Don’t write email that people can respond to.
If you ask questions in an email, people will respond. If you don’t answer their questions, they’ll ask again. If you write charming email, they will want more. Don’t do those things. Write an email that is impossible to respond to. Answer every question. Tie up every loose end. Write a complete and completely un-respondable email.
I try not to use free software if I can help it. Paying for software says, ‘I like what you’re doing. I would like to support you. Please keep making things’. There’s a small set of applications that I use daily and an even smaller set that I simply could not do without. One of those applications is Pinboard. Just go spend the $10.21 for an account. You’ll thank me later. Pinboard is made by Maciej Cegłowski. I like Maciej (pronounced Mahtch-ay) even more since I saw him speak at XOXO recently. He posted a text version of his talk, which is worth reading.
My good friend Greg emailed me over the weekend about my Pinboard workflow, particularly how I use it in combination with Instapaper and Evernote. It seemed like something a few other people might benefit from, so I figured I would write something up. This assumes you have an account and some familiarity with each app. The other app that you’ll need is IFTTT.
After years of using Pinboard, I got completely schooled by Shawn Blanc, who turned me on to Joel Carranza’s “Particular Pinboard, which I now use instead of the standard bookmarklet across all of my browsers. I bookmark a lot stuff, and it’s often stuff I don’t care about right this minute, but might care about later. Since I want to be able to find things, I tag absolutely everything. Pinboard has a setting allowing you to auto-imports articles added to Instapaper, which is fine if that’s all you want to do. The biggest drawback of this is that those articles won’t be tagged, which maybe you don’t care about, but you should.
I use Instapaper as I imagine most people do – reading things later, the vast majority of which are articles. I don’t really read or watch the news, though I do listen to it on NPR. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but news is bad for you. I use the bookmarklet Instapaper provides across all browsers. Instapaper has the ability to save favorited posts to Pinboard and Evernote, which I have turned on. You should auth Pinboard with Instapaper as well, which allows you to easily save articles from the Instapaper app (or web interface) to Pinboard with tags. It might seem redundant, but if I like something, it will already be saved in Pinboard, only without tags. If I manually share the liked articles to Pinboard via the iOS app, then I can add tags. Remember, tags allow you to easily find stuff later.
You’ve got Pinboard and Instapaper playing nice, which is easy and awesome, but why stop there? To make it awesomer, I add Evernote to the mix. Lots of people use Evernote for notes. I have tried, but I just hate it. I find its interface to be bloated and distracting and it doesn’t support Markdown, which is how I write when I take notes. I basically use Evernote as a corpus for digital stuff in my life. The biggest reason is search and OCR for PDFs. I happily pay for Evernote Premium. Every single thing I post online is saved in Evernote with the help of IFTTT. As a result, I have the piece of mind that no matter what happens to Tumblr, Foursqaure, Twitter, etc. everything is easily read by the NSA and backed up on my hard drive and on Evernote’s servers in the Internet heavens.
The final ingredient in my workflow is IFTTT, which stands for If This Then That and it’s easily one of my very favorite things on the Internet. I wish they would take my money so I didn’t have to lose sleep thinking about when they’re going to go away. If you’re not familiar with IFTTT, the basic premise is you can connect all kinds of unrelated and seemingly incompatible services and devices to do things for you, which they call recipes. The recipes that I use to have everything flow into Evernote are:
Instapaper Liked -> Evernote – I bookmark a lot of garbage and it’s not all stuff I care about finding later. This recipe simply saves only the articles I like in Instapaper.
Save Pinboard Links to Evernote – Does what it says and lets you have everything go to a notebook of your choosing.
I highly recommend poking around IFTTT recipes for other things that help make your life easier. What’s so wonderful about it is that you set it and forget it. As much as I love to tinker, I also like it when things just work and IFTTT is a highly functional secret weapon.
Put to best use, Inbox Zero is merely a philosophical practice of learning to be parsimonious about which and how many inputs we allow into into our lives—and, then, to responsibly but mindfully tend to those inputs in a way that is never allowed to hinder our personal commitment to doing the work that really matters to us.
Perhaps you can quote the GTD literature chapter and verse, understand lean and MVP and the modern meeting standard. Maybe you now delete your emails with a swipe. It’s possible you’ve read not just this blog but fifty others, every day, and understand go to market strategies and even have a virtual assistant to dramatically increase your productivity.
That’s great. But the question remains, “what have you shipped?”
I have spent many hours trying to figure out the best tools for getting things done. It all started with Getting Things Done by David Allen for me, as I’m sure is the case for so many people. The book changed my life, eventually, for the better. I’ve always tended to be an eternal optimizer. Even before I had heard the term GTD, I was constantly evaluating how I did things, looking for ways to be more efficient. Figuring out a system that works best takes a lot of time in and of itself, or at least it has for me. The benefits of having spent as much time as I have thinking, tinkering and optmizing is that I really know what works and what doesn’t work for me. While some stuff is going to be different for people, there’s an underlying foundation that’s common for anyone that needs to get things done on a daily basis. I’m not going to go into how one gets things done here. I want to talk about the tools.
