Category Archives: productivity

Manifesto 43: Improving My Quantified Self

When it comes to quantified self, one question I frequently hear is “how can this data really help me”? It is a good question, especially since there are huge volumes of data about ourselves available, and it may not be obvious how to put it to use. I have used quantified self data to improve my writing, and help get more exercise, but it seems to me there is more I can be doing to use this data to improve.

I had been thinking about this a lot leading up to my birthday last week. As I approached my birthday, I began to think about the general areas of my life that I would like to improve, and see if there was a way that I could take advantage of data to help me make the improvements. So I put together a simple document in which I began to list the following:

  • The areas I wanted to improve
  • A simple statement or instruction to frame the improvement
  • An initial notion for how I might measure the improvement.

I called the document my “Manifesto:43.” I thought it might be interesting to others, so below are the major areas, along with the “instruction” I gave myself to keep in mind.

I have more detailed thoughts and actions in each of these areas, and I’ll tackle them in separate posts over the next few weeks, but for now, here are the major areas I’m looking to improve.


Play with the kids whenever the opportunity presents itself.


Prefer walking over other modes of transportation where practical.


Write every day, even if only for a few minutes.


Make healthy choices.


Make efficient use of online resources. Avoid unnecessary activity.


Use the best tool for the job, but avoid overlapping tools.


Look for opportunities to save more.


Don’t sweat the small stuff.

There are some overarching themes here. These things can be grouped in different ways to reflect overall priorities. For instance, grouping together “Play”, “Disconnect”, “Simplify” and “Relax”, you have what I think of as “family time.” Improving in those four areas helps improve family time. Grouping “Walk”, “Eat”, and “Relax” are all health-related.

For each of these areas, I produced simple examples of actions that I can take to make the improvements I am looking to make. I’ll drill down into those in a separate post. I have also attempted to identify quantifiable ways of measuring the improvements. In some instances (e.g. “play”) it is pretty hard. In others (“walk”, “write”, “save”) it is pretty easy. Some of the actions are one-time and others are ongoing. I’ve already taken some actions and although it is too early to say how well these changes are working, I am pretty happy with my overall framework for thinking about these things.

Stay-tuned for more.

20 Apps and Services that Made Me More Productive in 2014

I am often asked about the apps and services I use to get my work done. Last February I listed many of those apps and services in the How I Work interview I did with Lifehacker. With 2014 now in the books, I put together a list of the apps and services that I felt made me more productive throughout the year. They are listed below alphabetically. I’ve included the general functional area of the app or service in parentheses after the app name.

1. Alfred (Automation)

Alfred is a productivity application for Macs (sorry Windows and Linux users) that makes it easy to automate routine tasks and provides shortcuts and tools for all kinds of functions. I use it dozens of times a day in small ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as performing a quick calculation. All I do is active Alfred (Option-Space) and start typing my calculation.


All I have to do is press ENTER to copy the result to the clipboard. No opening another app, no waiting. The windows pops up in whatever app I am working in and disappears when I’m done. I can do a lot of other things with it Alfred, from quickly starting applications, to carrying out complex automations. But for me, it is the small things that Alfred really helps speed up: Looking up contacts, searching iTunes for song, looking up the spelling of a word, etc.

2. Audible (Multitasking)

Audible is the Amazon-owned audiobook service for which I have a platinum membership, which gets me 2 audiobook credits per month. How, you might ask, does Audible find its way onto a list of apps that have made me more productive?

These days, when I am asked (with increasing frequency) for my best time-saving tip, I tell people that for me, it is audiobooks. With Audible, I can multitask in ways that I was never able to do before. For example:

With limited time in the day, I get my chief exercise by walking. During the week, I walk 3 times a day, a short 2 mile walk at 10 am, a 3-4 mile walk during my lunch hour, and another 2 mile walk around 3 pm. I do this regardless of weather. This gets me about 7 miles of walking in each day, which is pretty good.

And while I walk, I listen to audiobooks.

