Back in January 2011, I wrote in big red letters on one of the white boards in my office GET THESE DONE! It was the header of a list of issues and desires I had for my home, my work, my office, and my personal life. Now with 2011 ending, I’m taking a look back to see what it was that I got done… and what I’m going to have to carry over for 2012.
I’m a sucker for software or hardware or just plain tips that will help me streamline my life, so if you’ve got some suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments. Meanwhile, below you’ll find my tasks, the solutions I chose to implement, and some notes and comments about success or failure or somewhere in-between.
My office often looks like a Kinko’s dumpster exploded, with boxes and piles of paper and magazines and journals scattered everywhere. I’ve really needed to get more organized, reduce the paperwork clutter, become more efficient with my research, make tax season less painful… you get the picture. Here’s what I did for my office.
1. Eliminate the magazine stacks in my office — with eight magazine/journal subscriptions (only three of which are available in digital format — Wired, Men’s Health, and Make:), I have a tendency to keep magazines that have one or two interesting articles in them. The downside is that I have a five foot stack of magazines in one corner (to better help the stack stay upright) that really needed to disappear.
2. Eliminate the numerous tool manuals in my workshop — I have a huge stack of user guides for the table saw, the circular saw, the router… the list goes on. Often more than half the thickness of these guides are dedicated to Spanish, French, and other translations. I rarely use the manuals, but it’s sure nice to have them when trying to remember the steps to change blades or calibrate something.
3. Eliminate the financial paperwork from publishers, tax preparer, investments, etc. — I am simply swamped with the amount of paperwork that is still delivered via snail mail for both business and personal. Most of this stuff is a waste of paper to me — shareholder reports, changes in privacy statements, etc. — and most of the remaining stuff is not required to be kept for any length of time.
4. Reduce the scraps of scribbles, drawings, worksheets from school, etc. created by my kids — the sheer volume of drawings that I’ve collected over the years, plus all the PreK worksheets that come home with Great Job! and Outstanding! written in big letters at the top, is overwhelming me. I feel bad tossing this stuff, but I know that 90% or more of it I’ll likely never look at again. I want to keep some for sentimental purposes, but the rest has made a pile that no one but my boys’ spouses will one day want to look through… and maybe not even then. I have a box in the corner that is overflowing with this stuff, and something’s got to give.
5. Reduce the time it takes for me to find financial stuff for my accountant — I get a call at least once a quarter from my accountant asking for this report or a copy of that receipt. I need to be able to quickly find what he wants and get it to him ASAP.
My solution? A personal scanner and lots of hard drive space. I used a combination of my ScanSnap 1300 (since donated to a family member who needs it more than I do) and the Doxie Go (which I reviewed recently) to get rid of all the magazines, tool manuals, drawings, tax stuff, etc. I then paid a very reasonable fee for a local company to come and pick up the five full boxes and shred it all to pieces. They did it right in front of me with their special truck. The sound of all that paper shredding was music… sweet music.
After converting everything to PDFs or images, I separated it out into things I wanted to keep only on my iPad (using GoodReader, my favorite PDF viewer) and things to archive away to Dropbox so I can view them from any Internet-connected device, including my phone. I created a special shared folder on my Dropbox account (I’ll talk about that shortly) that I use to share financial stuff with my tax preparer and accountant and another special folder that contains all of my son’s scribbles, certificates of achievement, homework samples, and more.
I’d have given myself an A, but I still have a bad habit of collecting magazines in a stack. Since scanning the original stack in at the end of the summer, I’ve since grown another small stack that needs to be eliminated. I don’t think I’ll get it done by December 31st, thus the A-. Still, my office is looking pretty good right now without all the ripped out articles, printouts, manuals, and other papers scattered around.
Photos and Music
In addition to clutter, I have dozens of folders with digital photos inside scattered across two laptops and one desktop PC, with hundreds more photos still sitting on memory cards. I also managed to cross the 6GB mark for music, with about 60% of my CD collection ripped and stored and synched with iTunes on one laptop only, preventing me from listening to my music anywhere else. I’d like to be able to access my music and my photos from any computer or my iPad or Android phone.
