Remaining Productive with Things: The Pandemic Edition

Back in March I wrote about how I managed my time using the task manager app, ‘Things’. The gist of that post was that rather than struggling to remember or stay on top of all of the various activities you want to complete (no matter how small) – you chuck them all into Things, and free up the mental energy that would otherwise be expended in tracking them.

For a while, this approach worked really well, but over time I found that I was confronted every day with a huge list of tasks that needed completed, and there wasn’t any kind of tangible satisfaction in completing them, as I knew at midnight the next day’s tasks would appear on cue. Rather than helping to alleviate stress, Things began to contribute to the overwhelming pressure of everyday life, which had come sharply into focus thanks to national COVID lockdowns and varying restrictions. Things I was ment to enjoy (like making music) were reduced to yet another tickbox to be churned through.

What made the above worse was that there were recurring tasks that I wanted to complete, but often failed to find time for. I didn’t want to take them off my daily list, but I didn’t want them to have the same mental load as other tasks.

Taking inspiration from this blog post, I followed Andrea’s lead, and changed the way I approach task management with Things. Rather than having one large daily list of jobs to get through, I now have them separated into their respective categories. The tasks that I definitely want to complete that day come in at the top, under ‘Daily Tasks’, and I try to keep this to a manageable load, so that I can always clear them out. Other things that I want to get done, but don’t necessarily have to get done that specific day are then available for me to work through, based on how I feel/what energy I have that day.

How my Things to do list is organised now.

This new approach has made a huge difference to my relationship with the daily to do list. Rather than feeling like I am endlessly fighting a losing battle to keep ticking off checkboxes, I can now see at a glance exactly what tasks need to be done that day. By keeping those separate, deliberately chosen, and manageable, I no longer feel like the other bits and pieces that I want to do are a chore. If something isn’t in the Daily Tasks list – it can be done another day… and ironically, since adopting this method, I’ve gotten even more done than usual, because I don’t feel the same pressure to complete everything.

Pomodoro

One other thing that I have adopted which is worth mentioning is the Pomodoro technique. The general idea here is that you split up your time into chunks of about 20 minutes, and deliberately focus on a particular task for that period of time, before taking a break and either moving on to something else, or committing to another 20 minute period of focus.

This notion isn’t anything new. I am sure I’m not the only one who sat in maths and thought ‘Okay just get through the next five minutes and then it’ll be another five minutes after that’. Plenty of people have written about this extensively elsewhere… but it’s not an approach that I’ve ever really come to use in any disciplined way. Breaking up my tasks at work was always too difficult, and concentrating for 20 minutes to then have a break and return to the same tasks felt too artificially scheduled for my liking.

However… since I switched up my approach in Things, I’ve had success using the Pomodoro model for my own personal projects – particularly those that I want to get done but struggle to get the motivation to start. For example, I am currently learning Japanese, but sometimes (often) the prospect of firing up the flashcard app for an indeterminate amount of time seems like too much of a chore, and I put it off. Before I know it, I haven’t done it in days.

Now, I sit down and say – okay, I’ll just do it for 20 minutes just now, and then go off and do something else. Knowing that it’s such a short amount of time means I can focus much more than I normally would, and I have been rattling through tasks like never before. This also helps me work out just how much time I actually spend or need to spend on certain activities to complete them, and it can be much less than I expected.

We’ll see how this mutates and modifies as time goes on, but for now… this is the approach.

Productivity Apps: Bookmarking with Shiori

Shiori

Bookmarking

Bookmarking. It’s something I’ve always struggled to find a good solution to. The in-browser features don’t really make it easy to quickly find common URLs, and I’ve tried to use other websites in the past, but they just didn’t seem to stick in my mind.

What I’ve Tried Before

The closest I’ve come to finding an answer is in Alfred, which I’ve blogged about before. There are a few different ways you can bookmark with Alfred, but I didn’t quite find that any of them matched what I was looking for.

