In the previous posts, we went over the hardware requirements and selection, software and finally mobile software. It is now time to address the sources of digital documents, the true inputs of the digital workflow.
Not so long ago, there was a single inbox for all incoming “stuff” that requires your attention. Stuff is here define as anything that needs for you to decide what to do with it, including throwing in the garbage. In the analog world, that single inbox was the good old paper tray: correspondence, various documents, business cards, memos, telephone notes… everything ended-up there for further processing.
Nowadays, most of us have multiple mail accounts, each with an inbox(!). We get scientific manuscripts not by going to the library and making photocopies but rather downloading PDF documents from various services like arXiv, ScienceDirect and others. We received invitation to shared or get documents through cloud storage services (DropBox, Google, …). URL, RSS, blogs, etc… name your sources. Of course, we still get some old good paper documents. Let’s face it, it can be a mess.
You thought emptying that single physical inbox tray an impossible task, welcome to the digital era!
Let’s examine the various sources of documents in your digital life.
1. Paper documents. Yes it is still alive. I keep two physical inboxes, one at work and one at home. I will throw in it all paper documents, bills (at home), written notes (from phone call and others) and so on I received. I will usually empty it once a week. 99% of these documents will end up in the recycle bin after being scanned using my Fujitsu ScanSnap (scanned, OCR’ed and put automatically in DevonThink Pro Office inbox).
If you have not gone digital yet, this is were you are going to spend a lot of time at first, scanning those paper documents.
TIPs: If a document can be obtained in digital format, ask for it or download it instead of scanning from paper. At first you will need to remind your colleagues to e-mail them to you but after a while it becomes a given for everyone involved. Scan only your ongoing projects documents to start. This will leaving you the time to decide if you really need to scan your reference / archived paper documents.
2. On the fly information. This comes in mainly from a discussion in a corridor or one of these illumination moments. It is something you must remember and possibly take action. Two choices here. Write it down on paper and put it in your physical inbox or capture it digitally. I use either a task manager for this, namely Cultured Code Things (Mac/iOS only) or DevonThink To Go (DTTG). If you must work multi-platform, I suggest giving Wunderkit (free) a try.
3. Meeting notes: I use DevonThing To Go (DTTG) for all of my note taking. All notes get saved on the iPad and sync with DTPO on my Mac. It then make it to DTPO inbox for processing (again usually once or twice a week)
4. Web / Cloud sources: Any documents from these sources will go into one to two buckets: DTPO inbox or Papers (scientific manuscripts). Even clipping of web pages and RSS get be imported in DTPO making it an obvious containers for any and all project related materials.
5. E-mail: This is now my most common source of digital documents I received. It is quite likely that you are in the same situation as I am. With modern mail application (I use Apple Mail), you can have as many “Inbox” as you like. I usually collapse all of them to get a general overview of all my incoming e-mail. I easily receive 80 to 100 “good” e-mails per working day, less on weekend. E-mail are important but can also be disruptive from a getting work done perspective. This is one of the nice thing I rediscovered with the iPad, doing one thing at a time with your full attention, without being side track by all of these other applications requiring your attention all time.
TIPs: remove any incoming warning sounds or (Growl) notification. If fact, this should be applied to all incoming information (Facebook, twitter, …) as it is unproductive noise. Look at your e-mail only a few times a day (morning, before or after lunch, end if the day, …) and never look at your e-mail if you do not have the time or energy to deal with what your are going to find. Lastly, you should never have to deal with a given e-mail in your inbox multiple times.
In fact, whatever the type of inbox (physical, mail, …), you should never put something back in (or leave it in) your inbox once you look at it: you must decide as you look at it what do to, and yes this could very well be, “it will take time, I do not have time right now, will deal with it later.” If this is the case, a task should be generated in your task manager (with a reminder if needed or in your tickler file system if at a specific date). For an e-mail, once this task is performed, it should be moved to another folder entirely. Some might say, why not leave it in the Inbox… because an Inbox is just that: entering new information that have not been dealt with yet and it should always stay this way. Trust me, it works and here is how you do this (this is directly an application of David Allen GTD and it works miracle for e-mail):
A- For any input, if it can be deal with in less than two minutes, you should do it and either trash / recycle that input or keep for future use if needed.