My solution? A Dropbox Pro Account with 50GB of storage. Dropbox has made my digital life so much easier, but with the free 2GB account plus 1GB of bonus space from friends and family signing up I was always maxing out my storage and having to move stuff out of Dropbox and back to a hard drive. But not anymore.
At first, I considered iCloud from Apple because they wouldn’t count the music I’d purchased from iTunes as part of the storage quota. But iCloud wouldn’t satisfy the requirement of letting me access my content from my Android phone. I also wanted the ability to share content with various folks — my accountant, my parents, my editors, etc. So I stuck with Dropbox. Now, I share chapters and screenshots and photos with my editors (in lieu of using multiple ftp servers) and I have all my photos and music accessible from my phone, iPad, and any computer, not to mention working chapters, draft documents, and tax forms such as W-9s. When my in-laws want to see photos of the grandchildren, I simply open the Dropbox app, load up the folder on my iPad, and launch the slideshow. When my accountant needs my latest bank statement, he can grab it without calling or emailing me (because I scanned it in as a PDF and put it in the shared folder that only he can access). My music streams easily on my phone and my iPad. I’m a happy guy.
Because Dropbox maintains a 30 day backup, I can rest easy knowing if I’ve deleted something accidentally (or my accountant or one of my editors), I can go back and get it. 50GB is plenty for me — I’ve got about 8GB of music, 5GB of digital photos, and anywhere from 10 to 20GB of other stuff that I want kept in the cloud and accessible from anywhere. Yes, there are competitors to Dropbox who might have better pricing or offer more features… but Dropbox does what I need and the price was acceptable to me for the amount of extra storage.
I’ve been wanting to find a way to organize all my research — websites, magazines, books, photos, etc. Whether putting together a book proposal or writing a blog post or simply wanting to keep something that I believe may come in handy or useful at a later time, I often collect details from a range of sources and I need a way to keep them all together. The digital folders on my laptop are a decent solution, but I’ve been looking for a better solution for some time now.
My solution? Evernote installed on my computers, iPad, and Android phone.
Evernote is an interesting (and free) app. I have it installed on my iPad, my Android phone, my MacBook Air, and my home PC (Win7). It has a similar method to Dropbox in that it syncs with all devices and is even accessible via a web browser from any computer with an Internet connection. But where Dropbox uses a folder system similar to most operating systems, Evernote treats everything as a note. A note can be anything — a bit of text, a PDF, a photo, a voice recording, a website or bits of text from the site. You keep notes in a notebook, so imagine having the ability to keep a physical notebook that contained everything related to a subject tucked inside. An Evernote digital notebook does the same thing — it allows you to group your data together for related topics. When I’m researching a software book, for example, I’ll create a note that has my Table of Contents. Another note might contain a photo of the software’s box and hardware requirements. Yet another note might contain a bit of a webpage that talks about some special feature that I don’t want to forget to include. While I’m away from my computer, should I see something that needs to go in that book’s notebook, I open up the Evernote app on my phone, select the camera option, take a photo, and then specify the notebook to assign the photo. When I get home, I turn on my laptop and open Evernote — there’s the photo, tucked in the software book’s notebook, along with the audio recording I made (in lieu of typing an email to send to my Evernote account, which is a great feature) reminding myself about the wording of an opening for a new chapter that I didn’t want to forget.
Evernote is also similar to the web browser, Firefox, in that it supports add-ins from 3rd party developers. Some of these are free… others have a fee. I particularly like the free Skitch add-in that allows you to annotate images. When I submit a screenshot or photo to my publisher, they typically make me include a second version of the image that has callouts — arrows and text that are used to specify special areas of the image such as menus or buttons. Skitch makes it simple to do that with color, font varieties, and other imagery edits.