First, I tried using the ‘web search’ feature to associate bookmarks with particular keywords. The problem with doing this though, is that you need to remember the exact keyword to call up the site you want. As as a result, it isn’t all that great for keeping track of lots of different locations.

Another solution was to use the Alfred Snippet Manager. This could be a really good solution, as you would be able to search by the title and description that you enter, as well as the content of the actual URL itself. However, if you already use the Snippet Manager for predefined replies – more like a clipboard manager – then having a large number of bookmarks in there could pollute the results, increasing the time it takes to find the things you need effectively.

I set out to find an alternative, and made use of my old Delicious account to create a workflow that could search through my bookmarks by making use of the private RSS feed. It worked, but was a bit clunky, and not as intuitive as I’d have liked. That meant that I didn’t ever really make use of it.

The real solution came in the form of a different app altogether…

Shiori

I stumbled upon Shiori completely by chance, and was surprised I hadn’t seen it mentioned anywhere before.

Both the website and the app itself are beautifully simple, and easy to use. You simply set it up to connect to a Delicious (free), Pinboard ($11 annually) account, or both. Personally, I use the latter – as Delicious keeps making changes to their service which break things. The $11 is worth the money. Call up the interface with a hotkey, and you can search through all of your bookmarks in an interface that is awfully similar in feel and operation to Alfred.

shiori_main

The similarity isn’t a criticism, as Alfred is amazing. You can search via tag, words, or even abbreviation. Like Alfred, the more you use the app, the smarter it gets – picking up on the type of searches you use most commonly to find particular bookmarks. Because it uses your login details (and doesn’t just pull it from the RSS like my hacky method above), it’s really fast too.

There’s also a hotkey that can be set to bookmark new websites quickly from the browser. If you have Keyboard Maestro installed, Joseph Schmitt has created a pretty sweet workflow which you can assign to an additional hotkey. It takes the highlighted text and automatically adds it into the ‘notes’ field. More on Keyboard Maestro in a later post.

This type of bookmarking is often called ‘social bookmarking’, as they are largely designed to be public, to share with friends etc. I’m not really into that, and prefer to keep my URLs private. Shiori makes it easy to automatically tag new bookmarks as private, to avoid having to do it manually yourself every time.

You can add in certain domains (if you want to keep particular – ahem – websites – private), but if you stick in an asterix, it will capture them all.

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In summary, I love Shiori. The design is as nice as Alfred (and it works just as well), it arguably works better for bookmarks, and it helps keep things compartmentalised. Snippets are now assigned to one hotkey, Alfred another, and Bookmarks another.

Where can I get it?

You can download Shiori for free (yes, completely free) here.

Productivity Apps: PopClip

If you work online, there a whole load of tasks that can be a pain in the ass to have to do. Even if work itself is great, nobody likes having to do certain things… like copying and pasting different URLs into new browser tabs, or re-formatting garbled text.

One of the benefits of working at Automattic is being surrounded by friendly, smart geeks who have tried all sorts of different things to get the most out of their computers, and to tailor them to fit how they work. When you hit the sweet spot, your laptop really seems to sing; doing exactly what you want to straight away without having to footer about and get bogged down in the drudgery; it becomes almost like an extension of your fingers or brain. That sort of harmony can be a really great feeling, and let you enjoy working rather than it becoming a chore. I’ve written before about how great Alfred is for this.

One of the other tools that helps achieve this sort of inter-relationship for me was recommended by my friend and colleague Mark: PopClip for Mac.

original

PopClip is a small helper application for Mac and iOS that pops up a control panel when you select text. You can then quickly access a whole variety of different options, from the standard Bold/Italic formatting options, to looking up the text in the dictionary, Google translate, or whatever else you might fancy.

This is what my PopClip bar looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 15.33.31

Usefulness, and Integration with Alfred

At first, I wasn’t too convinced about this app. It seemed like one of those cool ideas that didn’t really play out properly in execution. The prospect of having the PopClip bar appear whenever I highlighted text seemed like it would become a real pain real quickly, and it did.