Since I started listening to audiobooks in February 2013, I’ve been able to get through more books than I thought possible with my workload, and domestic responsibilities. I’ve also come to enjoy many of the narrators I’ve encountered, and that had led to me to try books that I might not otherwise have attempted.

I can also listen to books at times when I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to read a book:

  • While doing chores around the house
  • While driving. During our drive to- and from- Florida last month, I listened to a grand total of about 30 hours of audiobooks. That’s just during the drive.

The multitasking effect of listening to audiobooks has probably been my single biggest time-saver in 2014.

3. Boomerang (Email)

Boomerang is a plug-in service to Gmail that allows you to “boomerang” email messages. That is, get them out of your inbox and have them returned after a specific amount of time or condition.

For example:

  • If I have an email that I don’t need to take action on until next week, I’ll boomerang the message until next week. It will disappear from my Inbox, and then reappear (with a boomerang tag) next week.
  • If I send an email to someone, I can have boomerang remind me of the email if the person has not replied within a set time period. It acts as an automated tickler file.
  • I can schedule emails to be sent a later date.

Here’s an example of what Boomerang looks like in action, integrated with Gmail:


There are plenty of options for me to choose from, and I can create custom options as well. I typically use the “Tomorrow morning” and “In 1 week” options.

Boomerang also has a nice feature where it will suggest a time based on a date it finds it the email message. For example, if I received an email inviting me to a podcast and asking me to reply by a certain date, Boomerang will detect that date in the message and automatically provide a suggested time to Boomerang the message:

Boomerang invites

All of this works seamlessly from within Gmail. It is my key application for keeping my Inbox at or near zero.

4. Buffer (Social Media)

Buffer is a service that allows you to schedule your social media updates and send them out through multiple channels. I’ve been using Buffer for well over a year. It is my primary method for posting to Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. It allows me to easily schedule posts throughout the day, so I can multitask. If I find an interesting link reading my news feeds early in the morning, I can Buffer the link so that it gets sent to all of my social media outlets later in the afternoon. I might be in a meeting or heads-down writing code, or something else, but because the posts has been scheduled ahead of time, I don’t need to take any action. Buffer does it all for me.buffer

Here’s an example of what my Buffer queue looks like this morning:

Buffer example

You can see the times the posts are scheduled for in the red boxes.

Buffer makes it easy for me to keep my social media updated, and to schedule things throughout the day so that I can focus on other work.

5. CrashPlan (Backups)

CrashPlan is a cloud-based backup system. It backs up all of our computers to the cloud and does so in real time so that once it is installed, we never have to think about it. There is no limit to the amount you can back up. We currently have over 500 GB of data backed up in the cloud.

The files can be restored from anywhere, and the restores are easy. I’ve used CrashPlan once to do a disaster recovery, where a disk died and I needed to restore everything. And I’ve used it countless times to restore a file here or there.

Mostly, CrashPlan, like insurance, gives a peace of mind that if my hard disk blows up, my data is secure.

Continue reading 20 Apps and Services that Made Me More Productive in 2014

My Google Docs Writing Tracker Can Now Be Used with Text-Based Files

I pushed an update this afternoon to my Google Docs Writing Tracker that allows text-based files to be used with the system.

For those who aren’t familiar: my Google Docs Writing Trackers is a system I created that automates the process of tracking my writing word counts and time spent each day, stores the data in a Google Spreadsheet, and produces neat daily summary emails. Until now, it required people to use Google Docs to do their writing. But not anymore.

Over the last few days, I tested an update that allows you to use any plain-text form of document. That is, any document stored as a plain-text file. In addition to plain text, this includes markdown files, (.md), and HTML files. This frees folks from having to use Google Docs for the writing. You can use whatever program or editor can produce plain text files. I’ve been using Sublime Text for the last several days with great success. But even Notepad would work for this purpose.

You must still store the files in your Sandbox folder on Google Drive. I use the Google Drive app on my MacBook and iMac which produces a Google Drive folder on my computer that synchronizes with Google Drive in much the same way that your Dropbox folder syncs with Dropbox.

