16 tools powering my life

My guiding philosophy on technology: Only use it to simplify, not add complexity.

My Grandfather said that technology is a tool and tools can be used for good or evil. Nuclear fission is a dramatic example of this. “You have to decide how you employ it,” he said. He said a lot of true, Yoda-like things.

The point is: With this philosophy as my central guide how can I use technology to organize and simplify my life? What are the best tools out there that facilitate productivity instead of frustration? Focus instead of distraction? Freedom instead of imprisonment? (Okay, that list of dichotomies got grandiose but there is some truth in there … “freedom” in the form of an app having a great, open API is really important when considering what to use.)

Without further delay, below are general tools I use every week. I have more specific tools I use for programming which I’ll write about in another post and link to here. I am very discerning when it comes to the tools I use and I test options extensively, sometimes making my own spreadsheets listing features before deciding what to use. When it comes to the technology solution you’re going to use to do something important in your life it’s better to “measure twice and cut once.” It can be costly to have to migrate once you start with something if you haven’t chosen the right “tool for the job.”

In order of importance to me:

1. Notebook and Pen

The rest of the tools are digital but paper and pen — for fluidity and speed — are still at the top of the list. I have a specific to-do list system I will explain in a separate post but I figured I’d lead with the the only non-digital tool here.

2. Google Docs

Google Docs is nirvana. It’s AMAZING what Google has been able to do with software in the browser. I live in the browser, so not having to go off to a standalone app is huge. I’m actually a believer in HTML5. I think there is still room for it to make people question the need to invest in native mobile apps in the future despite some company’s high profile failures with this so far. Yes, maybe MS Word and Excel have a bunch of features not present in Google Docs but I’d venture 99% of people don’t need those features. And the Google Docs suite becomes more and more powerful and feature rich over time.

The key thing is mobility. I have a laptop, iPhone and iPad and now have become spoiled knowing all my documents are synchronized on all these devices at all times.

Additional things I love:

  • Real time edits. I get a little bit of knot in my stomach when someone sends me a Word Doc as an attachment to review. You know how much productivity is lost from people passing different track-changed Word docs back-and-forth? A lot, I suspect. You loose track of which document is the most current and it’s just a mess. In addition, consider all the massive email bulk people keep around in their inbox? In aggregate, the world’s sum of old, never-again-to-be-useful file attachments being stored on machines and backup servers is wasteful in a number of ways.
  • Edit history. This basically like track changes or version control (for programmers).
  • Sharable links: for the same reason above. Send a link, not a document attachment.
  • CompatibilityI have used Google Sheets to collect data or list data with simple web apps that don’t require some more complicated relational structure. A good example: You could maintain a list of books you’ve read in a Google Doc and it would always be there and really easy for you to update and then you could output that data using the API anywhere in HTML — like on this very blog. 


3. Google Drive

I use this over Dropbox. It basically does all the same stuff, is cheaper and I don’t have to switch to another app.

Other Cool features:

  • Screenshot storage and OCR: I take a lot of screenshots of interesting or fun stuff I find on the web and they are automatically saved to my drive. The day I found out Google OCRs all these so I can find text results that were in my images I almost fell out of my chair. Awesome. Evernote also does this but, again, I am always logged into Google and the extra storage costs are so cheap, like $2 / month for 10 terabytes of data, so I am letting Google do the heavy lifting with my file storage.
  • Easy local machine to cloud sync: I keep a few shortcut folders on my desktop that link to local folders storing my Google Drive documents. These are then also accessible by the web interface and searchable and it all stays synchronized.
  • Integrations: Google is still good about keeping their apps open, which means that if I ever need to I can write my own code to communicate with them or use Zapier’s cool bridges to that hard work for me.

4. iCal

This is what I use for my main calendar app. It’s fast and synchs on all my devices. I used to have a bunch of different calendars for very-specific things like “Exercise” and “Meetings” and that was overly complicated. I now maintain three calendars: “Work”, “Personal” and “Notes” and I use notes to log calendar-sensitive events like, “Put in new contact lenses” or “Got haircut” and then set alerts for, in the case of contact lenses, two weeks in the future so I know when to replace them again.

5. Apple Notes

Speed and simplicity is the most important feature in a notes app and Apple’s default is just the fastest. It has some downsides like the inability to export or tag your notes but I solved that and wrote about the solution on how to export your notes to Evernote or other apps using Apple Script. I export my notes into Evernote every couple of months using this method.

6. Evernote

I was a very late adopter on this. I did stupid stuff — and sometimes still do — like take screenshots of passages I like while reading. (Maybe not as stupid now that those screenshots are searchable in Google Drive, as described above.) Now, with Evernote’s flexibility and selection tool I just select the text in web article and use the web clipper in the bookmarklet.