However, there were lots of cool features in there that I was sure would be useful at somepoint. I realised that rather than have the bar pop up every single time text was highlighted, Alfred could be used to control the behaviour through the use of Hotkeys.

As a result I created an Alfred workflow specifically for this purpose. You can download that here.

Once installed, you can toggle PopClip ‘On’ or ‘Off’ by using the keyword popclip from the Alfred launch bar. Alternatively, you can leave PopClip off, and trigger its menu when needed by the use of a hotkey – currently set to ⌘ + P. The latter is what I find myself using more often than not.

As soon as I realised that I could do this, PopClip seemed a lot more powerful than before.

Features

There are a whole bunch of things you can use PopClip for, so it’s just a matter of finding what is useful for your own particular workflow.

Here’s a glimpse at some of the extensions I have installed:

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 15.40.18

The ones I use the most are:

Instant Translate

This is a great extension. Highlight a sentence, call up PopClip and hit Instant Translate to get a translation into the ‘Destination Language’ that you set in the preferences. Saves the time and hassle of going to the Google translate page, instead bringing up the translation in a bubble:

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 15.46.24

That’s Greek, by the way.

Download Instant Translate here.

Google Translate

Of course, sometimes there’s just too much text to display in one little popup. The Google Translate extension grabs the selected text and passes it through to the full booner.

Shorten URL (bit.ly)

Pretty self explanatory. Grabs the selected URL and shortens it using the Bit.ly service. Download it here.

CopyURLs

This is one of my favourites. Often I need to deal with long e-mails that have various URLs in them. Going through these, copying and pasting the URLs out separately was always a real fiddly, and boring task. The CopyURLs extension did away with all of that in one quick swoop. Simply highlight any text, invoke the extension, and just the URLs from that text will be copied to the clipboard. Fantastic.

This beauty was authored by Brett, and is available to download as part of a bundle here. If you just want CopyURLs though, you can grab it here.

OpenURLs

Just like CopyURLs, but this time it takes the URLs in the selected text and opens each of them in a new browser tab. Pretty swish. Grab it here.

Abbreviation Lookup

Not sure what an abbreviation means? WTF TLDR? Highlight and invoke this extension to get taken straight to the meaning. I ended up writing my own extension for this purpose, as the existing one on the PopClip page wasn’t producting great results. Get it here.

Send to SimpleNote

I had been looking about for an extension that integrated with SimpleNote, but couldn’t find any. So, I wrote one. This will grab the select text and send it over to a new note in SimpleNote. Great for capturing quick thoughts you want to come back to later. Download it here.

Simplenote-demo
Image owned by Pilot Moon.

Custom Searches

Can’t find what you are looking for on the list of 100+ free extensions on the PopClip page? No sweat. You can easily set up your own. There’s a good tutorial here if you want to get down and dirty with AppleScript, but if you’re not ready for that yet, Brett again has created a fantastic wee tool to help you on your way. Simply plug in the site you want to search with the highlighted text, and this will spit out a PopClip ready extension for you to use.

Personally, I’ve created a whole bunch of quick extensions for things I need to search for at work regularly – like usernames, domain names, and e-mail addresses. Not dis-similar to Alfred’s Custom Searches function, using PopClip in this way makes the process even quicker for particular tasks, saving the need to copy the text, call up Alfred, paste it in then search. Instead, just highlight, call up PopClip, and hit the relevant search button. Easy!

Summary and Price

It can be hard at first to get into the habit of using PopClip, but there are real rewards to be reaped once you do. Certain tasks are made so much quicker than they would be otherwise, and it’s just a matter of finding out what will be of most use to you personally.

PopClip costs $4.99 from the App Store, but also has a free trial available on the Pilot Moon website. For all the hours it’s saved me copying URLs from lawyer’s emails, it’s been well worth it. Give it a bash and see what you think.