Productivity

Sorting and Moving Documents with Hazel

In the Mac Power Users paperless episode(3), I commented that I do a lot of my document sorting automatically using a great little Mac application called, Hazel (reviewed here). So here is how I did it:

In the Hazel preference pane, pick the folders button and locate the source of your scanned images. Hitting the "+" button allows you to create a new folder to examine and, more importantly, a new rule. I'm making one to file my auto insurance statement.

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This rule picks anything I've named CN Auto Statement. First, it renames the file inserting the date before the name. You simply drag the date created field into the name. Don't forget to add a space or hyphen between the date and name.

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Next, create a rule to move the file to your selected location.

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Finally sort it into a subfolder based on the year. Use the date created field and delete all elements except for the year.

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Here is the final rule.

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I made rules for all of my regular documents. So long as I remember to name them correctly, the rest is done automatically. Thanks Hazel.

Closing Out on Friday

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Web Worker Daily ran a very good post about some worthy habits when closing out on Friday. The fifth tip is to "reflect on the past week." I've often done this after after concluding a particularly good or, more importantly, not-so-good project but never considered doing it on a weekly basis. I'm looking forward to trying it out.

image from webworkerdaily.com

A Different Way to Write E-Mail

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Lifehacker summarized an excellent article by Jason Bean suggesting we write email in the reverse order our software masters want.

Specifically:

1. Place your attachments;
2. Write the body;
3. Write the subject;
4. Fill in the recipient.

I've always written the subject of my e-mails last. I'm trying to build a habit of making the subject line relevant and avoiding subject lines that say, "re: re: re: re: ..." I'm getting there but I think trying out Jason's method for awhile may help. It certainly makes more logical sense.

OmniFocus Tips - The Omniscient Start Date

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I've been promising an OmniFocus screencast for some time but it seems the world is conspiring against me lately. Nevertheless, I thought I would share one of my most valuable tips, the effective use of start dates.

If you're like me, you have a lot of tasks in your database. One of the primary goals of task management is to actually get things done and not be paralyzed with fear when you see a list of 784 items. The trick is to make OmniFocus only give you the tasks you want to see at that moment. In addition to using contexts, another way to accomplish this is through the effective use of the "start date" field. For instance, if you have a particular project for work that you want to start on Wednesday, the start date for the related tasks should be Wednesday. You do not want those items appearing on your task list on Monday or Tuesday. I have some tasks that are not scheduled to begin for over a year. I was reminded of this yesterday when OmniFocus told me it was time to sort out the Christmas card list.

Every morning I do a sort of triage to my task list. Several items appear that weren't there yesterday. I look at them and realistically determine which of those will get accomplished today. Those that won't, get rescheduled to appropriate new start date. It's not that I'm deleting these tasks, I'm rescheduling them. They will appear again and will get done.

OmniFocus makes this very easy. You simply tab over to the start date field and type in a new date. You can also mouse over the calendar and enter the date that way. By far the most efficient and nerdy way to do this is through OmniFocus's intelligent date system. For instance, if the start date lists as December 8, 2008 and I type in the field "2d", OmniFocus will automate reschedule it for 2 days, December 10, 2008. If I type "Wed" in the field, it would do the same. You can even combine these. If you type"3w Sat", it will reschedule the event for three weeks from Saturday. I find it extremely useful and I am quickly able to parse through my task list to show only those events I need to work on today.

If you really want to go nuts, you can also use times in your start date field. If I've already blocked time out to do a specific project in the afternoon for instance, I will set the start time to coincide. That way my task list during the morning is not stuffed with items I do not currently need. I also do this for home related tasks. As an example, tomorrow someone's coming to work on my home and I need to prepare. When I made the appointment last week, I set a task for today. When that task appeared this morning, I promptly rescheduled it to 7 p.m. It will show up tonight but I don't have to look at it all day. If I were a bit smarter, I would have scheduled the task to "mon 7pm" and then I wouldn't have seen it this morning. Using this technique, I am able to keep my task list to a manageable and appropriate size. Once I finish the triage in the morning, I click over to context mode and then I'm off to the races for the rest of the day. By the end of the day I've either finished everything on the list or advanced it to a new appropriate start date.

I know GTD purists would argue that in doing this, I'm tying my hands behind my back. Specifically, GTD canon holds that if you have free time, you should be able to pull up all of your outstanding phone call tasks and work through them quickly. For me, this just doesn't happen very often. I think more in terms of specific projects I want to focus on and I'm such a terrible multitasker that jumping around quite often leads to misery. However, if I do find myself with free time, like I did a few weeks ago when the Internet went down to my office, it is a simple matter in OmniFocus to change your filter to show all tasks "remaining" instead of just those "available" and I can see all of my telephone calls.