I write my story in a text editor and make sure that it is saved in the Sandbox folder in my Google Drive folder. That’s it. The Google Drive folder syncs things up with the server, and the Google Docs Writing Tracker scripts run automatically each night, the same way they always have, and read both the Google Docs files and plain text files.

Here is a data flow diagram that I put together to illustrate how the overall system works. It looks complicated, but really, once you’ve installed and configured the scripts, all you do is write, and the scripts do all the rest.

Google Docs Writing Tracker DFD
Click to enlarge

I’ve pushed these changes to GitHub. All of the code and instructions for installing it and using it are available in the public repository.

And just a reminder of the usual caveat: while I am happy to make these scripts available to anyone else who wants to use them, I really designed them to make my life easier, and I don’t have time to support them for others. Use them at your own risk. They work great for me and have worked well for others. But bugs occasionally pop up. And it is highly tailored to my work-style, which may not work well for you. So if you are wondering why it was designe for Google Docs, or why it doesn’t work with [fill in your favorite editor], it’s because I use Google Docs, and it works for me.

I will say one thing: my success at getting the script to work for text files makes me hopeful that I (or someone else) can get it to work for Scrivener files sometime in the future.

3 Productivity Tips from Winston Churchill

I am often astonished by how little technology can really help make me more productive. More often than not, it adds distractions. Take word processors, for example. I’ve argued before that a word processor for writers should do 3 things really well. When word processors don’t do these things, I have to spend less time writing and more time messing with settings and options and other nonsense.

I have also argued that the best project management books, in my opinion, are those that you don’t find in the self-help or business section of the bookstore, but instead in the history or biography section. That’s because, rather than telling somewhat what they should do, history and biographies illustrate what someone did do to be productive or successful. Which brings me around to three productivity tips I took away from reading William Manchester’s massive 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill.

Some context: Churchill worked in all parts of the English government. But at his peak, he was the Prime Minister of Great Britain during the Second World War. That makes for a pretty busy guy. And keep in mind, Churchill didn’t have email, spam filters, text expanders, project management software, and other productivity tools to help him out. At the same time, he didn’t have Microsoft Office to hinder him, either. Given this, here are 3 productivity tips I took from Churchill during this time.

1. Work where you are most comfortable

It is well-known that Churchill spent most of his morning in bed. What is less well-known, I imagine, is that most of that time was spent working. Churchill worked where he was most comfortable, and when he was comfortable, he was a more effective worker. I don’t think this argues that we should work in bed, but I think it does go to the environment in which we force ourselves to work. I have a home office, and I often feel like I have to work in there. But sometimes, I grab my laptop and go into the living room, or even to the public library and do some work there. Working where I feel most comfortable helps me be more productive.

2. Use the simplest possible system of priority

I am a failure at GTD. I’ve read David Allen’s book twice, and I understand the principles, but the system is far too complex for me to manage. Indeed, on the occasions I’ve tried, I found myself spending more time trying to manage my time than I did doing actual work. This is not a criticism of GTD, this is an admission of failure on my part. I need something simpler.

Priority is a good example. I’ve seen all kinds of systems involving how best to prioritize tasks, and almost all of them–whether Franklin-Covey, GTD, or some other system–are too complex for me. In general, I need to know what I should be working on now. When I finish that, I’ll worry about the next thing.

But I’ve found myself drifting to a model that Churchill used throughout his career in government. He used this system to delegate tasks to others, but I look at from the other side. How I handle tasks coming in.

As Churchill would dictate memos, which he often did while in bed, he would add one of two tags to the memo before it went out. Urgent memos were tagged “Action this day.” For these, he expected a response or action to happen the same day the memo was issued. For less urgent memos, he would tag it (in a different color) “Respond in 3 days.” This meant he expected a response within 3 days of the memo being received.

Looking at it this way, I generally see my own tasks as falling into one of two categories. The thing I should be doing now (“action this day”), and the things I should be doing later (“action in 3 days”). It is for this reason that my to-do list is a simple text file, each line is a to-do item, and the thing at the top is the thing to work on now.

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