Tag Archives: productivity

Astrid is a near perfect to-do list for both iOS and Android

Logo_Astrid-320Calendars for 2013 are still fresh off the printing presses, and even though we are only a few weeks into January, I suspect that most people’s New Year’s resolutions are being broken by the minute. I started with six, but unfortunately they are being picked off faster than zombies on the Walking Dead. So, in order to keep the three resolutions I have left, I needed to do something drastic.

Get. A. To. Do. List.

Yes, an actual to-do-list. I’ve avoided them for years – but in order to stay productive during the year it was my only option.

In my despair I download Astrid, a to-do-list app available for iPhone, iPad and Android. And to my surprise, the app was fantastic and the best thing to ever happen to my productivity.

Astrid has a smooth and efficient design, and is easy to use as well. The app is a free download, but also offers a premium service for $4.99 a month or $39.99 a year, which offers file storage, voice recording, and document backups.

But don’t worry; it’s not essential that you fork over your hard-earned cash for the premium service, because Astrid is still a fantastic app even if you only use the basics.

iPhone-personal-list

The app has a simple and sleek design that lets you compile a standard to-do-list with the traditional boxes to check mark a completed task. You can also input tasks with specific dates and times, in order to remind you what needs to be done. One great feature about the app is that Astrid will categorize your tasks into four separate lists: tasks that are late, due today, due this week, and tasks that have no due date. You can also categorize your tasks under home, personal, shopping and work, or even customize the categories to fit your needs.

iPhone-shared-list

Another fantastic feature offered by Astrid is the ability to connect with friends or family on Facebook and share or assign tasks via the app. My wife and I use a shared to-do list, which makes running our busy household so much easier, and, to be honest, fun. I went from despising to-do lists to actually enjoying using them, and now consider Astrid to be an indispensable app on my iOS devices.

One area where Astrid has come in handy is during my workouts (which, by the way, were one of my New Years resolutions). The app sends push notification reminders when it’s time for me to workout – but where it really comes in handy is by sitting in my ‘late’ box if I do not complete it on time. It irks me to no end to see a workout that I have skipped sitting in the ‘late’ box.

iPhone-speech-to-text

There are so many features on the app that I might have missed a few, so here’s a quick list of all the features that Astrid offers.

  • Cloud sync with push notifications
  • Voice recognition
  • Share tasks and list over e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter
  • See friends’ public tasks and give them encouragement
  • One-time or repeating reminders
  • Add notes and set priorities
  • Calendar integration
  • available for both iOS and Android devices

Overall I love Astrid, and have become completely addicted to using to-do lists. It may also be the best productivity app I have used in a while. If I had to rate the app I would give it a 10/10, and call it a must have for anyone looking to increase their productivity and get their lives more organized. It’s also a great way to keep your New Years resolutions on track. Astrid is a great app and I highly recommend it.

Android Tip: Give your sensitive eyes a break in the morning with Tasker

If you’ve ever read any productivity or personal development methodologies, you’ve probably been told that you should avoid checking your email first thing in the morning. It basically boils down to distraction: if you wake up and fill your head full of to-dos, you’ll be less likely to get one single thing done.

Well, I’m not much of a morning person, so I love checking my email before I get up for the day. I wake up, roll over and grab my phone, and spend the first 10 minutes of my day in bed glancing (that’s not so bad, right?) at my email, then I usually check out Twitter and Google+ to see what happened in the world while I was counting sheep.

I don’t feel that checking my email in the morning has negatively affected my day-to-day productivity, but you know what it has affected? My eyeballs. My room is dark in the morning and my screen emits the fury of a white dwarf, so I often find myself squinting to look at my phone.

In this guide, I’ll show you how to use the Tasker app for Android to automatically manage your mobile phone’s display brightness based on time of day.

Tasker for Android

First off, Tasker is a really powerful app for Android. It lets you customize almost every setting on your phone based on a huge variety of inputs, so using it to automatically dim your phone’s screen in the morning is akin to blowing up an anthill with a Scud missile.

Second, because of its usefulness, the developers of Tasker put a ~$7.00 price tag on the app. This is expensive for a mobile app, but if you doubt whether it’s worth the price, take a look at a few of these great guides to see all the things you can do with it: maximize your phone’s battery, have your phone read your text messages to you while driving (and much more), and how to turn your phone into a fully-automated superphone.

