Circa Notebooks

IMG_0426 After seeing it recommended on Lifehacker and 43 Folders, I decided to try out the Circa notebook system. The difference between Circa notebooks and ordinary notebooks is that Circa notebook pages are bound together by eleven individual plastic rings.

Circa notebooks combine the best of a 3-ring binder with the best of a spiral-bound notebook. Like a 3-ring binder, you can easily add any printed page to the notebook. In fact, because the rings are so close to each other, you can attach smaller pieces of paper, like 3×5 cards or even business cards. You can also easily rearrange or remove pages as needed.

But unlike a 3-ring binder, the Circa is compact and easy to carry. It sits on your desk just like a spiral-bound notebook, taking up half the desk real estate of an ordinary binder.

IMG_0432The biggest disadvantage of the Circa system is that in order to add your own pages to the notebook, you have to buy Levenger’s expensive hole punch. I looked at several other sites and at similar systems like Rollabind, and this is the most economical option.

Fortunately, it’s also a high-quality product, which is why you’ll find so many enthusiastic supporters of the Circa system on the various productivity web sites.

As much as I love computers, I find that nothing works as well as paper for planning my day. I just get more done when I use a paper to-do list than when I use anything digital; paper is just more flexible.

And with the Circa notebook, I can keep everything I’m working on organized together in a neat, organized, and portable package.

Fully Automatic Screenshots

Yesterday, I mentioned my script that would automatically take a screenshot and make a thumbnail. Today, I modified the script to do even more for me. Now this script:

  • Takes a screenshot
  • Makes a copy of that screenshot and resizes it down to 500 pixels wide
  • Saves both of these screenshots to my Inbox folder
  • Uploads both of these files via FTP to my web server
  • Replaces the contents of the clipboard with the HTML to link to the large screenshot and display the thumbnail.

So, when I want to upload a screenshot to my blog, I hit Windows Key + Shift + Print Screen, wait a moment, and then hit Paste into my blog entry, and it’s done.

Find out how you can set this up in the extended entry.
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Automated Screenshots and Quake-Style Console Popups with Autohotkey

This post is mostly a response to Silver2Falcon on the XCKD forums, but I’m putting it here in case anyone else is interested.

Here’s the other cool thing I’m running: the awesome and venerable AutoHotkey. I’ve got it doing a couple of neat tricks. First, when I hit Windows Key + PrtSc, it A) takes a screenshot, B) makes a copy of that screenshot and resizes it down to 500px wide, and C) dumps both of them into my Inbox folder on my desktop.

But the really neat trick is the console command line. If I hit Windows Key + Tilde, the command prompt comes up as if it were a Quake-style console. When I hit Esc, it hides until I hit Windows Key + Tilde again.

Would you mind posting/PMing me the scripts for those? You’ve just reminded me that program exists and I want to do both of those and more and I have never really done anything in AHK and I don’t have time to write anything up myself at the moment.

Sure. They both take a little setting up, but I find that they’re both useful enough to be worth the effort.
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Remember Everything with I Want Sandy

I Want Sandy is a new web service that helps you keep track of all the details of your life. The software takes on the pesona of an administrative assistant that you contact by email. This makes the service really easy to work with.

For example, lets say you want to remember to get a card for your mom’s birthday. You would write Sandy an email with the message “Remind me to buy a card for Mom on 4/23.” A minute or two later, you’ll get a response from Sandy confirming what you just sent. Then, on April 23rd, she will send you an email reminding you to get the card.

The feature I most use is reminders: it’s really easy to write “remind me to call my insurance guy next monday at 2:00 PM,” as opposed to the fairly clunky process of adding a task with a reminder to my Blackberry. And with Sandy, I don’t see that reminder again until Monday at 2 PM, which means a less cluttered to do list. In GTD terms, I use Sandy as my electronic tickler file.

Plus, I can contact Sandy through direct messages on Twitter. This is best combined with the Twitterbar Firefox extension. Instead of opening up my email, I just type “d s remind me to pay my credit card 12/1 @monthly —post” into my location bar in Firefox. When I type the last “t” in “post,” TwitterBar sends a direct message to Sandy. This way, I don’t even have to open my email to save a reminder.