I have notebooks for my current books, my proposals, and much more. For example, a few months back I created a notebook that kept the names of the folks I wanted to buy Christmas presents for as well as photos, webpage snippets, and notes related to gift ideas. When I was out shopping and saw something I thought my Dad might like, I’d take a photo, send it to Evernote, and then later examine price options, features, ratings, and more. I also have a notebook that holds draft blog post ideas with links, screen captures, and company websites I wish to contact. Again, if I see something out and about that I don’t have time right away to examine in detail… in it goes to Evernote for later.
My final favorite thing about Evernote is the ability to share my notebooks. Recently I pitched a book idea to a publisher and was able to provide them with access to the notebook that had screen captures, annotated images, some webpage snippets, and my own notes and proposal text. It was a much more fleshed-out proposal than the typical text-only pitches I send and was able to demonstrate the book’s overall concept so well that we’re now moving forward on the book.
While I absolutely love Evernote, I still haven’t developed a solid habit of taking everything there and incorporating into notebooks and stacks (collections of notebooks). I still have a habit of opening up a text document and typing in random thoughts rather than doing so using the New Note feature on any of my devices. I’ve gotten good at taking photos using the built-in camera tool that automatically uploads and syncs to Evernote, and I probably use the web-snippet tool about 80% of the time. But there’s definite room for improvement. I need to create some templates in Evernote for things I do often — book proposal outline, form letters for contacting publishers, Table of Contents placeholder, and a few more. Then I can simply copy the template and save some time having to recreate an item from scratch.
The same goes for integrating my scanner with Evernote. My Doxie Go scanner can scan directly into Evernote, and I’m just not taking advantage of that feature. So many of the articles that I scan are directly related to my writing, and I still scan them to PDF out of habit and then am forced later to reference them in Evernote using a link to the PDF stored in Dropbox… it’d be much better to simply scan it into Evernote the first time.
There were a number of break-ins in our neighborhood during the holiday season of 2010 — a couple of homes and a dozen or more vehicles. As a member of the HOA, I was privy to some of the details such as the homes that were robbed were not using their alarm systems (crazy!) and the vehicles were found to be mostly unlocked at night while parked in the driveway. (The major complaint was stolen GPS devices left in the glovebox or out in plain sight.) I set myself a goal to harden my own home security (within reasonable costs) as much as possible.
My solution? A combination of hardware and software, including a video surveillance system, a wire-free lighting solution, and a very interesting website that has some serious potential with a yet-to-be-released product from Kickstarter that I’m considering backing. Here was my plan of attack (so to speak):
Motion Detection Light — I have a very dark backyard and a backdoor that has a weak light that I never leave on. I’ve been wanting to install a brighter light back there, one that will turn on if it detects motion, but there’s no good place to wire one up and most of the backyard floodlights I’ve seen in the hardware store have some fairly hefty power requirements. I’m fairly handy with tools, but this is one job I didn’t feel like tackling myself. Fortunately, a friend recommended an inexpensive alternative that has worked very well and didn’t require any special wiring. I installed a Mr. Beams Wireless LED Spotlight myself; it required drilling two holes into the woodwork and 3 D-cell batteries. The company states the batteries will power the motion sensor for about a year before needing replacement, and it’s easy to do so. There are two different pivot points on the device, allowing for up/down, and side-to-side adjustment to get it right where you want it. And it is B-R-I-G-H-T! Anyone walking within 30 feet or so will get a nice surprise when this thing lights up — it startled me during testing numerous times. I’ve already purchased another one for the rear corner of the house that needs some coverage.
FakeTV — I honestly didn’t have a lot of expectations here, but Amazon.com has a great return policy so I thought I’d give the FTV-10 a try. Let me tell you this — during one away trip this year, my neighbor called me on my mobile to ask me if anyone was staying at our house. She said she saw the TV on (at night) when she drove by the house. It worked! The thing really does simulate a television, but you’ll need to spend an evening fine-tuning its placement. I’ve found that placing it facing away from the front windows works best as it’s a bit too bright in the other direction. It has a light/dark detection switch for detecting when it gets dark, but it doesn’t work that great in my experience. Instead, I put it on a more detailed digital timer that controls its on and off switch. I was going to order a new one as I loaned it out to a family member a few months back and have yet to get it back, but I’ve now got a video surveillance system installed and have been debating if I even need to order a replacement.
