18.11.12. My Email Inbox Workflow with OmniFocus
I had one of those mornings where I was dealing with personal morning stuff - exchanging some items with a neighbor, worrying about some odd behaviors from the dog, and the usual flurry of getting dressed and trying to get the dog out for a walk. As this is going on, a rush of emails starts coming in of actions to do for work, on a project that I had done little work on and wasn't immediately prepared to handle. In particular, I was seeing these emails come in on my iPhone where I could do little about it. My first instinct, and action, was to start stressing out a little bit: "Why this project? Why now? What do all of these things mean? Oh crap, is this new email related to another project?" Meanwhile, more emails were coming in and getting grouped together in my inbox in their own stream-of-receipt way.

But then I was able to let go of the stress and let the flood continue. Why?

  1. It's my job to deal with this stuff. There was no bad news or anything here.
  2. I didn't need to deal with it immediately. Just because there was an email on my phone didn't mean that I had to start working. It can be easy to forget this.
  3. I didn't even need to read every email immediately. Once I recognized the pattern, I could just let them pile up like in the old days before constant communication, while still keeping an eye out for anything urgent or that could be answered quickly while waiting for the dog to finish sniffing whatever has her attention while we walk.
  4. I strive to maintain "Inbox Zero", so I didn't need to worry about preserving an unread count as "emails that need processing". Basically, if it's in the inbox, it's awaiting processing. So after reading a couple of these emails and recognizing what was going on, I knew that I could wait until I got to the office to actually deal with them.
  5. I didn't have worry about process or organization. I have OmniFocus, and I knew that it would be easy to turn these static out-of-order emails into actual items that I could process. OmniFocus makes it easy to copy all or part of an email message to its own inbox, but from there I can edit the text, re-order things, start picking apart subtasks, and so on.
  6. Once those items are captured into OmniFocus, I can move those emails out of the inbox and into a project folder, possibly never to be seen again. I can open the original message from OmniFocus if needed. This will bring my Inbox count back down to zero (or near zero).
  7. Now I can actually process all of this information that came flooding in and get things done.
Also, spending time with meditation has allowed me to recognize the silliness of that sudden stress-tick that comes when emails like this start coming in while I'm rushing to finish other things. It made it easier to recognize, as Merlin Mann once said in an episode of "Back to Work" (can't remember which episode), that it's just a new email. I'm not alone in the woods, trying not to be eaten by bears. Instead, I think of the list of things above: "wait, why am I worried about this? I have a process for dealing with this, it'll be OK."

At PyCon 2012, Paul Graham spoke on how he wanted a replacement for email that was really "send me to-dos." I guess for him, most real emails are actionable items and he wants them presented as such. Combining OmniFocus' mail clipping capabilities provides something similar for me, but with me taking an active step in transforming some inbound request into actionable data. I think this works better since not every email is actionable, or its action may be a quick reply. For me, the important thing is to figure out what needs to be done and get all of those messages out of my Inbox and filed away.

If the email is just reference info, or is not related to anything I'm currently doing but may come up again in a few days, I scan it and file it away. If it warrants a quick reply, that is done before filing it away. Longer term reference info is often copied into something like Apple's simple Notes app before filing the original email away.

If the email pertains to something actionable, it tends to go into OmniFocus for further processing. Most of the time this is related to work stuff, but it can also be reminders of something to do at home such as a reminder to download an update to some audio software. OmniFocus' quick entry window makes it easy to assign projects and/or contexts. If it requires deeper thinking, it just goes into the OmniFocus inbox. Then the original email may, of course, get filed away into an appropriate folder.

If the email relates to something like a shipping notification that I want to track, I copy the tracking number into an iPhone app dedicated to package tracking. For a long time, these tended to be the kinds of emails that would stick around in the inbox until the item arrived, but during some shopping sprees or slow-delivery items, I found that the emails were getting distracting. A dedicated app also makes it easier to visually track the status of multiple shipments. Once the shipping info is in the tracking app, the original email is deleted. No need to keep those around for reference.

Receipts get archived immediately to a folder named "receipts". Other emails that are not related to a project or receipt that are not spam are now moved to the "Archive" folder. I'm glad this is a quick action in OS X's mail (I used to keep a generic "reference" folder for this, and turned that into the "archive" folder).

And with all this, I tend to keep my email inbox count to zero or near zero. This makes it easier to process big volumes when they come.

See also: The OmniFocus and GTD White Paper (PDF). My personal system is not full GTD, but the basics are there and the core inbox-processing workflow is well diagrammed and discussed in this paper.


