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Putting Things In, Taking Things Out

Most of the things I do to stay organized are to reduce friction and have something at my fingertips when I need it. I collect a lot of things that ideally I’d like to get to quickly – a running list of books I’d like to read, meeting notes from a month ago, ideas for a story I’m working on, brewing notes, tasks, reminders, scanned paperwork or bills, product manuals, game rules, in-progress blog posts – the list goes on and on.

Leave aside the question of why I care so much about this (that’s probably the topic for another lengthy post), the simple truth is that technology has taken over as a form of outboard brain for me. I’m not alone in this. Others have mentioned this concept in their own lives in much better posts than this one. The worthiness of the goal aside, we spend a lot of time to deciding how to put information into all of these systems but have we really given adequate though to getting it back out again?

Putting Things In

When I really look at it, I have what I’d refer to as a “meta-system”. The system itself is a group of applications that collect data and put it in places that I can get to easily. The system doesn’t just deal with notes; it also governs my task management, reminders, and contact and password management. I have distilled the process of putting things into this meta-system down to the essentials. While I’ll often try out new apps and tweaks, new things that come into my orbit of activity have to be really good to dislodge the processes that are already working.

I guess you could say I’m done with the tinkering that comes with getting these systems tuned up and doing what you want them to do. Wait… let me rephrase that – “doing what you need them to do”, not “want them to do”. If these processes you are taking the time to build or the apps you are buying aren’t needed, then they need to be dropped.

The key to all of this is to keep things simple but not too simple; as complicated as it needs to be, really. The boundary of what “complicated” is will be different for everyone and the boundary can change along with job changes, life changes or family changes.

Here are the apps I use to put things into my meta-system of content creation/content gathering and remembering/reminding.

Writing

Dropbox is key to my writing workflow for any task. It is essential to pretty much everything I do involving words (plus a whole lot more). A quick search through the apps and applications below will show that everything in the list has deep Dropbox integration.

On The Mac

On the iPhone/iPad

  • Drafts for general text entry
  • Nebulous Notes for editing, searching or viewing things created in Dropbox
  • Fade-In for screenediting
  • WritingKit for writing blog posts on the iPad (and writing in Fountain markdown format)
  • DayOne for journals
  • Textastic for writing Python stuff

Contacts and Calendaring

There have been some exciting advances on the calendaring front recently. While I love Fantastical and use it for all of my meeting entries on both my Mac and my iPhone, Tempo has taken over the task of daily calendar viewing on the iPhone and I find myself interacting with it in meaningful ways throughout the day. Other than that, it’s Fantastical all the way.

Email, Task Management and Reminders

On The Mac

  • Sparrow for general mail use (which is mostly Gmail)
  • Apple Mail for accounts that I don’t want cluttering up my regular email
  • OmniFocus (duh!) for task management
  • Sticky Notifications for things I need to “post” onto my desktop
  • nvALT for list management, reference files and notes via text files stored on Dropbox.

On the iPhone/iPad

  • Mailbox is certainly something to celebrate. Finally something is better than Sparrow, which was incredible.
  • Mail.app for work email
  • OmniFocus for task management and reminders

Other Apps

On The Mac

  • 1Password for getting new passwords or sensitive information somewhere where it’s safe and I don’t need to remember it
  • Last.fm for getting songs I listen into a searchable format. Nerdy but interesting.
  • My paperless system for getting bills and other documents into a searchable, backed-up format. It has saved my bacon more than once already.
  • Droplr for getting pretty much anything to people on the web.
  • TextExpander helps me get text into my system in a consistent format which helps with the second part of this article – finding things when you need them.

On the iPhone/iPad

Integration is Key

The best apps are ones that are integrated with your devices so seamlessley that they add the data you want to save transparently. For instance, if I had to log every song I listened to I would never bother. But Last.fm has a conduit (called a “scrobbler” – worst name ever) that just reads what you’re playing and sends the data to their site. It is integrated with apps like Rdio so no matter what device I listen on, the data is still saved.

I created a series of Pinboard bookmarks that quickly add links, but Pinbook can also make use of clever bookmarks on the iPhone so, again, the data gets into the system quickly and easily. Almost all of the “data consumption” apps I use have Pinboard support (Reeder, Twitterific, Riposte). Funneling all of that information to the same place reduces friction a lot.

