App of the Week: Day One

It's the end of the year. It's the beginning of the year. It's a time of peace and goodwill. It's a time to look back. It's a time to look forward. I'm sitting in a hotel room along the beach in Hollywood, Florida. My plans for the day have changed, and I thought of you and the goals for the year. It occurred to me that you could gain much by writing down your thoughts more than you do, and so I thought of Day One, my primary journaling app.

Day One is a gorgeous journaling app made for the Mac and the iPhone and iPad (via a universal app). It's a great way to begin to collect your thoughts and experiences, with deep functions to grow as you find yourself writing more and collecting more of your life into it. Much of what you might want to remember is automatically recorded by Day One, such as the location of the post, the weather when you posted, and date and time. As a result, you can view the timeline of your entries or a map, and review what you were thinking, what you experienced, where and when.

This combination can create many insights as you review your year, look forward to the next, set your goals, and consider what's possible.

I also like that I can write in Drafts and then use an action to enter those thoughts into Day One. I'm not always sure when I start writing in Drafts what I will want to do with the thought once it's more complete!

So, here's my thought for you today: what would your life be if you began to write more, record more, review more, and be more intentional about what's next?

It's just a thought. But, it has the power to change your future.

App of the Week: OmniFocus

I'm sitting here in my office prepping this blog post on a snowy Colorado afternoon. As I looked down the list of apps I've created for this series, I got to thinking about the one that would really help as we turn the corner to a new year. That one is OmniFocus, available separately for iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Before I get into the details of the app, understand that I buy into the Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy of productivity:

  1. Capture: Get everything out of your head and into a trusted system,
  2. Clarify: Process what it means,
  3. Organize: Put it where it belongs and where you'll see it when you can do it,
  4. Reflect: Review frequently, and
  5. Engage: Do what there is to do.

This set of simple steps is very difficult to actually do consistently. There is so much demand on our time these days, with the ubiquitous Internet, always-on communications, and ever-faster pace of innovation and work. Yet, it is the only way I have discovered to know what is "on my list," what is "off my list," what is "waiting for something or someone outside my direct control," and so on. It doesn't mean you'll get everything done. It does mean that you'll get more of the most important things done.

So, what about OmniFocus?

While there are a number of "to do list" apps, some of which are less costly (including some which are free), OmniFocus is the one I've chosen to use consistently because it allows me to best set up my life in alignment with GTD.

While OmniGroup describes OmniFocus on their web site, I approach it differently. Specifically, I look at how it enables each of the steps of GTD:

  1. The OmniFocus Inbox is the capture point. Whenever I come up with a new idea or an item appears that I need to address, I put it into the Inbox. That's my capture spot. I even put emails into the Inbox if they represent an action I need to take. This means there is only one place for my actions. OmniFocus does a good job of providing links back to the mail items, so I can file them in my Archive at the time I capture them.
  2. I review the Inbox during breaks in my day, and ask the GTD questions about each item. Based on what the item is, I take the appropriate action, whether addressing it right then, putting it as an action step into a project, or otherwise filing it. These are the Clarify and Organize steps.
  3. I perform a Weekly Review, checking all of the "still to do" items in OmniFocus and adjusting them as appropriate.
  4. I use Contexts (the various locations, tools, and energy levels of my life) to look at only those things that I can do at a particular time. For example, when I'm on a plane, I don't usually purchase Internet access. So, if a task requires Internet access, there is no need for me to see it during a flight. Thus, my "In-flight" context doesn't include those items.

Using OmniFocus I am able to maintain my sanity. I capture items before I forget them, I have one place where I look for actions to do, and I keep the available actions as clean as possible.

How do you get things done?

App of the Week: 1Password

So far today, I've logged into a dozen or so accounts on the Internet. I've logged in from my iPhone, my iPad, and my Macs. I've done some shopping, commented on some blog posts, reviewed RSS feeds, and more. Every one of the accounts has a complex password made up of a random set of numbers, letters, and punctuation. As an expert in cybersecurity, it'd be pretty embarrassing to have my accounts cracked. So, I'm careful. And the most useful tool in my arsenal is 1Password. When you do log into your accounts, how do you do it? Do you use one password for multiple accounts? Are your passwords easy for you to remember? How can you be sure they won't be easily guessed?

While there are a number of strategies for coming up with strong passwords, like this one from xkcd:

there are alternatives in the form of applications like 1Password that simplify the entire process, and given the large set of accounts we all typically have, I highly recommend it.

1Password is one of a set of applications called "password vaults" or "password managers." These applications provide a number of functions related to passwords and related sensitive information like credit cards, including encryption, generation, storage, and retrieval. From my perspective, having a password manager is a critical step in protecting yourself online.

