In this post, I'd like to walk through the tools and organizational strategies I've come use to keep sane despite the constant influx of data.
Eight years ago—oh my god, eight years ago?—I wrote a very vague post about knowledge retention and web 2.0, but I didn’t offer any strategies to battle the cyborgification of our brainspace that I was talking about way back then. In this post, I’d like to walk through the productivity tools and organizational strategies I’ve come use to keep sane despite the constant influx of data that comes with clearing email inboxes, managing to-do lists, and publishing to social media channels on a daily basis.
It’s the bane of my existence. Managing my inbox is like playing a game of whack-a-mole with zombie moles from Nigeria that all want to wire me unexpected fortunes. My way of coping with this unending deluge of emails is threefold:
- Use a local inbox software in conjunction with Gmail
- Make use of an Action Items folder
- Practice “Inbox Zero”
I like to think of my inbox as a little narrow river that’s chock full of sailboats, and my job is to keep that river clear of assholes as often as possible. I sort through and reply to my email in Postbox, which is, IMHO, the best Thunderbird-alternative out there. Using PostBox, I IMAP my vanity @dquinn.net email address, which hosts email on a web server. I also have a Gmail address that retrieves all the emails sent to @dquinn.net via IMAP, so that I can use Google’s superior search algorithm to find old emails.
One of the advantages of using Postbox is that it lets me use SpamAssassin’s “Junk Headers” to filter out spam, which greatly cuts down on the jetsam and flotsam. By the end of the day, I practice a simplified version of Inbox Zero to make sure that there’s nothing in my inbox: if a message requires me to do something that will only take a few minutes, I do it immediately, and if I can respond to a message right away, I do it then. If I can’t do either of those things, I file the message into an “Action Items” folder, or delete it. That’s it: Action Item or Delete, no other options. No labeling email, no saving email for later—if the message contains information I should save for later (like, say, a useful attachment or perhaps credentials to something), I delete it. Why? Because I know I can call it up by searching through Gmail, being that Google’s search algorithm is god and Gmail is email heaven.
The key to dominating your email is to dominate your own decisions: don’t let yourself quibble about what to do with an email, because indecision wastes precious time. Deal with the email now and delete it, or file it for later as actionable. The real Inbox Zero strategy described above by Merlin Mann is a little more nuanced, but this simplified approach has worked for me for years, and I start and end my day with zero emails in my inbox.
Surviving media saturation in 2016 is all about emptying your head of meaningless information. As a web designer, I already have way too much meaningless information in my head about how to glue Internet pipes together. This information is useless in everyday life and therefore meaningless to think about actively. I personally think this is true of most data we juggle in our heads. In fact, the only data I think we ought to be crunching in our brains all the time is the kind of data that stimulates our creativity, no matter what kind of work we do. After all, if we’re always being stimulated creatively, we’ll continually develop more effective strategies for doing our jobs, creating art (whatever your craft), and being good people.
So how do we go about emptying our brains of meaningless information? We become cyborgs. We dump that information into little digital extensions of ourselves, that we can access consciously rather than unconsciously. Then we commit to those systems in the same way we commit to putting our laundry away in a little box so we know what to do with it when laundry day comes. I try to categorize the data I don’t want to juggle in my brain into one of three categories:
- Stuff I don’t want to know.
- Stuff I need to know next.
- Stuff I want to know later.
Stuff I Don’t Want To Know
The best example of this kind of data is passwords. We need to know our passwords, but we don’t want to remember them. That is an understandable feeling, because we are not robots, and passwords are for robots. Most of us avoid this problem by practicing some pretty abysmal security for our personal data: we use the same password on all our accounts, and that password is easy to remember and predictable. Practicing lazy security like this is a good way to volunteer for identity theft. So instead of accepting the failings of our feeble meat brains, why not use software like LastPass, which integrates with your browser to magically save and enter passwords for you as you browse the web? Just as you’ve stopped memorizing people’s phone numbers because you have a cellphone, now you can stop remembering passwords and reclaim those precious seconds back for better use.