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So MacSparky Nation, are these productivity posts helpful? Every time I post one I get several complementary e-mails from readers and several not-so-complementary e-mails from people threatening to unsubscribe because I've gone off the Mac-centric focus of the site. Let me know.

Freedom - When You Absolutely Have To Get it Done.

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Working on a computer can be very distracting. You are bombarded with a constant stream of email, RSS reeds, and other internet content. If you want an excuse to avoid work, your mac has a big one sitting there, just a click away, tempting you. Sometimes I have enough discipline to avoid that siren song. Other times, I don't. That is why I really like Freedom. It is like carrying a copy of your mom in your Mac always ready to make sure you get your work done. Freedom is a simple little application that turns off your internet tap for up to six hours.

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Once you click "OK", that is it. The airport turns off and you are officially out of the distraction business. You can't get back online until the time elapses or you reboot your Mac. This is perfect when you really need to buckle down but don't trust yourself to avoid checking MacSparky just one more time.

Scheduling Appointments with Yourself

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Since “back in the day” when I ran my life analog out of a Franklin planner, I’ve always had a thing for scheduling appointments with myself. Perhaps it is a unique brand of narcissism but setting aside time for specific projects makes sense to me. So in addition to my regular appointments with other, living, breathing humans, at any time, my calendar may include blocks of time that say something like "Write trade secret agreement" or "Audit outstanding commitments." I find this helpful for finding time to do the big projects that never seem to get done otherwise. If you are going to adopt this practice, there are a few tips:


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1. Treat Appointments with Yourself as Actual Appointments.



If you set time aside to do a specific project and then completely ignore it, you are, in essence, breaking a commitment with yourself. If you can't trust yourself, than who else can? Sometimes things get in the way that prevent you from using your scheduled time. In that event, you shouldn't ignore the appointment. You should reschedule. "Okay Dave, a meteor just took out your garden shed. You can't write that motion this morning, but how about next Wednesday?"

2. Don't Go Crazy.



Once you start this practice, the temptation will be there. You’ll schedule yourself to walk the dog at 6:45 a.m. for 10 minutes. You’ll then schedule yourself to do 20 push-ups at 6:55 a.m. Don't. The temptation to micromanage will only get in the way. You’ll find yourself spending all of your time "scheduling" and no time "doing." I reserve this practice for large items, usually things that take more than an hour and a half. The only exception is for meeting preparation. If I'm going to meet someone, I will often schedule myself to spend 15 or 30 minutes preparing.

3. Review and Plan.



Try this for a few weeks then go back and see how you did. Usually on Sunday night or Monday morning, I look at some of the big items I need to accomplish during the week and schedule them into slots of availability. I know from experience that when I reserve time for a big project, it is much more likely to actually get done. It also feels good when you have scheduled time to do a project that is still pending. It takes the stress off so long as you have faith in yourself to honor the appointment. (See tip one above.)

Do you schedule appointments with yourself? How's it working for you?

Mail Act-On 2 Review

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I reviewed Mail Act-On last year explaining it is one of the most useful utilities on my computer. With the recent release of version 2, that hasn't changed. For the uninitiated, Mail Act-On installs itself as a preference in the Apple Mail client. It allows you to assign keystrokes to repeated actions and rules when dealing with your inbox and, with version 2, outbox. For instance, after reviewing an e-mail, there are a limited number of things I will do with it. I will either deal with it and file it, put it in my "action" folder, or delete it. Each of these require me to drag the e-mail over and place it in the proper folder. This works fine if you don't mind taking your hand off the keyboard and using the mouse to drag it over and if you're accurate enough to make sure that you actually drop it in the right folder. For those who use hierarchical folders to sort their Mail, this can be even more difficult. No matter how you slice it, this process takes time.

Using Mail Act-On, I can simply create a rule that takes the highlighted e-mail and files it in a pre-designated folder with a simple key combination. For instance, on my Mac, if you press control F, the highlighted e-mail gets dropped in the "filed" folder and makes a satisfying "plunk" sound courtesy of Mail Act-On. If I wanted to get exotic, I could additionally have Mail Act-On highlight the e-mail green, create an automatic reply, mark it as read and perform a variety of other rule based actions. This is the beauty of Mail Act-On. You can selectively apply user-defined rules with a simple keystroke. You are limited only by your imagination.

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This application has become such an ingrained part of my e-mail system, that when I first upgraded to Leopard, and the developer had not yet released a Leopard compatible version, I felt naked. Suddenly, I had to use my mouse and all sorts of other commands to accomplish what I was used to performing in one keystroke.

With the recent release of version 2, Mail Act-On is cleaner, faster, and sports several new features. The act of creating rules in this new version is much easier. The new interface gives you three views: inbox, outbox, and keystrokes. There are a many options for you to make things as simple or complex as your heart desires. If you use Indev's other excellent Mail plug-in, MailTags, you can create Act-On rules that apply MailTags metadata such as keywords and projects.