1Password Workflow

1Password provides a broader range of functions than I use every day, and some that I don't use at all, but it is an application that I use multiple times every day on each of my devices. Here's the general workflow:

  • When I visit a new web site and create an account, I use the 1Password icon in my browser to generate a new password. 1Password prompts me for my 1Password master password to unlock the application, then allows me to generate a password with whatever characteristics I prefer. I typically use passwords that are as long as the site will accept, and as complex as it will accept, including upper- and lower-case letters, symbols, and numerals. 1Password will automatically fill in the password as I'm creating the account. 
  • When I submit the new account information, 1Password remembers the new account, including the username and password. It prompts me to store that information into the 1Password database. 
  • The next time I visit the site, I use the 1Password icon to fill my username and password.

The result of this workflow is the following:

  1. I only have to remember one password (hence the name!): the password to unlock 1Password.
  2. The password for the sites are on all of my devices, synced all the time.
  3. All of the passwords are use are long random strings of characters that are for all practical purposes impossible to guess or brute-force crack.

1Password offers a number of methods to keep your database synced across all of your devices, including Dropbox and iCloud. They also offer applications on iOS, OS X, and Windows.

I count 1Password as one of my essential applications, and you should, too.

App of the Week: Special Prices at AppSanta

Every once in a while, independent developers offer their apps at a special price. This holiday season, AppSanta is once again offering a number of favorite apps at discounts up to 80%. Drafts 4 is one of them, as are other apps I'll be covering in the future such as Terminology, Gneo, TextExpander Touch, Clear, Launch Center Pro, Manual, Calendars 5, and perhaps more. Check it out!

I'll post this week's App of the Week by tomorrow.

(Note: this is not a sales pitch, nor do I receive anything for pointing you to AppSanta; I just thought you might find the discounts useful.)

App of the Week: Evernote

So far, the App of the Week series has looked at two apps that represent the ends of a spectrum from long-term storage of your core content with Dropbox to short-term content collection with Drafts. This week, we're going to look at a category-creating app that bridges the spectrum: Evernote. Evernote includes a web browser interface, PC and Mac Apps, an iOS app, and more. There is also an entire ecosystem of apps that has built up around the core Evernote capabilities that are also worth exploring if you add Evernote to your workflow.

So, why would you use Evernote?

Originally created as a simple note-taking application to sync notes across all your devices, Evernote has evolved into an entire ecosystem of physical and virtual information capturing products. The Evernote Marketplace offers products as diverse as a high-quality stylus and scanner to unique carry bags and device stands. Evernote has also recently added specific features to provide for collaboration using Evernote, including Evernote chat.

However nice those aspects are, they are not why I use Evernote. I use Evernote to capture both text and images that will be archived so that I can search for them later. Everything you store in Evernote is indexed for searching, including images with text, making it easy to later find a quick note that you wrote, a receipt that you filed in it, notes that were on a whiteboard, or anything else. You can also tag items to add an additional set of searchable terms.

Image Text Search

When you upload images to Evernote, the Evernote servers go to work and run OCR (optical character recognition) on them and index the terms that the OCR finds within the image. This is how you can take a photo of a whiteboard and later find that photo by using terms that were on the board. This has saved my bacon more than once.

Workflow

Typically, on my mobile devices I use Drafts to capture text and my camera to capture images, then import them into Evernote. Other times, I'll open the Evernote app directly and use the text editor and image capture that's native in the app. I put the captures into Evernote Notebooks based on the area of my life for which they are useful (for example, I have notebooks for Personal, Speaking, and Writing in addition to notebooks for my clients and other technical and operational aspects of my work life). This allows me to narrow searches, as well as browse historical notes quickly and in context.

I capture notes like coupons, travel certificates from airlines and hotels, receipts from purchases and government sites, and gift ideas for friends and family. I also use Evernote to have notes available in multiple environments, like sharing between PCs I use for specific customers and all of my devices.

Summary

In short, to capture ideas, notes, and other temporal information for archival and retrieval, Evernote is a slam-dunk.

App of the Week: Dropbox

Yes, I'm aware that Dropbox is less of an app than it is an online storage system, but that's precisely the point I made in my first post: the ability to transparently store your data in a way that is accessible everywhere changes every workflow. Dropbox was the first widely-available system that provided ubiquitous access to your files anywhere, and it does so completely transparently: from your perspective, your files are in a folder and sub-folders on your various devices. They are in the same place on every device. I have Dropbox on my Macs, my client PC, my iPhone and my iPad. My files are always at hand. The set-up is straight forward. Go to Dropbox, set up an account, be sure to use 2-factor authentication, and download the app for your Mac or PC, and install it. When you do, it will create a Dropbox folder in your home directory. Anything you put into it -- including both folders and files -- will sync to the Dropbox in the cloud, and sync to any other devices tied to the same account.