LastPass stores all your login data in its “Vault,” which you can access with a “Master Password” and lock behind double-factor authentication using Google Authenticator. You can save your accounts into various “Folders” and also store sensitive notes in addition to website logins.With LastPass, I tend to be meticulous about organizing account information saved into the Vault because I maintain credentials to a lot of my clients’ accounts, but you can just as easily dump everything in there without folders and use the robust search feature. I also like to store software licenses in LastPass as secure notes to keep them centrally located. I love to use their “Security Challenge” periodically, which checks the vendors of accounts against known security breaches and then updates the passwords for you (I won’t settle for a score under 97%!), as well as gives you a report card for weak passwords, and points out all the accounts you use that share the same password. The premium edition of LastPass ($12/year) lets you install it on mobile devices, and it does a good job integrating with login fields in-app.
Bonus: if you and your coworkers, loved ones, or friends use LastPass, you can use “Shared Folders,” which allow you to sync account credentials between users.
Stuff I Need to Know
Knowing what to do right now puts me at ease, but not knowing what’s coming up next prevents me from living in the moment. If I have to worry about upcoming tasks, I’m not fully present for whatever it is I’m doing. To-do lists are the way to combat the future, those infamous productivity tools that always end up creating more problems than they solve. My favorite to-do list is Google Keep, which, if you install the Chrome App Launcher, creates a little dashboard on your desktop of tiles called “notes.”
Google Keep is super simple: each note can serve as a list of checkboxes or a space for plain text. You can even add a photo to each note if you want to get fancy, and share notes with friends who can make updates in real time. (Perfect for team grocery shopping.) Keep allows you to categorize notes, but I don’t go that far. If your note recurs (like a grocery list), you can archive it for later. In my Google Keep, I have the following notes:
- Short Term To-Dos, which are simple tasks to do in the near future, like “Setup Payroll with Bank of America” or “Renew My Driver’s License”
- Long Term To-Dos, which are more complex tasks with less pressing deadlines, like “Inventory Storage Unit” or “Paint Bedroom”
- Work Pipeline, a list of all the freelance projects I have in play
- Stuff to Buy, one-time purchases that I don’t necessarily need, but want
- Long Term Projects, such as “Science Fiction Radio Show” or “Short Story about Soylent”
- Long Term Goals, such as “Get on a Book-a-Week Reading Schedule” or “Learn How to Swim”
- Travel Goals, a list of all the places I’d like to go
- Writing Pipe Dreams, a list of all my writing projects
- Misc Info, for quick account number or command line access
As you can see, the Keep dashboard as a whole represents a broad swath of “stuff I need to know to do next” in my life, that I don’t care to remember right now. At a glance, I can open up my Google Keep dashboard (on my phone or desktop) and see where I stand. The joy of Google Keep is that it’s extremely simple, and does one thing really well, unlike a lot of other productivity apps that try to be all things to all people. Keep also synchronizes between devices, so it’s always with me.
Bonus: The tasks on my lists aren’t time sensitive, so I wouldn’t put something that needs to happen on Friday at 1pm in a note on Google Keep: that’s what Tasks in Google Calendar is for. Google Keep does have a “Remind Me” feature, but I try not to cross the streams!
Stuff I Want to Know Later
As a datum, a to-do is a simple enough piece of information to wrap your head around: it has an on and off state (“done” or not “done”), and loses its value the minute you change its state. Google Keep does a great job managing the flow of that kind of data. But what about that article you found on Medium that has exactly the info you were looking for in your research, but don’t have time to read right now, or that cocktail recipe from AllRecipes.com you plan on trying next time you have friends over? This kind of data is consumable like a to-do, but it’s also evergreen and renewable: it’s continually relevant to you, and you may need to come back to it several times before you’ve exhausted its value. That’s where Evernote comes in.
I use Evernote primarily to record ideation as it pertains to creative writing. The software is a tool to collect wayward notions that pop into my mind or organize snippets of information I come across while reading that give me writerly tingles, so that I can flesh them out with the writing software Scrivener when I have time to sit down and think. And while it’s true you can do the same thing with a physical notebook, I find it more convenient and more likely that I’ll have my phone on hand than a notebook and pen. I’m also afraid of permanently losing my data, so a physical notebook is not an option for me. With Evernote, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I have the ability to file a fresh idea away for later contemplation, thereby relieving myself of the obligation of remembering the idea until I can devote mental energy to mulling over it with my full creative attention.
