Feb 10

How to get things done

The whole concept of consolidating one’s thoughts into a list is something that fascinates me.

Why? Because I’m not a listy kind of person. I’m very much an improviser in life, I don’t like to be tied-down to systems or structures, I love to see how things go before I commit – but I still find myself having to write lists.

Herein lies a paradox, and here is the crux of this paradox: because I don’t naturally tend towards structure, and because my brain is so disorderly, and because I am not a natural multitasker, and because I think too much all of the time, (and because the number of clauses in this sentence reflects how my brain works), the only way of getting through my day is to write a list.

It’s a battleplan for actually getting things done.

Otherwise, I am easily overcome with the small things clouding the bigger picture.

This is something I realised a while ago, and so I started to read about the formalised concepts of GTD (getting things done) proposed by David Allen, became a friend of the 43 folders concept, and investigated list-making websites and programs.

Like any true list junkie, I had to feed my habit. This started, aged 18 (that’s 11 years ago), with an unhealthy dependency on using Microsoft Outlook tasks, and since then I have been a slave to the Palm Pilot (2 different models), early days of Nokia mobile phone tasks, the smartphone in 4 different flavours (Windows Mobile introduced synchronisation of my lists from Outlook to a mobile device – wow!), cloud-based services like Gmail’s task lists, synchonisation of lists across a number of different pieces of technology, not to mention the shunning of all the above and the purchase of the entire range of Moleskine notepads (I was feeling renaissance).

Now I come to think of it, I once spent three weeks trying to find the perfect digital audio dictation device that was waterproof so that I could pin-down the ridiculous number of thoughts and bright ideas that my brain has when I am in the shower, as well as driving in my car. No kidding. What a geek.

Invariably, however, after my foray into this new-fangled paper and pen thing, I came back to technology to help me get productive. How old-fashioned. And of late I have downloaded (and spent too much money on) a few good GTD applications for the iPhone.

I have pondered how much money I’ve invested over the years on systems to help me get things done (Things, TapForms, DropBox, Evernote, Done, Outlook, Pocket Informant, and more), and whether or not this investment has matched the gain in productivity I have encountered. Of course, it hasn’t.

But it has made me feel better. I therefore conclude that everyone needs a hobby, and because I don’t fly kites or own a cat, mine is “finding the perfect way to organise my thoughts”.

Like a junkie, I get excited when I sign-up for a new productivity enhancing website. I get excited when I find out the website will sync with my iPhone so that I can always never forget to not forget to Remember the Milk at all times, always, wherever I am.

Then I’m left high-and-dry 6 months later because I discover one TINY piece of functionality that another application has invented which my favourite To-Do list system doesn’t have.

Such is the curse of perfectionism. No, scrap that. Such is the curse of consumerism.

At this point in my life, I have identified the problem. The problem is me.

I am a fickle consumer of things that could potentially make my life more efficient and better.

Is it really me? Or has the perfect system – at least perfect in my mind – just not been invented yet?

You see, in my head there is a specification for what makes the ultimate list application. (This is like the ‘ultimate hit’ for junkies.)

  • Quick to enter thoughts. I mean, from the moment you have a thought, there should be zero delay in recording it. This also covers the requirement to enter lots of thoughts in succession.
  • Clear delineation of functionality from other apps. A good GTD app should not be my calendar, but because I am task-oriented and not time-oriented, I require some kind of time-based aspect. For example, I want to remember to do something in the future but not to have it cloud my list for the current day.
  • Needs to have multiple lists or contexts. (One for work, one for admin, one for home, etc.)
  • Needs to have multiple views and list types that transcend these contexts. (Things for ‘today’, things for ‘someday’, things for a project, things for a meeting, etc.)
  • Needs to act as a record or log for old thoughts / to-do items. I want to track what I was doing this time a year ago. This time 4 years ago. Therefore it must have an export function, to export to a common format, if and when I move on to another system.
  • Coupled with the above point, it needs to export items so as to be platform-independent. I love my iPhone, and will probably settle on it for at least a few years. And I currently use a PC. But what about in 20 years, when we are commanding computers built-in to coffee tables and the like? Tech has changed so much in the last 10 years, and this will only accelerate in the next 10.
  • Back to the now: needs to sync between different devices, and the cloud. My laptop and desktop PC are used when I need to expand thoughts, and my iPhone is my all-in-one that gets taken everywhere. Ideally, this sync should be done via the ‘cloud’, so everything is backed-up, and so I’ve access even when I lose or forget my laptop or phone. I use the Google cloud, because it’s free, and highly available, and resilient. This allows me to store and sync files, email, you name it. Too many of the best apps are written for Mac and iPhone only. No good for me right now.
  • Needs to be pretty. And ingenious. I can’t handle an ugly bit of software.