How to automatically dim your phone’s display in the morning

Step 1: Download and install Tasker from the Android Market, then open the app. You’ll need to create a Profile first, so click the green plus (+) button to get started.

You’ll be prompted to name your profile, so call it anything you want. I’ll call mine “Dim Morning Screen”.

Step 2: Tasker events are triggered by Contexts, which are basically inputs  like Time, Day, Location, etc. For this profile, I’m going to select Time as the trigger for changing my display’s brightness.

Note: Tasker can be triggered by a multitude of inputs. If you want to create a more sophisticated  profile, touch the small question mark icon (?) in the top corner of Tasker dialogs for an explanation of available features.

Step 3: Now we’ll specify what times we’d like the profile to be active. In my case, I’d like the screen to be dim from 12:00am until 8:30am every morning. (Note: These times are in Military Time, so midnight is actually 00:00.)

Click the green check button once you’re finished.

Step 4: Now we’ll create a Task which is the action that gets executed whenever your Context is triggered – dimming the phone’s display in our case. Select New Task, give it a name, i.e. “Dim Screen”, then you’ll be taken to the Task Editor.

Click the blue plus (+) button to create a new task.

Select the Display category.

Select the Display Brightness action.

Drag the Level slider to 0 (or as low as you want the screen to be, you have a range from 0-255). Press the green check button when you’re finished.

Back in the Task Editor window, you can press the Play button in the bottom right to preview the task. Touch the green check button to save your task, then touch the Off button (it will toggle to On) in the bottom right corner of the next screen to activate Tasker.

After activating Tasker, touch one last green check button to close the application.

Optional – Removing the Tasker notification icon

In order to work properly, Tasker needs to be running in the background of your phone’s operating system. Because of how Android automatically manages running applications, Tasker keeps an icon in your phone’s notification bar to make sure Android doesn’t inadvertently close it.

You can turn the notification icon off, which I prefer to do, but keep in mind that you run the risk of having Android automatically close Tasker when your phone gets low on memory. If you’re using a newer Android phone with plenty of memory, you shouldn’t have any problems. Either way, we’ve created a non-essential Tasker profile in this guide so there’s really nothing to worry about.

To turn off the notification icon, open Tasker, press the Menu button on your phone, then select Preferences. In the Monitor tab, uncheck Run in Foreground. The Tasker icon will no longer appear in your notification bar.

Conclusion

That’s it! Your phone display will now automatically dim itself at midnight, and will stay dim until 8:30am. Now you might be asking, “But we never programmed the display to return to its normal brightness value afterwards?”. That’s one of the perks of Tasker – you original brightness settings will automatically be restored after the task finishes.

Have any tips for customizing your phone with Tasker? Share them with us in the comments below!

Image Credit: Tessss

How to maintain Inbox Zero and still read every email

Image credit Exper Giovanni Rubaltelli http://www.flickr.com/photos/exper/3116342820/My inbox is a sanctuary, a veritable digital zen garden. I have 0 unread messages, I’ve never declared email bankruptcy, and I do a fairly good job of replying to any email that needs my input. A series of small yellow stars decorate my inbox, denoting any messages that still require my action.

I’ve never really talked about my email practices with others before, so I was surprised when I found that others don’t always keep their inboxes as meticulously groomed as I do. Met with incredulity, I decided to take a look at the organizational mantras I had developed over many years of digital correspondence and see what methodologies allow me to maintain such an austere working environment.

I don’t receive a phenomenal amount of email – I’m sure that many of you deal with double or triple the messages I see – but between three email accounts (all managed through a single Gmail account, one of my favorite things about Google’s email service), I acquire anywhere between 30-100 legitimate, these-need-to-be-read messages per day. I greatly benefit from Gmail’s excellent spam detection, so nearly every message that reaches my inbox is something I was truly intended to receive.

The following guidelines have worked well for me, and have become increasingly important as my digital life continues to grow. A cluttered inbox is the sign of a cluttered mind, and I’m confident that by applying some basic organizational principles to your email can have a positive impact on your overall productivity.

Deal with important or unpleasant messages immediately

It has to start somewhere, It has to start sometime
What better place than here, what better time than now?

Rage Against the Machine, “Guerilla Radio”

Image credit Matthew C. Wright http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattwright/5814441346/My first recommendation is one of the basic foundations of dealing with any type of procrastination: take care of the nastiest jobs first, and get them done right away. Be a Now person. When you get an email that requires a response, even if it’s something you truly don’t want to deal with, attack it directly. You’ll have to do it eventually, and it will only get more unpleasant as it slowly descends through the abyss.

