New tools

“Don’t blame the carpenter. Blame the tool.” –Howie Long in a new Chevy commercial

Am I the only one who thinks he’s calling that guy a tool? Anyway, I’m not going to complain about my tools today, so much as document one more step in my never-ending quest to find better tools for writing.

My grand Google Docs experiment lasted all of two chapters into Crusade, the second book in the Unification Chronicles series. It’s entirely possible that this has nothing to do with Google Docs, but when I hit a slump one of my first impulses is to mix up how I do things. As it happens, a major improvement to an old friend happened along at just the right time.

Evernote

Two days before Christmas, Evernote gave us iPhone users an early gift. Evernote for the iPhone version 3.2 fixes most of the problems I had with the iPhone version. Syncing is no longer modal, meaning you can search and do other things while syncing to your database, and you can store selected notebooks locally on the device, meaning you can always access them offline even if you’ve never opened that particular note on your iPhone before. While Evernote for the iPhone still doesn’t allow you to edit rich text notes directly, version 3.2 does allow you to make a plain text copy and edit that rather than just appending to the rich text note. This allows for revisions I couldn’t do before.

These changes make Evernote vastly more useful to me for writing on the go. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the latest build of the 3.5 beta—yes, I know I said I wasn’t upgrading, I have a sickness—is pretty solid as well. These changes are so impressive, in fact, that I’ve gone back to Evernote for my actual drafting. I keep each chapter in a separate note, tagged as “draft” and in the Unification Chronicles notebook. I really like having all my stuff in one place again.

BTstack Keyboard Driver

Of course, writing on the go with just the on-screen keyboard on my iPhone only works for relatively short passages. For any kind of speed, I’d still need my netbook, with the additional five pounds—3 for the netbook, 2 for the AC adaptor and cables—to lug around that this would entail, right? Not so much. The BTstack Keyboard Driver also appeared on Cydia last week. This is part of the overall BTstack project, intended to provide an alternative Bluetooth stack for the iPhone that handles profiles Apple chooses not to support. The keyboard driver, as you might expect, allows the iPhone to use external Bluetooth keyboards using the Bluetooth HID (Human Interface Devices) profile.

I still have my ThinkOutside Bluetooth Stowaway from my Windows Mobile days, so I paid my five bucks, downloaded and installed the driver and set about testing it. It’s definitely still a work in progress, but it’s very promising. Not all of the ancillary keys work, and sometimes I get a string of garbage characters, but overall, it works for getting text into the iPhone fast and easy on a full-size keyboard (my Stowaway is actually marginally more comfortable than my 92% full size keyboard on my netbook). So add this to Evernote and now I don’t have to take my netbook with me to Chipotle for lunch. My back and shoulders already thank me.

Enso Words

Writing in Evernote has a few disadvantages, chief among them that Evernote has no word count function. How do I track my progress without work count? Enter Enso Words. This is a small utility program that runs all the time in your Windows system tray and waits to be called either by holding down the Capslock key like a second shift key, or as I prefer, tapping the Capslock key and entering a command and enter, or esc to go back to what you were doing. When you have Enso Words activated, you can have it perform a variety of functions on whatever text you have selected in virtually any application.

So to get a word count on my current note in Evernote, I:

  1. Hit Ctrl-A to select all text
  2. Tap Capslock to invoke Enso Words
  3. Type “wo” to narrow down the command selection to “word count”
  4. Hit Enter

Enso words then pops up a little box on screen with my current word count, and that box fades away automatically as soon as I type something or move the mouse. With a little practice, this becomes second nature. I could even shave off a keystroke if I used Enso in “quasimodal” mode and just released Capslock after typing “wo”, no longer having to hit enter to send the command. Enso is also great for looking up definitions and synonyms, spell checking in any application, changing case, searching Google and more. It’s free, and takes up very little system resources, even on my netbook.

WriteMonkey

When I want to get hardcore, though, I break out the monkey. WriteMonkey. This is a text processor for Windows inspired by the popular WriteRoom on the Mac. While it works windowed—and that’s how I use it at the office—it’s really intended to run full screen. In full screen mode, WriteMonkey takes up your entire monitor, hiding even your Windows taskbar and shows you just what you need to see to write. It’s small, fast, portable and keeps a running word count at the top or bottom of the screen so you can see how you’re doing. The idea here is to remove all the distractions and just write.