It turns out there are a tonne of apps out there that do most of the above, but not all. Perhaps that’s why I keep changing apps, not because I’m a junkie.

The best ones seem to be apps that are not quite as platform independent. Things for iPhone, OmniFocus for iPhone – great apps, but if you want to sync with PC or the cloud, they are limited. And they aren’t that ingenious in terms of their user interface.

Remember the Milk for iPhone, great, but you need to sign up for a subscription to their package.

My latest download is an application for iPhone called Today To-Do by Spielhaus.

The fact it’s my latest indicates it’s my favourite in the evolution of GTD on the iPhone so far (that small sentence betrays a lot of enthusiasm for the application right now), but it doesn’t quite fulfill the whole of the above hit-list… at least not yet.

The first application that does so gets a full, detailed review!

Feb 09

Why does my iPhone still work?

I don’t get it. I’ve had my iPhone forever eight months now.

Why isn’t it broken yet?

I don’t have a case, it slips in my pocket (although I’m careful not to add keys or coins to the same pocket), and I fiddle with it and throw it around like crazy.

There’s not so much as a scratch on the thing.

There’s a ridiculous amount of technology crammed into a compact space, such that they couldn’t even fit a teeny little hole in the top corner to connect a suteki little string with miniature hello kitty bell for my amusement. Gutted.

In the past, phones I’ve had often required sending back or replacing only months into their life for:

  1. Touch screen that refuses to work or calibrate properly
  2. Keys that have stopped pressing properly
  3. Displays that have discoloured or faded in certain areas
  4. Phone earpiece / speaker rattling, crackling, stopping working
  5. Data cable connections going a bit limp
  6. Batteries coming a bit disconnected and having to bend bits of metal to make them work again… not to mention replacement batteries

I’ve done my own repairs

  1. on integrated qwerty keyboards on Smartphones myself from cheap ebay parts (the unit was never quite the same again),
  2. replacement cases when they have split, cracked, or scuffed so much you can’t see the screen

… and I can’t begin to tell you how much money I have spent on high-end handmade leather imported from Argentina.

(The most desirable leather I have ever found comes from this company: http://www.vajacases.com/. I have… supported them in the past.)

Before you think I’ve just been buying awful quality mobile phones – no, this all applies to the only makes I’ve ever owned:

  1. Nokia
  2. Sony Ericsson
  3. HTC Smartphones

So – now the iPhone comes along. Audacious piece of technology, promising things you really never expected to see in this decade on a mass market consumer device: multitouch, a keyboardless design which is still way faster for text entry, always-on internet, a wicked application platform, google freaking maps that directs you in realtime to the nearest pub…

Why the hell does mine still work?

It should be broken by now dammit!

I don’t doubt that Apple have the world’s most exceptional talent for product development, testing – and crazy high standards for quality control. But seriously – it’s a young concept. iPhone isn’t even two years old.

It took Nokia years to get to the stage of predicting faults in their hardware design such that they could phase it out more quickly and develop something new.

No product recalls, no major device hardware design flaws, no faulty batches have made the news… (or am I missing them?)

And I like what they are doing with their ‘we make develop one ultimate device’ approach. It’s so modern. It’s so cool. It makes Nokia, with their multitude of product lines to suit different lifestyles and technological needs, look kind of lame. I remember being frustrated that I had to choose between two technologies I felt I really needed in one device. No more.

And yes, the battery lasts 1.5 days, unlike my old Nokia n602 which lasted a week. Big deal – I didn’t grope, handle, gorp-at, play-with my Nokia n602 anything like as much. (And it didn’t have push email.)

And yes, iPhone isn’t perfect for a highly secure corporate environment. Who knows, maybe it never will be. But I’ve loved to hate Apple for a very long time now,  and iPhone has changed that for me.

Feb 09

Google brings us closer to the multiple device sync OTA dream

Google Mail, Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks have opened up a new world for me recently. In fact, as of yesterday, which is when they released calendar and contacts sync to iPhone using the Exchange support built in to iPhone.

Some preamble: I have used Outlook since I was 18 years old for email, calendar, and address book. I’m now 28, so you can imagine I’ve accrued a lot of email, contact entries, and calendar items in that time.

For example, when I broke up with girlfriends, went on holiday, attended client meetings: I journaled it all on Outlook, or on whatever mobile device I was using at the time  (eg. Palm Pilot, IPAQ, smartphone, iPhone), which synchronised back to Outlook using a cable.

I can look up when I did things, how I felt about them, I logged jobs for people, made notes about solutions to problems, creative ideas, you name it. In my contacts, I have little pointers to remind me how to drive to people’s houses, or little memories about a person, stored in text or images in the notes section.

Because I’m a good boy, I have been backing my life up as I’ve gone along, and now, three computers later, I still have them all.