If you can’t deal with an important message right away, give it a star and come back to it as soon as you have some free time (more on this in Star emails, but make a clear distinction between “To Dos” and “Reference” emails below). If you ever find yourself descending into the “procrastination death spiral”, a term I lovingly coined for when you’ve put something off for so long you now feel too guilty to do it anymore, grit your teeth, apologize for the delay, and reply just as you would’ve in the first place.

This principle has an important caveat: you don’t want to be constantly dealing with emails all day and night. Real, genuine recreational time is incredibly important to your physical and mental well-being, so establish some ground rules for dealing with email. At work, maybe you can set aside 5 minutes out of every 30 where you focus exclusively on your inbox. At home, you could have two well-defined email sessions in an evening, and anything past 10pm can wait until morning.

Being a Now person will make you feel better, your “to do” list will shrink, and people will love that you’re the guy who responded to them promptly and will likely return the favor. Cue beams of golden sunlight, angels with heraldic trumpets, and rainbows shooting out of your well-maintained inbox.

Use Priority Inbox, but not because of the Priority feature

Action expresses priorities.

-Monahdas Gandhi

Gmail’s Priority Inbox feature is one of the single best tools in your organizational arsenal. This supercharged version of your standard inbox can automatically identify which emails require more attention than others, and through your careful instruction, it can learn to make better decisions over time. To enable Priority Inbox, go to your mail settings, click the Priority Inbox tab, then select Show Priority Inbox at the bottom.

While the automatic prioritization of emails might be useful for many of you, a secondary feature of Priority Inbox is what cements its usefulness for me: the ability to view starred messages in your main inbox, just below your priority messages. Starred messages are the focal points of my “getting things done” mentality, so looking at their yellow, five-pointed selves every time I open my inbox is the single best way to guarantee they’ll get dealt with.

Using Priority Inbox to view starred messages directly in your inbox.
Enable Priority Inbox? Check!

But, carelessly starring every email that requires your attention can also be a bad thing, so…

Star messages, but make a clear distinction between “To Dos” and “Reference” emails

Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.

– Paul J. Meyer

Image credit Laura Fernanda Melo http://www.flickr.com/photos/44459555@N00/4144047837/Although I don’t recommend using your email inbox as your primary “to do” list (there are several other services that offer superior task management features and can integrate directly into your email), starring important messages is an excellent way to keep track of messages that require action on your part.

As mentioned in the Deal with important or unpleasant messages immediately principle, there will be times when you simply can’t reply to a message right away, or perhaps you need to take care of a few things before finishing the task. Messages like this should receive a star, and by using Priority Inbox you’ll see that message front-and-center each time you log into Gmail.

When using stars, it is very important to differentiate between “To Do” emails and “Reference” emails; failing to do so can cause you to be overwhelmed with starred messages that never seem to be resolved. Only star messages that have a clear task, objective, or require an action on your part. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if the task will be resolved by an action, it’s ok to star. If the task will be resolved on its own after a period of time, it should not be starred.

Rather than putting stars on reference emails, create a label in Gmail for them instead (these are essentially folders for those of you that are familiar with desktop email clients). Because Gmail now allows you to nest labels (create subfolders), you can easily divide up reference emails into multiple categories. I have three: Personal (schedules, important contact information, lists), Professional (work-related reference email), and Techerator (schedules, project plans, staffing information).

Nested Labels in Gmail for reference emails
Nested labels in Gmail for reference emails

If you’re really interested in taking your inbox organization to the next level, you can use Gmail’s superstars to visually distinguish between different types of important emails. This can help you prioritize tasks (for example: red stars for urgent priority, blue stars for low priority), but be careful not to go overboard with them. Adding a different star for every message could easy have an adverse affect on your organizational system, so use them with moderation.

Gmail superstars
Gmail superstars

Here’s a little practice for determining whether an email should be starred or labeled:

  • An RSVP for a friend’s upcoming wedding that you haven’t replied to – Star, it requires action
  • Directions for driving to the wedding – Label, this is reference material
  • A long but important email you didn’t have time to finish reading – Star, until you finish reading it
  • A long but important email that you’ve already read, but contains useful information – Label, you can come back to it later but there’s nothing to check off here
  • An invitation to a birthday party in three weeks – Calendar, this is neither reference nor something you can check off through immediate action
  • A list of presents you need to buy for the birthday party – Star, and maybe once finished you could add it to a reference label for future birthdays

Filter nothing, sort everything

For sure, the American people have access to more information now than any other people who have ever lived on earth. And I think we do a pretty good job of sorting out what’s important.