WriteMonkey doesn’t integrate automatically with Evernote, but it’s not all that hard to get them to play together. I select all the text in a note like I would with Enso, but then copy it, fire up WriteMonkey, paste and start writing. When I’m done, I select all and copy from WriteMonkey and then paste back into the note in Evernote. Pretty simple.

Google Docs

I still use Google Docs for one thing: spreadsheets. I keep my word counts there in a simple sheet that holds the word count for each chapter and then sums them to tell me the word count for the overall novel. And hey, I can even update Google Docs spreadsheets on my iPhone! (Now I just need Enso Words for the iPhone.)

So that’s it, my new system, designed to be the simplest I’ve come up with yet (since it can’t really handle formatting, there’s no temptation to spend time making it pretty). How do you take your writing on the go?

Blaming my tools

I was going to talk about my new sooper seekrit plan to release and market Unification Chronicles today, but I experienced some technical difficulties recently that I just have to rant about. We’ll get to the business plan stuff, I promise. Eventually.

But first, AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

For quite some time now, my writing system has been relatively simple and has served me well. I have a notebook in Evernote for each of my major projects. In each, I have various support materials along with a note for the manuscript itself. In this note, I have the outline for the book in plain text and a .docx file attachment for the manuscript. When it comes time to edit, I open the note, double click on the attachment and edit the document. Evernote is smart enough to update the note/attachment every time the file I’m working on is saved (it’s in a temp folder on my hard drive, but that doesn’t usually matter). I also keep my progress spreadsheets in similar notes and work on them in a similar way.

Until yesterday, this system worked flawlessly. I have Evernote on every PC I use: my work desktop and laptop, my personal netbook, my iPhone. It all works great. Right up until it doesn’t.

A while back, I upgraded my netbook to use the new Evernote 3.5 beta. Keep in mind, here, that I used to be a professional software developer. I would never trust my writing to something in the alpha stage of development, but a beta is supposed to be relatively stable, just not feature complete (see the Windows 7 beta as an example). Evernote has made it clear that they will not be supporting 3.1 very long after 3.5 is officially released, so I figured I may as well start getting used to it. So I installed 3.5 Beta 4(!) and set about my work.

Yesterday, the unthinkable happened. Somehow, as I was opening the note containing my manuscript, the attachment for my manuscript completely disappeared! I wasn’t able to undo, and the desktop synced the change back to the server, so I wasn’t able to pull the attachment from any of my other Evernote clients. It was just gone. Nothing in the trash in Evernote, just gone. 57,000 words of fiction, nearly 60 hours of work.

I scoured my hard drive looking for a backup or copy of the file. In the third place I looked, I found something that looked promising, and was able to get the file back. If that hadn’t worked, I would have been forced to reconstruct it from emails sent each day to my beta readers.

Psst, programmers. Yeah, you. C’mere. You NEVER, EVER screw with the user’s data! A friend of mine pointed out that I was using beta software, but ANY bug that can irretrievably destroy a user’s data should never have made it past alpha stage! I’ll accept a beta program crashing, but I will NEVER be okay with it trashing my data!

/whacks Dave Engberg in the head

So I decided to take my data elsewhere. If I can’t trust Evernote to never, ever lose my data, I can’t trust it at all. What else is out there?

A lot of people recommend Dropbox. So if figured, sure, I’ll give it a go. I installed it on my netbook, and hey, so far, so good. The UI is clean and efficient, and it doesn’t seem to kill my Via CPU netbook (it predates the Atom, we’re talking stone age netbook). Documents saved to folders inside the “dropbox” folder on my desktop are automatically synced both to the cloud and any other PCs I have linked to my Dropbox account. Feels a lot like Microsoft’s Live Mesh, only about a kajillion times faster.