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5.11.12. iPad and the Incase Origami Workstation
The iPad writing station experiment continues. The latest addition is the Origami Workstation by Incase. This is a simple case for the Apple Wireless Keyboard that folds out into a supportive structure for holding an iPad. When I started this project, I was using the Apple Smart Cover to support the iPad in a landscape position, like a laptop. The Origami Workstation supports the same thing, but it supports placing the iPad in any orientation. iA Writer looks great in both, and it can be nicer and even more like a piece of paper to type in portrait, which is what I'm trying now.

I have yet to try even commuting with this keyboard, as it's not something I need at work. I use the iPad at the office, but don't do very much typing. Any input that I need on the iPad at work comes in via various cloud/sync solutions like OmniFocus, Notes, and iCloud. Still, I'm going to toss the keyboard and this case in the backpack tomorrow to see how it feels and fits. The aluminum keyboard is not small, and packing it around could start to mitigate the advantages of the iPad. However, I think the case will be a nice occassional throw-in for going to a neighborhood coffee shop (waiting on a new one to open in a couple of months) or maybe travel when I want to do some writing.

This makes me recognize some of the appeal of Microsoft's Surface and Windows 8 strategy, which is to promote a laptop/tablet hybrid. With this keyboard, I'm closer to that situation. I have more thoughts on this that I plan on posting in the future.

For this post regarding the Origami Workstation case and the Apple Wireless Keyboard, the takeaway is that this is a nice piece of kit that seems to compare favorably with other iPad keyboard/case combinations. Some other combinations combine the keyboard into the iPad case, and I don't like those. While I like having a keyboard for my iPad, it's not something I need for most of the day or evening. With the Origami Workstation, my keyboard is protected and put away most of the day and isn't taking up any more space. It does take up more space when it is in the backpack, but again it's not something I plan on taking with me daily. Integrated case-keyboard solutions also tend to force you into landscape mode - even the Microsoft Surface's savvy design does this. While this isn't necessarily bad, I do find that when writing long bits of text, portrait mode can be a much more natural fit. Since the Origami Workstation just unfolds into a supportive triangle, the iPad can be propped in either orientation. The iPad can even stay inside most cases that you can put on it.

It's also pretty easy to pop the keyboard in and out of the case. This is nice since I might want to use the keyboard on my lap while keeping the iPad on my desk. This is like the iMac where I can place the keyboard wherever is comfortable, independent of the display - something you can't do with laptops or integrated keyboard cases.

Finally, the Apple Wireless Keyboard is great. It's what I use on all of my iMacs, and is the same layout as on my (aging) MacBook. I'm used to the feel and spacing of these keys. The Origami Workstation lets me stay with that keyboard while letting me use the iPad like a laptop, desktop, or tablet as much as I want. The main downside is size, as the keyboard is taller than the iPad, and thicker due to its use of AA batteries. Since I expect to mostly use this at home, that's not a big deal. It's still a pretty compact setup.

The cost of the Apple Wireless Keyboard ($69 USD) and Incase Origami Workstation ($29) matches nicely with most of the top integrated keyboard case solutions which seem to average around $99-$129. This pairing is excellent for anyone wanting to do long writing on the iPad.

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3.11.12. On iPad Sizes
With the launch of the iPad Mini, Apple's 7.9" iPad, there seems to be a lot of "this is the future of the iPad" or "this is the iPad we'll all use" comments in various reviews I've read. Without having used one, I'll say differently.

When the iPad was announced in January 2010, there seemed to be a lot of discussion about whether the iPad was a device for consumption or creation, and about whether it could be a suitable laptop replacement. Nearly 3 years into the iPad era, there seems to be a consensus that this device is suitable for creation and it can be a laptop replacement or alternative for many. It is also an absolutely terrific machine for consumption of both text and media, but I think that it's usefulness as a creativity machine has surprised many.

I believe this is strongest at the 10" side. I think that the iPad Mini will be a nice creative machine, but early reviews and indications seem to indicate that people are finding it most useful as a "pick up and read/search/view" machine. The Mini is something they can use while pacing around and talking on the phone. It's smaller and lighter, which some say "is exactly what we all want out of our devices" (while at the same time everyone is saying the iPhone remains too small and should be bigger, and the oddly sized Samsung Galaxy Note has a surprisingly good number of fans).

Personally, I want my iPhone to be the size that it is. It fits well in my pocket, where it spends a lot of its time. I can keep it in my pocket when laying on the couch or in bed for a mid afternoon weekend nap, and it does not bother me the way bulky old cell phones did in the past. But I fear that if it were any larger, it would feel uncomfortable like a Moleskine notebook. I think the iPhone is the perfect size.

