life hacks

I've been on a T-shirt designing kick lately, and put together a simple design for an upcoming talk I might be doing at the next Ignite Boise on Extreme Productivity. In the process of designing the shirt, I wasn't able to find a GPL / Creative Commons licensed flow chart of a GTD-inspired process, so I downloaded OmniGraffle and put together my first flow chart ever! I've packaged up the files (black and white and color versions, both OmniGraffle and a transparent high-resolution PNGs) which you can download below, licensed as Creative Commons.

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I like earbuds because they're so compact, but they're kind of annoying to stuff into your pocket. They invariably get tangled, and they often get bent in funky ways, especially if you wrap them around something. I scoured the web looking for some good cases, and didn't really find anything that would fit nicely in my pocket. There are lots of tutorials online for building your own, but after experimenting with a couple Altoids tins I trashed the idea.

Later, in a wave of pure inspiration (probably induced by a sugar binge), I discovered the perfect receptacle: a pill bottle. Below is a picture with instructions. These work perfect for the newest iPhone earbuds without the permanent disfigurement that comes with wrapping wire incorrectly.



  1. Fold earbuds in half
  2. Fold in half again
  3. Fold in half again
  4. Fold in half one more time
  5. Slip into pill bottle, you shouldn't need to bend anything to get it to fit, though the twisting motion of putting on the lid will help spin any extraneous bits down into the bottle.

My pockets are sacred spaces, but it's taken me a while to give them the gravity they deserve. I've been on this planet nearly 30 years, most of it with pockets. I've lost favorite pants to exploded pens and gum in the washer. I've thrown out important phone numbers and shopping lists with receipts, have reacted strongly to this loss and thus began a regimen of throwing out nothing that was once in my pockets. Over time it has become clear that the pocket is a powerful repository of tools and information, not to be taken lightly.

Like many people, I appreciate the value of being prepared for anything, anytime, with as little on my person as humanly possible. The pockets are a great place to practice this minimalism because there is limited space which varies from pants to pants.

I've established a collection that I'm proud of. It works with all my pants, and I can't strip it down any further without sacrificing a significant utility. For the sake of sharing, here it is, in (1 minute) video and textual format (see here for tagged image).

The stuff:

Wallet with the following:

  • 10 or so business cards
  • 4 blank business cards (for note taking or getting someone's info that forgot their cards)
  • 7 other cards (drivers license, credit card, personal debit, business debit, dental insurance, health insurance, AAA)
  • Floss (shaped like a business card, contains a couple dozen yards of floss for emergencies, ask your dentist!)
  • 2 blank checks
  • House key (for going on walks, and occasionally useful in other situations)

$20 virgin mobile phone - I use this to set vibrate reminders throughout the day for timely stuff (like diaper changing)

iPod touch with the following utilities:

  • Calendar
  • OmniFocus and Evernote (for capturing ideas and journaling)
  • Shopping list app (called ShopShop)
  • Stopwatch (for jogs)
  • A few party games like Catchphrase, Scrabble
  • Photos for showing off fat baby
  • Skype (for tracking work conversations while making lunch, mostly)
  • Music utilities (4-track recorder, metronome, chord chart)
  • Twitterific (for emergency tweeting)
  • Several mp3 books (played when exercising)
  • White noise makers (White noise and Ambiance, for putting the baby to sleep on occasion. Yes, it works!)
  • Dictionary (mostly for looking up words on mp3 books)


  • Space pen (fits in the wallet, but makes it difficult to get to cards. I lost mine and haven't replaced it yet)
  • Point-and-shoot camera
  • Ear-bud headphones in pill case

Some interesting links regarding people's pockets: - Flickr "What's in your pocket" group - "Face your pockets" - a collection of scans of people's pockets and faces. Really neat, pretty pictures. - My tagged Flickr photo

After getting familiar with the GTD (Getting Things Done) ethos a couple years back, I've spent a disturbing amount of time cobbling together systems for capturing, processing and taking action on my stuff. It hurts to think about all the dead end trails, the false starts and the straw men that kept me from fully embracing a system to free up my head once and for all. A huge part of my problem was committing to a system long enough to figure out if it worked. I've been working off of my current system for a couple months now, and feel more confident with it every day, so I feel like I can document it online without inadvertently sending someone else down a frustrating path.

Capturing ideas

I use a few technologies to capture ideas, depending on what I want to do with it.