– Bob Schieffer

Melissa and Bryan Ripka http://www.flickr.com/photos/melissadion/3395829919/
I grew up admiring this type of organization used on the farm.

A lot of people maintain the illusion of a clean inbox by heavily filtering their messages. Filters allow you to pre-process messages before you even receive a new mail notification, but you should never create a filter that hides messages from your view.

For example, some people will create a “catch-all” rule that filters messages of a certain type and automatically marks them as read. This isn’t safe (and you’ll forget about it over time), which can easily result in a lot of legitimate messages going to the briny depths of your inbox without your knowledge.

Rather than hide messages, use Gmail’s great filtering system to automatically add labels to your email so you can quickly sort through them yourself. I’ve created sorting filters like “Social Networks” that automatically label messages from sites like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube. While I still see these messages in my inbox, now that they’re labeled I can quickly mark them all as read after I’ve had a chance to confirm their importance (using Priority Inbox’s priority feature is especially useful in this scenario).

Conclusion

Staying on top of a busy inbox is not easy, especially since our inboxes now house personal correspondence, bills, social network notifications, information requests, To Dos – the list can go on for days.

If you’re currently overwhelmed by email and the elusive “inbox zero” seems to constantly evade your grasp, try following some of the principles I’ve presented in this article and see if it works for you. Be a Now person. And if you don’t receive a lot of email and therefore don’t have a messy inbox – start using these tips now! They’ll be invaluable as your email intake inevitably grows.

Image credit: Exper Giovanni Rubaltelli, Matthew C. Wright, Laura Fernanda Melo, Melissa and Bryan Ripka

Free Online Sites that Help You Get Organized

Since everything is online and available through our phones, USB flash drives and pens may as well be obsolete.  There are hundreds of online services nowadays available for free to help you productively organize, access, and share aspects your life.  Here are just a few that you may find useful:

Mint: Organize your finances

I’ve been using Mint for over two years now and they have by far surpassed any other personal finance software I’ve ever used.  Once you create an account, you can log in and enter the information for all of your accounts, including checking, savings, credit card, loan, and RSP accounts for almost any bank or financial institution.

Mint securely accesses and retrieves your balances and spending activity on all of your added accounts to help you review, analyze, and plan your spending. It will also notify you of when you are charged fees, and when you have payments due.

Box.net: Organize your documents

Box.net offers a service similar to Google Docs (and actually integrates with Google Apps as well) with some enhanced features such as mobile access, task management, data synchronization, and collaboration control.  While there are paid plans for businesses, it’s free for personal use.

Remember the Milk: Organize your to-do list

Forget something?  Try keeping your to-do list online with Remember the Milk, where you can create task lists and share them with others, sync them to your phone, or get IM or SMS reminders.

TripIt: Organize your travel plans

TripIt is known as an online virtual travel assistant.  When you book hotels, flights, or other travel accommodations online, simply forward your confirmation emails to TripIt and it will generate a master itinerary with everything you need for your trip. You can access the itinerary online or through your mobile device, and sent copies to others.

This mini-list is just the tip of the iceberg for the vast number of free services online that are available to help you organize your life.  Know of any more services you use in your day-to-day activities? Let us know in the comments section below (no rhyme intended)!

Crack the Lid on Gmail’s Canned Responses to Dish Out Quick Replies

If you find yourself writing impersonal, repetitive emails often, Gmail’s Canned Responses feature is a great way to streamline this tedious process.  Canned Responses allows you to save pre-written messages, so next time you need to remind Ted that the wireless network’s ID is “Potato1” you can take care of it with just a couple clicks.

canned1

To activate Canned Responses, open up Gmail and head to the Labs tab in Gmail Settings (you can also click the small green beaker in the top right corner).  Scroll down to Canned Responses and click Enable, then click the Save Changes button to activate it.

canned2

The next time you finish writing a email that could be reused, click the new Canned responses menu under the To: field in Gmail where you can click New Canned Response and give it a name to save it.  Don’t worry about things like your signature or any quoted text from a reply – it automatically grabs only the part you’ve written.