And it worked great until I got to work this morning and tried to install it on my office PC. Evernote works fine over my corporate proxy server. It uses the same proxy settings as Internet Explorer, set up in the Control Panel, so it never even asked. It just worked. And while Dropbox claims to do the same, it doesn’t work. Nor does it work if I manually set up the proxy settings in Dropbox itself, which it does allow for (Seesmic for Windows doesn’t, which is why I can’t use it at the office). No matter what I do, I can’t get Dropbox to connect to the cloud through our corporate network goblins. Stupid goblins.

So that’s two highly regarded file sync solutions blown out of the water by my particular circumstances. I don’t trust Evernote anymore—even after downgrading it back to 3.1, because I know I can’t keep 3.1 indefinitely—and I can’t use Dropbox on the PC where I spend half my waking hours. So what’s left?

Sadly, the only thing that comes to mind is good old Sneakernet. I have a 2GB thumbdrive on my keychain, and for now, I’m just going to put everything on there, and periodically use Microsoft’s SyncToy to back it up to the Dropbox folder on my netbook. That way I can access my files on any PC—well, any PC that uses Microsoft Office 2007, because I’m not giving up Word; I’ve tried Google Docs and found it lacking—and as long as I remember to run SyncToy every so often, they’ll get backed up to both my netbook hard drive and the cloud. It’s an inelegant solution, because it relies on my markedly undependable wetware to remember to back it up, but that’s all I’ve got. Every other solution I know of doesn’t meet my requirements: support my corporate network, run on both the iPhone and Windows, and be safe and dependable.

How do you store your working manuscripts?

Evernote and the Google problem

We’ve all seen the new Bing commercials showing people suffering from search engine overload. I can identify with those thus afflicted, since I go through that every day. Only it’s not hitting me when I search Google; it’s hitting me when I search Evernote.

Earlier this week I hit 6,000 notes in Evernote. That’s a lot of notes. That’s a huge, thundering herd of notes, the likes of which used to roam horizon to horizon on the Colorado plains. Wait, I think that was buffalo. But even so, my notes were out of control.

This isn’t Evernote’s fault. It does a dandy job of collecting and keeping all my notes. Things, perhaps obviously, go into the system rather easily. Getting the particular stuff I’m looking for back out at any particular time can be a problem.

Like Google’s index of the entire interwebs, once you hit a certain critical mass of notes, any search brings back too many matches. This forces you to browse through the list of matches to your search term when browsing a list and finding what you want with a Mark I eyeball is exactly what you’d hoped to avoid. Evernote provides lots of ways to narrow the search by content, time and place created and all sorts of other metadata, and allows you to save that combination of search criteria if you need them again in the future. But even so, there’s lots and lots of stuff in my Evernote database that doesn’t strictly need to be there. More to the point, there’s lots of stuff in my Evernote database that I’ll never see again. So why lug it around, even digitally?

I think the source of my issue is that Evernote is so free-form that I’m inclined to use it for everything so that I have all of my data in one place, even though other solutions would work better for certain kinds of content. I should keep my image files in Picasa or Flickr instead of Evernote. I should store my to-read-later articles in Instapaper instead of Evernote. I should keep my drafts in Google Docs, Writeroom or on a flash drive rather than in Evernote. I should keep my tasks in ToodleDo instead of Evernote. I think if I put into Evernote only what I knew I planned to keep so I could use it later, the data size would be manageable and it wouldn’t take nearly as long for the iPhone version to finish syncing and let me look up whatever I opened it for.

But before I go and do something rash (I have an inner R2-D2, and I’m not afraid to use it!), I thought I’d ask my readers (at least the ones that use Evernote, and I know there are a few of you). What do you store in Evernote and what do you store elsewhere? Why?

Notebooks or tags with Evernote?

Evernote notebooks and tags

I’ve gotten a few questions about how I use tags and notebooks in Evernote. Now, while I think one of the cool things about Evernote is that you can set it up however makes the most sense to you personally, I realize it helps to see how other people do it, if only to rule out what doesn’t make sense for you. So in that spirit, here’s the system I’ve developed so far.

My primary notebook is creatively named Default, and that’s where all of my notes start out and most of them end up. All but two of my other notebooks (Dish Network for day job stuff and Images for notes consisting entirely of pictures) are named for various writing projects, including a notebook for JeffKirvin.net. As you can see from the item counts, if you factor out the work and image notebooks, none of the project-oriented notebooks come anywhere near the size of the main notebook. They are handy, though, for quickly seeing everything related to a specific project in one place.