Google just made my life really rich: now, all these things are stored as Google Mail and Calendar items. I have unlimited and immediate synchronisation of my whole life between desktop PC at home, my laptop when I’m at work, and iPhone when I’m out for the evening.

I never need to hook a cable up between any of them. I don’t need to wait for various devices to synchronise before I leave the house.

I don’t need to worry that I read an email on my desktop and it won’t be downloaded to my iPhone now.

(My Gmail password had better be secure. I had better have pin entry to my iPhone, with deletion of all data if it gets compromised. Check, I do!)

Here’s how.

Mail: this evening I moved the entire contents of my desktop PC outlook inbox, sent items, and custom personal folders to my Gmail account through IMAP, and they are now available in entirety on my laptop, desktop PC, and iPhone using IMAP folders.

That was about 1GB of email.

That’s every mail – with every attachment – I have ever sent or received since 2003, available on any device I own, or from the web. It’s secure (SSL used on outgoing and incoming in Oultook, and on Gmail web interface. And it seems highly responsive, due to the way iPhone and Outlook clients handle IMAP. (Only headers are downloaded until you try to view the email.)

Outlook flagged emails translate to Gmail starred emails: cute.

I then set up filters from the Gmail web interface, so that mail from certain people (eg. notifications from Flickr, Facebook, Twitter) is delivered to certain folders within gmail. Technically these folders are called ‘labels’ in Gmail, but they translate to IMAP folders in Outlook and iPhone.

Labels are a better concept, when you get used to them.

So, no need for Outlook rules. Gmail filters work on the Gmail servers, so my mail is categorised regardless of whether Outlook is running somewhere… even if I’m viewing it on iPhone. Whatsmore, the gmail filters are much more intelligent, easier to set up, and work better than outlook rules.

Then I installed Google Sync on my desktop PC to sync my entire Outlook calendar to Google Calendar, so it’s available from the web. As Google Sync supports two-way sync, I did this on the laptop as well. Cool, my entire calendar stretching back to when I interviewed housemates at university (including notes on what I thought of them all!) is now available and searchable from within Google Calendar, and my laptop and desktop PC.

The only thing I’ve found isn’t supported is rich text in the notes field… meh, who cares. The two way sync doesn’t remove rich text from existing calendar notes, so my numbered lists, work logs from previous jobs, and colourful angsty prose on ex girlfriends is maintained. It’s only lost if I then update it on another device.

To complete the glory of the calendar solution – and this bit is very cool – I have set up the iPhone with a new Microsoft Exchange calendar with full exchange features (meeting requests, split recurring appointments etc) to connect to Gmail calendar – did you know this was possible? Check it out: http://www.google.com/support/mobile/bin/answer.py?answer=138740&topic=14252

What does this mean? It means that I can update a client appointment on my laptop with some plans or thoughts, and read and edit them on the bus after I’ve left, without having to physically connect and sync the two devices each time I do an edit. No subscription cost, no Exchange Server to maintain, no nothing. All the goodness of an enterprise collaboration server, for free, with push updates on the move.

All because of Google. They really are very, very nice.

Google Tasks are of course available on iPhone as of quite recently, however at the time of writing there is no official sync utility for Outlook. I don’t so much mind because I can use Google Tasks from my iGoogle page. In fact, I’m even considering for the first time ever stopping using Outlook for my mail, tasks, and calendar and just using the Google web interface as it’s so, SO good. Sack it, why don’t I ditch Office and use Google Docs too?

Realistically, what do I need Outlook for? Offline viewing of emails? Google Labs has a Gmail application to make all your webmail available in your browser when offline. Seriously.

I’m not quite ready to take that step, but I’m open in the future now.

The same goes for Outlook contacts: there is no official sync uitility for Outlook just yet. Joyously, the Google “Exchange protocol support”, or whatever we want to call it, does support contacts, and therefore we have push updates to contacts AND calendar on the iPhone. I may stick with traditional iTunes sync for contacts for now though, until there’s an Outlook to Google sync utility. The reason is that  I do quite like Outlook contacts, with the detailed support for myriad of business fields, birthdays, spouses, and of course – contact photos (that show up when your friend calls on your iPhone).


So now, I have ridiculous storage on Google central servers, push email and calendar on my iPhone, support for meeting requests and collaboration on the iPhone, almost-full Outlook synchronisation on multiple devices across the web, all communications are SSL (even iPhone email and calendar), and the joy of using Google’s stupidly powerful search for all of my mail, tasks, calendar, contact items. Which, when you have as much stuff as I do in your diary and email history, starts to mean a lot.

Interesting links

Tech Crunch IT discuss an application for Windows Mobile users that brings them into the fold in this respect, too: http://www.techcrunchit.com/2009/01/27/sync-your-gmail-contacts-calendar-with-iphone-windows-mobile/. I am not sure what the iPhone app mentioned in this article can do that isn’t supported natively as described in my post above.