When I initially started using Evernote I used it for everything – notes, PDFs, JPGs, etc. I really liked the fact that everything was in one place and the OCR and search capabilities were awesome. Over time, I stopped taking notes Evernote and started using either paper and pen or Text Edit. I just wanted to take notes without worrying about anything else. I didn’t want options of any kind. That’s where iA Writer comes in. I am prone to distraction and iA Writer is meant to be simple and distraction-free, especially in full-screen mode. I even learned basic markdown syntax and now use it when I take notes. I use iA Writer on my Mac and iOS devices, all of which sync quickly and easily via iCloud or Dropbox.
I keep pretty much everything in Evernote. In addition to syncing with Evernote’s server, I also keep all of the scans in Dropbox for redundant backup just in case. The ability to have separate notebooks for various projects or silos of my life, the ability to share notebooks with other people like my wife is awesome. The other person needs to be using Evernote, but since it’s free there’s no reason to not use it. There isn’t anything better and I’ve looked. It’s worth paying for Evernote (the do have a free version) for the PDF search and OCR capabilities alone. Combine it with the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M and you will be in productivity heaven.
You can buy a crappy scanner/copier/fax/printer or you can get a really great scanner and spend around $100 on a decent monochrome laser printer. You just don’t need anything else at this point. There are less expensive scanners out there, but there is nothing better or faster than this scanner. You can scan documents, bills, receipts, photos, ticket stubs or whatever. I could write a love poem about it. I like it that much. I can even connect it to my Airport Extreme and make it available to any computer on my home network.
When Mountain Lion came out, I started using Reminders on my iPhone and Mac. I had been using Omnifocus on my Mac and iPhone for years. It has served me well, but I had this urge to simplify, so I started using Reminders and I haven’t gone back. The location-aware reminders work well and I loved the simplicity. I do miss looking at my tasks with context as well as by project, but for now I’m embracing the constraints.
When it comes to paper, I had been using Moleskine notebooks for many years, but I always wanted something smaller with fewer pages and a little less rigid. By the time I filled up a Moleskine, there was inevitably tape on the spine because the cover would just tear away. Field Notes are small, hold up really well, come in all kinds of colors and you can get a subscription to receive these amazing notebooks on a regular basis. I recommend using the graph paper instead regular lined pages. It comes in handy when you need to draw things and you can fit more text on a page if you write small like I do.
Anyone who knows me knows that I abhor pencils. They’re for people that are afraid to commit. They smudge, break easily and the noise of pencil on paper is just under nails on a chalkboard. Black pens are the only way to write. Period. I don’t change pens often and there are three that I love. Japanese people understand what makes an excellent, extra-fine-tipped pen. My favorite pens are made for the Japanese market and thus these aren’t going to be found at your local office supply store. You’re going to pay a little extra, but these are the best pens known to humankind. There’s the Uni-ball Signo (DX) UM-151 Gel Ink Pen (0.28 mm). My handwriting is small and there is no finer-tipped pen worth using. If you’re not writing on good paper, it can tear the paper because it’s so fine. That is why I find myself using a Uni-ball Signo (DX) UM-151 Gel Ink Pen (0.38 mm) more often. I also really like the Zebra Sarasa Push Clip Gel Ink Pen (0.3 mm)
There are a couple of other tools I use at Topspin that are exclusively work-related tools. I can’t count how many times I’ve tried to implement Basecamp unsuccessfully at a company. Thankfully, at Topspin, it finally stuck after a false start or two. Managing projects across a company is hard, even when you’re in a big open office like we are. Toss in outside companies and it’s even more difficult. People tend to either love or hate 37 Signals products and I most definitely love them. I love that they’re somewhat constrained and function beautifully. I just really enjoy using their software, which is incredibly important if you’re going to be using an application all day, every day. Topspin primarily uses Basecamp between the operations team, which includes customer support, and the creative services team, which is essentially our internal creative agency. Our communication and collaboration wouldn’t be the same without it.
Parker and I converse passionately about task applications for teams and Flow is what we ended up settled on. Actually, Parker settled on it and I kicked and screamed a little bit about. We had been using Basecamp almost exclusively, but the task/to-do functionality wasn’t robust enough for us so we needed to add another layer. I’ve really grown to love Flow and if you work on a team, you should give it it a try. The ability to delegate tasks, have multiple lists and even conversations around a task are all features that have mattered the most. To be clear, Flow is an app I use at Topspin only. It’s overkill for individuals and the only reason I would consider using it for my individual tasks and to-dos is because I already use it for work. For now, I don’t mind using Reminders for my own stuff.
Systems are personal and the tools aren’t as important as you desire to get things done. None of these tools will get anything done for you. You still have to do the work, but these tools can make the work easier.