Tags are harder to keep organized. I have only six top level tags, and could probably get rid of two of them if I tried. But out of those, I really only use the first two (and their subtags): !GTD and !Reference. They’re prefaced with exclamation points so they sort automatically to the top.

The !GTD tag itself is never actually used at all. But it contains all my GTD contexts, as well as another tag, !Vision, for more Covey-style planning, goals, roles and values stuff.

For the vast majority of stuff in my Evernote database, each note will have either one or more @ tags representing the context in which I need to address the note contents, or it will be tagged simply with !Reference. I used to use a lot of keyword tags, but over time found I couldn’t keep them standardized well enough and that Evernote’s built in content search was more than sufficient to pull up notes I might have forgotten otherwise.

The only other tag worth mentioning is Bookmarks, which is where I put stuff that formerly would have gone into Delicious or Foxmarks (now Xmarks, or so I hear). Though honestly I’ve gotten so accustomed to typing whatever I’m looking for into the search bar on my browser that I hardly use bookmarks at all anymore. Starting to see a pattern here?

Evernote for GTD, simplified

If I’m going to use Evernote for GTD because of how amazing it is as an universal inbox, I need to develop a system that actually exploits Evernote’s strengths, rather than simply translating the paper notebook GTD workflow to it. Evernote is digital, and that gives me a different set of assumptions than a paper notebook. Specifically, the paper time management law of "touch each piece of paper only once" doesn’t apply in the digital world.

My GTD system in Evernote is deceptively simple. Everything takes place in my default folder, and I only have tags for contexts. At the note level, there is no difference between a one-off task and a project. This is not a violation of the GTD method, just a different way of implementing it. Let’s walk through the process to see what I mean.

Collect

This is where Evernote really shines. Everything in my life eventually finds its way into Evernote. Interesting links from Google Reader or Twitter get emailed to my Evernote account (I need to start just retweeting cool stuff from Twitter with a @myen tacked on the to the end, which does the same thing, but also shares with my tweeps). I take pictures on my iPhone, and then dump them into the iPhone Evernote client (including anything I get on paper that I want to "file"). Files, emails and memos pertinent to my job get clipped into the Windows Evernote client on my laptop. And of course ideas, tasks, random things I hear… anything interesting at all, it goes in the soup. Evernote is the best "universal capture" inbox I’ve ever seen, and why I keep coming back to it for my GTD process instead of services like Toodledo or Nozbe.

Process/Organize

I have a saved search in Evernote called !Inbox. This search is defined as -tag:* in all notebooks. This shows me every untagged note in my entire database. I go down the list, starting at the top, and ask, "What is this? Is it actionable?"

If it’s not, it gets tagged with !Reference and I move on. I used to have dozens, maybe even hundreds of tags, but I finally realized that such granularity was slowing me down. Evernote’s search is so good that I don’t have to define keywords. If the word I’m likely to search for isn’t in the note itself, it’s probably not as relevant as I think it is.

If it is actionable, I do a little more thought on the matter. Is it a project? What’s the next action? If it’s a larger project I might do a little "back of the envelope" planning at the top of the note, pushing down what I’d already clipped, sketching out milestones. Then I determine the next action, and make that the title of the note. I assign one or more @contexts as tags, and then move on to the next item on the list.

Review

I have saved searches for all of my contexts, plus one for Someday/Maybe. Whether I’m at my desk, at home or on the go, I fire up Evernote on whatever device is handy and check out the saved search for the context appropriate at the time. Currently, my contexts are:

  • @Computer (things I can do anywhere I have one of my computers, pretty much anywhere)
  • @Home (things that require me to be in or around my house)
  • @Internet (things that require an unfiltered internet connection, ie things I can’t do on the corporate network because of our strict content filtering like downloading executables)
  • @Office (things that require corporate resources)
  • @Out (things I have to go to, rather than come to me)
  • @Read/Review (reading material, by far the biggest list)
  • @Shopping (things to buy, online or locally)

These are obviously defined by location, or more generally, resources available. Given that some of these (@computer, @read/review, @shopping) can be done anywhere I have my iPhone, which is pretty much everywhere, I’m thinking about adjusting my contexts to be more about resources and energy available. Like having a context for things that can be done in 5 minutes, things that will take an hour, etc.

