miscellany

Google releases Keep, a new notetaking app, and I’m wondering whether there’s a place for it in my workflow. Some are saying it’s an Evernote competitor, but I’m siding with the less hyperbolic write-ups: it’s an interesting offering, but there’s a way to go before Keep becomes even half as powerful. I use Evernote for storing research, project related notes and most of my other text; I switched back from a plain text system after finally giving in to the understanding that I actually like using built-in support for tagging files. And auto-complete. My drafts of poems and essays still live in plain text (Dear WriteRoom and Scrivener— I still love you). For tasks, I’m back to Things. And I don’t think Keep adds anything new to the mix, but I guess it’ll come down to how it integrates with other services. 

Still smarting after the announcement about Google Reader, though. Yeah. Thanks for that, Google. *stink eye

Google releases Keep, a new notetaking app, and I’m wondering whether there’s a place for it in my workflow. Some are saying it’s an Evernote competitor, but I’m siding with the less hyperbolic write-ups: it’s an interesting offering, but there’s a way to go before Keep becomes even half as powerful. I use Evernote for storing research, project related notes and most of my other text; I switched back from a plain text system after finally giving in to the understanding that I actually like using built-in support for tagging files. And auto-complete. My drafts of poems and essays still live in plain text (Dear WriteRoom and Scrivener— I still love you). For tasks, I’m back to Things. And I don’t think Keep adds anything new to the mix, but I guess it’ll come down to how it integrates with other services.

Still smarting after the announcement about Google Reader, though. Yeah. Thanks for that, Google. *stink eye

Simple, this one. It’s probably been suggested by a million other productivity bloggers, but it only just occurred to me. Admittedly, calling this a hack is a bit of a stretch… 

At last count, I subscribe to 126 different websites. Poetry blogs, literary journals, Mac fan-sites, tech/app blogs, productivity journals, web design/development news and resource sites, typography and digital design sites, generally interesting personalities— that’s a huge body of incoming information. It’s all too easy to lose track and get behind. If I haven’t opened any of my  RSS readers for a few days, it’s not unusual to have to trawl through hundreds of updates to get back to some sense of inbox zero. And that’s not even email. RSS is an entirely self-inflicted affliction. 

Is there benefit in these various subscriptions? Definitely. Roberto Greco alone is responsible for a shift in the way I value the web and various findings (follow his Delicious stream for a full bore feed). And that’s not to mention all the goodness I get from the Paris Review, Swiss Miss, LineBreak, Nicholas Bate, Sacha Chua, The Setup, Creative Applications, It’s Nice That, The 99 Percent, Tony Schwartz, Jeff Kopito, Brett Terpstra… the list is (almost) endless. Infinite in fact, in the sense that there’s more good web content out there than I’d ever have the capacity to digest in any meaningful way. Much as I chide my mother for hoarding suitcases, old furniture and a houseful of stuff she’ll never use and has no real attachment to, I’m just as much of a packrat. A digital packrat. Do I have to keep up on all of that to be good at what I do? Not by a long chalk. And as much as the numbers of unread articles ultimately mean little in the real world 1, there’s always the tug to attempt to sift through everything, to find the information/content that might just make a difference 2

As I mentioned not so long ago, I’ve shifted to consuming RSS through Mr Reader on the iPad. At the same time, I made a small but significant change to the way I organise my subscriptions. I now group subscriptions by day of the week. A folder for each day from Monday through Saturday. Monday for music blogs, Tuesday for productivity and lifehacks, and so on. Each day, there’s a hard and fast limit to the number of subscriptions I feel obligated to check in on. Each morning, usually over breakfast, I read through the day’s folder. Anything that’s a longer read but seems worth the effort gets pushed to Pocket. Anything else I don’t get round to reading gets zeroed. Whatever happens, the folder’s cleared down by the end of the session. One “daily” folder is allowed with a small number (less than 10) of particularly high value subscriptions. No folder for Sunday, which is dedicated instead to deeper reading of physical books (You mean paper? Shock! Horror!) and queued items in Pocket. Simples. 

FOOTNOTES

1: You know that “unread badge” that displays the number of unread items in an application on that application’s icon? Yeah. Switch it off. Works for email, works for RSS and probably everything else that can distract you from whatever else it is that you’re supposed to be doing just by being in your eye-view. Skype just about gets away with keeping its badge on my iPad. And only just.

2: Trends for dealing with the overwhelm have offered up intelligent news readers (like Fever or Flud for example) that can figure out what you should be reading based on what you’ve read before, or what other people are reading, or both. But then you knew that already, didn’t you?

Still need to find a home for things like this.  Here will do for now.  

The following depends on a familiarity with IMAP and Mail.App’s smart folders (OS X).  My PC support tech days are long behind me, so I have no idea how to replicate this set up on a Windows machine.  Also, I use MailTags and MailActOn for easy keystroke filing of email.

SET UP

- Set up an ‘Action’ folder in Mail.app.  Just a regular IMAP folder for all actionable items.
- Set up an ‘Action Urgently’ smart folder, showing all messages in the ‘Action’ folder that are marked as ‘High Priority’
- Set up an ‘Action Today’ smart folder, showing only messages in the ‘Action’ folder that you received yesterday.  
- Set up an ‘Action When I Can’ smart folder (optional) - shows you email that isn’t in ‘Action Today’, or ‘Action Urgently’

Using smart folders, there’s little I have to do manually - at the end of the day, actionable messages left in ‘Action Today’ tick over into ‘Action When I can’. Also, any of today’s messages that were filed in my ‘Action’ folder will automatically show up in my “Action Today” folder tomorrow.

PROCESSING

First email session of the day: 
- clear your “Action Urgently’ folder
- clear your “Action Today’ folder
IN THAT ORDER.

If you haven’t got the time to do so all in one chunk, break it into sessions during the day. The goal is to deal with all of yesterday’s actionable email.

The important idea, as put forward by Mark Forster, is that yesterday’s email is always finite, and won’t be added to.  It gives you a solid, attainable finishing line to aim towards.

For the rest of the day, whenever you check email:
- if it’s urgent and you’ve got the time to deal with it, deal with it.
- if it’s actionable but not urgent, file it in your action folder.  You’ll deal with it tomorrow.
- Once a week, review your ‘Action When I Can’ folder and deal with anything that’s slipped through.  Because you’re human, and things will inevitably slip through.

The beauty of IMAP means that, wherever you can access your email, you can file the actionable emails for later attention in the appropriate folder.  If you’ve got an iPhone or another mobile device that doesn’t allow you to set flags or priority levels for email, you may want to create a separate folder to house your ‘Urgent’ emails, as opposed to just a smart folder.  That way (using IMAP) you’re totally in sync wherever you are (Mail.app on the iPhone doesn’t show smart folders).  I usually pick up on urgent items in my morning review, so I haven’t found this necessary.

None of this is rocket science - it’s just cobbled together from other tips and hacks I’ve found over the years.

Resist the way that incoming email messes with your ability to focus on the things that really need your attention.

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