What no app could do

Illustrator Luc Latulippe and his partner Doug  have created a simple spreadsheet to track their monthly spending. It hangs on their refrigerator for easy expense recording. Luc writes:

“No ‘app’ has managed to do for us what this simple sheet of paper has.”

They’ve made it available as a PDF, Excel and Numbers document. I’m customizing one for my household in Numbers right now.

[Via Swiss Miss]

Down to what’s necessary

As my MacBook Pro slowly dies, I’ve called my old G4 iMac back into service. Years ago, that machine was wiped clean and given an install of Mac OS X 10.5 before being boxed in the basement. On Friday I will wrap up one week of using it as my primary work machine. In that time I’ve found that it’s slow, beautiful and perfect. Here’s why.

Setup

After confirming that everything still works, I prepped this machine for duty. Specifically:

  • Update the OS. It’s currently running Mac OS X 10.5.8, and that’s as high as it’s going to go.
  • Install necessary software. Remember, I’m starting from scratch with a retail install of Leopard. I write for a living, so my needs are minimal. After one week, I’ve installed Colloquy, Twitterrific, Growl and Dropbox. That’s it. IRC serves as my virtual “office,” and I use Growl to pop up keyword notifications so I don’t miss important discussions when Colloquy is in the background. Typically I use Tweetie for multiple account support, but on the iMac I only need my personal account so Twitterrific it is. Finally, all the docs I’ll need to work with are either in Dropbox or Google Docs.
  • Get on the network. Simple with my home Wi-Fi.
  • Connect the hardware. My trusty Extended Keyboard II is hooked up via a Griffin iMate, and a USB extension cable connects my Mighty Mouse.

Use

After months of using my MacBook Pro’s 15-inch screen, I had forgotten how lovely the iMac’s 20-inch display is. Unfortunately I’ve lost my external Viewsonic, as this iMac only offers mirroring. I’ve also noticed that the iMac is significantly quieter than the MacBook Pro, whose fans whirred like a hovercraft after a few hours.

I’m using TextEdit as my text editor and Preview as my image editor. Best of all, since I’ve got Dropbox installed I can work on documents with my iPad or the iMac thanks to PlainText (here’s why I love PlainText).

Yes, the UI is a bit slow compared to what I’m used to. But it’s still perfectly acceptable. Sometimes I must give a webpage an extra fraction of a second to scroll, and often Mail takes its time while downloading the bulging AM inbox. But waiting a half of a second isn’t the end of the world.

Looks

This is the most beautiful computer Apple has made. The articulated arm and adjustable, swivel display still strikes me as gorgeous. While seated in front of it the screen seems to hover above my desk. Apple’s contemporary machines are gorgeous but the G4 iMac is a knockout.

Over the past six days, I’ve been able to discover just what I need to complete a day’s work. That turns out to be:

  1. A G4 iMac
  2. An Internet connection
  3. My beloved old keyboard
  4. A mouse
  5. A browser
  6. Colloquy
  7. Twitterrific
  8. Dropbox
  9. TextEdit
  10. A clean, quiet room

And that’s it.

Three reasons to use Teux Deux

My last “Three reasons” post was well-received, and I enjoyed writing it. As a foll0w-up, here are three reasons to use Teux Deux for iPhone ($2.99).

Teux Deux is a simple task manager with a (free) companion web site. It’s beautiful, simple and useful. I think you should be using it. Here are three reasons why.

The Someday Bucket. Most task managers overlook this extremely important resource. Many of the ideas we get throughout the day are compelling but poorly-timed. Those ideas either rot in an inbox while you avoid figuring them out or are dismissed entirely as unlikely or impossible. A Someday/Maybe List places a stake in the ground for those items so they’ll pop back up during your weekly review for re-evaluation. Kudos to the Teux Deux team for including this.

Effortless, over-the-air sync. Enter an item via your browser and it appears on the iPhone. Mark an item as done on your iPhone and that 0h-so-satisfying strikethrough shows up in your browser. If you’re impatient you can tap the “sync” button to get things going.

This is gorgeous.

The app’s UI is quiet and highly usable. Re-order items with a hold-and-drag, create new tasks by tapping the text field (two taps to create a new item) and swipe from day-to-day. Tapping “Someday” brings up that list. Finally, unfinished tasks automatically roll over to the following day.