Logitech 705i — I won’t go into a lot of detail on the Logitech Alert Master System as I recently wrote up a review, but this is one of those projects that I’ve been wanting to do forever. One of my favorite things about it is the notification system — I get a text message and an email (with a snapshot) any time motion is detected by the cameras. A free smart phone app allows me to check my cameras remotely and in real-time (well, about a 5 to 10 second delay) and I’ve since learned I can choose to save recorded video in the cloud rather than my home PC. I also recently figured out how to disable the flashing LED on front of the camera so it doesn’t bring attention to itself. I’m loving this video system and cannot recommend it enough.
ifttt.com — I discovered ifttt.com (If This Then That) by accident. I was looking for a way to have my video surveillance system’s notification system also call me. It’ll send text and email messages, but no phone call. Thankfully, with ifttt.com, I’ve created a very simple recipe (a two-step procedure for non-programmers) that listens to Gmail for an email with a Logitech label. (I created a Logitech label within Gmail and created a filter that assigns this filter to any message that comes in with a certain phrase/collection of words that is standard for Logitech’s email notification.) When that email is detected by ifttt.com, it then fires off a phone call to my mobile number with a pre-configured message I typed in that says motion detected by security system. If I get that phone call while I’m away, I can quickly check the camera with my phone’s app and then call the cops. The ifttt.com web service is incredible… you can create all sorts of rules. If I post a picture to Flickr, send a copy to Dropbox (or post it to my Facebook profile or tweet the pic or…).
The options are amazing, and just about every popular social app and tool is available and they’re adding more all the time. I have a simple rule that sends me a text message (SMS) when the weather in my area is forecast to be below 50 degrees. I have another rule that sends certain emails from a very specific editor straight into Evernote. I’ll probably do a more detailed post for GeekDad on ifttt.com a bit later, but all I can tell you is that this little service (it’s free) is incredible and if you’re not using it to automate something in your daily life, then get on it. It’s easy to figure out, and you’ll be brainstorming all kinds of things to try and do with it. There are currently 39 channels (Facebook, Evernote, Flickr, Twitter, etc.) that can be used, but I expect more will be added on a fairly regular basis.
Twine — I love Kickstarter, especially when I’m able to back a project that offers up a solution to a problem I’m facing. I’ve been wanting a way to wire up a sensor or two that, when triggered, would send me a text or email (Twitter and HTML requests are also supported). For example, a moisture sensor could detect if there’s a leak in your basement and send you a text or email to alert you, possibly before a pipe burst has time to do too much damage. You could use a magnetic door switch to check your garage door and get a text message letting you know the status — open or closed. A temperature sensor could be triggered to detect a variety of things, including something as simple as when the clothes dryer turns off and the laundry room drops in temperature. Fortunately, I don’t have to invent the wheel — the guys over at Supermechanical have achieved their funding request via Kickstarter for Twine, a small water-proof device that has two built-in sensors (motion and temperature) as well as a port to allow extra sensors to be attached. It runs on two AAA batteries for months and communicates via the cloud using a proprietary service they’ve created call Spool. It’s a simple interface with easy to follow graphics that anyone can use to configure simple rules for when to contact you based on sensor settings. I’m sold, and will be backing this project shortly. Think about it — you could put it under your doormat to detect when someone steps on it or a package is left and get an email or text message. A sound sensor could detect broken glass or let you know that your dog is barking like crazy. A light sensor can trigger if daylight is detected when the garage door is opened. And it’s not just security issues that it can be used for — be sure to check out this link to see what other backers are pitching for uses for the Twine device. The project closes on January 3, 2012, so be sure to back the project if you want one as I’m uncertain how long it will be before they’re available for purchase worldwide.
