Friday, April 18, 2008

My Favorite Productivity Software

My Favorite Productivity Software

I'm someone who loses track of what he's doing 15 seconds into it unless there's something particularly interesting to hold my attention. So I've looked at a lot of different kinds of tricks and tools over the years to try to help me stay on track.

The list is:

Yosemite FileKeeper
Illium ListPro
SplashData SplashID
Microsoft Outlook 2007
Microsoft OneNote 2007
Netcentric Getting Things Done Add-in for Outlook
Franklin Covey PlanPlus V5 for Outlook


Yosemite FileKeeper is a very nice thing to have, it saves versions of your files. Backup (saving a snapshot of everything on your disk) is essential in case of a really big problem, and FileKeeper doesn't replace that. But archival of individual file versions more likely to save your butt more often. It creates a copy of the file every time you perform a "save" operation. So if you deleted something mistakenly and then saved your work, you would normally be out of luck. Especially if you didn't realize your mistake until a few days later. With FileKeeper, you can just ask for the previous version before you made the mistake.

File versions is something that Windows has sorely lacked since the very beginning and it has only barely been implemented in Vista. Although Vista has added a sort-of versioning facility, it is very primitive compared to FileKeeper. FileKeeper lets you configure its archival process to include or exclude specific kinds of files based on rules and lets you specify either a discrete version mode (every time you save the file) or a snapshot mode (for databases and other things that don't save as versions). You can tell it how long to keep versions, and how long to keep them after the original file is deleted. You can create additional "data vaults" on other drives (such as your external USB drives) so that you have additional backup in case something happens to your hard drive.

I like the interface and it seems to work seamlessly and without impacting my work. I never know it's there unless I have to restore a file, and then it becomes invaluable.

ListPro runs on Windows and on the PocketPC handheld. It is a general purpose list utility that can be used for a lot of things you would normally just jot down, like shopping lists, lists of things you are collecting, gift suggestions, time tracking, and so on. It is almost as flexible as jotting things down and has the advantage of being able to structure your lists and move things around.
Even though I use Outlook to keep track of my tasks, I still use ListPro for reminders because it has a unique list-specific alarm feature. You can associate lists with a particular alarm that goes off at a particular time. So for example I create a list that has an alarm that goes off just before I leave for work and another that goes off just before I leave to go home. If I add anything to that list and date it for today, I get a reminder of all the things I need to do before I leave the house or things I need to pick up on the way home. I can then change the alarm for the whole list if my schedule changes, instead of having to change each task reminder.

SplashID is another list utility that can be used with handheld computers, similar to ListPro. However SplashID is optimized for keeping information safe rather than configuring lists with all sorts of different kinds of fields. SpashId only has a few different kinds of fields, but it saves copies of itself automatically whenever you exit it, and can be kept encrypted strongly with a single password so you can keep your combinations, social security numbers, and passwords safe. It is a tremendous convenience to remember one password instead of dozens. Just be sure you don't forget the SplashID password!

Snag-It is a great screen capture utility that lets you capture just about anything in a wide variety of modes and then annotate your captures very easily. I use it very heavily for documentation, for travel directions, and so on. It often lets me save things that would otherwise be very difficult to save.

WinDirStat is a brilliantly crafted visual display of what is on your disk. This is one of those utilities that les you see why you are running out of disk space. But the difference is that the display is a visual map of blocks where the size of a block represents the size of the file, the color represents the file type, and the position in the map represents the location. The reason this is so clever is that it gives you at a glance a complete understanding of where and how the space is being used. For example, you can instantly tell that the space is being taken up by a lot of small files in one place and a couple of huge files in another place, and you know what kinds of files they are.

One of the most useful things I've found David Allen's "Getting Things Done" methodology, and there is software that plugs into Microsoft Outlook to make use of it there. I use it along with Franklin Covey's PlanPlus V5 for Outlook to keep an organized list of things I have to do, appointments, and so on.

The GTD add-in makes it easier to use the email inbox as a way of tracking what I have to do and funnel incoming requests and reminders into tasks and calendar events.

PlanPlus helps organize tasks according to things I'm trying to accomplish. It is a very light form of project management that mostly just reminds me of my goals periodically so I don't lose sight of them while working on the details of things.

You can use either of those add-ins independently or together, or you do most of the same things with Outlook 2007 without the add-ins, if you are willing to put some work into it and establish some new habits.

The latest version of Microsoft's e-mail client (Outlook 2007) is a bit heavy on resources and slow off the blocks but lets you conveniently keep track of your RSS feeds, your SharePoint lists, and your forms, and lets you keep convenient offline copies of your SharePoint documents. I probably wouldn't buy Outlook 2007 for personal use by itself, but working in an environment where I use many Microsoft programs including Office and SharePoint for sharing information with other people, it becomes particularly useful.

The add-ins are a great convenience though if you don't want to have to learn a lot about Outlook 2007 or you don't want to write code, or you want to save on the amount of learning and customizing you have to do.

Microsoft OneNote is very a convenient repository for saving captures of things that you can annotate, and is well integrated with other Microsoft tools. It's particuarly nice if you use a Tablet PC (one of those small laptops where you can write with a digital pen instead of using a mouse). I use it with a standard laptop and still find it useful, especially with the various add-ins that let you print to OneNote and save from Outlook to OneNote directly. Probably the best thing about it is that it has a very good search facility built into it for helping find your notes later in case you didn't file them the way you thought you did.