Teux Deux is an app that productivity nerds with a penchant for design will enjoy. It looks great and works as advertised with over-the-air sync to boot.


iOS vs. paper

I’ve long contended that I can capture information more successfully with pen and paper than with any iOS app. After reading this great post by Joshua Schnell, I felt justified. Of course paper is better!

I also know that perception isn’t always reality, so that might not be true. It’s time for an experiment.

I’m going to spend the next month with four apps apps (using one per week) plus a notebook and a pencil. I’ll monitor my habits, take data and report back in five weeks. Here are the specifics.

The focus will be on capturing incoming information only. I’m looking for the best mobile inbox. For example, if someone asks me to perform a task at a certain time, I must be able to enter that request into my trusted system as easily as possible, with a 100% guarantee that I’ll see it again during processing. In this experiment, I will not be setting up calendar appointments, creating or adding to project lists, etc. Instead, I’ll simply push incoming stuff to “In.”

Some definitions

Stuff – I’ll go with David Allen’s definition: Anything that isn’t where it’s supposed to be. Like an appointment confirmation on voice mail, or a task in an email message.

Trusted System – The procedures by which I put a figurative stake in the ground that says, “This must be attended to. Here’s how and why.” In order for a system to gain my trust, I must feel absolutely confident that any information forwarded to it will not be lost or forgotten.

Ubiquitous Capture Tool (UCT) – The physical object(s) that allows me to capture stuff in any situation or environment.

The apps

Due – This app touts super-speedy task input.

TaskPaper – Super simple interface.

SimpleNote – It’s got companions on the desktop and iPad, plus over-the-air sync.

OmniFocus – Ph.D.-level task management.

That’s a nice range of apps. Before you balk about pitting Due against OmniFocus, remember: the goal is to jot down ideas. Every item on the list is just as capable as the others. Also, you might wonder why I’ve omitted obvious choices like Teux Deux and Calvetica. They’re both tremendous, but are best at handling time-sensitive tasks. I’m looking to capture any and everything.

Finally, I will use the iPhone only. No iPad.

The notebook

I’ll be using one of my trusty Field Notes Brand notebooks.

The data

As I work through the month, I’ll note:

  • How long it takes to enter a task
  • Convenience
  • Reliability
  • Usefulness
  • Which one I find myself wanting to go to (towards the end of the month)

Hardly scientific, I know, but still telling. For now, I’m off. Look for part 2 in five weeks.

More on mail rules

Ben Brooks was kind enough to respond 1 to my post on email management which referenced his. Ben:

“I have great respect for the fact that Dave Caolo reads each email, treating them all the same, but that doesn’t and won’t work for me. Nor do I think I would want to do that, when you send me an email that I am copied in on along with 50 other people, without even referencing me in the email, here is what crosses through my mind:

‘This person clearly just wants to show how important they are by wasting 50 peoples time all at once. Bastard.'”

The feeling is mutual, Ben. I want to reinforce that I wasn’t suggesting my inbox management routine is The One True Way. I quite like Ben’s clever Mail rules, which is why I shared them with TUAW’s readers. Whatever trusted system works for you is the one you should use.

My email management philosophy is this:

Stuff > [Process] > Trusted System > Action

“Process” is the variable. However you define it, as long as it promotes efficient progress through the final steps, is fine with me.

  1. Incidentally, this is the type of conversation between bloggers that I enjoy. I’m much happier to write a thoughtful post than drop a knee-jerk comment on Ben’s blog, and vice versa.

Ubiquitous capture tool

Brett Kelly:

“Why, then, do I keep a pen and paper on me at all times and, when seated, open in front of me, ready for input? Because that’s how I have ideas.”

I completely agree. In fact, let me tell you about about my childhood.

There is a small, shoebox-shaped house in Scranton, Pennsylvania with faded vinyl siding and an under-performing rose bush in the front yard. Twenty years ago, it was occupied by my typical American family: middle class, happy enough, God-fearing and terribly disorganized.

Consider the kitchen. Open the cabinet to the right of the refrigerator, just above the pink laminate counter top, and you would have found my mother’s recipes. Unlike your mom’s collection, Carol’s never saw the inside of a cookbook. Instead, they hung from the back of the door with yellowing strips of tape.

A Hellman’s mayonnaise label with a potato salad recipe dangled next to my grandmother’s hand-written instructions for stuffed squid. There were pages ripped from Family Circle magazine, supermarket hand-outs, 3×5 index cards, torn business envelopes with their postmarked stamps intact … anything flat enough to write on and light enough to stick to a pine cupboard door  was called into service.