If you carry mobile devices, download Dropbox to them, as well. Now, your files are available anywhere you have any of your devices.

Dropbox Differences on Mobile Devices

By default, Dropbox on a Mac or PC syncs every file and folder on the device to and from the cloud. By default, Dropbox on a mobile device syncs none of the files and folders, but provides access to them through an Internet connection. Dropbox provides ways of changing this behavior, but the functions are different in the two environments, and you will have to decide how you want to interact with files and how much storage you want to set aside for them.

PC and Mac

Dropbox syncs your entire Dropbox to your PC and Mac, setting up a complete replica of the cloud version of Dropbox on your system. Given that most computer systems have sufficient disk space, this makes sense. However, there may be files or folders that are more archival or otherwise do not need to be always on your computer. If so, you can use Dropbox's "Selective Sync" feature (within the Account section of Preferences) to remove some folders and/or files from those that are always on the computer. Note that you can still access those folders using a web browser to Dropbox.com, but they will not be on the computer as local files, and won't be available when they computer isn't on the Internet. All other files will be available when you're offline, and will sync with the Dropbox cloud when you get back online. Dropbox handles conflicts smoothly, and uses icons and messages to communicate about the sync status.

Mobile Devices

On mobile devices, Dropbox works exactly the opposite: no files or folders are stored on the device by default. Instead, all interaction is by using an Internet connection through the Dropbox app. If you want a file to be locally cached (so that you can read it while on a plane, for instance), mark it as a "Favorite" by touching the star. This will cache the file on your device and also put the file into the Favorites section of the app.

Integration

More and more apps on iOS (and Android) interact directly with Dropbox, providing for workflows that store files in Dropbox that are edited or otherwise used by other apps. One common use, for example, is as a drop location for email attachments, both sending and receiving. You can even use a browser to download or upload files at any time from any where, including a friend's computer.

Workflow

I use Dropbox to store all of my files and data that isn't dedicated to one particular app on one device. I even store some of those in it. The fundamental advantage for me is that I have all of my files on multiple systems (my Macbook Pro, my Mac Pro, and even my client PC) so that I can recover the files if anything ever happens to Dropbox. And Dropbox has the files if anything happens to my devices.

So, as a result of this foundational characteristic, Dropbox is the first app/system in this series.

Don't forget to let me know in the comments or my email your thoughts on apps or workflows you'd like to see included.

 

Let's go!

Apps of the Week

Apps of the Week

Today, while flying over my beloved Rocky Mountain on the way to Phoenix to support my son Gabe as he competes in the Western Region Oireachtas Irish dance competition, this theme occured to me. As I have thought about the wide variety of topics on which I have written over the years, it became clear to me that one of the reasons that my posts have been so bursty is that I, as many before me, have wondered what I have to say that would be of the most interest. Over on the RedSeal blog, I post frequently on topics of cybersecurity and related networking challenges. However, especially when I wrote a column for InfoWorld, it was clear that there were topics that resonate and which people find helpful. 

Given the shift in applications over the past few years, it seems there is an interest in the systems and applications I use to do the work I do, both in my home office and as I travel to support clients around the world. So, beginning with the next post in the Technology section of the blog, I'll share with you the apps I use, how I use them, and why I like them. 

Purpose 

I could, of course, do this for any number of reasons, including that I'm being paid to do so. Let me start by saying that I am not. While I have acted as a beta tester for a number of the applications I'll be describing, most are simply those I have found by trial and error to be useful and effective for my work. You'll have to decide if they fit your needs and wants, and I'll do my best to help you with that process. Also, if you have questions about particular workflows, types of apps, others that I have tried but don't use, and so on, please ask.  

Also, perhaps through this process you and I will have an opportunity to influence some of the existing and emerging applications, and that seems like a reasonable purpose, as well. 

Most of all, it is my deepest desire to see you able to do your best art, whether it's writing a book, building software or hardware, teaching, or expressing yourself in any other way. If my insights into the applications you can use to make that work more effective is helpful, I will be delighted. 

Platform

The vast majority of my work is done on an Apple device. I use an iPad and iPhone (which run iOS), a MacBook Pro Retina, and an old 2008 Mac Pro (which run OS X) for my personal work. There are times when clients require me to use a Windows system, so there are some Windows applications that I use to shortcut and otherwise help me do good work in that environment, but for Windows applications (or Android, for that matter), my insights will be quite limited.

