Tools of the Trade: What I Use to Get Things Done

January 12, 2015

I’m always trying to find better, smarter and faster ways of doing things. I love trimming the fat from activities where the amount of time spent doing them has significant diminishing returns and/or minimizing the probability of error in a process. Sentences like that last one are why my previous job titles were Project Manager and Process Analyst. Can’t you just imagine me pushing my glasses back up my nose while saying “reduce the probability of error?”

A great example of something like this is online bill pay. With minimal set up time, I dramatically reduce the likelihood that I will misplace a bill or forget which day something is due. It also allows me to nearly eliminate the time it takes to actually pay the bills, and I do not have to take into account how long it will take for a check to arrive by mail.*

There are zillions of sites dedicated to recommending the “best” across every category you can imagine. I use many of these, but what I enjoy even more is learning how specific people do things, seeing the little habits and idiosyncrasies that are both part of who they are and also shape the way they work. It’s a great way to learn new things you can apply to yourself, and sometimes it confirms that the tools/tricks/habits you’re using are already pretty damn good.

My favorite series of these is This Is How I Work from Lifehacker, and I thought it might be interesting to do it myself. What follows is a fairly comprehensive list of the various tools and programs I use to do my writerly doings. It includes some things that may not be writing tools strictly speaking, but everything listed feels like an integral part of the process for me.

Gear

Apple 2013 Macbook Air: 13″ with 128GB SSD hard drive and 4GB RAM (refurb)

  • If you prefer Apple products, buying refurbished devices direct from Apple is 100% the way to go. They receive the same warranty as a brand new item and cost significantly less. If you have to have the absolute newest, this obviously won’t work. There’s usually a delay of a good six months or so from when a product is launched to when refurbs begin appearing on Apple.com, and it’s often not too long after that before new products get launched. My experience is that Apple devices age well, so I personally see little need for the latest and greatest.

Apple iPhone 5s

  •  I have used Android devices, and I think they can be great. I loved my Nexus 4, which I ordered on launch day, furiously hitting F5 until my transaction went through. I have absolutely zero interest in trying to convince people that Apple is superior somehow. I just went with what worked for me, and there were two things in support of that decision. First, I got an incredible deal on it just before I left my job at Target. Between a significant price drop (see comment above about product launch timing) and various additional discounts offered (my employee discount, Cartwheel, REDcard, 5% pharmacy rewards, and ShopKick “kicks” redeemed for gift cards), I walked out with a brand new phone for no upfront cost. Second, my iPhone just works so well with my other Apple devices. It does everything I need and more. While I enjoyed Android, I found myself tinkering endlessly without any meaningful additional benefit. When the time comes the 4.7″ screen of an iPhone 6 will be nice, but I don’t miss it right now.

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (2nd Generation)

  • I wrote a review of my Paperwhite that I posted to both Goodreads and Amazon. My first Kindle was a 4th generation, and it changed my reading habits powerfully. The Paperwhite is mostly an evolution from that, but it’s a solidly built device that does exactly what I wanted it to. I do enjoy the feeling of a real book in my hands and occasionally miss it, but I simply cannot imagine trading the convenience my Kindle gives.

Timbuk2 Commute Laptop Messenger Bag

  • My bag is going on eight years old now, so product linked is slightly different. The thing is just pain sturdy. At a glance you wouldn’t really notice any age on mine except for a worn patch on the back from rubbing against by back or hip while walking.

Bose SoundTrue headphones

  • Another product where I got a better price by combining overlapping discounts. I would not have paid full price for them, but they’ve been great. They pack up pretty small, sound good and are comfortable to wear for long periods of time.

Seagate Backup Plus Slim 1TB

  • My first external hard drive was 80GB and weight a solid five pounds. At the time it seemed like a technological miracle. And it was! But things continue to get better. The Seagate device is about the size of a deck of cards, has USB 3.0 making transfer speeds pretty darn good, and just does what I want it to.

Software

Evernote

  • It’s been a favorite basically since it arrived. I do not use it to anywhere near its full capabilities. I don’t even use it that regularly. But when I do have something — an idea, a name, a place, a voice — that I want to make sure I don’t forget, Evernote is perfect. I know that’s where my scraps and notes will be, so when I decide to review them I don’t have to remember where I put things.