Likewise, I think the iPad's full size is also perfect for me. Let me list the ways I use my iPad:

  • OmniFocus. As a developer, my work desktop has a lot of apps and windows open, and keeping on top of my best laid plans was mildly annoying until the iPad came along. I do my planning on the iMac, entering in things I need to do to get some piece of work done, and then use the iPad as a separate dedicated screen for keeping on top of that list and marking things off. For a while, I was actually using a laptop for this, as that separate, dedicated screen makes it easier to find and reference what needs to be done when there are so many noisy resources needing my attention on my main work machine.
  • Reading. I eat at my desk a lot, either with local take-out or sack lunches from home, and the iPad, mounted on my Compass iPad Stand, makes for terrific reading and is a good size for at-desk reading whether using Kindle, iBooks, InstaPaper, DC Comics, The Economist, or the web itself. I know the "mini" size is supposed to be better for reading, but the 10" iPad is great for its placement and distance on my desk at lunch time.
  • Twitter. A wonderful, horrible distraction that is just a couple of swipes away while I'm working.
  • Writing. I'm writing this on my iPad on a crowded but cozy CB2 metal desk in the kitchen area of my loft. The 10" size works great for writing with iA Writer, Blogsy, the built-in Notes app, etc. The not-much-smaller 7.9" is probably fine, but for me, I no longer need a MacBook Air now that I've finally added a selectively-used keyboard to my iPad. Laptop replacement? You bet. I'm not programming on it, but I know now that I could probably use this with apps like Diet Coda to get some work done from home needed, although I do have good full-computer fallbacks for that.
  • Music. There are some terrific music apps for the iPhone and iPad, and the good iPad ones are quite terrific. Again, I find the larger screen works well for those apps. Some apps like the Korg iElectribe come close to matching the physical size of the full Electribe machines. The iPad is not yet an indispensable piece of my music setup, but it's a fun and useful addition on occasion.
There is also a lot of heavy consumption use in the evening as an IMDB and Twitter lookup machine while watching movies or TV that could possibly be served just as well by the iPad Mini, but the occasional video consumption (Netflix, Hulu, iTunes movies, HBO Go) also seem like they're better suited to this larger screen.

So for me, this 10" iPad is just fine. All of this talk about how we'll all be using 7 to 8" tablets is like saying we'll all be using the 11" MacBook Air and no one will use the 13"; or that no one will use a 15" laptop when there is a 13" available; or that no one will use a 42" TV when there is a 32" available. It all depends on need, use, and budget. Or as Horace Dediu says, it depends on the job(s) for which you're hiring the device.

I have never seen so much pointless talk over a device taking on an additional size as with the launch of the iPad Mini. It's just another size. It's not the second coming of the iPad, nor is it the doom. In my mind, there's nothing that exciting about the iPad Mini at all. I'm not saying its a bad device, it's just what it is: a smaller iPad.

Wake me up when there's a 13" iPad and iOS finally grows support for intelligently dealing with different scales and dimensions.


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1.11.12. A few more thoughts on iA Writer

A day into the iA Writer experiment on my iPad and iMacs, and these are some quick thoughts:

Good: iCloud Support. I like Dropbox, but there are situations where iCloud documents just make more sense to my brain. I haven't had any strange behaviors yet, whereas some Dropbox based apps that I use on both my Mac and iPad do exhibit annoying behaviors. I like that I can have the same document open on multiple devices and that the document itself gets updated in place. I'm not trying to write on multiple devices at the same time, but I don't like getting funny "(saved on …)" files when I forgot to close a window or document on a device. I like OS X Mountain Lion's iCloud document management window within the app, and it's very easy to drag files in and out to file things away in the larger file system (including Dropbox via its OS X Finder Integration).

On iOS, iA Writer also supports Dropbox, but I have not tested it yet.

Good: Simple Interface. This is the first "distraction free" simple writing app that I've enjoyed since the original WriteRoom 1.0 (I didn't like future versions as much). It's very easy just to write, whether in windowed mode or full screen. Writing this in full screen on my iMac right now doesn't feel much different than writing on my iPad with a bluetooth keyboard last night.

The default (and only) font is quite nice on all platforms.

Mediocre: Markdown Links. While inline-style Markdown links are OK, I like the footnote style when I'm just writing things down and want to pile up a list of links to collect later at the bottom of the document. I'm interested in iA Writer as a blogging tool and like that I can compose entries so easily on my Macs and iOS devices, but this little missing feature is annoying. I'm not a heavy Markdown user and don't care about "MultiMarkdown" or other such enhancements, but footer-style links would be nice.

The developers say that such support is coming.

I'm also undecided about my blogging host/platform, so the ability to write in simple Markdown and "Copy as HTML" is a nice feature in iA Writer for posting via other tools that may not have (easy) Markdown support. This need of mine may change.

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