Do

Once I have the list up for the current context, I go down the list and do whatever feels "right". I bounce around, almost never going down the list in order. I also keep an eye out for things that repeatedly get passed over, and try to figure out if they’re really doable, if I’m skipping them because they have the wrong next action or if it’s something I really have any intention of doing at all. It’s okay to look at some projects and decide, "I’m just not going to do that. I accept the consequences of it not being done." These get re-tagged with !Reference and fall off the lists.

When I actually do something, I edit the note to change the title to the next action after what I just did, and if necessary change the context tag. I repeat as necessary so the project steams along until I run out of actions. Then it’s also tagged with !Reference and fades into the searchable deep.

That’s it. If I’m looking for something to do and nothing appeals to me, I can go into my Someday/Maybe context and promote a few things to active projects by putting them in contexts titled by their next actions (although generally, I’m more likely to take a nap). Once a week I sit down and do a brain dump, just typing whatever pops into my head separated by CTRL-N to put each in a new note. Then I process them as listed above.

This is the simplest way of implementing GTD in Evernote I can think of, but no simpler. I hits all the major points, but also is streamlined enough that I’ll actually do it. Everything else I’ve tried has had too many steps involved to maintain the system, meaning I’ll inevitably get tired and wander off. This system looks like it’s easy enough to stick with, but if you have any suggestions on how to improve it, be sure to let me know in the comments.

Evernote Mobile gets a facelift

IMG_0074 As my Twitter followers know, I’ve been pretty peeved with Evernote recently. The iPhone client version has decided that it absolutely, positively will not complete a sync with the Evernote servers on my 3G. I’ve done everything I can, even sent my log files to the company (no response as of yet), and all of my toubleshooting comes down to the same thing. Even after a fresh reboot of my iPhone, with 30MB of RAM available (the most a 128MB 3G ever gets after loading the mobile version of OS/X), Evernote will fight for a while and then either spit up the error message you see here or just crash completely and dump be back to the homescreen, the typical reaction when an iPhone app runs out of RAM. (The new iPhone 3GS seems to run Evernote just fine, but then it would; it’s got 256MB of RAM, or five times the free RAM on boot as the 3G has, 150MB compared to 30MB.)

The problem with this is that up until just a couple days ago, the mobile web version of Evernote wasn’t all that impressive.

en3mobweb_main_list This was a pain in the ass to use on my Windows Mobile devices, and it’s a pain in the ass to use on my iPhone. It’s a simple WAP-style page that doesn’t do much. But hey, it worked on my iPhone when the dedicated client didn’t, so at least it was something. I only used it for looking up notes, opting to email new notes to my private Evernote email address when I wanted to create something new. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

Well, now it’s pretty too.

Main Screen The new version of the mobile web Evernote uses some nice iPhone/Androidish CSS to look far more professional, more like a real app than a web page. It even sports some slick new menus that are both touch friendly and easy to use.

Main Menu Note Menu

It’s a webapp rather than a native app, but that really isn’t a problem for me. I’m already using the Safari-optimized Gmail instead of the iPhone’s Mail client for reading my Gmail, the Safari-optimized Google Reader instead of Byline, and iPhone-friendly versions of Google News, AP News, GoodReads, Wikipedia, the list goes on and on. Using webapps instead of native clients is a way to multitask on the iPhone without jailbreaking and running Backgrounder since you can have up to eight pages open at a time. And the interface for managing them even bears a striking resemblance to managing cards on the Pre.

Only one problem remains, really. There is a JavaScript-based clipper available for Safari Mobile that allows you to send whatever you’re currently looking at to Evernote. The JavaScript looks like this:

javascript:location.href=’http://www.evernote.com/clip.action?url=’+encodeURIComponent(location.href)+’&title=’+encodeURIComponent(document.title);

And it works.