Ideas the require action = OmniFocus

I've given several GTD programs test drives, and I end up coming back to OmniFocus. After reading many positive reviews on Things, I tried moved everything over to it and tried it for a few weeks. But it just didn't work with the way I think. I think it projects and sub-projects, which is how you structure OmniFocus. Things relies on tagging, which is a simple concept but doesn't map well to my mind. It was also difficult to get the perspectives I wanted on my actions.

I also use OmniFocus on my iPod touch to capture an action when I'm away from my computer.

Ideas that I can flesh out right now = Evernote

In the past, I've used hierarchical lists or individual text files for this. The problem with that is that I have to think about what to name the files and where they should go, or I get one huge file that seems a unwieldy really fast. I tried OmniOutliner for w while for this, and it worked reasonably well, but I ended up spending way to much time structuring it. Evernote lets me start fleshing something out immediately, and I don't think about where it should belong, since the search works so fast. Since it's got some rich text, I can still do some hierarchical lists when I need to, or I can just stream-of-consciousness it.

Like OmniFocus, I use the iPhone version of Evernote when I'm out and about. For example, the other night I went out on a date with my wife and I kept running into little things I wanted to remember. I kept a new note open in Evernote and jotted things down with my one hand. Call me corny, but the iPod touch is perfect because you don't have to kill the mood by withdrawing your hand from your significant other's to take a note.

Stuff that might be useful or entertaining to someone else = Ecto and Twitter

If the item I want to share is quick, I tweet it. If it's going to take some time, I create a placeholder for a blog entry in Ecto. If I have time, I might write the entry immediately, but if I want to put a pin in it for later I'll just add a descriptive title and maybe a little brain-dump for the text. This blog entry is an example of one of those.

Working out stuff on the inside = Journal.txt

While it isn't often mentioned in the genre of productivity, I think it's worth mentioning that sometimes there are things that you need to think through, things that are bugging you and getting in the way of doing what you really want to do but that are also really hard to put a finger on. I find the best way to work this stuff out is to just start writing, stream-of-consciousness style. I've got a text file so I don't even have to think about formatting, and I just start typing. Without fail, a session with journal.txt leaves me more free and ultimately more productive.

Deciding what to do next

After capturing, the next part of GTD is about deciding what to do and doing it. The idea is that you should be able to re-evaluate your actions on a regular basis so you don't end up wasting time on stuff that doesn't get you closer to where you want to be, and that this evaluation process should be painless, even pleasurable.

Evaluation = OmniFocus

The first thing I will normally do switch to OmniFocus, and review my next actions. I have a list of daily activities which trigger stuff like clearing my e-mail, checking my calendar, petting the cat, that kind of thing. As I go through the process, I might flag certain actions or arrange their due dates to accurately reflect what I want to do.

Execution = OmniFocus or Evernote

The most important part of an effective day for me is having a list of prioritized actions to work from. It allows me to stay focused on stuff instead of continually re-evaluating what I should do next. I'll create this list either by flagging items in OmniFocus, or by creating a bulleted list in Evernote. If I need to think through my priorities, I'll do a stream-of-consciousness on Evernote.

Execution of time-sensitive stuff = Cell phone

My $20 cell phone is the most reliable method for reminders because it's always in my pocket and it works on vibrate mode, so it will alert me even in loud areas. When I add something to my calendar I need to be reminded of, I'll also add an entry to my cell phone. Knowing I have a fail-safe method for timely reminders does a lot for my mental well-being, and it's worth the double-entry.

Having worked on a treadmill desk for the last year, I can safely say that it has been the best move I've probably ever made in improving my productivity and overall happiness at work. Because it's had such a tremendous impact on my life, I'm pretty evangelical about it and have been looking forward to writing this blog post for many months.


My treadmill desk. Not super pretty, but highly functional

I really don't like sitting down all day. I slouch like any other programmer (exceptions noted) and can feel my spine ossifying into the twisted curved shape it takes as I hunch over the keyboard in my 'ergonomic' chair. My arms start sticking to the desk and my lunch rebels at the lack of motion. More than any of this, regardless of how I'd like the world to work, there's something about being stuck in one position for hours that really lets physical stress build up, and that physical stress starts to seep into the mind and really cramps up productivity.

A few years ago I started exploring ways to keep my mind fresh through what I learned later to call 'passive exercise'. My first attempt at adding said activity into my workflow was a miniature stair stepping machine that fit under the desk. As is classically said of chewing gum and walking, I found I could either code or step, but not do both, so it got the boot after a week or so. I also considered getting an under-the-desk exercise bike, but after discovering my multi-tasking limitations, I figured it would be a waste of a hundred bucks.