Most bore stains acquired in the line of duty. A sheet of yellow legal paper held a recipe for lemon squares as well as greasy butter stains and a smudge of hardened baking flour about the size and shape of a postage stamp. “David, hand me that sheet of paper,” my mother would say, thrusting her egg-y fingers at me. Another Christmas, another batch of lemon squares and another crop of stains. Buy the time I was in high school, the recipe was nearly illegible.

While the “fly strip method” of recipe storage keeps everything accessible, it’s a poor filing system. Linguine with anchovy paste rubbed up against blueberry cheesecake, which is something that should never happen, not even in print.

Like most messes, my mother’s organizational style had the tendency to spread, like an invading army, or syphilis. The inside of my dad’s garage looked like a yard sale had vomited, and the state of the basement was something I won’t even mention.

What all this means is that I’ve got chaos in my blood. It didn’t become problematic until I started working for myself. Those painful moments of realization — “Oh, I really need to …” — were becoming more common, and always at the least opportune times. Remembering to tell the cable company that I’ve been issued a new debit card is useless at 60 m.p.h. on Route 3.

Thankfully, I found David Allen’s Getting Things Done (or “GTD”) and it changed my life. When you’ve got a trusted system in place, your brain stops pestering you. When you’ve got your pending tasks sorted by context, you relax. What’s more, you get stuff done (I think that’s where he got the name).

One of the crucial aspects of a GTD system is the ubiquitous capture tool. Basically, Dave wants you to “capture” any thought, task, or “open loop” as he calls them for later processing — which is a fancy way of saying “write shit down.” It’s simple, low tech and very effective.

hPDA

It’s also the part of GTD that’s the most fun and the biggest pain. At least for a geek like me. One of the Seven Great Truths of Geekhood is that we’re always willing to try a new system if we think it’s better than what we’re currently using. Dave leaves his readers’ choice of ubiquitous capture tool completely up to them, and that’s where I got into trouble.

Initially, I went out and bought a snazzy Palm Tungsten E2. With a calendar, contacts app, notepad and software synchronization, I figured it would be the ultimate. A month later, I realized I was using it to store lists. A $200 PDA to hold lists. I sold it and created a Hipster PDA, or hPDA, as described by the great Merlin Mann (by the way, Merlin has the best hair on the Internet. He knows it, too).

The hPDA, for the uninitiated, is a bunch of 3×5 index cards held together with an office clip. That’s it. I brought mine to the next level with some color coding and the D*I*Y Planner templates. My hPDA was tidy, cheap, disposable, recyclable and simple. Occam’s Razor in  my pocket. With a tiny, write-anywhereFisher Bullet Space Pen, my hPDA (which I nicknamed “Shirely,” just to give it a little more personality) was as awesome as a dozen index cards could be.

Mole Skinned

Then it happened. I was tempted by the legendary notebook of Hemingway and Picasso. My head swelled with my action lists whenever I produced my slick notebook and slid back the elastic binding strap, all the while scanning the room for anyone else in “the know.” Fellow notebook aficionados would nod approvingly at the guy writing important things in the same notebook used by one of the world’s most famous alcoholics and a psychotic, self-injurious painter.

I adopted an elaborate system of tags, numbering, incantations and logic puzzles to “hack” my Moleskine for GTD. When the voice inside my head told me, “This is kind of annoying,” I rebuked it. “Oh hush,” I’d say, “and help me remember why every third page is written in green ink.”

The other hassle was that I couldn’t easily discard spent pages. When an index card ran out of white space, I tossed it. No clutter, no mess. The Moleskine didn’t allow for that.

Field Notes

Next, I bought a 3-pack of Field Notes brand notebooks. For me, these trump the Moleskines. While the Moleskine gives off a certain air, the Field Notes notebook is a utilitarian tool ready for duty. It says, “Let’s work,” not “Sketch a sunset.” Plus, it’s thinner and less bulky in the pocket.

Still, I was still subject to the same cumbersome system of analog tagging and linking. Ultimately, I’ve gone back to my original system — a dozen index cards in my pocket.

One of the great tennants of GTD is “Capture-Process-Organize-Do.” The other is “To each his (or her) own.” David’s bare-bones system is flexible enough to accomdate any work style or process. This is what works for me. Here’s hoping you found it useful.

Thanks to Brett for prompting this post.