Scrivener

  • Scrivener is incredibly powerful, to the point where some might find it to be overkill. As a natural tinkerer, I do occasionally have to remind myself that I’m supposed to be writing as opposed to constantly attempting to build the perfect writing system. But mostly I find that I can ignore features that aren’t that useful and just focus on the ones that do. Part of the reason I end up not using Evernote as much as I otherwise might is that Scrivener is a pretty great place to work with notes on its own. That also brings up its biggest weakness – no mobile version. Evernote lets me jot down things on the run and then I can get them into Scrivener once I’m not moving.

Slugline

  • Slugline is at the other end of the spectrum from Scrivener as far as writing tools go. It is a screen/scriptwriting tool that uses the Fountain markup language to automatically format your writing as you go. For me, the formatting is the most annoying part about writing a script. I hate losing focus when I have to fix a weird formatting quirk because I need a transition or to describe a setting or whatever. Slugline significantly minimizes those occurrences.

Trello

  • This is a relatively new addition to my workflow, but it’s been a great one so far. It works like a combination of Kanban cards with Pinterest functionality. It seems to be popular with the Getting Things Done crowd. I am using it in a GTD-like system, modified for my personal tastes. Here are two good examples of how others have used it.

Services

CrashPlan

  • Absolutely dead simple offsite backup for reasonable rates, especially if you’re willing to prepay for a few years. I’ve been fortunate to never “need” them so far, but I have zero regrets about sending Code42 my money. Like many categories there are other good choices, but CrashPlan is frequently counted among the best. Also, they are a Minneapolis company, and I’m not above admitting that I value that. I could walk to their offices if I have a problem, though I’m guessing they would not be that excited about seeing me waving a failed hard drive around outside their windows. Fun side note — their CEO recently did one of the Lifehacker This Is How I Work write-ups.

Copy

  • There was an element of arbitrariness in the decision to use Copy. There is a ton of competition in the space for cloud-based file storage and syncing with Dropbox as the likely leader in both market and mindshare. These companies all offer at least some free storage and their feature sets are generally similar. That has made me something of a cloud storage space hoarder. Beyond the two already mentioned, I use or have used Google Drive, Microsoft’s OneDrive, Box, and SugarSync. You know what? They’re all fine. Copy won out for my writing files because it was one of the few services I had not yet tried at the time, I was able to get 20GB free, and I wanted to choose one service where I would use it only for writing even though I also have other redundant backups.

Google Drive

  • Like a lot of people, I use Google for lots of things. Email, maps, calendar, and of course documents. While I no longer use Google Drive for much of my actual writing, I still have other things on it that I reference frequently. I built a spreadsheet for tracking my written word count against my goals, a spreadsheet for monitoring my list of recurring expenses, and other odds and ends of keeping things going.**

Spotify

  • I think the free version of Spotify is an incredible value, but I happily pay the $10/month for Spotify Premium. I do this for a few reasons. First, the ad-free experience is just plain better. I listen to music constantly while working, and nothing takes me out of focus faster than a sudden interruption to learn about the creamiest, smoothest, most soothing hemorrhoid treatment. Next, I can’t imagine not having the ability to listen on the go, which only comes with the Premium plan. I use it less these days than when I was commuting by bus everyday, but I’d miss it. Third, I no longer feel a need to fully “own” my music. As my music library grew, I got sick of the constraints it placed on my hard drive and worrying about backups to make sure I didn’t lose files I’d spent a fair amount of money on. Finally, I still want to contribute to artists. I had reached a point where I no longer wanted to spend $10 or so a month purchasing new music, but I’m happy to pay that for the right to access music on demand. If Spotify did not exist, it’s far more likely that I’d be spending less money on music now than I was before. Additionally, I have gone to a number of concerts based largely on the ability to listen to a band in-depth without having to shell out a lot of upfront money. I know that Spotify is not perfect in terms of artist compensation and neither are their competitors, but I think it will continue to get better over time. It seems likely that we’ll have fewer crazy rich megastars in the future, but I hope we’ll find a model that means more artists can make a living.

*I’m aware of arguments against automating some or all of your bills. I don’t disagree about automation, but I am firmly in favor of still paying them online. I generally do not automate any bill that might vary significantly in amount from month to month such as credit cards. I do this so that I pay conscious attention to the amount. Here’s one list recommending which bills not to automate.

**Not for tracking them, just for keeping a list of which ones exist. This is to prevent a circumstance where I have 20 subscriptions to random things and end up wondering where all my money goes. For tracking actual costs, timing, etc, I use Mint.

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