You can even call Sandy through the Jott speech recognition service. After you get it set up, you call the Jott hotline, ask for Sandy, and then say what you want to remember. Jott will convert it to text and send it to Sandy. It’s really easy.

Sandy’s recognition engine is fairly robust too; there’s a handy cheat sheet that lists most of her vocabulary. You can say abstract things like “r my appointment next monday afternoon” or have repeated items like “r go running @bidaily.”

There are a lot of great features I haven’t even touched on yet, like tagging, list and contact management, and shared reminders with friends. It’s easy to use and it’s free. Check it out at http://iwantsandy.com/.

Beauty in Engineering: The Fujitsu ScanSnap S510 and Life without Permanent Paper

I always love it when I find a well-designed tool. A device works elegantly and without problems is even better than a work of art: Art’s just pretty. A well-engineered tool can make your life demonstrably better and be pretty. The Fujitsu ScanSnap S510 is a perfect example:

Scan Snap

oldnotesThis is easily the best scanner I’ve ever used. I spent the day scanning in my box of old notes from school (kept on the theory that it might be useful someday). The scanner had very few problems chewing through page after page of notes, from printed handouts to deteriorated notebooks.

And this thing is fast; I could never, ever have done this much scanning with a traditional flatbed scanner. If I had to scan each page, one at a time, first one side and then the other–I would never have bothered with this project, and I’d probably have dragged this box with me for the rest of my life, because "I might use it some day!"

Now I’m free of a box of clutter, and I’m much more likely to use this stuff, because it’s in easy reach. I have it in my computer sorted by class, rather than in a box where I’d almost certainly never find what I need.

norbauer at 43 Folders has a great post that goes into a lot more depth about the ScanSnap and when to use paper vs. computers. And he’s right: I’m a lot more likely to use paper for brainstorming and note-taking now that it won’t pile up and get in the way later. Just think, write, and scan.

Facebook Fixer: Get Rid of App Spam in Your News Feed

If you use Facebook, you’ve no doubt seen countless "popular items" from your networks cluttering up your news feed. You’re probably also tired of countless announcements of movie trivia contests and "likeness tests" too. Worse yet, there’s no setting to remove notifications from your friends’ apps from the news feed, so you’re stuck with a lot of spam in the news feed.

However, I’ve found a way to hide updates from any single Facebook application and at the same time get rid of the useless "popular items" posts. It’s really easy:

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Unclutter Your Blog

Unclutterer links to a great post listing 50 Ways to Unclutter your Blog. There’s a lot of good ideas here, starting with the very first one, under the heading of "Unclutter your sidebar":

1. Move archives to their own page. There is no real reason that they need to be on your sidebar. A reader who has decided they want to dig deeper into your blog will be willing to navigate to a separate page. Reduce blog clutter by linking to a ‘Monthly Archives’ page instead.

Many of these ideas boil down to "get rid of widgets that no one cares about." Content is king: You want your blog readers to focus on what you’ve spent time and effort to write.

At some point here I’ll have to through this list and actually apply some of these ideas. I like the idea of keeping making things clean and polished so that it’s easy to read whatever drivel I come up with.

Note: Skelliewag.org was experiencing a bit of server difficulty when I wrote this; if you get a "service unavailable error," try again a little later.

Use a Wii Remote to Navigate Google Reader

The Nintendo Wii Remote is one of the most easy-to-use game controllers around, but did you know that you can use it to control your computer? The "Wiimote" makes a great tool for a lot of different applications, from Photoshop to Half Life. I’ve found it to be especially useful with Google Reader; see just how useful it is in the two-and-a-half minute video below.

You’ll find detailed instructions on how to set this up in the extended entry. Don’t worry, this is a really easy hack.

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My Desktop, and How I Use It to Get Things Done

My mom posted her desktop to her blog earlier today, and it inspired me to show you mine. You can click on any of the thumbnails below for a larger view.