Clipped

The problem, as you can see above, is that this script directs you to the full size version of Evernote rather than a mobile page. This is especially awkward when trying to tag what you just clipped.

Tagging

I’ve tried every variation I can think of to merge the JavaScript above with the URL of the new mobile site:

https://www.evernote.com/mobile/MobileSetup.action?noRedirect=true

And nothing seems to work. So for now, I’m dealing with the awkward clipping in Safari, but pretty happy with the rest of the Evernote Mobile Web experience. So much so that I’m really not even all that worried about the iPhone client. The mobile web version does almost everything I need, and for the rest—photos and other multimedia—I can email stuff to Evernote. All I’m really missing is the iPhone client’s offline favorites, but I’ll live.

Cross platform GTD in Evernote

I got a request on Twitter recently (hi, @girvo!) to update how I use GTD now that I’ve switched platforms. It’s pretty simple, and if you’ve been reading my stuff recently, it should come as no surprise that I’m doing it almost entirely in Evernote.

I have everything in one big notebook now in Evernote, using tags and saved searches to find things (a la Gmail). For things in my GTD system, I have two tags to use: “!GTD” (the intial bang sorts it at the top of the tag list and distinguishes it from the tag “gtd” which I use for notes about GTD) and “Context”. If I bring up notes with the !GTD tag, I see at least eight notes, sometimes more:

.Projects

This is a list of projects, outcomes I want to achieve that consist of more than one action. For example:

Write Titanus first draft

Write Revelation first draft

Post to JeffKirvin.net at least once a week

Paint bathroom

.Someday/Maybe

This is a list of things that have been on my mind, but I have no commitment to accomplish them in the foreseeable future:

Stream media from PC to TV

Use Wii Fit for workouts

.Waiting For

This is a list of things I have on hold until someone else gets back to me. I consult this once a week to see if I need to ping people.

All of the lists that begin with an at sign are contexts, and tagged as such so that I can have a saved search called “Task Lists” that shows only those notes.

@Computer

This is for next actions that require some kind of computer/internet access, but no specific resources (like my iTunes library on my home desktop or the ticketing system we use at work). Basically this is stuff I can do with my iPhone if necessary.

@Home

Both housecleaning and computing tasks that require a computer at my house (iTunes and gaming stuff, mostly) go on this list.

@Work

This is for stuff I have to do at the office.

@Out

This is mostly for errands or things involving my car.

@Phone

And lastly, a list for phone calls I have to make. This is usually a pretty sparse list as I avoid voice calls as much as possible, preferring less intrusive and time asynchronous SMS and email.

I currently also have a couple projects I’ve removed from the .Projects list so I can do “back of the envelope” planning. For example, I have a note called “Fix Neon” consisting of:

Get engine diagnostic

Check heat issue

Replace windshield

Replace taillights

Fix dashboard short

Replace driver door

Replace passenger mirror

Replace steering column

(yes, there’s a reason my friends refer to my car as the Millennium Falcon)

Next actions in Google Calendar For things that are time-sensitive, I schedule the next actions on my Google calendar. For things that have to be done at a specific time, I put them at that time, but for most things that have to be done just on a certain day, I schedule them as free, all-day events.

For collection, I can have any number of notes, all tagged with “Inbox”. These can be pictures, voice notes, text notes, even clipped web pages. Every so often, I go through my Inbox saved search and process these, adding new projects or next actions to my core lists as necessary.

When I’m on the go and looking for something to do, I’ll bring up my Task Lists saved search in Evernote and open the appropriate context. When I’m done with a task, I simply delete that row. Evernote supports adding checkboxes to notes, but doing so means I can’t edit those notes on my iPhone, something that’s vital to my system. So I keep it simple, my notes in Evernote not all that different from the paper note cards so many GTDers use.

To me, the real advantage of this system is that it will work anywhere. Windows PC, Mac, Linux (through Evernote.com), iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Mobile or just about anything else that can use either the full or mobile versions of the Evernote website. As long as I have an internet connection, I have GTD. And even when I don’t have an internet connection, I have the cached versions of my lists that I’ve marked as favorites on my iPhone, so I at least have older versions to work with.

How are you using GTD?