Archive for the ‘getting things done’ Category

Set Phasers to Org-Mode

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

I've tried to keep track of my thoughts and todo items many different ways in the past 3 years or so. I tried to use a single text file, but it grew too bulky and there was no way to slice the data across projects, contexts, or todo items. The same problem cropped up with a hand written list; there was simply too much stuff to keep track of and the notes would always end up in the washer. Next, I had a series of flings with web applications: Gubb, Todoist, Remember the Milk and Tracks. A common problem with these was that they were too slow; I inevitably would have a separate list or text file that I ended up falling back on. I tried desktop applications; iGTD and Things, but they felt like contrived systems rather than a real way to plan and keep track of things. If any type of system takes too much of my time to manage, it's turning into a hobby rather than a tool. I ended up settling on Evernote for about a year, which made me feel slightly more organized than a text file, but only so slightly.

The other day I was taking a fresh look at the problem. Somehow I came across org-mode. I watched a Google Tech Talk on the subject and immediately hated it. I mean, it's based upon emacs, and the scars of using non-X11 versions and being unable to click anywhere are seared into my brain. And how would I handle images!? I immediately installed Wine and went back to Evernote. Harumph.

But then some of the tech talk started slipping back into my brain. Org-mode seemed like a way to tame the text file beast and ride it off into the sunset. I installed the latest version of emacs using the magic of Linux and apt-get, and I realized that emacs is pretty sexy actually. And org-mode is centered around bulleted lists, which I always find myself using anyway (along with parentheses, of course). It was starting to make some sense. So I gave it a shot and two weeks later my life is stored in two text files along with the magic of org-mode. I have no idea how long they are, probably 1000 lines each, but it doesn't matter. I can combine long winded notes about my latest fabrication process with that thing that I have to do on it next week, fold everything back up, and then keep easy tabs on everything using the agenda view. It's like an outlining tool, except it's so good that you might as well keep going and outline everything. I would recommend using clean view though.

Org-mode is one of those things that can't appreciate until you've given it a chance. And there is definitely an initial bump to get over (like the insane zombie unicorn logo, although it could just look like that because I've been playing too much Left 4 Dead lately). So give it a chance, I don't think that you'll regret it; moving bullet points up and down like butter is a thing of beauty.

Save Time with RSS

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

Something has changed in the past year for me; I no longer use bookmarks or visit my favorite websites. And it's not because I've stopped using a computer and live in a van down by the river. I use Google Reader so that instead of visiting a website to see if it has been updated, the website lets me know whenever there's new stuff to check out, and then I can go read every website in a single place.

How does it work? Most websites publish something called a Real Simple Syndication (RSS) feed, which is like a newsfeed on Facebook. Then your RSS Reader (like Google Reader) repeatedly checks all of the RSS feeds that you've subscribed to, looking for new content. Here's a video that talks about it...


It's insane how much time you can save by using RSS. Before Google Reader I didn't see what the point of RSS was, because you still had to visit every RSS feed manually in your browser to look for updates, but RSS readers change everything.

Here are the things I like about Google Reader in particular

  • Share websites with your friends at the click of a button
  • Subscribe to websites without even looking for the RSS feed URL, e.g. just type in 'guyslikedolls' and it will find us (search engine built-in)
  • You can use it from any computer or even your iPhone for the next time the Caltrain is late

Here are some of the things I'm subscribed to:

  • Research journals (e.g. JMEMS)
  • Friends (e.g. NoahOscar, new photos from friends on Flickr)
  • Saving time (comments, Twitter)
  • And other random stuff (e.g. PhD)

The main sites I visit manually are NYTimes and SFGate, which are pretty noisy, but pretty much everything else I just put in Reader and skim through. Also for research journals it is WAY better than those weekly emails that most people sign up for and then proceed to delete every week.

Even if you're skeptical, try it out for a couple of days. And if you're reading this, then you could save time right off the bat by subscribing here or our photos. The worst case scenario is that you screw around on the internet a little bit more at work, which doesn't sound too bad to me.