My Desktop

The wallpaper is from Digital Blasphemy, where a guy named Ryan Bliss makes the best wallpapers in the world. This is his latest work.

I’ve hidden all of the icons on my desktop to make it a lot cleaner. I can autohide the two docks at the top and have just the pretty background if I want, but I find it easier if I have some functionality on the desktop.

The row of three icons to the left are on an ObjectDock. From left to right, they are Firefox, my Desktop, and my Recycle Bin. The icons are included in IconPackager for Vista.

The row of icons on the dock on the right are from the Yahoo! Widget Engine. If I click any of these icons, a widget will appear on the desktop with more information. From left to right, I have a battery monitor, a CPU monitor, a dictionary widget, a RAM monitor, a TV guide widget, a wi-fi Signal Monitor, a Southern US temperature map, and a weather widget. Most of these I can monitor from the dock, but the TV guide widget, the dictionary, and the US temperature map have to be clicked on to be useful.

TV Guide Widget
A TV Guide Widget
Weather and Dictionary Widgets
Weather Widgets and the Dictionary Widget

Now, I have four hidden folders on my desktop. These were inspired by the Kinkless Desktop series, and they are: Inbox, Processing, Outbox, and Archives. Almost everything that I do goes into one of these folders, except for programs, photos, movies, and music. So, it would be handy to be able to get to them instantly. To do so, I use AutoHotkey scripts. To get to my Inbox folder, I hit Windows Key – I; for the Processing folder, I hit Windows Key – P, and so on. This means I go from thinking “I need to look at that file I just downloaded” to looking at it in no time at all.

I’ve just started to scratch the surface of what I can make AutoHotkey do, like make a drop-down command prompt or Instantly take a screen shot and resize it. It’s a powerful tool.

The final indispensable program that I use to get things done on my computer is Launchy. When I hit Ctrl-Space, Launchy appears and I start typing. Within a couple of keystrokes, the icon of program that I need will appear, and I hit enter to run it. I also have it set up to index my four desktop folders, so I can type the name of any document and open it just by knowing any of the words in the file name.

Launchy
See how it doesn’t even need to be the first letter of the file name?

My desktop is set up to be as clean as possible while still keeping the files and folders that I need most at my fingertips. My goal is to make my computer as efficient a tool as possible, so that it will stay out of the way when I need to get something done.

Let me know if you have any questions, and leave a comment if you post your own desktop to your blog. My mom’s blog has some instructions on how to make a screen shot if you need any help.

Adding a New Feature to Tracks: Email Todos From Certain Contexts

After searching long and hard for a good todo list manager, I finally settled on Tracks. It is fast, easy to use, and it is specifically designed with the “Getting Things Done” methodology in mind. Furthermore, it’s written in Ruby on Rails, which makes it fairly easy to add new features.

I have added one such feature to my copy of Tracks. One of the keys of a good productivity system is the ability to have the information you need when you need it. For example, a shopping list that you leave at home is useless. Likewise, a list of things you need to do while you’re out doing errands doesn’t do you any good if it’s stuck in your computer.

The ideal situation for me is to have the todos from contexts like @phone and @errands with me on my Blackberry wherever I go. Now, the volunteers who write Tracks are working on a version of the software that will be accessible by mobile phones, but that won’t help me. Since I run my copy of Tracks locally on my computer instead of on a web server, my phone would be unable to access Tracks.

The same problem affects solutions that involve Tracks’ built-in RSS feeds: feed readers that I could use wouldn’t be able to access them. After struggling—and failing—to get RSS-to-Email python scripts working (curse you AT&T for blocking port 25!), I finally struck upon an idea: Why not have change Tracks to have it automatically email my Blackberry the instant I create a task in these contexts?

In the extended entry, I go into how I tweaked Tracks to add this feature, in case you want to do it too. I would just submit this to the Tracks team as a feature suggestion, but there is a bit of manual configuration that I don’t think it would be easy to add to the main program. Here’s how its done.

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