I let the problem sit for a while (so to speak), and realized that what I really needed was a standing desk. I mean, I should be able to *stand* and work at the same time, right? And apparently when you stand you burn like 50% more calories. If I remember correctly, a search on google lead me to the Lifehacker Coolest workspace contest, where I saw several examples of treadmill desks and it struck me that something like that might work really well. I often take walks to stimulate thought, and thought that maybe if I could code and walk at the same time, I'd be a lot more creative.

I did some research, and found that treadmill desks had been being used for quite some time - even in offices by people in suits. If guys in suits can do it, so can a guy in cargo shorts and a t-shirt. Here's an interview with the guy that might be the inventor of the treadmill desk on Good Morning America, with some good clips from office environments.

I found that there's even a company that sells shiny new "Walkstations" to the tune of $4,499. After a year of having a treadmill desk, I have to say that it would have been worth coughing up five grand for. But luckily, I got some good ideas off of some wiley spendthrifts on the web and started scouring Craigslist for cheap treadmills with horizontal handles. Within a week, I found one for $75, talked it down to $50, and brought it home. Here's what I did to construct mine:

  1. Lugged the treadmill to my office - by far the hardest part since my office is upstairs
  2. Cleaned off a cheap Walmart bookshelf (something like this) and faced it towards the end of the treadmill
  3. Took off a couple of the shelves and taped them onto the handles, using empty cd cases as spacers to get it to the right height
  4. Eventually I took off some hardware from the bottom of the treadmill because I kept hitting my head on the low ceiling.
  5. Put my laptop on the top shelf of the bookshelf
  6. Put my keyboard on the shelf taped to the handlebars

I would say that this $100 or so was my single greatest financial investment of my last year. It's had a tremendous impact on how I feel about my work, and especially how I feel after work, when I'm hanging out with my wife and baby.

Whenever I mention the my treadmill desk to someone who hasn't heard of them before, I get a pat series of questions:

Q: Do you run?

A: I've tried, but without much success. Normally, I walk from between .7 to 1.5 miles an hour. Dr. James Levine (the guy in the Good Morning America) suggests .7, and that's pretty slow. I like a little faster because it makes it feel a little more like exercise.

Q: Isn't it hard to use a computer when you're walking?

A: It's actually surprisingly easy, especially at slower speeds. At about 2mph using the mouse gets more difficult, but I can use Photoshop and Illustrator at 1.5mph just fine.

Q: How much time do you spend walking?

A: I walk about 3 hours a day. Some days I'm a little friskier and work all day on the treadmill.

If you've gotten this far, maybe you're actually thinking about taking the next step (ha ha). I highly, highly recommend it! Here's a few tips I've aggregated after a year of active use:

  • If you have an older treadmill, you might need some lube. I ended up applying this too liberally, and it leaked onto the wheel running the belt, causing the belt to slip if I caused too much friction with my step. I had to wipe the lube off the wheel to get it running right, and still have to do this on occasion.
  • Listening to music and dance-walking is surprisingly fun, just make sure you're in a private office and the windows are obscured in some fashion. Note that you can vary the speed of the treadmill so you can walk to the beat. :)
  • Don't walk without shoes - it will kill you after a week
  • If you have low ceilings, don't have curly hair, otherwise you will have an amazing - but oddly unattractive - 'fro at the end of the day.

When I was considering purchasing a mac and ending (or rather, reducing) Microsoft's reign of terror in my life, I was told my multiple sources that one of the productivity boons of macs is that you never have to restart them due to memory getting eaten up by invisible gnomes in your chassis. The truth is that OSX definitely appears to do a better job, but it seems to leave memory scraps behind, just like windows.

I shelled out twenty bucks the other day for a little app called iFreeMem, which will - on demand - run through your ram and clean out any cruft, leaving you with a bigger green slice in that memory pie. I use it several times a day, and it seems to work really well even though I keep wondering if maybe the program just overrides the graphical display in activity monitor and makes you think you have more than you do.

iFreeMem also adds a nice little menubar icon that shows a monochrome pie-chart display of current memory usage. I find myself glancing up there when I'm using a bunch of programs at once to make sure I'm not going to be surprised by a spinning beach ball of death anytime soon.

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