Eventually you find that you are choosing apps because they integrate in ways that reduce friction too. Drafts (iOS) is one of those conduit-type apps, helpfully shuttling information into a variety of surprising places. The more apps you can harmoniously integrate into the process, the easier it will be to do the next part of the process.

Taking Things Out

What is the point of putting all of these things into places if you can’t find them when you need them? Getting data or information back out of these systems, knowing where to look, and searching with the least amount of friction is a key to getting any system like this working.

There’s nothing more frustrating that not being able to find a note you made a week ago. You look where you’d expect to find it but its not there. Confused, you start constructing alternate search strings, scanning your brain for other snippets of identifying text. Next you start looking through other apps, thinking of ways you could have confused yourself about mis-filing. Not finding what you need after a meandering search like this is demoralizing, especially if you spend so much time putting things where you expect to remember them.

Most of the things I put into my system are text-based. There are generally three places I have to look when I want to find something.

  • nvALT
  • Pinboard
  • Gmail

nvALT has changed the way I work. It required some shifts in how I thought about things like notes, plain text, file creation, cloud storage and such, but the benefit has been massive. All of the weekly notes I wrote in FoldingText are catalogued in the same folder as everything else on Dropbox. I can’t count the number of times I have heard someone in a meeting mention something that didn’t sound quite right so I just bring up nvALT, search on a keyword and find the meeting in question and refresh everyone’s memory. It’s extremely important for stressing accountability but also reminds people I’m not just checking Twitter behind the screen of my MacBook Air.

But it is that way for everything. nvALT and my Dropbox folder act as an outboard memory, a repository for scratch files containing ephemera to jog my memory, a place to archive my writing. It is the most useful workflow I’ve come across in years.

For web bookmarks and saving things to read later, Pinboard and Instapaper both serve their purpose. I put pretty much everything straight into Pinboard these days. I used to make a big distinction between articles to read later and just a bookmark I didn’t want to forget but lately I just dump it all to Pinboard. Once or twice a day, I’ll roll through Pinboard to tag bookmarks for later search and retrieval but I’ll also star things (which will send them to Instapaper).

Pinboard is one of those things that accrued more use over time. I got it just to store a few bookmarks but it has become a hub of how I work and live on the web. I pay for the $25/year tier which also archives everything offline. I find it an incredibly useful service and I’m more than happy to pay given how much I use it and given how other bookmarking services are in the control of Google or a free service (and we all know how those turn out…).

Gmail is my other text-based archive. I am a long-time user and have email archived back to 2005 and beyond. It has been surprisingly useful to have the ability to pull those emails up at a moment’s notice and it is one of the things that has made me most hesitant to leave Google behind (the subject of an upcoming post). I’m not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater yet. Soon, maybe…

I view my calendar in Tempo. It is an incredible consumer, data miner and presenter of calendar data. It also coalesces various sources of information to build a very complete view of each calendar event. Things like map locations, phone numbers, pertinent emails and documents (even attachments). When it works, it appears to be magic. Highly useful on the road as well.

Making use of the task items I put into my system is obviously going to involve OmniFocus. Having one place to look for that stuff, in the end, makes things easier and reduces a lot of friction. Apps like Checkmark and Drafts can conveniently hold some of that information for you but finding it again becomes an issue and this is all about “taking things out”. Having more places to look just means more wasted effort. Reducing options and simplifying really helps here.

There are a few other little tools that extract meaning from the bits of data accumulated over time. Last.fm has an API which has spawned services that tweet your top three artists of the week or help visualize the vast oceans of data making up your shifts in musical tastes over the years.

We live in a time and place where we can accumulate, track, store and access our data from wherever we are. I love that it is all ubiquitous and electronic. I never have to scan for a pen and paper, or wonder which notebook I scribbled a nonsensical scrap of text into. Keeping things simple, accessible and organized with a minimal number of applications has taken a problem I have had all of my life and reduced it to something manageable and useful. I am so glad I no longer carry around a paper notebook and pen. It is surprisingly liberating.