Another nice new feature is the F1 key that allows you to, among other things, apply an existing rule, copy, or move an e-mail message even without benefit of a rule. You can pick the destination by simply typing a few characters of the folder name. When using the Mail Act-On menus, a new function allows you to lock them open. This is useful when you're grinding through a pile of e-mail. Another improvement is the application's memory of recent destinations so you can find your most recently accessed mailboxes quickly.

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Perhaps my favorite new function is the addition of "undo." As fun as it is to quickly send your e-mail to a designated folder with Mail act on, it can be a real pain when you accidentally send a message to the wrong place. Act-On now includes an undo memory which allows you to reverse these mistaken actions and get back to the task at hand.

Act-On also now allows you to apply rules to your sent items box. If you like to keep your e-mail organized in nested folders, you can now create rules to automatically move your "sent" items to the appropriate file. This would allow you to keep everything in one place. Frankly, if you are that person, this function alone would make Mail Act-On worth the cost.

With the release of version 2, Mail Act-On now requires a license fee. It is currently at the introductory price of $19.95 but it will raise to $24.95. Having used this application for some time, I believe the price is fair. You can download a 21 day demonstration from the developer. Version 2 only works on OS X 10.5. An older version that is compatible with OS X 10.3 and 10.4 is still available.

If you find processing e-mail tedious, this application is a must-have. Once you set up your rules with Mail Act-On, you will receive immediate dividends of saved time and increased productivity.

You can listen to this review on Surfbits MacReview Cast 186.

Planning to Plan

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Without trying to shove David Allen's Getting Things Done philosophy down anyone's throat, one of the very good points he makes is that you should plan tasks, not projects. For instance, a task item called "clean garage" isn't nearly as good as a set of tasks like "clear off work bench", "bring old clothes in garage to charity", and "throw out old holiday decorations".

The trouble is you need to stop and make time to think out your projects. While this takes a little brain time up front, it can save you a lot of labor down the road. The trick is avoiding the convenience of cheating. I've caught myself doing it several times with entries like "increase involvement at kid's school" or "settle Jones case". These aren't tasks; they are projects. The trouble is, when the idea occurred to me to do these projects, I didn't have time to break them down in component parts so I just put a useless project name in my task list. When I run into such vague generalities while executing my task list, I just shrug my shoulders and push the project off to another day.

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Realizing this habit was getting me nowhere, a few months ago I began a new practice. I "plan to plan." So instead of listing the project as the task, I now make a task item to plan a project.

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While I may not have time to initially plan the project, I can task myself to do it later. When I have time, I plan the project out and get the satisfaction of ticking off the original "plan project" entry. This way, my task list is not cluttered with white noise but actual items I can accomplish.

An additional use for this hack is when you anticipate a fork in the road of a project. For instance, I often plan projects for my clients where I know steps 1 through 5, but step 6 is contingent upon what happen between steps 1 through 5. In that case, I enter a task as step 6 called "Plan project further." Again, when that task shows up I will have the information I need to plan further and can do so accordingly.

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For instance, in the above example, the other guy may simply accept my contract, have revisions, or tell me to pound sand. I don't know what will happen when I start the project, but I will know by the time that task shows up. Then I can plan further as required.

What are your ideas for tackling this problem? Drop me a note or leave a comment.

Speaking and Carnegie Hall Require Practice

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Today the Uncluterer website posted an excellent article on giving presentations. I do quite a bit of presentation work and following years of hard knocks I'd have to agree with just about everything the author says. Especially the part about practice. Presentations don't happen magically. Unless you are some sort of freak, the only way to come off smoothly is to practice. Believe me. I've tried it the other way and it always turns out ugly.

So when I know I'm about to give an important presentation, I practice. No one and no thing is safe from my practice. Mirrors, co-workers, traffic, family members, unsuspecting door to door salesmen: They are all liable to be dragged through an opening statement, a presentation, or a particular analogy that I have yet to get just right. It is good to know I'm not alone.

Manage Tasks Under Fire

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I write about personal productivity quite a bit. What I don’t do often enough is talk about how much I truly suck at it. The day job has been real busy lately. A looming jury trial and a colleague’s vacation have combined into a perfect storm of anarchy in my life. The last three days I’ve been putting out fires, and completely ignoring my OmniFocus data while watching the unread email multiply like rabbits.

Finally, this afternoon I shut the door, put the calls on hold, and did what I knew in my guts had to be done. I got caught up. I sorted and processed emails. I prioritized and adjusted projects. All in all, it took about an hour and a half. Several of my projects have been pushed back but at least they are done so under my terms. Of course in doing this I found several time bombs which I was able defuse in their last seconds. I am so much less stressed now that I have a handle on what I’m up against and amazed at how quickly things can descend into chaos when you don’t pay attention.