Perspective

There are a number of ways to view applications, the data on which they operate, and the systems and devices involved in the process. I have a very specific view that colors virtually everything I do: data is central and applications manipulate it. Applications are windows into and tools to manipulate data that is stored independently, accessible from any device anywhere. The ubiquitous Internet means that your data is available almost everywhere, and applications caching means that you can always have a copy of your data that will sync up when you are back online. As a result, my application choices and preferences are biased towards those that combine these fundamental concepts:

  1. availability across all my devices or cooperative interaction with an app on the other devices. For example, there are times when the same app isn't available on OS X and iOS, but there are apps that interact with the data compatibly, but in ways that take advantage of the particular characteristics of the different environments (touch versus keyboard interactivity, for example).
  2. caching. I am on airplanes and international destinations where use of cellular data is quite costly frequently enough that I must be able to cache data on my devices to continue to use it even when I'm offline. As I type this post, for example, I'm at 34,000' into Desk, I am not connected to the Internet. I'll post it when I get to my hotel, losing nothing in the process.
  3. cooperation. Apps that cooperate with other apps that I use help me more than those which are isolationist.
  4. nothing's perfect. I am always looking for apps to align more closely with the way I think, my preferences, and my workflow. Sometimes, I'll have 3 or 4 apps I'm using for the same thing, experimenting to determine which one fits best.

I think that's about it. Let me know if there are applications, workflows, or other related areas that pose as challenges or create questions for you. I'll do my best to address them either in a post or with a direct response.

Let's go!

Cloudy With a Chance of...

Decades ago, while running a network in a small office building in California, a senior manager asked if he could cut the staff since the network didn't seem to need a lot of support. I reminded him that an invisible network meant that people could just do their jobs without any friction from the network slowing them down or making their job more difficult. Last week, I read this from Benedict Evans via John Gruber at Daring Fireball:

Digesting WWDC: Cloudy

Benedict Evans:

So edit a photo and the edits are on all your devices, run out of room and your photos stay on the cloud but all but the previews are cleared off your phone, tap a phone number on a web page on your Mac and your phone dials it. But none of this says ‘CLOUD™’ and none of it is done in a web browser. Web browsers are for web pages, not for apps. Hence one could suggest that Apple loves the cloud, just not the web (or, not URLs). This is obviously a contrast with Google, which has pretty much the opposite approach. For Google, devices are dumb glass and the intelligence is in the cloud, but for Apple the cloud is just dumb storage and the device is the place for intelligence.

http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2014/6/4/digesting-wwdc-cloudy

http://daringfireball.net

This aligns very well with my earlier comments on what Apple is doing with iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite. The point is simply this: most people aren't enamoured with technology. Many who were at first delighted to have something as "cool" as an iPhone or Android device are now just using them. They are simply tools for living in the modern world. The next frontier for technologists is removing the barriers that devices and their interfaces create to doing what we want to do. The idea that what's important is speeds, icons, and other superficial elements is completely wrong. Just as with human relationships, physical attributes may initially attract, but in a relatively short time, it becomes the deeper aspects that matter.

The more technology companies get technology out of the way, the more successful they will become.

By the way, that manager was a smart guy. He relented. And I didn't have to break the network to remind him how important it was.

Kill Flash, Fix Your System

A Facebook conversation this week reminded me that many people do not know how damaging Adobe Flash can be on many systems, especially, it seems, those running Apple's OS X. For many years, I have found Flash more annoying than anything, and so have run various plug-ins to keep Flash from loading in my browsers. There are also an additional mini-application that you may find useful. First, there are a number of Flash blocking plug-ins for the various browsers available. For Firefox, there's FlashBlock. Ffor Safari there's ClickToFlash. For Google Chrome, there's Kill-Flash. All of these plugins do the same thing: they replace the Flash elements on a page with a clickable image. If you don't click, no Flash ever loads. If you do, Flash loads and plays.

One think I especially like about ClickToFlash is that you can adjust the settings to load H.264 videos on YouTube instead of Flash when it is available. Very nice.

In addition to these plug-ins, I also use BashFlash on my Macs. This little application sits quietly in the menubar until one of the Flash processes starts going crazy. Sometimes, a Flash process can cycle up and take over a computer. When one does this, BashFlash wakes up, turns red, and lets you kill the runaway Flash process.

Together, these plugins and app will make your browsing experience much more pleasant. I run ClickToFlash and Kill-Flash on my two most-used browsers, and keep BashFlash on hand, too. Let me know how it goes for you.