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The next time you need to send out a similar reply, just open up the Canned responses menu and select your message.  It will be instantly inserted into your message.

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How to Send Automatic Canned Replies

There might be some messages that you always want to send canned replies to.  This can be easily accomplished by combining Gmail’s filter feature with Canned responses.  To create an automatic response, click the Create a filter link to the right of the search box at the top of Gmail.

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Specify the criteria for the message that you’re trying to identify.  In my case, I want to create a filter that looks for any message with the words “Press Release” in the subject.  Click Next Step once you’ve specified your filter.

canned3

You can then select the option for Send canned response: and select the desired reply.  You can also choose options like Mark as read or Skip the Inbox to keep your inbox clean if you have no future need for the message.

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The next time an email matching the criteria you specified reaches your inbox, it will automatically receive the canned reply you created.

Conclusion

Canned responses are a great way to get responses out to people without going through the tedium of writing the same message over and over.  If you find yourself sending out impersonal, informational emails, this can save you a lot of time.  And if you want to make them more personal, leave a few fields so you can edit them before you send the message.

If you enjoyed this article, make sure to check out the rest of our helpful articles about Gmail!

Create and Sync Notes on your Desktop, Phone, and the Web with Simplenote

Ever have an idea that you’re sure is going to make you rich, only to have forgotten it by the time you get home? Or how about the time you spent all week making a list of things you need the next time you go shopping, only to forget where you put it when the time finally came?  With Simplenote for iPhone (and other iOS devices like the iPod Touch), that’s all in the past.

Simplenote is a simple text editing service that allows you create, save, and view text notes.  The service can be accessed in a variety of different ways. The easiest way is to simply set up an account online and use the browser text editor. There is also a desktop application that you can download. This application saves your notes to your computer with the option to sync to your online account, which can be useful if you are in an area without WiFi.

The Simplenote app for iPhone and iPod Touch allows you to write and read notes on the go while syncing to your online account. (I’m actually writing this review with my iPod touch.)

Simplenote for iPhone and iPod Touch make it easy to add notes on the go.

A new feature to Simplenote is the addition of tags – these allow you to set one or more tags to each note. These tags can aid in searching for specific notes. Also, it’s now possible to look through older versions of notes you’ve created.

Tags can be useful when searching through lots of notes.

I have been looking to a program/app like Simplenote for quite some time. The whole interface is simple and fast, but it comes with a compromise: you won’t find auto formatting or spell check here. Simplenote probably wouldn’t be the best thing to write your next big novel on, but it works great for quickly jotting down information for use at a later time.

Block Distracting Sites with LeechBlock

Firefox only:  Having a hard time focusing at work?  Do you compulsively check websites while your to-do list is growing?  We can be our own worst enemies when work needs to be done and things like Facebook and RSS feeds are at our fingertips.

LeechBlock is an add-on for Firefox that allows you to block time-wasting sites so you can actually get some work done.  LeechBlock is highly customizable and even lets you configure specific times to block individual sites.

To use LeechBlock, install it from Mozilla’s add-on site and restart your browser.  When you get back into Firefox, go to Tools –> Addons and double click LeechBlock.

You can create six sets of websites to block, with each set having multiple sites and time restrictions.  The wildcard character (*) can be used to block full ranges of sites (i.e. *.google.com will block http://talk.google.com as well as http://maps.google.com).  If you want to add an exception, simply use the + sign before an address (i.e. +earth.google.com will allow you to view the Google Earth site while all other Google sites remain blocked).

LeechBlock lets you enter multiple time restrictions for sets so that you can browse normally outside of work hours.  You need to enter time restrictions in military time (using only numbers) and you can specify multiple time periods using commas.  For example, if I wanted to block access from 8:30 am-11:30 am and 12:30 pm-4:30 pm, I would use 0830-1130,1230-0430.  To block sites all day long, enter 0000-2400.

If you want a little more freedom, you can specify parts of each hour that you can access time-wasting sites.  This is great if you want to have 10 minutes of free time every hour (and hey, you’ve been working so hard today!).

LeechBlock keeps track of the total amount of time you spend browsing sites from your blocked sets so you can see exactly where you’re spending your internet time.  If you want to see more usage tips for LeechBlock, check out this site.

Have any tips for blocking distractions and increasing productivity?  Share them with us in the comments!

Image credit: Zach Klein