Evernote can do a lot of things for you, like Google Keep, but the more you restrict its use to handling “stuff I want to know later,” the better. Treating Evernote as your grab bag for useful tidbits of knowledge means you have dedicated a “place” to put mental miscellany, and that will take you one step closer to reclaiming your brainspace.
Facebook and Twitter are probably are biggest soul-sucking time-sinks on the Internet, or at least the time-sinks we’re most ashamed of. When it comes to reclaiming your brainspace from social media, I don’t have any strategies for saving you from your own psychology, but I do have some suggestions to make publishing content to shareable channels easier.
As I was cleaning up the back end of my site near the end of 2015, I wanted to make this process as painless as possible for me. I wanted to accomplish two things by creating automated social media promotion policies: on the post-inception end, I wanted to make it such that if I were reading my daily feed of news on my phone or desktop and came across something interesting I wanted to blog about, I could save that piece of data right then on my phone, make some quick comments, and send it off to WordPress as a draft; on the post-publishing end, I wanted to automatically schedule my post to go out to social media channels at the times best suited for audiences to read.
Turns out, with IFTTT, all things are possible. If you haven’t heard of IFTTT, it’s a wizard for API connections that makes if/then conditions out of all sorts of websites.
Automatically Creating Drafts in WordPress via Evernote
The best way to do this is to boomerang a note from Evernote to WordPress:
- Sign up for IFTTT and hook up Evernote and your WordPress blog.
- Use my IFTTT recipe to link Evernote to WordPress. IFTTT will create a post in your WordPress install and save it as a draft, sending over the title of the article and a link.
- Designate a tag in Evernote as your “holding bay” for articles you want to blog about. My tag is “SendtoWP.”
- When you find something worth blogging, send it to Evernote and tag it appropriately. You can set the title of the note and that will become the title of your blog post in WordPress, and even write up a quick draft of your post.
- Go about your business, and when you’re ready to sit down and write at length, you’ll find that draft waiting for you in WordPress with all the necessary info to start blogging.
Automatically Scheduling Posts in WordPress to BufferApp
This one’s trickier. Exactly when you publish a post in WordPress doesn’t matter, because the world won’t become aware of it until you share it to channels with audiences. So I tend to publish my posts once a day, as soon as they’re done, and then push them out to social media at peak traffic times using Bufferapp, which will schedule posts in its queue to go out to your social channels at those peak times.
- Sign up for Bufferapp and link all your social media channels that you want to share to. The default schedule is good, but you may want to create greater or fewer publishing times depending on the volume of content you publish. In Bufferapp, you’ll need to get your dispatch address, which is a special email address that ends in @to.bufferapp.com. Any email sent to this address will automatically be transformed into a scheduled link and added to Bufferapp’s queue.
- Get the location of your WordPress feed. This is usually http://yourblog.com/feed/. Mine is https://dquinn.net/feed/. Remember that you could provide a category feed to be more specific if you wanted.
- Sign up for IFTTT and connect your Gmail.
- Use my IFTTT recipe to connect your WordPress feed to Gmail. Using the template tokens in my recipe, you’ll be able to transmit new WordPress posts automatically to your Bufferapp queue. Because Bufferapp doles out new content according to its peak traffic schedule, you don’t need to worry about inundating your audience or publishing at the wrong time. You can just sit back and publish new stuff to your blog, and this recipe will do the rest for you.
Bonus: To get maximum cross-pollination of my social media channels, I also use the IFTTT recipes “Send Photo Upload on Facebook Page to Twitter” and “Share Your Instagram Pics as Native Twitter Photos.”
Next up in this series, I plan to go over strategies for backing up your data. You can’t reclaim your brainspace without peace of mind, so we’ll go over how to automate backups with Windows 10 as well as use version control software to create backups of your writing with Scrivener.