This whole exercise of falling off the wagon and getting back on reinforces something for me. When you have the least amount of time available for keeping track of your projects and tasks is precisely when you need to stop and do it the most. In other words, when the chips are down, you really need to suck it up.

Mail Notification Liberation

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A friend asked me how I can work without any mail notifications. Are you kidding me? How could I possibly work WITH mail notifications?

Apple has done a great job of building in several mail notifications into OS X. Mail.app can stick a badge in your dock and make a very cute little "dingy" sort of sound every time a new message arrives. That is not all though. Using third party software you can make your system growl and even shoot off fancy graphics every time you get a note from Amazon about something "you may want to buy" or even a message about "cheap prescription medication." I asked my friend, "How on earth do you get anything done with all those pyrotechnics?"

I just don't believe it is possible to keep your focus if your eyes and ears are trained to jump like a Pavlovian dog everytime someone (or somebot) decides to send you a note. Think about it. If you get an email every 5 minutes, that is 12 interruptions an hour and 96 interruptions in an 8 hour work-day. Just think how much faster you could work with 480 less interruptions a week.

This doesn't mean that I don't want my system to check email for me. I just want to be in control of the situation .. not the other way around.

The way I accomplish this is a few simple checkboxes in Apple Mail.

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New Mail Sound: None = No ding.

Dock Unread Count: None = No tempting badge.

That is all there is to it. Note I did not turn off auto mail checking. When I do decide that I want to process mail, I want it already loaded. This gives me the benefit of current email without the devastating interruptions.

If you are carrying a smart phone, you also need to turn off the notifications there as well. On my iPhone it is done as follows:

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This is all found under the "Sound" menu of the "Settings" button. Before everyone starts firing up your email to me, I *know* sms notifications are still turned on. There are only a few people who text me and when they do, it (usually) is a legitimate interruption.

Inbox Mayhem

The Tools for Thought blog had a very good post today explaining you should never check your email.

"Never check email. Ever."

Instead, Andre recommends you "process" your email. This is very similar to my email workflow in that I deal with each item either immediately or dump it into OmniFocus for later process. I explained it in detail during the email sorcery screencast.

This stuff isn't rocket science, but it may help you build a rocket. How are you processing email?

Hitting the Wall and Back Again

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The last few days, well last few weeks actually, the day job has been a real grind. Coincidentally, I've been helping some friends get their arms wrapped around OmniFocus. It has been really great handing out a few tips and watching the light bulb go off as people find ways to use these tools to get their work done faster and spend more time doing things they love. The funny thing is, they all seem to think that I really have it together. In fact, things are quite the opposite. Lately I've been a jumble of loose ends. What I really need to do, is take my own advice and spend about four hours auditing all my various obligations.

Keeping things together is difficult for everyone. We all have our tricks and Band-Aids, but you can never let your guard down. Chaos lurks behind the door. My solution is to table the whole mess and take a few days off and go to Las Vegas with various members of my extended family. While I'm not much of a gambler, I do intend to geek out with some HDR photography and catch up with my inner nerd. Yes, the MacBook Pro will be accompanying me so you may hear from me. When I return Sunday night, the big audit will occur.

Holy Toledo! Another GTD Application

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water . . .

So I spent my $30 and licensed OmniFocus over the weekend. Of course today the MacSparky radar picked up yet another task management application brewing for the Mac, Things. This application takes a different spin on task management abandoning the more traditional field approach of OmniFocus for a Tag focussed indexing system. There is a very good screencast demonstrating it right here. I'm intrigued by this different approach and I will be following up with this application to see how people use it. That being said, I really like OmniFocus. It is the first task application I have ever used that really tames my crazy lists of tasks. Whether it is writing a trial brief or cleaning the fish pond, OmniFocus is my master.

New FileMaker-lite Product Bento

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Today Apple owned Filemaker announced a new product that appears to be a lighter version of their relational database. There is a public preview that will work until the product release in February 2008. I'll give it a whirl and report back here. If you are interested, you can download it here. I confirming email is now 30 minutes overdue so I suspect their server load is pretty large today. You can also get more information at the TUAW entry on it right here.

Less Dangerous Multitasking

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I think multitasking is a bad thing. If a thing is worth doing, it should be done on its own. Trying to do multiple items at one time only leads to you doing none of them properly. On a more basic level, allowing yourself to be pulled into mental jijitsu on a repeated basis would be exhausting and not healthy. Anyway, WebMD has a nice article on "How to Multitask Without Losing Your Mind". My advice still remains, avoid it if at all possible but if you must, read this.