B- If it cannot be deleted nor dealt with in two minutes you need to take a decision:
Ba- defer it to a later time
Bb- or delegate the action to someone else.
In either of the last two above situations, an entry in your task manager should be made. In all instances, nothing (and this includes e-mail) should ever go back in your Inbox (physical, electronic or e-mail). I usually get my e-mail Inbox to “zero” once a day. If you want to learn more about getting your e-mail inbox to zero, have a look at the Inbox Zero series by Merlin Mann.
I will tackle the set-up and workflow that I came to in the next post but I want to conclude this one with a sense of how the various software fits with the above decision process in relation to the various inboxes and source of documents. If you know the GTD book, the figure below will seems familiar. If not, I have taken this workflow from David Allen GTD book and I have superimposing on it the software (using their icons) described in part II and part III [copyrights notice: this composition is made solely for educational purposes. The workflow diagram below is from David Allen's book and the icons belong to their respective software creators].
The decision tree described before (A, B, Ba and Bb) can clearly be seen on this figure. Which application is attached to the various components of this workflow is also given. The full lines given the flow of decision. The dashed lines indicate automated actions (by scripts, system services and Automator elements) between applications. For example, the creation of a task or reminder for a document or an e-mail in Things is done automatically from DTPO or MAIL by script and system services. Even better they are assigned to hot-key combinations, which means all of this is generated in a few seconds for each entry. The other nice things is that a link is pasted automatically in Things note section of the task entry and if click send you back to the source of the task (directly in the originating application!).
In the included figure, you can switch Things for your favorite task manager. However, at this time on the Mac I do not think you will be able to reach this level of integration and ability to deal with a large number of projects with applications other than Things and OmniFocus. No, a simple task-only list application won’t cut as it does not scale.
Also, if you really want to stick with the Finder and folders/sub-folder structure for your documents (instead of using DevonThink), you might want to check an application called Things Folder that will help you keep a folder structure organize and in-sync with Things.
Working efficiently in the digital world is not as easy as it sounds, in particular as you get more and more files to deal with. Furthermore, while eliminated paper sounds like an excellent (and green) idea, it is not obvious to fully to eliminate all of it and yet still be productive without putting too much time on the gadgets themselves. I am have been toying with the idea of going fully digital around 2009 by bringing my notebook with me everywhere, including meeting. The truth is that many people around the table find typing and looking at a computer while having a meeting quite impolite. I further find it impractical. However the coming of the iPad change all that. The next few posts will look into the digital workflow I settled in since then.
The general rule I set forth for myself is that the tools (hardware or software) should never become the focus, get in the way of accomplishing works. Therefore, the overall solution must follow three simple rules:
- Minimal effort to maintain
- Maximize efficiency
- Be fun to use (you should want to use it!).
Yes it has an initial set-up “fee,” your time. Yes it involves buying a few commercial software (back to the above rules). The series will be divided in number of posts: hardware, software on the Mac side, software on the iPad / iPhone side and workflows for working with a large number of files and GTD like project / task management. I will post them over the next few weeks. Today I start with the hardware.
Digital office: The hardware
The above photograph is a nice summary of the hardware have been using for the past few years: a notebook has been my main computer since 2003, iPad (since it came out), a large Apple Display, keyboard and mouse (this I have duplicate at home and in my University office – just need to bring my notebook with me), a Fujitsu Scansnap 1500M and a Drobo for high capacity, protected backup.