My home has an alarm system that we use. But there’s always room for improvement. With the video system and the motion detection light, I have areas of my house covered that were previously in the dark… literally. I now get 3 alerts — email, text, and a phone call, when the camera detects motion. And with the Twine device, I have a few other ideas for hardening my home’s security just a bit more. Overkill? Maybe. But it’s a crazy world we live in, so I’m feeling pretty good about what I’ve done this year to add more protection for my family.
When I was in college, I could eat anything I wanted — I had a high metabolism, rollerbladed and biked to class quite a bit, and was somewhat poor so rich foods weren’t a staple of my diet. Marriage and two kids have changed my eating habits quite a bit, so I do what most folks do at the end of each year and promise myself that I’ll get back into shape and try to eat better, exercise more, get more sleep… the usual. But the start of 2011 came and went and no real changes were made. A friend recommended a book to me that shook me up a bit and made me realize just how much my diet was out of whack with healthy living, but that wasn’t enough to jolt me out of my chair and into my workout clothes. No, it took an invite to a new web service to motivate me enough to change my ways.
My solution? Joining Fitocracy.com and competing against myself and fellow geek dads to push myself harder, eat better, and make changes that would hopefully allow me to keep up with my two young boys as they begin to spend more time outside, learning to ride bikes (well, my 4 year old at least), and just enjoy being an active and participating dad. Fitocracy treats exercising (running, weights, outdoor activities such as rock climbing and martial arts, etc.) as activities that earn experience points. These points allow you to level up, just like an RPG character. There are quests (Perform 20 squats at 1x your body weight) and achievements (Run 200 miles in your lifetime) and even challenges between players. Achievements show up as badges and you can even earn titles (James Floyd Kelly the Just) when you reach specific levels. I’m up to Level 15 now… it’s been a lot of squats, dead lifts, bench presses, and more (I’m not a runner) but the friendly competition with the other 43 active geek dad.com group members and the new quests that are constantly being added keep it fun and interesting and highly motivational.
Again, I missed the A because it took me almost an entire year to find the motivation to get back to the gym, but now that I’m back, I don’t want to stop. I’ve finally reached a point where I enjoy going to the gym — I’ve dropped in overall body-fat percentage, lost almost all of my love handles, and bulked up a bit with weight gain powder. I haven’t been this healthy since I was in college, and I honestly think I may be even in better shape than at any point in my life.
By the way, I mentioned a book I read that shook me up — it’s called Anti-Cancer by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D. and it’s a collection of his research and findings on the causes of cancer and some interesting preventative measures — some known, others not so well known. He fought a 15 year fight against a stage 4 brain tumor before passing away this year, and his personal story in the book will blow you away. What’s even crazier are his findings and some of the easy changes a person can make in their diet that can help reduce the risks of cancer… and, in some instances discussed in the book, prevent it altogether. A big claim, for sure, and I felt the same way until I finished the book.
Your Report Card
2011 was a good year, no doubt about it. I got a lot done. And there is plenty left to do for 2012. A couple of Bs and a couple of As, so I’m feeling pretty good about my Get These Done list. But as with most lists of this sort, it never seems to be wiped clean. There are always new items being added to it. I’ve got a couple of big home projects on it for 2012 as well as a couple of book projects I’m a bit nervous about. I want to try to get my workshop as organized as my home office, and I’ve added a very important item involving spending more time with my boys who are now going to be a year older than when I made that first list.
It’s all about balance, and while I have no illusions that I’ll ever find it — balance is a always a moving target, I believe — getting my work life organized has definitely taken some pressure off me. I’ve noticed I have more energy and can keep up with my young boys without tiring out so easily. My thoughts and plans for my work are more organized and I can access my research and notes from anywhere. My music and important family photos are backed up and now available whenever I want access. And although there’s never any 100% protection against crime, I do feel better about the upgrades to my home that will allow me to check its status when needed.
So… what about you? What does your report card look like? Do you have any tips or advice — software, hardware, best practices — that might help others close down 2011 and/or start up 2012? I’d love to hear your stories, suggestions, and thoughts.
Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah (Curtis), Happy Kwanza, Happy New Year, and, well… Happy Everything!