter and small pen carried everywhere. Hey if the phone battery dies, I can write stuff down.
  • Google Docs – capture and save ideas and someday maybe type lists and personal project plans.
  • G1 Phone – Access to these things at all times.

I just thought of a Yogi Berra type mantra for all of this “it has to be easy to make things easier.”

My Jotter Notebook Hack

When I first wrote about Getting Things Done, I mentioned that I carry a small Cross jotter around to “capture” any ideas/thoughts/notes on the fly.

Just thought I’d share how I “hacked” mine so now I use better, and cheaper, notepad refills. I hope to soon be welcomed into geekhood now that I used the word hack for something.

First here is a snapshot of it closed. It fits into my pocket pretty easily. It has a holder for a small pen on the side.

The pad it came with stinks because the pages easily tear off and it made for writing on both sides difficult. It took me a while to find, but a standard Mead notepad with the spiral on top fits perfectly if you cut about 1/4 inch off both sides of the back. It doesn’t make it too cumbersome.


Here it is in action. Yes, I have the handwriting of a 3 year old.

There you have it.

Getting Things Done

Pretty strong statement, no? In an effort to develop my blog more, I decided to post some of my favorite things.

What’s this have to do with Getting Things Done? Well it’s a book, as well as an entire productivity principle, by David Allen. I’m a fan and have made GTD a part of my life.

There is a TON of articles and blog posts on GTD. I don’t want to reinvent them, just explain how GTD works for me.

GTD’s main principle is to get things off your mind, and into a reliable system. Doing so will free up your mind and allow it to focus on accomplishing tasks effectively and efficiently.

Allen has a follow-up book, Ready for Anything, which I’ve read (actually listened to) as well. It’s whole premise is once you’re productive and firing on all cylinders, you’ll have the time and energy to deal with anything unexpected. Whether it’s a disaster or an urgent project plopped on your desk at 4:45 on a Friday. Since your mind won’t be preoccupied with clutter, you’ll be more creative, you’ll be able to anticipate more, in other words, you’ll be ready for anything.

I stick to the main GTD principle and steps. Right or wrong, I personalized and simplified the system. There is plenty of debate out there on the effectiveness of the system “out of the box.” My opinion is any system has to be tailored to your specific needs in order for it to be effective. If there is any bit of resistance to a system, it’ll fail in my opinion. I honed GTD for my needs, so if you read this, and you think it ain’t GTD, then so be it.

Allen’s high level process has 5 steps:
1. Collect
2. Process
3. Organize
4. Review
5. Do

So here is how I’ve interpreted those steps and what I’ve instituted in my work and personal life.

1. Collect. I struggled with this big time.

  • I carry a small notepad. It took me a long time to find one that fits in my pocket. This is what I carry:
  • Whenever I think of anything I need or want to do. I write it right down. I get it off my mind.
  • What do I write down? Anything. Like if someone mentions a good book to read or a good movie to see or restaurant to go to. Or any idea that pops into my mind that I want to remember.
  • From the notepad, I go to step 2.

2. Process. This was not a weakness of mine. So it came naturally. But getting things put into the process was the payoff.

  • What to do with all the stuff that’s flowing in? Figure out what to do next, if it’s worth doing, or if it can wait.
  • Can I do this now, or should it be put on a to do list, or should it wait on an idea list?

3. Organize. Before GTD, I was what I describe as “so organized, that I can’t find anything.”

  • A single to do list.
    • Well actually 2. One for work, and one personal.
    • The lists have 2 sections. One is “to do”, and one is “waiting for”
    • The to do includes a next action to complete a task. A complex project is broken out into its steps.
    • The waiting for list is for outstanding items that are on others’ plates and are owed to me.
    • I keep work and personal separate since there is no overlap. I helps to reduce distractions.
    • For work I use a pen and paper–one side of one page only. For personal I use Remember The Milk.
  • Idea lists.
    • Again one personal and one for work.
    • These are stored in Google Docs. Can access from anywhere, but doesn’t need to be there on demand.
    • This is what Allen calls “someday maybe” lists.

The lists are the backbone of my personalized GTD system. Groundbreaking, no. But this simple discipline alone freed up a lot of wasted mental energy. Now I:

  • Remember what I need to do. What I’ve promised, etc.
  • Remember what I’m waiting for—which helps me follow up when things are late. Nothing slides.
  • Speak in terms of an action, instead of vague references.
  • Have a consolidated list instead of a bunch of unorganized notes, post its, reminders, etc.

4. Review. My system is far less formal than Allen’s.

  • Since my lists are always “live” and active, the review is constant instead of weekly.
  • The key for me is to have only 4 lists. I once had lists squirreled everywhere. This made for a lot of duplication, contradiction, and of course frustration.
  • The paper list is redone when I run out of room on one page.
  • I regularly scan the idea lists. Note regularly. When something jumps out, I know it’s time to take action. For work, often times I refer back to them and fire them off when asked my ideas on X or Y. They’ve been captured. No need to waste brainpower trying to recall them all from memory.

5. Do

  • Quite simply, set the wheels in motion on the items on the list.
  • Like I said earlier, I mark what I’m waiting for so the process is a closed loop.
  • Momentum will pick up. Procrastination will lessen.

6. Other – Mostly recurring tasks

  • I threw in an “other” because; well because I feel like it. And because they are more ancillary to the process outlined above.
  • I use Google calendar to remember birthdays and to remember personal appointments and other reminders, etc.
  • Outlook calendar is used for work appointments and recurring work tasks.

Other than “knowledge items”, the same principles apply to physical items, like mail. The quicker you process the better. So you get mail… Is it garbage, reference, or something to do? Throw it in the garbage. File things you may need later. Put the to do on an action list.

Expressing things next actions has been effective outside of personal productivity as well. Defining actions often is what helps ideas get from fluff to execution. For example, instead of bake cake, you should write, buy eggs, buy milk, buy flour, etc. Before you bake, you need what goes into it. That’s just a basic example. The effectiveness is clear once you start thinking of tasks in terms of actions.

Often things fall in the middle of the process, so not everything goes from 1-5 if it doesn’t have to. I don’t write in the small notepad if I’m by the relevant to do list. There are a million examples, I hope you get the point. I also don’t need to get EVERYTHING into a system. This is where I roll my eyes at some of the GTD blogs and message boards. If I have a cold, I don’t need to put “blow my nose” on my to do list.

The high level and being disciplined are what makes it pay off for me. The high level makes sense so it was easy for me to commit and become disciplined. I get frustrated when a system is too complex and when it creates more work. The idea of productivity is to be productive, right? Since doing this I’ve become far more productive, far less forgetful, and since it gives me peace of mind, far less stressed. I’ve never run around like a chicken with my head cut off.

There are other productivity tools I use, but as far as a system, I stick with my version of GTD. I will post about other productivity tools later.