I also now using it for basic bookmarking. Even though I do this, I think bookmarking is basically useless. It’s an impulsive thing to want to save this location but I don’t think I’ve ever really used it. Google Search is my bookmarking tool. They save my whole history of everything I have been to anyway so if I really want to find something again I can look through that. Despite the fact that I think it’s worthless, I still do it and I went from using the standard bookmarking offering in the web browser, then to Google bookmarks, then even to Delicious, then experimented with the whole group of popular “read later” offerings (Pocket, Instapaper, Pinboard, Readability) and now have settled on Evernote as the best all-in-one to simplify all this.

I also love that there are great API integrations for Evernote so you know you can always get your data out, if needed.

7. Asana

Now that I am starting to use Evernote there could be some overlap with Asana but I use this for 1) task tracking and management and 2) idea logging. I will offload ideas from notes to Asana where I can comment on ideas and they are all timestamp and easy to sort. Asana does amazing things with Javascript to create a great, flexible experience. And again, their API documentation is great so it’s easy to retrieve or do useful things with your data. Their new design is great too. It’s more Basecampy, in a way, but with my features.

8. WordPress

  • I have a local install of WordPress on my laptop that’s disconnected from the Internet  — at least not on a remote server — and runs on MAMP and I use this for private info I want to manage. I use a front-end edit plugin here to make it quick to edit and I often will keep it open in a tab.
  • I also use this very blog to store drafts for posts. I have a custom post type called “Draft / Ideas” where I’ll write them down and this keeps them unindexed while they are still drafts. I have this idea that just putting them in a separate silo but on my actual blog makes it more likely I’ll actually publish them.

9. Macmail

This is my work email client. I like keeping it totally separate from my personal email and, for some reason, despite what I said about preferring to do everything in the browser, I like — or have gotten used to — having my work email in a standalone client.

10. Gmail

A personal email is here. It’s been awesome from the beginning. I do use the filters effectively too! (Google could probably make the programming of filters easier for non-technical people to understand — like a better visual UI for this, maybe).

11. Twitter

I kind of use Twitter as a public bookmarking service to track stuff I find interesting I am okay with sharing with the world. I’m actually very bullish on Twitter and think, right now, with a 20.71B market cap, it’s undervalued in a big way. There are so many directions they could go with their users and data. I used to use Delicious for public bookmarking and even liked their design updates but it’s just a redundant thing I have to abandon now. But twitter could allow you to tag and organize your own tweets. That might be a good idea for ya Jackster!

12. Scansnap

After a bunch of research I bought a Scansnap in an effort to try to go paperless more and I am glad I did. It will scan any paper you have quickly and then their software will make the text in the document searchable using OCR. It even converts handwritten text into searchable text. This is kind of the new standard, I guess — Evernote and Google Drive will also just do this for you once you upload a file. I save my scans directly to Google Drive so they’re accessible at all times and once I scan something in it’s soon available on all my devices automagically!

13. Skype

Still my go-to way for chatting or communicating overseas or having video conferences.

14. Time Machine

You just have to do it. Apple macs it simple. I bought an external LaCie 1TB drive to offload the backups. I don’t back up all the time though. I basically will plug my computer in once in a while as an EXTRA backup because I recently started using an always-on primary backup solution in the cloud called …

15. Backblaze

I wanted an extra safety measure and a remote backup of my files in case something really bad happens. Backblaze runs quietly in the background backing up all I do and store the backups in a remote storage facility in Arizona (I think). It works great and it’s only something like $49 / year so it seems like a no brainer for that kind of peace of mind. The fact that most of my docs are already saved by Google Drive means I have less that is unrecoverable in the event of a hard drive failure but it’s still worth it and I no longer need to fret about data loss from hardware failure.

16. Screenflow

I sometimes have to make demo videos and this is what I use to capture screencasts. It works really well. It also makes editing really easy too. I have used it edit together some family video footage as well and it works well too. I don’t have FinalCut nor do I know how to use it and I suspect it’s very bare-bones for actual video editing but for simple stuff and screencast recording and editing it works great!

I also use the following:

  • Google Chrome for browsing with the Momentum Dashboard extension installed — an inspirational image, quote and the current time in each tab.
  • Photoshop: I don’t do much design work but if I need to edit something I have a copy of photoshop for light editing.
  • Vienna: A free, open-source RSS reader app for Mac. I just began using this to track product updates for software I used and some blogs.
  • Newsfeed Eradicator: Blocks your FB newsfeed. I used this because I love being social but often really need to concentrate.
  • Genius Scan: If you need to convert an image into a .pdf on the go.
  • Opera Mail: I don’t recommend having multiple mail clients but I had this issue where I had these old email accounts that had become overrun by Spam but I also wanted to be able to check over them occasionally. To achieve this I installed another non-MacMail client (I settled on Opera Mail) and I use it solely to hook in old, unused email accounts that receive mostly junk mail in case I ever need to check on any of them.

Stay tuned for my more formally work-related tools.

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