Saturday, April 4, 2009

Tools to help you organize & simplify.

Image by Ian Lloyd. {Flickr photostream}

As I am now fully entrenched in the final phase of my PhD, I find myself reflecting more and more on finding the right balance between doing the massive amounts of work that is required to complete my research, and the other personal goals and simple pleasures that I have in life.

More and more I find that sleep and happiness seem to be a casualty of this struggle, and the result being that little things put me off balance. And yet the centering and focusing activities in my life that probably would be of most help - mindfullness meditation and yoga practice - seem to be the first to be sacrificed in order to get more done.

Ultimately, it's up to each of us to prioritize and figure out what we want to do with our lives. Still, a few things have helped me to organize and simplify:

  • David Allen's "Getting Things Done" which hopefully will help me to refine my personal GTD methodology.
  • "Getting Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play" by Mark Foster. Almost the perfect companion to GTD - reminds me that all these things to do are part of a bigger picture, a more fulfilling journey. As someone close to me once said, it's all about balance.
  • "The Alchemist" by Paolo Coelho. If you haven't read this wonderful story, drop everything and do it right now. It will make you feel good.
Software (not free)
  • Outlook 2007. Although the program still is huge and resource hungry, it has come a long way from the earlier versions of Outlook I stayed away from for personal use but was forced to use at work. This one actually is quite usable and I've grown to like it. This hotfix actually makes Outlook pretty snappy. It's nice to have everything in one place -- I've implemented all my GTD lists in Outlook Tasks.
  • OneNote 2007. This is the hidden gem in the Office 2007 Enterprise package that I bought through a student purchasing program. It follows an electronic notebook / sketchpad metaphor, but is so much more. I use it for everything from my research notebooks to personal notebooks and journals. It helps me get all the stuff out of my brain and into a searchable electronic form in my computer.
  • MindManager 7. For brainstorming or just charting out ideas and relationships, this mindmapping program is tops! I tried the open source program Freemind, but it was slow for large maps and the UI was not very friendly. I've found that it's worth paying for things that deliver good user experiences, especially if you are going to use them on a daily basis. And student pricing makes this package actually affordable.
  • SnagIt 9. This screen capture utility is really great, especially when used with OneNote and MindManager. A picture really is worth a thousand words.
  • Deskspace. A virtual desktop manager that uses a cube metaphor for desktop management, it is like Compiz Fusion for Windows. It allows me to separate email and IM windows on a separate desktop from work stuff to minimize distractions but still be accessible. I've stopped using this software because there is no easy method for moving windows from one desktop to the next. This feature supposedly is in development, but without this it is just eye candy that is not very useful.

Software (free)
  • Xobni. This Outlook plugin finds the social networks in your email. With 3rd party integration enabled, it also looks up the email sender in Facebook and LinkedIn. It helped me to discover a professor's secret alias on Facebook by matching up their profile with their email address! Data mining at its finest! My upgrade to Windows 7 disabled search across multiple .pst files, which was a deal breaker for me. Although I liked Xobni, the feature set did not offer enough to me to justify paying for it.
  • Flock. Not exactly a lightweight program, this browser based on Firefox does have hooks into all the social networks, tweets, blogs and rss feeds to give you a "mission control" style summary of the online world. And since I've centralized all my online social interactions in this browser, I can simply close the window to remove the temptation to see what's going on online. I liked Flock, but it was by far the the slowest of my web browsers behind Chrome and Firefox 3.5. Now I use Chrome as my default browser, Firefox for work and Trillian for keeping tabs of my social networks.
  • Trillian Astra. Great UI - kind of like an Adium for Windows. Still in beta, but great for centralizing IM interactions especially now that they support Google Talk and Facebook Talk in addition to ICQ, AIM, Yahoo! and MSN.
  • Skype. Brilliant P2P VOIP telephony. I subscribe to their computer-to-phone features and use this to reduce my London telephone bills and pay directly with American dollars (and save the currency exchange fees). Also, the free video phone calls are great, which helps a lot when you are a student ex-pat in a foreign land.
  • Spotify. Brilliant free and legal P2P jukebox. You actually can specify the song you want to listen to and it will play that song! In the free mode, it plays audio ads and displays visual ads its window, and uses P2P to reduce content distribution costs. Fantastic classical and jazz collection to listen to while you work.
  • TeamViewer. Excellent, simple to use remote control software that is free for personal use. I use it to farm out calculations to my work computer when I'm at home on my laptop. Still need to figure out the VPN features.
  • Dropbox. It's like having a USB memory stick on you wherever you go. The sharing and public folder features make it awesome!
  • Keypass. An open source password manager that works great! A Windows Mobile verision also is available so that you can carry your passwords securely wherever you go.
  • TrueCrypt. Keep private documents hidden and safe. On the fly encryption of volumes makes this open source program simple to use.
  • Switcher. Like Expose for Vista. Invaluable for when you have a gazillion PDF documents open.
  • Zotero (firefox add-on). If you have any need for reference management, this free add-on for Firefox is the best. The user interface can use some improvement, I feel, but for functionality and price, it is fantastic. I still have this installed in Firefox, but my reference manager needs these days are taken care of by the excellent and free Mendeley Desktop.
So those are my tools that help me organize and simplify. What tools do you use?