For a long time I have been a unix / linux user. As such, I used to have a Mac at home, a windows box at work which dual boot into linux (for real work!). When OS X came out, I have started to use the beta version and was able to perform all of my heavy duty work (gcc, g77 and so on) directly with a Mac. As early of 2003, I switch from a “big” box to a laptop. The black PowerBook G3 was probably the computer I like the most over the years. It became my only work computer when I acquired it. No more copying of files from one computer to the others (this was before DropBox and the likes).
People like to complain that Mac are expensive and so on. Three important points to consider. The ownership cost of a Mac over the life of the computer is lower than a PC/Windows box (see this Ars Technica article). The maintenance of a Mac is quite trivial in my experience (I have done admin tasks for Sun Solaris computers and also built and maintained a Linux network of computers for data analysis in nuclear physics for a few years so do have small bit of experience to compare to) and require little attention from the users (rule 1!). Finally, you should like to work with the tools you have, be it a simple pen, an iPad or your computer; it should even be an excuse to do things with it (rule 3)!
The iPad factor
I bought the first version of the iPad a few weeks after it came out. It has rapidly become the most productive gadget I have ever bought. For example, as a university professor I have to read, revise and referee thousands of pages per year. I can now do this anytime, anywhere. No need to print, write and for others to decipher my writing after the fact because the bus ride was too bumpy! Interestingly, you choose the amount of documents you carry around at any time and the weight is always the same, that of the iPad.
The best thing is that you are not attached to a desk (or a screen) anymore. This feeling of freedom you almost (emphasis on almost here) have with a regular notebook computer. However, it is just a tiny big too big and cumbersome, even the MacBook Air. Furthermore, the current generation of small and cheap netbook is simply that: cheap, small (screen and keyboard), underpowered in term of CPU and memory relative to the OS they are running. In contrast, the iPad feel blazing fast. With the 3rd generation of iPad not only it’s fast but the screen is better than anything out here including “theater” TV screen.
From a digital workflow perspective, the iPad has about the size (and weight) of a good old paper-based notebook and just a bit smaller than a letter size piece of paper. In other word the perfect size to jot down notes, ideas and drawing. It is the first device of its kind that can be truly carried around and intuitively be use for creative thinking, anytime, anywhere. The best part is the iPad is only single app away from a full transformation to the most amazing gizmo on the market for creative people, period! A full post will be dedicated to such apps.
Backups obviously became very important in the above context. I used simple hard drive backup solution with a daily incremental backup schedule for years (until time machine). Been looking at various options. I did manage raids under linux and found them lacking flexibility (at the time). Drobo was an interesting solution: like the Mac an easy to use technology and you do not have to worry about maintenance (rule 1 again). Just put a bunch of drives, don’t even need to be the same sizes or models, and let the unit do the rest. So, I have been using Drobo since then. My current unit (S model) uses 5 drives with a two drives failure protection scheme using 2x2Gb and 3×1 Gb SATA “enterprise-labeled” drives – and a extra external drive with a bootable perfect copy of my notebook drive that I update once in a while (and keep at another location, just in case).
The Fujitsu scanner is a must for a digital office. It can scans one or two sides of documents, business cards and so on. It comes with a full array of software like Abby OCR and IRIS CardScan (at least at the time I bought the unit). Nowadays, I keep almost no paper document at all. Either I exchange PDF / WORD documents with students or colleague or scan everything that is worth conserving in PDF format. I also scanned most of my filing cabinets over the last three years ( getting ride of a large one in the process and about to get rid of a small two drawer units).
I have all my important e-mails since 1991, all of my conference presentations, courses taught, documents written and essential project references that I worked on (at least all of those which could be digitized) since 2000. This makes for tens of Gb of digital information (excluding all multimedia files like photos, movies and so on). Yet, I can search (not just document titles but also specific information inside them) and get documents within seconds. The issue with so many digital files becomes how to store, retrieve or archive them: a true and efficient digital database for any file format. At the center of all this, is of course the software.
…To be continued